I used to live in Texas. They have a saying there: “Never ask a person about the size of their ranch.” Meaning, it’s impolite to compare material goods. We should respect people purely for who they are, not what they own or how much money they have, and that is a code I live by.
Except for today.
I was updating my spreadsheet tracking my book sales and realized that over 12 years, I’ve been making significant money from my books … against the odds. Actually making a living wage is so weird and rare for a business writer that it’s worth writing about!
I’m not doing this to brag (although I am proud of my work) and I’m not doing this to sell you anything or make promises about how you can make a million dollars writing books. That is just sales bro silliness.
I am writing this post to de-stigmatize the idea of self-publishing your book. I want to break my own rules and share a little bit of my personal economics and success because the ONLY WAY I could have been financially successful as a writer was to self-publish. And I think it’s probably the same for you.
Today I’m going to cover 1) how I got to this place, and 2) 10 key steps I took to sell more by self-publishing my books.
Self-publishing my books Around 2010, this blog was taking off and I was approached by several New York publishers to write a book on the emerging topic of social media marketing. I proposed a small book to teach people the practical side of Twitter and it was rejected. I went ahead and self-published The Tao of Twitter on my own.
I suppose by self-publishing my books I was a pioneer 12 years ago. Not many mainstream books were being created outside of the traditional publishing institutions in those early days. I had no idea what I was doing, but it seemed like a fun experiment. Basically, my whole career is driven by experiments.
Through CreateSpace (which was later acquired by Amazon), I could print and deliver books for about $2 a piece. No inventory, no contracts. So at that low price, I just gave the books away. Hundreds of them. And as people started to fall in love with this funny little Twitter book, word spread.
Giving that little book a jumpstart was the key to my ultimate success. I focused on becoming known and developing my personal brand instead of making money. If I could earn a reputation and trust, the book sales and profits would follow some day. Keep in mind that I could have never given away books like that if I had gone through a traditional publisher.
In the first year, there were more than 10,000 copies of Tao in the world, which officially made it a “bestseller.” I have no way to know, but perhaps this was the most popular self-published book of that era.
Publishers come calling
When I self-published Tao, I remained in talks with McGraw-Hill about another book concept. I had this vision of how marketing was about to change forever because power was shifting in the world. Through the internet and social media, creators could have their own voice, build their own audience. Business was about to be revolutionized by these emerging content creators … these influencers.
With the success of this book, McGraw-Hill was eager for a follow-up book. But the cracks in the publishing world were already beginning to show …
Self-publishing my books
I was so fortunate to experience the end of the best days of the publishing industry. By 2014, the internet was disrupting publishing, printing, distribution, and book stores at every turn. Publishers no longer had the money and resources for patience, audience development, and book promotion.
Book contracts were harder to come by and the pressure to generate sales was moving to the author. I had to wonder … if I was largely responsible for the sales of my books … why did I need a publisher? Why would I do all the work and give them all the money?
I published two more books through McGraw-Hill and had a front-row seat to view the collapse of an industry. I had five different editors in four years as people left the publishing business en masse.
It was time to go back to self-publishing.
Who needs a publisher?
I’ve written extensively about many benefits of self-publishing My writing process Marketing books on my own … so I won’t go into those details here.
What I want to specifically address is how to monetize your book without the backing of a publisher. I’m not a superstar like Malcolm Gladwell or Stephen King, but considering I am self-publishing my books, writing has become a very good source of passive income. I have made six figures on my books, each of the last few years.
Self-publishing my books is the only way this would have happened, as you will learn …
1. The basic economics
In my contract with McGraw-Hill, I received a royalty of about $1.50 per book. Depending on the format, I can now make as much as $12 per copy by self-publishing my books. Of course, when I self-publish I have to pay for the book design, cover, marketing, etc., but my break-even period for each book has been a couple of months.
I also have complete control over the price of the book. I can change the price by country. I can provide discounts and bundle my offerings. I could never do that through a publisher. On one of my books, McGraw-Hill had priced a book incorrectly. They told me Amazon would not let them change it! Can you believe that? I have more power over pricing than a 100-year-old publishing giant.
So right off the top, the per-unit benefit of self-publishing is enormous.
2. Success is tied to your personal brand
When I published my first book, I was relatively unknown. I had to give books away to get attention. My ability to sell books is directly proportional to the strength of my brand. Small audience, small book sales. Large audience, large book sales.
Monetizing products takes tenacity and patience. There’s no shortcut. You can’t sell a lot of books without being known. This is by far the most important impact on book sales.
3. Create something bold and beautiful
The look and feel of my books is exceptional. As good or better than something from a publisher.
Self-publishing also gives you creative freedom. When you open Marketing Rebellion, the first thing you see is a photo of a protester holding a sign that says “Respect Me!” I wanted to make a statement about changing consumer dynamics on the very first page. This is never done. You have no book in your library that has a photo on the first page (other than Marketing Rebellion of course!). I could only make this bold statement because I controlled my own project.
For Content Code, I had two companies pay me to sponsor the book. Again, an innovation that could never happen through a publisher.
4. Book sales + speaking
When a speaking client hires me, they might have a limited speaker budget, but there is often a separate budget for swag and gifts. Because I self-publish, I have the power to offer great discounts on books to my customers and still have a substantial profit margin. Conference attendees love getting books in gift bags!
If I were with a traditional publisher I would have almost no ability to make deals like this because of the low profits and red tape. The ability to add books to my speaking package increases my speaking revenue by about 20 percent.
Also, writing a book creates new material for paid speeches. One national conference has hired me three times to speak about the different books I’ve written.
5. Create an audiobook
Narrating your book is tedious. But about one-third of my book sales come through the audio edition. I save a lot on production costs doing it myself, increasing book profits. Considering the audio editing, graphics, and everything, I can launch a completed work as an audiobook for less than $1,000 and that is where I receive the highest profit margins.
6. International sales
Licensing my book sales to foreign publishers has become a significant source of book income. In fact, about one-third of my revenue in the last year came from translations of my books into Japanese, Korean, Arabic, Polish and other languages. Since I self-published my books, I have the ability to make these deals quickly (no legal red tape!) while the books are still popular.
7. Multi-year plan
8. University sales
My books have been used as assigned texts in at least 70 universities, including Northwestern, Clemson, Boston College, and Indiana University. I never had a specific strategy around this. But I have put a lot of work into free class lectures to build trusting relationships with educators.
I have never spent the time to determine what percentage of my sales go through universities but a guess would be 5 percent.
9. Quality is everything
In my new book Cumulative Advantage, there is a two-page story about the Winklevoss twins. It took me two entire days to research and write this 1,000-word story. I remember telling my wife at dinner, “Nobody would ever believe the work I put into these books!” It takes about two years to research and write a book and by the end of that process, I am completely wiped out.
I also spend a significant amount of money on editing, research, and design of the book. If you’re starting from scratch and just getting a paperback book into the world, you could probably use a lot of free resources and do it for less than $1,000. I spent more than $20,000 getting Cumulative Advantage ready for the world Not counting my time!
The reason is simple. I will never let you down. I will earn your trust through my books because I want you to buy the next one. Self-publishing does not mean you have to sacrifice quality. Quite the opposite. It is in my control to make it as great as I can imagine. If you want to sell books over time, you need to earn trust by being insanely great.
Cumulative Advantage has a useful chapter about creating a “sonic boom,” with a specific example about books.
Writing experience, personal brand, and promotions all tie together. The longer you work on your personal brand, the more success you will have with promotions and sales. The more books you write, the more this helps your personal brand. Writing a book makes you elite because it is really hard to do!
When my last book came out, I did 120 interviews in 10 weeks, and more than 200 overall in support of the book promotion. I was invited to these shows because I was known. I was known because I worked for more than a decade on my personal brand.
Final thoughts on self-publishing my books
You might be surprised to know that I never had a dream to write a book. It never crossed my mind. But I’m glad I jumped in and tried it because I learned that I’m good at it and I enjoy it.
A book is a new source of revenue, a new opportunity for vast awareness, and fuel for more speaking and consulting. I am creating unique value for the world, I am creating my legacy by self-publishing my books. I hope you’ll give it a try, too.