The Secret to Selling E-Books by the Boatload (Even if You’re Busy)

Carol Tice

Business graphAlmost any writer can toss together a quick e-book — and many have. But creating and marketing an e-book that’s a moneymaker is much more difficult.

I know because I just did a survey about self-publishing with over 400 writers, and about 20 percent of the participants said they’ve published their own e-book or physical book.

But here’s the bad news: Most of those e-books don’t earn much.

Real writers’ real e-book income revealed

Almost half of the self-publishers reported they made less than $100 from their e-book! Another 30 percent made $101-$500. (You can see more survey results here.)

Now, maybe some of those e-books were created to be free marketing tools. But still, I found that a troubling figure.

Why? It costs money to create a professional-looking e-book. I personally spend $1,000-$1,500 producing each of my e-books. So revenue of under $500 means that the majority of writers’ e-books are probably losing money.

That’s not how it’s supposed to work!

Self-published e-books and print-on-demand physical books are supposed to create a nice side income stream for freelance writers. But something’s going wrong for most writers who try it.

How can you sell more e-books or self-published print books?

You need three basic things to ensure a steady stream of sales:

1. Peeps

The reality is, most sales are made by promoting your own e-book to the people who are interested enough in what you do to give you their email address. That’s right — you’ve heard it 1,000 times before, because it’s true. The money is in your list.

Even ninja-guru, super-successful e-book self-publishers, who invest real marketing money to buy Facebook ads, hire a publicist, and use other pricey techniques discover their top source of sales is: emailing their list. For instance, ace self-publisher Steve Scott analyzed many e-book marketing techniques he used recently, and came to that same conclusion.

If you can build a list, it really helps you market a book without a lot of effort. That’s actually the exact method I’ve been using.

So if you don’t have a list yet, it’s never too early to get started.

You may know I have a few things on my plate, so it’s not like I can devote months round the clock to selling an e-book. With each e-book I’ve put out this year, I’ve sent perhaps a half-dozen emails, tops.

And yet, I’ve earned over $12,000 from e-books in the first half of 2014 alone. How can I do so little marketing and still earn well?

Well, besides having at least a modest-sized list (around 15,000), there’s something I do first:

2. Awareness

The easy way to sell an e-book is to presell it. Prepare the ground early and build awareness with that list of yours. That gets people aching to buy. Be talking about it, in a non-salesy way, for months — ideally, even years — before you actually sell it.

As soon as you have the concept, start talking. Yes, before you write it! The more you involve your tribe in your writing process, the more excited they’ll be to buy.

A few of the things I’ve done to presell my e-books:

  • Conduct surveys to find out what people need to learn on the topic
  • Post potential covers to discuss
  • Share the table of contents and ask “what’s missing?”
  • Ask for input on several possible titles for the work
  • Offer free excerpts from the e-book
  • Recruit beta readers of early drafts
  • Request reviews from early readers

Preselling is a huge help, but there’s one final item that really makes selling e-books a snap.

3. More e-books

This is huge.

I know because once upon a time, I put out one e-book and then didn’t have another one to sell for several years. That was a recipe for low sales.

The easiest way to sell e-books is to keep putting out more e-books. Ideally, e-books in a related series, that continue to offer more info on a related topic, so that buyers of the first e-book would be a natural audience for the next one.

I know — I said my tip would work if you were busy! But doing an e-book series may not be as hard as you think.

My first e-book had three parts and was 200+ pages long! I could have easily put it out as three small e-books instead. Then I would have had a great promotional funnel and lots of fresh reasons to bring people back to buy the older titles.

Now that I have four different e-books all on my sales page, it’s amazing to watch how many people will buy a different e-book than the one I’m pitching, or buy two or three e-books even though I was only actively promoting one of them.

Or…use updates

Really don’t have another e-book in you right now? Think about what you can do to refresh the e-book you’ve got.

Put out a new edition. Add a workbook, a template people can download.

Give yourself a new reason to talk about your e-book, and it’s easy to attract additional sales — as long as you’ve got those first two elements in place.

 Have you self-published? Leave a comment and tell us your best sales technique.



  1. Willi Morris

    These are some really good tips, Carol. Particularly on how to pre-sell a book. I may repurpose my ebooks into a workbook and sell them.

    • Carol Tice

      Ooh, great idea, Willi! Give one away as a signup incentive, and then sell the others. 😉 Folks loooove tools and workbooks.

  2. Heather

    Hi Carol. I’m in the process of self-publishing my history book and I don’t have an e-mail list yet, gulp. I do have a blog, though. Will there be tips on how to develop one in the upcoming webinar?

    • Carol Tice

      You might want to hold off on publishing in favor of developing your audience, Heather. If you have a blog, is there a way to subscribe? Are you offering an incentive for subscribers? That’s usually where audience-building begins.

      There are other ways as well — giving talks at live events, for instance, where you might get an email signup list.

      But trust me, publishing a book to no list is a recipe for selling no books…or for having to devote HUGE amounts of time to marketing it. It’s the hard way to make book sales.

      I get many emails about this: “I’ve just published my book, so I thought I’d start blogging to try to promote it.” I feel sad to have to be the one to tell them they did these steps in the wrong order.

    • Carol Tice

      Heather, as far as developing your blog and getting subscribers, I’d check out the Kickstart Your Blog course A-List offers — you can see it on my Products I Love page.

  3. Jeffrey G. Roberts

    I don’t see how your tips could help me, though: I write science fiction. Your suggestions seem to be geared to a non-fiction topic.

    • Carol Tice

      Well…I think the concept of having a series to sell rather than one book has been around a long time in fiction, and is only getting bigger with all the e-book serials coming out, so that point I’d say is *totally* relevant. And building an audience early online sure worked great for Hugh Howey, hm?

  4. Heather

    Thanks, Carol. I’ll check out the course. I moved my blog over to WordPress recently, and I actually have more subscribers now than I did before, though that’s not a big enough number. I think I’ve been blogging my brains out on the wrong service provider. I’ll need to brainstorm something I can offer people.

  5. Rob

    I’ve written 3 e-books for others. 2 were for a dating site (hilarious! I’m in my sixties) and they sold well. The 3rd was for a private individual. I turned down his profit-sharing offer in favor of payment because I knew it wouldn’t sell. Why? He had a small following like most of us.

    A friend is trying to move away from freelance writing and earn a living from his website. It’s a long process. First he’s writing tons of content and trying to get a following on social media. On the side, he’s working on an e-book and looking for products to sell. This is in addition to building his freelance writing career. He can only do it because his modest rental income is enough for him to live comfortably here in SE Asia. He’s motivated because he will be losing the rental income soon.

    Don’t want to be a party-pooper, but I don’t see any real easy way. I think the “how to make money as a freelance writer” market is saturated, too.

    • Carol Tice

      Well, that’s why this post isn’t titled, “The easy way to sell e-books by the boatload.” If it were easy, everyone would be doing it, right? These are the steps that *work.* If you do them in the right order. But most writers seem to just want to sit in a garret and write what they please and then hope something magical will happen afterward to find it an audience. That’s a real moonshot.

      You know, Rob, I thought that the “how to make money as a freelance writer” niche was saturated when I started in 2008. There was already About Freelance Writing, and FreelanceWritingGigs, and so many others. And now, I have more traffic than most of those. 😉

      Things change, other sites wax and wane, and if you have a fresh point of view and useful tips and are willing to work hard to build your audience, I think there’s always room for somebody new, even in niches as crowded as food. Remember how many people in the world are still just starting to come online. The pie keeps growing.

  6. Peter Stephen

    I’ve just begun researching for an e-book about being a freelance copywriter. I’ve joined several relevant LinkedIn groups and have posted questions; the responses have been better than I expected and I’ve received way more than I’d hoped. As a result, I’ve made lots of new contacts (that has extended my network). It’s a great way to begin generating interest in the subject too.

    • Carol Tice

      Right on, Peter — sounds like you’re making some good moves to lay the groundwork for a successful e-book launch.

  7. Erin

    Hi Carol,

    I wonder what the best bet would be if you want to do ebook publishing as a larger chunk of income? I know a few writers who have done 25-100 ebooks each, and I was hired to do research for another publisher who had even more than that. Obviously, these books were in a varied number of niches, but they seemed to think the power was in their quantity rather than any specific marketing efforts, combined with choosing popular topics with low competition on Amazon and Google.

    How would someone just getting started plan to branch into that sort of thing? Create several blogs and websites catering to each niche? Landing pages? Create a blog so general in nature you could market any and all of the ebooks there? Paying out the backside to buy ad space on existing sites?

    I’m not sure if I’d take things to quite this level, but it’s an interesting concept.

    • Carol Tice

      I guess I don’t think you can just stick a pin in a map and randomly create a big series that will be successful. I do agree series really help you generate more e-book revenue. There definitely is power in quantity…but also power in authority, reputation, and having a ready audience you know how to reach. I don’t think sitting around gaming Amazon’s algorithms and choosing a topic that way…well, let’s say I would never do that. Because how good would your books be on that random topic?

      I’d say begin with an idea for the first small e-book. Maybe start a site or blog for that topic, and then see where it goes from there. I wouldn’t plan too much ahead, because once you start learning from your audience and finding out what they want to know, it will take you in new directions — that’s what I discovered. 😉 You want to listen, rather than plan.

      Definitely don’t create a “general” blog. Quick, name a really successful, popular “general” blog. Right.

      • Erin

        Oh yes, I tend to agree. I was just wondering your thoughts, as I’ve seen so many “gurus” try to sell the idea that the secret to ebooks is to write a zillion of them. One guy even said not to publish even one until you have at least five ready to go. I wouldn’t know how to keep up with all that…

        • Carol Tice

          Well, I agree that writing many is key to making a lot of sales. And that when you’re writing one, you should be thinking about how it might be extended into a series.

          But I wouldn’t be spinning out a series without learning a lot from my readers about what they need. Simply having a series to have a series can also sell none…having a series of related topics that delivers useful info to people is a gold mine.

          Hopefully you had a chance to see my case study on my own e-book series experience? A free replay is up for 2 more days:

  8. Erin

    I hadn’t seen it yet, but I will check it out. I am only entertaining the idea of ebooks at the moment. I have ideas, but no immediate plans. I just find it interesting the differing ideas various marketers have. Most agree that quantity is important, but many say that you basically churn out a ton of titles. They may be titles that interest you, or not.

    Granted, in the grand scheme of things, the only reason they are earning any real income is because of the sheer quantity of books. They may only make a few hundred dollars on some of them overall. A few publishers admitted that their average sales per month for a single book was around $20-$100. It just adds up to look like a worthwhile venture.

    Thanks for your thoughts, though. Again, I tend to side with your line of thinking. I’m a copywriter by day, so I know the value of a targeted message.

    One thing I did notice, though, is that the people firmly in the “write as many books as possibly on any sellable topic” tend to be marketers, not writers.

    • Carol Tice

      Yeah, that’s revealing, hm?

      I once took a training from a marketer all about just finding public-domain content and slapping it into ebooks to earn from. I guess that’s not a direction I want to pursue…probably most writers want to *write* something.

  9. Mridu Khullar Relph

    Great tips, Carol! I’ve got three non-fiction manuscripts pretty much ready to go, but I refuse to release them until I can build up my list. I think those numbers– $100 an e-book– can be really demotivating and I wouldn’t be surprised if those writers haven’t tried again. I made a cool 10k+ from an e-book back in 2005 with a list that was only 7k strong. But I had a list. And you’re right– it made all the difference.

    • Carol Tice

      Right on, Mridu. I think you can do well with a fairly small list such as yours, if your audience really loves what you put out. You definitely don’t have to be a big guru with 100K+ names. I’m very happy with what I’m earning and only have about 15K names between my two main lists.

  10. Mridu Khullar Relph

    Those were the days when we were selling e-books at $12.95 if you can believe it. Downloadable pdf files. The only thing I had done professionally was the cover– a trade with a designer friend.

    I deleted that list 8 years ago because I somehow got convinced that I needed to change the world with my journalism and that this whole Internet business thing wasn’t for me. One click and it was gone. I’ve just started building back up (I have 1,600 on the list now, but I’m making it my focus for the rest of the the year.)

    Someday, I’ll write about the ways in which we all sabotage our success. Sigh.

    • Carol Tice

      Eek! Hopefully that’s a cautionary tale for everyone here — never delete your list.

  11. Mridu Khullar Relph

    Eh, I was 23. It was more important to me to travel the world, do what I defined then as meaningful journalism and feel like I was making a difference. I wouldn’t have written for the NYT or Time if I hadn’t shut shop. So, you know, pros and cons.

  12. Dan Jones

    Great advice, Carol. Glad I found your blog.. for the first time!

    To build an email list, what types of things should someone send out to subscribers that they couldn’t already get on the website? Is it just a straight duplicate of a blog or something else but in email form?



    • Carol Tice

      Hi Dan — welcome to the blog! Be sure to subscribe, I send out lots of offers and also exclusive posts that only my email subscribers see. 😉

      That’s a great question. It can be any number of things — you have to experiment and see what works best. I began with a short, co-written free report on 40 Ways to Market Your Writing, which was originally part of a Webinar I gave.

      Then for a long time, I had a 20-week e-course, Marketing 101 for Freelance Writers. I wrote them on an occasional basis, as I had inspirations for additional marketing approaches to add to the series, so it took many months to write. This series was originally published as a series of emails on my blog. But remember, it’s hard to find things in a blogroll, so there’s value in organizing them into a course for people.

      Right now, my subscribers are getting a free podcast, The Freelancers’ Fear-Buster, which I created specifically to be my new free product for subs…and then later, signups will get an offer to elect to take Marketing 101. I crowdsourced the content for this podcast, so it has 17 successful writers & experts’ thoughts on overcoming fear.

      That’s my free-product history! The real answer is…offer something that makes people sign up. The more value you can offer in your freebie, the more signups you will get. I switched mine recently because I find fear is the #1 concern writers have to deal with. Keep asking your audience what they need to learn, and build a free product that addresses it.

      I’ve also heard that tools & templates do very well as free opt-in rewards.

      Best of luck with building your offer!

  13. David

    Hi Carol,
    Another great article. When starting out with a new blog, not much readership or traffic, how do you begin to engage an audience that may not be there? I know building a platform with a ton of traffic is important, but how does one improve traffic and engage a readership that may not exist?

    I’m sure somewhere before you’ve mentioned this, whether on earlier posts or your freelance writers den, perhaps you could mention it again.

    Thanks again for all your great articles.

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