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

Carol Tice

It feels like yesterday that I was self-publishing my very first ebook, 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 ebooks. As I prepped to release my latest, Small Blog, Big Income: Advanced Ninja Tricks for Profitable Blogging, I realized I now have TEN ebooks available for sale, counting my free ebook for subscribers.

I’ve learned a ton along the way, so I thought I’d save others some time and unpack it all by teaching you how to make money writing ebooks.

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

What helps me earn well from each ebook I release these days? Here are 17 hard-won tips for how to make money writing ebooks.

17 Things I’ve Learned About How to Make Money Writing Ebooks

1. Ask 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 ebook, and to tweak the title to use the best possible keywords.

Are there already a lot of recent ebooks 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 ebook concept. It definitely did for me with that first Small Blog, Big Income ebook, 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 ebook in a vacuum!

3. Shorter Is Better

People don’t want to read endless ebooks like my first one, which topped 200 pages! Better to break up your material into multiple ebooks than to try to cram it all into one. Yes, Amazon is now penalizing shorter ebooks in author royalties…but short ebooks 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 ebook. I’ve done a series of four Freelance Writers Den ebooks adapted from bootcamps, and the new Small Blog, Big Income ebook 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. Cheaper Is Better

Trust me, you will earn more in the long run with lower-priced ebooks, 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 ebook. I said, “Have you visited Amazon lately?”

Remember, though they may be a paid product, ebooks are rarely a huge earner, especially in the short run. Most ebook 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 ebook 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. Repurpose Your Content

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

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

7. Collaborate

Yes, Collaborators are terrific for ebook writing! Most of my ebooks 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 ebook.

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

8. Write Multiple Books

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

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

9. Refresh/Update Your Ebooks

You can also redesign the cover of an older ebook, update and introduce a new edition, or otherwise refresh an older ebook and promote it to create a sales surge. Linda Formichelli and I did this with our co-written ebook 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 ebook 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 ebook 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 Events

Again, people: Think collaboration! Instead of trying to sell your ebook 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 ebook 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 ebook 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 ebooks to build authority and land lucrative public speaking gigs, or fill seats at their live or online conferences. With this new ebook, for instance, I’m finally acceding to many requests that I offer blog coaching, and debuting that service. When your ebook is the tip of a sales iceberg of related services, you can earn a lot more.

article writing template

13. Sell Within Your Book

One recently learned trick for me is to offer one cheap additional ebook before the table of contents in your ebook. 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 ebooks, and you’ll see a link to every single product I offer. Don’t forget to update your endpapers in your ebooks 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 ebooks is all about preparing the way. It’s impossible to start too early, talking about an ebook! 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 ebooks 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 ebook 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 ebook. 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 ebook 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 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 ebook or class.

Solve this by leaving something out of your ebook 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 ebooks, 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. 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 ebook 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 ebook 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 ebook 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 ebooks 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 ebooks via Amazon. They just take too big of a chunk of your sales.

18. Bonus! 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 ebook sales marketplace to see where you have the best opportunity.

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

28 Comments

  1. Karin

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

  2. William Schietroma

    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

      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

    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

      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

      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. Ashok Anbalan

    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.

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