The secrets of self-publishing on the Kindle

Kindle Touch

Kevin Partner reveals how to maximise your chances of making money from self-publishing on the Kindle

My experiment with self-publishing is proving successful: I launched my first title via Kindle Direct Publishing last October, and have since expanded into various other formats across multiple platforms.

But let’s get one thing straight before I go any further: please take Amazon’s tales of massive overnight wealth with the same pinch of salt as Apple’s promises of app developer stardom. Sure, some authors make a lot of money by self-publishing, but they’re just outliers whose astronomical success is partly due to the sort of luck you can’t base a business plan around. Who’d have guessed that a poorly written tale of softcore bondage would capture the imagination of middle-aged women across the world? But that book spawned dozens of similarly themed potboilers, which were orders of magnitude less successful, but nevertheless paid enough to keep their authors afloat.

To make a reasonable return, your book needs to reach the top 10,000

The top 100 paid-for books in the Kindle Store includes several such rip-offs, which I know because I spend a lot of time researching best-practice among those writers who’ve successfully self-published, and conversing online with some of the trailblazers. And it turns out that, just as in the app market, the vast majority of books listed in the Kindle Store make next-to-no money whatsoever...

Amazon claims there are more than 400,000 Kindle titles available in the UK, but any ranked below 50,000 is selling less than one copy every couple of days. Given the low price of ebooks, the revenue generated is hardly going to pay off your mortgage.

To make a reasonable return, your book needs to reach the top 10,000; in other words, IT needs to outrank 97.5% of all titles. Put that way, self-publishing hardly looks like a land of milk and honey, but then most markets operate in this way – the majority of turnover in any particular market is generated by a tiny proportion of its traders. I’d expect the top 100 Kindle books to sell more than the next 399,900 combined, and of these best-sellers only a tiny percentage to be non-fiction.

Yet I still believe self-publishing represents a credible business opportunity if tackled properly, and I’ll be expanding my activities in this area over the coming year. Here are some tips based on my experience so far.

Tip 1: Pick your niche

When choosing a topic for your book, find a niche that’s large enough to generate sufficient sales, while still small enough that you can dominate it. To identify such a niche, generate a list of keywords that best describes your own expertise and then search for books on those topics in the Kindle Store. Stick to UK versions if your book will mainly appeal to natives, otherwise base your analysis on Amazon.com. Start with quite a broad search phrase and narrow it whenever you encounter too many competitors.

For example, you might start by searching for plain "Raspberry Pi" if you’re interested in writing about this cheap computing phenomenon.

Sort your results by popularity and then open the top one. When I tried this it was, hardly surprisingly, the official Raspberry Pi User Guide (co-written by Gareth Halfacree of this parish). Its ranking at just over 5,000 suggests sales of at least 15 copies per day at a royalty of £6 per copy, or some £90 per day, £30,000+ per annum from UK sales. Not bad.

Repeat this process by moving down the search list. In this example, the second-most popular title generates around £22 per day and the next few £16, £5 and £2.50 respectively. You’ll notice a familiar pattern here, where two-thirds of the revenues go to the most popular title and more than 80% to the top two together. Carry on down some way and you’ll very soon be among books that required considerable effort to produce but are selling around one copy a week.

You conclude that there’s clearly money to be made from an enthusiastic audience eager to learn, especially considering that you’ve only looked at UK Kindle sales so far, and many of these titles will be available globally in multiple formats. But you also see plenty of titles in this niche that have failed to make any impact at all.

Tip 2: Publish a great book

Having located your market niche, you’ll need to produce the goods. Remember to closely base your actual title on the keywords you researched, since this is how your audience will find you on Amazon. This may sound obvious, but if you were to compare the best-selling books in any particular category with those that languish in the virtual equivalent of a box under the bed, you’ll notice big differences in quality – the most popular books will be professionally presented, complete and well written.

Having a copy editor run through your book at least once before publishing is an excellent investment, and unless you’re a graphic artist you should also hire a cover designer. Many potential readers get no further than the thumbnail, and since the ebook shops don’t separate titles into ones published by industry giants and home-produced efforts, your "Guide to Microsoft Office" needs to look the business when viewed alongside similar titles from the big guns.