Monday, March 11, 2013

How to Publish an eBook for $0

Would you believe that you can become a self-published author easily and with no initial investment? Not only is it possible, but it's a much simpler task than the profits you'll potentially reap would have you believe. Done right, one ebook could make you as much as $1,000 per month. Multiply that by however many you can write, and you eventually have a full-time living coming from passive ebook income.

My Step-By-Step Guide to Publishing an eBook

1. Pick a general ebook topic

What is something you enjoy? Music? Pets? Fishing? Basketweaving? Chances are, there's a profitable niche waiting for you on Amazon. Make a list of broad topics that interest you.

2. Conduct some light market research

Go to Amazon and directly into the Kindle Store. Under the search bar, click on 'Kindle eBooks.' The broad categories are located on the left-hand side of the page. Pick the category that is closest to your broad topic. Make sure that the topic already has some titles available. This is a good sign that there is actually a market for these topics.

3. Do a little keyword research 

This part is a little bit tricky because it does take some initial guesswork. Identify the highest ranked books in your topic and figure out what keywords people are using to find these books. A good place to start is to look at the book's 'tags' to find a list of possible keywords associated with the book. Enter these keywords into the search bar to see if the book appears on the front page. Use these keywords to determine your title and include a couple in your description as well - this makes the book appear on popular search results. It's like Amazon's own version of SEO.

4. Begin writing your ebook 

Use Microsoft Word or a similar word processor (I only have experience with Word. Your mileage may vary with other software). Word is great for formatting, and most style guides use MS Word as a reference point for their instructions. It's really the gold standard of word processing. That said, if you don't currently own a copy of Microsoft Office, I highly recommend purchasing Microsoft Office 2010, as the new 2013 product has a horrible licensing structure that only allows you to install the software once. It's either that or a subscription-based model, which requires you to renew every 1-4 years, depending on how much you pay up front. It's thievery, if you ask me, and not worth supporting with your dollars.

The Smashwords Style Guide is an excellent guide to ebook formatting that works well no matter where you're publishing. As the style guide will tell you, don't forget to proofread before you publish! Use a spell checker but also conduct a manual proofread.

4. Consider your ebook length

The length of your book will largely be determined by what genre of writing you're doing. Using your own discretion is usually fine, but if you are writing fiction, don't call a 20,000 word book a 'novel' or a short story. It's a 'novella' (A novel is generally 50,000+ words, a short story between 3000-20,000 words).  Avoid publishing books that are less than 3,000 words unless they are free and you really can't make them any longer.

5. Design an ebook cover 

 Make your cover stand out using photoshop, gimp, or some other full-featured image editing software to create something that effectively conveys your book. If you intend to sell your ebook through a retailer (which you should and probably will), do not use a 3D cover. Smashwords will reject your book for distribution if you include a 3D cover image.  The Smashwords Style Guide contains an excellent explanation of the elements of an effective ebook cover.

6. Write a good blurb

Create intrigue and a little tension, especially if you're publishing a work of fiction. It's sometimes helpful to include an excerpt. If you're writing noncreative nonfiction, convey the benefits of purchasing your book to the reader.

7. All done? Upload your finished product to ebook retailers

No matter what you write, Amazon and Barnes and Noble will account for 80 to 90 percent of your sales. Always upload directly to Amazon via Kindle Direct Publishing. If you live in the US or the UK, upload directly to Barnes and Noble via PubIt!  Kobo, which will account for 1-2 percent of your sales if you're lucky, has a direct uploading service through Writing Life. Although it's a little more work than leaving it up to Smashwords, you get to keep much more of your royalty. Different genres have small niche retailers that may or may not be worth the effort involved in getting set up. These sites pay out monthly, as long as you have reached a minimum payment threshold. If you set up direct deposit, this threshold is typically $10 USD. Payments occur 45-60 days after the close of the month of sale, depending on the site.

The final step is to distribute your ebook through Smashwords. Smashwords allows access to approximately 10 ebook retailers, including the Apple iBookstore, which is very difficult to upload to without the help of a third party distributor (unless you're a legal business entity). Sales from Apple alone can account for 10-15 percent of your sales, and you'll sell a book here or there on the other retailer sites. Smashwords pays quarterly, so this is a nice little bonus chunk of cash.

All of these services are free to set up. Your payment comes in the form of a portion of your royalties (usually 30-40 percent) whenever you sell a book.

8. Price it right

$2.99 USD is really the golden ebook price, and there's not really much more to say about it. If you're book is longer than 20,000 words, you can get away with charging more, but $2.99 is really the sweet spot in terms of number of sales and total revenue. Most retailers don't start offering 60-70% royalties until your book is priced between $2.99 and $9.99. Anything above or below that range is sold at a 35-45% royalty, earning you substantially less money.

For example, a book priced at $0.99 on Amazon will earn you $0.35 per copy sold. You may sell more copies at that price point, but if you priced the same book at $2.99 (earning you around $2.07 per sale), you would only need to sell 1/6 (17%) the number of copies to make the same amount of money. Your sales will not drop to 1/6 the volume with that price change, so you are 99% certain to make more money selling for $2.99 than $0.99.


  • It's possible to find profitable niches in both fiction and nonfiction. I've written successful titles in both, and they've served me well in different ways. There's no need to write about something completely foreign or that doesn't interest you.
  • It's not necessary, but writing about a diverse range of topics can be a smart business move. Different ebook genres sell better at different times of the year. Having a diverse catalog of books can ensure a relatively steady stream of income.
  • If you're crunched for time, not a good illustrator, not a good writer, or simply don't want to do the work, there's good news. Virtually every part of the ebook creation process is something that you can outsource to somebody else. You can pay somebody else to do your covers, format your ebook, publish your ebook, edit your ebook, or even write it from beginning to end. A simple Google search will quickly lead you to services available in your country. 
  • This is all based on my experience and that of my personal sphere of fellow writers. Your mileage may vary.


  1. Awesome Cindy! I wonder if you can provide a bit more info on step 3. For argument's sake let's say I'd like to write a book about sports, specifically squash since I run a Website on the same topic. I can see the Amazon categories start out broad and then narrow down (sports & outdoors > racket sports > squash). So squash already has its own minicategory which I guess is good, though there are only a few titles available. Where exactly would I look to find the "tags" of the top-ranked books? How do I know whether the niche of squash is too big, too small, or just right? Amusingly, I see there are a couple $2.99 ebooks listed, which appear from the outside to be written by internet marketers rather than squash players.

    1. Hi Pierre,

      Amazon seems to be phasing out its use of user-generated tags that typically hang out below the description and ranking info, but occasionally it will show up on the page of a product. If what you're looking at doesn't have tags, check the title and description for the most obvious keywords the author has stuffed in there.

      As for the squash niche, I've taken a look at it myself. The number of books available, 10, indicates that it's indeed a tiny niche. A niche with 10 books could be perfectly viable, though - so the next step is to look at the sales raking. The #4 book in 'Squash' has an impressive ranking in that tiny category, but its overall ranking in the Kindle Store is not good, and neither is the ranking of any other independently published book in that category. I can tell you from experience that a book with a ranking of 350k will never sell more than 2-3 copies a month. Aim for a category with a few books that have broken 50k. The presence of a super seller (i'd say below 10k) bodes even better for a category's sales potential. The higher the average ranking of the books, the better your sales potential will be. Hope this helps.