Make books, make bank: Understanding how to self-publish and make money

Books are a great way to make money

Whether you have a book published or you’re still considering how best to go to print, I’ve got no doubt that you’ve stopped and wondered “how long until I’m the next J.K. Rowling?”

I don’t want to shatter any dreams here, but the answer is probably never. Achieving that level of success is an outlier. But that doesn’t mean you can’t make some money still!

How Much Money Can You Make by Self-Publishing?

That’s not a simple question to answer because the amount varies widely. Digital Book World did a study in 2014 that found, among responding authors, that the majority earned between $1,000 and $2,999 a year. So that’s probably the best estimate if you want to be really broad.

I don’t know about you, but less than $3,000 a year isn’t enough for me to live on. Making a living as an author, from book sales alone is tough. To say the least.

You have to make sure you’re getting the most from every sale. That means driving your marketing efforts to the retail spots online that return the best revenue for you. Logical, right?

The Amazon Conundrum

With an understanding that you—the self-published author—want to make the most from each sale of your book, we have to take a moment to talk about the retail giant Amazon.

There’s a misconception about Amazon in the self-publishing world. Many authors see Amazon as a boon for making their books available to the huge concentration of buyers who visit the site every day. But while Amazon makes books easy to buy, their publishing division (now exclusively Kindle Direct, as CreateSpace has been shuttered) is less a means to publish and more an avenue to get on Amazon.

Are those two things really different? For a lot of authors, the answer is no. Being published means being for sale on Amazon.

And that’s great. There’s really no reason not to have your product for sale on Amazon. No matter what you sell, you should be selling it on Amazon.

But you have to appreciate the premium Amazon extracts. Selling your book through Amazon directly or through another self-publisher on Amazon means accepting a greatly reduced return.

For example, let’s consider this very standard paperback:

book specs.png

We’ll say this book is list for $14.95 on Lulu, earning you $7.76 per sale on our marketplace and $1.58 on Amazon. Where does that $6.18 go? Amazon’s coffers.

Making lower revenues does not mean you should avoid Amazon. Don’t misunderstand me on that. Your book should absolutely be for sale on Amazon because they have the largest and broadest marketplace available.

The mistake I see self-published authors making time and again is prioritizing Amazon.

The Mistake we all Make

It’s a mistake I see again and again on blogs and author websites. You find the author’s book linked on the sidebar; a nice thumbnail of the cover and maybe some text to go with it. I click that thumbnail and bam! I’m on Amazon buying the book.

Some authors are doing this because Amazon is how they published, so it makes sense to direct buyers there. Others are simply using the notoriety and ease of Amazon’s shopping to entice buyers. Regardless, the last thing anyone should be doing is directing their reader (or would-be reader) to a different site to buy their book.

Imagine going to a shoe store for a new pair of sneakers. You check the selection, talk to a clerk, and find a pair you love. Try them on and damn they fit great! So, you ask the clerk to box them up and send you to the register. And the clerk, he just smiles and says, “oh no, you have to go to Target to actually buy these.”

Look, I get it. Amazon is awesome. I’m not trying to convince anyone to cancel their account or delete their shopping app. Hell, I took a break while writing this post to buy a case of dog food and a jar of ink on Amazon.

The mistake for authors isn’t listing their book on Amazon. It’s in using Amazon as their primary sales channel.

The Most Bang for your Buck

I’m really all about those alliterations today…

Anyway, it’s 2018 and we all have a wide array of tools available to us for online retail and eCommerce.

Just this year, we released our first direct eCommerce integration for Shopify®, using our Open API. What that means is that you can sell your book from your website without sending readers to Amazon or some other retail site. And—to really make this a great deal—you can keep all of the profits.

Literally, our app just charges you to print and ship, then we whip up your book and send it directly to the buyer.

That book for $14.95 from earlier? It would cost you $4.05 to print. You would make $10.90 per sale! I didn’t do great at math in school, but I’m pretty sure $10.90 is significantly more than $1.58.

Everyone should be able to make a living doing what they love. Sadly, it’s not that easy. You have to really work hard to achieve that kind of autonomy. And despite how useful and awesome Amazon is, they do not have your goals in mind.

Let’s be really transparent here. Lulu is a for-profit company too. We make money when you make money (that 80/20 revenue split). We want you to use us so we make money. Amazon is not interested in whether or not you make money because they build margins into the cost for everything that ensures they will make a profit.

But because we’re not the world’s largest marketplace, we can offer things Amazon cannot. Like the opportunity to make a much better margin on sales with our eCommerce and API.

Make Books, Make Bank

You can make real money with your book. Whether you’re a fiction author, a self-propelled entrepreneur, an educator, a historian, or any of dozens of other professionals that lend themselves to publishing, you can make supplemental or even primary income with your book.

You can browse this blog or Lulu’s website and social media pages and find numerous marketing statements about quality, our customer service, our commitment. It’s all out there.

Today, I’m appealing to your wallet. If you want to earn money by selling your book (maybe even books?), you need to make the smart decision that puts the most into your pocket.

Breaking it Down

First, here’s the pricing chart from a 200-page paperback created on Lulu and using a free ISBN to access our distribution network:


Notice the breakdown includes a slightly different base price ($5.25 on Lulu, $5.50 elsewhere). That accommodates the increased print costs Amazon and Ingram provide for this specific book size and type, though it is notable that this does not mean Amazon or Ingram necessarily charge that much to use them directly.

What you see is Lulu taking a 20% cut of your Net Profit, leaving you with 80% of the revenue that can be collected. The major loss of revenue for selling through retailers is their Share. This is the price set by retailers to list your book. This is the premium you pay to have your book listed on Amazon.

That same book, using our xPress platform to sell directly with your own eCommerce (through our API) or using Shopify’s® eCommerce application looks like this:


That’s $4.05 to print, and anything over that cost is yours to keep. At the $14.95 retail, you’d be earning $10.90 per sale. Or you could drop the price to make the book more attractive to purchase from you direct.

A book created and sold using our direct sales API doesn’t have any kind of revenue split or distribution options. Because you don’t need either of those things! You keep 100% of the earnings. And you are the distributor. Not Amazon, not Lulu. You.

Finally, we have that book created and listed through Kindle Direct Publishing:


With a slightly lower printing cost, Amazon’s revenue is $5.72 per sale (on Amazon) and $2.73 through their distribution network.

That’s not bad, but it isn’t as good as keeping 100% of the revenue from selling directly to your readers.

Finding the Balance

For some writers, it might be too much work to set up a separate retail channel for their author branded site or blog. Maybe just going directly to Amazon and accepting a lower return is acceptable.

That’s a great option for those types of authors.

But for the real Authorpreneur, the motivated and driven individual that wants to get the most out of every effort they make, using the right tool for the right job is a given. That means diversifying your self-publishing tools.

Maybe you use Amazon to sell on their platform and Lulu to sell on your own.

That is literally giving you the best of both worlds. You get access to Amazon’s marketplace and you get to sell directly to readers who come to your branded website or through social media at a significantly higher return.

We know consumers prefer to buy direct from brands when given the option. And we know that you need to think of yourself as a brand to increase book sales and grow an audience. All this means you need to make the smartest choices for you and your book.

That’s the balance Lulu seeks to facilitate.

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