Can You Really Make a Living as an Ebook Writer?


Ebooks have made self-publishing more accessible than ever. As recently as the 1990s, self-publishing meant paying to have thousands of physical books printed; a 1999 CNNMoney article pegged the cost at $12,000 to $30,000.

Now that the majority of books sold are electronic, you can self-publish for much less — even for free. But does that mean you have a better chance now at making money on that self-published book than you did when expenses were higher?

That all depends on how you go about it, and how lucky you are. Let's break down the process.

Where to Publish

The three main online stores that sell ebooks are Amazon's Kindle Store, Barnes & Noble's Nook Store, and Apple's iBookstore. A few books are sold on other marketplaces as well, such as the Kobo US bookstore and GooglePlay Books. Authors can also sell their books directly to consumers on their own websites.

Since 74% of all ebooks are sold on Amazon, it's often the first or only place new authors think of to sell their work. And there are a lot of benefits to selling on Amazon. Kindle books are easy to buy, and the publishing process is straightforward. On the flip side, there are so many books selling on Amazon, including those from unknown new authors (like you), that it can be hard to stand out from the crowd. Amazon demands that you exclusively sell your book through them if you want to take advantage of many benefits, such as the Kindle Lending Library and Kindle Unlimited. (Keep in mind that Amazon pays authors when people check out their books; one ebook author said the Lending Library accounted for 10% of his revenue.) The biggest disadvantage of selling with Amazon, for many, is that they just don't like the way Amazon treats its authors.

Apple's iBookstore is gaining market share, and as you would expect from Apple, books published on this platform look beautiful. But while Kindle books can be downloaded onto just about any device, readers can only access iBooks on an Apple device such as an iPad or an iPhone, which limits the market.

Nook seems to be getting squeezed out by the big two ebook stores, and should probably only be considered as a secondary place to publish. The bottom line is that you may sell more books on Amazon, but some authors don't feel like that's a good enough reason to publish there.

"I may not sell as many books with Apple — yet — but it's a whole lot more fun working with them," writes author Giacomo Giammatteo.

No matter which platform you choose, you stand to make about $2 a book if you sell your ebook for $2.99 — which is a popular price point.

How to Publish

Once you've decided where to sell your ebook, you're not done making decisions. You must decide whether to create and upload your ebook all on your own, or to pay an epublishing service or distributor to do it for you. The top services include BookBaby, Smashwords, and IngramSpark. For fees of $149 or more, these services can format your book and upload it to multiple different ebook stores. You can pay more for value-added services, such as editing, cover design, and even print-on-demand paper books.

You can also hire editing and design professionals independently for these services.

What to Publish

What your ebook is about all depends on your goals. If your motive is purely profit, there are methods of figuring out which topics are most likely to sell books. An anonymous author, who claims to be making tens of thousands of dollars a month publishing short ebooks (about 20 pages), describes his process for choosing topics on The Hustle: "I find books that are selling well, check out their tables of contents, and look at the negative reviews to see what they missed."

It may be disheartening for a hardworking writer to hear, but this successful entrepreneur says that sales are driven mainly by the cover image and the book description: "[T]he book's content is the least important part of the process."

If your motive is more to get a great idea or story out into the world, rather than just cranking out any title that will sell, you should still do your research before you sit down and start writing. If you have a blog, poll your readers on what topics they'd most like to see expanded upon in a book. If your book is in a genre or niche, such as a cookbook, study the top-selling, well-reviewed ebooks in that niche and try to figure out what you could add that hasn't already been done well. Fiction authors can also benefit by looking at already published novels in their category, to figure out both how to avoid writing books that have been done to death — and to find out what types of novels are hot right now.

How to Make It Sell

Once upon a time, writers just turned in their manuscripts to publishers and left the advertising and promotion to the company. But even authors with book contracts nowadays find themselves doing their own advertising and promotion. Before you publish your book, consider the investment of hiring a publicist to let media know about your upcoming release. If you're publicizing it yourself, write about your upcoming book on your blog, and ask other bloggers to write about it as well. You can also create a new blog just about the new book or about its topic, in order to drive traffic to your book.

Don't forget good old-fashioned advertising. Mark Dawson, who says he makes six figures selling his novels on Kindle Direct, pays $370 a day to advertise it on Facebook, according to Forbes.

Will You Make Money?

Of about 200,000 authors selling ebooks on Amazon, only about 5,000 — less than 3% — consistently earn $10,000 a year or better, according to the website Author Earnings. More than half of those are traditionally-published authors. So, only around 1% of all the people self-publishing ebooks are making much money on it.

That's not to say you can't. One approach for ending up with more money in your pocket is to keep your investment low, so that even if sales are modest, you still keep some profit. To save themselves from investing too much time, some ebook authors suggest keeping books short — since people are about as likely to pay for a 20-page book or short story as they are for a full-length novel. Others minimize their time investment by outsourcing the cover art (this guy gets all his covers designed on Fiverr) or even the content.

Again, it's all about your goals. If your dream is to delight readers with your imaginative novel or win a literary award, you're not going to dash out an outline and hire a low-cost overseas writer to flesh it out. But if your goal is to develop a passive income stream by pumping out 50 titles a year, outsourcing is probably your best option.

In the end, the answer is that you can make a living self-publishing ebooks, but like a lot of business ventures, most people who try it don't cash in. If you decide to enter self-publishing as a moneymaking venture, make sure to research the market first and put in the time to create a product that's optimized to sell.

Have you tried selling an ebook online? What was your experience like? Share with us!

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