24 things I learned self publishing 3 books in only 6 months
This post was originally published on The Writing Cooperative on June 5, 2018. Hear an author-read podcast version.
After I published my first book, it took six years before I published my second book. Today, only six months after publishing my second book, I’m publishing my fourth book.
I’ve self published three books in the past six months. What triggered such a change? It started when Seth Godin told me this on my podcast:
“If you’re publishing yourself, you have the most committed publisher in the world…. You’re still going to be the head of marketing for your book. So how do you learn that? Well, you learn it by doing. And the easiest way to do it…is to come out with a book a week on the Kindle…. It costs nothing to do this. It costs less than it cost me to mail my proposals to book publishers. So what are you waiting for!?” — Seth Godin
Seth was right. I’ve learned so much more by doing — by self publishing three books in six months — than I learned by traditionally publishing one book, and waiting six years to publish the next one.
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Here’s what I’ve learned publishing three books in six months:
- Ego will hold you back from self publishing. It’s tempting to think of your book as being a “big deal.” We’re used to hearing about books taking years to publish. We assume all of that time is spent writing, but much of it is just because traditional publishing moves slowly. Instead, ego gets in the way. As I said in The Heart to Start, “your ego fears your art.” I put too much pressure on myself—to follow up one success with a bigger success. It cost me years of my publishing career.
- Your book doesn’t have to kill you. Some people say that if you’re going to write a book, it had better be the most amazing book you can possibly write. They’ll say you’ll be committing career suicide if you don’t put every fiber of your being into every book. People who say this are usually in bed somehow with the dying traditionally-published industry. It’s in their best interests to treat book publishing as some sacred act—if fewer people write their first books, publishing can keep its mystique. Writing my first book was a miserable process. Writing my second book was fun. My second book turned out better than my first book.
- A book is not a book. There are old ideas about what a book is. Much of these ideas are smoke and mirrors from the five-hundred-year-old publishing industry. Or they’re just ideas that have gotten stale because few have questioned what a “book” is in today’s world. A book is not a book. Books are being reinvented.
- A book does not have to be a certain length. There’s a reason why many books today are a blog post with two hundred pages of filler. For example, a thick spine serves as a bold advertisement on a bookstore shelf (credit to Joanna Penn for telling me this). Yet not many books are being sold on bookstore shelves these days. No matter what the length of your book, it gets the same real-estate on Amazon as War and Peace. A book does not have to be a certain length.
- A book can be short and to the point. There used to be a thriving “pamphlet” market. Pamphlets fueled the English, French, and American Revolutions. They not only helped ideas spread, but they made money for their authors. Blogs were supposed to be the new pamphlet. In some ways blogs are the new pamphlet, but the economics of running a blog suck. How to Write a Book is available as a free blog post, also called How to Write a Book. How much have I made from that blog post? Nothing. Less than nothing — it cost me money to publish it. Yet as a book, it’s made me about $700, and it’s only been out for a few months. You can publish a book that is short and to the point, and you can get paid for it.
- Each book is a learning experience. Before you publish a book, there is so much you don’t know, and even more that you don’t know you don’t know. It’s better to publish a bunch of books, learning a little more each time, than to die with your first book still inside you, just because you were trying to make it perfect.
- Kindle will get you the lion’s share. Kindle sales alone account for 82% of the English-language ebook market. It’s much more complex to publish formats aside from Kindle, and to publish on other distributors. So, make the 20% effort that will get you 80% of the results. You don’t need to worry about making your first book available everywhere. Start with Kindle.
- You don’t have to launch all formats at once. Traditional publishing has the resources to launch every format at once: ebook, paperback, and audiobook, for example. That’s a lot of extra work for your first book. Instead, you can do one at a time. I launched with only the Kindle version of my first self-published book. A couple weeks later, I published the paperback. A few weeks after that, I published the audiobook. I played the long game. I got reviews, and built up organic Amazon sales. It’s only with this latest book that I’m launching with all three formats at once.
- A Kindle book is just an HTML document. Technically, a Kindle book is no different from a blog post. It’s some HTML, with some CSS for formatting. You don’t have to know HTML to publish a Kindle book, but if you do, you have an advantage.
- The Kindle is a paid web browser. Many people don’t read on the internet. It’s full of click bait, popovers, and annoying ads. Instead, they read books they buy on their Kindles. (I’m one of these people.) Or, they subscribe to Kindle Unlimited, so they can read many books for free. Amazon is their search engine. Don’t believe me? Check out the book How to Add a Device to my Amazon Account. People are paying $2.99 for that book, because that’s what they find when they search for a help doc on Amazon. Okay, it’s a little sneaky, but it shows you a very important idea: The Kindle is a paid web browser. Readers get a great reading experience, writers get paid for their work.
- You can publish a book as easily as you can publish a blog post.Once you figure out how to make an HTML document, you’ve got yourself a book! (You can use a free program like Sigil, or something more sophisticated like Vellum.) It only takes a few minutes to publish, and it will be for sale on Amazon within hours.
- You can publish under any name you want. When you publish your book, you can put any name you want in the “author” field. As Seth Godin told me, “do it under another name if you want.” If your ego is getting in the way, try a pen name.
- You can publish your first book today. If you’re procrastinating on publishing a book, write 500 words on literally anything, go to Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing, and publish it under a made-up name. You’ll learn a lot just going through the process. You can delete your book from Amazon when you’re done.
- You can publish a paperback edition of your book for free. It costs nothing to publish a paperback edition of your book. You can do it on KDP, Createspace, or even sell direct to bookstores around the world with Ingram Spark. Your book only gets printed when somebody buys it. You have no inventory lying around and no up-front expense — just instant profit.
- You can only be in Kindle Unlimited if your ebook is exclusive to Amazon. Kindle Unlimited is like a Netflix for books. As the author, you get paid by the number of pages read of your books. It’s not a great royalty rate, but in some genres — such as romance, science fiction, or erotica — there are a ton of readers in KU, and some read a ton of books. The catch is that to be enrolled in the program, your ebook can only be on Amazon.
- Amazon forces your hand on pricing. You can’t simply list your book on Amazon for free — though there is a rather complicated way to do a perma-free book, and Kindle Unlimited allows you to offer your book for free for limited periods. The minimum price is 99¢. You keep 35% of the sale up to $2.98. You keep 70% of the sale from $2.99 to $9.99. Since the royalty rate drops back to 35% if you price above $9.99, it makes no sense to price your book higher than that (there are rare exceptions). This is why you’ll see lots of books priced at 99¢, and lots of books priced at $2.99. They’re the cheapest price possible for the customer, so they’re the best price point for the given royalty rate.
- Amazon is getting too powerful. Build an email list. It’s amazing that you can publish to millions of active readers on Kindle. But as Amazon gains market share, they are tightening their grip on authors. You’re seeing it with their pricing terms, and their exclusivity requirement for being in KU. Authors need to do whatever they can to retain some power in the market. All authors should build an email list so they can sell direct to their biggest fans. I’ve written many email marketing platform reviews, and ConvertKit (affiliate) is the best email service for authors, though I personally use ActiveCampaign (affiliate). If you’re curious about why, I’ve written a detailed ConvertKit vs. ActiveCampaign comparison, and an ActiveCampaign review.
- Categories—or genres—matter. It’s tempting to try to write a book that can’t be categorized, but you’d be setting yourself up for failure. Each genre of book already has a market of customers who are buying and reading books from that genre. Before you write your book, spend some time browsing the various categories on Amazon to see which categories are relevant to your book.
- Know your book’s sales potential before you write it. As you browse through categories, you can get a feel for the revenue potential within that category. Go to the top book in that category, and see how it ranks overall on Amazon. Then you can use a sales rank calculator to estimate how many copies it is selling. Do the same with the one-hundredth-ranked book in that category, and now you have an idea of the sales volume in that category. (KDP Rocket — I’m an affiliate — can estimate the monthly revenue).
- Books sell by keywords, or by word-of-mouth. There are two main strategies for nonfiction books: You can try to invent an idea that spreads throughout the collective consciousness (Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck, The War of Art), or you can solve a specific problem (Design for Hackers, How to Incorporate). The former strategy has the widest market potential, but is harder to do. It’s easier to sell a smaller amount of books with the latter strategy, but it’s harder to sell a ton of books. Choose your strategy, or mix them up.
- You can use up to 200 characters in your title and subtitle. Amazon is a search engine, and buyers are looking for books on a topic. Each word in your title or subtitle is an opportunity to help a reader find your book. If you’re trying to solve a specific problem, go ahead and use as many of those 200 characters as you can, as I did with How to Write a Book: An 11-Step Process to Build Habits, Stop Procrastinating, Fuel Self-Motivation, Quiet Your Inner Critic, Bust Through Writer’s Block, & Let Your Creative Juices Flow (Short Read), or as the inspirational Chuck Tingle did with Domald Tromp Pounded In The Butt By The Handsome Russian T-Rex Who Also Peed On His Butt And Then Blackmailed Him With The Videos Of His Butt Getting Peed On.
- You can have seven keyphrases associated with your book. Aside from your book’s title and subtitle, your backend keyphrases also affect the Amazon SEO of your book. You can associate up to seven keyphrases for your book. You want keyphrases that are relevant to your book, that have enough volume to sell some copies, and that don’t have so much volume that it’s hard to compete. Run Amazon Ads, play around with auto-suggest, or buy KDP Rocket (affiliate) to optimize your keywords.
- You can have up to ten categories or browse paths associated with your book. When you publish your book on KDP, they only let you choose two browse paths (a.k.a categories). What they don’t tell you, is you can choose up to ten! Choose ten relevant categories, contact KDP support, and they’ll set it up. This helps more readers find your book. Categories are different for Kindle and print books, so if you have a paperback, you need to do this separately for that edition.
- It’s easy to have a best-seller. Because you can choose up to ten categories for your book, and because some categories are not that competitive, it’s pretty easy to have a best-seller (one guy did it with a picture of his foot). This puts a “best-seller” tag next to your book that attracts more sales. It also makes you a best-selling author. The publishing establishment will complain that you aren’t a “real” best-seller, but they’re wrong.
There’s no doubt that I still have a lot to learn about publishing and marketing books. But I’ve learned infinitely more in the past six months than I learned in the six years before that.
If you get out of your own way, and rethink books with the current market and technology, you can start publishing today, learning more every day.
Need some guidance on your self-publishing journey? Sign up for my free video course »