AMS and Also a Vellum Shoutout

First, let’s talk Vellum real quick. I switched all my files over to Vellum this summer. Me being me I just sort of stumbled my way through how to use it and had to learn a lot on my own through trial and error that wasn’t covered in any of the FAQs. (I was doing a lot of non-fiction formatting.)

But turns out there’s now a pretty good guide to the basics of Vellum available. (You know where? Can you guess? You got it. In the NaNo StoryBundle. After that’s gone if you stumble across this post and want it, look for The Author’s Guide to Vellum by Chuck Heintzelman.)

The guides includes a few of the workarounds I had figured out, like how to have my Also By listing before my title page, and using Vellum Styles before you import from Word. So if you’re new to Vellum or shaky on using it, check it out. It’s a good resource.

(On a side note: After I did it, I honestly wasn’t entirely sure it was worth it for me to have moved all my files over to Vellum. It took a lot of time, I didn’t see any drastic change in sales, and it added an extra step every time I wanted to make a change to a file. But moving to Vellum did make all of my non-fiction titles eligible for Overdrive, which has brought me money, and it also made it incredibly easy for me to participate in the StoryBundle. So for those reasons alone it ended up being worth it. But on a list of things to do, buy Vellum and make all your files pretty probably isn’t where I’d recommend you start.)

Now. On to AMS.

I am not happy with Amazon at the moment.

The other day, I noticed something a little odd when I went to look up one of my romance titles. The first entry I saw in my search results was a Sponsored Product ad for the book followed by the normal, organic search result for the same book.

I almost clicked on the ad and I know better.

So here’s Amazon, taking anyone who comes looking for my book in particular, and charging me money for it by having them click on my ad instead of returning an organic search result first. How tacky is that?

Here’s another example that’s even worse. I have a book under the name Cassie Leigh that is called Puppy Parenting in an Apartment. It’s not a big seller, but I can run AMS on it and generate a few sales here or there. This is what I see when I go to Amazon and search for it:

AMS sponsored ad

The ONLY result is my ad. My actual book with that actual title isn’t shown at all. And, because someone asked, I don’t have the book’s title in my keywords for that ad. So Amazon knows damned well what they’re doing and could actually display my book in their search results, but they’re not.

They’re trying to suck every last penny they can out of their authors instead.

Does this mean abandon AMS?

No. No more than any of the crap they pull means stop selling on Amazon. They’re too damned big and dominate the market too much for it to be feasible for most people to not sell their books on Amazon. (Which is why they can pull things like this…)

Fact is, AMS have become too much of a driver of traffic on Amazon US to ignore without likely taking a hit to your income.

What this tells me is that Amazon is slowly tightening the noose and that authors are going to have to spend even more money to get every single sale on their platform.

I’m grateful to AMS. They let me move from low three figures a month to low four figures a month. But I’m not putting all my eggs in that basket and neither should you.  I have some list-based promos I’m running this month as well as a Kobo promo and I’m playing with FB and Google CPC ads, too.

AMS should just be one part of getting attention for your books. It can’t be everything. Amazon is too prone to pulling the rug out from under authors to rely on them that heavily.

It’s Friday…

Which means I should say something about AMS. And I will in a minute.

First, Dave Higgins has a poll up on his website about which books from the NaNo bundle he should review. So if you are tempted by one of the titles in the bundle but not quite sure it’ll be what you’re looking for, get over there and vote. (You should also take a look around and read his other posts while you’re there.)

Also, when I was over there grabbing the link to the poll, I noticed he’d already reviewed my Excel guides. Reviews are here. I’d had someone ask about whether the books could be used with programs other than Excel and I couldn’t honestly answer them because I haven’t used other programs enough to judge that, but here’s Dave’s comment on it:

“Humphrey includes sufficient explanation of the intent behind a step that authors are likely to be able to reproduce the reports in other office suites (such as Open Office or Libre Office) [with] a little extra effort.”

I’d also had someone voice concern about their level of Excel ability since the introduction says you should be familiar with Excel to use the guides.  And here’s Dave’s comment on that aspect of things:

“…both books also include both a clear definition of terms and extensive appendices of methods and commands, and provide instructions for each report in fine detail, so authors with even basic experience of any Excel are likely to find each report easy enough to recreate.”

So there you have it. Keep an eye on his blog for perhaps more reviews over the next six weeks.

Alright, so AMS. First, the original AMS thread on Kboards has become a bit overwhelming for anyone trying to read it from the start, so there’s a new one that will hopefully catch on: A New AMS Thread. The first ten or so posts summarize what we’ve all been able to agree on about the ads and how they work. It’s a good place to start if you’re just getting into the ads.

As I’ve said before, they’re a bit of a moving target. They were wonderful for my romance novel for four months, but then ads on that book just sort of died off for me. It’s hard to say why. I think part of it was I tried lowering my bids because it just made me uncomfortable to spend $800 to make $1000. I know, the rational part of my brain says if that’s what’s happening, then find a way to spend $1600 to make $2000. But I’m just not sure when I’ll go back to that pen name, so I didn’t think it made sense to push too hard to attract all those readers when I only had one other title for them to go to.

Which is maybe the thought for the day which isn’t AMS-specific: In a weird sense you are better off the later in your writing journey you attract readers. Because they’re that much more likely to read the rest of your books. If you have one book out and it takes you a year to get book two out, every reader you attract to book one during that time has to like you enough to come back in a year.

And maybe they will. I’ve certainly circled back to writers (or musicians) years later to see what else they had out now. But they won’t all wait for you. So all that ad money you spent to get that reader to your first book ends up being wasted, whereas it would’ve been really profitable to bring in that same reader when you had four or five books available.

I constantly struggle with this.I don’t want to have low sales. It’s demoralizing to think no one wants what you’ve written. But at the same time, none of my pen names (except maybe now M.L. Humphrey) have enough titles out to really justify pushing hard to get in readers. I’m pushing on the Rider’s series now because the trilogy is complete, but even there I should be waiting until I have at least one more trilogy out and possibly two. That’s the difference between breaking even on a promo and making two to three times the promo cost.

That’s one of the reasons I like AMS ads. They let you get in a little trickle of sales that makes you feel good about where you are, but it isn’t like cranking out a Bookbub and generating 400+ sales in a day. (Although I still want them to burn a little hotter than they do most days, because I’m a fool and I like to make money.)

Anyway. That’s where my thoughts are today. I’ll tell you what I’m telling myself: Write more and publish more. The rest will follow.

(And sorry for anyone who saw this post while the formatting was messed up. Block quotes were not my friend today.)

AMS and Bids

I almost didn’t write an AMS article today. I tend to write non-fiction when I’m blocked on writing fiction, but in the last four months I’ve written and published six non-fiction titles and am almost done with a seventh. Which means I’m ready to escape back into a fantasy world where dragons are real and good eventually prevails.

But there I was, poking at my AMS ads just now and trying to figure out what to do about it, and I figured why not? I’m having a few thoughts worth sharing.

See, there’s a lot of talk lately about bidding low on AMS and waiting for ads to start performing, sometimes weeks later.

I’m personally a little too impatient for that approach. If I start a Product Display ad and it doesn’t move I keep upping the bid until it does.  (And then think, oh shit, I need to turn that thing off before it spends all my money.)

But right now I have a few low-bid ads running. One is on the AMS book. It has 19,827 impressions, 29 clicks, an aCPC of 8 cents, has spent $2.36 and has reported sales of $14.97 for an ACoS of 15.76%.

That’s a successful ad. Do that a million times and you’d be rich.

But it’s taken it weeks to get those numbers.

On the flip side I have another AMS ad that’s currently turned off that has 81,314 impressions, 60 clicks, an aCPC of 31 cents, has spent $18.61 and has reported sales of $22.44 for an ACoS of 82.93%. (I should note that the book was in KU while this one was running so factor accordingly when looking at the ACoS.)

Not as successful an ad in terms of pure profit.  But the ad built up most of that performance in a much shorter period of time which meant a good rank and good visibility and a shot at organic sales and momentum.

So which is better?  The slow and low approach that’s pretty much guaranteed to be profitable but usually results in one isolated sale at a time and has no opportunity to build momentum?  Or the fast and high approach that can result in a good enough ranking that it generates organic sales and maybe plays more into that seven-impressions-to-a-sale phenomenon but can cost money if it doesn’t work?

I tend towards fast and high. But I did hesitate to pause the slow and low AMS ad today. Partially because I think the fast and high ads require more attention than the slow and low and October is going to be one helluva month for me.  But partially because that’s a nice profit margin and no guarantee the fast and high ad will deliver more sales if I turn it back on.

So it’s tempting to leave that slow and low one going.  But there’s nothing like seeing sales hit your dashboard.  And mama’s gotta get her fix.  (Haha. I swear, I’m not drinking. It’s just Friday.)

Anyway. When it comes to bidding, both strategies can be profitable, but one probably has much more risk than the other.  And also the potential for much better outcomes. It’s all a question of how much of a risk-taker you are.

 

The Flaws of AMS

It’s Friday, so time to talk AMS.  And writing. And life.

A few things happened this week that have me thinking. (Nothing new there. If my mind isn’t off on about ten tracks at once I don’t know what to do with myself.)

First, I almost wrote a post called “Maybe Indie Writing Isn’t For You” after seeing one too many authors losing their shit over stuff you can’t control. Namely, reviews. Oh, and going back a couple weeks, price matching. (This does tie back to AMS, just give me a minute.)

Second, this week Amazon issued a credit to some users of AMS for over-reporting estimated sales on certain Product Display ads. I’m pretty sure my credit related to ads I ran in 2015 and 2016 and estimated sales isn’t how I judge ad performance anyway so I was quite happy to take my $50 and continue doing what I’m doing.

Third, someone made a comment in a thread on Kboards about how people claim to be doing well with AMS and then you go and look at their book ranking and they’re only selling a couple books a day.

So, let’s start with that third point first.

I kind of have a love/hate relationship with Kboards. Every once in a while I pick up some little bit of information there that helps me move my writing one step further along the path, so there’s value in being there for me.

But I get heartily sick of the “if you’re not selling thousands of books a day you’re not worth listening to” mindset that pervades the place. I know far more self-published writers who would be happy with a sale or two a day than I do authors who sell thousands of copies. And, quite frankly, a lot of what those who sell thousands of copies a day have to say doesn’t apply to newer writers.

This summer I listened to a presentation by someone who is full-time self-published and their advice was that you could write a book a year and do well. All you had to do was launch it with a Bookbub on the first in series, which had happened for them every single time they published.

Oh, is that all? Yeah, okay. I’ll get right on giving away 25,000 copies of my novel so people read the rest of the series and I gain a lot of new fans.

Before that little pep talk I ‘d read another post about “how I launched my book into the top 1000 of the Amazon store.” Step one, mail your 15,000-person mailing list and tell them the book is out.

Oh, right. Okay. I just need a 15,000-person mailing list of people who like my books. I’ll get right on that.

(Neither of these were on Kboards, by the way.)

I appreciate that someone who is selling hundreds of books a day and wants to get to selling thousands of books a day isn’t going to view the information of someone selling a handful of books each day as worth listening to.

And because of that I can even go farther and say that AMS won’t have as much value for them.

AMS does not scale well for most people or for most ads. I have the one romance ad that was willing to spend up to $50 a day a while back. I’ve dialed it back some so now it’s willing to spend up to $30 a day.  Which for me is big money.  That’s $900 a month on one book. That’s plenty for me to spend, thanks.  But for a heavy hitter who wants to spend $10,000 a month it’s a waste of their time to try to get AMS to scale to that level.

I have twenty-plus ads running at any given time and only one or two of them perform like that. For someone trying to generate hundreds of sales, yeah, my advice won’t help.

For someone where I was a year ago who just wants to see steady sales? AMS are great.

Also, because of the horrid reporting, AMS are a much better tool for someone going from basically nothing to having sales as a result of AMS. Before I started running the ads a lot of my books were only selling maybe a copy a week. Which makes me comfortable attributing all of my paperback and ebook sales to the ads while they’re running.  For someone further along than me, that wouldn’t work.

(It’s like when I was in KU a while back and I could say that most people read my novels in about two days. A more successful author wouldn’t be able to say that. I could at the time because I would see one borrow and a full-read and then nothing for a few days. We are not all seeing or experiencing things the same way and that’s too often forgotten. Fortunately? My page reads are now to steady for that.)

There was some discussion when those credits were issued this week about how horrible Amazon is and how we can’t trust them.  And, it being the 15th of the month, I’m sure there’ll be a nice juicy thread about KU and page reads today that says similar things.

But here’s the deal. The way I judge AMS has nothing to do with what that dashboard says about sales. I ask, “What did I spend on an ad on that book for this period of time?” And then I ask, “What did I earn on that book for the same period of time for ebook sales, KU page reads, and paperback sales?”  If what I earned is more than what I spent, who gives a *bleep* about the rest of it?

I get really analytical at the keyword level for AMS ads because I’m trying to refine them the best I can.  But in terms of keeping an ad going? What did I spend?  What did I make?  For me, I get to make those calculations about every ten days when I get billed by AMS.  Everyone can make those judgements monthly if they’re running the ads.

Is Amazon flawed? Sure. Absolutely. KU is a cluster half the time. AMS reporting is shit. But at the end of the day, it’s very simple. Are you making more participating than it’s costing you? If so, continue. If not, bail. Find another solution. Accept that it’s a flawed system and judge by the outcome alone.

At least that’s what I do. And sorry this was a bit blathery. I’m still recovering from writing and publishing those Excel guides.

Bottom-line: Accept the system as it is and judge whether you can work within it, no matter how flawed. Also, know that what works for someone at one level may not work for someone at another level so factor that into who you listen to and what weight you give what they say.

 

AMS and The Mystery of the Also-Boughts

One of the things I do with my own AMS ads, and that I recommend others do, is list the authors in their also-boughts as keywords.  Makes sense, right? Enough people who bought your book also bought books by this other author so it seems like a good place to target your advertising.

Except…

AMS ads don’t work on a pure bid-based process.  You can’t just bid the most and be placed on a book’s page. There’s some Amazon algorithm at work that decides how relevant your keywords are for that particular author, book, or search. And if Amazon decides you aren’t relevant, almost no amount of money will get your ad on that page.

You’d think that Amazon would see that an author in your also-boughts is a good match for your advertisement. But in my experience it’s just not the case.

I spent most of today consolidating impressions, clicks, spend, and sales on my Rider’s books across about 18 different ads I’ve run over the last 18 months. When it was all combined I had 5.7 million impressions and 1,567 keywords. (80 with a paid sale, 447 with at least one click, for those who were interested.)

Right now, for the top author in my also-boughts I’ve only managed to rack up 3,124 impressions using their name.

For the next author I only have 5,479 impressions.

Compare that to 370,000 impressions for my most popular author name.

So what gives? Why can’t I get more impressions on those authors who are in my also-boughts?

Is it because they aren’t popular enough so there just aren’t that many impressions to be had?  Well, no. After Rachel E. Carter’s books dominated my also-boughts in January I tried my darnedest to use her as a keyword but had almost no results. And she was in the top 50 paid in the store at the time.

Maybe those authors are just really expensive to use as keywords and I’m not bidding high enough? That could be some of it. Many of them are in the top 100 authors for the genre, and one of those authors did cost me about 75 cents when I managed to get a click using their name.

The other thing I always wonder is, how did these authors end up in my also-boughts int the first place?

Granted, about 20% of my impressions and clicks are from generic genre-driven keywords.  So that could explain that…

I kind of like that you don’t know exactly what’s happening with AMS. It makes them a fun challenge. (Although the last few days they seem to be a fun challenge that has stopped working well…Last time that happened was in April and it hurt. A lot.)

Anyway. Back to drafting a whole new set of keywords because the Rider’s books are rolling out of KU in a week and I don’t want to target lower-priced or KU-dominant titles when I won’t be in KU and will be selling at $6.99. Good times.

AMS and Accounting for KU Borrows

AMS reporting is horrible. Amazon gives you this pretty little dashboard that looks like it tells you what you need to know, but if you actually use the dashboard numbers as provided, you’re going to mismanage your ads.

I think most self-publishers have clued into the fact that you can’t just look at the ACoS and say that anything less than 100% is good.  Most everyone I see talk about ACoS knows that it’s based on the list price of their titles, so it doesn’t account for their payout percentage.  Knowing this, they use 70% (or 35%) as their threshold to judge an ad or keyword instead of 100%.

But that’s flawed, too.  As we already discussed, you have the value of a customer to consider.  If x% of customers who buy book 1 go on to buy book 2 and y% of those go on to buy book 3 you need to account for that in your numbers.

Another thing you need to account for is KU borrows for any title that’s in KU.  Sometimes this amount is insignificant (like for my non-fiction), but often times that borrows revenue is what makes an ad profitable (like for my romance novel). So you need to account for it.

But how?

Ideally you’d determine what percentage of customers for that title buy vs. borrow. Problem is, you don’t have that information. You will never know how many people borrow your book vs. buy it.  You can guesstimate based on your rank each day and your sales and using the sales/rank chart Phoenix Sullivan has put together, but as more books are listed that ranking chart becomes less and less accurate.

What I do is focus on what I call full-read equivalents.  So if I have 10,000 page reads and a book with a KENPC of 500 then that’s 20 full-read equivalents.  (It could be 10,000 people reading one page for all I know, but you have to work with the information you have, right?)

I then use that number to calculate a ratio of borrows to sales.  So if I have 30 sales and 20 full-read equivalents, then I have a borrow/sale ratio of 20/30. I can then use that ratio to create a factor that I use to gross up my AMS-reported sales number.  (Just to give you an idea, for my fantasy series that number is 1.61 but for my romance series it’s 3.10.)

So instead of the $10 in sales that AMS tells me I have, I’m actually looking at $16-$43 in sales.

Of course, I then have to adjust that number based on what an average customer who buys is worth to me, what an average customer who borrows is worth to me, the proportion of customers who buy vs. borrow, and what the list price of the advertised book is. (It’s the weighted average customer value divided by list price of the book I’m advertising.)

Because I use AMS to advertise full-price books that second number is actually a number less than 1. It takes that $16-$43 value for sales and brings it back down into the range of $14-$26.  But I ran the calculation for a 99 cent series starter for a five-book series and it was 5.4.

The math stays the same, but the numbers vary greatly depending on the series you’re advertising.

Key takeaway here is that unless you have a standalone title that’s not in KU, you need t realize that your sales from your ads are greater than the amount reported by Amazon.

One last thought.

My next step after I do all this is to calculate an estimated profit and loss from that adjusted number and prioritize all ads with a positive adjusted profit and loss.

You could also use the adjusted sales number to calculate a revised ACoS and keep any keywords or ads where the revised ACoS was below 100%. For example, my best performing keyword on my romance ad shows an unadjusted ACoS of 154% but when I account for borrows and sellthrough it has an adjusted ACoS of 60%. (I just thought of this and ran it on my romance keywords and think I might play with it some more, because it highlights some words I should probably bid higher on that aren’t my highest in sales but are my lowest in terms of ACoS.)

Anyway. Hope that made sense. I’m including the actual formulas in the Excel for Self-Publishers book I’m writing in case it didn’t and you want them. Although, honestly, I think that book is going to appeal to about five people. It’s been good to write though, because it lets me refine my thinking on all this.  I’ve already updated my ad tracking worksheet because of it as well as this whole analysis.

(Of course, now that I thought of including a revised ACoS I have to go add that to the book.  Grrr.)

AMS Ads and Value of Customer

First, the AMS Ads for Authors book is rolling out of KU in approximately a week, so if you think you might want to borrow it, do so now or forever hold your peace. And sorry for not posting on Wednesday.  I had jury duty and almost did a post on Thursday about how that experience always reminds me how not-normal I am but then couldn’t figure out how to write the post without sounding like an ass. So sorry about that.

Okay, now that that’s out of the way.  I’m currently working on a series of Excel guides and one is going to be for self-published authors. One of the calculations in there is a simple calculation of how much a new customer should be worth to you assuming you have a series and know what your read through rates are at your current prices.

(As with most things, the calculation is a more simplified version of something that’s far more complex than it looks.  For example, my read through rates are different for purchases versus borrows and for when I run a 99 cent promotion versus when I’m not running a promotion.  But some of that nuance you can’t even calculate because who knows if today’s sale of book 2 is from someone who just bought book 1 or if it’s from someone who bought book 1 during that promo six months ago.)

The value of customer calculation is crucial to anyone doing advertising.  Because if you limit yourself to what you’ll make back on that one book you’re advertising, you’re not going to spend as much as you could and you’ll miss out on potential sales.  Especially if you have a 99 cent or free series starter.

For example, AMS just billed me about $500 for the last two weeks and, as I do every time they bill me, I crunched the numbers for each book I was advertising to see if I was profitable on my ads for that period.  On the romance side I have two novels in a related series.  On the fantasy side I have three novels in a related series.  If I had just looked at the ad cost for book 1 for those two series, I would’ve concluded I was unprofitable for this period and possibly shut the ads down. (No one wants to spend $500 in two weeks and not make money off of it. That gets expensive fast.)

But when I factor in sales and page reads of the later books in the series, it turns out that both series made more money than I spent on advertising.  Which means those ads are worth continuing.

So how do you get that number?  How do you calculate the value of a customer.

The rough version is this:

Add together the following:

Book 1: Sales price * payout percent (So basically what you net for a sale)

Book 2: Sales price of book 2 * payout percent * (number of book 2 sales/number of book 1 sales) (So basically x% of what you net for a sale of book 2 where x% is based on how many people go on to buy book 2 after buyung book 1)

Book 3: Sales price of book 3 * payout percent * (number of book 3 sales/number of book 1 sales) (So basically y% of what you net for a sale of book 3 where y% is based on how many people who buy book 1 also buy book 3)

And so on and so on.

So if you’re selling on Amazon and have a book 1 at 99 cents and books 2 and 3 are at $2.99 and 50% of the people who read book 1 read book 2 and 50% of those read book 3 then:

(.99*.35)+($2.99*.7*.5)+($2.99*.7*.25)=$1.92

Instead of trying to limit your ad spend to 34 cents you can actually spend up to $1.91 to acquire a new customer and still be profitable.  That’s a big difference if you think about it.

This is why having lots of books out under one name and ideally in series is a very very good idea.  (Assuming you write well enough that people will buy more than one.  If your read through is 0% at some point having a long series won’t do anything for you.)

Anyway. Something to think about.

And now time for me to procrastinate writing the next novel by writing non-fiction guides no one will want…