I first entered into the eBooks “business” when I published 42 Fallacies via Amazon in November, 2010. I actually did this without any intention of making money-I actually tried to set the price at 0.00 but Amazon does not allow for anything lower than 99 cents (when you publish through them-they do give away some Kindle books). I did not even bother to check my sales until February, 2011 and noticed that the book had been doing surprisingly well given that I had done no advertising at all (I had not even mentioned it) and the same content had been distributed about the internet since I wrote the original version in the 1990s. Despite the modest success of the book, I only sort of vaguely considered adding more titles.
Then my department had an emergency meeting. Thanks to what seems to be a nationwide war on education combined with a still weak economy, my university was once again in budget woes. One solution was to drastically cut summer classes. My class, which had filled up two hours after registration opened, was cancelled. I thus found myself in a position I had not been in since college: I needed a summer job.
As you might imagine, having a Ph.D and years of teaching experience has not proven conducive to finding a temporary summer job. However, I thought that I could use my ability to hammer out words to make some summer cash and decided to look into becoming an eBook mogul or at least determine if the payoff for the effort would be worth it.
Not surprisingly, some independent authors claim to make large sums of money selling eBooks via Amazon and Barnes & Nobels. They will gladly sell you books revealing their secrets and methods (the secret: sell books to people about how they can make money by selling books to people about how to make money by selling books). However, I was somewhat skeptical of such claims and decided to give the matter some thought.
While the traditional way to make money by writing is to sell your work to a publisher, eBooks could provide a viable money maker for an independent author, especially in light of how traditional publishing works.
First, there is the fact that to be published by a publisher you will need to get them to accept your book. As such, writing in the hopes of publishing this way is a gamble from the start. In contrast, publishing with Amazon’s Kindle or Barnes & Nobles’ Nook (or other means) is a sure thing: you just upload the book and it is on sale (assuming the book is not something they simply refuse to sell, such as works on pedophilia).
This effectively opens the door to anyone who can operate a computer (or knows someone who can). While this means that there will be a great deal of competition, it also means that you can get into the game.
Second, there is the matter of money. Having been a freelance writer since 1989, I have some experience with the usual contracts offered by publishers. Small publishers, such as gaming companies, often offer a one time, rather modest payment for the work. Larger publishers will typically provide a modest advance (I got $1,500 for my first book) and then offer 7-10% royalties on sales (although this can vary). The overwhelming majority of books have fairly limited sales and this means that a single book will generally not make an author much money. There can be exceptions for people who are already celebrities, those anointed by Oprah or those who manage to hit the market just perfectly.
In contrast, Amazon gives the author 35% of each sale (70% for certain prices) and Barnes & Nobels offers 40%. As such, the author’s percentage take of the sale price is vastly better with an eBook. The question is, of course, whether the sales of an eBook would be enough to match what you would get from a publisher. While you would need to sell fewer eBooks than published books to make the same amount of money, without a publisher you will be on your own in terms of advertising and promoting the book.
Fortunately, the internet makes such DIY advertising and promotion a viable possibility. You can promote your work in your own blog, mention it when commenting on other peoples’ blogs (just be sure to be relevant and dignified about it), create a web site, put up a YouTube video and hope it goes viral, and so on. In many cases, I suspect, you can probably put on a better self promotion than many publishers will provide starting authors (or minor authors such as myself).
Of course, if your book probably would not be picked up by a publisher, then any sales you get from it as an eBook would be a gain. But, of course, there is the question of whether it will sell enough to make the effort worthwhile. After all, writing a book is not easy, nor is creating a decent cover. Getting the book properly formatted for ePublication is also a fair amount of work (but far less than actually writing the book). In any case, the name of the game is sales volume: the more you sell, the more you make.
This leads, naturally enough, to the question of pricing. You can sell your eBook from a low of 99 cents all the way up. While a low price can help sell more books, you will obviously need to sell more to match what you would make with a higher price. $10 seems to be a realistic upper limit, but most new authors should probably go with a lower price. After all, people might gamble on a $1.99 eBook that sounds good, but they probably will not impulse buy something that is $5 or more. Fortunately, if you think that a high price is hurting your sales or if you think the price is too low, you can change that.