It 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.