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How to Make a Living Self-Publishing

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Last Updated on August 23, 2022 by Ben Oakley

A complete guide on how to make good money self-publishing, with some surprising industry secrets!

How to Make a Living Self-Publishing

The dream of any writer on a self-publishing journey is to make money doing what they love. No, really, it is. Even if you’re in that 1% who claim not to care about money and are in it only for the passion, then you’re still going to want to market your work.

Here’s what to expect in this guide:

Investing in Yourself

A book, whether digital or print, is created to be read. If you’ve taken your book from idea to publication stage, then it would be a waste of good words not to put it in front of as many readers as possible.

The truth is that this post could change your life, I know everything here changed my life for the better, going from £40 ($48) a month income in April 2019 to a little over £3,000 ($3,600) in July 2022.

Bear in mind, there is no secret to self-publishing, there is no curtain to pull back. Success starts and ends with you. If you believe in yourself then you will be unstoppable.

You must invest in yourself as a writer, learn the ins and outs of the industry, and turn your dreams and passion for writing into a runaway success story. But as we all know, overnight success never happens overnight.

That investing in yourself and learning the ins and outs of the industry begins right here!

Building your Book Portfolio

This guide on how to write your first book will kick-start your author career from the very inception of the idea right through to completion.

If you want to make a living self-publishing, then to state the obvious, you need to have a book, and not just one book, but lots of them.

FACT – all writers who are making a living self-publishing have more than one book available to the world.

Building your Book Portfolio - a guide to self-publishing.

You’ve probably read elsewhere that you need to have more than one book in your portfolio and it’s true. This means you have to put in the work to produce the content.

Not just any old content, but professional books that wouldn’t look out of place on a shelf in Waterstones and other book shops.

Producing a sub-par book will get you sub-par results. Not only should you be proud of the books you publish but they should be to the highest standard possible.

Multiple products mean multiple income streams, this is purely common business sense, especially when it comes to the field of entertainment, under which books fall.

It doesn’t mean spending thousands on a book launch, and I wouldn’t recommend it, at least not for your first book. You’d have to be extremely lucky to hit the big time with one book.

Having one book for sale could very well make you £500/month but it could just as easily make you ZERO. Most commonly you’ll find single books closer to the ZERO end, unless you’re a celebrity whose been approached by a big publisher.

A series isn’t the only way to make a living, but it certainly helps. By the time the fourth book in one of my series came out, the entire back catalogue was just starting to sell, and it continues to ripple down to this day.

Which brings us on to the first real stage of how to make a living self-publishing.

Putting in the Time

You can’t write a book without having sat down for hundreds of hours to produce it. This is perhaps the biggest hurdle that new self-publishers need to overcome.

Finding the time to write can be difficult at the best of times, especially when you’re not being paid to write. There’s also your day job, family, leisure time, and everything that comes with it to overcome.

Sitting down for an hour a day to pump out 1,000 words simply doesn’t work for everyone. However, if you’re adamant that a career in writing is your future then you need to make the time. Here are some ways you can squeeze in more writing.

  • Get up half hour earlier and write 300 words.
  • Type into your phone or tablet on public transport.
  • Make notes on a notepad.
  • Take half hour before bed to write.

There are options available to modern-day authors where they take a back seat on the production of their book and let ghost writers complete it for you.

On sites like Fiverr and Upwork, you can find ghost writers who can write entire books for you to fit in with a range of budgets.

But if you’re starting from nothing with zero to little investment then you’re going to want to take control of the writing process yourself. You do want to be a writer, after all.

Using the Right Tools for the Job

Now you’ve found the right schedule and you’re sitting down to write; you’re going to need the best tools for the job.

Microsoft Word will always be king, because if it isn’t broke then it doesn’t need fixing. I started on OpenOffice as I didn’t even have enough money to afford Word, but I wish I had done sooner.

An Office 365 subscription is less than £10 a month and you get the full suite of applications. If you get the family subscription, then you can share access with other writers to bring down the costs per person.

Though Word is out in front there are alternatives.

  • Google Docs – all the capabilities of Word and instantly backed up to your Google account.
  • LibreOffice – a far superior successor to OpenOffice and free to use.
  • Scrivener – a licensed software that allows you more creative options than Word.

I mentioned that Google Docs back up to your Google account in the cloud and you might be wondering why I didn’t mention OneDrive as it comes packaged in with an Office 365 subscription.

I’ll tell you why, it’s not great, especially when choosing the automatic save option on Word. OneDrive tends to move the document from your hard drive to the cloud and opens a new document in its place.

There are settings that get around it, but if you want to back up your document to other locations, which you should, then OneDrive is a pain.

Securing & Backing Up Your Files

You can become so consumed with the writing process that you forget to either back up your files or implement the right security features.

Good security is important for authors as the files and folders you keep are as valuable as the royalties that come from it.

2FA – For every account you have, from Office 365 to Amazon KDP, make sure to have an authenticator app installed which is double-protected with your fingerprint or a passcode.

Mega Storage – Mega is simply the best and most secure cloud storage in the world and they have free accounts with enough space to automatically back up your files.

Desktop Security – you do not want a virus on your computer, either ruining your files, or worse, stealing them. I use the full Bitdefender suite for peace of mind which includes a VPN.

Secure Browser – A combination of Google Chrome, Microsoft Edge, and Brave work well together. Brave is also one of the most secure browsers on the planet.

Read about the importance of good security for authors in depth.

Budgeting your Book’s Journey

Now your files are fully protected, and you have the time to write, you need to come up with a budget for your book, and this very much depends on your own financial situation.

You DO NOT need to spend thousands of pounds or dollars on your first book, in fact, I plead with you that you don’t. Not only are you unlikely to see a return on the investment but it’s unlikely to produce the results you want.

Even if you have the benefit of a large savings account, there’s no need to go all in on one book. For one simple reason, if you want to make a living self-publishing then you need more than one book published.

Budgeting your Book's Journey - self-publishing guide

If you spend £4,000 publishing one book but need ten books out to make a living, you will need to spend £40,000. What! Even traditional publishers rarely spend £4,000 on one book. Why should you?

You don’t have to spend thousands, you don’t even have to spend hundreds – IF you are able to put in the work and time to learn, which is exactly what’s needed.

But don’t worry if it already sounds like too much, we’ve put together a number of guides to help you learn the skills required to become a fully-fledged self-publisher – and a successful one!

Not including the time it takes to write a book, which in the beginning is in your own time and unpaid, you can bring your book to market for as little as £100.

If you want to publish a book for £100 then you need to learn the skills required. If you have more money to help bring your book to market then you can delegate to skilled freelancers around the world.

First, we’ll look at the skills you can learn then where you can delegate elements of your book’s production.

The more important part of the budgeting stage is to understand your own financial limitations and ability to learn new skills or delegate.

Learn New Skills as a Self-Published Author

These skills are outside the scope of writing and fall under the publishing side of the job. A traditional publisher would do most of this for you – mostly.

Learning these skills can not only improve your production speed but also help save – and make – money. Click on any link below to learn more.

  • Formatting.
  • Editing.
  • Cover Design.
  • Copywriting.

Marketing, promotion, and advertising is a whole other section and we’ll come on to that shortly.

If you learn the skills required, then the only costs you’ll pay to produce your book are monthly subscriptions for software. For example:

  • Office 365.
  • Photoshop.
  • Cloud Storage.

The Art of Outsourcing

Any author should know their own strengths and weaknesses. If it’s not possible to learn the skills required to self-publish your book to the highest standard, then you can outsource.

You could be a whizz at cover design but terrible at editing or the other way around. If you publish your book at 90% of the highest standard, readers will notice the 10% – and won’t waste their money.

You should aim to publish your book to within 100% of your highest capability. But if you don’t learn the skillset required to do so then you need to outsource or delegate.

There are many skills you can outsource, and some authors make a living self-publishing by outsourcing more than you might think, including entire books!

  • Formatting.
  • Editing.
  • Book Creation.
  • Cover Design.
  • Copywriting.
  • Book Trailers.

There’s nothing wrong with outsourcing certain skill sets to help you release the most professional product you can.

Remove Emotion from the Equation

You’ve spent weeks, months, or even years writing your first book, poured your heart and soul into it and now you’re ready to release.

Except there’s one hurdle to fully overcome, and that’s emotional attachment. Your book is a product you’ve released into the wild, not everyone’s going to like it and not everyone will like it.

Readers are allowed their own opinion on your book, and reviews are for other readers, not for the author of the work. When was the last time you rated a film 5/5?

Despite peripheral publishing services that a writer might outsource, a writer is generally one person. A solitary writer who endures most of the emotion attached with a project.

Remove Emotion from the Equation - self-publishing guide

When that one bad review comes in – and it will – it’s how you respond to it emotionally that can make the difference of moving on with making a living self-publishing or dwelling on the negativity.

Worrying about reviews is not good for a writer’s wellbeing or their mental health. Dwelling on negativity surrounding a labour of love, is not going to help.

How to avoid emotional attachment to your book.

  • Step back and look at the bigger picture.
  • See the product that others see.
  • Realise your book is an evergreen product.
  • Be open to changing all aspects of your book going forward.
  • Be welcoming to change.
  • If you’ve released your book to the highest standard – be happy.

Where to Publish for Maximum Results

With any guide to making a living self-publishing, you will inevitably stumble upon the war between ‘going wide’ or using Amazon KDP exclusively.

Everyone’s experience will differ but there is one constant that cannot be ignored: Amazon is king. On average, Amazon accounts for around 75% of all books sales, in all formats, though the number tends to fluctuate depending what country you’re in.

Online booksellers by market share (2022):

  • Amazon
  • Barnes & Noble
  • Apple
  • Kobo
  • Google
  • Smashwords/Draft2Digital
  • Lulu

The above list varies by country, for example in the UK, WHSmith (the creators of the ISBN) and Waterstones drop in just behind Lulu. However, they are more focused on print copies than eBooks.

For maximum reach, you might want to publish to as many sellers as possible but before you do, consider Amazon’s exclusive program.

I experimented for several years until finally deciding on going exclusive with Amazon KDP, in a program called KDP Select.

KDP Select & Kindle Unlimited

When you sign up with KDP Select, your book becomes part of the Kindle Unlimited subscription. Readers pay a monthly subscription to read as many books as they want that are listed as Kindle Unlimited.

On average, KDP Select pays $0.004/page read, which doesn’t sound a lot, until you factor in the number of pages read.

If you hit 400,000 page reads across all your books in one calendar month then you would receive $1,600 in royalties from the KDP Select fund alone. This is before any direct sales of your books on the Amazon store.

The catch is that once you’re enrolled in KDP Select, you CANNOT publish the digital version of your book anywhere else. If you do, you’ll lose your Amazon account.

Going Wide & Using Book Aggregators

Going wide means that you do not rely on Amazon for digital sales and publish your eBook everywhere. For maximum royalties, you can publish direct to B&N, Apple, Google and Kobo, using their online systems.

If you don’t fancy the headache of setting up multiple accounts and using different formatting standards, then you can use book aggregators.

List of book aggregators:

  • Smashwords/Draft2Digital*
  • ImgramSpark
  • PublishDrive
  • BookBaby

*In February 2022, Draft2Digital acquired Smashwords to become one of the world’s largest book aggregators. This post will be updated as the acquisition moves forward. As of July 2022, the details are being hashed out.

I’ve excluded smaller aggregators like StreetLib and XinXii as the reviews are generally negative. They do, however, allow you to get your book into smaller niche markets but be wary of pay-outs. XinXii hasn’t updated its site in two years.

Going Wide & Using Book Aggregators - self-publishing

IngramSpark is the United States’ go-to industry supplier and like other aggregators, they send your book details to Amazon. However, whichever route you choose, wide or KDP, publishing direct with Amazon gives you more control.

IngramSpark costs to publish your book but not as much as PublishDrive or BookBaby, where you’re looking at high monthly fees or hundreds of dollars.

In the UK, Gardners is the go-to industry supplier, and to get on their list, all you need to do is purchase an ISBN through Nielsen. More on that in a moment.

I published wide for two years until deciding to go all-in with Amazon KDP. Making a living self-publishing meant I needed to look closer at the financial figures.

When I was publishing wide, less than 10% of all my book sales were outside of Amazon. When I went all in on Amazon KDP, and after a few months, 50% of all my royalties were coming from KDP Select and I hadn’t dropped sales.

This told me that going exclusive with Amazon KDP was the most financially efficient way of making a living self-publishing. The best way is to test the process yourself, to see what works best for you.

But remember, this is for eBooks only. Even if you’re enrolled in KDP Select, you can publish your paperback anywhere and everywhere.

To ISBN or Not To ISBN

Every book published for sale required an ISBN (International Standard Book Number). There are usually two options available to you.

  • Purchase your own ISBNs.
  • Use a free ISBN.

A free ISBN sounds good, but it comes with a catch. Let’s look at Amazon KDP as an example. KDP gives you the option of having a free ISBN for your book, but it won’t have your publishing name on it.

Don’t panic, you still own the copyright to the book, it’s just that KDP will use their own publishing name. Books with a free KDP ISBN are usually published under the ‘Independently Published’ publishing name, but this varies with some countries.

The only difference between owning your own ISBNs is the publishing name and the way in which you want to present you product to the world.

Self-publishing in the UK means that I have to buy my ISBNs from Nielsen as ISBN’s are region-specific. In the US, you can buy ISBNs from Bowker. For other countries, you can use the International ISBN Agency search function.

As mentioned up above, owning an ISBN from Nielsen and uploading your metadata to the title editor, automatically gets your listed on Gardner’s website, which is a benefit rarely mentioned elsewhere. It’s one of those industry secrets that the ‘industry’ likes to keep to themselves.

Benefits of having your own ISBN

  • Your own publishing name.
  • Book becomes accessible to the trade.
  • More efficient marketing of your book.
  • Makes book accessible to libraries without aggregators.
  • Allows your book to become orderable by offline stores.
  • Ensures direct identification of different versions.

Benefits of having a free ISBN

  • It’s free!
  • Test the self-publishing waters before committing to paid ISBNs.
  • Ideal for publishing just one book.
  • You don’t have to worry about orders from the trade.
  • Saves time.

The ideal way to begin your self-publishing journey is by using a free ISBN as ISBNs cost money. Once you received enough sales to get your own ISBN, you can re-release the book under your own publishing name.

Building Your Author Website

Now you know how to get your book published, you’re going to want to start building your online presence! Despite having your book listed with online shops, you still want to have your own piece of digital real estate.

An author website is considered necessary, but it doesn’t have to be difficult. There are easy-to-use website builders out there, and even website designers who do all the hard work for you.

Building Your Author Website

There are a few things your author website needs to have to make it successful:

  • A focus on your books.
  • Email list sign up.
  • Simple navigation and menu.
  • A biography.
  • A blog.

You don’t have to sell books on your site, and sometimes its better simply to link to the shop you sell the most books on. Check out my book page and you’ll see I link directly to Amazon.

Self-publishing doesn’t have to be hard, but it does take time to learn the skills necessary to make it work. Learning the ins and outs of WordPress is one way to improve the overall control and look of your site.

Alternatively, website builders like Wix, Ionos, Weebly prove popular with authors. Check out a complete guide to setting up your author website with all the tips and tricks you need.

Understanding the Benefit of SEO

SEO (Search Engine Optimization) is one way you can bring visitors to your website or book by writing blog posts or book descriptions the right way. SEO focuses on getting traffic from organic search.

To get your book listed on the first page of Google with generic terms is near impossible, as the giants of the book industry will have total control of that page.

For example, type in Ben Oakley Author and you’ll be met with my own site, Amazon, Waterstones, my Twitter account, and links to external book sellers.

But the catch is that not many people will be typing in that term, as I’m not a known author. Which is where SEO comes into play, specifically on the posts of your website.

Despite all the SEO gurus that exist on the internet, there is only one guide you need. Google’s Search Engine Optimization (SEO) Starter Guide is literally the only thing your need to get started and its free.

It’s a little confusing to begin with so read it one stage at a time and keep referring back to it, as they update regularly. SEO can help boost your self-publishing career ten-fold if time is taken to implement it.

Advertising Your Book Online

SEO is the art of gaining organic traffic for free, despite the time you put into it. But to make a living self-publishing, you MUST advertise at some point.

No author I know of has become successful without paid advertising techniques. There are tips and tricks you can use to better your advertising process.

Where to advertise your book online:

  • Amazon Ads
  • Google Ads
  • Bing Ads
  • Facebook
  • Twitter
  • Instagram
  • TikTok

Self-publishing costs money but to make money, you will need to spend. Here’s one trick to help you save money. DO NOT advertise your book on Google Ads.

But I’ve included it in the list? To let you know where you can advertise if you have enough money to do so. Here’s the thing, if you’ve already published your book and people are looking for it, they will find it.

Let Amazon do the hard work for you, self-publishing is hard enough. If readers are looking for your book, they may type the title into Google where they will find an Amazon link – or another bookseller.

Instead of paying Google to get readers already looking for your book to go to your own site, simply let Google funnel them to Amazon, where they can purchase immediately.

If a reader is looking for a generic ‘mystery book’, they will also be funneled to Amazon in most cases. It’s Amazon where you want to grab them, which is why advertising on Amazon is one of the top ways to reach a reader already looking for the type of book you’re selling.

For social media, Facebook ads seem to have the edge over others but it depends which social media network you use and have an affinity for. Mine is Twitter as I’ve made it work for me but yours could be anything from TikTok to Instagram. All have a large reach.

Marketing & Promotion Tricks

Self-publishing is not just about writing and releasing your product to the world, you have to market and promote it. Read our complete guide to marketing your book for some incredible insights.

Marketing & Promotion Tricks for self-published authors

Here is a list of marketing and promotion tricks to reach readers, with more detail in the guide.

  • Social media platform of your choice.
  • Blogging using SEO.
  • Paid advertising.
  • Email newsletter.
  • Offline marketing. *
  • Giveaway/competition.
  • Cross promo with another author.
  • Free book promos.
  • Special deals.
  • Celebrity/influencer endorsement.

*Offline marketing is a whole other ballgame that can have fantastic benefits for your book sales. This includes:

  • Leafleting.
  • Poster advertisements.
  • Banners.
  • Billboards.
  • Shopping centre stand.
  • Book fairs.
  • Business events.
  • Markets.
  • Book shops.
  • Radio ads/interviews.
  • Talking events.
  • Charity shop donations.
  • Local/national press.
  • Free book giveaways.

And more, detailed in our guide.

Publish a Book at Least Once a Quarter

This very much depends on how much you want to make self-publishing, because putting time and work into your business really does pay off.

Because overnight success is not simply overnight success, it may take many months or years to hit your goal of making a living self-publishing.

One way to speed up your career is to publish as quick as possible while still maintaining and releasing a professional product.

There is no rule of thumb, but you should be publishing a book at least once every three months. I tend to publish a book once every 4-6 weeks depending on the time of year.

As you can imagine, it’s a lot of work, with full days of writing, many days in a row. Readers are insatiable and by having a large back catalogue that grows on a regular basis, you’re already ahead of the game.

It’s possible to write a book in a month very easily if you’re doing it full time. 5,000 words a day for non-fiction including time for research gets you the first draft of a 50,000-word book in less than two weeks, with another two weeks for editing and everything else listed above.

Pouring out 8,000-10,000 words a day gets you a novel in the same amount of time. Having a back catalogue that is consistent is proven to increase sales as time moves forward.

As mentioned before, self-publishing is hard, but once you master the ins and outs of the industry then you will find that making a living self-publishing is possible.

Just remember that it takes time but once it begins to fall into place, you’ll never look back.

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Ben Oakley is a bestselling author, researcher, publisher, blogger, and mental health advocate from Camden, England. Usually found on Twitter or in the bars and parks of Camden. Agathokakological is his favourite word!

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4 Comments

4 Comments

  1. AuthorCharlesX

    July 24, 2022 at 7:17 pm

    I get the whole don’t use Google Ads thing but isn’t it best to spread the advertising budget around? Also, thank you for pointing out removing the emotion from a book, I know this has kept me back in the past. Will come back to this post constantly in my journey.

  2. Ben Oakley

    July 25, 2022 at 9:20 am

    Thank you, Charles!

    It’s never a bad thing to use your advertising budget to the maximum potential but there seems little reward in using Google Ads to specifically advertise a book listed on a platform like Amazon, when Amazon pay for ads anyway.

    Catching your readers on Amazon direct works better than competing against Amazon in the Google Ad space. However, using Google Ads to funnel visitors to your own website does work!

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