...image ads regularly pay only lousy pennies for me.
In many contexts affiliate text links paid better than affiliate image ads for affiliate links. I got the idea years ago from a member of WebmasterWorld who had text link style ads on his site, years before AdSense existed. This member's text ads looked like AdSense ads, only this was before AdSense existed. So I played around with it and discovered that the text ad style unit actually delivered better conversions than image ads.
Messing around with Affiliate work can give insight into how AdSense works and how you can optimize content, AdSense ads, or both for the best revenue.