How to (Really) Make $1,000,000 Selling E-Books – Real-World Case Studies 262 Comments
Who will be the JK Rowling of self-publishing? Better still: who will be the legions who make an extra $1,000-$1,000,000 per year? (Photo: The Telegraph, UK)
This is a guest post by Ryan Buckley and the team at Scripted. I have added my own tools and recommendations after “TIM” throughout the piece.
Enter Ryan Buckley and Team
Barry Eisler writes thrillers about a half-Japanese, half-American freelance assassin named John Rain. John Rain is the consummate anti-hero, a whiskey swilling, jazz-loving former CIA agent battling crippling paranoia as he adventures around the globe. Readers love John Rain, so much so that they’ve landed Barry Eisler and seven of his John Rain books on the New York Times Bestseller list. [TIM: Here's how the different bestseller lists work.]
Having conquered all that needs to be conquered in the world of commercial publishing, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that Eisler’s publisher offered him $500,000 deal for a new two-book deal.
“I know it’ll seem crazy to a lot of people, but based on what’s happening in the industry, and based on the kind of experience writers like you are having in self-publishing, I think I can do better in the long term on my own.”
We asked Eisler for a current update, and he told us that this month (March 2013), he expects to sell 8,000 copies of his 10 self-published novels and stories, which are priced $1-5 each. Despite self-publishing his first story only two years ago, it appears he’s made the right decision. With roughly $300,000 in royalties per year, he already beat his publisher’s offer…
The writing on the wall couldn’t be any clearer: the publishing world is changing fast.
Getting a publishing contract has long been the first litmus test of a writer’s success. Writers spend years in the wilderness accumulating rejections before finding a single buyer (advances usually start at $1,000 to $10,000). Even The 4-Hour Workweek was rejected 20+ times before it got an offer.
But conventional publishing isn’t the only game in town anymore.
Self-published authors are increasingly landing on the NYT bestseller list and hog a fair share of Amazon’s top-20 list. Amanda Hocking became a self-publishing multi-millionaire with her teen supernatural thrillers before bagging a $2M publishing contract with St. Martin’s Press. John Locke sold $2M worth of eBooks before landing a deal with Simon & Schuster.
All this means that perhaps you don’t need a contract to validate you… now or in the future.
Why eBooks, Why Now?
The numbers don’t lie: Amazon now sells more eBooks than printed books. Kindle sales topped 1 million per week by the end of last year. More than 20% of publishing giant Random House’s revenues last year were from digital sales.
[TIM: Here are my personal stats -- the percentage of total sales from ebooks for each of my books, limited to their first year on-sale:
April 2007 pub date - original 4HWW - less than 1%
Dec 2009 pub date - revised and expanded 4HWW - approximately 21%
Dec 2010 pub date - 4HB - approximately 31%
Nov 2013 pub date - 4HC - will surpass 50% by November 2013]
Amazon is at the forefront of this publishing revolution. Through the Kindle eReader and the Kindle eBook store, it has given indie authors a platform to get published and gather an audience. As a $100-billion-plus market cap e-commerce juggernaut, Amazon already has a substantial user base (as per comScore, 282.2 million people visited Amazon.com in June 2011 – or roughly 20% of the total internet traffic). Coupled with high royalty rates (70% compared to 10-15% for traditional publishers), it is the perfect platform for a fledgling writer to make a living, and if fate agrees, even a fortune.
The path to becoming a Kindle millionaire isn’t easy, but it’s possible to tilt the odds in your favor by following best practices. [TIM: Becoming a millionaire using non-Kindle ebooks is arguably even easier -- here's one $1,000,000/month example.]
This how-to post will look at general principles and lessons from real-world successes.
Understanding Amazon and Niche Selection
The first step is market research.
Your first order of the day should be to spend a few hours around the Amazon Kindle marketplace. Browse through the top sellers, be generous with your clicks and read up as much as you can – user reviews, book descriptions, Amazon’s editorial reviews (if any). You want to get an intuitive feel for the market, what sells, what doesn’t. How many non-fiction books end up in the top 10? What genre do they belong to? What is the average price of a Kindle bestseller? What do their covers look like? How many reviews do they have? What is the average rating? What is the correlation between rating and current ranking?
- I polled my 400,000+ followers on Twitter and Facebook with questions like “What are your favorite 2 or 3 cookbooks?” and “If you were starting over, which 2 or 3 books would get you most excited while learning fundamentals?”
- I then used virtual assistants via Taskrabbit.com to create a list of those titles that pop up more than 3 times. I also asked professional chefs the same questions and cross-referenced the lists.
- Once I had the repeat contenders (let’s assume 20 titles), I headed to Amazon, where I did 2 things:
1. First, I identified the titles on my list that have an average review of 4 stars or higher.
2. Second, I read the “most helpful” critical reviews from those titles, aiming to focus on 3-star ratings, whenever possible. If not, I look for 4-star. The 1- and 2-star are usually written by people who hate everything (look at their other reviews if you
doubt me), and the 5-star reviews tend not to go into detail. From the “most helpful” 3–4-star reviews, I compile a list of:
A) Things “missing” or deficient in even the best books. These are opportunities for me to do or explore something new. For instance, even the best-selling BBQ books were criticized for omitting the “heart and soul of BBQ”: short ribs and brisket. This meant I naturally had to include at least one.
B) I download all 20 books onto my Kindle and read the “Popular Highlights” in each, sorted by “Most Popular.” This often allows me
to read 20–50 pages instead of 300, 500, or even 1,000 pages. Then I can deep dive only where I love what I see. If you don't like the movie trailer, you're certainly not going to like the book the highlights were pulled from.
But this begs the question: how do you go about selecting your niche in the first place?
I’m tempted to say: pick a niche you actually enjoy reading. But this may not always be the best advice. I enjoy reading complicated literary novels and obscure texts in linguistics, but they’re hardly the stuff best sellers are made of. Your niche selection should be in-line with market demands. This is why spending time in the Amazon marketplace is important: it will tell you which niches are popular and which are not.
[TIM: To really determine what will sell and what will not, I highly recommend reading this step-by-step method by Noah Kagan. He built two multi-million-dollar businesses before age 28 using similar methodologies.]
Once you have your niche, spend some time researching your ideal buyer. See where they hang out, how active they are online, what is their average age and income, and what motivates them to buy an eBook in the first place? Are they looking for solutions, or are they looking for adventures and story-telling to ease their boredom?
Once you have a faint picture of your ideal buyer, find out what they do and what they consume online. Entrepreneurs will likely hang out at TechCrunch, while productivity folks will have Lifehacker bookmarked. Quantcast is a good tool to understand market demographics better. Just type in the URL of the target site, and you’ll get a fair idea of their demographic make-up. [TIM: You can also get valuable data from Kickstarter projects you find that might attract similar customers -- which sites are sending them the most traffic?]
Be prepared to spend a few hours over a weekend in market research. [TIM: I'll spend weeks doing this, if necessary. I don't truly know my audience until I could make decisions for them.]
A few power tips for niche selection:
- Weight loss and dieting are a perennial Amazon favorite.
- Business books tend to find a lot of favor with readers as well, especially if you can package scattered information into an easy to digest package (example: Personal MBA by Josh Kauffman).
- Reddit is one of the finest sources to research niches and gather ideas. Spend a few hours in /r/Fitness and its related sub-reddits (/r/leangains, /r/paleo) and you’ll come up with dozens of ideas for a book (example: The Butter and Bacon Diet: Losing Weight With Keto, inspired by /r/keto). This is a nice list of sub-reddits arranged by popularity.
- Don’t go niche-hopping. Stick to one niche and dominate it with a flood of quality content. There are dozens and dozens of ideas scattered all over the Internet. Research these ideas, agglomerate them into comprehensible forms, and synthesize them into consumable format, and you’ll have your eBook. [TIM: This isn't my approach, but it can be done well, even with public domain materials.]
Creating the eBook
This can be the hardest or the easiest part of becoming a Kindle publisher, depending on your comfort level with writing. Writing the eBook yourself can be incredibly fun if you enjoy the creative process, or a mind-numbing chore if you don’t.
[TIM: Writing a book shouldn't be used to determine if you like (or can at least handle) writing. Try and publish a chapter-length (3,000-5,000 words) blog post a week for a month. If you can't do that, don't commit to a book, IMHO. To improve your craft, I suggest On Writing by Stephen King, Bird by Bird, and On Writing Well.]
Alternatively, you can outsource the entire project. But before you jump into the fray, there are a few key steps to consider:
- Brainstorm the title of the book. Along with the cover, your title is the most visible aspect of your book. Dig through the bestseller list in your targeted niche to see how top books are titled, and consider following their lead. [TIM: I actually test both titles and subtitles using cheap Google Adwords campaigns.]
- Brainstorm angles and approaches to the content. What makes your book unique among the competition? What new perspective are you bringing to the niche? How can you deliver most value to your readers?
- Create a detailed outline of the entire eBook. Map everything out, from the introduction to the concluding paragraph. Look to the best selling books in your niche for inspiration and advice on structure and organization. You should have a thorough outline detailing the style, tone and content of each chapter.
[TIM: I typically break my books into 3-5 "sections" which are then broken down into chapters. I use the program Scrivener to map this out. Each chapter has a beginning, middle, and end like a magazine article. Each of them should be independently self-sufficient. This makes the book easier for me to write if I hit a block... and it makes the book easier to read. I can write chapters out of order, and readers can consume them out of order.]
- While it’s necessary to strive for quality and push conventions aside, it is also important to be practical in your approach. You might aspire to write avant-garde literary novels, but that’s hardly the stuff best-sellers are made of. The key is to write an astounding book in a niche that sells. This, of course, doesn’t mean you have to sacrifice on quality; Max Brooks’ “World War-Z” piggybacked on the zombie apocalypse trend, and yet found a way to comment on compelling present day social and political issues. Now it’s a major film starring Brad Pitt.
If you want to write the book yourself, as Tim would have it, there are a few things you can do to sharpen your skills:
- Become a master of the Snowflake Method. Essentially, it means building a comprehensive ‘map’ of your book – character backstories, narrative arcs, plausible scenarios – before you write a single word. It flies in the face of all conventional notions of ‘creative inspiration,’ but it can be deadly effective at writing superior novels with strong narrative arcs, especially in genre fiction. The Snowflake Method has been devised by author Randy Ingmerson, who has used it himself in all six of his best-selling novels.
- Storytelling is a craft, and like any other craft, it too can be mastered with practice. Barry Eisler, who has tackled both legacy and self-publishing (and succeeded wildly), suggests a reading of three books – Stein on Writing: A Master Editor of Some of the Most Successful Writers of our Century Shares His Craft Techniques and Strategies by Sol Stein, Learning to Write Fiction from the Masters, by Barnaby Conrad, and Robert McKee’s Story: Substance, Structure, Style and Principles of Screenwriting to improve the craft of storytelling. [TIM: I personally favor Save the Cat for fiction/screenwriting.]
- Learn from fellow self-published authors. Eisler recommends the blog of novelist J.A. Konrath, who has been self-publishing since 2004 and recording his experiences on the blog. Eisler says, “I think anyone even considering self-publishing ought to be reading Joe, and if you’re not interested in self-publishing, you should read him just to be sure you understand the pros and cons of the various publishing options available today.” Eisler also has a list of indie author blogs on his website that can help you understand the self-publishing process.
- Learn from the masters: the likes of Stephen King, Nicholas Sparks, and Robert Ludlum have spent a lifetime perfecting their craft. Comb through their novels diligently. See how they create tension, withhold information to create suspense, and write dialogues. The more you read, the better you will become at grasping the essence of a good novel.
- Create a writing schedule and stick to it. Set aside at least an hour or two for writing each day. This is the hardest part about writing a successful novel, simply because it requires discipline and commitment. Most writers don’t succeed because they give-up midway. Don’t be that writer. [TIM: Most of my friends who are consistently good writers write between 10pm-8am. This means they either go to be really late -- I do my best work between 11pm-5am -- or they wake up really early. It's easier to concentrate when the rest of the world is asleep.]
Otherwise, it’s time to find freelancers to finish your project:
- Insist on a Skype interview before you hire anyone. Pay careful attention to their command of language. Also pay attention to how well they ask you questions.
- Ask them difficult questions: What is their prior experience with writing eBooks? What’s their best and worst published work and why? What mistakes have they made, professionally and creatively?
- Speak with references and include: “He/she seems great. I like them. Of course, all people have strengths and weaknesses. If you had to choose theirs, what would they be?”
- If they pass the above, give them your detailed brief and outline in full. The more information your writer has, the better the finished product will be.
- Consider payment on a chapter-by-chapter basis until a strong working relationship is established.
- Last but not least, have them sign a Non-Disclosure Agreement.
Formatting the eBook for Kindle
You’ll most likely write your eBook as a Word document. Converting a. docx/.doc file to the Kindle format is relatively straight forward with Amazon’s conversion tools. Amazon itself has a comprehensive guide on formatting a book for Kindle.
The key things to keep in mind when formatting are:
1. File size: files larger than 50mb cannot be converted to the Kindle format. Remember that Amazon’s delivery costs are approximately $0.15/mb. The larger the file size, the higher these costs. Compress the document as much as possible before uploading it to Amazon for the conversion process.
2. Amazon has a comprehensive guide to building a book for Kindle that covers every aspect of formatting – creating front matter, table of contents, etc. This is a free eBook that can be downloaded here.
3. The catalog/cover image is crucial for sales. Here’s Amazon’s online guide on how to create the cover.
Designing the Cover
Never judge a book by its cover, they say. On Amazon, however, your cover will go a long way towards setting you apart from the self-published pap that usually litters the Kindle store. If you’ve done your market research right, you already know what I’m talking about: badly formatted books with covers that look like Photoshop disasters and a child’s scribbling in MS paint dominate the low-end of the market.
A quality cover is proof that you’ve put thought and effort into the book – a good signal for a prospective buyer. [TIM: Also think in terms of thumbnail size -- will it grab attention as a tiny image on a handheld device? You won't have a nice big hardcover to show it off. Think like an app designer choosing an icon for the iPhone.]
Depending on your budget and Photoshop skills, you can either design the cover yourself ($0), or outsource it ($5 to $395).
OPTION A: DESIGNING THE COVER YOURSELF
Unless you are a Photoshop whiz, I don’t recommend this option. If you must cut corners and design the cover yourself, I recommend keeping things simple: grab a high quality image from Shutterstock that echoes the generic conventions of your niche and write your book title in an appropriate font. For inspiration, head to the Book Cover Archive.
Pro tip: Fonts, like images in a cover, echo the established values of a genre. Fonts in romance novels are usually florid, while those in thrillers and weight loss books are more contemporary. Make sure that you use fonts that adhere to genre conventions.
OPTION B: OUTSOURCING THE COVER DESIGN
Pick your poison:
Cheap: Set up a competition on 99designs to crowdsource your eBook cover. Prices can range from $50 to $500. OR, hire an established, experienced book cover designer. You can easily find a ton of these on sites like AuthorSupport or Damonza.
Cheaper: For $20-50, hire a designer from oDesk to design a cover for you.
Cheapest: For $5, get a cheap cover from Fiverr.
Marketing and Promoting Your Book
So you’ve written your book, you’ve formatted it for Kindle, and you have a gorgeous cover image to entice readers.
Now it’s game time.
Marketing is what separates the successful Kindle publishers from the also-rans who hug the bottom of the sales charts.
Self-publishing essentially inverts the traditional publishing model, where publishers publish the book, then get the media to drum up enthusiasm before the public can pass it along through word-of-mouth. Self-published authors must do this entire process in reverse: they must get people interested in their books before they actually publish the book on Amazon. It requires building relationships with your readers and establishing a sense of community by leveraging social media.
[TIM: I'll keep this note short. Here's how to create a high-traffic blog (1MM+ unique visitors a month) without killing yourself. It's exactly how I built this blog and manage it.]
ESTABLISH A CONSISTENT AUTHOR PROFILE
In the mid-80s, at the height of his literary prowess, Stephen King started writing books under the pseudonym of Richard Bachman. Bachman’s books were failures – Running Man sold only 28,000 copies in its initial print run, but ten times as many when Bachman was outed as a pseudonym for King. The message is obvious enough: readers won’t think twice about buying books from authors they know and recognize.
For amateur authors, this translates into maintaining a consistent author profile across multiple media properties. You are essentially trying to create a personal brand (like Tim’s). Select a good picture and make sure you use it on all author-related websites, including your blog, social media, and Amazon Author Central (more on this below).
START A BLOG
It is 2012; you have no excuses for not running a blog. It is free and downright easy with software like WordPress. The 4-Hour Workweek blog (built using WordPress) was started as a platform to promote a book and foster a community. Today, the blog and its readership are arguably more valuable than the book itself. [TIM: Definitely true.]
Share advice and tips related to your niche. Your blog should serve as a teaser trailer for what’s in store in your book. Be as educative, informative, and creative as you can be. This 4-Hour Workweek blog is a good model to imitate.
HARNESS THE POWER OF SOCIAL MEDIA
Start with the obvious:
- A Facebook page
- A Twitter account
Then the not-so-obvious:
- Do Reddit AMAs on appropriate sub-reddits (here’s a big list).
- Answer questions on Quora related to your niche.
- Do guest posts on niche specific blogs.
- Create author profiles on GoodReads and Amazon Author Central.
- Engage and communicate with fellow writers and readers on forums like Authonomy and Absolute Write.
Barry Eisler advises “not to use social media to sell, but rather to give away useful information and entertaining content for free, and to build relationships thereby. What you do on your Facebook page and Twitter page should be intended to benefit your friends and followers. If they like it, they’ll like you; if they like you, maybe they’ll become interested in your books.”
BECOME A MASTER OF MARKETING
A foundation in conventional and Internet marketing can go a long way in helping you make Kindle sales. Eisler recommends four books on marketing to the aspiring author:
1. Marketing High Technology: An Insider’s View, by Bill Davidow. According to Eisler, “the sixteen factor he (Davidow) looks for in determining whether marketing is likely to be successful are incredibly useful and adaptable to the book industry.”
2. The Dream: How to Promote Your Product, Company or Ideas – and Make a Difference Using Everyday Evangelism, by Guy Kawasaki. Eisler adds, “approaching marketing as evangelism is a brilliant concept, and unusually applicable to books. Recruiting and training evangelists with the power of social media is something any writer intent on commercial success should do.”
3. The 22 Immutable Laws of Marketing: Violate Them at Your Own Risk!, by Al Ries and Jack Trout. [TIM: I love this book. Also don't miss this article, perhaps my fave of all-time: 1,000 True Fans.]
4. Permission Marketing: Turning Strangers Into Friends and Friends Into Customers, by Seth Godin. Eisler especially recommends Godin’s book, saying that “the concept of what a customer gives you permission to market and where you’re counterproductively overstepping your bounds is hugely important to bookselling, and this short book should be on any self-published author’s short list.”
PRICING, DESCRIPTIONS and REVIEWS
Price is a major advantage self-published authors have over published authors. $0.99 to $2.99 seems to be the sweet spot for self-published works. Amazon offers two royalty structures for its Kindle Direct Publishing program: 35% or 70% royalty. The 70% royalty option is available only a few select countries – including the United States (see the full list here). However, books with 70% royalty must be priced at least 20% lower than their physical counterparts. If you choose the 35% royalty option, you have much more freedom in setting the list price.
70% royalty is perfect for self-published authors who do not have physical books in the Amazon store. $2.99 is the recommended price point since it nets you more than $2 per sale (excluding delivery costs, which start at $0.15/mb) while still keeping the price low enough for impulse buys.
It is also a good idea to give away your book for free initially to jump start sales. You do this by setting the list price as $0.00 and promoting the book’s initial run through social media. If the product is good enough, it will spread through word of mouth and you can alter the list price accordingly.
The book description is important for telling the readers what to expect in the book. This is where you put your blurb and review snippets from bloggers. Look at books in the Amazon Top 100 to see how they capture reader attention and write their blurbs.
[TIM: I'm astonished when authors spend 1-10 years writing a book and then let a junior copyeditor at their publisher write their backcover and inside flap copy. Don't do this! That copy will end up being your "Description" text on Amazon, which is your most important tool for converting browsers to buyers. Good copywriters know that you spend 80% of your time on the headline of an ad. You should spend at least 10x as much time on backcover/flap/"description" copy as you would on an average internal page.]
Reviews are social proof of a book’s quality and a crucial contributing factor to its success. Gathering positive reviews will go a long way in pushing your eBook towards the bestseller charts. Some authors, including John Locke, confessed to buying reviews for money (as per this NYT expose), but it’s a practice that is unethical and looked down upon in the writer community. Your best bet is to leverage your existing relationships with your Twitter followers, blog readers, friends, and relatives to get positive reviews.
Finally, I’ve found that it is profitable in the initial run to release books within a space of a week or a month, so that your readers have something to move onto if they like your work. It also helps to create narrative arcs that span several books (something that can be done with non-fiction as well) to keep readers coming back for more. [TIM: Haha... I personally prefer to take 2-4 years between books and focus on ensuring that each one sells for decades.]
The beauty of Amazon is that once you have enough leverage in the market, you’re essentially working on auto-pilot. Once you are an established presence in the market, your name alone will attract the curious and the faithful. As far as passive income is concerned, it’s hard to beat a portfolio of Kindle books.
[TIM: Or 1 or 2 books that sell forever. Here's how to maximize the odds -- The 12 Main Lessons Learned Marketing The 4-Hour Body.]
Caveat lector: be aware that success through self-publishing is rare and hard fought. Eisler compares publishing to the lottery, where few can get in and even fewer can succeed. The main difference between legacy and self-publishing, he says, is that “the overwhelming majority of writers who couldn’t even get in the door in the legacy world can now publish just as easily as everyone else, but beyond that, so far I’d say the odds of making a living are roughly the same.”
He adds, “fantasizing about making it big in self-publishing is no more crazy than fantasizing about making it big in legacy publishing.”
Here’s to the crazy ones: take action, research, write, sell, repeat.
Did you like this post? Would you like more of this type of post? If so, please let me know in the comments. Thanks!
ODDS AND ENDS: MEDIA, MAPTIA WINNER
Media from the web:
We have chosen Mexican-inspired Spicy Chocolate Soufflé with Avocado Whipped Cream by @poconversation (Natalie). Here’s the recipe, and here’s her winning tweet:
— Natalie (@poconversation) March 24, 2013
Posted on April 4th, 2013