How I Failed at Promoting my Novel with Amazon Advertising

Amazon Advertising for Books

At Reedsy, we like to stay on top of new marketing opportunities for authors. We covered Product Hunt Books when they launched. Advertising on Amazon (via Amazon Marketing Services) is not “new”, however it is still, largely, an untapped resource for authors. In this guest post, indie author Eliot Peper explains how he tried it out, and what the results were.

Marketing is a fraught subject among novelists. It’s often seen as outside of our purview and some look down on those who aggressively market their own work, seeing promotion as a corruption of the creative process. Historically, many authors outsourced their marketing to publishers along with other responsibilities like printing and distribution. But technology-driven changes within the industry are forcing authors to become ever more involved with marketing their books, whether because they’re self-publishing or because their publisher demands it.

But novels are not a straight-forward product to promote. I read about 50 books a year and I don’t think I ever bought a novel because of a banner ad. Book PR firms have an abysmal track record. Most growth-hacking strategies borrowed from the tech industry simply don’t apply well to fiction. At the end of the day, there’s a single factor that determines a book’s financial success: word-of-mouth. Most often, we buy a book because a trusted friend recommended it.

Some indie authors, like Andy Weir and Hugh Howey, have achieved blockbuster success without investing much direct effort into marketing. Others, like Mark Dawson and Nick Stephenson, have engineered semi-automated systems that introduce their stories to new readers and hopefully inspire additional word-of-mouth. My own activities fall somewhere in between these two extremes. When I’m writing and editing a book, it’s a purely artistic process. But once a book is published and out in the world, I look at it through a commercial lens just like any other product.

As with other products, I’ve run a variety of marketing experiments for my books to see what works and what doesn’t. I serialized the first book in a trilogy and uploaded it to Medium and Wattpad; ran giveaways on Amazon that were promoted by Bookbub, Booksends, etc.; pitched journalists for coverage; partnered with publications; ran organic and paid social media campaigns; gave talks; published opeds and guest posts; came on podcasts; and even created real websites and social media profiles for fictional characters and organizations from the books.

So when I discovered that Amazon had created a new service to help authors and publishers promote their books, I decided to give it a shot.

How Advertising works on Amazon

Amazon Marketing Services (AMS) allows you to run campaigns that deliver ads to customers based either on their interests or on specific products they’re viewing. For example, you might target folks that love science fiction or that are checking out the latest Stephen King bestseller. Amazon then displays the ads on specific product pages or on Kindle homescreens.

Depending on your settings, there are three main places where your ads may show up:

In search results for a particular genre or interest

Amazon ad search results banner

 

On a product page, next to the “also boughts”

Amazon ad frequently bought

 

On a product page, below the the product description

Amazon ad product placement banner

This looked extremely promising. Unlike Facebook, Google, or Twitter ads, you’d be reaching people where they already buy books: Amazon. Like many indie authors, more than 90 percent of my sales come from the Amazon ecosystem. Ideally, only customers who would be highly likely to be interested in my books would ever see an ad and they would be able to immediately click through to the product page. Finally, because the entire transaction happens on Amazon, I would be able to immediately see not only impressions and click-through rates, but also actual sales and the average cost of sales.

My first three novels are a trilogy of tech startup thrillers that follow a pair of entrepreneurs that get caught up in an international conspiracy on the journey from garage to IPO. The series is the top-rated financial thriller on Amazon and I was confident that if the right reader clicked through, the description would pique their interest and the overwhelmingly positive reviews would wet their appetite for the story. If they liked book one, they might even go on to finish the trilogy.

My Experiment with Amazon Advertising

Brimming with newfound enthusiasm, I created an AMS account and created 10 parallel campaigns to test different variables. I created a few different combinations of relevant genre-based interests and carefully curated portfolios of similar books for product-based targeting. Then I assigned $250 to each campaign, scheduled them to run for a month, and pressed go.

The results were… [drumroll] …disappointing.

Amazon Advertising Results

Across all 10 campaigns, I ended up spending almost $10 for every $1 of incremental sales. Marketing enthusiasts might point out that the $1 doesn’t take into account customer lifetime value because readers might very well decide to buy more of my books later. While true, I don’t have rigorous enough analytical tools to eliminate that effect from the data. Regardless, I’m quite confident that the discrepancy wouldn’t come close to materially impacting the results.

Analysing the results

For all you data-heads out there, the spreadsheet shares the specifics for the entire experiment. As you can see, campaigns varied widely in effectiveness:

  • The most effective was an interest-based campaign focused on YA, thrillers, and science fiction, which earned 38,000 impressions, 247 clicks, and $17.94 in sales.
  • Arguably the least effective was an interest-based campaign focused on genre and women’s fiction, which had the same number of impressions but earned a whopping $2.99 in sales.
  • All three product campaigns combined failed to yield a single sale.

I was most surprised by how poorly the product campaigns performed. Because I had hand-picked books that were extremely similar to mine, I expected them to do very well. For comparison, I ran a giveaway two weeks before that cost about the same amount as the AMS experiment but yielded 33,147 free downloads and increased my paid sales by 5X.

Needless to say, I pulled the plug on the AMS experiment after the month was up. I have a new standalone novel coming out this spring so hopefully the next experiment will go better! Have you tried using AMS? How did it go? Have you published a book with Amazon Publishing? How effective were their internal promotional efforts? I’d love to hear your stories in the comments.


Cumulus by Eliot PeperEliot Peper (@eliotpeper) is a novelist and strategist based in Oakland, CA. He writes fast-paced, deeply-researched stories with diverse casts that explore the intersection of technology and society. His fourth novel, Cumulus, is a dark, gritty, standalone science fiction story set in a near-future Bay Area ravaged by economic inequality and persistent surveillance.

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  • The redhawk

    When you say “Amazon Publishing” are you referring to CreateSpace or Kindle or is there something else?

    • In addition to being a distributor of both digital and print books, Amazon is also a publisher of books. CreateSpace and Kindle allow people to create their own publishing accounts and post their books. Amazon Publishing is similar to the other Big Five traditional publishers and offers authors advances, etc. and then produces and distributes their books.

      • The redhawk

        Thanks

  • Stephen Black

    Thank you for sharing this…looks like you did everything correctly. The CTR rate would seem to indicate that people have “blinders” on: they just want the one book they want, and have no interest in anything else.

    • Stephen Black

      …oops…I am no expert. Maybe those CTR are normal?

      • Compared to other forms of advertising (Facebook for example), these CTRs seem low, yes. However it’s hard to say whether they’re “standard” on Amazon advertising or not, we might have to ask around.
        The other thing that seems problematic here is the low conversion on the product page, indicating that the leads acquired through advertising aren’t strong ones.

        • All correct. I’d be very interested to see benchmark data for Amazon if anyone has any.

  • Stonewall

    Just to make sure I’ve understood: Your conclusion is that using an AMS advertising ‘opportunity’ with Amazon is quite ineffective. Correct?

    • Correct. Spend your time/money/effort elsewhere.

  • patriciaVdavis

    Thanks for a very informative article, Eliot. Something in it besides the point caught my eye: “I ran a giveaway two weeks before that cost about the same amount as the AMS experiment but yielded 33,147 free downloads and increased my paid sales by 5X.” I would be very curious to learn how giving away books and downloads increased your paid sales… : )

    • Hi Patricia, looking forward to Eliot’s answer on this as well 😉 But in the meantime, we have a pretty good post on giveaways by another author who managed to grow his mailing list by 10,000 readers in a week (thanks to relevant giveaways): http://blog.reedsy.com/6-steps-for-building-your-author-mailing-list-through-giveaways

      • patriciaVdavis

        Cool beans. Thanks. ; )

        • Sorry for the delayed response, I’ve been busy with the launch of a new novel that went viral in a way I never anticipated.

          The giveaway was of the first book in a trilogy. After the giveaway ended, the first book in the trilogy got a boost ~5x boost in sales that declined over the course of a month. The second two books got ~3x boost starting a little later but lasting longer. More reviews (both positive and negative) came in and I noticed an uptick in signups to my author newsletter as well.

          • patriciaVdavis

            That clears things up nicely. Thanks for the reply. Best of luck with the new novel!

          • I’m a bit late on this, Eliot, but what kind of “giveaway?” Are you talking about a KDP select thing? How many days? Or do you mean a Kingsumo or Goodreads paperback giveaway?

  • I tried Amazon Marketing Services too and got one sale after two weeks. It did not go well.

    • Yes we asked around on social networks and so far haven’t come across one author who found success with advertising on Amazon, so they probably need to re-think their platform (at least for books).

  • Rebekah Donaldson

    I’ve never tried this, but it seems like it doesn’t work at all. I agree with the word of mouth thing. I think the best way to get a book out there is that. I don’t think I’ve read ANY book because of ads.

  • Anairb

    Has anyone tried Facebook advertising? I know that, when I click on anything, I end up seeing related ads on Facebook ad infinitum…

  • Mark Brantingham

    I don’t think you should give up on Kindle ads. I am a completely unknown author at this point with a debut novel. I have been trying different ads with Kindle and I can tell you that my results are much higher. One thing I notice right away is that your “targeting criteria” is a problem. You want to target a very specific audience. If you spread your ads across markets that are not going to be interested, your ACoS will drop like crazy. I narrowed mine to a single genre target and that made a huge difference. I go into more detail on my novel blog entry: (http://vathiriel.blogspot.com/2016/09/how-to-market-and-sell-independent.html) but I can tell you that if done right, Kindle ads definitely have the potential to work, especially for someone with an audience like yours. Just keep trying.

  • Thomas Raven

    Thanks for this wonderful experiment. It’s a microcosm of my results in all online marketing attempts – even giveaways. I’ve spent on FB and Google ads only to see extremely modest results. I’ve come to the conclusion that readers will willingly click through an interesting ad but I have no idea what will make them interested enough to buy. I don’t think it has anything to do with spending money. I think it has to do with spending the very limited time we all have available for reading these days. Readers want a sure thing so they return time and time again to a cadre of a few authors they know they like. It’s extremely difficult to get most of them to try someone new.

  • jonereb

    I used AMS for about a week, but recently paused my ad. While I was happy with the number of clicks, this did not translate into enough sales to justify the ad buy. I used multiple keywords and then narrowed the keywords to a handful that were getting the most clicks. I think the bottom line is that readers prefer tried and true authors whose books already have X number of reviews. My book had only 5 reviews at the time I ran my ad. While they are 4- and 5-star reviews, perhaps it wasn’t enough to earn the readers trust. Of course, this is speculation on my part. Perhaps my sales lagged simply because my book cover didn’t have a shirtless male bearing a six-pack for the ladies.

    • If the clickthrough rate looks good but doesn’t translate into sales, it’s usually a “landing page problem” (i.e. book cover or blurb, probably). That said, it can also mean that you’re attracting the wrong kind of traffic to your book page.

  • Dr. Pam Young

    I have not. However, this past week I have watched two presentations by Derek Doepker who says in effect that he went from rags to riches and so did his students because they used his strategy for selling books via Amazon’s AMS tactic. He’s offering a course in that now and the price for he course goes up by $100 after each presentation. He stated that it would probably land in the $397-497 range. Check kindlepreneur (Dave) or 5minutepublishing (Wesley) for that live interview or video. That said, I mentioned AMS to a fellow author and she has been using it for a while (self-taught) and is seeing increased sales.

    • Thanks for your comment, Dr. Pam! You’re right, we’ve heard from numerous authors in the past few months who’ve been able to make AMS work pretty well for their books, with astonishing ROIs. It looks like Amazon has improved its auto-targeting, so we’re now preparing a *free* Reedsy Learning course on this very subject.

      • Dr. Pam Young

        I’m in! Don’t forget me!

  • @Reedsy:disqus and @eliotpeper:disqus would you say that these results would be different or better for how to books or non-fiction books that book’s topics might be getting a high volume of searches. where the users aren’t searching for a specific book but books over specific topics and/or search term. I guess this is something else to test in the future. Also, @MDBrantingham:disqus is on track it looks like to making his ads profitable with some more tweaks. He is sitting at 125% from his previous post I would love to see where you are now. Thanks for writing this article it gave me a lot of insights and showed real results.

    • Thanks for your comment and question, Xavier! We’re seeing mixed results in the author community when it comes to AMS, but most of the late reports are much more positive.
      We have a very special post coming on this blog in two weeks, from a non-fiction “how-to” author who is seeing *crazy* ROIs with Amazon ads, so watch out for that one.
      But to answer your question in short: for how-to non fiction, you should definitely be experimenting with AMS.

      • @Reedsy:disqus Thanks you for the quick response and I’ll be looking out for that new post in two weeks.

  • rankleezU

    A fraught subject?

    • Yes, as in a stress-inducing subject 🙂

  • There’s something glaringly obvious about book sales that I don’t see very often on blogs when I’m hunting around for other author’s opinions, and that is the simple fact that great books, sell themselves while average books don’t.

    As readers, we are by far the greatest marketing tool when it comes to any product, such as books. If we love a book, we will go on and on and on about it.
    When we don’t love a book, we simply move on.

    As an author and a reader, I have to concede that if those that have read my books didn’t rush off and shout it from the mountain tops, then it isn’t a great book.

    With some basic marketing – because, like you, I’m not a marketer – my book Monique did ok in sales, because those who read it recommended it to their friends. Personally, I think that my book is the best thing that’s ever been written 🙂 however, the proof is in the sales. While the readers liked it, they didn’t love it enough to shout it from the mountain tops.
    To me that means that I should focus less on the marketing and more on improving my writing/stories so that people will do the marketing for me, so that I can continue writing.
    My 2.5 pence input.

    • “Great books sell themselves while average books don’t.”

      Well, yes and no. It’s true that the best thing you can do marketing-wise is write the very best book you can, and that word of mouth is ultimately what turns a good book into a bestseller.

      It’s also true that “average books”, or books with a poor cover, will probably never sell even if you throw thousands of dollars of advertising at them.

      However, great books don’t “sell themselves”. There are many, many great books out there, both indie published and traditionally published, and only a tiny fraction of them sell really well. This might never change, btw, since it’s mostly due to an unbalanced supply-demand equation, but it means that savvy, original, digital “marketing” is necessary — on top of having a good book.

  • You’re right about the AMS failure–the investment isn’t yielding results for my CreateSpace-published novel, either, but it’s hard to justify pulling my advertising dollars from something that is directly connected to a sales page, and from a site/name trusted by consumers worldwide. Where brand is concerned, Amazon is the best you could ask for these days.

    I’ve tried “the usual” as far as advertising goes–that is, reading helpful advice and cautions on the internet–but by releasing a self-published book, I know that I’ve already set myself up for failure. It’s not the first time I’ve tried non-traditional methods before, having gone the Print-on-Demand (iUniverse) and even just an Amazon Kindle listing. Other attempts at advertising haven’t gone anywhere, either. Bookbub isn’t interested in running a deal (they only take 10% of the offers that come their way, anyway). Librarything and Goodreads allow authors to more connections with an audience, but Goodreads ads haven’t gotten me any sales. Facebook postings–I gave my latest book a Page–and using their advertising got me under ten “likes” and… no sales. Twitter is essentially a joke for getting the word out.

    The REAL thing that gets people’s attention is what’s already out there, something they’re already familiar with but want to know more about. Of all the things I’ve tried to publish, the only one that got me any sales was tied to a celebrity name… and even then, by self-publishing, I barely broke even on my investment after about eight years, because “the name” wasn’t interesting/popular enough.

  • Nick Vulich

    I think it depends on the book you’re promoting. I’ve run ten campaigns in the last two months. I’ve spent $45, and sold roughly $600 in books. The (ACOS) or cost of marketing works out to a little over 18%. Compared to running an add on Bargain Booksy or other promotional sites, Amazon Ads are a real bargain. I recently watched Mark Dawson’s video on using Amazon ads and he thinks you should keep running ads as long as the cost is under 60% (maybe even under 100%) because the return does not include page reads with Kindle Unlimited, audio books, or paperback sales. While he’s right about the marginal sales from audio books, paperbacks, and page reads, I generally cut the cord at 40%.

    If one ad doesn’t work out, or if a particular book does not promote well, I start the process over with a different target or a different book.

    The other thing the gurus overlook is Amazon ads are an excellent way to determine which keywords are most effective for selling your book. If a key word brings in $100 or $200 in sales, you should definitely update the keywords on your Amazon page.

    And, while Amazon ads are still a work in progress, I believe every author should try them out.

  • Ed Giambalvo

    One takeaway for me was to update my landing page. The first line of my book blurb had read the same as the pitch for my ad, e.g., “unique and compelling, an unusual love story.” But if the ad’s pitch has already inspired the potential buyer to click through to my landing page, I decided I should start my blurb with something other than, “”unique and compelling…”
    It’s a minor point in the scheme of things, but something to think about.