The book in you

Everyone wants to be another E.L. James, author of the phenomenally successful Fifty Shades of Grey.

The path to successful digital self-publishing is not an easy one but it does offer better odds than winning a major lottery because it’s about hard work and savvy marketing, not just luck. 

And retirees have a particular advantage because they already have a base income and the time to try something new.

When I published my first e-book in 2009, it was a huge learning curve because back then you had to find and pay for web hosting and the comparatively primitive desktop publishing programs available.

Reaching a target audience was equally challenging given the limited on-line marketing tools, while distribution was difficult for someone who’d rather be writing than wrapping and posting. 

Ten years ago the market was limited to those few who used e-readers but then you had that market pretty much to yourself.  Today the number of e-book readers is huge – Kindle e-book sales easily top one million a week – but the number of authors has grown too. 

Then along came Amazon and made it all so easy! 

There are other platforms available today, for example Barnes and Noble and Kobo both offer e-book publishing programs to support their e-readers, but Amazon remains the best bet for new authors who are not IT experts because its services are so comprehensive. 

Once you have a book in manuscript form, Amazon Kindle will walk you through the process step-by-step, including layout and editing, formatting, uploading and publishing. 

Ongoing support in terms of marketing, sales and payment is equally good.  Authors can opt for either 35 per cent or 70 per cent royalties with conditions governing each option and today these are paid direct – and automatically – to your bank account. 

This is just one reason why writers like myself made the shift to e-books from traditional print publishing. Not only do you make more than the standard 10 per cent royalty paid by publishers on retail sales but you also exercise more control over your book.

In the words of self-publishing expert Ryan Buckley of Scripted, a commercial community for writers and editors: “The beauty of Amazon is that once you have enough leverage in the market, you’re essentially working on auto-pilot.  As far as passive income is concerned, it’s hard to beat a portfolio of Kindle books.”

The challenge lies in attaining that leverage.  And the first step is to decide what sort of book you would like to write – fact or fiction? 

The former sells better, with self-help books usually topping the e-book best seller list.  Fiction is more fun to write, for the truly creative, and has a good market for those who can crack it.

The second step is to regard your enterprise as a business, requiring a business plan.  This should include:

A market survey – What other books like yours are out there?  How well are they doing?  What makes them successful? Is there room for another book on the same topic?

Branding – Your book needs to have a unique something that makes it attract the attention of browsers. A series of books, fact or fiction, should have titles and cover designs that tie the series together.  All my gardening books (the backbone of my own digital publishing enterprise) carry the GardenEzi brand name and a five-step program clearly visible on the cover of each book.  This “brand” distinguishes my books from the many other books covering the same topic and is used in all promotion.

Investment – it’s possible to publish your e-books without any up-front expenditure.  I did!  But today’s e-book readers expect a much higher standard of presentation.  Though Amazon and other companies give you a lot of help, it pays to invest in some professional design.  There are dozens of websites specialising in e-book formatting and layout, plus cover design, and some of these are free. 

This is especially important if you are planning to offer readers print-on-demand, by which you can have the book printed in hard copy as well as e-book download. This means some extra work for you in distribution and up-front expense from printing costs but does enable you to reach those readers who still prefer a printed book. 

Budget – for promotional expenses and also for professional editing. It doesn’t cost much, there are plenty of people available to do this and writers should never edit their own books.

Promotion – Traditional off-line advertising still works and advertising in print magazines can be very worthwhile with specialist non-fiction such as gardening, health and fitness, cookery, beekeeping or becoming a billionaire.

But what you really need to know is that in order to sell e-books you must be prepared to promote relentlessly using every means available.  So once your book is up there, allocate time EACH DAY to tell people about it. 

Online there are various cheap options for advertising both fact and fiction, including Google ads, but Amazon has its own sophisticated marketing package with both free and author-paid options which is far-reaching and easy-to-use. It all helps to build your profile with your readers – essential for a new author. 

Whether or not you wish to invest some money to get you started, social media is still the best place to promote your books – and it costs nothing except time. 

Use them all, as creatively as you can in terms of intriguing potential readers.  Successful e-book writer M. Louisa Locke tried for 20 years to get her Victorian mystery stories published before trying the independent e-publishing route and today makes more money than she did as a fulltime teacher. 

Her main advice to authors is to experiment and keep up with the changing marketing landscape. “Authors must be willing to self-promote if they want their books read,” she says.

Your own website – this is essential, not to sell books but to promote and link them to your selling platform.  You can keep your readers involved and entertained with new book blurbs, blog posts (with feedback and comments), excerpts, personal information, gossip about your characters, teasers for future books, even giveaways and competitions. 

Add a link to your social media sites so your name and your books are always out there.  Agatha Christie would have been a very rich woman instead of just comfortably off if she’d had a blog and a Twitter account! 

I use a simple Wordpress site and pay a modest fee for my own domain address.

Pricing and profit – When pricing your book take into account your up-front expenses (if any) and your royalties.  Set a selling target. It’s not unreasonable to expect to sell 50,000 books on such a large market if you have done your research and have a good product.  If you exceed it, fine.  If you fall short, try harder! 

This should give you some idea of what profit to expect from royalties when expenses have been deducted.  And then you can price your book accordingly – e-publishing is all about economy of scale so you should aim to sell lots of books at a low price rather than hope for a few high-end readers.

Today, with e-books now outselling printed books, e-book publishing is not only more profitable to authors but also offers a faster return.

It can take at least 18 months before a new print book reaches the market whereas an e-book can be up there on the platform within an hour of writing “The End” and on the market within 24 hours. 

What’s more, you can take it back down, make changes, alter the price as you see fit – or just leave it there forever.  There are no sad piles of remaindered e-books!

Although only a handful of writers have become e-publishing millionaires there is a very good chance of making a modest living doing something you love without leaving your desk.

Aim for the stars and you might at least hit a small planet or two.

Julie Lake is the author of nine ebooks on gardening and other topics, including fiction.  In 2009, she produced Growing Great Azaleas which was the first gardening ebook to be published anywhere in the world.  Another world first was Camping Guide Australia which she wrote with husband Bob and published on the Amazon platform in 2010.  Both books still sell.

 “Writing and publishing your own ebook is empowering,” Julie says, “And financially rewarding if you go about it the right way.”