6 Keys to Self-Publishing Success in the Age of the Ebook

by | Nov 17, 2010

Okay, so we know the ebooks are coming. Figures from the International Digital Publishing Forum show that ebook sales tracked through the book trade skyrocketed to $119.7 million wholesale for the third quarter of 2010. And the holiday season hasn’t started.

Each technical innovation seems to empower self-publishers even more. Ebooks present a fraction of the financial risk that a run of 5,000 printed books does. And ebooks are perfect vehicles for niche publishing.

And even though it seems there are more books being published than ever before, there’s also an almost insatiable desire for information products. Savvy online publishers understand what readers are searching for, and how to come up near the top of those searches.

What are the keys to succeeding in this brave new world? Here’s what I see.

6 Keys to Self-Publishing Success in the Age of the Ebook

  1. Aggressive Pricing—buyers of ebooks, still conditioned by Amazon’s “all bestsellers for $9.99” policy, want low prices. Low-low. So some writers are building their platform with free books, books for 99 cents, books under $2.99. This audience has its own expectations. Are there any successful trade ebooks for $30?
  2. Great Content—Let’s face it, either your book addresses readers’ needs and wants, or it fails. It’s your job to make sure your book is good at what it intends to do, whether it’s information, how-to, telling a story, or inspiring readers to act. Do you have a unique take on a subject? Authority or expertise? You can’t succeed without great content.
  3. Mastering Metadata—Readers find books now with online searches. Recommendations from your trusted indie bookseller? Not so much, since many of the stores have closed, and the seductive convenience of ordering books from your couch is irresistible to American shoppers. Will your book come up on their search? Metadata—information about your book—is crucial and becoming more so.
  4. Making Noise—What’s your hook, your angle, your Unique Selling Proposition? You have one, right? Some way to stand out from the horde trying to grab the attention of browsers, buyers, readers? You can be counter-intuitive, controversial, or over-the-top promotional. You can be the leading authority in your field, or have an offline following. But somehow you have to get attention or you’re lost.
  5. Robust Platform—All the time you’ve spent building your author platform—your blog, Facebook presence, Twitter following, LinkedIn network, fan club, subscribers, followers—is now going to pay off. Authors with a substantial following online are going to be way ahead of the curve. The ebook phenomenon is totally digital. Your wired, connected, with-it fans are the ones who will tweet you, fan you, and spread your message.
  6. A Generous Nature—A side effect of social media and online communities is the rise of a culture of generosity. People—marketers—who understand this create more lasting bonds with their readers, and inspire more trust. Being generous with your content, with your pricing, with your time and your engagement with your readers is becoming one of the best signs of who “gets it” and who doesn’t, who will create the communities that will sustain them long-term as the move to ebooks continues to gather steam.

What do you see?


tbd advanced publishing starter kit


  1. Danie Botha

    Practical, concise advice, Joel!
    Especially # 3, master info about your books. (Let them find you.)
    And # 4, stand out! Be unique.
    Agrees with Carl K – self-publishing (indie pub) is no longer for has-beens, for looser-authors. (Not that it had ever been the case – those brave pioneers.) The better question is, are you “professionally published?”
    It seems hybrid is the way to go.
    Thanks, Joel!

  2. Mark Matthews

    Bravo for not just ‘regurgitating’ the same old stuff. I put out 3 pieces of work, completely with the purpose of making them free and get some exposure. It has helped.

    One thing I believe is: the day of the 99 cent book selling just because it is 99 cents is over. Used to be you dropped to that price, and it got snatched up. Now there are so many books at 99 it’s no longer new, and, I think there may be assumptions by its quality. I have dropped to 99 cents, sold minimal, but when I popped the same book back up to $2.99 it did better.

  3. Mike Lipsey

    I see very low prices for eBooks. I don’t see how the commercial publishers will be able to hold prices only slightly under those for paper books. eBooks have their sunk costs too, but once they’re in distribution they cost almost nothing to produce. I think eBooks are going to be more like iPhone aps or iTunes, a buck or two. Which means there won’t be a lot of money in them unless you have huge sales. Musicians have had to adjust to the loss of income from albums. But musicians can do concerts, clubs, parties, weddings and sell merchandise. Only very successful authors have significant auxilary income streams from being writers. But I also think it will not be all that different for the vast majority of authors, because even with a number of books, most make very little money in their working careers.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Mike, I think these same influences will spur the growth of self-publishing, and the migration of entrepreneurial authors from traditional publishers to their own imprints or cooperative micro-publishers where a group of authors shares the equity in the company. I think it’s the both the royalty structure and retail prices that make it hard to survive.

  4. Tim A Martin

    Another great post! In all honesty, whenever I start having doubts about self-publishing I come here and gain the motivation to keep moving forward. Thanks.

  5. Carla King

    Hi Joel, great info delivered in digestible chunks. Thank you. I see self-publishing’s stigma going away. At three conferences this year I heard the term, for the first time, bandied about as a positive way to getting platform, proving your worth, and either taking it all the way as your own business or selling it to a (gasp!) traditional publisher. High-powered agents and editors from big houses were saying to authors, let’s see your self-publishing success record! Wow. So yeah, your #5 item, platform… that.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks, Carla. It does seem that the old stigma against self-publishing is fading fast. It’s not going to take that many established authors entering the field to open the gates to a lot of other writers, so it’s great to hear that agents and editors are waking up to the potential of self-published authors. Finally!

  6. Rima

    I totally agree with Roemer. I find that “making noise” is the hardest aspect, particularly as a fiction writer. I think it’s so much easier with non-fiction, but I could be wrong.

    • Joel Friedlander

      Rima, a lot is being asked of writers that was never asked of them before. This is the other side of having the means of production handed to you. You can self-publish but then you have to take on all the chores of the publisher. One of the most difficult things for some writers is switching from the solitary pursuit of writing to the sales-driven book marketer we often need to be in the marketplace. But keep in mind that no one is equally good at all these tasks. Just by thinking about how to promote your books and trying to have a plan to do so puts you ahead of the curve.

  7. BettyMingLiu

    Hi Joel,

    First of all, congrats on your first full year of blogging. Your enthusiasm for self-publishing is energizing! As for this post, I’m wondering…what’s your definition of a “substantial following” for an unpublished author (like me)? And what are decent #s for a first-time author, and someone with multiple books?

    And a random question unrelated to this post: What would you recommend as the best e-reader for the holiday gift-giving season? Hope you don’t say “iPad” because that’s too expensive! Thanks for everything and congrats again. :)


    • Joel Friedlander

      Thanks Betty. You were one of the first readers here and I really appreciate your continued support.

      It’s difficult to quantify “substantial following”, isn’t it? And it’s even harder to define “follower.” Some people say it doesn’t matter what the total number of people who follow you is if you have a core of perhaps 1,000 “rabid” fans who will spread the word within their own networks. If you find a definitive answer to this question I hope you’ll let me know.

      As far as ereaders, I would look at the recent Kindle models which are easier to use, more compact and less expensive than their predecssors. With access to the Kindle store and the variety of content Amazon’s been able to put together over the last year or so, it’s pretty compelling. And I would look at the new Nooks. This might depend on whether you frequent a B&N store, since there are some perks for Nook owners who want to sample books onsite, and some people are just partial to B&N. If it was me (and it’s not) I would probably go for the Kindle.

  8. Roemer McPhee

    This is one of the most useful (and best written) websites anywhere.

    That’s a great thing about good writing: it’s so uncommon it can be spotted in an instant!



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