Amazon Sponsored Adverts on an Indie Author Budget
Amazon adverts have been a feature available from Kindle Publishing for a while, but they had to be either product based or interest based. This month Amazon added a new way of reaching customers, through keyword-sponsored advertising. Now authors can have small adverts for their books listed whenever a customer types in their keywords – if they are willing to compete in a bidding system for ad placement.
I decided to try out keyword sponsorship with one of my books, my horror collection The Bone Yard and Other Stories.
First of all, authors need to know there are differences in the way sponsored ads work. Unlike product and interest adverts, you have to set a daily minimum budget instead of a maximum one. Also, you can set an end date or leave the ad running indefinitely. You still compete in a bidding war for ad placement, but the new rules mean there is no limit on the cost of an advertising campaign.
Amazon recommends you bid the maximum you are willing to spend. They suggest $0.50 per click – but I’d not do that for a Kindle book unless you are a billionaire. If you were advertising a television or expensive laptop, it might make sense to pay so much. For a book costing $0.99, with a profit per sale of $0.33, you’d be losing out on every click, even if the customer bought your book. The minimum figure is $0.02, which would give you a far better chance of breaking even. There isn’t a good reason for bidding high.
After selecting which title you want to advertise, Amazon gives you a list of supposedly relevant keywords. Unfortunately, the keywords suggested are produced by an automated system. Most are irrelevant. You’d be better off choosing your own keywords, which you can do by entering them into a box. You can choose up to 1000. That’s a ridiculously generous number. I can see some authors will try to swamp customers with ads using keywords like “novel”, “book”, “Kindle”, “the” and “and” – resulting in chaos. I hope I’m wrong – but I fear I’m not.
You can add or delete keywords after a campaign is running – so don’t worry about forgetting something. Add what you think it relevant – then complete the process.
After your campaign has been approved, you’ll soon get a report on impressions and clicks. You only pay for clicks – but the impressions data is useful. It tells you how many potential customer saw your advert and tells you how well each keyword is doing. You can see the success of each keyword, which is a great improvement. In this screenshot for a horror story collection, taken a day after a campaign was started, you can see some keywords have good impressions and others don’t.
It is clear “dark fiction” is not a popular keyword, but “horror anthology” and “scary stories” are. It is also clear “horror fiction” hasn’t received many impressions. I was surprised, since that must be a very popular search phrase. The data suggests I underbid for “horror fiction” because it applies to so many titles. I could increase my bid – but I won’t. I don’t want to spend too much running my ad or competing against authors with bigger budgets. It’s a lose-lose strategy bidding high.
I like this breaking down of the sales information. It doesn’t just help target ads. It also shows if my book’s keywords are good search words. “Dark fiction” is not a successful keyword – so I will delete it and replace it with something else.
I don’t know if running a sponsored ad will produce more sales – my ad hasn’t been running long enough to learn the answer – but I think it is an improvement on interest-only ads. Interest-only ads have become too expensive for the ordinary indie author trying to reach an audience. Keywords are cheaper – for the moment. I just wish Amazon would let customers put a sensible limit on their campaign cost. Without that safety net, authors could end up in serious debt, especially if they follow Amazon’s advice for bidding.
You can find out more information on this subject here.
Running an Amazon Advertising Campaign on a Low Budget
For about a year, Amazon US have been encouraging authors to pay for advertising. I always vowed never to spend anything on promotion, as I don’t make enough money from my writing to lose any of it, but I changed my mind recently after seeing my US royalties from my books decline to almost nothing. Reluctantly, I signed up to run an advertising campaign, learning what to do by trial and error.
First of all, you have to give Amazon permission to drain your bank account. Since the minimum budget is $100 for each campaign, you need that sum available before you sign up. Your advertising campaign won’t cost your entire budget if you are careful – but you’d better have it ready to lose if you do. So, for example, if you want to run six simultaneous campaigns, you would need a minimum of $600 in your bank account. I was pretty worried about giving Amazon permission to take that off me – but only until I learnt how the ads work. (See later.)
Once you have set up your advertising account, you can create a new advertising campaign for any of your books in Kindle Direct Publishing.
You’ll be asked to choose if you want to advertise by interest or products. This is a crucial decision because they offer radically different services.
Interest based ads let you choose broad categories of interest, like thrillers, horror and science fiction. You can choose multiple categories – but you can’t choose specific products. These ads appear on Kindle e-readers, where they will be seen by browsing Kindle owners.
Product based ads let you choose specific products. You can target books similar to your own or best-sellers or anything else, but the ads will not appear on Kindle e-readers. That is a huge disadvantage. It means these ads are less likely to reach customers in a buying mood. However, there is an option to show these ads on other related products. You can choose a small number of products to hundreds of them by using a search for keywords or book codes.
I tried both types of advert. (I’ll give my opinion later.)
After choosing the type of ad, you will have to choose your minimum budget. I set mine at the minimum $100, though you could set a budget of thousands.
Next, you have to choose the maximum amount of money you want to bid for adverts. This is where the process becomes complicated and tricky. Your bid enters a mysterious auction where the highest bid wins the right to be shown first, then the next highest … and so on. This process is baffling because Amazon don’t make it clear how this works.
You start by setting a maximum bid between two cents per click and infinity. The highest bidder gets their advert shown to a relevant customer. If it’s clicked on, the advertiser is charged one cent more than the next highest bidder’s max bid – not their max bid price. That means if they set their max at $1.00 and the next bidder set a max of $0.30 they would be charged $0.31 – but they’d be charged the full bid price if the next bidder was bidding $0.99.) Ouch! If it’s not clicked on, they don’t get charged anything. It counts instead as an impression – ad-speak for appearing on a customer’s screen. Impressions cost nothing.
It sounds like it makes sense to bid high and hope the next bidder is low – but that could cost you a fortune if you guess wrong.
Effectively, the top bidder will have their ad shown to everyone until they either use up their budget or stop their campaign.
Theoretically, someone wealthy could bid extremely high to get an ad shown exclusively. It’s not quite as simple as that, though. If an ad isn’t clicked on after a certain number of impressions, Amazon will consider it not successful and stop showing it, replacing it with another one.
Adverts are delivered to customers in a mysterious auction where the suggested bid can be quite high – sometimes 30 to 40 cents per click is the suggested bid – which is a lot considering the typical royalties from a Kindle book are under a buck.
After deciding how much to risk spending on each click, you will need to write a tagline and a short synopsis of your book to appear in your adverts. Your ad will be rejected if doesn’t follow Amazon’s strict code. The tagline should be something interesting that will make people want to click on your ad – but nothing misleading. You don’t want people to click on your ad unless they are genuinely interested in buying your book because clicks cost money.
An advert will look like this:
When you are happy with your ad, you submit it to Amazon for approval. It usually takes about a day before it goes live. It will take about three days to receive data on how it is doing.
Timidly, I tried just two ads with very low bids. (I hoped one person out of ten would buy my book if they clicked on the ad so it would break even.)
I did an interest-based advert for The Bone Yard and Other Stories.
I did a product-based one for another horror book.
My interest-based ad was shown to only 100 customers in a month. It wasn’t clicked on once – so it cost me nothing. (That was a relief.) Obviously, my bid was too low to outbid other authors. (I increased my bid in increments up to ten cents per click. Nothing happened. I didn’t dare go higher than that because it wasn’t worth the risk. Evidently, you need to bid pretty high to guarantee ad space using interest-based ads.)
In contrast, my product-based ad was shown to over 1600 customers. It was clicked once and produced one sale. The ad cost $0.02 and earned me $1.00 in royalties. Not bad for a very cheap ad!
Since then, I’ve done several more low-priced product ads, which are a cost effective way of reaching customers without throwing wads of money around. I select about fifty to a hundred products that I think are like my titles. I could select more products of less relevance, but then my impression to click ratio would be lower and Amazon would stop showing my ad. I’d also risk wasting money appealing to the wrong audience. It often takes a few hours to set up a product campaign because you need to get the product codes from Amazon. Luckily, it’s easy to repeat an ad when it ends because the information can be copied for a new campaign.
I won’t bother running another interest-based one because the categories are too general and the competition for ad space is too tough. Too many authors are willing to overbid, risking a lot of money. You could blow your budget in a day without making a profit. Interest-based ads would be better if they could be narrowed to sub-sub-sub categories, targeting the right customers. Then I’d have another go running one – but right now I’d not bother with another one.
Some Tips for Running a Successful Low Budget Amazon Advertising Campaign
Choose to advertise by products.
Select a 100 or so Kindle books like your own.
Add more after your campaign is running if it doesn’t get many impressions.
Make sure they are popular titles before adding them to your list – but remember the most popular ones will be in a bidding war.
Keep your bid low unless you want to risk spending your whole budget.
Don’t click on your own ad! It costs you money!
Delete products from the list if they are not similar to your own book. It will improve the click ratio.
Don’t add irrelevant products to your advertising list just to increase the number of impressions. They will result in clicks that don’t lead to sales.
Don’t have two books competing in a bidding war against each other.
Remember it might cost more to win bids at the weekend, when customers are more likely to be browsing on Amazon.
Don’t terminate a campaign if it gets a lot of impressions with few clicks. That’s free advertising!
Some Bad Tips for Running an Ad Campaign
Set your budget at $5,000,000.
Bid $500 per click.
Advertise on all interests.
Ignore the frantic calls from your bank manager.
Sell your house to pay for the next ad.
It is possible to run an ad campaign for a few dollars if you are careful and take the time to study the market.
Just don’t expect to turn your book into an instant best-seller.
The First Among Sequels
I bought a novel last week that looked interesting only to get more and more confused by what was going on. It felt like I’d missed something. The story referred to events and characters as if the reader already knew a load of background info.
After I had finished the book, I Googled the title. My suspicions were confirmed. It turned out to be the second book in a series – but there were no clues about that on the book. That information is usually on the cover, in the blurb, on the spine, or at least listed at the front where the other titles by the author are mentioned. Not this book. No – it hid that pertinent fact from potential readers like it was a dirty secret. It wasn’t mentioned anywhere. The book was marketed like it was a stand-alone début title.
It would have been so easy to have the words “#2 in the series” written somewhere – but the publisher didn’t bother or deliberately missed it out. Nobody in the right mind buys the second book in a series before the first – but someone in the marketing department decided it would boost sales if potential readers didn’t know it was a sequel. They wanted to dupe customers into buying the second book even if they had not read the first one.
I don’t know what they were thinking.
Did they want to annoy readers?
They certainly annoyed me.
It’s not the first time I’ve seen a situation like that. I buy many series of books as bargain box sets which need to be read in the right order. Some publishers do an admirable job of making it clear. The ten books in the Martin Beck detective series had the letters of MARTIN BECK spelt out on the spines so the order was obvious on a shelf. Ian Rankin’s Rebus books have the number in a prominent position. But the order is often not listed on series titles. More often than I’d like to say, I’ve had to figure it out by looking at the dates of publication and organising the books myself. That’s fine if I have the time available for sorting them out. If I had been in a shop choosing just one book, I would not have had the time to flick through those titles to work out the right one to buy first. I would have left without buying anything.
I never watch the last episode of a TV show first. I start at the beginning. That’s what everyone does. So, why do some book publishers think it is an acceptable practice?
Last week, my enjoyment was ruined by the thoughtlessness of the publisher for not providing some basic information. They thought they were being clever keeping it a secret – but they just succeeded in making me feel like I’d been tricked. As a consequence, I didn’t enjoy that book and I won’t be buying the first book in the series or the next one.
How smart is that?
Self-publishing Using CreateSpace
When I was twelve, I self-published my first book. It was a fantasy story I wrote on an old typewriter with a fading ribbon. To make my story look like a real paperback, I cut some sheets of A4 down to the right size with a pair of fairly blunt scissors that resulted in every sheet being a little ragged and not quite straight because I didn’t have a proper paper slicer. I sellotaped about two hundred pages together into my book, which didn’t look exactly professional, though I was pleased with the result at the time. My book didn’t even have a cover picture – but it felt like an achievement making it. I had made a book from scratch.
For many years I resisted the idea of self-publishing another book because I didn’t want the resulting product looking like my first attempt. Just a few years ago, it cost an absolute fortune to self-publish a book, even if you did all of the hard work yourself like designing a cover and proof-reading. The kind of publishers interested in printing self-published titles were mostly vanity publishers only interested in making money from writers – often producing books that looked not much better than my own first effort at a price so high you’d think they were printed on gold.
It is only recently that the printing technology has developed for POD (print on demand) books to become a viable way of publishing.
Last month I decided to try publishing my crime novel Acting Dead as a paperback using CreateSpace, Amazon’s POD company.
After signing up, I found it simple to set up what I wanted to do by following their step-by-step guide for building a book. That starts with providing the name of the book and other information like the author’s name. Amazon provides an ISBN for free – so you can sell your book through Amazon and other online book sellers and libraries. (You can choose your own ISBN if you have one.)
Next you choose the size of the book (a standard trade paperback is 9 x 6 inches), the cover type (glossy or matt) and the paper colour (white or cream).
Then you upload your book as a PDF (Public Document File). A PDF can be created in Word or LibreOffice or whatever software you use – just make sure the pages of the book are set as the size of the paper – with generous margins (half an inch at least) on left and right, as well as top and bottom. To make your pages the right size you might want to add “bleed” – a small amount to the size of each page, requiring a technical understanding of book publishing – but if your margins are generous you won’t need to worry about that as CreateSpace can fix it.
The beauty of producing a book from a PDF is that your book’s contents will print out without any formatting problems. Your book will look exactly like the PDF – so make sure the PDF looks good before uploading it.
Things To Improve Your Book’s Appearance
Use a font that is readable in a book – not one designed for reading on a computer screen like Times New Roman. Garamond is the one I used for Acting Dead as it an attractive font.
You might also want to consider how big the text is and the line-spacing because they alter the length of your book, changing the cost of production. A book set at 12 points with a line-spacing of 2 would have twice the pages of one with line-spacing of one. The best line-spacing seems to be between 1.2 and 1.5. (Experiment with the PDF to see what you like.) The font can be reduced to 11 points or 10.5 if you want more words per page. The line spacing should be changed for each font size, roughly 1.2 x (font size) looks good.
Also be aware of the different types of fonts – serif and sans serif. Serif fonts are ones that go below the line, like the bottom of the “g” in this sentence. (San serif fonts don’t do that.) With serif fonts, be aware that if the line spacing is not sufficient, the part of the letter below will be cut off. You can use sans serif fonts for avoiding this – though they look weird for text except for headers and footers.
Once you have uploaded your PDF, you can then move on to making your cover. CreateSpace make this easy by using a Cover Creator program. The result will be professional, though it does make every book look very similar.
Alternatively, you can design your own front and back covers, which can then be uploaded into their program. That is the option I chose – but it was not a straight forward process. The cover’s edges will be cut off during printing – so don’t have any text near the sides. I had to adjust my cover several times before it was suitable.
After you have completed the book’s contents and cover, your book is ready – but you can’t publish it immediately. Unfortunately, CreateSpace will only do that after you have ordered a physical proof copy and approve it. That means you have to buy at least one copy, which will not count as a sale, as it is marked with the word ‘proof’ on the final page. Luckily the cost of the proof is reasonable – so I went ahead and ordered it. I learnt the shipping time ranges from over a month to just a few days if you pay for fastest delivery. The fastest delivery speed cost four times the price of the book – so I avoided that. Instead, I chose the second speed of delivery, which had my book arrive in two weeks.
For those two weeks I was dreading what my proof copy would look like because I’d seen so many cheap-looking self-published books. They often have poor spines, glue coming out of the edges and don’t look as good as ones produced by traditional publishers. Therefore, my expectations were pretty low when my book arrived – so when I opened my package I could hardly believe what I had received.
The book looked amazing. It was far better quality than many books already on my shelves. I was really impressed and glad I’d gone ahead with buying a copy. The glossy cover made it look highly professional. (I also bought a matt copy that looked good too – though the black on the cover wasn’t quite as dark. Most fiction titles have matt covers because they are cheaper to mass produce.) It was, beyond any doubts, a significant improvement on my first self-published book. It was a real book, as good as any paperback I’ve seen. I would be proud to have it on my book shelves.
Each book has its own estore, which is also a free service provided by CreateSpace. Books bought from your own estore will earn a slightly higher royalty than from Amazon, though it will not increase your book’s Amazon rank selling them via it. The advantage of having an estore is you can offer discounts directly to customers.
I’d recommend trying CreateSpace after finding it so easy to use. It’s much easier than sellotaping pages together!
Update 2015: CreateSpace now allow authors to proof their books digitally for free – so you don’t have to buy a copy before publishing. It is also faster to order a copy through Amazon than CreateSpace – with the added benefit of it not having the words ‘proof copy’ stamped on the last page. While almost every detail of a book (cover, content) can be changed after publication, the colour of the paper is fixed by the ISBN, which means it can’t be altered once you pick either white or cream.
Maximising Visibility on Amazon Using Keywords and Categories
There are two ways for readers to find new books on Amazon if they don’t know a specific title. They can either enter search terms or click on genre categories. For an author that means you have to maximise visibility when someone is looking for a new book – but doing it is not simple. I recently made some minor changes to one of my books by altering some keywords based on the advice from Amazon’s Help section – only to have my book almost disappear from the Top 100 because my new keywords were counter-productive. I quickly changed them back to the old ones and saw an immediate bump in sales.
I’ll tell you what I did wrong so you don’t repeat my mistake.
Identify the best categories for your book
It says on Amazon’s KDP authors can use two categories and seven keywords to help readers find their books – but how do you choose from the almost infinite choices?
Suppose you’ve written a book of short stories that have elements of romance and fantasy. Two of the biggest categories are romance and fantasy – so you use them as your categories. It makes sense, right?
Yes and no.
Yes – because it fits your book.
No – because those categories are massively overcrowded by really famous authors.
Your book will never get to #1 in romance or fantasy unless it sells a million copies. It won’t appear top of any customer searches either, which means readers will not accidentally discover you.
You’d be better off narrowing down your book into some sub-categories where it has a better chance of getting into the Top 100.
You can find out the number of books in each category on Amazon by looking at the number of titles listed in each sub-category next to the tick boxes for narrowing a search. A category like romance will have over a 500,000 titles – but a sub-category like romance>mystery>amateur sleuths will be much smaller. It will still be quite large, though – a few thousand books – so doing that will make your book a little easier to find.
Since it was a book of short stories, you could choose a sub-category of romance such as romance>short stories. That would list it under romance and short stories – two categories for the price of one. You could do the same thing with the second category – say fantasy>anthology. Now you have four categories. Your book will now be listed under romance>anthologies and fantasy>short stories.
You could go to a really, really, really obscure category – but only if your book is appropriate. Don’t go to romance>short stories>zombies if your book doesn’t have any zombies. Readers buying it will soon complain.
Choosing More Effective Keywords
Once you’ve chosen your categories, you can use your keywords in two ways – to add sub-categories or search parameters. Both can work effectively – but in different ways.
At KDP there is a useful list of keyword modifications in the Help section. For some categories you can use a keyword to put your book into a sub-category or even a sub-sub-sub-category. The categories with modifications include romance, teen and adult, science fiction and fantasy, erotica, mystery and suspense, and literary fiction. Each can be narrowed with keywords – but they only do it in the US Amazon store, which is why I made a mistake with my book. I turned my keywords into sub-categories that did not exist on Amazon UK – so readers in the UK could no longer find my book using search words. What a mistake! Be careful you don’t make the same error. Don’t use all of your keywords for this purpose – choose only a couple to narrow your book into a sub-category.
Amazon’s information tells you that you should not repeat categories as your keywords as that is redundant – but it does not make it clear that you can use the category name as part of a phrase for a better search result.
For the example book of romantic fantasy short stories here is a list of possible keywords for the book that you could try: romance, fantasy, short stories, romance and fantasy, great new book, (name of another book), (name of another author)
Don’t use those keywords!
That list is seriously flawed for a number of reasons:
- romance (wasted because it is one of your categories)
- fantasy (again – already used)
- short stories (nothing wrong with this one – but very general)
- romance and fantasy (unlikely to be searched for)
- great new book (hyperbole and not allowed under Amazon’s rules)
- (name of another book) (forbidden under the rules)
- (name of another author) (forbidden under the rules)
The last three could get your book banned, though more likely those keywords will just be ignored by Amazon’s search algorithms, leaving your book with fewer functional keywords.
Better keywords are words and phrases that readers search for when browsing – which appear as suggestions as you type words into Amazon’s search box. The suggested phrases are popular search terms essential to finding a new title without knowing the book’s title or the author’s name.
Visit the UK and US Amazon sites to find keywords popular at both websites. Write down the most common phrases appropriate to your book and have a look at what comes up for each. Some will produce results that are too general – so your book won’t appear on the first page with those. Some will be so specific nobody will ever enter the search phrase – but your book would appear if they did.
Here are some better keywords for the example book:
- romantic short stories
- romantic fantasy short stories
- fantasy collection
- fantasy love stories
- romance short stories
- contemporary (a keyword sub-category)
- fantasy short stories
There’s a lot of overlap between those keywords – but you want to make sure that popular search phrases will hit your book regardless of what the reader uses as their search criteria. The problem is popular keywords become too popular. When that happens, your book will be competing for attention among a vast number of similar titles. You might need to experiment to find a combination of general and highly specific keywords that will result in your book appearing on the first page of results. If your book doesn’t appear when you type in your own keywords, you should probably consider picking new ones. However, once a book starts selling it will rise in popularity under those keywords – so if your book became popular your keywords will make it appear at the top of the page. It’s a tricky problem balancing specific with general phrases. Good luck choosing them!
The Highs and Lows of Doing A Kindle Book Free Promotion
Giving stories away for free is one method authors can use to boost their visibility on Amazon – but you can have mixed results doing it. It really is a last resort because you never know what will happen.
I have one title that proves this perfectly. It’s a horror collection called The Bone Yard and Other Stories, which reached #3 in the UK Horror Anthology list this week.
About two years ago it was not selling – so I signed it up to KDP Select. My first promotion gave away about 300 copies in the US and a 100 in the UK. It started to sell afterwards in a roughly three-to-one ratio – exactly what you’d expect given the number of downloads. It continued to sell steadily for months in small numbers, but it received no reviews in either region. Since the free promotion had worked, I repeated it. Sales received a boost as a result. I started to earn my some reasonable money from Amazon – but sales eventually tailed off.
On Halloween in 2012, I did a third free promotion.
That resulted in my first reviews in the US and UK. Both reviews were five-stars. Great! I hoped that would help sales. I expected sales to be boosted in a 3/1 ratio based on the download ratio – but something very weird happened.
The next day after the five-star review appeared in the US my sales stopped. Completely. Looking at the chart on Author Central, it was like seeing a lemming dive off a cliff. My book’s ranking plummeted. Weeks went by without selling a single copy. Then months. Then a whole year.
I was baffled and dismayed. What had happened?
Meanwhile, my sales were improving in the UK where the first review was by an Amazon Top 500 reviewer. That made me wonder if that first US review had done the damage. Some people think reviews don’t effect sales – but I had solid proof that they did. That five-star review in the US killed my book on the day it appeared. I studied it to figure out why. The US reviewer did not go into specifics about why they liked my book. It was the sort of review you’d be suspicious of because the reviewer had not written many reviews – unlike the prolific Top 500 reviewer in the UK. Though that US reviewer was well-meaning and genuinely enjoyed reading my book, I wished they had not written it because my book would have been better off without it. Unfortunately, Amazon’s US customers assumed my five-star rating was a fake. It certainly looked like it. Cautious customers avoided buying my book at its pre-promo price of $1.99 price and even when I dropped it to $0.99.
Later on, I did another freebie to try to get some more US reviews – but that resulted in a troll posting a 1-star review based solely on the cover picture. They had definitely not read the book when they reviewed it. They posted the review minutes after downloading it. That gave my book an unhelpful 3-star average. Another person posted a four-star review soon after – but that made no difference to sales.
That book has not sold one copy in the US since that first five-star review. It doesn’t even appear on the first page of results when you type the search words “bone yard” into Amazon. Books without those words in the title appear first.
In contrast to that negative experience, the same book did well in the UK thanks to that first five-star review by a respected reviewer. The Bone Yard and Other Stories is currently in the Top Ten UK horror anthologies, where I am pleased to see it reached number three last week. It just proves that reviews matter a lot more than some people think!