I have plenty of experience in publishing. I’m the author of 12 books, including two New York Times bestsellers. The most recent of my 12 was self-published, and I was very pleased with the experience. I’ve also published five free eBooks.
I’m going to share with you what I’ve learned, and how you can use my experience to your advantage.
Most of what I say will have to do with eBooks, but I’ll have some recommendations for print books as well.
First of all, understand that although self-publishing yields an author much higher royalty percentages, it also involves costs. You have to spend your own money on things a traditional publisher would take care of for you. The benefits are obvious – complete control over your product, and a much higher royalty rate – but we should remember that self-publishing has drawbacks, too. Yet, having released my first self-published book in 2014 after publishing 11 other books the traditional way, I am very much of the opinion that the benefits can outweigh the drawbacks.
Here’s a bad reason to be skeptical of self-publishing: without the marketing muscle of a traditional publisher, authors fear, they will be on their own in getting the word out about their books.
Self-published authors certainly are on their own, it’s true, and they need to be creative and energetic if they’re going to promote their books. But the objection is based on a misconception: most publishers have little to no marketing arm worth speaking of, and of those that do, they expend their marketing resources very selectively. Most authors who write for a major publisher like Doubleday, for instance, are in effect left hanging out to dry. Doubleday focuses its energies on the small number of titles it expects to sell well, and everyone else is more or less in the same marketing position as the self-published author. I myself have been lucky: Random House and Regnery Publishing pushed my books hard, and I’m really grateful. But that is the exception to the rule.
In other words, if you’re worried that you’ll miss out on the great marketing campaign that a traditional publisher would have given you, don’t be. Publishers are very stingy about those.
When it comes to selling a digital product like an eBook, you have two main choices. You can go with Amazon, which is what I do, and produce a book for the Kindle. It will be sold in the Kindle store, and you’ll have the advantage and the prestige of being easily found in the most recognizable book market in the world.
There are drawbacks to this approach, though to my mind not big enough to make me abandon Amazon. First, you’ll keep only 70 percent of the revenue from each sale. This is not a problem, as far as I’m concerned, because the traditional author royalty for a physical book released by a mainstream publisher is a paltry 15 percent, and even that rate kicks in only after you’ve sold 10,000 copies. (More on traditional royalty rates below.) To have the Amazon name behind you, with its ease of use, excellent reputation, and longtime familiarity to nearly everyone online, is certainly worth a 30 percent cut. If you had told authors back in, say, 1995 that they would earn “only” a 70 percent royalty, they would have been dancing a jig.
Second, if you decide to sell your book through Amazon’s Kindle Store, you won’t have the option of giving away free copies. To give the book away to someone you will actually have to purchase a copy through the Kindle Store. When the recipient claims the book, you will receive your royalty. So you’ll wind up paying, on net, 30 percent of the book’s price to give a copy away.
Your other option is to sell your eBook directly, without going through Amazon, by using a service like gumroad.com. With gumroad.com you receive 95 percent of the purchase price, as opposed to the 70 percent you’d earn with Amazon. Also, you’re perfectly at liberty to give copies away to select people.
I still prefer Amazon, though, because (1) it’s so much more familiar to most people, (2) most potential buyers already have their payment information on file with Amazon, so ordering is fast and easy, and (3) justified or not, the availability of your product through a well-known and respected company like Amazon makes both you and your product seem more legitimate.
How to Do It
Here are the steps I followed.
I wanted both Kindle and print editions. I do a lot of public speaking, and I sell a pile of books after my speeches. Even though I knew I would be emphasizing the electronic version of this particular book in my promotional efforts, the print edition is great for public events, and to sell on Amazon to people who – like me, to be honest – just prefer the old-fashioned print book.
I did not use an editor. But in this case, don’t do as I do. I’ve written a dozen books and many hundreds of articles. Although practically anyone can benefit from the services of an editor, it didn’t make sense in my case. My book was a collection of previously published articles, to be pitched to my existing audience rather than marketed to the public at large. Editing services would have been a waste of money.
What I’m about to say I don’t mean as an insult, but as a simple observation based on the years of experience I have as both a college professor (where I graded thousands of student papers) and a magazine editor: most people cannot write to save their lives. The worst writers are the ones who think they’re great. They think good writing means using big words and composing long, convoluted sentences.
I can’t know if you’re a fantastic writer – but chances are, neither can you. One thing is for sure: you don’t want to be like the American Idol contestant whose intimidated friends all tell him what a great singer he is, leaving him to discover the awful truth on national television. Check out the editorial services you’ll find with a company like Xlibris and see if they might benefit you.
Your Print Book
Let’s get print out of the way first. To my mind, the clear way to go is through Amazon’s CreateSpace program. They could not make the process easier. Once I signed up, I received an email from someone at the program asking when I’d be available to chat on the phone to discuss my project. This had to be a form letter from a robot, I thought. It was a form letter, to be sure, but when I wrote back with a time, a real person wrote me a personalized reply. This was true throughout the entire process: CreateSpace was right there to help me every step of the way.
CreateSpace offers a variety of style choices for the font and layout of the interior of your book. If your book contains no charts, graphs, photographs, or anything other than ordinary text, you can order one of their basic packages for (as of this moment) $199. Otherwise, you’ll have to get a fancier package starting at $349.
The Book Cover
As for a cover, CreateSpace can design one for you, or you can go to an outside designer. I took the latter approach. Don’t skimp on your cover. Forget the old adage that we shouldn’t judge a book by its cover. The fact is, people do judge books by their covers. And if yours looks like it was designed by the editor of the homeowners’ association newsletter, it’s going to hurt both your sales and your credibility.
If you’re on a very tight budget, the world will not end if you use a designer at Fiverr for your cover. But if you can manage it, a more professional option is vastly preferable. Damonza.com is a good option: high-quality covers, but also unlimited changes (so you can get the cover just right, and not have to settle for something you don’t like just because you ran out of change requests), and two different cover designs to choose from. They also don’t make you pay for stock images. They can design covers for both print books and eBooks.
For my eBook I used Kindle Direct Publishing.
You’ll need to follow their guidelines for formatting your book file in one of their “Supported Formats.” I myself didn’t feel like figuring it all out, so I posted a job on Upwork, a freelance site, and within 24 hours someone had done it for me for next to nothing.
The Case of the Free eBook
There can be very good reasons to give an eBook away for free, and I’ll discuss them in a moment. But the steps I follow in preparing a free eBook, as opposed to an eBook for sale, are different, and I want to lay them out for you here.
First, though, why free? How can anyone earn money on free? Like it or not, free is what makes the Internet go round. People have come to expect all kinds of content for free. The true entrepreneur is the person who figures out how to prosper in the world of free.
I’ll give you four reasons I give away free eBooks.
1.) I believe in the ideas expressed in these books, and I want to see them gain a wider audience. In the case of the free eBook I released on how to create a blog or website even if you don’t know anything about programming or web design, I thought it could do a lot of good for a lot of people. (You can get that book here, though I think our own guide to starting a blog or website is even more thorough.)
2.) Some of these books contain affiliate links, which can earn me commissions if people click through and order something. (Warning: do not insert Amazon affiliate links into any eBook of any kind. It is technically a violation of the Amazon Associates program’s rules, and you do not want Amazon kicking you out of that program.)
3.) Some of these books incidentally promote some of my paid services.
4.) The books are a great premium to offer as an enticement to get signups to my email list. Email lists are important, for reasons we explain on some of our other resource pages here. They allow you to communicate with site visitors again and again – visitors who may otherwise have visited your site just once and then be lost to you forever. If you wind up producing products or services – including books! – for sale, you have a built-in audience of people who are interested enough in what you do that they shared their email addresses with you. That’s valuable.
It’s not easy to get people to give you their email addresses. They don’t want to be overwhelmed with email. They get enough as it is. You’ll need to offer them something to overcome any hesitation they have in sharing their email with yet another website. A free eBook is an excellent way to go.
(To learn exactly how to start, build, and effectively use an email list, check out our guide to building an email list.)
Incidentally, you may wonder what to put in a free eBook. Here are two ways to make the process as easy as possible on yourself.
I myself host a weekday podcast. As one way of promoting the show, I give away free eBooks. I create these eBooks from transcripts of some of my episodes. I find transcripts with a theme in common, and I collect those transcripts into an eBook. (For the transcripts themselves, I hired relatively inexpensive transcriptionists via Fiverr and Upwork.)
At the end of each transcript/chapter of these eBooks there’s a link to subscribe to my podcast on iTunes and Stitcher, the two most popular podcast delivery systems. The appendices of these eBooks promote my subscription services. They also promote my most recent book. That book, in turn, promotes the show – one section of the book contains transcripts of some of my most interesting episodes. It’s this kind of synergy, in which much of what you do involves cross-promotion of other things you do, that can get you serious traction online.
Chances are, you don’t have a podcast and transcripts. But once you start your blog, and produce content for it regularly, before you know it you have more than enough material for an eBook. Each blog post can be a separate chapter. Easy.
Remember that eBooks – especially the free kind – can vary widely in length, and can be much shorter than traditional books. You’re giving this book away, after all, so no one is in a position to complain that your book isn’t longer.
I myself don’t worry too much about the layout of a free eBook. I make it as attractive as I can, but I don’t hire anyone to do fancy typesetting or anything like that. The book is free, after all. If people are complaining about the font, they are not worth your time.
As for a cover, remember: the book is free. Don’t spend a fortune. I myself did a search for eBook cover design at Fiverr and found a whole bunch of designers who do quality work inexpensively. As of this printing, you can have a quite serviceable cover designed for five dollars, as I have.
For an extra five dollars, you can generally get a 3D version of your book cover, with your book standing at an angle and looking like a real book with a spine. I recommend buying this, too, because the 3D image, while not usable in your book itself, will look very sharp in your promotional material.
And that’s it. Just upload the finished product to your site and you’re done. You can then link to it so people can freely download it, or, as I recommend, make it available only to people who sign up for your email list. (Again, find out how to do this, and the exact tools I’ve had such success with, in our guide to building an email list.)
Tom Woods [send him mail; visit his website], is the New York Times bestselling author of 12 books, and a senior fellow of the Mises Institute. Become a smarter libertarian in just 30 minutes a day by listening to the Tom Woods Show, available on iTunes or Stitcher, or at TomWoods.com/podcasts. Get Tom's free book 14 Hard Questions for Libertarians -- Answered, and several other free books, at TomsFreeBooks.com.