How I Earned $45K Self-Publishing 10 E-Books: Top Takeaways

How I earned $45K self-publishing 10 e-books! Makealivingwriting.comIt feels like yesterday that I was self-publishing my very first e-book, Make a Living Writing: The 21st Century Guide. I made quite a few mistakes putting that out, and it’s no longer available (cough).

But I lived and learned, and created better e-books. As I prepped to release my latest, Small Blog, Big Income: Advanced Ninja Tricks for Profitable Blogging, I realized I now have TEN e-books available for sale, counting my free e-book for subscribers.

I’ve learned a ton along the way, so I thought I’d save others some time and unpack it all.

I’ve made over $45,000 selling e-books over the past 6 years, without a lot of effort (I added it up when I was writing the new e-book, because I was curious!). So it can add up to a substantial chunk of change, over time.

What helps me earn well from each e-book I release these days? Here are 17 hard-won tips for self-publishing success:

1. Ask your readers first

As with any product you develop, begin by discovering what your readers desperately need—and therefore, would spend money to learn from you. Take a survey, run a question-driven blog post and read the comments, hold a tweetchat, start a Facebook thread. However you do it, find out what your readers’ pains are, and think about how you can solve them.

2. Research the competition

Once you know what readers want, it’s time to research the competition to fine-tune how to position your e-book, and to tweak the title to use the best possible keywords.

Are there already a lot of recent e-books on this topic? Who are the top sellers? What Amazon categories do they use? What are they charging? This competitive intel will help you tweak your e-book concept. It definitely did for me with that first Small Blog, Big Income e-book, which started out as “How I Earn a Six-Figure Income From My Tiny Niche Blog.”

These days, I’m using Dave Chesson’s great research tool KDP Rocket (yes, since I use and love it, I affiliate sell it), which gives you quick answers to these key competitive-research questions. The revised title has “niche blogger,” “make money blogging,” other useful key terms the initial title idea lacked.

A review of current offerings and feedback from my author mastermind showed me that my initial title choice might feel scammy to some (even though that’s exactly what the content is), and it wasn’t different enough from other offerings. Don’t write an e-book in a vacuum!

3. Short is better than long

People don’t want to read endless e-books like my first one, which topped 200 pages! Better to break up your material into multiple e-books than to try to cram it all into one. Yes, Amazon is now penalizing shorter e-books in author royalties…but short e-books are still more effective in building reader loyalty, especially in nonfiction.

4. Write a series

Nothing is easier to sell than a sequel to a previous e-book. I’ve done a series of four Freelance Writers Den e-books adapted from bootcamps, and the new Small Blog, Big Income e-book is the sequel to the original Small Blog, Big Income: A Niche Blogger’s 7-Step Success Formula.

Know what I did to sell the new one? I sent an email to everyone who bought the first one, and made hundreds of sales. Easy!

5. Cheap is better than expensive

Trust me, you will earn more in the long run with lower-priced e-books, nearly every time. On Amazon, anything above $3.99 is real tough sledding.

I recently heard from a new writer who wanted me to affiliate sell his $27 e-book. I said, “Have you visited Amazon lately?”

Remember, though they may be a paid product, e-books are rarely a huge earner, especially in the short run. Most e-book sellers price them low to get people into their marketing funnel and sell them pricier stuff — their consulting, premium courses, and the like.

If you’re dreaming of selling a $79 e-book as your primary earner, you’ll have a hard time making sales, unless you’re a big name with a built-in audience dying to buy anything you put out.

6. Repurposing is good

I’ve done well turning everything from live event transcripts to collections of blog posts into e-books. People are not offended that you’re recycling—different buyers like to buy things in different formats, and some like e-books.

Don’t think you have to write from scratch! Aside from my very first e-book and the two Small Blog, Big Income entries, all of my other e-books are repurposed content.

7. Co-authors rock

Yes, Collaborators are terrific for e-book writing! Most of my e-books have co-authors—I even did one with 40 different authors that I edited and presented. That means I had 40 other writers who would promote the e-book.

Curated content rocks. Collaborating will allow you to generate more e-books faster, which is important.

8. Write many e-books

The easiest way to sell more copies of your e-book is to have another e-book come out. Readers will be more receptive and less annoyed than if you keep flogging that one, old e-book. A new e-book gets readers looking over—and buying—your old titles.

When you have additional e-books, you can also create ‘bundle’ sales of multiple e-books at a discount. That’s been one of my most popular types of e-book offers.

9. Refresh and update your e-books

You can also redesign the cover of an older e-book, update and introduce a new edition, or otherwise refresh an older e-book and promote it to create a sales surge. Linda Formichelli and I did this with our co-written e-book 13 Ways to Get the Writing Done Faster, which initially had a cheesy, homemade cover — and we’ve been selling copies steadily ever since.

10. Invest in design

I don’t go on Fiverr and pay $10 for a cover. I usually invest $1200-$2000 in my e-book publishing process—and make it back the first week. You can compensate for the relatively modest size of your audience and look more successful with better-quality e-book design.

I use the webmaster team I use for my blog and Den community, but if you want turnkey help, I’m hearing good things about Archangel Ink’s services and have seen nice products from them (so I recommend and affiliate sell them). I learned about them from self-publishing expert Steve Scott, who I read regularly. Find some self-publishing successes and watch what they do — you’ll save yourself a ton of time and effort.

11. Participate in multi-author events

Again, people: Think collaboration! Instead of trying to sell your e-book all by yourself, team up with 5-10 other authors and do it together. Do it in person at a bookstore, do it online—but get together.

That way, you all pool your small lists and end up with a much bigger audience. I recently ran a 99-cent, one-day, multi-author e-book sale off a simple blog post that netted thousands of dollars for the authors (without paying for ads on BookBub or any of the other book-promo sites).

12. Know your goal

Know what you’re trying to accomplish with your e-book before you write, price, and market it. If it’s supposed to be your cash cow, you’ll write, design, and market it differently than if it’s your $1 tripwire.

Some authors use their e-books to build authority and land lucrative public speaking gigs, or fill seats at their live or online conferences. With this new e-book, for instance, I’m finally acceding to many requests that I offer blog coaching, and debuting that service. When your e-book is the tip of a sales iceberg of related services, you can earn a lot more.

13. Sell at the top and in your endpapers

One recently learned trick for me is to offer one cheap additional e-book before the table of contents in your e-book. That way, it shows up in Amazon’s ‘Look Inside the Book’ excerpt, and exposes readers to more of your items.

Flip to the end of my e-books, and you’ll see a link to every single product I offer. Don’t forget to update your endpapers in your e-books as you add new products. Your reader is now a qualified buyer from you, and that means they’re a good bet to buy additional things from you.

14. Presell, presell, presell

Selling e-books is all about preparing the way. It’s impossible to start too early, talking about an e-book! Chat in social media about your draft, your cover possibilities, your topic. Publish blog posts on the topic. Guest post ahead of the release.

Offer your readers discounts for reserving presale copies. Get the buzz going, before official launch day. At this point, the bulk of the money I earn from e-books happen during presales! And running a presale also means you’ve got a list of people who’ve read the book that you can email on release day and ask to leave Amazon reviews.

15. 99 cents is the new free

A lot of authors are hooked on the exclusive, free Kindle Direct Publishing promo e-book launch. They’ll even pay BuckBooks and the like hundreds to promote their free offer! I’ve tried it myself, and I’m here to say I think these free giveaways are a crock—especially for bloggers with a smaller audience. Yes, you get some sales after them, because the freebie event spikes your rankings…but the impact tends to be fleeting.

You get thousands of free downloads, get all excited that buzz is spreading…and often, end up making $300 when you switch to asking folks to pay for your e-book. At this point, I’ve heard too many reports of that from other self-publishing authors. I think this is a strategy that once worked well, but now that the market is super-saturated with e-book releases, it just doesn’t anymore.

Why doesn’t a KDP freebie event lead to a lot of sales? Because free downloaders are NOT buyers. They’re freeloaders. So their downloads don’t mean much. Instead, do a 99-cent sale. That’s a way to get a large pool of qualified buyers — especially if you follow this next tip:

16. Capture Amazon buyers’ emails

The big problem with selling on Amazon is you don’t know who buys. You don’t get a list of previous purchasers you can sell the next e-book or class.

Solve this by leaving something out of your e-book that they must come to your site and give you their email address to get. In the case of my newest Small Blog, Big Income installment, it’s a special report with 90 Actionable Tips for earning more from blogging. I create fillable workbooks for many of my e-books, so readers have a good place to take notes and build their own action plan, based on the tips.

The other way to know who your buyers are is…

17. Sell on your own site and keep all the money

Yes, I know I depart from the pack on this one. My Amazon sales are only a small part of my e-book sales strategy, and with the e-tail giant’s ever-changing rules and policies which seem to result in ever-smaller author royalties, I recommend it be a small part of yours.

When you sell an e-book on your own site, to your own audience, you are in complete control of the process, and you keep all the money. This is what you built your niche audience for—so you can sell them directly, and not be dependent on the whims of Amazon’s algorithms to earn! I fail to see why I should give Amazon 70% of the money for selling an e-book to someone I already know.

On Amazon, you cannot run bundle sales or offer readers special discounts the general public doesn’t get. And that makes it a bad place to debut a book, in my view.

I put my e-books on Amazon after presales and after launch week, when I’m done offering deals to my audience. Yes, I’ve been told I’m a fool, and if I went KDP Select exclusively and emailed all my peeps to buy on Amazon, I could rank well and Amazon would become a cash machine…and all I can say is, I’m skeptical.

As a niche blogger, it’s key that you keep rewarding your subscribers and make them feel special when they buy. They should feel they’re getting the inside line and that it’s well worth staying on your list. If they do, they will buy again and again. Send them to Amazon to buy your book, and…well, it’s less special.

I also feel confident that there’s no way I would have earned close to $50,000 selling these e-books via Amazon. They just take too big of a chunk of your sales.

Track the trends

If I had a final point to add, it would be that the world of online self-publishing keeps on changing. The points above outline my philosophy to this point, but the playing field keeps shifting. Try new things, and stay on top of what’s going on in the e-book sales marketplace to see where you have the best opportunity.

Got self-publishing questions? Leave a comment, and let’s discuss.

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28 comments on “How I Earned $45K Self-Publishing 10 E-Books: Top Takeaways
  1. Karin says:

    Valuable information, thank you for sharing. Loving the Writer’s Den!

  2. E books are a great way of promoting a philosophy or concept about a off the Grid political issue, from my research is this might be a great subject but what about the reader or whoever reading this subject or other topics. Therefore I know the Golden rule is to write what you feel which I agree with never go along with polls you must write what one feel about….

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, feel free to write what you feel you ‘must’ — if you don’t care about earning.

      If your plan for your ebook is that it’s a money-earner for you, then I’d strongly encourage writers to do their research on keywords people actually search on in their topic! Sometimes, just a small tweak in the name of your ebook could make a big difference in how many people will see your listing, and how much you’ll make.

  3. Jon Lee says:

    Having self-published three ebooks (one in my name and two under pen names) I’m more convinced than ever that Amazon only works if you have already have a sizable email list that you can promote to.

    Otherwise, I’m not sure it really makes all that much sense to use Kindle publishing as anything other than an adjunct to other efforts. The primary reason is that Kindle is absolutely saturated with wannabee internet marketers looking to make easy money.

    Go on YouTube and you’ll see that there is a cottage industry of supposed Kindle gurus exhorting others to follow their “system” for easy money.

    Picture a parade in a very small town — with more people riding the floats than occupying the sidewalk. Maybe not in reality, as Kindle DOES have a huge and growing user base, but the opportunity has certainly changed over the past two years.

    Now, one might be tempted to say that things are totally different for someone SINCERELY looking to ply their trade and build their platform the right way. To an extent, they’d be right. But on the contrary, Kindle has now been saturated with so many poorly written (or ESL) books on nearly every non-fiction subject under the sun that a degree of branding has taken place.

    As a result, end users are no longer all that eager to download content . . .even FREE content.

    Case in point. . .one of my books, a non-fiction, how to on installing sprinklers. I’ll refrain from listing the title as I don’t want to be seen as a self-promoter. With the exception of during the cooler months, it has consistently ranked in the top 100k of Kindle books (which used to be considered prime territory, especially for what many would consider to be a less than exhilarating topic).

    In early 2015, I ran the KDP Select Free Promotion, and got a few thousand downloads. Pretty good stuff.

    One year later, I did the same thing. 24 downloads. Same time period. Same time of year. Not 24 hundred. Just 24. Those “Free Kindle ebook Promotion” websites used to be populated with avid readers. Now, they’re just populated with other aspiring Kindle marketers (more specifically, their VAs) looking to boost the ranking of their books.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, this is why I’m not all-in on Amazon. I do think the free giveaway promo has run its course as a viable strategy for getting up the rankings and making serious sales on there.

      I’m on Amazon because it’s a huge search engine for book consumers…so why NOT be on it? Amazon can find me extra customers who aren’t familiar with my blog and my brand. But by the same token, I don’t know why Amazon should get 70% of revenue on sales to people whose emails I already have, who read my blog. I’m keeping 100% of that.

      It’s a hybrid strategy, and maybe over time I’d do better going all-in on Amazon and driving my whole audience to only buy on there? But I guess I don’t know a lot of nonfiction authors who’ve earned what I have — and I’ve kept a lot more of that money by selling on my own site. I feel like Amazon hasn’t made a compelling case to me that being exclusively on Amazon is the best way to go.

      The number of people I know who’re earning real money selling ebooks exclusively on Amazon is so tiny…I just think it’s increasingly a pipe dream. As you say, the marketplace on there has become very crowded, prices have gone through the floor, and it all brings us back to the fundamentals of marketing: no matter what venue you plan to sell on, build your own audience. Don’t expect Amazon to magically bring you thousands of sales without your effort.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Jon, do you know what’s worked well for me to boost Amazon rankings? Doing a multi-author 99c 1-day or 3-day sale. THAT got the needle moving, I hit #1 ranks on a bunch of key lists, and it did result in some real sales after the price went up. As I say in the post — think collaboration for marketing!

  4. Thanks Carol for this list post.

    This is indeed a great source of hope for beginners like me and it gives a sense of purpose.

  5. This is good Carol,

    You’ve really made a lot of money selling ebooks and I want to say a big congrats.

    I have one question to ask you. It’s related to your 17th point (Selling on your website). I thought its against Amazon’s rule to sell your book on your website once published on Amazon? Please shade more lights on this.

    Thanks for sharing.

    BTW: I’ll be publishing my first kindle book on Monday and the title is 21 Writing Hacks: A Chest Sheet for Writing Kick-Ass blog posts That’ll Open Doors and Land You Clients.

    I also mentioned you on the book. I read your post about your early days of blogging and how you started writing for Entrepreneur.com, that’s the article I mentioned 🙂

    Do you mind if I share the link with you once the goes live?

    • Carol Tice says:

      You won’t be able to share it on these comments, Theodore, but you can email me.

      It is perfectly fine to sell MANY other places while also selling on Amazon — you just can’t be part of their KDP Select program, which offers higher royalties. They try to incentivize you to go all-in on Amazon…but personally, I don’t think it’s worth it.

  6. Michael says:

    Ha! I was just talking about asking readers what they want. I’m glad you listed that first. Great advice here. You’ve always been a wonderful teacher. Glad Jon Morrow told me (rather his subscribers) about you.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Jon was one of my very first mentors. He emailed me and said, “I want to talk to you about your blog.”

      And I was like, “Why??”

      It ended up happening to me 3-4 times, where people came into my life who wanted to coach me, because they saw I had the seed of something really useful, but that I needed to learn a lot about blogging and how to communicate well online. They were trolling for case studies — something everyone should be aware of. Put out your most promising stuff, and you may attract mentors who see your potential. 😉

  7. Boon Ong says:

    Great information on selling an ebook on the personal site.
    It is great to work with co-authors so that the content is good.

    Had been thinking on selling an ebook as well. I shall that real soon.

  8. Mary Jaksch says:

    Excellent tips, Carol! I’m going to share your post with my readers

  9. Smart Oyedotun Oyejide says:

    Your experience is a by product of hardwork,thanks

  10. Evelyn says:

    Carol,

    Thanks for the advice. As a writer and a marketing consultant, I LOVE your dedication to your audience and how that guides your decision-making. Bravo! I believe you will remain way ahead with this focus.

    Though I have not yet written my first e-book, I’ll be revisiting this post prior to and during my writing.

  11. Marte Cliff says:

    Just curious about your method of delivery when you sell from your own site. Is it a PDF or do you set up for use on an e-reader?

    • Carol Tice says:

      Great question, Marte!

      I made a decision to take the time and cost to create all the formats. So we sell a zip-file bundle with the PDF, mobi and epub files, all together.

      That’s the other thing that’s frustrating about Amazon, is they create a Kindle file, and that’s all you’ve got…and THEY have it, not you.

      I think a lot of writers are scared off by the technical end of taking control of their sales, but I consider it well worth it. I’m completely confident I wouldn’t have sold this much if I were only selling on Amazon — or certainly wouldn’t have NETTED this much income from ebooks, with Amazon taking a cut of every sale.

      By the way, I didn’t COUNT Amazon sales in the $45K figure. One of the many frustrations is that Amazon has NO easy way to get historical cumulative sales data. You’d have to sit and add up month by month for the lifetime of your ebook! I’d say I’ve made maybe $3-5K more in there as a guess, so it’s probably nearly $50K in all.

      You also need some kind of firewall/delivery system. Serving through e-junkie can work well. At this point, we use Digital Access Pass for protecting our ebooks, because we use it for tracking Den memberships and already have it in place.

      • Marte Cliff says:

        Thanks. That’s definitely something to consider. I have a couple small e-books on Amazon and don’t do anything to promote them, so they don’t earn much.

        They did get me an inquiry from the IRS when I incorrectly included them in my sales (I sell a lot of real estate prospecting letter sets) rather than listing them as “royalties.”

        I did those a couple of years ago, so would have to start all over learning how to set something up for an e-reader. Being technologically challenged, I should find someone to help and advise before taking on a new project.

        Meanwhile… I’ve been listening to Bob Bly’s audio on doing audios, so have that rumbling around in my head as well.

  12. Evan Jensen says:

    Before joining The Den, I bought the e-book “How to Get Great Freelance Clients,” which gave me a whole lot of marketing ideas beyond pitching magazine articles and searching for bottom feeder clients on job boards.

    Super helpful advice here, as usual, to see your process for writing books and earning more from writing.

    What’s your timeline like for writing a book from outline to available for purchase?

    • Carol Tice says:

      That’s a great question! It’s quite different for the ones that are repurposed content, which can be done fairly quickly, than the ones I write from scratch. It seemed like I needed a few months for those, to fit them into my schedule. And we try to allow a month from when I think I’m done writing (besides input from beta readers) to when it is done being designed in all the formats.

      The big factor is that I’m a super-busy person — running Freelance Writers Den, putting on Useful Writing Courses, AND also doing freelance writing work. I’m sure it could go faster if I were juggling fewer plates!

      But at this point, the production end of it is a machine, and costs are coming down. I learned more over time about how to use Word styles to get my manuscript into better shape for the designer, so that’s helped cut time and costs. We’ve got a strong sense of what we like in a cover…that sort of thing saves time.

      Where I’m weak is on marketing cycle. I have other things to sell, or I could spend more time marketing these ebooks! I mean, some people make a full-time living off ONE book, by continuously marketing it…but I get bored and want to move on to the next thing.

      The big development my sales cycle has seen is the growth of presales. I’d say presale marketing is now about 75-80% of what I do! We stumbled onto this by accident in one ebook cycle where I simply didn’t have the ebook ready on time! So we kept preselling for weeks. And we discovered that it kept selling! So now, I actually put my biggest emphasis on having a long presale period, and offering goodies to presale buyers. This time, they got a free blog-review Webinar, and a discount on the previous ebook if they bought it in a bundle with the new one.

      You learn a bit more selling each one — another reason to have multiple ebooks to sell. You get better at understanding how to sell to your audience (without being annoying!) as you go.

  13. Abdul Nazar says:

    Hey Karol,
    Thanks a lot for this guide.
    Being a freelance writer myself, I found this extremely useful and eye opening. I haven’t got the guts to write an ebook yet, let alone self-publish.
    Your blog post evoked a feeling in me that I can write an ebook. Thanks again.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, anyone can WRITE an ebook, really, Abdul. Seriously. There are some amazingly mediocre ebooks out there!

      It’s just that not everyone can SELL ebooks successfully. Most writers want the selling to happen magically, and can’t understand how much work goes into building an audience to sell it to. And then they’re disappointed when they finally publish that masterwork…and nothing happens.

      It took me a while to build up my sense of how to sell my ebooks — and more importantly, how I WANTED to sell them. Namely, I like to give my subscribers lots of deals and sort of have a private party with them over the launch, before I send it off into the wider world. It’s just a dynamic that I like, that I think has helped grow my subscriber list to over 18,000 now.

      Doing business on Amazon is very anonymous. You mostly don’t know who you’ve sold to. And it’s just about price, a lot. I’d rather cultivate relationships with readers who know and trust me, so I can sell an ebook for $10 instead of $1, to an audience that understands how much value I’m packing in.

  14. John Soares says:

    Carol, I’m very impressed with your strategy and success selling e-books.

    I sell my two e-books for freelance writers directly from my site. They both contained specialized information and I charge far more for them than I could on Amazon.

    I also like my chances of having my subscribers buy the e-books — and also getting found through Internet searches. A very high percentage of e-books published on Amazon — even good ones — are buried way, way down on page 5 or 10 of search results, never to be seen by potential buyers.

    • Carol Tice says:

      Well, that’s the other conversation to have — if you just don’t sell on Amazon AT ALL, then pricing can be different. Definitely something I think about.

      For now, I continue to have some of my ebooks on Amazon at $9.99 — they’re boil-downs of $300 classes, for crying out loud. I feel like, how cheap should I price them???

      I can remember when Naomi Dunford was selling “How to Sell the Sh*t out of Your E-book” for $97…I think it has to be a very special situation for that sort of thing to work, at this point. I think when you want $97, you don’t package it as an ebook anymore — you package it as a course.

      And that’s so true about Amazon results. I think a million authors pop their books on Amazon, thinking that their marketing chores are now done…and then they email me to ask why they aren’t selling. And most won’t — as you say, they’re buried deep in results, never to be seen.

      Amazon is NOT a magical cash machine for authors who have no platform and are doing no promoting.