22 April 2019 by Published in: Uncategorized 9 comments

As most know by now, I invested in the company that’s been dealing with my Amazon ads for the last 9 months. Obviously, I’m pretty happy with how they’ve done, as I don’t invest willy nilly. But they needed the capital to grow, and I had a few shekels to throw at the problem, so a marriage made in heaven.

As I did my due diligence on their model, I learned more than I ever cared to about the current state of the Amazon ad world, and came away somewhat surprised.

First off, I believe that over the next year or two, it’s going to get harder and harder to get organic visibility of any sort from Zon. Why? Because they have people lined up around the block to pay for the vis. So why give away what you can sell? That would be dumb.

Where that leaves most authors is a rock and a hard place. The indie business is now becoming very much like if you started a soda company. You’d have to pay to get your soda into the stores, and pay more for an end cap or a prominent area. That’s classic retail. Just the way it works. It’s lucrative for the store owner, but sucks for the vendors, especially if they don’t have really deep pockets and sufficient margin to take the hit.

What I’ve discovered isn’t that surprising. First, Zon appears to favor series that have good read and sell through. That makes sense – why would they push a series where people only read the first book or two, and then quit? So writing quality and story wind up being a determinant in that area, but not the sole one. Depth of the series is another – Zon wants to maximize their earnings off an impression and a click, and the best way to do that is to favor series where there are a bunch of books to read, not a few.

The next thing I learned is that covers really, really matter. Why? Because you can have your ad shown to a million people (impressions), but the quality of the cover will factor into how many decide to click on the ad to go to the product page. Crappier the cover, lower the click through. Very simple. So that one you’re in love with your niece designed, or that you spent hours tinkering with on photoshop, ain’t gonna cut it up against a current, hot, professionally executed cover. This ain’t 2012, and homemade or five years out of step with the genre will cost you huge on click through rates – and Zon will stop showing the ads pretty quick if they have low click through, because they want the high click through to increase the likelihood of a sale.

In that way, their interests are aligned with yours. In most other ways, not so much. They are in the profit business, and they’ve figured out getting vendors to pay for vis on their virtual shelves beats the hell out of just about all other possible businesses.

The next thing the data showed me was that blurb quality is a huge factor in sell through. What do I mean? The ad can get the reader to your product page. That’s its sole function. But once there, the quality of the blurb will determine how likely they are to click buy. Blurb, reviews, and Look Inside determine how well you’ll sell. The ad can’t sell your book. It can only get the reader to the product page. The rest is up to the blurb and the sample chapter and the reviews (if you have a bunch of “this crap sucks ass” testimonials, you’re probably not going to sell regardless of how good your blurb is).

The combination of cover quality and blurb quality determines how profitable it will be to advertise. Pretty straightforward. That, and the depth of your series. More books equals more revenue downstream on the “long tail.” Less equals less, both for you, and for Amazon, so not only are you likely going to be unable to compete on bids for clicks, but Zon will likely favor someone with a longer series with higher conversion-to-sales if readers decide not to buy once they get to your page, or if you simply don’t have enough books to justify showing your ad. So if you have fewer books you can’t compete as well on price per click, and Zon is going to favor someone who converts better or generates more revenue given the sheer volume of product. They might still sell you space, but you’ll be on page two or three of the carousel, which is dead money.

In truth, the most surprising thing I learned is there is no secret sauce. There’s no extra special clandestine stealth strategy. There’s A/B testing, there’s staying current on the virtually weekly changes Zon makes to the platform, there’s evaluating your clicks and sales numbers, there’s bidding decisions, and that’s about it. If your time is worth more than Adwerks charges and you don’t want to dick with ads, the agency is a winner, provided your product fits the criteria Zon uses to favor as described above. If not, you’re better off doing them yourself, although the chances of getting them to scale to more than lunch money is pretty slim for the reasons I just mentioned.

So that’s the first part of my evolving knowledge of the ad side of things. As most know, I only started focusing on advertising last July. Since then, my sales have tripled. There’s only one possible reason: I wasn’t being seen, and you can’t buy my crap if you don’t know it exists.

For the record, AMSAdwerks is the name of the agency, and while their client list is confidential, I can say that they rep some of the top 50 authors on Amazon, so they have a good feel for what works and what doesn’t. You can reach them at [email protected] if you want more info. They typically won’t take you on if they don’t think they can help, and have a waiting list for slots, so they’re not pushing snake oil just to make a buck. Some they’ve taken on can’t be helped due to the above Zon algo gods deciding their series is too short or doesn’t convert adequately, and if that becomes apparent after a couple of months, they’ll level with you. Also, some genres are crazy expensive, and you can expect to bleed money competing with Nora Roberts for clicks. Just market forces at play.

The biggest surprise for me aside from no secret sauce is the amount of time it takes to stay current on what works and what doesn’t, and how many authors Zon ads simply won’t work for beyond a $10 or $20 a day spend. While you’d think they’d gladly take as much of your dough as they can, that isn’t how it works, and one of the biggest frustrations is how difficult it is to scale campaigns and retain anything resembling reasonable ROI.

I expect the market to get far tougher over the next twelve months. I also expect keeping current on what’s working to become far more time consuming. Being lazy and uninterested in the minutiae of ads vs. writing and drinking tequila, outsourcing the whole mess was the obvious call for me. Glad I did.

Full disclosure, I invested in Adwerks so they can scale, and I obviously am impressed, but as with most things, YMMV, so it may or may not be something that can work for you.

I’ll publish part two of my commentary in the next week or two.



  1. Tue 23rd Apr 2019 at 1:24 am

    Thanks Russell,
    This article and your FB posts gave valuable truths to the reality of AMS. It is encouraging that you said there is no secret sauce. Making the daily investment of time can create positive results. We’re fortunate that Liliana Hart has over 60 titles and successful series to work with, but it still takes the time to stay above the weekly learning curves introduced by the Zon.
    Thanks for sharing,
    Scott & Liliana

  2. Tue 23rd Apr 2019 at 5:53 am

    Hey man! Just wanted to say thank you for this. On behalf of all of us, we appreciate the time and information which helps everyone make better decisions with our budget. If it’s truly pay-to-play now then we all have to level up.


  3. Zarayna Pradyer
    Tue 23rd Apr 2019 at 6:16 am

    You mean to say that, writing and publishing for money is a business? Dammit. There go my dreams.
    Nevertheless, quality, quantity and applied intelligence having better odds at succeeding than their opposites does seem logical and fair.
    Thanks for the frontline info.

  4. Tory Element
    Mon 29th Apr 2019 at 4:35 pm

    Hey Russell, thanks for this article. It only piles on more to my cynical view of Zon’s increasingly hostile behavior toward indie authors IMHO. But you sharing this research will also help me craft a smarter launch and marketing strategy for my own line of books. However, I can’t help but wonder why Zon wants to essentially abandon the very concept and authors that got them started on the path to megadom in the first place. In a perfect world, perhaps Zon could have some “mercy” and build a side room for authors with singles or small/short series for purposes and easy of discovery with more of a help-and-be-helped attitude? Yeah, I know, wishful thinking no doubt. But if society ever wants to get over itself, we all have to get past the greed. Thanks, and I look forward to part 2. —TE

    • Russell Blake  –  Mon 29th Apr 2019 at 5:35 pm

      I think you misunderstand whether Zon is hostile or friendly to indie authors. Back in 2011-2014, they were fighting with big trad pub, and so used indies as a weapon/bargaining asset in their negotiations. It’s just business. I don’t think they love or hate us. We were useful to furthering their aims, and for a time we benefited from that symbiosis. Once Zon got its way with trad pub, there was no reason to favor us over titles that NY would put millions in marketing dollars behind. Zon doesn’t care what content it sells, it only cares that it sells it. Its job is to earn its shareholders maximum profits, nothing else. So it is doing what any good corporate predator does, namely squeezing vendors for every last drop of possible juice in any way it can. That’s just business. Expecting altruism from a corporation is like expecting pity from a piranha. It misunderstands the nature of the interaction.

      • Tory element  –  Mon 29th Apr 2019 at 5:53 pm

        Yep, you are very likely correct, it’s just my mistrustful opinion of giant corporations. It does seem to me though that within the past couple of years, Zon has made it much harder for most indie authors in small incremental ways, perhaps not specifically against indie authors, and also to be sure to mitigate the cheaters, but from a macro view, we still need to get past our greed, someday, or we risk implosion. Still, I do like and appreciate your analysis.


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