Saturday, November 30, 2019

Signs that a Car-Rental Place is Planning to Rip You Off

I've traveled a lot for business, kids' college shopping, and vacations. I've been angered and ripped off by a lot of places but never as blatantly as at a rental place this month in Orlando. Normally I try to just let stuff like this go; however, I don't want anyone else falling prey to these guys. If you see any of these signs and you haven't run a credit card or signed your contract yet, WALK AWAY! I wish that I had listened to my instincts at any point on this journey. It felt like I was living through a John Oliver investigation without the laughs or even a cute dancing squirrel.


1. They are the low bid in the area every time by exactly a dollar--and you've never heard their name before. Everybody runs a special that's the low sometimes, but would you trust a mom-and-pop store that underbids Walmart every time? No. The big guys make money from economies of scale and repeat customers. Someone like this often relies on other methods for profit. Don't think you're more clever than someone who does this for a living and can grab the bait and run without getting caught.
2. You call their 24-hour helpline or the front desk of their only location and can't get a person. In fact, the robo maze hangs up on you or redirects to a voicemail box over half the time. Real companies provide customer service. Scams want to dodge complainers.
3. The company only has one location that only services the airport, not locals. This is also the only place you can drop off and wait patiently for a ride back to the airport. They have your credit card number, and you can't sue them in small-claims court unless you want to come back for it. Local users would keep the company accountable and make sure they were motivated to maintain a good name in the business. If you'll note this example even the sign is peeling, an indication that they don't spend resources to maintain their site or products. This is the very definition of a warning sign. The bottom half of the sign looks fine. Have they been forced to change their name recently?

4. They don't share a van with the other six companies on the same block that have a common transport. Other bus drivers refer to them as "the white-panel van with the magnetic sign on the side." They are an hour late for your scheduled pick up when the other companies show up every fifteen minutes. Other vans have twelve people while yours only has two. Sounds like the start of Rocky Horror Picture Show, not your Disney dream vacation. When you arrive in Florida, you're renting hours of good weather and daylight. Don't waste a moment.

5. The cars on their lot all have some kind of damage--scratches, dents, and paint on the interior ceiling. (Bridal shower party where they were painting their nails? It can't be Home Depot delivery when no local access is allowed.) So what? That means you save money. Right? Wrong. It means they collect exorbitant fees for that damage and then POCKET that money without maintaining their products. Next time someone gets a bill, it could include BOTH scratches. For some reason, you have to present proof of insurance and they need to talk to your agent on the phone to confirm. They also have to retype everything you already entered online, including a copy of your driver's license. Checking people out in these labor-intensive circumstances takes 40+ minutes a customer (plus another twenty or so for the van rides). When the rent is $9 a day and Florida minimum wage is $8.46 an hour, how are these companies making money? From the hidden charges. You want a second driver on the contract? $25.

6. Before you sign, they casually mention for your $36 four-day rental that they are blocking off $500 on your credit card for two weeks for "incidentals" in case they find anything. That's an oddly specific amount. I mean, if you drained the vehicle of fuel, oil, and antifreeze, it wouldn't be that much. Yet it's less than any reasonable collision repair amount. What are they expecting to go wrong in that price range? Is this a bizarre money-laundering scheme?

7. The site does not have any lighting outside, and it's dark. You have to inspect the car by iPhone flashlight and the worker beside you pretends this information about previous damage is new. He starts with a clean sheet of paper, not a form that already lists known problems. If you miss one rock chip in the dark, you just paid for it. Suspicious contracts usually have an independent section on page one that states you are responsible for any damage to the vehicle "whether it's your fault or not." Or they put on page-one how much they charge if they have to come out and tow you back to the one service location. Why would a legitimate company have to underscore that type of rare occurrence unless it's not rare?

8. Toll tags don't come with the vehicles like at other rental places. You can't leave MCO without paying $5 in fees or driving twice the amount of time on surface streets. Without a SunPass/e-pass sticker, you have to stop and pay tolls every couple miles by the airport. If it's late or remote, the stations will be unmanned and you can only pay in coins. Yet, the company charges $11 a day for a toll tag when the whole car is only $9 a day. How much for four days of tolls? "$48," they replied. Hmm.... where did that extra $4 come from? Fees multiply like rabbits in those dark boxes.

9. We reserved an economy car, and they don't have any on-site. They upgrade us to a land-yacht with multiple blind spots that we really don't want. Worse, when we turn on the vehicle, it shows a previous trip average of 11 miles per gallon. I kid you not. Are they hoping it will burn more fuel so they can charge $10 a gallon for refilling it? The performance didn't get any better as we drove. I didn't think that rate of burn was possible after the Obama legislation and buybacks of fuel hogs. How could these rental people possibly be doing due-diligence maintenance on this fleet? They can't. Any vehicle that out of tune could DIE ON YOU at any minute. They don't care. You'll pay for the towing plus diagnosing and "fixing" of any problem if you happen to lose this lottery because you agreed that any problem was your fault.

10. The last person left their contract in the glove box and there's an old piece of hard candy in the trunk. That seems trivial, but it means they don't really clean their rentals between users, despite their "comprehensive return checklist". When obvious litter is overlooked, what more significant details are they skimping on to get that car back on the road sooner?

11. The company boasts a TripAdvisor rating under 1.5 with 89% of them one-stars, leading with the headline "Complete Scam." The economy rental website we used was at the top of the print-out, not the name Routes. We booked over a month in advance, not thinking to check their reputation again on the day of our arrival. You'd think with a rating like that, it's time to change the business's name again. No. They're advertising a $7-a-day special for Black Friday.

There's another rental agency just next door. Run! Pay the extra dollar a day for peace of mind.


What happens if they catch you with their scam? These are signs that it's not you and that others are in danger too. Call your credit-card company and contest as soon as you can. Post on social media. Give as many one-star ratings as you can. File an online report with the Federal Trade Commission.
1-877-FTC-HELP (1-877-382-4357) or

Help save others from this fate.

1. When a problem occurs a mile out, they "don't have the manpower to address it." One of our tires registered 3 pounds low on the dashboard as soon as the gauges displayed at the gas station a mile away where we had to stop at to pick up $10 in quarters. By the time we reached our hotel a 30-minute drive away, the indicator warned us we needed to reinflate immediately. When we phoned, the person at the desk wasn't alarmed. "Put air in it or bring it back." For $10 in tolls and an hour more driving plus another hour of paperwork, they offered nothing for the inconvenience. Our hotel concierge was shocked. In her experience, real rental agencies dropped off a replacement and apologized. Some rental agencies I've used had brand-new cars with stickers on the window advertising 24-hour free road service from the manufacturer. The agency closed by the time we had eaten and decided to take the vehicle back. The next morning, we weren't sure if we'd be able to make it the 3 miles to Disney the next morning. We couldn't park in the Magic Kingdom lot for 15 hours and come out to a flat tire. By the time Disney closed and we picked up the family, it was too late to return the vehicle again.

2. When we did take the defective vehicle back (after waiting in line to refill the air twice), the agency started with the assumption that we would pay to replace the entire tire after they took it to the shop for an estimate Wednesday (after we were gone for two days).  But wait, the last guy said you folks do all your maintenance on-site. When we take him outside to explain, he points out a nail and has an explanation in under a second. "Oh you must have taken it to highway X. They have a lot of construction there." No. The 6-lane road to Disney World is the cleanest highway I've ever been on. Blaming the victim automatically is a sign that this fraud happens often.

3. When my wife replies, "That's a rock in the tread, not a nail. Are you sure it's not just the pressure sensor?" he finds the real nail head in the same relative position in a few more seconds That makes me suspect he knew where the puncture was all along. We know for certain it left the site with the damage, and their negligence could have killed me and my family if that tire blew in traffic. They didn't care about our safety, only their profit.

4. There is no manager on site during normal daylight working hours. The clerk "doesn't know how to reach" a manager who can override this mandatory charge even if there is a hurricane. When you ask for the number for a local lawyer on your cell phone, the clerk suddenly has his manager on the cell phone, asking for advice.

5. They didn't replace the broken vehicle with a new one until we argued for an hour. Even with other workers testifying to the accuracy of our statements, they didn't hand us keys to a replacement vehicle until the next vanload of suckers comes in from the airport and we started telling them how the place works. What worries me is they made a BIG deal of saying the key and contract would stay on the manager's desk until this was resolved. How do we know this next vanload of folks didn't get stuck with it for another bonus payment?

6. When I put fuel into the replacement, the tank overflowed onto the tire INSIDE the car frame before the pump shuts off. It had clearly been in an accident and improperly repaired. Instead of going to NASA for the day, we had to walk around in a random town for an hour waiting for the fumes to subside enough for us to start the car safely. This thing was a death trap. I would never risk my family to this company again, and neither should anyone else.

7. After promising we would only be charged for a simple tire patch and to give them a few weeks to resolve it, a mysterious $266.25 bill showed up on the same day as the initial pickup--almost as if they knew how much they were going to charge at the moment they pre-authorized. The whole tire wouldn't cost that much! A tire plug only costs me about $10-15 in Minnesota with a higher hourly wage. They're clearly hoping we wouldn't notice or the amount won't be enough for us to fight. When we called back from home, nobody at the agency could explain the amount. Somehow, the only person we could to talk to wasn't in, and the invoice and key were no longer on his desk. Who could see that coming?

After three weeks of phone calls, we did get our money refunded, but not everyone is that fortunate. Although the wasted hours and sleep missed will never be replaced.

Sunday, October 27, 2019

Volleyball Tournament

This weekend was a two-day Christian Athletic League tournament, the culmination of months of driving around the state and late nights squeezing in homework. Early Friday morning, we drove two hours to Wilmar, the host of this year's tournament for both soccer and volleyball. Our soccer team had driven the night before to make their 8 am game. Since Irene had never had donuts before, we stopped at Cold Springs Bakery on the way to get a sampling. Mmm. (Don't tell coach--no food before games.)

Because CCS had beat only one other team this year, they were seeded next-to-last in the rankings. Emily was out most of the beginning of the season due to a dislocated knee but still subbed in for serving. Irene rode the bench as a first-year, though she should shine in basketball starting next week.

Waiting in the stands, I chatted with fans who bore easy-to-read labels on their shirts like "Clara's Grandpa." In the first game, we were up against third-seeded Saint Cloud. Below, Emily serves three in a row, improving team morale.

The girls were so excited when they won this upset victory. The SC fans and players kept remarking on how surprised they were that we beat them. Our later game against the favorite and the host of the tournament did not go as well.

The girls had a full schedule of events: cheering on our soccer folks, pizza, secret-sister gift exchange, and trying to get to sleep in a busy hotel full of excited teen athletes. I used the time between games and chauffeur duties to read "Leviathan Wakes" -- an excellent noir buddy novel.

On day two, the girls rallied in an extremely scrappy match that went to game five. Everyone pulled together, and even shy Anna made some very aggressive spikes. Unfortunately, no one told the stands that the last game only went to 15 instead of the normal 25. I was planning to tape the ending but was shocked when the entire team went bananas and rushed onto the court jumping and screaming. After a disheartening season, they won third place in the league!

The medals on our setter and senior blocker are for players voted all-tournament by other coaches. Congrats CCS!

We shared decompression and dazed anecdotes over a Chinese buffet. Now we drive home and do laundry so we can hand back uniforms by Monday.

Saturday, October 26, 2019

Family Vacation Part 3: National Parks

We woke bright and early to visit Devil's Tower. Up close, the formation reminds me of the Causeway of the Gods, with perfect geometric shapes in nature.
Below, there were no open food places, but the ranger warned us that Yellowstone might not be open tomorrow if they got snow. I didn't relish the thought of 9 hours of driving for nothing. So while the ladies hiked, I phoned the Yellowstone information line. They had no plans to close but said to monitor their website or phone for updates.

Irene loved the Wyoming landscape, with all its varying colors. She said that, other than the lack of water and very small towns, it reminded her of her hometown of Alicante. When we reached a "big town" for lunch, she said "Town? No, this is a village!" We explained that Alicante has 450K people, and the entire state of Wyoming only has 577K. Having a smartphone makes me seem brighter than I am.

The trip over the mountains in the dark with icy roads is not an experience I would recommend to anyone. In fact, in another two weeks, chains will be mandatory on tires. We ate dinner at the dude ranch in Moran, since the close hotels in Grant Village sold out so fast. I wouldn't recommend finding your room in the dark without labels or lights, and a porch roof that's about 5' 5". The food was sketchy, and the WiFi dropped every five minutes. I couldn't get a call out to Yellowstone.  DON'T COME HERE OFFSEASON, which is after Sept 30, but the views of the Tetons were great in daylight.

Thirty miles from the Yellowstone south gate, we were turned away. All the roads on the website but one were gray... which I would have painted red. The roads were too icy and bear activity was at a dangerous level. No geysers or hot springs for the rest of the year. We were all sad that we couldn't show Irene the wonders we had promised. However, Irene was in awe of the snow.

We spent the rest of the morning exploring the slightly icy roads of Teton Nation Park around Jackson Lake. On the daylight / warmer trip back through the mountain pass, we got to see the bears we had promised. To Irene, this had been worth the trip.

When we returned the way we had come, gas stations were open, but no restaurants. We bought lunch food at the grocery store and had a picnic in the car.

A few minutes into the Wind River Indian Reservation, an engine malfunction light came on. I was terrified of breaking down in the desert... until I remembered a similar situation in the past. I had my daughter check, and the gas cap hadn't been completely tightened. This was likely a false alarm, but the manual I pulled up online told me it could take a few days of driving before the light went out in this case. If I guessed wrong, we were talking serious engine damage. Reading more on my phone made me feel confident that it was only the gas cap. Everyone else was out of roaming data, so I had to conserve what little remained of mine for the GPS.

We decided to take the long way home through Montana and North Dakota for maximum cultural exposure. The resumption of cell service, green hills, and eating dinner at a real restaurant in Billings did wonders for our morale! The fact that the dash light went out after twelve hours of driving and adding a better grade of fuel didn't hurt either.

We did manage to find one last tourist attraction in North Dakota. "Look, a giant cow?"
Without her glasses, Irene asked, "Where?" We lost it and took this picture to tease her. How could you miss a cow this size out your window?

Thursday, October 24, 2019

Family Vacation Part Two: Rushmore and Bigger Statues

My biggest worry was daylight--once the sun went down at 6:05, we wouldn't be able to see a thing. This part of the country gets DARK, and the sidewalks roll up. Since we had stopped at so many attractions on the way, we had to skip the gold mine and Bear Country. Jewel Cave was closed for the season due to construction. Fortunately, we had gained an hour by traveling west. Emily drove while Irene napped. I fretted about impending rain.

We arrived at Mount Rushmore at around 2:30 Mountain Time. Irene was so excited. "I can't believe I'm here. It's like a movie or Phineas and Ferb." Yes, she watched it in Spain and shared a love of the cartoon with our family. We had recently shown her Ferris Bueller's Day Off, the prototype for the show, along with several of our other teen-friendly favorite movies.

Unfortunately, construction had begun at Rushmore, twenty feet from the gift shop. To get to the good viewing platform we remembered from our last visit (hence the matching T-shirts in the photo), we had to walk 45 minutes on a trail that made our legs burn. All to get a few feet closer. I was stressed about the schedule, but the ladies loved the scenery. When we rested at the Jefferson plaque, I commented that Jefferson with his pale sparkle looked like a Twilight vampire. That became a running joke for the afternoon.
We took a ton of photos for ourselves and others. My favorite was in a moment of dad humor, I posed the same way as the presidents and shot a selfie up my own nose, with plenty of throat shadow.
Next, we raced to the Crazy Horse Monument. At one turn, we braked and pointed three feet from the car at the side of the road. "Look, Irene, an antelope."

She wasn't wearing her glasses again, out of a misplaced sense of vanity. Tammy has tried to tell her she looks beautiful either way, but it's a habit. At fast-food restaurants, Irene uses her phone to photograph the menu and enlarges the print. We have tried to convince her (I through teasing) that seeing is more important. I included this picture of the amazing carving because it's one of the few times she voluntarily put them on.

The tour bus driver at Crazy Horse was a wealth of information. All of Rushmore would fit in this statue's head and hair.

In the next town, we searched for someplace to have a late dinner, and only two places were open. We decided to get a chicken alfredo pizza instead of waiting an hour at the burger place. For the price, they were very stingy with the chicken. The lesson--don't travel off-season in this area. In the two-hour drive in the dark, the girls played Heads Up word guessing game on an iPhone. We downloaded the movie and pop song expansions. The most hilarious part was the Warner Brothers cartoons and Muppets. Evidently, the characters have different names in Spanish. Kermit is known as Gustavo la Rana. I just remember one moment after Irene said, "Oh, no. His name is Roberto." Emily laughed so hard she dropped the phone.

That night, we stayed in Sunset, at the junction of all the looping highways. The ladies enjoyed the pool while I walked to a truck stop for a noncaffinated drink. Then I typed up some notes on my latest story. Emily also used the WiFi to submit assignments for her college classes. Did I mention that she's fifteen and wants to be a doctor someday?

The next blog entry will conclude the trip with the Wyoming sites.

Wednesday, October 23, 2019

Family Vacation, Part One -- Getting There is Half the Fun

To help ease the loss of our son to Penn State (Pierce should be a junior by Christmas, still 17), our family has taken in an exchange student from Spain--Irene (pronounced ee-RAY-nay). Her English is outstanding, and she fits in well. Over the MEA 4-day weekend, my wife wanted to surprise her by showing her the sites in the Mountain Time Zone such as Rushmore and Yellowstone. Each month, we are planning a mini-vacation to show her the country.

So Wednesday night after work and school, we took off. The fields of wind turbines were amazing, but the whole town that smelled like fertilizer did not impress her. My daughter, Emily, got some night driving time in toward earning her license. We vowed to go back to the state's biggest candy store during basketball season. Our group made it as far as Mitchell, South Dakota the first night. 

Big signs on the hotel said "Welcome hunters." Although they advertised a pool, it had been completely drained and the only chairs in the common area were littered with empty beer cans.

What's there to see on the way to our goal? We started with the Corn Palace--a basketball/performing arena decorated with, you guessed it, corn. Hey, it was free and had several Pokemon Go spin spots. 
Inside, they had a corn rendition of Mount Rushmore so authentic that we almost canceled the rest of the trip. What could possibly compare?

Overlooking the Missouri River, Tammy found a monument to the dignity of women and her favorite hobby--quilting. We also found more fast-food places to inflict on Irene.
On the road, we read "the Darwin Awards II" aloud to each other, sang Disney songs in two languages, and devoured Star Crunch snacks. Emily enjoyed driving 80 for the first time on roads where no one else could be seen. 

Next, we stopped at the MOST advertised tourist attraction in the state--Wall Drug, in the town of Wall! Here Irene bought postcards and other souvenirs. She learned how jackalopes helped pioneers explore the West like Sacajawea.

Since my Internet has suddenly turned glacial, I'll upload the big tourist site tomorrow and continue the story of our intrepid explorers.

Wednesday, September 25, 2019

Hacks for Amazon Marketing

After my last post, I had an odd spike in ad expenses with no return, and I wanted to know why. So I did another report on my AMD ads experiment, with a breakdown by ad placement. It showed me that 35% of my recent ad budget was completely wasted on First page Top placement, with not a single sale. When looked for a way to adjust the number of ads by placement to eliminate this, I found none. AMS customer service said that they will take it under advisement as a new feature in the future.

Placement Impressions Clicks Cost Per Click Spent Sales  average cost return orders percent budget
Product pages 56792 78  $   0.61  $ 47.54  $29.90  $   4.75      0.63 10
Rest of search 21624 34  $   0.65  $ 22.10  $23.92  $   2.76      1.08 8
First page Top of Search 2113 31  $   1.23  $ 38.18  $     -  

Until then, how do I avoid flushing so much money?

1. Product Pages Only

Well, Rest of Search has no knobs, but I can set the base bid at 10 cents, and after the ad is created, go to the last line of the "campaign settings" tab and increase bids for Product Pages only by 800%. In this way, I can ensure that no First impressions will be made and I can bid on my old keywords for Product Pages only for under 80 cents. I can then adjust the bid per keyword for this submarket. 
The first day only cost me $1.66, but I haven't seen any purchases yet. After an initial burst of 2000 impressions, Amazon throttled the exposure to 3 impressions per hour, too low to get any clicks. I suspect after the first day, it favors campaigns that produce a profit.

2. Rest of Search

If I want Product Pages and *some* of the Rest submarket which as twice as lucrative, I could set my default bid to 65 cents (the average cost per click of that category) and only bid down. The max bid is half the average of the First page prices; however, on the first day of this test, the campaign somehow reset itself to "dynamic up and down" and generated three useless $1 "top" clicks to go with the 3 sales that the other categories earned. I set it back to "down only" and will retry. Of the 13 settings that you can change, Strategy is the only one that has its own off-screen Save button, so be careful.

Unfortunately, when you go "down only," even if you keep increasing the bid, it only gives access to Rest markets 10 percent of the time. It feels like I am being penalized for not giving Amazon free-rein with my budget. Indeed, in the five days after the change, I only got 2 clicks total. Up until the change, I would have expected 65 clicks for the same period. Since it takes an average of 6 clicks per sale last week, I sold nothing.

3. Skipping Days Manually

With years of Amazon reporting data to go on, I know that Tuesdays are my worst days (and Sundays are weak). Looking at Amazon ad data, none of the clicks generated revenue on that day of the week. So, I will use the pause button on the campaign to manually prevent the expenditure on that day. Reducing my ad budget 14 percent with the same monthly purchase rate increases my profit.

4. Manually Enabling on Key Days

From my sword-and-sorcery series, I know that Monday afternoons were my biggest time for purchases, making almost as much as the rest of the week combined. Therefore, I only turn my Doors campaign on for that day. Make sure that the ad duration lasts through the desired dates or turning it on the night before will only get you an expiration message when you try to check the stats the next day.

Tuesday, September 17, 2019

AMS Ads Lessons Learned

Indie authors would love to wave a magic wand and have ads transform their backlist into best sellers. It doesn’t work that way. For the first week, AMS is more like visiting the doctor or mechanic after going without for years. You pay a bunch of money to find out what needs fixing. Be willing to pay upfront for this valuable information and make changes accordingly. If you’re lucky, you can use the tools available to find a niche for your book that is profitable and satisfies your customers. I know this because I played amateur sleuth like one of my characters. I’ll give concrete examples from my experiments below.

1. Don’t try this with 99 cent books
Your cut of a 99 cent e-book is less than 30 cents. AMS bid averages start in the 35 cent range. The best categories are closer to 90 cents. This means that you’ll never make a profit. Even if you’re willing to eat the huge loss short-term, my one-day comparison experience is that people are less likely to click on a 99 cent novel than a 2.99 option. If you don’t value the product, why should anyone else?

2. Use Kindle Select Novels with a Paperback Option
Although it is difficult to track, novels that subscribe to KDP Select have much better results. Kindle Unlimited subscribers who don’t have to pay extra are much more willing to try your book. Once they read a few pages, they should be hooked. Even with stand-alone novels, I’ve generated almost as much follow-on revenue through KU as during the actual sale of units. My “Doors to Eternity” epic fantasy didn’t benefit from the exclusive Amazon contract the way all my sci-fi novels did, but I flipped it on after a few days to make my ad dollars go twice as far. Note that I sold a higher percentage of paperbacks than normal with these ads. (11% compared to the normal 0.2 percent) Unfortunately, the AMS reports won't tell you which keyword sold your paperback, and the total sales on the summary page will be mysterious more than those on the spreadsheets because of this.
Lastly, I noticed that read-through to the second book in any series made ads even more cost-effective. The higher your read-through rate, the better the effects. Because 67 percent of readers of “Jezebel’s Ladder” buy “Sirius Academy,” and there are five books in the series, one sale has the weight of three.
Below is the comparison of direct sales versus KU. Note the two-day lead time.

3. Manually Target
I’ve never seen an automatic campaign get significant clicks. If it does get clicks, they often don’t lead to sales for the first several days, and you won’t know why or be able to control this. The point of this exercise is for you to learn. That’s the real benefit for what you’re spending initially. If you knew what sold or why people liked/disliked your product you wouldn’t be in this situation. I use an initial budget of $10 a day. Plan on burning that much per book to find out what you don’t know. Try to start out with at least 75 keywords/phrases and add to the list each day as you find out what works. For the first book I wrote, Scarab, I could only think of 29 phrases. Only three got above 50 impressions, and only “Ready Player One” was something other than a sci-fi category name. As much as I thought fourteen-year-old video-game players will like the book, it isn’t really marketable. If I couldn’t think of enough good reasons somebody would want it, no one else will. With all my other experiments, other good keywords kept popping up every day. I was able to use the data to change the price and blurb on my novels to reflect what I learned. For example, 100% of Andre Norton fans who clicked on my Doors ad purchased the book, so I added her to the blurb and my keywords. I also added her to the list of phrases on my YA novel, an even better fit.

4. Be Patient
Data in Amazon takes one to three days to be recorded. Nothing will show up on your sale board for 24 hours. Even if you get sales on your board, you won’t always know which title sold for a while. KU purchases take even longer to register. Furthermore, book sales happen in cycles. For example, my epic fantasy sales dip on Sunday and Tuesday, but spike heavily on Monday at 1, after my target audience of IT guys comes back from lunch and checks their e-mail. You need several days of data before discarding anything. Be aware that the reporting interface is buggy. When you change to request Targeting keywords, it resets the span of the report to LAST month, giving you an empty useless spreadsheet. I recommend the "Month to Date" version.

5. Preconceptions are the First Casualty
However, on day three, you can begin changing the search keywords that you entered in your initial KDP setup for your e-book. The words you thought described your book are probably irrelevant garbage. Now you can prove what is popular and what positively associates with your product. For example: my magic school novel “Tells” had Harry Potter in the description, but everyone uses that label. Only .2 percent of impressions go anywhere. I had no idea that Richelle Mead or Harley Merlin series fans would convert so much better (up to 2.5 percent). The keywords Magic and Intuition were a waste of space, and I replaced them with the two successful ones. For my “K2 Virus,” no one cared about Virus, Korean, or Martial Arts, but Pandemic, Assassin, and Tom Clancy were huge winners. Evidently, buyers wanted a spy thriller more than a research paper. Why customers are interested is something we haven’t been able to see before. Take advantage of what you’re learning to make your book better long-term, not just for the span of a sale. 

6. If Amazon Won’t Spend Your Money, It Can’t Be Spent
After four days, “Quantum Zero Sentinel,” one of my newer novels hadn’t spent even $3. I had very few clicks. Why not? It had a 4.8 rating and had a decent initial sales bump with my regular fans. However, there were several problems. First, the targeted Batman/Orphan Black fans weren’t interested. The more popular authors who resonated were Dan Simmons, Neal Stephenson, and William Gibson. Altered Carbon even had a good showing. Wow! Huge compliments, but I need to radically change my blurb. The category that most closely aligned with the novel wasn’t hard sci-fi, but Spy Thriller, with a whopping 2.5% click rate. My biggest problem? The cover doesn’t say any of this to prospective readers. I’ll have to spend another $200 plus to fix the problem. Fortunately, my Facebook marketing research of alternate images says that more than enough people will buy the novel to pay for this change. In the meantime, thousands of people in my niche were exposed to my brand for next to nothing. Next time they see one of my books, they’ll be more likely to buy.

7. Not All Clicks are Good
False clicks happen, and they hurt, especially early on when you’re adjusting your campaign. Sometimes it’s an accident or a fluke. I had this happen most often with popular titles like “Game of Thrones,” “Warhammer,” or “Star Trek.” You need to reduce the chances of a mistake using negative keywords like RPG, DVD, Movie, or TV so that you don’t pay for someone’s fat fingers. After filtering, the hit rate for several of these is much lower (1 per 3000 views). I eventually got rid of these phrases, too, because even if the Star Trek customers do buy my space opera, it won’t be the experience they’re looking for and my product reviews will be lower. This is an exercise in finding the right audience for your writing. Since K2 Virus has a transgender character, I made that one of the original keywords. However, the types of books that come up when you search that word on Amazon are very specific sorts of erotica—nothing like my novel. I turned this keyword off after several false hits because I don’t want to mislead people. As this decision very subjective, I make it a rule to switch off only one of these false leads a day (or a couple closely-linked ones like Klingon and Star Fleet). Then watch how the revised list performs on your reports tomorrow. Eventually, you’ll have a smooth-running machine.

Here is an actual sample day with my decisions color-coded.

keyword views clicks cost per click spent sales
assassin 961 3 $ 0.99 $ 2.98  $  2.99
espionage 633 1 $ 0.64 $ 0.64
medical thrillers 622 7 $ 1.14 $ 7.98  $  5.98
spy novels 616 1 $ 0.65 $ 0.65
pandemic 589 12 $ 0.87 $ 10.38 0
tom clancy (BROAD) 576 1 $ 1.33 $ 1.33
tom clancy 450 1 $ 1.54 $ 1.54
plague 292 6 $ 0.76 $ 4.55  $  2.99
north korea 279 1 $ 0.63 $ 0.63
richard preston 190 2 $ 0.81 $ 1.62
spy 181 1 $ 0.59 $ 0.59
hard science fiction 83 1 $ 0.84 $ 0.84
military thrillers 47 1 $ 0.59 $ 0.59
outbreak 43 1 $ 0.48 $ 0.48
bioterrorism thriller 39 2 $ 0.46 $ 0.91  $  2.99

8. All Hat, No Cattle
The last case is the hardest. What happens if you get lots of clicks, but nobody buys? Ouch. You just shelled out good money for nothing. I had this happen with “Void Contract.” One of two things might be to blame. I’ll have to apply the scientific method to determine which. First, the image of an African man with a gun on the cover can be off-putting to American consumers. I found with Facebook experiments that British and Indian customers have no such bias. Unfortunately, I can’t test this theory because AMS doesn’t run anywhere but the US, and I don’t want to buy another new cover today. Second, and more likely, is that the detailed pitch is too dull for the audience. I wrote the book as an homage to the 70s author Alan Dean Foster and peace between all species, but today’s military sci-fi fans (Zahn, Dietz, Green, Cook) are the ones buying it. No room for touchie-feelie with these guys. The pitch has to grab them by the nose and shout, “Someone who deserves it is gonna get hurt, and you can watch.” Testing will take a week because first I have to wait a day for the e-book to unlock after I changed the keywords. Then, the new pitch can take another day to percolate through to the Amazon page. Finally, I’ll need at least three days of revised data collection to judge the performance of the new one. Because of the long wait, I need to word-smith each revision carefully. I’m considering the following replacement:
  • Max doesn’t want to be an assassin, but his Xhosan-African genes and hunter training make him invisible to empaths, the perfect weapon for hunting alien war criminals across the Gigaparsec of known space. After they’re all gone, he isn’t sure how he’ll fit into peacetime society. That’s not a problem now that Saurian mobsters have kidnapped his only surviving friend. Since evolved races can’t legally kill sentients, Max is going to have to get creative.
  • Fans of Dietz, Zahn, Vance, Heinlein, Walter Jon Williams, and Babylon 5 should enjoy this action-filled quest to other planets.

I’ll update the post when these results are available.

9. The Long View
For “midlist” authors like myself with a couple dozen novels, AMS works best as a marathon, not a sprint. I don’t want one-day burst of 500 sales, followed by obscurity. I want a steady three sales a day, building my “people who bought this” affiliations and increasing my positive reviews. I love it when a day after someone new likes one of my novels, an entire cluster of them sell. These are intangibles you can’t buy. The biggest success from the first wave of my AMS experiments was “K2 Virus,” which has a handful of keywords that pop 25 times a day, but when they do, I have a 4 percent conversion to sales. At the other extreme, I have words that get 200 views a day with only a half-percent click rate. You have to work these ads like a farm: planting, weeding, harvesting, and starting over the next season when conditions change yet again. This isn’t a one-time deal; rather, AMS ads are a tool in your arsenal to help you understand who your buyers are and what they want—marketing. This also informs what the topic of my next novel should be. If I can tell from research that it won’t have a market, I shouldn’t spend three months and a thousand dollars creating it.

10. Adapt
After over a week, I figured out that two of the keywords I used were getting sales but not earning as much as they cost. Therefore, I adjusted the amount I will bid so it stays inside the profit margin. This can be adapted continuously from week to week.

Targeting Cost Per Click (CPC) Spend ACoS profit point
assassin $ 1.40 $ 5.58 186.6% 0.75
medical thrillers $ 0.98 $ 10.82 180.9% 0.54