08 July 2019 by Published in: Uncategorized 3 comments

I just got done doing a podcast with one of the top indie publishing gurus that will air in the next couple of weeks, and it seemed as good as any an excuse to summarize some of the discussion here, in the second part of my State of the Ad Union rant.

I was joined by Mike Beverly, who runs AMSAdwerks, and who exclusively specializes in Amazon advertising. Disclosure: I’m invested in the company, as well as being a longtime client (almost a year!).

One of the points I drove home is that Amazon advertising doesn’t sell books – it creates visibility for books. The sole function is to get more traffic to your product page. It’s your product page that sells the book, via the blurb, the look inside, the reviews, and to a lesser extent, the cover (the cover is key in the ad, but once the reader’s at the product page it’s kind of done its job unless want of a larger version is what was causing purchase hesitation in the prospect).

This is confusing for many authors, because they think, hey, I spent $100 on amazon ads yesterday, but I only sold $75 of the book, so the ad must suck, or the person running it does. The problem being that they aren’t taking into account the long tail of buyers who read book 1 and go to book 2 and then 3, and so on, or the number who then go on to read another series by the same author. But be that as it may, the ACOS on an ad can be daunting, especially when Zon’s sales reporting can be off by days, or weeks, depending upon who you speak to. So you may have determined a program was a failure after a week and a half and stop it, and then your sales will continue coming in for days or weeks after, making it profitable. But too late. You stopped it, so it’s back to the end of the line for you on the program, which may not gain the same traction the second time around.

What I’m seeing is a rapidly changing landscape where the cost to gain visibility is increasing in the popular genres, but even so, it’s not just a matter of out-bidding the other thousand authors vying for the first page carousel – it’s a function of how many volumes your series has, and how much total revenue a book 1 purchase will ultimately earn Amazon – because it knows exactly how many on average convert to book 2 buyers, and how many of those will go on to read book 3, 4, 5, etc. So you may be bidding in the clouds, and still not get shown, because why would Zon sell you that space when it can make $10 more over time if it sells another author with a longer and better read series the space, even if it’s cheaper than your bid? They wouldn’t. It would be bad business.

This creates an environment where success breeds more success, and shorter series with lesser read-through get worse treatment. At least that’ s how it appears to me. Nobody knows for sure how Zon actually tunes their algos, so some of this is the shadows on the walls of Plato’s cave, but it’s a pretty educated guess.

So what is a beginning author to do, much less someone who’s been at it for years, but still can’t seem to make serious money?

My answer is focus on quality. Product quality will win out if visibility can be had. Visibility on a shoddy product won’t result in a deluge of sales, but on something worth reading that satisfies reader expectations for the genre, it means a lot. It’s no guarantee, of course, which is why tens of thousands of new titles are released by trad publishers every year, the majority of which are well written and competently edited, and yet only a slim percentage earn out, much less are blockbusters.

I was eaten alive by many when I wrote blogs back in 2013 and 2014 pointing out that in the arts, there are 10,000 aspiring artists for every one who earns a good living. It’s a truism, if unfair. Everyone thinks they’re different and special, and maybe they are, but the market determines who gets paid and who doesn’t to produce content. If you’re uncomfortable with the long odds, get a day job, or do something else as a hobby, because the odds say you’ll never make a living as an author, just as the odds say you’ll never make a living as a ballet dancer or a painter or a singer or a guitarist. It’s a sad truth that seems to have been forgotten during the gold rush early days of publishing, but the market’s now mature, and in mature markets most content simply doesn’t get bought.

That doesn’t mean there can’t be exceptions, or that you’re not one of them. It means that you need to work with your eyes wide open, and not buy into the “anyone can do this!” mantra that encourages quantity and genre chasing and ghost writing as a “sure thing.” Nothing in life is sure but death, and it’s misleading to say otherwise.

I write because I enjoy doing so. It’s a fluke that I’ve been able to have an 8 year career as a bestselling author, and I realize it – a combination of timing, willingness to work 14 hours a day seven days a week for years on end, being able to invest in pro editing and covers and proofreading, having an active imagination, being a lifelong avid reader, and possessing sufficient talent to get decent at the craft in a fairly short period. If any one of those things hadn’t aligned I wouldn’t have made a dent. Probably if I launched my first book now, I’d be ignored and largely forgotten by anyone but friends and family. I get that, and I’m grateful I got the chance to sit at the big table. But I don’t take it for granted, and I’m deeply suspicious of survivor bias that seems to be at play in many cases.

Can you advertise your way to fame and fortune? Sure. Want to make a million writing books? Start with three. Is it easy or assured? Nope. But what I can say is that my original advice to authors all those years ago – write series, generate quality content fast so the pipeline’s always full, create a distinctive enough voice and product so readers can’t get it anywhere else, be willing to work twice as hard as your competition, pay for quality pro covers and editing, choose genres that can support you if you do moderately well in them and don’t genre hop – holds true, and I wouldn’t modify any of it. I would add that if you’re able to genre blend in a unique way and hit at just the right time you can carve out an original niche, but that’s rare enough so I can count on one hand the number of authors who’ve done it.

That’s my summary. Think of advertising as an investment in two ways: building name recognition while you generate sufficient content so it can support you if readers respond well to it, and as a visibility multiplier where you’re effectively paying to fill your potential sales funnel. On Amazon, at least, it isn’t a way to sell books in a direct A to B manner. The book still needs to sell itself, and other than the blurb and reviews and cover, it will come down to what’s on the page, which is the sole thing you truly have total control over as you sit down to write.



  1. Kimberly Rae Jordan
    Mon 29th Jul 2019 at 10:48 pm

    Russell ~ I just want to thank you for sharing your thoughts now and in the past. I was just starting out back in 2014 when you did a Q&A in a FB group I was part of. I took what you told us in that group (some of what you mentioned here) and ran with it. After what you shared, I never wrote another single title, always focusing instead on series. I stuck to just one genre–a genre I loved to read so that was easy for me for me! I tried to publish every 2-3 months–not as easy! At that time, you also encouraged setting the first book in a series perma-free, which I did. After that, I got my first BB ad, and in the month following that ad, I made almost twice what I made in my day job in a year! (Those were the days of the long tail!!) Sadly, even though I still embrace everything you encourage, my best year financially remains 2015. I make less now with 35+ books under my belt than I did with 10 back then. I’m struggling to figure out how to use the AMS ads for my books/genre. Some days I feel like beating my head against a wall because I just can’t seem to grasp how to make the ads/visibility work for me. It’s like throwing my money into a black hole instead of throwing it against a rubber wall where it bounces back to me with a little extra tacked on! lol Your podcast with JP and MB, along with this blog post, have helped to clarify things and given me a spark of encouragement to keep pressing on. Thank you again for taking the time now & in the past to share your wisdom and thoughts!

    • Russell Blake  –  Thu 01st Aug 2019 at 9:52 am

      The environment is definitely tougher. If it’s any consolation, 2019 looks like it will be my best year since 2015, solely due to advertising. So it can be done. It’s just harder than shit, which is why I leave it to MB rather than spending hours per day trial and erroring it myself. Man has to know his limitations…

  2. Bobbi
    Mon 26th Aug 2019 at 2:14 pm

    Wanted to express my appreciation to receive the book included with several other mysteries that were free. Unfortunately the only way I really can read, as I’m a voracious reader & truly couldn’t afford to buy.. anyway when I started Jet I was hesitant just because of the name of the book. Guess the old adage is true! Only no real cover per say on this series, anyway I was unable to put Jet down! It was exciting fast paced, never dragged plus kept you wondering what next!
    Thank you for the opportunity to read one of your Jet series free!


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