Guest post: A Heart-Centered Guide to Using AMS to Sell More Books

When I reached out to other writer moms for guest posts, I was so excited to get this one from Susan Bernardo about Amazon ads. There is a ton of information out there about them, and I have bought an entire book in the topic to get up to speed.

This is longer than my usual posts, but I wanted to include the whole thing - it's a great summary of the impact ads can have, in more ways than one - her "heart-centered" take on advertising balances out the goal of making money that some of us aren't always super comfortable with. Thanks Susan!

For five years, I've been selling books on Amazon - but I have resisted doing any sort of advertising beyond a few "free Kindle days" and some boosted Facebook posts. Instead, I focused on public relations strategies like reading at festivals, reaching out to mommy and book bloggers, and doing author visits at festivals, schools and libraries. I assumed that in time, my books would rise up through Amazon's dreaded sales rankings organically and become the bestsellers I know they are capable of becoming!

But even though I was constantly "working it," my Amazon sales remained pretty flat - and by that, I sold 56 books on Amazon in 2016 (not nearly enough to cover my coffee bill!). People were NOT "just discovering" my books, unless I was selling it to them in person.

I was particularly sad about the sales performance of our first book, Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs -- a children's book I wrote and indie published with my illustrating partner Courtenay Fletcher in 2012. It's a book to help kids feel loved and connected, a book that reassures them that love is forever. I believe in this book 110% - it was my response to my own children's grief when we were going through divorce (and Courtenay's way of coping with the loss of a good friend to breast cancer). Over the past five years, a multitude of parents, therapists, Child Life specialists and non-profit organizations have told us that the book is a valuable resource for helping kids cope with loss or separation anxiety from a variety of circumstances such as divorce, moving, the death, deployment, or incarceration of a parent. It's also just a sweet bedtime story for any child.

Despite all of the accolades - and the fact that it is both an "issues" book and a mainstream bedtime story -- we sold just 56 copies of the book on Amazon in all of 2016. This was AFTER we did a second book with LeVar Burton to help kids cope with trauma, The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, in 2014. That book was sent on a rocket to the International Space Station and read aloud by an astronaut - and STILL, despite having a BOOK IN SPACE very few people were buying our books on Amazon!

Obviously, this was frustrating. We have a great product, almost 70 5-star reviews from over the years (thanks in great part to me begging for reviews from our Kickstarter backers and those free Kindle promos), and everyone who reads the book loves the book. So, how to find more readers?

All along, Amazon kept sending me e-mails about their Amazon Marketing Service (AMS), dangling a tempting carrot of $50 in free clicks to try it out. And all along, I deleted those as spam. A few months ago, though, soon after my third book was released, a friend who sells mugs and other products on Amazon told me she'd had some success with keyword ads. In July 2017, I decided to give that free click credit a try and see what happened, not expecting much of anything. I first read a bunch of articles online to educate myself.

I tried both product display ads AND sponsored ads to compare results, finding that I preferred the more transparent data available through the sponsored product ads, which rely upon keywords. I toyed with my ad copy, and kept my daily budget low, at about $5-$7 per day.

The sales started to flow in.

It didn't take long to go through the initial $50 of free clicks, but by that time I was convinced that this was a viable way to increase sales. Once the experimental phase ended, I put campaigns on hold for awhile to see what happened. Within a few weeks, the sales rankings dropped substantially (although not as low as they had been prior to my experimental campaigns).

I got back in the AMS game, and upped my budgets.

AMS offers great data, so you can see which keywords are driving sales. You only pay on a "per-click" basis, and you can see exactly how many clicks each keyword garners, and how many of those clicks are converting to sales.

When I checked my product detail page on Amazon, I could see that the sales rankings for my books were steadily improving from about 500,000 to as low as 25,000 within a few days. Now after about 6 weeks of mostly continuous advertising with short breaks, I am often below 10,000. (Ranking is determined by a complex algorithm apparently, but the main driver is how recently you've sold a book, so slow and steady is better than a big fat burst for rankings' sake).

In the first three weeks of October 2017, with the ad campaign running, we sold 108 copies of Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs (remember, in all of 2016, we sold 56 copies!). Sales also increased for our new picture book, The Big Adventures of Tiny House, although not as dramatically. In the first two weeks of November, Amazon has ordered a total of 900 books for inventory....and we are selling at least 25 books a day.

Sponsored Ads are driven by customers' keyword searches. You should begin with several hundred keywords, and you can add more keywords as often as you like, up to 1,000. Every time I got online to check my stats (which is compulsively 3+ times daily), I challenge myself to add more keywords.

My title said heart-centered - let me explain that. My son once gave me the world's best advice, when I sighed and wished I could just give Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs away for free to every child in need of a little extra love instead of worrying about all this business nonsense. He said "the more books you sell, the more people you are helping."

I had an epiphany. Behind every keyword search is an actual human being, reaching out into cyberspace to try to find a solution to a problem. The problem might be needing the perfect gift for a baby shower, or a book to entice a reluctant reader. In the case of Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs, often there is a very deep issue that has driven the customer to seek out books on Amazon. Here are just a few of the keyword searches that have gotten "hits" and led to sales of our book:

"death of a grandparent"

"separation anxiety"

"I miss you"

"books for divorce"

"grief books"

"children death"

"remembering mama"

In addition to these general terms, I have entered titles of all the books I can find in the same niche genres as mine, wonderful books to help grieving kids like "The Invisible String," "Llama Llama Misses Mama," "Ida Always," "Grandma Wishes" and "Badger's Parting Gifts." Since my book is also helpful for divorce, I added great books like "Dinosaurs Divorce" and "Two Homes." I added the titles of dozens of books that help foster children, military families, bedtime stories, grieving families, etc. I also added a bunch of best-selling picture books like "Dragons Love Tacos" and "Goodnight Moon" and popular author names like Oliver Jeffers and Dr. Seuss. As I mentioned, whenever I check my stats, I try to add a few more keywords. It's fun challenging myself to find new ones (great way is to look on Amazon and check out the titles in the "Customers who bought this item also bought" section.

Now when people search for those particular books, my book appears at the bottom of the screen as a "Sponsored product related to this item." I don't look at this as stealing from the competition - I look at it as adding our books to the wealth of resources available to people needing books like ours. I imagine that the parent searching for just the right book to console a hurting child is going to buy more than one book, and I am glad when mine is one of the books they put in their shopping cart.

Every time someone purchases our book, I feel humbled and proud and grateful all at the same time. There is a story behind each and every customer - and I know that many of them are looking for ways to help children heal from traumatic events. I hope that my book brings a little bit of comfort and peace to the child at the other end of each keyword search.

With The Big Adventures of Tiny House, the advertising has been more challenging. Although this book has important messages about finding home, recycling and sustainable living, it does not address as many life issues as Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs. Still, I have more than quadrupled our sales on Tiny House, selling about $500 worth of books in October. At the time I wrote this article, I had 579 keywords. With this book, related titles and search terms like "best gift for a 5-year-old" and other popular picture book titles have been the most effective.

Some practical tips to maximizing your AMS experience:

Choose "continuous marketing campaign" rather than setting end dates. If a campaign is successful, you can just pause and resume it whenever you want, rather than having to duplicate the campaign and go through the review process over and over again.

Take advantage of all the data AMS orders. You can click on any heading in your campaign and sort the results accordingly (click twice to get highest to lowest). I usually sort to analyze for "Sales," "Clicks" and "ACoS" every time I am online.

Before you start, make sure you have a lot of reviews. I would say 20 at a minimum, so that when people click on your product, it feels solid and proven. Some tips: Ask friends and family, give away free books on Goodreads or to reviewers, do a Netgalley ARC pre-launch (IBPA has a great discount program for this). Or trade reviews with fellow authors.

If you have multiple titles, be sure to have your sponsored ads run on your other book pages by putting in your own titles as keywords. With AMS marketing, it's really true that each new book helps sell the last ones!

Once your campaign has run for a couple of weeks, examine the results and start fine-tuning to eliminate useless or cost-prohibitive keywords.

  • Eliminate or pause dead-end clicks: For instance, the keyword "The Journey" (a comparable title to my book The Big Adventures of Tiny House) used $4.42 in clicks, without a single sale over three weeks, at an average cost of 26 cents per click, so I paused it. I'd rather see that budget being spent on keywords that have resulted in sales.

  • Eliminate keywords with a high ACoS: Sales reported on AMS are for the actual retail amount of the sale, not the amount you receive from Amazon for each sale after their wholesale discount. If I have to spend $12 in clicks in order to get one sale of a $9.95 paperback (of which Amazon takes 55%, leaving me with just $4.45 from which I have to subtract my overhead costs (printing, shipping, etc) to determine my profit) then I have just lost a lot of money. So after watching how my keywords performed for a couple of weeks, I pruned out all the keywords that lead to me losing money, essentially, all the ones with an ACoS (Average Cost of Sale) higher than about 25% in my case. This is an ongoing process - I am always monitoring my keyword performance. Note: the calculations get trickier when Amazon adjusts their pricing of the book!

Again, just PAUSE the underperforming keywords, rather than deleting them. A few times, I have gotten a pleasant surprise when the keyword resulted in additional sales days or weeks after I paused it, thereby making the ACoS much more desirable. I think this is the delayed gratification effect of people holding onto the book in their shopping cart for awhile, or being prompted by Amazon with a reminder e-mail about products they have clicked on recently). This has happened to me several times, and then it is easy to enable the keyword again.

Pause Your Campaigns Every Two Weeks and Let Them Coast

I find it useful (and cost-efficient!) to pause my campaigns every couple of weeks for a week or so, and I've found that they coast along still earning some sales for a bit. When my sales rankings start to slide too much, I resume my AMS campaign. If you take a screen shot of your campaign data and note your sales ranking on your Amazon item detail page the day you pause and the day you resume, you can start to see the trends.

So, next time Amazon offers you those free clicks, look into your heart and decide if it's the right step for you to try! Think about all the ways that your book is a helper - and who it is meant to reach - and then start brainstorming all the keywords that will help you connect with those people.

Because at the end of the day, that is why we write: to deliver a message from our hearts and connect with readers.

And remember what Charlie says: the more books you sell - the more people you help.

Susan Schaefer Bernardo is a children’s author. Her latest picture book, The Big Adventures of Tiny House, celebrates tiny homes, sustainable living and following your heart to a life that is big and matter what size you are.

Susan and her illustrating partner Courtenay Fletcher are passionate about creating books to heal and inspire children of all ages. They indie published their first book, Sun Kisses, Moon Hugs in 2012, which led to a magical collaboration with LeVar Burton (Reading Rainbow, Star Trek) on The Rhino Who Swallowed a Storm, a picture book to help families cope with trauma. The Rhino book has been read aloud by former First Lady Michelle Obama and sent via rocket to the International Space Station for an innovative STEAM program called Storytime from Space. Bernardo is also a published poet, whose poems have been featured in The Cancer Poetry Project 2 and All We Can Hold: Poems of Motherhood anthologies. Her YA novel Inspired (the story of an apprentice muse named Rocket) will be released in February 2018.