How I make $400 a month in Passive Income by Self-Publishing

I’m the author of Behind the Ivy Curtain: A Data Driven Guide to Elite College Admissions :

Cover design by Matt Chase

First, a bit of background. I went to Yale and learned about elite college admissions from reading forums like College Confidential. This knowledge helped me get into great schools and I advised my classmates/younger students too.

But 1-on-1 advising doesn’t scale. I remember, way back in 10th grade, being blown away by the stuff I was learning online, and thinking that I’d write a book someday to share this wisdom. Well fast forward a few years and I graduated college, started working at Google, and decided to fulfill my past dream.

There were many books on college admissions, so I thought about how I could write something more unique. Since I could code, I wrote scrapers to parse a lot of the public information on the college admission forums and crunch the numbers for a data driven guide to admissions.

The book above is the end result. I did this for fun, and learned a lot about publishing from reading various posts/blogs, so now I’m trying to pass on the wisdom.

The Numbers

This is why most of you are here. Here is a screenshot of my Kindle e-book royalty i.e. profit:

Kindle eBook monthly royalty

And here’s a graph of my e-book sales for the last 90 days:

Kindle e-book daily sales

Lastly, here are my royalty numbers for the paperback book:

So ~$3000 for paperback sales and ~$1300 for the ebook sales in the last year, which ends up being around $360/month. It’s pretty great given that I put no effort into marketing anymore -it’s all driven by Amazon!

The next section gives a quick overview of publishing economics, and then I’ll talk about all the things I tried to drive sales and my plans going forward.

Background on Publishing

I published the e-book through Amazon Digital Services instead of going through a traditional publisher. The main goal was to have creative control, and the economics are also way better. A summary:

Traditional Publisher: You get 5–10% royalty, don’t control art or pricing. Specifically, a lot of the traditional guys price e-books at $20–30, often times more than the paperback/hardcover, which is so stupid.

Self-publishing: Amazon gives you 70% royalty if you price your e-book between $2.99 and $9.99. You can do whatever you want creatively.

Given that, I went with self-publishing. I published the e-book first, and published the paperback version about a month later using Createspace, which is Amazon’s company for Print On Demand (POD). This service is amazing — you format and submit your book, and they will print and ship copies whenever a paperback is ordered.

You get around a 40–50% royalty on paperback sales through here, which is less than digital but still 5–10x what you’d get from a traditional publisher.

Selling Copies

I have done nothing to drive sales for the last 9–10 months. It is all generated off of Amazon’s platform. So I’m going to spend most of my time talking about the first two months and all the thing I tried. The main actions I took were:

  1. Cover & Summary
  2. Getting Reviews
  3. Kindle Free Book Promotions
  4. Publishing a Paperback
  5. Facebook Ads
  6. Guest posts on other websites/blogs.

Cover & Summary

I read from the publishing blogs that having a great cover and a great book summary on Amazon was critical. So I worked with Matt Chase, who is an amazingly talented artist/designer, to have the cover designed. People love the cover and I think it’s a huge differentiator for my book. You can reach out to him at http://chasematt.com/ if you’re interested in working with him.

I also tried to write a great book overview. I think it’s good but I have no way of A/B testing on Amazon, so I don’t know if it’s really optimized or not.

Getting Reviews

Most websites say you should build up an email audience and give them early access and ask them to write reviews. I had no such audience. So when I launched, I emailed tons of my college friends, high school friends, and made posts on Facebook and LinkedIn announcing the book was out there. Some people posted reviews, which helped initially. I also gave out free copies to people if they expressed interest in being reviewers, but many of them never wrote a review :(

I also reached out to the Amazon top reviewers list and looked for people who had reviewed books in my genre. I emailed a bunch asking if they would like to review my book, and one of them wrote a review, which is now the top review on the book.

I have a 4.6 rating or something like that on Amazon, and 22 reviews in total. I think this helped the most in driving sales, since future buyers know there is a lot of validation for the book. Most of the reviews are longer/higher quality too, as opposed to just “great cool book” or something that doesn’t say much.

Kindle Free Book Promotions

Amazon let’s you enroll in KDP Select when you’re publishing, which lets you give away the book for free on some days. Amazon markets the book heavily and the idea is to get people to try out your book and write reviews or to buy your other paid products. I did this in the beginning because that’s what I heard was effective, but it did nothing for me. I feel there are a few lessons learned:

  1. KDP Select works better if you have other paid books that you can cross-promote for. I did not have anything else for them to view.
  2. KDP Select works better for fiction or broad population oriented non-fiction. My book was very targeted for high school students/parents and few would casually read this book.
  3. KDP Select lets people read your book for free through Kindle Unlimited, and you get money based on the pages read. This is great for readers but did nothing for me revenue wise. I think this is more effective if you have multiple books to cross-promote, which was not my situation.

I have now un-enrolled from this program. I may try it out again in the future for the $0.99 cent discount deals to see what Amazon can do, but I am doubtful since my target audience is unlikely to be casual Amazon readers.

Publishing A Paperback

This was by far my biggest return on investment. It took about two weeks to figure out how to format my book for paperback and get setup for Createspace, but this is nearly 70% of my revenue. It’s ironic because my e-book is $4.99 and my paperback is $14.99. I priced the paperback higher because I wanted to drive readers to the ebook, where I could update it more easily. What I learned, however, is that many of the people buying my book are parents, not students, and they are more familiar with paperbacks. There is also an incorrect perception that you need a Kindle to read Kindle ebooks.

The paperback’s formatting could also be improved. I basically just messed around in LibreOffice on Mac to get formatting to work, but I wish I would’ve started with a tool like Jutoh, which is fantastic for formatting and publishing. My workflow was Google Drive exports to LibreOffice, and Google Drive just wasn’t good for editing once you cross 40–50 pages. In the future I’d like to format a better sized paperback.

Lastly, I saw that Amazon would sometimes discount the book to $11.99 or $12.49. I would still get a royalty on the $14.99 price, so Amazon was just eating into their own share to see if sales would increase. I’m not too sure how it worked but they haven’t discounted the book in a while.

Facebook Ads

I spent about $45 on Facebook Ads targeting clicks to my book on Amazon. I paid around $0.30 CPC, and 155 clicks in total, but I couldn’t track how many sales were from Facebook, and I didn’t see ROI because I estimated 3–5 ad-driven book sales, which is at best $9 per additional sale. The other issue is that Amazon doesn’t tell you anything about who’s viewing your page or referral sources, so it’s hard to close the loop.

I have heard that FB Ads don’t work for books and that certainly matches my experience.

Guest Posts On Blogs

I made guest posts on other blogs/college admission websites on topics like what makes a great application or how to write a great essay. I linked to my book, and get maybe 1 sale a month that I can attribute to these blogs. It’s not great for sales, but it did help my book get ranked higher on Google searches and I met and helped out some cool people, which is nice.

Summary

To recap, writing the paperback was the most effective action I took. I often hear that “paperbacks are dead” on the online blogs, but it’s been incredibly effective for me. It really depends on your audience.

Speaking of audience, there’s a lot more I can do here. I can create an email list for buyers to join, and I can also publish other books and attempt to cross sell. I decided not to because I don’t want to do more in the college admissions business. The best resources are free and I’ve routinely turned down offers for college consulting or essay review because I don’t think I’ll be adding much value there.

Overall, it’s been a fun journey and I’ve learned a lot about marketing, writing, and publishing. I’m pretty happy with my book’s passive income, since I put in no effort and make a pretty nice chunk of change that pays for dinners and ice cream and the occasional book purchase.

I hope this writeup was helpful as you go about writing your own book. Remember that done is better than perfect, and the number one thing is to actually publish your book!

Please reach out to me if you’d like to discuss anything or have any feedback or questions


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