How To Make Millions Self-Publishing Your Own Books

How To Make Millions Self-Publishing Your Own Books

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It’s all too tempting to get a bit sniffy when it comes to a self-published book. Why, you’re tempted to ask, is it necessary to self-publish? Surely, if your book was worth publishing, an actual publisher would be keen to do it. Well, no, not necessarily. J.K. Rowling, Agatha Christie, John le Carre, Stephen King — all were rejected by publishers in their early days.

Publishers do not have a crystal ball that allows them to tell whether a book will be a hit or not. For the most part, they are forced to judge a book based on their own tastes.

A publisher could be forgiven for not seeing the attraction of 50 Shades of Grey, but he or she would have missed out on one of the most lucrative series in recent history.

To complicate matters even further, the publishing industry is being disrupted by the explosion of digital media, which has forced publishers to act more conservatively than ever. Betting on a first-time writer is increasingly looking like a long shot that can only deliver a small return at best.

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The good news, though, is that unpublished authors have far more recourse these days than Christie, Le Carre, King or even Rowling had when they were trying to break into the industry.

Self-publishing used to be limited in scope. Sure, an author could use a ‘vanity press’ and push out a few self-published copies of a book, but production and distribution on a meaningful scale wasn’t feasible.

No longer is this the case. Self-publishing is now a truly viable option. Thanks to ebooks, the opportunity exists to turn your book into a business — to manage the publishing, distribution and marketing yourself… and pocket the lion’s share of the profits too.

1Become an overnight success: How normal Joes are making it big

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Let us start with a few examples that show just how lucrative self-publishing can be. These are, of course, the headline-grabbers — the authors who have managed to leap into the mainstream by having their books eventually published by publishing houses and even turned into films.

Andy Weir, author of The Martian, started off by publishing chapters of his book on his personal blog in 2011. It was a sci-fi tale about an astronaut marooned on Mars. It was chock-full of chemistry, science and botany — nerdy stuff, in other words, that could reasonably be expected to appeal only to a niche audience. But there was something about the tale that appealed to a (much) wider audience.

When Weir decided to publish his book on Amazon’s Kindle store for $0,99, it quickly became the most popular science fiction novel on the website. Soon after, Crown publishing approached him about re-publishing The Martian in hardcover, and the novel became a New York Times bestseller. Then Hollywood came calling.

In 2015, a film based on the book was released that was directed by Ridley Scott and starred Matt Damon. Weir had gone from an outsider, who hadn’t even managed to secure an agent, to an industry insider in record time.

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Another great success story is that of E.L. James. Her first novel, 50 Shades of Grey, had arguably the most ignominious origin imaginable for an eventual bestseller. Her novel started out as self-published Twilight fan fiction that didn’t star Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey, but the Twilight series’ Bella Swan and Edward Cullen.

It first appeared in episodic form on Twilight fan sites (called Master of the Universe and written under the pseudonym Snowqueen’s Icedragon), but when people started complaining about the bawdy nature of the story, she renamed it 50 Shades of Grey and published it on her own website. Soon she self-published a novel that racked up 30 000 copies, and before long, established publishers came calling. The rest — the trilogy, the record sales, the think pieces, the films — is history.

2Self-publishing done right: How to monetise your content

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As inspiring as Weir and James are, it has to be acknowledged that these two are outliers. Few (like very, very, very few) self-published authors will ever make the jump to the mainstream.

But that doesn’t matter, because you can make a lot of money by sticking to the ‘cheap and cheerful’ self-publishing model — building a large following that is willing to pay a nominal fee for your book.

Mark Dawson has managed to do exactly that. Once upon a time, Dawson did manage to get a book published by a publisher, but it was a total bomb. Reviews were good, but the novel just didn’t sell. The whole experience left him demoralised, and he didn’t write anything for years.

But then someone told him about Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing offering, which allows you to self-publish a book in ebook format. He decided to give writing another try, and this time sales were not a problem. Dawson now makes about $450 000 a year from his thriller series that stars an assassin called John Milton.

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Another successful self-publisher is John Locke. He only started writing books in his late fifties, after he had made a fortune in insurance and real estate. When Locke decided to become a novelist, he aimed to be “the world’s greatest 99-cent author.”

He started churning out stories at an astonishing rate, focusing on thrillers, westerns and detective novels. In 2012, Locke became the first self-published author ever to sell more than one million ebooks on Amazon. More than two million copies of his first book, Lethal People, have now been sold.

So how have Dawson and Locke managed this? They treat their writing as a business, and by circumventing the traditional publishing industry, they are able to take a very entrepreneurial approach to their work. Every aspect of the process is in their hands.

They’re not terrible at what they do

Dawson and Locke are both decent writers. Sure, they’re not going to win a Pulitzer, but they can construct a coherent sentence. This is important. Writing a book — even a middling one — is hard.

If your writing is awful, you won’t even be able to give it away for free. Be prepared to work hard and practice. Locke tossed his first 120 000-word novel because he felt it was just too terrible to try and sell.

They churn out ‘product’

Both Dawson and Locke write quickly. Unlike ‘serious’ authors who often spend months on a page or two, they literally write thousands of words every day. Their books are their products, and the more stock they have, the more money they can make.

If you’re selling a book for a dollar, or so, and Amazon is taking a pretty big cut, you’re not going to get rich by selling one book. The money only starts pouring in once you have a dozen decent sellers bringing in money.

They know their value

Considering the fact that the cost of producing and distributing an ebook is a mere fraction of that of a traditional book, most digital books are astonishingly expensive. A new novel from an established author can easily cost $18 or $20. Now, it goes without saying that there are a lot of people who need to get a slice of the pie.

There is the author, of course, and then there is the literary agent, the publisher, etc. And these days an ebook store such as Amazon or Kobo is also taking a decent piece of the profits. But it’s still hard not to feel a tad cheated when you’re paying $20 for a digital book that you’ll fly through in an afternoon.

Locke and Dawson aren’t trying to get people to pay $20. They ask a fraction of that, which means readers don’t feel cheated, and are even willing to overlook the odd error or inconsistency.

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They know their customers

If you’re writing genre fiction at a furious rate, there will be people who look down on the quality. Some people will hate it. Locke has a lot of haters who think his writing is terrible (just have a look at his books’ reviews on Amazon), but there are also plenty of people who love his work. He knows and understands his core readership.

He understands their expectations. They want a ripping thriller or detective novel that they can read while on the beach or on a plane, not a thoughtful and sombre rumination on the meaning of existence. They have Ian McEwan and J.M. Coetzee for that. Locke sticks to his niche and gives his readers what they want — every single time.

They market furiously

When it comes to a bookstore like Amazon, it goes without saying that competition will be fierce. There are a lot of books out there, so its very easy for your novel to get lost. The Kindle Store alone boasts more than four million titles. So, to attract readers, you need to market.

Dawson responds to all messages from fans and collects email addresses along the way. He has a mailing list of more than 15 000 addresses. His most successful strategy, though, is Facebook advertising. He spends about $370 on Facebook advertising every day, and says that it brings in at least double that in sales.

They love what they do

As with any business, it really helps if you enjoy what you do. As mentioned, Dawson and Locke spend a lot of time writing, and this is impossible to do if you hate every minute of it. A bit of passion will keep you plugging away, even if sales trickle in slowly.

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3The question of why: Who’s going to buy from you and how do you reach them 

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Some people want to be authors. They have an urge to write and will keep writing even if no one is interested in publishing (or even reading) what they write. E.L. James didn’t write Master of the Universe (the original title of 50 Shades of Grey) because she was trying to pander to a massive subset of Twilight fans clamouring for a spicy injection of S&M into the franchise. She wrote it because she wanted to.

When it comes to writing, ‘faking it’ is hard. Writing a book in a specific genre simply because you think it will sell is not a likely pathway to success. Readers catch on to that kind of opportunism pretty quickly.

So, if you are a closet author, now is the time to turn those story ideas into a burgeoning business. But what if you don’t want to be a novelist? Well, then it’s worth looking at other ways in which digital self-publishing can be used to generate income.

Scott earns in the high six figures every year through his books and is a great example of someone who has managed to turn self-publishing into a successful business.

Steve Scott is not a frustrated novelist. Instead, he is an entrepreneur who has managed to turn digital self-publishing into a business. He has published more than 60 non-fiction books on Kindle, focusing on the topics of habits, productivity and entrepreneurship. He now also hosts a podcast on self-publishing (with the pithy slogan: Publish Books. Build a Business), and even teaches other authors how to self-publish through a course he’s launched called Authority Pub Academy. His website (authority.pub) is definitely worth visiting.

Scott earns in the high six figures every year through his books and is a great example of someone who has turned self-publishing into a successful business. Sure, you don’t pen 60 books without having a certain talent for writing, but there is no doubt that he has approached self-publishing in a more ‘tactical’ way than E.L.

James or Andy Weir ever did. It’s worth buying one of Scott’s books on Amazon and giving it a read. His books are nicely written, short and filled with common-sense advice that we all think we possess. I’m willing to bet you’ll walk away fairly confident that you can do it too.

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4How to publish on Amazon

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Publishing a book through Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing is remarkably easy. It consists of four simple steps:

  • Enter Title Information
  • Upload and Preview Book Content
  • Confirm Publishing Rights
  • Enter Pricing and Royalty Information.

Your book can go on sale in the Kindle Store in 24 to 48 hours. For more information, visit kdp.amazon.com.

GG van Rooyen
GG van Rooyen is the deputy editor for Entrepreneur Magazine South Africa. Follow him on Twitter.