11 December 2018 by Published in: Uncategorized 38 comments

Time for my year end wrap up, which will consist of two posts – the first, by popular demand, which will cover my take on the state of the market, and the second, on the importance of brand building in this new and harsher environment.

2018 ushered in a time when visibility we used to take for granted on Amazon basically disappeared. The long tail on new releases has been compressed to only weeks, and with the elimination of free books from the also boughts and from the search functions, it’s almost impossible to get any free visibility now on the largest seller of books in the world.

So what’s left?

Paying to play, also known as advertising. The rest of this blog will be devoted to my experience with Zon advertising, and the conclusions I’ve drawn after reluctantly beginning a concentrated effort about mid-year.

Bluntly, Amazon has taken real estate on their product pages and turned it into revenue streams, which is smart. And once they had that revenue generation engine, it would have been dumb for them to offer visibility that doesn’t involved publishers and authors paying Zon for the privilege. Which is what they’ve done.

We are now in a world where advertising isn’t optional – it’s necessary if you’re going to make a living as an author, unless you’re so atypical it’s astonishing, in which case, congrats, but you’re the exception, so enjoy it while it lasts.

What this means is that authors who have been making decent livings over the last five years are going to find their earnings shrinking substantially unless they pony up cash to buy placement, exactly as retailers have required vendors to do for longer than any of us have been alive. You want the visibility of the end cap? Pay up. You want in-store displays? Pay. You want favorable placement? Pay. Be seen in a magazine or newspaper? Pay. Very simple. For years that wasn’t the case with Amazon. Now it is.

The net is that our margins will shrink as we have to devote a portion of our dwindling income to advertising. That’s reality. But they will shrink far faster and further if we don’t, as my experience over the last year or two has taught me. That’s the new market. It is what it is.

I should stress that I hate having to dick with advertising. It’s not my forte. I don’t have 10-20 hours a week to devote to managing campaigns, changing key words, evaluating copy and click rates, monitoring ad results, submitting them and dealing with arbitrary rejection, deciphering the opaque results of the world’s worst reporting, and on and on and on. And I certainly don’t have even more time to devote to keeping up on what’s working and what isn’t as Zon changes their algos seemingly weekly.

I write novels. I’m not a copywriter or an advertising specialist. I hired a group that is, and am thrilled with the results – they advertise only my backlist, and they’ve managed to increase sales of that relatively dead money by a massive amount; so much so that I have been seeing a pretty steady 100-130% monthly ROI after paying the ads and their fee. Others have seen results all over the map, usually due to the depth of their series, whether they’re in KU or not (KU eliminates any buying hesitation once they’ve clicked on the ad to your product page because it’s free to read the book, vs. requiring a buying decision), genre, and a host of other factors, but there’s no question that the right kind of efforts for the right sort of catalog can be a game changer.

I liken doing my own advertising to cleaning toilets. I hate doing it, and if I can hire someone for $20 an hour to scrub when I earn many multiples of that, I’m an idiot if I don’t leverage that for a successful arbitrage, and do what pays me far more with my time while leaving the toilet to the other person. If I spend one of my $100 or $200 or $400 hours doing something that can be outsourced for $20, I’m a fool for failing to grasp the math. Again, simple.

I realize not everyone, or even most, can afford to hire someone competent to run their campaigns, which leaves authors in a bleak position of having to split their time between writing, and becoming ad and copy-writing specialists. That means that if they have little time to write, they will now have even less, because they have to spend the lion’s share of their time being online ad specialists and staying current with all the trends. It’s not ideal, obviously, but it’s reality, and my sense is it’s going to get worse, not better, at least on Amazon.

My frustration with Zon advertising is that it’s very difficult to scale the spend up without killing ROI. I can easily spend $10 a day and poach a few lucky cheap clicks, but that’s not going to make any real money, and if you want to invest more than chicken feed, it’s almost impossible to spend serious amounts without tunneling ROI to where it gets closer to break-even than significant % upside. Fortunately my folks have figured out some tricks to achieve this, but that doesn’t really help the average author, who’s locked into an ugly spiral: either receive no visibility to speak of (so no sales), or spend money to buy vis, but be unable to do so to buy enough to really matter.

The current ad environment is geared towards the big spenders, who can dominate the pages with tens of thousands, or hundreds of thousands, of dollars per month, and who probably are fine seeing 10% or 20% monthly ROI, or less. The problem is that’s whose bids you’re competing with when you run your ads, and I guarantee that if you don’t have a deep series in KU, you’re unlikely to be able to make any money throwing large amounts at buying expensive placements – placements that likely will cost much more than you’ll earn on the first, or even first, second, and third books in your series.

So what is there to do?

I wish I knew. I also don’t know what to do if you write stand-alone novels, or only have a few books in a series, other than recommend you write like mad and build significant enough depth to prosper in this brave new world of a mature marketplace where the owner of the store wants to maximize its profits. There’s no point railing against it, anymore than there’s a point to railing against the fact that the grocery store won’t carry your delicious home baked cookies you’re trying to turn into a business – that’s just the way it is, and they’re not going to displace a vendor who spends a fortune with them to feature your offering. In that instance, you simply don’t have a viable business, and would be better served either trying to find alternative outlets, or shelving your dreams of a cookie empire, because you don’t have the juice to make it happen. Sorry.

I resisted advertising for years. Fortunately, I dove in this year, and have seen my sales more than double on my backlist, as well as seen about a 1200% annual return on investment on the money I’ve invested in adverts. There’s no place I can see 1200% return in any market, or even 120%, so I consider it a cost of doing business now in the new marketplace, with a nice sweetener for my trouble – spend $10K on ads a month, see $24K in gross sales, minus the ad spend of $10K, minus the group’s fee, which leaves me with $12K and change for my trouble that I otherwise wouldn’t have seen (above my usual monthly baseline run-rate sales).

That’s not as fun as free money sponsored by Amazon’s free vis like in the good old days, but it’ll have to do. It will never be 2012 or 13 again, no matter how much we wish it were.

As to those who want to or are forced by circumstance to handle their advertising themselves, you have my sympathy. I didn’t sign up to become an author in order to try to become an online advertising specialist or a copywriter, and it should be obvious that I’d rather do pretty much anything else besides spend half my week on that aspect of the job. Then again, I also don’t design my own covers, or try to self edit, or proof my own work, because I follow the same simple philosophy I outlined before: if I can pay an expert far less than I earn per hour to do it, I’m ahead of the game and shouldn’t even think about wasting my valuable time on what I can outsource.

If anyone wants my group’s contact info, feel free to email me at [email protected] and I’ll share it. They’ve become friends of mine, and I recommend them highly, but they’re typically swamped so I’m not going to post their info online lest they drop me for being an asshat.

So that’s my rather bleak assessment of the marketplace on Amazon. As to B&N and Apple and Kobo, they’ve had years to give Zon a real run for their money, and failed, so while I’m philosophically opposed to putting my eggs in one basket, I’m also opposed to investing in failure, which is how it seemed when I had most of my titles wide instead of in KU and watched my sales lag month after month no matter what I did. I still have some of my books wide – the Drake Ramsey’s series, the Assassin series, and so on, but my big money makers are in KU, with an advertising approach that’s turned them from meh money back into woohoo income.

I’m sure there are plenty who’ve had different experiences, and I’m not saying that folks can’t earn a living without advertising or slaving away at it themselves. If they can, hats off to them. I just know myself well enough to know that doing something I hate kills the joy in the entire business for me, which is why I avoided it so long.

And for those who are going to chime in and ask about newsletter swaps, and email blasts, and launch parties, and that sort of thing, sure, by all means do them and give it the college try. But frankly there’s not a lot that can replace a reader seeing your cover on the first page of a book they’re interested in for awakening buying interest, and this comes from a guy with a mailing list over 30K deep. Rather than fight the new environment, I’d suggest you come to grips with it and do whatever you can to thrive in it, because the alternative isn’t good, and as I said before, I believe it’s going to get a lot tougher as the big spenders dominate the pages with ever increasing budgets.

My next blog will be about brand building and the silver lining of ads on Amazon, which in a nutshell will state that it’s possible to generate a positive ROI while investing in brand building, which is a multi-year, ongoing effort (that normally is an expense companies invest 5-15% of sales into with no hope of seeing a return), not a revenue source, so silver linings, if somewhat tarnished ones.

Until then, have a great holiday, and I hope you sell a million – I need more rich friends, and my bar tab doesn’t pay itself.






  1. Tue 11th Dec 2018 at 7:16 pm

    Thanks and have a fine holiday as well.

    All interesting.

  2. Tue 11th Dec 2018 at 7:39 pm

    I wish your guy took on stand-alone clients. I’m tired of doing the ads on my own. I’ve been doing Amazon ads since June 2016. That’s when it was only available to KDP Select authors. At that time, I only had a few keywords, bid low, and always made a positive ROI. When they opened it up to authors who were wide, it got more expensive. When they made it available to publishers, it got even more expensive. Now I’m making what I spend, which isn’t fun. Please let me know if you hear of anyone who can help me profit with Amazon ads and takes authors who write stand-alones.

    • Russell Blake  –  Tue 11th Dec 2018 at 7:58 pm

      It’s basically impossible to make a stand-alone work on AMS ads due to the amount it costs to get any significant visibility, so anyone who would take an author who writes stand-alones is just going to take your money and you’ll get nothing of value in return. That’s the truth, which is why he doesn’t take them. No point in misleading authors to get a month or so of spend.

  3. Tue 11th Dec 2018 at 9:19 pm

    Sigh. You are right. You always are. But it’s crazy painful to think of going all in, or even only partly in with Amazon. I’m not a fan of that much commitment when the other person doesn’t really even know my name. LOL

  4. Zara Pradyer
    Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 9:55 am

    Thank you very much for sharing your hard-won advice.
    Hopefully, many will be saved heartache and money and many who implement your advice will thrive.
    Allow me to wish you the Season’s Best and much further success in the New Year.

  5. Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 1:10 pm

    I 1,000,000% agree with you and have seen this coming since the inception of KU.

    However, I also want to offer a counterpart of hope for the smaller author or total noob.

    I don’t do a ton of advertising. 1. With a kid to raise, I don’t get to be as full time as I want and 2. I’m currently dealing with some health challenges. So I can’t be as consistent as I like on the writing and publishing end of things, which makes huge ad spends risky imo.

    I do *some* advertising, but you’d laugh at my ad spends. I do a lot more advertising for other authors as part of coop promo.

    So here I am, doing the complete opposite of you and I made more money this year than last year…when I had a concussion that sidelined me creatively for three months and then ended up with another health issue for the last three months of this year, putting me basically at working for 1/2 the year. I am not anywhere in your tax bracket, but my writing still yields a full time income.

    Those small guerrilla marketing strategies work IF the person running them is on the up and up and knows what they are doing. I’ve worked hard to know what I am doing.

    So those who don’t have the cash, work on knowing what you are doing. That also has ROI.

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 4:29 pm

      As I said, it is possible to have good results on a limited scale, due to the “poaching” effect, whereby you’re getting reasonable bids hit in obscure manners. But it’s largely impossible to scale that up to where you’re making serious money and getting the kind of visibility that makes a career. That’s a real problem, and I don’t see a way around it. Sure, there are always outliers who can get results, depending upon what they consider to be meaningful results, but if I have to spend many hours to make an extra grand or two, broken down by hour, it simply doesn’t move the needle. What sucks is that we used to get all that vis for free, but times have changed, and it is what it is.

      • Michelle Fox  –  Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 5:15 pm

        I should clarify…I can’t even use AMS. They have decided my non touching fully clothed covers are X rated.

        I’m not even playing that game and I’m still making it.

        I don’t spend a lot of time on ads. I’ve outsourced a nominal monthly spend for my back list and the ads I run are mostly for a marketing platform I run that supports the coop guerrilla marketing ops I put together for authors.

        I work harder to appeal to readers than I do on ads. Craft, hooks, branding, visuals etc… That garnered a modest hit this past spring.

    • Zara Pradyer  –  Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 5:13 pm

      Hi Michelle, Just a very short response to your heroic story. Well done you for battling through, achieving terrific success, limited only by circumstances beyond your control, and for sharing your valuable knowledge. Thank you. Please accept my kindest regards and my wishes that you and yours continue to thrive. Cheers.

  6. Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 5:45 pm

    Greetings Russell,

    Thanks for your informative article. I am curous about one thing. When you were wide, how much advertising was targeted to the other platforms (B&N, Apple, Kobo)?

    Continued success to you.

    With thanks,

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 5:51 pm

      I didn’t direct really any at those, as I wasn’t doing anything but a few trial FB ads. Frankly, my wide sales are usually about 30% of my Zon revenue, so when I started advertising I decided to put my resources behind what was generating the majority of my revenue.

      • Lee Gabel  –  Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 7:15 pm

        Thanks for that clarification, Russell.

        With thanks,

  7. Louise Grace
    Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 7:45 pm

    So what hope is there for a newbie in today’s market? If you don’t have a backlist and any kind of budget for advertising?

    • Russell Blake  –  Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 7:49 pm

      It is reverting back to the mean, where a newbie faces a much harder challenge in gaining any visibility. That’s how it was before Amazon decided to give away visibility when epublishing became hot. The golden years are over, and now it’s a tough slog, as it has always been. Wish I had more uplifting news. That said, write a book that resonates and people discuss, and there will always be a market for that. Look at indie hits like The Celestine Prophecy, years before this current revolution. Anything’s possible, but writing an average book in a hot genre and putting it up on Amazon hoping for a lightning strike is no longer a viable strategy, in my view.

    • Michelle Fox  –  Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 9:05 pm

      See my comment above. Russell is absolutely correct about his segment of the market, but you can grow organically if you are savvy.

      • Louise Grace  –  Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 10:02 pm

        Thanks Michelle. I had a look at your website and note your opinion of KU. And you said Amazon had banned you. Do you advise that newbies go wide? I also saw you love Margie Lawson. I just completed a Margie immersion. It was wonderful!

        • Michelle Fox  –  Thu 13th Dec 2018 at 12:35 pm

          No no no…Amazon did not ban me. I’ve had issues with individual titles long before KU and they won’t take my covers for AMS, but I’ve never had a banned account or been threatened with a ban. You’ll have to ping me with what I said so I can be sure to clarify it and remove that impression.

          Wide is harder and slower but also more stable.

          You do KU if you have the time, grit and energy to constantly learn new steps in the dance and deal with the fall out from scammers.

          I’ve stayed wide on principle. Every time I do KU, I get screwed even if the money is good.

          I compete on brand, hook and craft. And I create my own marketing systems to leverage as opposed to ‘working’ KU or any other third party system.

          Yes! I did an immersion with Margie as well. Excellent writing instruction.

          • M. Foster  –  Fri 14th Dec 2018 at 6:03 pm

            “I’ve stayed wide on principle. Every time I do KU, I get screwed even if the money is good.” — I’m so glad to hear that there are people are willing to say this publicly. Thank you.

          • Louise Grace  –  Sat 15th Dec 2018 at 5:20 am

            Sorry if I misunderstood re Amazon. It was just the comment about the covers. Thanks for clarifying ?. Are your marketing systems on your blog?

  8. Wed 12th Dec 2018 at 8:54 pm

    Hey Russel,

    Thanks for sharing your view of where things stand. Some great advice in here, as always.

    Good luck in 2019. I’ll meet you at the top.

    Sincerely yours,

  9. Kevin Waldroup
    Thu 13th Dec 2018 at 6:29 am

    I glad I have a day job. It looks like I’m not gonna quit the day job anytime soon.

  10. Thu 13th Dec 2018 at 4:37 pm

    To me the next big disruption has to be to coax readers to buy directly from authors and publishers. Why trad houses aren’t all over this, I do not know. Our websites, NL, and social are already set up to catch and funnel reader traffic, and then the various platforms–with Zon at the end of the food chain–can become the post-release market.
    If we split the chunk Amazon is taking now (average 35 percent) with the readers, a substantial percentage of them will give buying direct a whirl. Doesn’t solve the discoverability problem, but it means you can keep a lot more of the revenue the book does earn.

    • Bronwen  –  Fri 14th Dec 2018 at 2:05 pm

      Hi Grace – I started selling my self pubs direct from my website and I’ve been pleasantly surprised at how those sales are starting to pick up. I just need more self pubbed works as I also TP and I’m such a slow writer…
      I make 100% of the margin and that’s nice.

      • Grace Burrowes  –  Fri 14th Dec 2018 at 6:17 pm

        Readers are getting a lot smarter about side-loading, which was the big hurdle. Now, it remains for publishers to buddy up with authors and keep the 35 percent we’re both sending to the major platforms. I know there are authors using the ONIX feed,which seems to be the tech knothole publishers need authors to thread before we can do trad sales off our websites. Where’s that techie son-in-law when you need him?

  11. Fri 14th Dec 2018 at 6:00 pm

    “As to B&N and Apple and Kobo, they’ve had years to give Zon a real run for their money, and failed,…” Do you think that one of the reasons for this is that Amazon sells everything and has been using ebooks as a loss leader while at the same time training writers to bring people to Amazon. As long as the customer is there to look at your book, why not buy some socks?

    • Russell Blake  –  Sat 15th Dec 2018 at 12:01 am

      Absolutely. Zon is about making the site sticky and attracting eyeballs. If they can use other people’s content to draw them in at literally little or no cost to themselves, they’d be stupid not to. And Zon isn’t stupid.

  12. Fri 14th Dec 2018 at 10:39 pm

    Thanks for your clear summary of 2018 publishing.
    Have a great holiday and I look forward to more articles in 2019. 🙂

  13. Elizabeth Jennings
    Sat 15th Dec 2018 at 8:02 am

    Alas Amaxon is mucking up its bookshop. It used to be fantastic when the recommendations were organic. I’d be recommended books on the basis of my choices and more often than not, they were good choices. Now they just push book that have paid for visibility at me and it is not the same thing at all. Amazon is still the best bookshop but not as excellent as it used to be and as soon as another bookshop opens up, I’m going there. I think they are making short term gains in return for long term loss of eyeballs.

    • Bronwen  –  Sat 15th Dec 2018 at 4:15 pm

      So true. Already my mother is saying she can’t find anything good to read. She reads on kindle and used to buy from also boughts. Now she is saying she can’t find the books she likes to read so is reading less!!!! Not what anyone is looking for.


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