How to launch a bestselling book without earning any money

Several years ago I published a book on “how to write, format, publish and promote your book without spending any money.”

Download the book: PDF VERSION | KINDLE

At a book conference recently, one of the most popular talks was on the same subject. I’ve put together tons of resources to help authors publish on the cheap, but it’s worth pointing out that book marketing is rarely free: it takes either time or money, and you should spend whichever currency you have the most of.

Recently I’ve noticed a worrying trend: the “successful” authors are the ones who are almost breaking even.

Last week there was a post on Facebook by an author who had made $1000+ with her debut book launch. It was meant to be motivating – “you can do it too!” But she later admitted she’d almost earned her money back. Which means, actually, “you too can work really hard for years to write and publish a book without getting paid for it!”

Mega-successful indie authors aren’t so different; another recent post by an author who routinely makes $25,000+ a month shared his expenses. 

  • 10K for services (covers, editing, etc)
  • 10K advertising
  • 30% of the rest to taxes
  • Plus an expensive health insurance plan

And this doesn’t even take into consideration the hundreds of hours it takes to write a book. Also, these are extreme outliers.

Although I have a friend who makes 50K/month, and another who just passed 80K, these are authors in the top 100 of their categories, out of literally millions of books. Most of them have at least 12 books out, have been publishing for 5+ years, and spend roughly half of what they earn on ads, promotion and publishing.

But the vast majority of authors, as I’ve mentioned previously, don’t make any money with their books (which means, actually, they’re losing money: not just in expenses, but in the huge opportunity costs from all the time they’ve sunk into writing, and then trying to figure out how to market their books).

I saw a marketing post talking about the same issue: that “million-dollar product launches” relied heavily on affiliates and ad campaigns, and when all was said and done, the content creators actually made around $30,000 in real earnings.

So what?

If you love what you do, and enjoy writing, you might think “who cares if I get paid – I’m not doing this for money!”
But that also means, “Who cares if anybody reads this thing – I don’t care if anybody else enjoys it!”

The first step to making money with your books, is making sure you’re providing value to a specific audience, and you know what they want (and then learn how to package and position your book to match their preferences).

But even if you’re doing everything right and seeing a profit – which is rare and difficult – you’re probably not calculating how much time you’re actually spending (if you total up your hourly wage, I’d be impressed if you were making half what you’d make frying chicken at KFC.)

Here’s the good news…

I HAVE seen authors publish successfully on the first try. Almost always, they were writing in popular genres and had great books, with great covers and knew enough about book marketing to get the visibility they needed. And I’ve also seen authors persevere for years and suddenly everything clicked. For most people, it’s a process – you’re learning all kinds of new skills and platforms and software. It’s a stretch to get everything right the first time around without professional help (and even then: tons of amateur writers have set up online publishing or book design businesses to augment their own book sales).

I also know hundreds of authors who are making a living with their books. It IS possible, and once you’ve figured out a system, it can be an excellent source of income and provide you with a level of financial freedom you never dreamed possible (I’m not quite there yet with my books, but I will be – I plan to make enough in book sales to pay for a writer’s cabin in Oregon).

“#1 Bestseller” is worthless

Unless you’re a professional speaker, or using your “#1 bestselling author” status to sell digital products, coaching or other assets – just hitting #1 on Amazon won’t result in long-term book earnings. You can spend money on a big launch at hit #1, but then sink and disappear because you haven’t tickled Amazon’s algorithms enough to stay “sticky”.

It’s better to…

  • Build your own list of fans who will support future launches
  • Get lots of Amazon followers
  • Make friends with other authors in your genre
  • Focus on boosting your also-boughts so your book stays visible (by recommending similar books to your readers)
  • Focus on improving conversion, with a better cover/blurb
  • Include keywords and positioning statements in your blurb so readers can immediately see what kind of book it is
  • Build relevant content that attracts organic traffic, for long-term sales
  • Drive traffic with Facebook and Amazon ads
  • Build backlinks with anchor keywords to your Amazon book to boost SEO
  • Choose less competitive categories so you can keep that #1 sticker long-term

You don’t have to build a huge author platform; you can just get really good with advertising – as long as your core offer converts. But throwing money at your book launch in hopes of hitting #1 will probably be a mistake, because even if you hit it and can call yourself a #1 bestselling author, you’re technically still just paying for the privilege of publishing a book (AKA vanity publishing). Which again, is totally fine – everyone deserves to tell their story – but it’s not something to brag about.

About Derek Murphy

Derek Murphy is a book editor turned book designer with a Ph.D. in Literature. He's been featured on CNN and spoken at dozens of writing conferences around the world. These days he mostly writes young adult fantasy and science fiction, while helping authors write and publish bestselling books. FREE GUIDE: Sell your work without selling out.
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