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Mastering Amazon ads one tweak at a time: One author’s success story

Want to sell more books? Mastering Amazon ads is the secret to success says guest blogger Wendy Raebeck, who shares how she does it. 

Today’s guest blogger is Wendy Raebeck, a frequent commenter here who always adds to the conversation with insights and wit. When Wendy commented recently about how she’s mastering Amazon ads so she can sell more books, I asked her to write a guest post about what she’s doing. In addition to being the author of eight books, Wendy has written more than 100 newspaper articles as a freelance journalist. A former actress and yoga instructor, she says her most formative and spiritual experiences involved living without electricity and running water on Spanish and Greek islands. 

Mastering Amazon ads one tweak at a time: One author’s success story

By Wendy Raebeck

Creatively, I’m a bit rogue. (Mom’s reply to my childhood questions was always, “Use your imagination.”) I design my own covers, don’t “write for the market,” love paperbacks, rarely do giveaways or big discounts, am totally DIY except for the obligatory edits, and price my books higher than most indies.

On the other hand, I seem more determined to cover all the bases than most.

Including “Ta Ta for Now – the Movie,” which I’m about to release, I have eight books out, and am here to report that there really can be a point where the head-bashing begins paying off. If you hang in.

Oh, you’ll still have a line-up of challenges! But if you roll up your sleeves, Amazon ads might possibly lift your spirits.

Mastering Amazon ads

Mastering Amazon ads requires knowing your readers

Familiarizing oneself with the Amazon ad algorithms is pure grit – feels financially dicey, too – but for the more motivated among us (ideally, with more than one book out), learning the ABCs can take you higher.

My present focus with mastering Amazon ads is on “targeting” and “relevance.” Though this terminology is Advertising 101, the practical application demands a mental shift. As Sandra recently pointed out, it feels counterintuitive not to target “everyone.” Indeed, I always found myself defaulting to, “But how can I be sure Andy, my mechanic, wouldn’t love this book? He’s into all kinds of things.”

mastering Amazon ads 2
My Amazon e-book sales from when I first started advertising on Amazon in April 2021. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Our intuition prompts us to cast a wide net, because you never know. But “relevance” and “targeting” mean fishing for likely readers, not possible (or unlikely) ones.

Sure, as in dating, we could probably get along with almost anybody if stranded on a remote island…but readers aren’t stranded. They have choices.

So Andy reads about cars and motorcycles, not the high jinks of wily women. And even if every two-legged on the planet might, theoretically, enjoy my book (if forced at gunpoint to read it on a long flight), trying to re-route other-genre readers in hopes they’ll switch over is…less than strategic.

As I wrote in “Surviving Self-Publishing or Why Ernest Hemingway Committed Suicide,” “If your email list is comprised of 4th-graders from the class you teach and cab-drivers from your summer trip to Egypt, you’re off point. Think quality over quantity.” “Targeting” also acknowledges that “our tribe” isn’t an already-existing group out there, but non-existent until we create it.

Target with trial and error

So how do we “target”? No simple answer, but mostly through trial and error. As we try out different keywords, categories, and titles of other books (similar to our own in some way) in our ads, we study where shoppers are biting and where they’re buying.

And we eventually hone in on which bait or hooks (targets) are enticing card-carrying buyers to place orders.

With my hippie book, for example, I started out with keywords like “hitchhiking,” “wild and crazy,” and “free spirit.” But I learned these aren’t terms readers search for on Amazon. I’m better off jumping on the coattails of someone typing in “John Lennon,” “60s culture,” or, believe it or not, Prince Harry’s memoir. My buyers read memoirs, they don’t hitchhike.

mastering Amazon ads example
Here’s an ad for my hippie memoir. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Get my drift? Mind games. (But…Dad’s reply to my childhood questions was always, “You can figure it out.”)

Amazon ads help sell more books

So…we all know (or are) agoraphobic authors unwilling or unready to hit the ads trenches. But, sadly, in today’s publishing landscape, it’s pay-to-play. Jury’s not only in, it left the courthouse a few years back.

However, those willing to accept this woeful reality, and who possess the gumption/time/energy, can conceivably experience improved sales through advertising. Not high numbers necessarily, and not right off the bat, but an uptick! Not to mention genuine free exposure from thousands of “impressions” flashing your ads across Amazon.

In today’s publishing landscape, it’s pay-to-play. Jury’s not only in, it left the courthouse a few years back. ~ Wendy RaebeckClick to tweet

I’ve been doing Amazon ads two years now, summoned in by the endearing Bryan Cohen and his free course (that I’ve taken four times). I also follow Matthew Holmes, another stand-up ads guru proffering excellent tips in a weekly blog. Amazon ads, in my opinion, are impossible to master solo, and I highly recommend Bryan and Matthew (and others, too) as entry portals. (Bryan’s free course starts again April 19. I’ll be there.)

Once you’re a vassal in Jeff Bezos’ fiefdom – and have decoded your ads charts and created some campaigns – your biggest challenge will be juggling the dreaded “spend” vs. your bona fide sales.

Mastering Amazon ad sales showing progress
In February 2023, I got better at targeting and relevance. The different colors indicate how more titles started selling more copies. (Click on image to enlarge.)

Mastering Amazon ads means paying attention

Here, attentiveness and diligence are musts.

But this vigilance has kept me profitable from the start. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I’m by no means killin’ it, plus, I’m super careful, but my author aim has always been to just continue scaling profit while adding fun new books. I’ve met this goal since my first release in 2012 – assisted lately by the ads.

What sold me on mastering Amazon ads was when I let them lapse in September 2022 because I was too busy elsewhere. Guess what. My sales dropped off completely – not just Amazon e-book sales, but all my e-book and paperback sales from all venues! (The chart below reflects just e-book sales and just Amazon – but I sell more paperbacks than e-books, and my whole train stopped when I ceased my ads!)

mastering Amazon ads sells books
Look at September 2022, then note what happened afterwards. FYI, the green indicates impressions or how frequently my ads are shown on Amazon. The lines represent sales, spend, and clicks. You can see how it all works together. (Click on image to enlarge.)
What sold me on mastering Amazon ads was when I let them lapse in September 2022 because I was too busy elsewhere. Guess what. My sales dropped off completely. ~ Wendy RaebeckClick to tweet

After that, tracking and tweaking ad performance became a top priority, despite the tedium. Point is, if one can develop a patience variant heretofore unimagined, some know-how will follow, and things might percolate.

Mastering Amazon ads print sales bar chart
Here are paperback sales through Ingram — year-to-date vs last year-to-date. (Click on image to enlarge.)

It’s a pay-to-play publishing world

Ta Ta for Now the Movie book cover
My latest book, Ta Ta for Now – the Movie, will soon be available for pre-order at a discounted price.

I’m writing this because I believe authors (especially multi-title ones) must grasp the pay-to-play paradigm self-publishing has morphed into. Despite the overwhelm, old hat to you anyway, I don’t see any other avenues through today’s crowded marketplace. (Except Facebook – where your servitude is to Zuck instead.)

C’est la guerre. Our best approach, I think, is to make marketing fun. And, though the advance team has long advised precisely that, it still takes ages to embrace it – “Oh-h-h, like actually enjoy myself? Hmm.”

Yep, jump in the pool.

And jump into my tribe; check out the escapist literature at WendyRaebeck.com and sign onto my email list there (get two free stories). If you’re an appropriate reader, that is. Oh, okay, Andy, if you insist.

Do you have questions for Wendy about her experiences with Amazon ads? Please ask them in a comment. 

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  1. Wendy,

    I love your ‘voice’ and your cerebral ideas!

    I have a question: I’m about to try the Amazon Ads challenge AGAIN. I have tried twice before and can’t get it wrapped around my head.

    Well, I have only written one book, and so many times I hear “especially if you have more than one title”. So that’s my situation, until later this summer when Book 2 comes out, of my 5-book historical fiction series from 19th century Germany.

    Do you think I should wait again, until the next round? I haven’t gleaned much from my ‘almost’ attempts anyway. In fact, my sales page hasn’t been optimized and my Author Central page is lacking as well.

    How much should a one-book author worry about concerning AmAds?

    Thanks so much, not only for your fun and informative article, but for your kind response.

    Till we meet—yours warmly,
    Ruby M Holder
    Historical Fiction Author
    Etch of a Promise, Book 1
    1880s Germany

    1. Thanks, Ruby, and glad you’re motivated!

      I’d say you’re right on track. Yes, join in again for another round of learning (April 19). No rules for how hard you have to work. Every time I do it, I get a little more saturation, and it adds up. (Btw, I’m not an affiliate of Bryan Cohen or anything.) Also, I’d get straight to Author Central TODAY and spruce up your bio. No rules there either, have some fun! I’m amazed how many authors ignore that #1 store window. Lastly, Bryan Cohen recommends having more than one book, and it makes sense for ‘read-through,’ where that customer may buy more of our books, but you can advertise one book, for sure. 🙂

  2. It’s my understanding that Amazon doesn’t credit a sale to a click unless the purchase happens within a certain time window–I think around 2 weeks? In other words, my ads (which show sales but do not have acceptable ACOS numbers) might well be selling books for me, just not in a way that shows up in my Amazon ad charts. Is this likely? I can compare what I receive in royalties with what I pay Amazon in the ads console and perhaps get a sense if the ads are actually increasing sales through exposure, but is there any more efficient way to determine if they are? Thanks in advance.

  3. Thanks for being here, Virginia. Being a serf in Bezos Land is mind-numbing. I ‘think’ you’re right about the 2-wk thing. I’d pose that exact question to Bryan Cohen during the next ads challenge, because he has a firm grasp on this stuff, and is now actually consulting for Amazon! Unfortunately, forgive me, but I just do the best I can trying to calculate actual sales vs. what the charts say — I never get it quite right. I figure there’s a lot behind scenes that I don’t realize or understand.

  4. Love this, Wendy. I was inspired to take a quick sidestep and check out “I Did Inhale; Memoir of a Hippie Chick.” What a fun, entertaining writer you are! Anyway, I nearly skipped this article, and had not planned on signing up for Cohen’s course -again. It was a bit on the nerve racking side and I didn’t get any sales out of it… which I had been told not to expect – maybe. Oh, BTW, I did get a sale notice two weeks later. So not sure if it came from the ads. And about that sale… two weeks after I was informed by Amazon of it’s existence, my bank account shows nothing. It’s this aspect of Amazon, the uncertainty aka anxiety coupled with a lot of work that keeps me wondering if I’d made the right decision to go with them in the first place. Still, like you the Hippie Chick, ya gotta take the risks. Thanks again.

    1. Neil, I’ll address just the “wondering if I’d made the right decision to go with them in the first place” piece. You did. Nobody sells more books online than Amazon. If your goal is to sell books to people you hope will read them, you need to be on Amazon. If you write just for the joy of writing, it’s less important.


      1. Thanks, Sandra. I believe you’re right. I’ve had two novels on Smashwords since 2011 and have only sold about 20. This memoir on Amazon should do better, perhaps a lot… if I can figure it out. And have the stamina to stick with it. I’m old, 77, and not in the best of health.

    2. Aloha Neil, and thx for the compliment!

      There’s a lot packed into your contribution here today. Tackling the ads full tilt might be pushing it for you. On the other hand, moving forward is moving forward! I’m thinking, take the course again, but expecting just to pick up one or two tips. Then, in Bryan’s Q & A’s (several each week), ask what he suggests for an older writer without the pep to ‘conquer’ the ads. Maybe he’s got a solid step or two to get more modest results without wearing you out.

      But Sandra’s right that avoiding Amazon can’t serve you.

      I’d also toss out the possibility of book-signings in your local region? Enjoyable, plus sales. Then you can be the classic writer, chatting about your book(s), meeting interested readers, and selling a few. No stress, Neil!

  5. It was very interesting to read Wendy Raebeck’s informative article on mastering amazon ads. I have also learnt a lot from Bryan Cohen and Matthew Holmes and read almost all books available in the market on amazon ads. All the books speak of one important thing – your targets must be relevant to the book you are advertising, for the amazon algorithm to take notice ; otherwise all your ad spend will go down the drain.

    1. Exactly, Hemalatha! Thanks for chiming in.

      We Amaz Ads students are all sort of ‘off to the see the Wizard,’ aware it’s Jeff Bezos behind the curtain…yet still clicking our ruby slippers. Sounds like you, too, are willing to see where the yellow bricks might lead.

      As Neil sd above, ‘ya gotta takes the risks.’ (With head screwed on snugly.)

      And as I said, 1) uptick is uptick, and 2) I don’t see another road. What I only alluded to is that 3) the ‘profitable author’ reality is one of constant expansion. Just like in the rest of life, our intent will usually guide our success. “Where intention goes, energy flows.”

  6. It’s taken me several days to read this (thank you for posting), but I am very interested in the idea of Amazon ads…it’s just SO scary/confusing. An author friend suggested it a year or so ago, but even he wasn’t seeing much bang for his buck, and when I looked into it, and really couldn’t make heads or tails of it, I decided to embrace the black belt I hold in procrastinating by writing another book instead ;^). Maybe now….

    1. Lindsey, Just keep moving forward. Yes, the ads are a lot to tackle. But, step by step, little bites. When you have time and feel ready, take the course again, or even enroll in Bryan’s Ad School. I think it’s fine that you’re focused on a book right now—do what you feel like doing! Overwhelm is right outside every author’s door. “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.”

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