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Targeting Book Sales With Amazon Advertising

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by Ian Lamont, Founder, i30 Media–

Ian Lamont Headshot

Ian Lamont

You can target competing or similar titles on Amazon using its advertising service, which allows you to select keywords you can’t in metadata.

Article Synopsis:

  • Amazon’s search engine can only show a limited number of items on the first page of search results, and it’s hard to get there.
  • Sponsored Product ads are the default choice for most publishers using Amazon Advertising.
  • You can target by keyword or product, but know that other authors and publishers can do the same.

Listen to Ian Lamont discuss Amazon advertising with IBPA’s Peter Goodman on the “Insdie Independent Publishing (with IBPA)” podcast: Part One and Part Two.

Imagine you are just about to publish a new romance novel. Wouldn’t it be great to have it appear on Amazon next to books by bestselling authors Beverly Jenkins or Jojo Moyes? Or, if you are a nonfiction writer whose specialty is World War II military battles, how might sales get a boost if you could get the attention of readers who also search Amazon for Stephen Ambrose’s Band of Brothers?

Either scenario would be fabulous for you and helpful for potential readers looking for books that match their interests. Unfortunately, Amazon doesn’t make it easy for publishers to associate books with popular titles by other authors. Its rules for book metadata are quite strict, prohibiting the names of other authors or their books in metadata keywords.

However, this rule can be circumvented utilizing Amazon’s own advertising service. It’s a legitimate way to associate your books with bestsellers, backlist classics, and competing or related titles.

Why Publishers Are Turning to Amazon Advertising

Amazon Advertising (formerly known as Amazon Marketing Services) is a self-serve advertising platform. Authors and publishers can access it through various Amazon programs, including Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), Amazon Advantage, and Amazon Seller Central. Publishers set daily budgets for campaigns and declare maximum bids for every time someone clicks or taps on an ad. It offers publishers of any size a way to get their books in front of eyeballs browsing Amazon.com or the Amazon mobile app.

I have used Amazon Advertising since 2016. My company, i30 Media, publishes a series of how-to guides under the IN 30 MINUTES® brand. We target readers who want a quick and easy way to understand computer software, genealogy, personal finance, and other mildly complex topics. Recent titles include Social Security In 30 Minutes by Emily Pogue and the second edition of Microsoft Word In 30 Minutes by author Angela Rose.

But i30 Media is not the only publisher with books about Social Security and Microsoft Word. On Amazon, many of our titles are grouped with hundreds or even thousands of other books. When people search for “Social Security” on Amazon, there are more than 40,000 results. Pogue’s book does not show up on the first page of Amazon’s organic search results, consisting of bestsellers and other established titles that Amazon’s algorithms think are most likely to appeal to customers.

That’s the depressing reality of Amazon’s search engine. It can only show a limited number of items on the first page of search results. Even if your book has a professionally designed cover, top-notch editing, relevant subject terms in the title, keyword metadata, and dozens of positive reviews, there is no guarantee it will make the first page of organic search results.

Moreover, it’s hard to compete on Amazon against the giants of the publishing industry—the big New York publishing houses that dominate the US book market with bestselling authors and book brands. This is not only because they have so much brand power and marketing muscle, but also because of Amazon’s metadata rules described earlier.

But Amazon’s standard metadata restrictions don’t apply to Amazon Advertising. In fact, Amazon encourages publishers to use the names of competing authors, well-known book titles, and even characters from other books. Here’s a brief overview of how to set it up.

Keyword vs. Product Targeting

Sponsored Product ads are the default choice for most publishers using Amazon Advertising. The ads appear in several locations, including Amazon search results (look for the “Sponsored” tag above the book’s thumbnail image) and the sponsored product carousels that appear on many popular books’ detail pages.

When going through the process of configuring a new Sponsored Products campaign on Amazon Advertising, select “Manual Targeting” and choose from one of the following two options:

An example of a sponsored search result using Amazon Advertising.

Keyword Targeting

Submit a list of keywords that prospective readers may use in search queries or may match the names of other books, authors, or characters.

For instance, an Amazon Advertising campaign for a new horror novel, The Spectral Key, may include the following keyword list:

  • Horror novel
  • Horror book
  • Ghost story
  • Haunted house
  • Cabin fever
  • Supernatural
  • Stephen King
  • The Shining
  • Jack Torrance
  • Anne Rice
  • Mayfair Witches
  • Lasher

In addition to generic terms, the list also includes the names of two well-known authors, their books, and characters from their books. Depending on a variety of factors, including how much other publishers are bidding for the same keywords, the ad for The Spectral Key may show up in Amazon search results or sponsored product carousels when someone searches for terms on the list. The terms can exactly match (“Mayfair Witches”) or overlap (“scary ghost story”).

Product Targeting

This variation of Sponsored Product ads lets publishers select Amazon product categories or specific titles in Amazon’s catalogue. I’ve found that categories are easier to manage, as most books may only have a handful of related categories. If you want to add specific titles to compete with, be prepared for a lot of clicking, as there may be hundreds of books to review and individually add to the campaign.

One other thing to keep in mind about keyword or product targeting in Amazon Advertising: Just as you can select other titles in your campaigns, other publishers can select your book to compete against. If you have a successful book, don’t be surprised if you start to see other books showing up in the search results for your title, or in the sponsored product carousel on your book’s detail page.

Amazon Advertising Cannot Guarantee Sales

This is just a broad overview of targeting competing titles on Amazon Advertising. Results may vary, depending on keywords, bid levels, and the characteristics of the title being advertised.

There are certainly no guarantees of success, either. When I give talks about Amazon Advertising at PubU and regional book events, I note the many pitfalls that can snare new publishers:

  • Bids or budgets that are too high … or too low.
  • Targeting the wrong keywords or wrong competitors.
  • Failing to adjust campaigns on a regular basis.

Publishers also have to make sure that their books and book detail pages are appealing to prospective readers. A great ad campaign paired with a bad detail page will invariably lead to wasted clicks and wasted money. Professional book covers and interiors, compelling titles and subtitles, generally positive reader reviews, and availability on Amazon Prime will help turn browsers into buyers.

Ian Lamont is the founder of i30 Media and served on the IBPA Board of Directors from 2015-2019 as Treasurer and a member of its Executive Committee. Visit leanmedia.org to see his blog posts and instructional videos about Amazon Advertising.

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