Adwords for Authors: A Case Study


The idea for this case study was born in January of 2009. That date may not seem significant to you until I mention the fact that this was the day that USAir Flight 1549 ditched in the Hudson River. The accident was especially significant to me personally because I had written and published a book about a lesser known airline ditching that had occurred in 1970. My book 35 Miles From Shore: The Ditching and Rescue of ALM Flight 980 tells the true story of the first and only open-water ditching of a commercial jet and the efforts to rescue those who survived.

In addition to being an author, I am also a professional pilot. I am type rated on the Airbus 320, the same type of aircraft that ended up in the Hudson River, and I wrote a book about the only open-water ditching of a commercial jet. More importantly, I had a web presence.  That web presence led the media to me, which led to media interviews. The same day of the ditching I was contacted by a number of news outlets for my opinion on the ditching. I was interviewed on the Fox show Studio B With Sheppard Smith. I was interviewed by CNN and by a reporter for the New York Daily News. I would eventually take part in an MSNBC documentary called Why Planes Crash.

By this time my book had been out for a little over eight months. Most of my marketing efforts were winding down. I had done many of the same things that other authors have done to market their books:  I sent out as many review copies as I could; I did a virtual blog tour; I did a limited bookstore tour; I did a few interviews on TV and radio; I started a blog and a website. I had also experimented with running a Google Adwords pay per click (PPC) campaign. I had sold a respectable 2,500 or so copies, and the book was still moving albeit at a slower pace.

One gauge of how my book was doing was my Amazon sales ranking. I wouldn’t say that I was obsessed with tracking my sales ranking, but I’ll admit that I looked at it every now and then. Prior to January 15, 2009, the lowest my ranking had been was around 15,000. For those of you unfamiliar with the Amazon sales ranking system, the lower the number the better. A best seller will typically have a sales ranking of under 1,000. The sales ranking (also referred to as Amazon’s Bestseller Ranking) represents how your book stacks up against the millions of other books listed on Amazon. On January 15, prior to the UsAir ditching, my sales ranking had been averaging between 50,000 and 150,000. That evening and the next day my Amazon sales ranking went as low as 2,000. It stayed low for several days afterwards. The news about the ditching was obviously driving sales of my book, but more importantly it was the visibility that was driving sales.

While the news about the ditching was great for potential sales of my book, my personal life took a nose dive when I lost my job a few days afterwards. More on that later. As I said earlier, I had experimented with Google Adwords, but I had no clue what I was doing. Google’s online help material was extensive, but I quickly got lost among the thousands of links and help files and never could get a solid grasp of how it all worked. My initial Adwords campaign contained just one ad and a handful of keywords. I basically set it up and put it on autopilot for a year. I just didn’t have the time to really get into the nuts and bolts of things. Unfortunately, it was time and money wasted. A poorly designed PPC campaign will be as ineffective as any other half-hearted marketing initiative.

My initial AdWords budget was a measly $50 a month, which netted me a pathetic four or five clicks a day. I hardly ever checked how the campaign was doing. Google Analytics wasn’t even on my radar at that time. After the ditching, I went back into my AdWords campaign and increased the budget to $75. Over the next several months I continued to increase my budget. At some point during this period Google switched from a monthly budget to a daily budget. I had slowly raised my budget until I had reached $5 a day or the equivalent of $150 a month. That was the only change I made. I didn’t do anything to improve the performance of the campaign. That’s where things stood before I had my light bulb moment. That came in October of that year.

Now to say that I was envious of Captain Sullenberger would be an understatement. Here I was having spent five years of my life writing a book and experiencing all the frustrations of dealing with agents and publishers only to see Sully, who had no writing experience nor any desire to become a writer, ink a three million dollar book deal. He had more publicity than any new author in history. His book was coauthored by Jeffrey Zaslow, but you didn’t see Jeffrey on the Today Show or the Larry King show. Sullenberger’s book, Highest Duty, was scheduled for an October release. By this time my book had once again settled back into the 50,000 to 150,000 range on Amazon. I only had a couple hundred copies left of my original 3,000 plus first printing.

A few weeks before Sully’s book was scheduled to be released, I got the brilliant idea of adding a couple of keywords to my AdWords campaign related to Sullenberger’s book and Flight 1549. Shortly thereafter I noticed a spike in my Amazon sales ranking. That’s interesting, I thought. So I headed over to Sully’s Amazon page to see how his book was doing. The book hadn’t been released yet, but he was still kicking butt with a ranking of around 100. I scrolled down the page and was floored by what I saw next. There in the middle of the Highest Duty book page was my AdWords ad for my book.

How did that happen? I wondered. All I did was add a few keywords and all of a sudden I was getting the same exposure as a bestselling book. It dawned on me that having my ad appear on that page was equivalent to going to every bookstore in the county and placing a copy of my book next to Sully’s. That’s when I made the decision to learn more about what AdWords could do for me.

Since I was out of work and had an abundance of time on my hand, I decided to delve into learning more about AdWords and how I could use this technology to create visibility for my book and ultimately increase sales. I started reading the voluminous help files. I spent hours going through the Google Youtube webinars and video tutorials. I spent the next five months implementing what I was learning. I tested, tracked, and analyzed the results. All of this took time.

I’m sure that if I had been more skilled with Adwords when my book had first been released I could have doubled or tripled my sales those first few months. My book had been out for over a year and a half by the time I started to optimize my campaign. Yet while the sales for other books released around the same time as mine had begun to fade, mine was picking up steam. I started to experiment with geographic targeting and opening up new markets in Canada, the UK, the Netherlands, and the Netherlands Antilles.

Eventually, as interest in Flight 1549 began to fade, I found myself spending more on my Google Adwords campaign than what I was getting in return from book sales. The chart below shows the performance, in terms of clicks, for the life of my initial campaign.

Google all time performance report

You’ll see from the chart that my campaign was begun on November 19, 2008. My book was released in April of 2008. The numbers on the chart reflect clicks for the following dates:

  1. January 22 -29, 2009 (The week after the ditching of Flight 1549)
  2. October 13 -20, 2009 (The week I noticed my ad on Sullenberger’s Amazon page)
  3. June 2, 2010 (The day I shut the campaign down)

By the time I shut the campaign down in June of 2010, I had a budget of $300 a month on Google and another $100 a month on Microsoft Adcenter. But my net book sales, after distributor fees, was averaging only $300 a month. So I was losing money. My book had had a good run, and I was happy with what I was able to achieve.

Flash Forward to The Present

One of the goals I had for my Adwords campaign was to introduce my book to more nonfiction readers. My book was doing well in the aviation category, but I wanted the general nonfiction category, which included books like The Perfect Storm by Sebastian Junger and Into Thin Air by Jon Krakauer. Despite my best efforts, I wasn’t able to get my book in front of those readers.

One curious thing did happen that pleasantly surprised me. When I shut down my Adwords campaign, I expected my book to quickly disappear. I thought that it would take only a few weeks before I would start seeing my Amazon sales rankings rise above 500,000. But much to my surprise the book continued to sell. It is now nearly five months since I stopped all active marketing of my book, and I continue to sell 40 to 60 books a month. The majority of those sales are eBooks with most of those being Kindle eBooks.

I had given some thought to writing a book about my experience and calling it Adwords for Authors and using my experience with 35 Miles From Shore as a case study. But there were a couple of obstacles. For one, I was no longer running the Adwords campaign so it wouldn’t be an effective case study. Then there was the problem of Adwords itself, which changes its interface almost weekly. I realized that any book that I would write would be out of date by the time it was published. And lastly, I didn’t want to be stuck in the rut of having to update the same book year after year like so many other how-to tech books.

So I came up with a better idea. I decided to turn my book idea into a series of blog posts. I am writing this first blog post just six days before Black Friday 2010. My plan is to try once more to crack the wider general nonfiction category. This time I plan to ride the coattails of another best selling nonfiction book – Unbroken by Laura Hillenbrand, which was released a few weeks ago. It’s not that the books are that similar. Both books involve a plane crash and rescue. I’m going after readers. I want the readers of Unbroken to learn about another great story that they might be interested in. I have several goals:

  • To get my Adwords ad on the Amazon book page for Unbroken
  • To get my book listed in the “Customers Who Bought This Item Also Bought” list on the Amazon book page. These are books purchased by people who also purchased Unbroken.
  • To use my experience as a case study for other authors to follow
  • To sell more books

I may or may not compile these blog posts into an eBook or downloadable PDF file. If I do, I’ll probably offer the entire series for $9.95 or less. Or you can just go through the posts online one at a time.

So that’s the plan. I intend to start up the Adwords campaign tomorrow, November 22, 2010, and run it through January 22, 2011. Regardless of whether you’re here for the entire ride or joining this case study in progress, I’m sure you’ll find this an interesting journey.


  1. […] in 2010 continues to this day. You can read about the original goal of the case study in the post Adwords for Authors: A Case Study. The cliff notes version of what I wanted to accomplish was that I hoped to get my book in front of […]

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