What I Learned From Spending $100K on AMS Ads

I was refreshing a bunch of my AMS ads yesterday and noticed that I’d hit the $100K in ad spend milestone.

Now, a few things first. That sales number looks more impressive than it is because that’s retail price not what I receive. Also, though, that number doesn’t include all the KU page reads I had on my books before AMS started reporting KENP on the dashboard, so my direct results from AMS ads are better than this.

Also, while that number I’ve spent can seem big–and given to someone in one lump sum it would be–my total AMS ad spend is much lower than the big hitters spend. There are authors out there who probably spend $50K or more per month on AMS.

So, as with most of what I write on this blog, my target audience is those trying to get a foothold not those who already have one. So the folks spending $50K on AMS per month, I’ve got nothing for you. Same with the so amazingly wonderful writers whose books just sell without effort.

Back in the day when we still got a physical paper everyday there was a cartoon called Pluggers. That’s who this is for. The ones sort of trudging along making progress even though it seems like they’re stuck in the mud half the time.

So…Let’s see what we can learn from my experience with AMS ads. First some context.

I was lucky to run my first AMS ads back in May 2016 before they really caught on. There was a glorious period of time when all the heavy-hitters on Kboards who’d beta’ed the ads were talking about how horrible they were and I started running some ads and…they worked for me.

The beauty of not having a lot of competition. Clicks were cheap then! Ah, it was a beautiful time.

But then people started sharing their success stories. And a few really big ad courses came out on how to use AMS. And things started to shift.

At one point I had a book out on using AMS ads, that I updated once, but I pulled those books because it seemed like every time I published one of those books the good folks at Amazon would completely change the interface or the available options or remove an ad type or add an ad type and the book would become obsolete.

Since I pulled that second book they’ve added columns for orders and KENP and top of impression share and I think moved how you access half the options.

And, thank god, they also added the ability to see information for just a select time period. (To see some of the fun hoops I used to have to jump through to use AMS, you could always check out another title I pulled, Excel for Self-Publishers. Half of the items I covered in that book were workarounds for things AMS didn’t have at the time but now does, like a way to guesstimate your KENP you were getting from your ads.)

So things have changed. And that number you see in ad spend happened over a period of six years.

Which I think is the first lesson here.

DO NOT THROW A BUNCH OF MONEY AT THE WALL

I did not start out spending large amounts of money on AMS ads. In 2016 I spent a grand total of $1,143 on AMS ads.

I don’t know how to describe this, but it’s true for the titles you publish as well as advertising spend. Some just show more signs of life.

I still remember when I published my first billionaire romance short story. Copies sold before I even knew it was live. (Note, this was also back in the days of less competition when that could happen.)

I hadn’t had that happen before. That was a sign of life. It meant, lean into this. There’s promise here. (I didn’t but that’s another story. I seem to learn the hard way.)

So with AMS, every book I publish I try to run some AMS ads on. Some of those books, the ads just don’t work. I publish a weird variety of titles, some of which probably have an audience of one, me. But I give them a shot with an AMS ad just to see.

And then, if I’m seeing clicks and sales, I keep it going. I cut what didn’t work and boost what did and try to refine that ad into something that can run long-term.

So, for example, my books on Affinity Publisher, I tried targeting some self-publishing keywords, but they really didn’t work so I trimmed those out. But there were some others that did, so I kept those and have an ad or two running for a couple of the Affinity Publisher books that deliver low-level sales results.

Full disclosure here before I say this next book, I have not taken any of the other AMS ad classes or read any of the other AMS books. There was a little too much snake oil feel to things at one point so I avoid it all.

But occasionally someone will mention here or there the advice they’ve been given on AMS ads from one of those courses or books. And sometimes the advice is that you have to be willing to lose $500 bucks to master AMS. And maybe that works. But no way in hell I’m flushing $500 on ads that aren’t working. Which brings us to our next point.

AMS ADS WORK FOR SOME BOOKS BUT NOT OTHERS

I’m pretty sure I went into this in far more detail in Data Analysis for Self-Publishers, but here’s the ten-second version.

AMS ads are not necessarily the best choice of ad for a book. The more in the center of a genre a book is the more I think the list-based ad options are a better choice. Things like Freebooksy or Bookbub.

But for a full-price, cold audience looking for X book on any given day, AMS ads can be great. That means someone who comes to Amazon looking for a book on X, with no intention to buy my particular book.

You want to learn Excel and not bog down in a bunch of bullshit about the history of the program and every little thing you’ll never use? I gotcha covered. Since 2017 I have been able to successfully run AMS ads on that book at full price because it meets that need of people who come to Amazon looking for an Excel book.

But some of my fiction? Not so much.

I don’t write to the center of genres. My romances are on the edge of being women’s fiction. My cozy mysteries are probably small town family sagas that happen to involve murder. My YA fantasy has a romance subplot that doesn’t appeal to fantasy romance readers. My fiction is a harder sell.

It’s part of the challenge of learning to be a writer to figure out how to hit the bullseye of a genre, and fourteen published novels in, I know it conceptually but can’t do it yet.

So it’s harder to advertise my fiction.

Early on when there wasn’t a lot of competition I could take 25 clicks to sell a book and still make a profit. Nowadays with bids where they are I need to be at 10 or even less, depending on the title and genre.

Also, in my experience, based on how I run AMS ads, the ads only run well on full-priced books. I have tried to run them on freebies or cheap books or while I was doing a promo and the ads just slowed to a crawl.

Other techniques for running the ads may have different results, but for me it has to be full-price and something that will appeal to a cold audience.

WHAT THE COMPETITION IS DOING MATTERS

When you run AMS ads (or FB ads or Bookbub click ads) you are in a blind auction against an unknown number of other participants employing unknown bidding strategies.

How they choose to set up their AMS ads is going to impact how yours perform.

What they bid, what keywords they use, how successful their books already are, how new their books are, and how new their ads are will all impact whether you win that ad slot or they do.

The more sophisticated the competition becomes about using AMS ads the more challenging they become to run profitably.

Back in the day an author mentioned how they’d bid $9 for some keywords during a launch period because that put them at the top of ad placement, but that they didn’t actually have to spend that because no one else was bidding that at the time.

Well, others thought that was a good idea and started doing the same. And when you have multiple authors using that strategy, suddenly everyone is paying really high click costs.

So in a certain sense AMS ads are not set it and forget it ads. You do have to tend them and keep an eye out for changes and then figure out how to adjust.

DON’T GET PULLED OUT OF POSITION

Which brings up another issue. It’s very easy to react to every little change. A keyword goes from performing well one day to having 20 clicks and no sales the next and it’s tempting to turn that keyword off.

But the problem is doing so can sometimes pull you out of position. In my little Excel niche this is often driven by fake clicks on the ads. And if I turn off that keyword that day whoever is behind that gets the real clicks on that keyword and those sales for as long as everyone else is away from that keyword. If it was a good one that can be a big part of your ad performance.

Same with when someone comes through with really high bids. If you try to match them and continue to dominate the space, they’ve pulled you out of a profitable little pocket.

Which is why I do monitor my ads but I try to not be too drastic about the things I do with them. Because I want to react to long-term changes in the ad landscape, but not be jerked around by every little hiccup.

(I should not here, though, that when you’ve established ads it’s much easier to hold that line than when you’re learning and trying to figure out what really does work and what really doesn’t.)

SLOW AND STEADY

Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I am fairly productive (not massively productive, but I get 300K words published a year or something like that), but I am also not driven to be at the top.

I write because I like to hang out with my dog and avoid office politics. As long as I think I can do that for another six months, I’m good.

So I do want to make a profit so I can keep going, but I don’t have to “win”.

Which means I do not spend a lot of time narrowing in and optimizing my ads. Nor do I adopt some of the strategies that probably are more successful but take more time and effort. That seems an exhausting way to live for me.

So I try to have ads that I set and forget. My biggest AMS ad at the moment is closing in on $30K in sales. My two second biggest have hit $25K in sales.

I know that there are others who run AMS ads who do the exact opposite. They wake up every day and they started a hundred new ads and burn through them like wildfire. Which works for them. And they probably make more from that strategy than I do from mine.

But I like my way because I get to set up one ad that runs for three years with some careful tending. So there is room with AMS ads to take the slow, steady, distracted approach and still make some profit. Not as big a profit probably as the optimizers, but enough of one.

ADVERTISING WORKS

Which I guess brings me to the second-to-last point. I would never have spent the amount of money I have on ads if they didn’t make me a profit. If they didn’t return more than I put out there immediately.

Self-publishing is a weird space because there are very vocal people in this industry who will make you feel like shit if you have to advertise your books to sell them.

They’ll either imply that your books aren’t good enough if you have to advertise (even though they write to a very hungry market segment and you don’t so the sales dynamics are completely different).

Or they’ll imply that you’re not a real writer or your some sort of impatient sellout if you aren’t willing to write nine books before you even think of advertising. (Actually I think I saw someone say 20 the other day and I laughed and laughed and laughed and then went and checked my AMS ads.)

That second one strikes me as the self-pub equivalent of “you should spend ten years querying agents if you want to get published” or “you shouldn’t write a novel until you have a dozen pro short story sales” that trade pub sometimes throws out there.

I would not be writing right now if I hadn’t started advertising my books, because they will not sell on their own. If I didn’t advertise the Excel books, people would happily buy Excel for Dummies and get on with their lives. If I didn’t advertise my fiction there are plenty of fiction titles out there that they would buy instead.

I am my publisher. And as a publisher I have an obligation to get my work in front of potential readers. Advertising is a very good way to do that on a daily basis. Sure, this website gives people links to my books, but they’re not just gonna stumble across it. Something has to pull people here.

Putting a book up and then thinking the world will find it is a good way to be disappointed. And being disappointed is a good way to quit something you might have actually been good at.

BUT ADVERTISING DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK

I currently have a list of sixteen titles that I wrote down where I’d run AMS ads on them at some point this year, but the ads just weren’t doing well enough and I turned them off.

I have another ten that I wrote down where the ad was okay-ish, but I wanted to redo the ad because I thought it could be better and I didn’t think tweaking the existing ad was going to cut it.

(This in addition to the twenty ads I do have running right now that I think are doing alright.)

The reality is that sometimes advertising doesn’t work for a book. Maybe it’s the cover or the blurb or something else that can be redone to make it hit better. But sometimes…a book just isn’t going to appeal. Maybe forever, maybe just right now.

And that’s tough. It sucks.

But if you write enough books you will find that some do better than others and it’s not a matter of packaging or of getting the right description, it’s just that some books don’t appeal as much as others do.

Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of having enough books for those ads to work. On the fiction side I tend to lose money on book one, make it all up with sales of book two, and then have profit from book three onward.

Well, if all you have is book one…that’s not gonna work.

Or if people don’t read through to book two or three, that’s not gonna work.

So sometimes it is a matter of getting better at your craft. Or of writing enough books to make the ads profitable.

With AMS, even though I know that pattern exists for my fiction, I still tend to want an individual book to be profitable when I advertise it. I want that ACOS number to be under 55%. But sometimes that does not happen. And I have to let go, for now, of that book.

Look, people write for all kinds of reasons. For the love, for the exploration, etc.

But sometimes they write for the money. And if you’re writing for the money, you have to let go of the ones that don’t work. Learn what you can from that experience and move on to the next.

IT ALL CHANGES

One final thought.

I’ve been writing towards publication for a little over a decade and self-publishing for about nine years at this point.

What I can say with certainty is that things will be significantly different in another ten years. I’m not quite sure how, but I’m certain they will be. Maybe that change will happen at the industry level, maybe it will happen at the national level, maybe it will be international. But overall there will be significant change.

Over the last ten years self-pub has significantly evolved. What worked for people in 2013 when I was putzing around not doing anything I should have been is not what works for people who start today.

(Heck, KU didn’t exist when I got started and that was a game-changer. If Amazon opens KU up to all authors or splits out pop lists by KU versus other or does any of a number of other things they may be forced to do to not be considered anti-competitive, that’ll be significant for many authors.)

So knowing that, I will say that the single most important skill you need to develop as a self-published author is the ability to see that things have changed and to adjust.

I can sit down with someone today and walk through the mechanics of using AMS and tell them how I approach the ads. And that may benefit them for the next year.

But if that person can’t take the higher-level principles and let got of the details, they’re going to get stuck at some point trying to rely on what used to work.

So my best advice with AMS and self-pub is to stay flexible. Build up slowly and steadily. Don’t flush money away but do take some risks to see what’s possible. Accept failure. Follow-up on success. And adapt as needed.

(Oh, and if you want to see all the books I’ve written about writing and self-publishing they’re all on this page. I tend to write them for myself to cement my knowledge, but I do think they have some valuable discussion, too. And what kind of self-publisher would I be if I didn’t at least mention that they exist?)

Periodic Reminder re: Advertising

It is not cheating or gaming the system to advertise your books.

There are absolutely people out there who engage in shady practices with respect to advertising (I’m looking at you people who send fake clicks against books that use the keywords you want to use), but the mere act of using, for example, Facebook ads, does not make you some sort of cretin that can’t even be assigned a name because you’re such an insult to real authors whose books fly off the shelves all on their own.

I wouldn’t still be publishing if I hadn’t managed to get some sort of grasp on advertising. Because I wouldn’t have sold anything more than a handful of copies here or there and I would have quickly decided that there were better ways to spend the hours of my day than putting up my books that I’d spent hundreds of hours on and only hearing crickets.

Some people don’t need advertising. They write something that readers are actively looking for and where there isn’t enough competition to drown out their visibility. They started in trade-pub and have a pre-established audience that’s waiting for their next book. They have a lot of well-connected friends who like them enough to get the word out about their books. They hustle in some other way that gets them in front of readers.

But if you don’t fall into one of those categories, it is actually okay to learn AMS or FB ads and use them to promote your books. Do not let other people’s skewed perceptions make you fail.

This post triggered by a comment that may not have even been meant the way I read it, but also by the many, many times I’ve seen a forum discussion where the implication was that “real writers” don’t have to advertise.

Amazon Taketh, Amazon Giveth

I logged onto my AMS dashboard today to find that I now have the option to show Kindle Unlimited page reads attributed to an ad, something people have been asking for for ages and ages. You can add it by customizing your columns and going to the very bottom of the list, assuming it’s available to you. I mentioned it on Kboards and someone said they didn’t see it, so it may be rolling out.

I don’t know how well it works or how timely it is because I’m not currently advertising any books that are in KU and it doesn’t look to be retroactive. I had ads running in the past on books that were in KU but activating that option didn’t display results for those old ads.

Nice that they added that since they took away displaying any associated sales that weren’t for the formats specifically listed in an ad. I get that a lot of people complained to them about that, but it would’ve been nice to leave the information available in a separate column somewhere.

(Maybe they’re trying to discourage people from using ad copy? Because the only way to list multiple formats, I believe, is to have an ad with no ad copy, but I could be wrong and am too lazy to go check right now.)

On one hand I’m glad that Amazon keeps trying to improve AMS. On the other hand, this is exactly why I ended up unpublishing my books on AMS ads. Because all of the practical, here’s how it works sections became outdated almost as soon as I wrote them.

One guarantee in this business: it is constantly changing.

A Few Thoughts on AMS Ads vs FB Ads

As I mentioned earlier I’ve finally been taking a more serious look at Facebook ads in the last few weeks. I’d dipped a toe in here or there but never really stuck with them long enough to see if I could¬† make them work like I did with AMS ads. But I felt like maybe I should circle back to them for a few of my older titles where Amazon makes it harder to advertise them because they’re no longer new and shiny.

So, some thoughts. (And I talked about some of this a bit in Data Analysis for Self-Publishers, too, but this is specific to these two ad platforms.)

I think that Facebook ads are probably an excellent choice for someone who writes squarely in their genre and whose genre is big enough to support ongoing ads. So that would be thrillers, traditional mystery, contemporary romance, etc. (And you’ll notice that the people who run the big ad courses for FB ads meet this criteria.)

One of the issues I’ve had to struggle with when advertising my books on Facebook has been target audience and audience size. My books sell best to fans of certain authors and a lot of those authors are not available as a choice on Facebook. Or if they are available the audience size is small enough that I can’t imagine running ads to that author name for more than a limited period of time. My frequency goes up fast, especially in the foreign markets where the audience sizes are even smaller.

Compare that to Amazon where I can advertise to the most obscure name I can find if I want. (I don’t recommend doing so with just one name like that, but I could. And I can use any name or any combination of words I want.)

The other factor with FB ads is their complexity. I think this can be a benefit for some authors but is a problem for most.

On FB ads you can have any image you wantas well as a lot of text both above and below the ad image. Amazon ads on the other hand pretty much have the book cover and a few lines of text, if that. And the star rating and price.

The complexity of a FB ad is likely a benefit for more experienced authors who have a lot more bells and whistles they can use in an ad. They can include glowing review text AND a punchy little tagline AND a killer image that draws people in.

But for those who are new it’s more opportunities to get it wrong. You can have a killer book cover but if the ad image you choose is bad or the text you choose is clunky, all that choice can work against you.

Another thought about the two is that for FB ads tracking performance is trickier. Which is saying something because we all know that tracking AMS ad performance is challenging enough. But with FB ads, if you aren’t violating TOS and using your affiliate links or reducing ad performance by going to a landing page first, you really can’t tie specific clicks to specific sales.

This becomes a problem if you’re trying to run an ad that has multiple target audiences, for example.

I had an ad running with both Tamora Pierce and Anne McCaffrey as target authors at the same time. And I was getting good cost-per-click for both. Tamora Pierce was actually better at 7 cents a click, but Anne McCaffrey was good at 12 cents a click.

Here’s the problem, though. Turns out that Tamora Pierce doesn’t convert for me. People love the ad, they click on it, they go to Amazon, and then they don’t buy.

Whereas with Anne McCaffrey they do.

So if I were just looking at the data I can see on FB it looks like I’m doing really well getting low-price clicks with Tamora Pierce. But it doesn’t matter what those clicks are costing me because I’m not getting sales. And the only way to know that’s happening is to just run ads to Tamora Pierce one day and just run ads to Anne McCaffrey another.

FB itself has no way to know which of my clicks (if any) from their site actually bought the product on Amazon. (I would love for there to be a feedback system in place where i could manually tell them my estimated performance and have them incorporate that into their allocation algorithm, but that’s not going to happen.)

So it can be easy with FB to focus on the wrong metric. “Ooh, I’m getting lots of cheap clicks, woohoo!” What matters is are you making a profit. Are those clicks resulting in sales. And that takes more effort to figure out than AMS ads.

I do think if you’re in a good genre for it and have everything aligned that FB ads have probably far more potential than AMS ads. But I am also very glad that I started with AMS ads before I tried moving to FB ads. Because I would have probably lost a lot of money on FB ads early on because the books I had to sell were not packaged to sell well through FB ads.

One final thought. I’ve seen both on author boards and in the group for the class I’m taking people say, “What am I doing wrong? My cover is fantastic, my blurb is great, my reviews are wonderful, my landing page is stellar, and yet I’m not getting the sales I would expect.” And I have to say that most times when the person provides a link in those situations that’s not actually true.

I saw one where the color scheme for the cover was completely different from all other books in the genre. Another where the review quote at the top of the landing page was formatted in such a way it wasn’t clear it was a review quote. Another where the blurb text was clunkier than it needed to be.

Trust me, I don’t get this right myself half the time, so I’m not going to wade in there and tell anyone what they’re doing wrong. But if you think everything is perfect and you’re just somehow not getting sales, then everything is not perfect. There is a disconnect somewhere and you have to keep poking at it to find where that disconnect is. That’s true of AMS ads or FB ads. You either aren’t targeting the right audience or aren’t packaging your book in a way that appeals to the audience it should appeal to.

Anyway. Something to think about. (And now the dog must be fed because she’s big enough to make a meal of me if I fail to provide for her.)

 

Alignment

I’ve been enjoying the Skye Warren FB ads class I’m taking right now. I have a successful ad running for the series I tested it on which is exciting. Fingers crossed it continues.

I’ve done okay with FB ads in the past, but I have this innate dislike of pricing low so I only ever ran them when I had a promotion going on elsewhere, but now that I have a completed six-book series it’s more palatable to me to put Book 1 at 99 cents to bring in a lot of readers.

I’m telling ya, the more books you have out there that tie to one another the more options you have.

The class uses a FB group so we get to see what other authors are doing with their ads and what questions they have. Today there was a post that reminded me of a conversation I had re: AMS ads a while back. It hasn’t been answered yet but for me it brought up the idea of alignment.

If an ad is getting lots of clicks but not getting lots of sales and price or KU enrollment aren’t the issue, then often the issue comes down to one of alignment.

To bring someone from clicking on an ad (AMS is what I know, but the principle holds for all types of ads) to your product page and on to purchase your book, everything has to be aligned.

I could put up a really sexy picture of a man with no shirt and killer abs and get people to click on that ad. But if the book I was advertising was Excel for Beginners, I wouldn’t get many buys from that click. Because people would click looking for a hot sexy man and find…Microsoft Excel. Not what they wanted.

The person I talked to a while back had an issue where they had written a book that was fiction but targeted the book as if it were non-fiction. So readers would click on the book thinking it was an academic sort of analysis of a historical event and then find that it was a fictional retelling of those events. This led to a lot of clicks and no sales.

Because the ad and the book page weren’t aligned.

Another way to think of this is that you don’t want any friction along the way.

It’s like when writing your story. You don’t want to say things that pop the reader out of the story and make them remember that they needed to do laundry today. You want to grab ahold and pull them all the way through without them having to think about it.

To create alignment with advertising you need everything to tell the same story: cover, ad copy, ad image, product page, customer reviews, etc. All of it has to point to the same potential experience.

That customer has a need and is trying to determine if what you’re offering will fill that need.

To carry this further, if you want sellthrough in a series then you actually need to continue that alignment through the entire book.

The customer has a need, you tell them you can meet that need, everything external to the book indicates that you can, and then you have to actually meet the need if you want them to ever buy from you again.

“This is a rip-roaring adventure that’ll grab ahold of you and never let go” sounds really good to a certain type of reader. But if you give that reader a book that has a hundred pages of navel-gazing ponderings about the nature of the universe, you will never see them again.

Just like a book advertised as “a cerebral examination of man’s search for meaning in a desolate world” can’t then be an action-packed comedy.

You’ll get the first sale if you do that, but you won’t get any more sales.

So, bottom line.

If you’re getting clicks on an ad but no buys, something isn’t lining up between the promise the ad is making and the product page.

If you’re getting buys and no follow-through to other books then the promise you made to the reader with your cover, blurb, and advertising wasn’t met.

(In non-fiction it could have been met and the need is now satisfied so no need to continue on but with a fiction series that first book is building trust and a promise about what experience you provide as an author. You need to deliver on that promise to keep that reader.)

Anyway. My thoughts for the day as I (yet again) struggle to start the next novel. (This is the hard part about finishing a series. There’s no pressing need to continue on with a specific project. Sigh.)

 

Some Random Advertising Thoughts

Once a month I load all my sales reports into an Access database and then proceed to generate a bunch of different reports and graphs to see where I am. For me that’s as fun as the writing so it’s never something I have to force myself to do, but I do think some sort of analysis is important to anyone working to run a writing business. (As opposed to just writing books and seeing what happens.)

So a few thoughts from the most recent analysis.

One of the metrics I was looking at this time around was the percent of revenues that was spent on ads for each series.

So let’s say I have a series that earned $10,000. And I spent $3,000 to make that amount. Then my ad spend would be 30%. That to me is an acceptable cost of doing business.

But I had a few that were higher than that. When that happens I think it’s important to dig in deeper and ask why, because understanding that why is going to drive what needs to happen to fix it.

In one case, it’s increased competition which means I can either hang in there and take the additional costs and know I’ll earn less on each sale of that series or I can step back and let the big spenders take part of my share of that market. Which way I choose to go will depend on how committed I am to that series and how committed I think those competitors are to entering that market.

In another case though, it’s because the series simply isn’t developed enough yet. The more books that readers can go to after an initial purchase, the more effective the ad spend.

For example, if I spend 75 cents to make $1 on the sale of a book and that book is all I have then my ad cost is 75% of the money I receive, which is higher than I ideally want. (If I could scale that sufficiently it’s doable, but the question is how much you can scale.)

But if I spend that same 75 cents and make $1 on that book sale plus $2 on two other book sales then my ad cost for the same ad spend and same initial transaction is only 15%. Much better.

Which means that often what seems like “I should abandon this and move on because I can’t make money at this” is actually “I need to write more books in this series so I can properly recoup my ad costs.”

Of course, there’s another option which is that something is off about the book that needs to be fixed to make it sell better.

Let me give a concrete example. I published a cookbook a while back and being too clever for my own good I called it “You Can’t Eat the Pretty” because it wasn’t about fancy cooking it was about cooking for yourself without burning down your kitchen.

But advertising that book was like pulling teeth. Every sale was a struggle. I thought the cover was good. I thought the content was good. But it barely broke even. Ad cost was probably 90% of money received.

So I changed the title. It’s now called “Quick & Easy Cooking for One”. I made one edit to one line of text in the introduction and changed the title but kept everything else the same. This year ad cost is 26% of money received.

That’s not the only time I’ve retitled a book and seen significant improvement in sales.

It isn’t always going to be the title. It could be price. It could be the cover. It could be the blurb. It could be the category. It could be who you’re advertising to. All of those deserve a hard look if you’re spending too much to sell your book.

And then you have to decide if you’re willing to make that change. Sometimes you won’t be. My YA fantasy books are currently at $7.99 each in ebook. I could probably sell more at a lower price point, but I’m okay with where they are at the moment. I can drop those prices when I finally release a new book under that name.

The key I think is to make these choices deliberately instead of just letting things ride and hoping for the best. Especially as we enter a maturing market.

I saw a flare up recently of “oh Amazon hates us and pits us against each other” when in reality it’s just that this is a maturing industry. Ironically we are trending back towards publishing houses even on the indie side. Because that’s an effective model for running a publishing business. And people are going to be less open about what works because there’s enough supply now to meet demand and we are in fact competing with one another for customer attention and customer funds.

Which leads me to another discussion that recently happened on one of the author forums that I wanted to address here.

Someone shared AMS numbers where their ad dashboard showed let’s say $90K in sales and $45K in ad spend. And someone else on that board somehow extrapolated that spend to the person running their business with a 90% ad cost, which was horribly inaccurate.

I wanted to walk through why that is. So let’s talk about what happens when you advertise.

One, your product is seen by new people. Someone becomes aware of your product even if they don’t buy it right then. That means an ad today results in a purchase a year from now.

Two, there’s direct sales. So in the case of AMS and how those are reported a $5 ebook sale means $3.50 received and $5 in sales showing on the ad dashboard.

Three, there’s follow-on sales. So if you run an ad on book 1 then (hopefully) a certain number of people will either immediately or eventually go on to buy other books from you. The more other books you have that are related to that first book and the more people like that first book, the more you will earn in follow-on sales. This is key. It’s what determines the winners from the losers probably 95% of the time.

Four, there’s another form of increased visibility if as a result of your ads your books do well enough to make a top 100 list somewhere or to be recommended by Amazon in one of their emails. These aren’t direct sales that will be reported on your AMS dashboard nor are they likely to be seen during a promotional period, but they are sales that resulted from that ad.

Five, specific to books advertised via AMS that are in KU, there’s the fact that the dashboard doesn’t show KU borrow revenue so each sale that’s seen on the dashboard can represent much more revenue. For example, my romance books tend to be 75% borrow revenue when they’re in KU.

So let’s work through this a little.

Say I pay $2.50 to get that first sale that’s worth $3.50 to me. That looks on the surface like I spent 71% of the money I received on advertising.

But if that book is in KU and 75% of its revenue comes from borrows then that $3.50 on the dashboard may represent $14 in revenue. In that case, then only 18% of money received was spent on ads.

What if the book isn’t in KU but is part of a five book series? And what if one purchase of book 1 means an additional $7.50 earned on sales of the other books in the series? Then in that case the ad spend is only 23% of money received.

Someone who looks at AMS dashboard numbers and doesn’t understand the impact of KU borrow revenue or follow-on sales is going to significantly overestimate the cost of those AMS ads to the user. Not to mention the visibility-driven sales which are almost impossible to quantify.

Which brings me back to the need to look at your numbers on a regular basis.

I look at total money received (which I call revenue for my purposes but technically isn’t since all the platforms take their cut before they send me a check) versus ad costs for each period for each title. I also do that by series and author because sometimes a loss leader first-in-series title can look horrible on its own even though it’s driving great sales for a series.

I also look at total profit and loss for each title, series, and author which incorporates cover cost, editing, etc. And I take that profit and loss number and calculate per hour and per word rates as well. (And when I get really bored I do a per hour or per word rate per day since the book was released since the longer a title is out the higher the total per hour and per word rate should be so you have to find a way to account for that difference between a title released this year and one released five years ago.)

But you can’t stop there. You have to put business knowledge on top of all of that. You have to ask why the difference between different titles. What can look bad today may actually be trending well. And what looks good today may not continue to look so good long-term. So you have to interpret the numbers properly.

You do all that and then you hope for the best.

There are no certain answers in this business (or in any business really.). All you can do is reassess after a bit, adjust, move forward again, and hope for improvement each time. If that happens, eventually you’ll get there.

Easy AMS Ads 2019 Edition

I hadn’t intended to update Easy AMS Ads because the pace of change with respect to AMS last year was so fast and furious it seemed like an impossible task to keep the book updated. But things hit a critical mass this month and I decided I either needed to update the book or unpublish it entirely because so much has changed with AMS in the last twelve months.

And since I’d just published the last cozy and needed a project before I started the next one, I figured why not go ahead and update the book.

So…

Easy AMS Ads – 2019 Edition is now live in ebook format and will soon be live in print as well. This one has some pictures in it and is also about 50% longer than the first edition which may give you some idea of just how much things have changed.

For those who read the first edition I’d say the information on portfolios, reports, and the new bidding options still make this one worth checking out if you haven’t already dug into those on your own yet.

Easy AMS Ads 2nd Ed V5

 

“Pay to Play”

First, Happy Holidays! It’s already the 25th for some of you, so let me get that out there right away. (And sorry for missing other holidays that already occurred this month.) May you all be able to spend time with those you love the most.

Okay.

Now, having said that…

If I hear the phrase “pay to play” one more time I am going to break something. For those of you who don’t know, the phrase “pay to play” with respect to Amazon advertising has spread like wildfire in the last month.

People are up in arms saying that the only way you can sell books on Amazon these days is to advertise them. And that that has created a pay to play system. Some are going so far as to say that this means everyone should go wide. Or better yet, just sell their books off their websites.

At which point I start laughing uncontrollably.

Because, how do people think books sell on those other platforms? And how do they think books sell off of someone’s website?

By…wait for it…the author paying for advertising. And not even good advertising.

Here’s the thing: AMS show when people are on Amazon ready to buy books. They’re right there. Two clicks away from a sale.

What happens when you advertise on Facebook? Someone’s on there looking to see what outrageous thing their Aunt Rita said today and they see a book ad. Now they have to click on that book ad and leave Facebook to go buy that book. Are they going to do that? If they decide to and you send them to a landing page on your website now they have to click off of there to their chosen store. And then they still have to decide to buy your book.

And selling direct off your website? You’re a random stranger on the internet. How many people do you honestly think will buy from you when they don’t know you? Sure, if you’re known to a reader base, they might buy from you. And I do make the occasional direct sale here, but compared to what I sell on Amazon? Peanuts.

The self-publishing market is maturing. Which means that there is sufficient supply to meet demand. Which means that normal market factors are in play now. Five years ago people could throw a title up on Amazon, it could have a horrible cover or not cover at all, they could not do anything with it, and it could sell. That’s because there was a pool of users desperate for good content.

Those days are gone. There might be pockets of high demand like that. But overall? You need to present a good product and then find a way to get that product in front of potential readers. One good way to do that is to advertise your books.

And let me say here, too, that there are very few advertising options in the self-pub space that let you advertise for full price which in my opinion makes AMS a Godsend. But advertising books at full price is a shift in mindset that I think some self-publishers have yet to understand. So, yes, you will lose your shirt advertising a 99 cent book with AMS. Especially if you don’t have a long series with good readthrough to back up that 99 cent book. Which most self-publishers don’t.

So up your game. Write a book that’s worth paying $4 or $5 or $6 for.

Save 99 cents for mailing list promos like Bookbub. Or build up enough books in a successful series for your ads to pay for themselves.

And for all that’s holy, quit calling basic advertising “pay to play” just because some people used to get it for free.

AMS US Changes

For those of you who run AMS in the US, time to check your AMS dashboard. It seems Amazon has rolled out some new features to the AMS accounts that access AMS through their KDP account.

(If you’ve been running AMS in the UK using an Amazon Advantage account then a lot of this will look familiar to you and you’ll just be wondering why you still can’t also get filtering by time period.)

Three changes to highlight for you.

1. Keyword targeting

Up until now the only keyword targeting option for AMS if you accessed it through KDP was Broad. Now you can do Broad, Phrase, Exact, Negative Phrase, and Negative Exact. You can use these options when starting a new Sponsored Product ad as well as when adding keywords to an existing ad.

I would suggest going through any existing ads you have running and at least adding negative keywords. For example, my romances are contemporary so I can use negative keywords to exclude historical, etc. And free. That’s a big one to exclude unless you’re promoting a free book.

2. Bid+

This “Allows Amazon to increase the maximum bids in this campaign by up to 50% when ads are eligible to show in the top of search results.”

Now, really, you shouldn’t need this. Because you should already be bidding the maximum you’re willing to pay. But in the UK where bids are cheaper I do have this set because I would be willing to bid higher if I have to. In the US I’m only turning it on for a handful of low-bid ads I just started on books I’m not really focused on promoting.

Do the math for yourself. If you’re bidding 20 cents then Bid+ means maybe bidding 30 cents. But if you’re bidding $1 then Bid+ means bidding perhaps $1.50.

You can either turn this on for a new ad or go to the Campaign Settings tab for an existing ad and it’s at the bottom.

3. Bid Suggestions and Keyword Suggestions

When you start a new SP ad now, as soon as you add your keywords you’re going to see a bid range that Amazon suggests and a suggested bid within that range. I have a set of keywords where I’m pretty sure I’m the highest bid and I tried it and the suggested range did top out with my high bid. So it looks accurate to me. But I’ll also say that if everyone were to start bidding at those levels that it would not be profitable for most to do so.

I don’t think this changes bidding strategies all that much for that reason. If you could through series sellthrough and click rates afford to bid at those levels then I assume you already would be. If you’re bidding 10 cents right now there’s a reason for that and seeing that the suggested bid is $1.26 isn’t going to change that approach for you. But it’s interesting.

(I’ll say in the UK where I can run headline ads and this info is available, that for one of my keywords the bid they list to have 50% of the visibility is more than my book even costs.)

The other thing that occurs as you’re entering new keywords is that they provide a list of suggestions as you enter a keyword. (This is something already available in Advantage in the UK and I’d presume Advantage here.) I was able to use those suggestions to find a few additional negative keywords for one of my ads, so even if you don’t want to stop a good existing ad it might be worth trying just for that.

Bottom line:

It’s still not as robust as Advantage, but I’m glad to see the Bid+ option since I think that was giving an unfair advantage to those with non-KDP AMS accounts and I’m very pleased to see the negative keyword options since those have been very useful to me in the UK.

Like it or not, AMS are here to stay so time to learn and adjust to these changes. I expect some shake out in terms of ad performance over the next few months as a result of the changes, but maybe not as much as you’d think since I’m pretty sure the big players were already accessing AMS through non-KDP AMS accounts where these tools already existed.

Let’s Talk Categories

I was having a conversation in a private group yesterday that touched on categories. In this particular case the question was about what constitutes YA and what you do with a book that doesn’t fit neatly into a category. This comes up a bit in Achieve Writing Success, too, because a lot of early novels aren’t targeted to existing categories. And if you self-publish you will soon find yourself asking, “Well, where the heck do I put this?”

So let’s break this down. Categories are a kind of short-hand that indicates to readers that they’ll get a certain emotional experience or a certain type of story.

So romance, which is one of the ones where these discussions happen often, tells the reader you’re going to read about the journey two people take to find their happily ever after together. If you put a book in romance and it isn’t about that journey, you will have disappointed readers.

Mystery says there’s going to be something that is solved, most often a murder.

Science fiction says it’s going to involve things in the future.

Fantasy says it’s going to involve things that aren’t real or possible. So magic.

YA is about a coming of age journey focused on a teen protagonist who is generally around 16 years of age.

Those are all general guidelines, but there are rarely hard and fast rules. Categories exist so that I can walk into Barnes & Noble and find the three shelves worth of books I’m interested in without having to dig through all the rest. That’s all they are. A selling tool.

And so if you can write books that fit into existing categories it will be easier to sell those books. One, people who are looking for the type of book you’ve written will be able to find it easily. And, two, people who buy books in that category will get the emotional reading experience they’re looking for.

But not all of us do that. My YA fantasy series is YA (although I prefer to think of it as coming of age fantasy which is a separate category) but it doesn’t fit into any of the provided subcategories on Amazon. It’s not sword & sorcery. It’s not really epic. It’s just a little lost.

Which is why I love AMS so much. Because I can say, “I don’t what category you want to call it, but people who like Mercedes Lacky, Kate Elliott, and Anne McCaffrey are going to like this.” And then I can target them with my ads, put that cover in front of them, with a blurb about what the story covers and let that sell the book. Do I get the people browsing categories? No. But I do get the people who like those authors and might like me, too.

In an ideal world,¬† you write to an existing category. But if you’re life isn’t ideal, like most aren’t, then you find other ways of getting your book to the right readers. CPC ads (Bookbub CPC, Facebook, AMS) are probably the best way to do that.