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Self-Publishing FAQs

Aside from the usual tax and investing-related questions, the most common thing readers ask me about is self-publishing — how to do it, how to get a book on Amazon, which printing company to use, how to market books, etc.

What follows are the answer to the questions I’m asked most often. If you have any questions left unanswered, feel free to ask.

Quick note: This article is written for writers whose goal is to publish a book as an entrepreneurial endeavor. If your goal is simply to publish a book, and you have no goal of any financial reward, you can read the first FAQ below and ignore everything else.

Print Publishing

Which printing company do you use?

CreateSpace. Their costs are low, and they’re very easy to use.

For a couple reasons, I also have printing set up with a second company (Lightning Source). But for somebody just getting started, I’d suggest sticking with CreateSpace alone. If that goes well, it may make sense to add another printing company a few months down the line.

What do you have to do to get a book selling on Amazon?

If you’re using CreateSpace, it’s easy:

  1. Create an account (takes 5 minutes),
  2. Send them a pdf of the cover and a pdf of the interior,
  3. Order a proof copy and check it over,
  4. Submit necessary revisions,
  5. Repeat steps 3 and 4 as necessary, then
  6. Approve the proof.

After you’ve approved your proof copy and checked the box for distribution via Amazon, it will automatically be available for sale within a couple days.

How much money do you make from a book sale?

With CreateSpace your margin per book will be calculated as follows:
60% of the book’s list price (which you set)
-$0.85
-$0.012 per page

So, for example, for a book with 150 pages and a $15 list price, you’d receive:
$9.00 (60% of $15)
-$0.85
-$1.80 (150 pages x $0.012 per page)
$6.35 profit margin per book

By also using Lightning Source, you can substantially increase your profit margin for sales on Amazon. The reason this works is rather complicated though. For a full explanation, see this blog post by self-publishing expert Aaron Shepard.

How much money can I make by self-publishing a book?

There’s no way to know ahead of time how much a given book will make. I’m happy to share my own figures though, because I know it’s helpful to at least have some idea. For 2011, my worst-selling book generated less than $3,000 in revenue. The best-selling resulted in a little over $23,000. The other books were somewhere in between.

From what I’ve heard from other nonfiction self-publishers, that range is fairly typical, subject to the following caveats:

Caveat #1: If you make a book about a topic that very few people have an existing interest in, or if you don’t bother putting in the time to market your book, your sales will probably be much lower.

Caveat #2: These figures include both a print edition and a Kindle edition for each book. As of the end of 2011, Kindle sales were responsible for approximately 30% of my monthly sales revenue. (This figure grew quickly over the first half of 2011, but it seems to have leveled off in the last few months.)

Caveat #3: As mentioned above, I use two printing companies in order to maximize my margin per book. If I were only using CreateSpace for the print books, my total revenue numbers would be about 30% lower.

How much does it cost to get started?

With CreateSpace, the cost is negligible. Setting up a book is free. Each proof copy costs about $20 including shipping. That’s it.

If you want to sign up with Lightning Source, there are more upfront costs involved. Plan on spending a few hundred dollars to get the book into distribution.

You may also want to buy an ISBN for the book rather than using one from your printing company. This will allow you to choose your own publisher name. (Otherwise, the printing company will appear as the publisher.) In the U.S., one ISBN costs $125. A block of ten costs $250.

That’s it as far as costs for the actual printing. However, I’d definitely encourage you to budget for professional editing help as well.

Why sell a book on Amazon rather than direct-selling ebooks to visitors?

The primary reason is that you get to take advantage of Amazon’s millions of visitors. This allows you to be successful with less of your own traffic, and without having to get other bloggers to promote your book.

Also, once the Amazon marketing engine starts promoting your book, it generally continues to do so. (My understanding is that with the direct-sales model, sales tend to decline dramatically after the first couple months of promotional effort.)

Finally, there’s no need to handle any sort of customer interaction at all. It’s truly passive income once the book is selling.

That said, those are just the advantages. There are disadvantages too. For example, you’re unlikely to get away with charging $30+ for a book on Amazon. In addition, you’re not in control of what people say. If people don’t like your book, you’ll end up with negative reviews on the book’s sales page.

Do you have to keep a lot of inventory on hand? Is it a hassle to mail books out all the time?

No, and no. You don’t have to do anything involving inventory or shipping. Amazon and the printing company handle all of it.

Kindle Publishing

How do you make a Kindle book?

For the most part, a Kindle book is just plain old HTML: <b> tags for bold, <i> tags for italics, etc.

That said, rather than create the Kindle files yourself, it likely makes sense to outsource the conversion process. Because conversion from a Word document to an HTML document is a commodity-esque task, you can get it pretty cheap. (I was able to find somebody on Elance who did it for $70 per book.)

If you want to do it yourself, I’d recommend Derek Canyon’s book, How to Format Your eBook for Kindle in One Hour.

How much do you make per Kindle book sale?

If you set the list price for your Kindle book between $2.99 and $9.99, your margin per book will be 70% of the list price, minus a “delivery fee” for the cost of transmitting the data. This fee is quite small. ($0.05 is typical for my books.)

If you set the list price for your Kindle book below $2.99 or above $9.99, your margin per book will be 35% of the list price, minus the data delivery fee.

Book Marketing

What’s your most important marketing tip?

Make a book that satisfies a need that people already know they have. Consider a few of my book titles as examples:

The first three books sell very nicely. The fourth book hardly sells at all. The first three titles all address specific questions that some people have. The last book doesn’t do that. In fact, for most potential buyers, it’s not even obvious what the book is about. (Whoops!)

My most successful approach for book creation and marketing has been to:

  1. Find a specific question that people are asking. (Even better: Check your blog’s analytics to see what questions you’re already getting traffic for.)
  2. Answer that question as a chapter in a book.
  3. Answer several related questions as your other chapters. (Bonus points if you’re already getting traffic for these questions too.)

How do you promote your books on your site?

For me, by far the most successful spot for book promotion has been right at the bottom of each post. I simply have a paragraph that says, “for more information about [topic of book], consider picking up a copy of my book: [title].” Then it has an image of the book cover and several links to the sales page on Amazon. (See the bottom of this post for an example.)

I also use a widget that promotes my most-related book in the sidebar of every post. But it gets a much lower conversion rate than the end-of-post promo.

How do you get book reviews?

It depends which type of review you’re talking about.

Surprisingly, in my experience, reviews from bloggers are only of minor importance. It would be typical for a very positive review to sell just a few copies of your book.

Conversely, positive customer reviews on Amazon are tremendously helpful. My most successful method of getting customer reviews has been to include a prominent section at the front of the book requesting feedback from readers. When you get compliments, thank the person, and ask if they’d be so kind as to copy/paste the compliment into a review on Amazon. (Though admittedly, I’ve gotten lazy with this recently.)

Again, if you have other questions, please feel free to ask.

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Comments

  1. OK, I’ll start the ball rolling on this. Actually, there’s a lot here of interest, but first:

    “Because conversion from a Word document to an HTML document is a commodity-esque task, you can get it pretty cheap. (I was able to find somebody on Elance who did it for $70 per book.)”

    Word lets you save a document in HTML format already. Why pay the $70?

  2. Great question!

    The short answer is that the HTML that Word puts out is rather messy — lots of unnecessary code. In most cases, it will still end up looking OK on an ereader, but larger files take longer to open, take longer to turn pages, and can cause crashing.

  3. Amusingly, the first Mike Piper book I bought was, of course, Oblivious Investing.

  4. “The short answer is that the HTML that Word puts out is rather messy — lots of unnecessary code.”

    Ah yes. I had completely forgotten that – and I shouldn’t have, considering that any time in the office I am given a Word-based HTML file to edit, there is so much garbage code in the file that I invariably just copy the text to Notepad and re-format the HTML from scratch.

    This is all very interesting to me. I have always felt that the drawback of self-published books is that they don’t have to undergo the kind of peer review required by a standard publisher; on the other hand, that’s their attraction also. I have a few more questions:

    1) I looked at CreateSpace and they are offering deals from about $149 up. Do the costs rise with number of pages, word count, size of the book, etc.?
    2) Do you have freedom to use whatever fonts you like?
    3) Can you easily insert graphics, and do they cost more?
    4) How easy is it to make revisions after publication if need be?
    5) What about registering copyright?

    Please answer as little or as much as you feel inclined. Thanks.

  5. Larry,

    1) I didn’t use any of their paid services other than printing. That is, I supplied my own cover and already-formatted, already-edited interior. So I don’t really know the specifics of how their design services work.

    As far as regular printing services, yes, the price per book does increase with page count as explained above. (Or see here for all the details.)

    2) All the fonts I’ve ever used (Georgia, Garamond, Times New Roman, Book Antiqua) have been OK. It’s possible that some particular obscure fonts would not be supported.

    3) Yes you can easily insert graphics. Just include them in the Word file that you save as a pdf. No, they don’t cost more. (Exception: If you want color graphics, then we’re talking about entirely different printing costs, because the whole book will have to be in color.)

    4) Very easy. You send them a new PDF. They take the book out of distribution and review the file to make sure it fits specifications. Then you order a proof copy and check it over yourself. Once you OK it, it goes back into distribution.

    5) I’m not 100% certain I understand what you’re asking here. If you’re asking whether they do it for you, no, they don’t. You’re on your own for that.

    Edited to add: All of the above answers pertain to CreateSpace. They would be different in the case of Kindle files or print via Lightning Source.

    As far as Kindle, yes it’s easy to include images. And yes it’s easy to update the book after publication. Again, you’re on your own for registering copyright.

  6. Thanks, that was all very helpful, including #5.

  7. Wow, so Amazon REALLY wants its e-books priced in the sweet spot between 2.99 and 9.99!

    70% margin vs. 35% margin is a pretty strong incentive.

  8. grover,

    Indeed. It surprised me when I saw that for the first time.

    Also, it makes me wonder what sort of deals the big publishers have with Amazon. They must have a different arrangement, otherwise why would there be Kindle books priced between $10 and $20?

  9. Elijah Stepp says:

    Great Info Mike!
    Eli

  10. Thanks for this Mike.

    I *really* have to get my book written. ;)

  11. Mike, Thank you. This is really helpful. I had kind of figured out that CreateSpace is pretty good, but I didn’t know about Lightning Source. Your idea about getting good Amazon reviews being a key is really helpful as well.

    Have you written about how to promote your blog before? That’s also a mystery for me. Of course I’m very thankful for all the links you’ve been providing to me, and that usually results in about 400 new visits within one day of your Friday round-ups, but that just highlights how infrequently my blog would otherwise be visited.

    Best wishes, Wade

  12. Wade,

    I’m happy to hear that the links actually send some traffic your way. As you know, I enjoy your work a lot.

    As far as promoting the blog…

    For me, the most important thing has been to get the SEO basics right. That doesn’t mean writing just for search engines, but rather making a point of doing a couple things.

    1) After writing a post, before choosing a title for it, I do some keyword research to check to see what possible phrases have search demand, and compare the level of demand for the keyword to the competition I’d face for the keyword.

    2) When writing posts, be sure to link internally often, and be sure to use good anchor text with the links.

    After that, the goal is to build links to the posts that you are looking to build search traffic to. The best way I’ve been able to do this has been by guest posting on other blogs and including a couple well-targeted links in my author bio.

    As far as building subscribers, there’s a WordPress plugin I use that causes a pop-up message to show, encouraging people to sign up as an email subscriber. I know it’s annoying to visitors though, so I don’t put it on the main page or on any of the recent posts — only on older posts that get lots of search traffic, but that regular readers probably don’t visit on a regular basis. I’m not sure whether there’s anything comparable for Blogger though.

  13. Mike,

    Thanks for some great advice! I need to learn more about SEO for sure.

    That email pop-up is a nice idea. I will check if I have that option. Also it triggers an idea that one could go back and insert some sort of welcome message at the beginning old blog posts that tend to get lots of visits from search engines.

    I did read once that it is a good idea to respond to all blog comments, since that may make people feel more welcome to add comments too, and since search engines reward blogs with more comments. Don’t know if this is true, but I’ve been trying to do it.

    Thanks again and best wishes, Wade

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