With the cost to publish a book yourself so low these days, your path to profit is much faster doing it independently on your own.
There are still a few good reasons to put out a book through a traditional publisher, but most of those reasons have nothing to do with money. With the cost to publish a book yourself lower than it has ever been, and the distribution options much wider, you’ll earn much faster profits from self-publishing than you will for going through the traditional path.
The reason for this is rather basic: you keep much more of the income. You’ll generally make at least four times higher royalties by publishing a paperback through Amazon KDP Publishing or Ingram Spark than you will by signing on with the likes of Random House or Penguin. For an e-book you might make seven times as much since Amazon pays out 70% royalties and the big publishers typically pay out 10%.
To put this into real numbers, let’s say you sell 1,000 paperbacks and 1,000 e-books in the first year. First of all, most publishers would consider that a total failure and if they gave you a measly advance of $2,000, you probably are still in the red. Your total earnings would be only be $2,000.
If, on the other hand, you outsourced the cover design and proofreading through freelance contractors, got your own ISBN through Bowker ($125 for 1 or $295 for 10), and signed on with Ingram Spark in addition to Amazon, you might spend $1,000 on expenses if you’re being relatively generous in your freelance hiring. But let’s look at the earnings potential. If you sold 50 of those paperbacks and 50 of the e-books through Ingram (via Apple and Kobo), then the rest through Amazon, you would make around $13,860 in royalties assuming an even split between the paperback (at $17.95) and the Kindle e-book (at $9.99).
Total net earnings from self-publishing: $13,860 minus $1,000 of costs = $12,860.
That’s more than six times what the same sales would generate with a traditional publisher. Looked at in another way, you could sell one third as many books and still put twice as much money in your pocket by self-publishing, even just going through the two biggest distributors of Amazon and Ingram.
Publish a Book Yourself for the Faster, More Profitable Path
As mentioned before, there are reasons to publish a book through a traditional publisher. I put out a few that way myself before I learned my lesson. If it’s a novel, it’s more likely to get reviewed and stocked in physical bookstores.
If it’s a non-fiction book, you may have access to a publicist and trade reviews in publications that librarians and bookstore owners read. There’s the status and prestige that comes from being on a well-known imprint. They’ll take care of the editing, cover design, and formatting and you’ll get a little (sometimes very little) money up front. It’s hard to publish a guidebook without a team of fact-checkers and editors in your corner.
When it comes to money though, the deck is stacked against you. A bestselling author may get a 15% royalty on the list price. Normal schmucks are usually getting 10% on the net price…after returns. Unless you’re going to sell tens of thousands of books, you won’t make real money from all that work. Some writers don’t care, especially business writers. The book is just a tool to get better speaking gigs or more publicity. It’s like a giant business card.
If your goal is to actually see real earnings from those months or years you spent toiling over your book, however, you want to learn about print-on-demand, e-book publishing, and other aspects of self-publishing. If you go this route, your book will get into the marketplace faster, you’ll have much more control, and you’ll keep most of the profits instead of handing them to a corporation.
When I self-published my first book, back in 2002, it was a much tougher task than it is now. I used a print-0n-demand publisher called Booklocker, a kind of hybrid approach where they took care of some of the tasks and had a cover designer at the ready. The royalties were still far greater than what I could get from a traditional publisher, but lower than you can get now by going direct to Amazon and Ingram. I’d still recommend them, and services like them, if you’re evaluating the cost-to-value ratio and it still makes sense for you. (I used them for both editions of the Travel Writing 2.0 book.)
These days though, if you have the confidence to get it all done yourself, your path to profit is much faster, with a lower minimum number of sales to get into the black. Here’s what I earn from Ingram Spark for paperback titles that are shipping out to bookstores: $5.54 per copy, or roughly 25% of the list price, a higher percentage of the net.
For Amazon paperbacks, you generally earn a royalty rate of 60% minus printing costs, which for me means roughly $5.71 per sale for The World’s Cheapest Destinations, which has a list price of $16.95, and $7.90 per sale for A Better Life for Half the Price, which has a list price of $21.95.
Amazon KDP print-on-demand and Ingram Spark are both great systems for paperbacks. In the traditional publishing system, there’s a wild guess as to how many copies will sell, that many get printed, and they ship out to various sales outlets. Whatever doesn’t sell comes back as a return and many of those copied end up in a landfill. With print-on-demand, there’s only a little extra inventory in the Amazon warehouse for titles that are moving regularly. Otherwise, they get printed as ordered. And they do that from multiple countries around the world!
What it Costs to Self-publish: E-books and Paperbacks
The cost to publish an e-book on just Amazon is next to nothing if you go the total DIY route, which is why a million+ a year of new books come out for the Kindle. You could create the whole manuscript in Microsoft Word, make a cover yourself on Canva or in Photoshop, and use the free Kindle converter to turn it all into a format read by Kindle e-readers.
If you want to step it up a little though, you can easily find someone on Fiverr to do a custom cover, illustrate something for you, proof the text thoroughly, and do any interior design.
If nothing else, hire someone to convert the book to ePub format because you’re going to need to do that for Kobo or the iTunes bookstore.
For the second edition of my Travel Writing 2.0 book, I found the costs so reasonable on Fiverr that I commissioned three illustrations and sent those out to my e-mail list to see which one resonated the best. I also commissioned three cover designs and did the same. The total cost for that was less than $200 and I ended up with a book cover I knew would work for my target audience–for e-book and paperback.
I spent another $120 for proofreading and $100 to convert the text for Kindle and other e-readers, then $78 to Booklocker for all their set-up fees–including an ISBN number and entry into the Ingram catalog. In the end, my costs were under $500 total for both the e-book and paperback launches. I earned that amount back in just the first six weeks of royalties. For the years since, the book has been generating monthly profits.
For my second edition of A Better Life for Half the Price, I went a bit different route. I produced a bunch of cover mock-ups myself with the book templates on Canva using my own travel photographs taken in popular places for living abroad. I sent all 15 mock-ups out to my Aweber living abroad e-mail list of nearly 10,000, plus a couple of Facebook groups. I got more than 230 votes, which was helpful, but almost that many comments, which provided even more insight.
Based on the feedback, I then had great direction to send to the cover designer on Fiverr. The first designer was not very communicative, so I took her front cover and paid $27, then hired someone else for the full paperback with spine and back.
The next designer was much better at following directions and I paid her $32 for that. In the end, I got an e-book cover, a 3-D version, an Amazon paperback cover, and an Ingram cover for $59. I also hired a proofreader, then paid a diligent man in Hungary $100 on Upwork to format the book for Kindle, Kobo, and paperback. I tipped him $20 and will definitely use him again.
I already had an ISBN number from an earlier stash, Amazon uploads are free, and Ingram charges $49 to get into their system. Total cost for the e-book and paperback of A Better Life for Half the Price, 2nd edition? Around $270 counting shipment of the proof copies. I earned that back within 48 hours of putting the book up for sale.
I sell the e-book myself on Gumroad though for that title. It’s not available on Amazon. I do this because I already have a strong following and reputation in that subject area, I want to be able to offer premium packages, I want to control my own pricing, and I want to have the e-mail addresses of my buyers. Here’s my packages page for that offering.
With Amazon, your price ceiling for an e-book is $9.99 if you want to earn 70% royalties (minus any electronic delivery fees per megabyte). Higher than that and the royalty rate drops in half. So the most you can make per copy is about $6.80–not bad, but not great either. I feel that people who are going to make such a huge life-changing decision as moving abroad can afford to spend $22 on 150,000 words of information based on all my experience, research, and interviews with 80+ expats around the world. I can sell one-third the number of e-books to people who really want it and still make more money. Here’s my first week of sales on that book from Gumroad (after fees), where I have this set up.
I also have an affiliate program I run through e-Junkie, so there were more sales from that off the bat, in addition to the paperback sales through Amazon. In the end, it cleared more than $1,000 the first week, more than $2,000 in the first six weeks of release.
Here’s a bit more detail on how to publish your book on multiple platforms. A POD publisher or Ingram Spark will take care of this for you if you sign up with them. Otherwise, you’ll need to upload to each platform yourself.
The Options to Publish an Audiobook
I’ve only put one of my books out in audiobook form so far: both the first and second editions of A Better Life for Half the Price. The second is coming out any day now, but the first one sold more than 1,300 copies through Audible, earning both me and the voice actor around $3,600 each in royalties.
Audible is owned by Amazon, so naturally they want as many books on the platform as possible. They did something very smart to encourage more releases: they set up the ACX platform to help authors easily find a voice actor/producer to do the narration. You can choose to pay them up front with a “price per recorded hour” and then keep all the royalties, or do a revenue split taken out of earnings. Both times I’ve got with the revenue share method allowing the narrator and author to share royalties after “auditioning” them and having them read a chapter of the book. There’s no cost outlay for either party in this arrangement and you both share in the risk/reward.
What are those earnings from Audible? They’re a little complicated because the price of an audiobook is calculated differently according to the status of the customer. The basic ACX set-up is 20% of the sale price for the author, 20% for the narrator, and the rest going to Audible. This gives you distribution across Amazon, Apple, and Audible.com though without you having to do any work besides uploading a cover and approving the audio. There’s also an affiliate bounty paid out if you get any of your fans to sign up for Audible for the first time. My earnings seem to average out to a shade more than $3 per download under this set-up, not counting the bounty or regular Amazon affiliate earnings. See how it works here.
This is not the only game in town, however, just the most popular. You can also use a service like BookFunnel or Gumroad and sell the audiobooks yourself and keep a higher percentage of royalties. There’s also a service called FindawayVoices that promises much wider distribution if you’re not exclusive with ACX. I haven’t tried this yet, but probably will at some point.
Writing a Self-published Book That’s Going to Sell
If you try to pitch a book to an agent or traditional publisher, you’ll need to put together a proposal. You don’t need to do that for a self-published book, but you should go through the thought process behind one at least. Who is this book for exactly? How do you know there’s solid demand for it? How will you reach the potential buyers? How big is the market for this subject area?
Several studies out there have shown that a whole lot of books on Amazon sell a handful of copies and that’s it. At the other end of the scale, some self-published books sell more copies than the titles put out by major publishers, hundreds of thousands of books. Kindle has made millionaires out of some authors, a few dollars at a time.
The key word for getting sales beyond your friends and relatives is “platform.” Do you have one? Is it relevant to this book? Is it big enough to get you significant sales? Have you done market research to gauge demand? This is a project that could take a year of your time. Don’t do it in vain!
With the steps and platforms mentioned above, you can publish your own book and start making money from it within a couple months, instead of waiting for years, but that assumes you’re putting out a book that people actually want to buy. Don’t skip the research phase. Check Google searches, Amazon searches, sales of competing titles, and the number of people you actually reach each month on platforms you control. Assume 1% of your most dedicated blog readers and followers will buy it and if that’s not enough, assume you’ll be doing lots of outreach to get publicity, maybe even some paid advertising.
If the numbers add up, get it on your project list and publish a book yourself! Once the hard work of writing and production is done and you’ve got a steady stream of monthly sales, a published book can generate passive income while you’re off on vacation or even while you sleep. Unless you’ve got all the time in the world though, get some help. An expert can get done in an hour what might take you days–and the quality will be better.