An amateur sleuth, a hacker and Venus walk into a bar: my ventures into Amazon book advertising.

Graph from Amazon book sales and KU reads during March 2020.
Graph from Amazon book sales and KU reads during March 2020.

If you’re an independent publisher thinking of advertising Kindle books on Amazon, here’s what I learned.

· Plan

· Series

· Budget

· Timing

· Location

· Include/ exclude keywords

· Campaigns

· Brand awareness

Plan

Don’t be daunted by the seeming complexity. Just plan well. And don’t expect to get a great immediate return. My sales had flattened so I wanted a boost. I did not combine with any other publicity, in order to assess the strategy.

Plan to advertise your brand, which will continue to be helpful after the ad period. So, get a professional looking author photo on the Amazon pages and add any other useful content ahead of time. Update your website.

Put all your books in Kindle Unlimited (KU) so people can read them instead of buying. Most of my book income is made in this way.

Series

Advertise a series. Because you pay when someone clicks on your cover in a list of books. If you get 10% sales per click, then you need buyers to continue reading when they finish book one. They will read all five books in the series and you have only paid for the initial click, plus the clicks made by the 90% of other people. No point advertising one book. At the end of each book, have content about the other books and a list of all your titles if there are more. Series sell, provided they are well written.

Budget

Set a budget and stick to it. Try five dollars a day. You will be asked if you want to pay more, should there be demand; you will only pay three dollars ten cents if that’s all the clicks you get. (See the section on keywords.) Decide how long you want the campaign to run, which will alter your budget. You can always extend if you get great returns. Your credit card will be billed.

Location

Pick a market. US, UK, were my main options. You advertise in one per campaign, but could run campaigns simultaneously. I started with US and my second campaign contrasted US and UK.

What next? I had been hoping I might get some reviews from readers, but not so far. I review everything I read, on the basis
Book cover photo by Clare O’Beara

Keywords

I advertised Irish murder mysteries to the US market starting just before St. Patrick’s Day, until the end of March. Two of these books are also in paperback; those sell occasionally, but not during that period.

I read the Amazon screens and found I needed to make a list of words which might attract readers to my books, and a list of words I wanted excluded. Seeing as we were at the brink of pandemic, I excluded any words like coronavirus, mask, disinfectant. No point paying for someone to see my book if they wanted contingency supplies. I made lists in advance but while on the advertising screens I found that some of my words were more popular (read costly) than others. Detective was popular. Thank goodness I wasn’t advertising disinfectant. I excluded serial killer, because that’s a different sub-genre to my stories. Someone who searched for murder fiction but wanted to read serial killer tales would be wasting my money. Same with Mafia and gangland. Ireland was popular, but I had to have it. By popular, I’m talking about seventy cents per word instead of ten cents for tree surgeon — my sleuth’s profession. And amateur sleuth was costly.

Then I was asked to pay for derivatives of the word, like sleuth and sleuthing. If I wanted a specific term, like solar system which I used when advertising my science fiction, I could specify that, so the book would not be shown to people who wanted solar lighting. Amazon would show any of the books I was advertising to a customer. I didn’t get to choose which. That’s something to remember, because if one of your books features trains but the others don’t, shoppers who asked for trains, if it’s an ad term, might be put on the track to books that had no connection.

First campaign: US and crime

Amazon starts out advertising books early each morning and stops around midnight, unless the money runs out halfway through the day. The screens explain it fully, but you get the gist. I don’t know who buys books over breakfast or on the morning commute, but some days the clicking started early and the money ran out by lunchtime. The Amazon computer mailed me suggesting I extend my budget for the day. I’d set my budget and wasn’t breaking it, because looking at the click chart and sales, I didn’t see the simultaneous burst of sales for which I’d hoped. Paying per click, if the clicks don’t translate to sales or page reads, you’re paying to entertain browsing customers. They are window-shopping. Quite a few of them probably already had my books, because I started publishing the series in 2013 and the latest came out in 2016. (I had to take a break while attending college.) A few days after St. Patrick’s Day the interest waned and while I continued to get sales or reads, I didn’t come near topping the budget.

The graph at the top of this page shows the sudden boost in sales. However, this in no way resembles the reported 156,566 impressions, which is what Amazon calls having my ad on a screen someone is scrolling. If I had chosen to change ad words, I could have. But I didn’t know what people were typing in the search box. I also didn’t know what my competition was, as other authors presumably were doing the same.

While I did not make back all my advertising fee at the time, some readers are Kindle Unlimiteding their way through the series in July. Maybe my ads got their attention.

I write in a few genres and unfortunately I see little cross-over between genres by my readers. During the time I advertised the crime books, there was no added demand for my other books.

Dining Out With The Gas Giants by Clare O’Beara. Photo by Clare O’Beara
Book cover photo by Clare O’Beara.

Second campaign: US, UK and SF

My second venture compared the US and UK stores. I advertised my science fiction series. These books are largely set in London, featuring an Irish journalist and hacker and a Jafraican journalist, who investigate an asteroid mining firm and alien workers as well as local crimes. So I had a good variety of search terms from which to choose. I excluded terms like star wars and star trek on the basis that fans were searching for those specific books. I excluded space battle as the only space battle in London is for living space. The most popular search term was science fiction and hacker was also in high demand. Mars and Martian were costly; Uranus not so much. The term that would have cost the most, should I have chosen it, was Venus. Not only did I not pay for that one, I even excluded it, on the basis that people searching for an astoundingly popular Venus weren’t going to buy a book combining antigravity, journalism and giant corporations, and I didn’t want their expensive clicks. If I needed a specific term, like solar system, I could specify that, so the book would not be shown to people who wanted solar lighting. I excluded Pluto, because this might be sought by people wanting a Disney product. Also vampire, shifter, zombie, superhero, supervillain. And anything to do with the coronavirus.

Don’t get me wrong, the main terms I wanted are also key words in my books’ metadata. But with a flush of authors bringing out books every day, Amazon wanted to be paid to bring my books nearer the top of the list, or else to insert my book cover on the page of another author’s works. Those ‘sponsored’ covers I personally dislike when I find them snuck in among my covers. Generally they bear no relation to my works, and if I think a cover looks tacky I don’t get to complain. The author buying ads has to decide which method they want to use and pay for; each campaign is one or the other.

So, I scheduled for another max five dollars per day, for two weeks, and ran campaigns in US and UK simultaneously. I got sales and reads in US. I made no sales in UK. None. I did get interest shown on the click chart, so some people were clicking on ads but not many, and they were not converting into sales. I had figured that my books were quite specific, and the US market is my biggest market, because that is where most of the Kindles are, so I should not get many useless UK clicks. Those UK browsers who did click on the ads, may have already read my books and wanted to check if there was a new release. From this I learned that I should mainly advertise when I have released a new book.

Book cover photo by Clare O’Beara.

Next: YA, ponies and Covid-19

What next? I had been hoping for reviews from readers, but not so far. I review everything I read, on the basis that what goes around comes around. On Goodreads I have seen a strong increase in people shelving the advertised books as to read so with luck they’ll go read their already downloaded books, and give them a star rating. Everyone’s reading patterns will have changed this year. I can only try to bring readers some entertainment and information while we all learn to cope.

I am writing YA just now, and recently released a pony story set in Ireland during the Covid-19 Pandemic; this took off at once and boosted my other two pony books. So when I bring out my next YA story I shall advertise that genre. With a whole new set of search terms and excluded words. Yes for showjumping, no for romance. Yes for coronavirus this time, no for superhero.

I hope this article has given you some insights into the Amazon book advertising process, and what you can gain from using it. Everyone’s experience will be different, and your returns may be better or worse than mine. Other platforms are available, but I have not tried them. Though some writers turn a profit from advertising their work, no writer has yet told me they made good money, blaming the algorithms, the vast supply of e-books and the small royalties of independent publishing. But if publishing is your business, treat it like one. Advertise your brand where readers will see, and will find it easy to buy the books. Just remember; even with the best plans, results will vary.

Environmental journalist, tree surgeon and expert witness, and former national standard showjumper. Author of 18 books of crime, science fiction, YA fiction.