Image: Matthew Loffhagen
Wouldn’t it be great if you could quit your nine-to-five and write for a living? If you could be your own boss and focus on nothing but producing stories and distributing them? A pipe dream, I know, but for many writer-entrepreneurs out there, this is real life.
How? How does one pay the bills selling books in a marketplace where most eBooks go for only a couple of dollars apiece?
You’re right to be intimidated, as the road isn’t easy – making money (sometimes even impressive money) as a self-publishing author relies on more than just your chops as a writer. You’ve also got to be willing to put in the effort and study to understand the ins and outs of the publishing scene (both local and international,) the algorithmic pitfalls that self-publishing writers often fall into, and the ins and outs of savvy marketing.
If this sounds like a lot, it is, but the challenge isn’t insurmountable; you just have to change how you think about writing, publishing, and creativity. Let’s get to work.
Before you publish
Self-publishing is as much cold-hearted business acumen as it is creative soul-searching, and so, unsurprisingly, your work begins long before you publish (or even finish) that first book. You need to have a game plan.
It’s worth mentioning that the first thing to do as a self-publishing writer looking to make some cash is to dispel any romantic notions you have of yourself as an author. You’re not Marcel Proust – waking up at four in the afternoon to eat cake and smoke opium before finally writing a few words isn’t part of your ‘creative process, monsieur,’ and donning your best Jonathan Franzen glasses and muttering about how self-promotion, social media, and marketing aren’t ‘writer’s work’ is only going to ensure you don’t sell any books. If you’re going to self-publish rather than traditionally publish, you need to think of yourself less as a creative visionary agonizing over art and more of a well-oiled (and convincingly human) writing machine.
With those harsh truths uttered, let’s look at the different aspects of your pre-publication game plan:
An author’s website
Now, I know what you’re thinking, but this doesn’t have to be anything fancy. You need, basically, a landing page, a description of who you are, a page/section for each of your books, links to your newsletter and social media channels, and, most importantly, links to buy your book (preferably directly from you, but Amazon links will also suffice.) A website is basically a business card, and it gives you something to send to interested parties and a stable, professional presence online. You can either make it yourself using a paid website or you can hire a (trustworthy) web designer to put one together for you.Your author website is like a business card – it’s NOT the place to skimp.Click To Tweet
An email newsletter
An email newsletter? Before you’ve even published anything? Yes, fair reader. As a self-publishing writer, you’re not trying to gain buyers for that three-dollar eBook, you’re trying to gain fans – people who’re invested in you, your stories, and your mission, and who will keep coming back to buy those three-dollar eBooks. This means that it’s important to snag people early with free email content.
You could be sending samples of your fiction, blog content about writing/publishing/something else entirely, or you could simply be ensuring you’ve got this vital piece of infrastructure in place for when you do publish (it’s vital to have something to send readers onto once they do buy and read your book.) Newsletter software ranges from free and simple (Substack, for example) to expensive and complex (ActiveCampaign,) so choose wisely.
A planned funnel
This is vital! A ‘funnel’ is a marketing tool that allows you to direct your readers from their ‘first contact’ with your work (normally your first book, but maybe your newsletter, website, or social media content) deep into your oeuvre. Funnels turn vaguely interested buyers into dedicated fans, and are the main way self-publishing writers make a name for themselves. But how do you build a funnel? Well…
Write more books
I know, I know, it took you long enough to write the first one, and now you’re itching to publish, but this is how it is. Self-publishing marketplaces are over-saturated as it is, and with so many books going so cheap, a regrettably throwaway mindset is prevalent. If you throw your book out there alone, readers are likely to find it, read it, and forget about it. Great, you sold a book – that’s a short-term gain – but that’s it. No returning customer, no evangelical fan, nada.
If, however, you have more books to direct your reader toward, you’ve just pushed them down the funnel. Say you write three books before publishing any. Now, you can offer the first one for free so as to attract the most readers possible.
If it’s good, they enjoy the book and, because you’ve explicitly provided a route forward in the foreword or acknowledgements or whatever (I have more books and more content HERE! Sign up for my super newsletter HERE! Read the next book in the series HERE!) they are immediately ‘funneled’ on.
Maybe you charge for your second book, or maybe you offer it for free temporarily in a clearly stated promotional stunt (make sure you mention the regular price so the reader knows how much they’re saving.) Then, when you’ve got them hook, line, and sinker, you charge for book three. By now, your one-time buyers are, if your work is good, fans. (If your work isn’t good, there’s no saving you.)
The books themselves
It’s remarkable I’ve made it this far through this blog post without talking about the books themselves, but here we are. Your books, unsurprisingly, are a rather important indicator of whether you’ll make any money or not. It doesn’t matter how many readers you get to read your first book if said first book is terrible.
So, how to make sure your books are the best they can be? Well…
Write to market
Writing to market means creating your work with a deliberate sense of the contemporary marketplace. In its most extreme sense, it can leave authors as slaves to what sells, but in moderation, it prevents pitfalls like choosing to share a release quarter with a smash mega-hit guaranteed to grab all your potential readers.
Many famous traditionally published authors argue the opposite of this, but these people tend to have large marketing departments behind them and have never had to think about the logistics of marketing, distributing, and selling their own books.
Besides, writing to market doesn’t mean totally trading in your writer’s credentials, throwing self-respect to the wind, and selling out – you don’t have to ape popular titles or desperately chase the zeitgeist. Instead, writing to market is about being a fan of the kind of stuff you’re producing; it’s about being passionate and knowledgeable about the genre you’re writing in.
If you’re writing fantasy fiction, you should be following fantasy publishing – you should be up to date on the latest authors, you should have read the fantasy classics, you should understand the memes, you should know the tropes, and, crucially, you should know what isn’t being produced. Maybe there are good reasons for this gap in the market, or maybe – just maybe – it’s ripe for you to fill it.
Sell a professional product
Now, I know we’re a publishing website and so we can’t really be considered neutral here, but please, for the love of God, don’t skimp on editing, cover design, proofreading, and copywriting. Nothing stands in the way of your book and sales/fans like a cover that looks like it was designed by a nine-year-old or a blurb written by someone with no knowledge of persuasive writing and SEO. As we’ve said before, a ‘professional’ edit (or book design, or blurb) isn’t just better than a ‘good’ edit, it’s an entirely different animal.
If a proven editor hasn’t gone through your text, chances are it’s full of errors and questionable stylistic/structural choices that might have made sense to you at the time but that desperately need addressing. Additionally, if you want to come across as professional (and you do,) it’s a great idea to ensure your book adheres to the industry standard style guide (in the US, this is the Chicago Manual of Style.)
You might save money in the short term by hiring a desperate student on Fiverr but, in the long run, skimping can be an extremely expensive mistake.
Don’t skimp on the extras
When it comes to selling, your book is a product, and potential readers want to know they’re getting value for money. Once you’ve written your book, consider what else you can add to the ‘package’ you’re selling.What can you add to your book to increase its value? Even simple back matter can change how potential readers approach your work.Click To Tweet
Can you include an author interview, a set of questions for reading groups, or a snippet of your next work? If so, be sure to advertise these features wherever you sell your book. Readers come for the book itself, but extras both entice them to make a purchase and make them feel good about doing so. That’s a useful emotion for creating fans, and all it will cost you is some time and effort.
Likewise, if you’re already including extras – a foreword, a reading list, or an appendix – make sure you treat them as such. Your book’s sales page is no place to be modest about what the reader is going to get.
Work and repeat
So, your books are polished, you’ve published them on Amazon and several other websites and marketplaces (it’s always a good idea to host your book on as many as possible,) and your funnel is functioning well. Your readers are trickling from book to book, and you’re gaining more and more names on your email list and social media followers lists.
Now what? Well, you do it again. Write more. Publish more. Channel your readers from book to book. Build your brand. Learn.
Don’t be tempted to bounce between genres as you write, as by doing so you’ll lose a significant portion of the reader base your previous books have already established. Succeeding at self-publishing means learning to work with a loyal fan base.Making money as a self-publishing author is about continued effort. Talent helps, but perseverance is the stronger force.Click To Tweet
You need to think of writing as a job. If you can produce two novels and a novella a year, work out how many of those books you need to sell per day at a particular price to get a return on your investment and/or turn a profit.
Maintain a steady supply line; write, publish, produce content, funnel readers, advertise where appropriate. Don’t try to hack/exploit Google or Amazon’s algorithms at the expense of your work, as these change all the time anyway and will only gain you short-term buyers, not long-term fans. Rely on the quality of your book, and remember that, when it comes to direct advertising, specialist audiences are better than broad audiences. It’s better to direct the 100 people on your mailing list to your book’s Amazon page than it is 1000 people who don’t even read.
Let’s do business
Turning self-publishing into a lucrative business isn’t easy – you’ve got to be as much a businessperson as you are a writer, and that’s an odd mix. But you don’t need a huge team behind you or thousands of dollars to spend on advertising or marketing professionals either; by being smart, adaptable, and willing to learn, you can turn those isolated drip-sales and disinterested buyers into consistent sales and loyal, evangelizing fans. Good luck!
Have you made good money by self-publishing? Are there any tips we missed out? Let me know in the comments, and check out Make Money By Giving Your Book Away For Free! and How To Get Libraries To Buy Your Book for more great advice.