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

7 min read

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:

Lulu_pricing

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:

xpress_pricing

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:

kdp_pricing

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.

25 thoughts on “Make books, make bank: Understanding how to self-publish and make money

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  1. Hello. I tried getting published with vary comic book places but these guys care for realistic art and not cartoon art. Good thing I self publish my first issue. Is it worth selling?

  2. I went to Shopify and attempted to go the route, but nothing is clearly explained about how Shopify works, what the “shop” they offer you is, or what options you have for “decorating” it, or how I will be more visible than with my Lulu website, or anything else really: and suddenly I was confronted with having to accept a “plan” of paying $29 per month for…what exactly, I had no idea…and as you can imagine, I backed off! It may all be perfectly legitimate, and may have good prospects, but it’s presented like a scam, and certainly the customer is treated like an idiot. No thanks.

    1. Hi Leon,

      Sorry to hear Shopify didn’t look like a good fit for you. I can assure you Shopify is not a scam and as of their last reporting have over 377,000 active merchants (https://www.shopify.com/press/releases/shopify-announces-fourth-quarter-and-full-year-2016-financial-results)

      It is worth pointing out that all ecommerce platforms cost something to use, as payment processing is a very expensive endeavor. The benefit is that you keep all the profit and have the opportunity to capture customer info (like their email address) during checkout for even more marketing opportunities. There’s a lot of work involved, but the pay off can be much greater!

  3. “the numbers you list as comparison for what you’d make publishing//selling thru LULU vs AmAZON are a joke. for a 200 page book, at 14.95, they don’t only give u a 1.58$. ((not to mention the ridiculous idea that someone would sell a 200 page book for 14.95)) ((and the fact that you don’t mention the overhead cost of publishing thru LULU, vs virtually no overhead if you format your own book yourself and publish thru amazon//CS//Kindle))”

    I think you’re being a bit harsh. I’ve published 7 books with between 550 & 700 pages and would challenge anyone to find a more cost effective & flexible distribution system than Lulu – I’m not interested in E-books so can`t comment.

    It’s sensible to buy a preview copy before distribution anyway (at the author rate) and that is all that Lulu demands – I don`t work for Lulu, but I have published many of my own books with them and assisted a number of other people to do the same – if there is an easier or cheaper route I’d like to know about it. (remember that Lulu books can be created with no specialist software or applications – Word or Open Office will do)

    But this thread is about being rewarded for sales, and as others have noted the hard bit is getting in front of your potential customers. As mentioned before my own books are specialist and I know my target customers and where they hang out –

    – but the novelists have a harder job getting noticed in the first place as simple descriptions and keyword searches are unlikely to get noticed in the clutter on major platforms. Success is often as not who you know or how much you have to spend. That’s life, I get it. But I don`t read fiction so have no idea what’s good and what’s not but to sell you need to attract the attention of potential readers. Website visitors are hard to come by and a “Buy Now” button is a valuable tool. (e.g. Shopify / PayPal)

    Clearly nobody expects Lulu to promote their books beyond their own website and specialist marketing services, but I’ve often thought that they could play a part in developing a network of regional user groups to showcase their work through live events? Just a thought.

  4. Dear Mr. Paul,
    I am glad connecting you tonight. I am registered with Lulu and I am interested to publish with Lulu. And I have ready books waiting for publishing and others nearing completion.
    Please guide me on how to start to publish m book(s) and sell them both in Amazon and Lulu. Expecting to hear from you.
    Thank you.

    1. Hi Pastor Thaddeus,

      Glad to hear you’re interested in publishing! If you want to sell your book through our distribution channels, you’ll want to start on this page – http://www.lulu.com/create/books – and be sure to select a combination of options that lists “Eligible for Distribution” right above the “Make this Book” button.

  5. the numbers you list as comparison for what you’d make publishing//selling thru LULU vs AmAZON are a joke. for a 200 page book, at 14.95, they don’t only give u a 1.58$. ((not to mention the ridiculous idea that someone would sell a 200 page book for 14.95)) ((and the fact that you don’t mention the overhead cost of publishing thru LULU, vs virtually no overhead if you format your own book yourself and publish thru amazon//CS//Kindle))

    1. Hi Crye,

      Thanks for reading! I’d like to take a moment to review your comment, as it appears you may be misinformed about how Lulu operates.

      All the figures listed in this piece come from me logging into Lulu and KDP to create a book. There are even screen shots to back that up. $14.95 is also right in the normal range of paperback books for retail sale, so again, I’m not sure what is ridiculous about that. It’s also an arbitrary figure I used because it is so average. Any price we want to work with still results in nearly the same percentages.

      Finally, there is zero overhead when you publish with Lulu. In fact, we’re one of the few self-publishers who doesn’t even include an ISBN fee or set up fee when creating your project.

    2. Reading these reviews really changed my mind about lulu amazon it is ! Do u they really have a charge and dont tell u ?

  6. I have published 2 books through Createspace and of course they are on Amazon. Two questions:
    #! Since Createspace is gone, do I have to do something technical for my book to continue to be listed? and #2 How do I make my books available on Lulu or is it Shoptify? Totally Confused…

    1. Hi Elayne,

      As far as I know, Amazon is migrating content from CreateSpace for their users. I would just keep an eye on it and read any emails they send carefully.

      Our publishing starts on the create page – http://www.lulu.com/create/books – and walks you through the process. This options gets you published in a very similar way to CreateSpace.

      Shopify and our xPress App allow you to sell print on demand books (and ship them) using Shopify’s ecommerce platform. You would create a Shopify account, make your story or link to your existing website, then use our App to create, fulfill, and manage orders for your books. If you’re looking for a way to sell your book on your own website or blog, this is a great option because you keep more of the revenue. And it works completely in parallel with your Amazon book, so there’s no concern that you’ll lose Amazon sales.

  7. Even when a user finds your book on Amazon 90% of the page is trying to divert the users’ attention elsewhere – but of my last 10 sales all were directed directly to Lulu and 7 ended up going to Amazon – In the only case where I could ask the buyer why, they said it’s all to do with Amazon’s 1 Click purchase. (i.e. no new account required.

    Shopify isn`t for me because it’s a subscription service which doesn`t confer me with any benefit that I can`t have with PayPal with less commitment. It’s probably a good solution for others.

    Getting people to find your book in the first place in a crowded market place is hard enough, but losing revenue in this way is hard to take.

    I’m now working hard to sell directly to distributors and retail outlets. This is relatively easy for me as my books are specialist in nature, and I know the target market well. Anything that sells online now will be a bonus. (a standing Lulu discount for say 5 books would be good – although Lulu offer codes can equally attractive.)

    For fiction writers it must be a several orders of magnitude more difficult. I’m a big fan of Lulu and am anxious to see them achieve more direct sales for ordinary authors.

    OK we all agree there’s a problem, so I’ll try to make some constructive if impractical suggestions.

    I don`t have any social medias accounts, but I understand that such logins can work across multiple platforms – could Lulu engineer some sort of login with Amazon? – PayPal payment options should be stressed.

    Make ISBN number on the book description an image or difficult to copy/paste as I believe this is the fastest way to get to the book directly through an Amazon search.

    This isn`t about cost to the buyer.. it’s about one-click purchase and prime shipping.

    1. Hi Dave,

      You make a valid, and challenging, point about one-click. It is a huge draw for many users to be able to buy with that kind of ease. Prime shipping exacerbates the issue too.

      What we’re trying to do at Lulu is offer an alternative to Amazon for creators who want to sell direct from their own website and social media. That doesn’t mean not selling on Amazon. It is more of a means to diversify selling options so that direct sales lead to higher returns and better data capture (getting a buyer’s email for future marketing, getting social media follows, etc.).

      Unified logins are not something I foresee, but I’m not a developer either, so that might be something down the road. An interesting idea though.

      I will restate that our primary goal is to make access to print-on-demand easier and more adaptable so that anyone with a book to sell can do so their way. That doesn’t (and shouldn’t) preclude an Amazon listing.

      Thanks for the ideas!

  8. I have to agree with Stuart W. Mirsky. There is little point in selling books directly from a website no one visits. However it’s a useful extra string to our author bows. Possibly we can use social media links (Such as Twitter Stuart) to direct readers to the page the book is offered at. It’s also possible to optimize site web pages so that they will be indexed by search engines. I’ve written blogs on that but they come with a ‘technical stuff’ warning.

    1. Hi John,

      Yes, getting sales on a site no one visits is a losing battle. Our goal is to help authors have an alternative to driving sales to retail sites that carve off a large piece of the revenue from buyers. That allows authors to drive traffic their own site (something studies show consumers want) rather than Amazon. That doesn’t mean one would stop selling on Amazon, but it is meant, as you state, to add another string to the bow so that authors have more options and more revenue opportunities.

  9. I have published four books with Lulu and never made a nickel. Yet I see all four titles on the Internet all the time. What gives?

    1. Hi Gerry,

      Once you publish a book, the title, cover image, and description (the metadata) is out there on the web. Retailers of all sorts, some legitimate and some not, can “list” the book. If a sale is ever made and a print request sent through to Lulu or one of our distribution partners, you get your revenue.

  10. You make good points but when you say this:

    “Some authors are . . . 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.”

    I think you are missing something that matters in book selling. Amazon not only has the traffic, it has developed credibility over the years as a first stop book seller. People feel comfortable because Amazon has a great fulfillment track record and a robust, professional looking site. If one wants to sell one’s books to more than friends and relatives one needs that sort of platform. You can’t expect to sell a lot of books in most cases by creating and using your own website, at least not until you have the public profile that prompts people to seek YOU out. Getting that kind of profile depends a lot on the demand you can generate which significant sales on amazon demonstrate, Absent that, you are stuck in a rut.

    Perhaps your link with Shopify will prove itself as a way to circumvent the amazon monopoly claim on the book buying public but I am not very sanguine about it.

    If we want to develop presence in the marketplace for books we have to have it on places where the marketplace happens, like Amazon.com. And yes, they do take a huge portion of the profits. That’s the downside to selling through them. But the upside is that they ARE the big gorilla on today’s block and, unfortunately, it looks like they will remain so for the foreseeable future unless innovators like Lulu can find the crack in their amour through which to leverage a platform that can compete.

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