Making Money With E-books: All Strategy, No BS

Abi Wurdeman
August 5, 2022
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Seriously, what’s the real story about making money with e-books? Is it an easy way to earn passive income and become a successful author? Or is it a naive goal, the pursuit of which will only affirm your obscurity and pound the final nail into the coffin that cradles your dreams?

Honest answer? It’s something far more interesting. 

It’s an artist taking control of their career by becoming an entrepreneur.

This is not the right path for everyone. Plenty of authors dip their toes into the world of e-books only to learn that all the planning and strategizing and marketing distracts them from what they really love: the writing.

Others see authorpreneurship [writing and selling books] as an exhausting but worthwhile journey towards total creative freedom. 

So, no. E-books are not the key to easy money.

But it’s also not naive to believe you can make money with e-books. Many people have become profitable authors this way, and many more will. You just need to know that the ones who succeed are the ones who treat it like the business it is. 

If you’re up for that, keep reading. I’ll explain how to set yourself up for success at every part of the process. 

But first, let’s set some expectations.

What’s It Really Like Selling E-books?

A person in a wheelchair asleep at a desk with their hand on the keyboard of a laptop.a
Exhausting? Yes. Rewarding? Double yes.

What we’re talking about here is selling a product. And this is a product you know people will buy if:

  • They can find it
  • They have a reason to choose it over other options
  • You have the patience and perseverance to make those first two things happen

And that is what the e-book life really boils down to: creating and marketing something that will sell. That doesn’t mean you can’t still be a passion-pursuing artist. It just means you need to make room for strategy and pragmatism in your vision, too.

On that note, let’s break down some pros, cons, and misinformation about what it’s like making money with e-books.

What’s True and Awesome About Selling E-books

Here are some really great things that are absolutely true about writing and selling e-books:

  • You have complete control over what you write, how you write it, when it’s released, and how you market it.
  • While it’s a good idea to invest some money in your e-book, you can technically make and release an e-book without spending a dime.
  • There are no gatekeepers standing between you and your readers. You can release the story you believe in without approval from anyone else.
  • E-books are super easy to update, which means you can test new covers or revise your work as you learn more as an author and as a marketer.
  • It’s empowering to take direct control of your novel’s fate.

So… a lot of good stuff. As for the cons:

Big, Fat Myths About Making Money With E-books

Do not trust the listicle that tells you e-books are among the twelve best ways to earn passive income.

Selling e-books is only passive in the sense that you don’t have to be present to make a sale. Once the product exists, it’s out there, available for purchase even when you’re sleeping, writing, or binging Jane the Virgin for the fourth time. (Just me?)

But here’s the catch: no one is going to buy that book if 1) they don’t know it exists and 2) it’s not worth buying. It takes a lot of work to make those two things happen.

Here’s what those listicles often fail to mention about making money with e-books:

  • You have to invest a ton of time to do it successfully.
  • You have to do everything yourself, because there is no publisher to take over production, distribution, and marketing.
  • You’re competing with thousands of other books, many of which are either free or written by recognizable names.
  • Success is possible, but it will most likely take a long time.

I don’t say this to discourage you. I say this so you can set an intention to enjoy the process, knowing that it’s going to take a little time to reach your financial goals.

Still with me? Great. Let’s put on our business pants and get to it. 

Step 0: Set Yourself Up for Success

Overhead view of a person with long, dark hair sitting on a beige carpet and writing in a planner beside an open laptop.

Making money with e-books is a big, bold goal. You need to set up tools, habits, and support systems solid enough to uphold the bigness and boldness of your ambition.

Before you worry too much about crafting a masterpiece, do a quick inventory to make sure you’ve got all these pieces in place.

Writing Toolkit

Establish a regular workspace so you can train your brain to buckle down and focus every time you enter that area. 

Equip this dedicated space with all tools that will help you:

  • Focus
  • Stay motivated
  • Keep track of ideas
  • Find answers without leaving the room

For many writers, this includes things like:

  • Notebooks, notecards, and writing utensils
  • Computer
  • Bulletin board
  • Reference books
  • Writing instruction books
  • A creative trigger, like a scented candle you light every time you write and only when you write

It can also be helpful to find software designed specifically for crafting novels. Word and Google Docs will get the job done, but a tool like Dabble can make your life way easier with features to help you plot your novel, track character arcs, write with a coauthor, and more.

A quick warning: don’t spend too much designing your workspace. Gather a few tools you think you need and modify as you go.

Community

You need other writers and other writers need you. Fellow writers can offer valuable feedback on your work, share resources and hot tips, and talk you through your writer’s block.

In other words, you cannot write a bestselling (or even a well-selling) e-book without them.

And where do you find these people?

Well, Dabble’s Story Craft Café, for one. Here you can join writers groups specific to your genre, chime in on forums, join challenges and word sprints, and more.

A quick internet search can help you track down other online communities based on your specific goals, like Critique Circle—a solid option if you’re looking for critique partners. Or genre-specific communities like Chronicles (fantasy and sci-fi).

Facebook has tons of groups for writers. One of my personal favorites is 20BooksTo50K, which is specifically geared toward authorpreneurs.

You can also search Meetup.com to find local writing groups or attend conferences geared toward indie authors. A few of the big ones include 20BooksTo50K Vegas, Inkers Con, and The Self Publishing Show Live.

Research

A person with blonde hair peering through binoculars between two stacks of old books.

Now that you’re an entrepreneur-type thinking those business-y thoughts, it’s time to research your market. Analyze those trends like a boss. 

Which genre do you plan to write? Start there. Get to know the rules and tropes of your genre. What do readers expect to get when they pick up a book like yours? How do they want to feel?

Find out what the current bestsellers are. Read those books and learn what makes them so popular. 

Look at reader reviews and follow Bookstagram and BookTok. Join Facebook groups and online forums for readers in your genre. Learn what your future readers love and note any emerging trends.

Use this information to—bear with me now—write to market. I know a lot of writers cringe when they hear that phrase. But we’re in our business pants right now, remember? So humor me.

Writing to market does not have to mean creating a cookie cutter product. In most cases, it’s entirely possible to design one-of-a-kind characters, present unconventional conflicts, or explore a theme you’re passionate about while also fulfilling the expectations of the genre.

Plus, researching your market gives you the advantage of understanding your readers so you’re better able to connect with them through your platform. (Nice segue, Abi.)

Your Platform

If you want to make money with e-books, you need a platform.

A platform is the structure you set up to boost your visibility. It can include a:

  • Website
  • Blog
  • Vlog
  • Social media presence
  • Newsletter
  • Podcast

Your platform doesn’t have to be all these things. In fact, it shouldn’t be because then you’d become a full-time platform-haver, and that’s not your goal here. Pick the strategies that are best for reaching your audience and that you are most likely to maintain.

A lot of first-time authors put off building a platform until they have a book. But that’s a lost opportunity. A platform is a great tool for:

  • Helping readers feel personally connected to you
  • Building anticipation for a forthcoming book
  • Announcing promotions and events
  • Connecting with other authors

The sooner you start drawing people into your sphere, the more buyers you’ll have when you release your e-book. 

Not sure what to share with your followers when there’s no book yet? You could:

  • Talk about your journey as a new author
  • Share cool things you learn as you research your novel
  • Talk about the book you’re reading
  • Ask your readers what they love most about your genre

The truth is, successful author platforms are more about connecting than selling, anyway. You don’t need a product to do that.

Commit to a Schedule

Finally, make a plan and commit to it.

If this is your first time writing a novel, keep your schedule simple. Decide what days you’re going to write and for how long. Put it on your calendar and tell your loved ones this time is sacred. 

You can also set goals to keep yourself on track. Get some writing sprints or writing sessions under your belt to see how many words you can get down in an average session. Then use Dabble’s Goals feature to set a deadline that realistically reflects your average pace.

Screenshot of Dabble's Goals feature showing fields to input goal word count, excluded word count, and deadline.
This is my favorite thing.

This type of scheduling helps you stay on track and treat your writing like a true job.

Just don’t be too hard on yourself if you fall behind deadline. A lot of surprising challenges can arise when you’re writing your first book, and it’s more important that you take the time to address those issues. Deadlines should motivate you, not push you to rush an inferior product to market.

Now that you’re all scheduled and committed, let’s get writing.

Step 1: Write a Book and Make It Good

In this phase, your goal is not only to write a book that sells. You also want to write a book that sells the next book. This book has to rock hard enough that your readers eagerly stick around to see what you’re going to do next. 

So resist the temptation to slam out a book, call it good enough, and upload it to Amazon so it can start making money right away. Take the time to write a book that will result in fans. 

For a more detailed looked at what it takes to write a book that sells, I suggest checking out these articles:

How to Plan a Novel That Rocks

How to Write a Book – The Ultimate Guide

How to Write a Romance Novel

Story Structures: The Fundamentals You Need to Know

Beyond the plotting and writing tips you’ll find in those articles, I have just two additional suggestions for writing with sales in mind.

Get Feedback on Your Premise

Whether you share a half-page pitch or a twenty-page synopsis, ask people you trust to weigh in on your story idea. These people should include:

  • Readers who are passionate about your genre
  • Fellow writers (ideally in your genre)

Their feedback will help you identify any ways in which you might have missed the expectations or opportunities that come with your genre. 

They can also tell you if your story’s not all that compelling. If your story synopsis doesn’t hook the readers who actually know and like you, it’s not going to move e-books when it’s up on Amazon.

It’s better you know about these issues now rather than 70,000 words later. Rework your premise until you’ve got one that gives you better odds of making money with e-books.

Keep Learning Your Craft

Always write with the goal of becoming a better writer. If you struggle with character development, story structure, establishing tone, whatever… workshop it!

Reach out to your writing community for advice. Try writing exercises. Keep writing instruction books on hand. Take a stroll through DabbleU for ideas, advice, worksheets, and templates.

Resist the temptation to just get through it. Like all those sporty people say, it’s you versus you. Keep trying to beat the writer you were yesterday.

Step 2: Get Really Serious About Revisions

Close-up of a paper in a typewriter with the typed words "rewrite... edit... rewrite... edit... rewrite"

I don’t know if I’ve made this clear or not: it’s, like, really important that you write a great book.

So after you’ve written the best draft you know how to write, get feedback from people who will push you to make it even better. 

And who are these people?

  • Critique Partners – These are fellow writers who give you feedback on your work, and you do the same for them. You do not pay them.
  • Beta Readers – These folks are readers first and foremost. Unlike everyone else in this list, they read your novel strictly through the lens of a reader, not a literary professional. Beta readers can be paid, but it’s more common for indie authors to show their appreciation by providing a free copy of the published book or giving them a shout-out in the acknowledgements.
  • Fact Checkers – They’re exactly what they sound like. A fact checker makes sure your protagonist isn’t listening to the Gettysburg Address live on the radio. They’re especially valuable if you write historical fiction or your story heavily features a profession that isn’t familiar to you. You typically pay a fact checker.
  • Sensitivity Readers – If you’re writing about an ethnic group, religion, trauma, disability, sexual orientation, or gender identity that is not your own, you want to hire sensitivity readers. These professionals help ensure an authentic representation of these experiences. You pay them.
  • Developmental Editor – This person is an expert in story and character development. They review your book to make sure it’s well-structured and well-written. Developmental editors are also paid professionals.
  • Copy Editor – Your copy editor is the last person you hire. They check your work for proper spelling, grammar, and punctuation. Sorry—you pay them, too.

If you want to learn more about all these folks who will help make your book better, check out this article.

Once your novel is polished within an inch of its life, you’re ready to publish and start making money with e-books.

Step 3: Publish

The subject's POV of their hands holding an e-reader and their legs stretched out in a pink and white striped hammock.
You're so close to fulfilling the dream: a stranger in hammock reading your words.

Congratulations! You’ve written and polished a brilliant novel… one that is sure to help you sell many more novels in the future.

But brilliant though it is, this novel will not sell itself. It has to be findable and appealing. And those adjectives begin with the way you publish your book. 

You’re about to make a lot of important, strategic decisions. Let’s go through them one by one to make sure you’re on the right track to (eventual) financial triumph.

Create a Launch Strategy

You could just upload your book to Amazon and announce it on social media. But you’ll get better results if you hype the book before you release it. That’s what your launch strategy is for.

Grab your calendar and plot out some dates for when you’re going to:

  • Announce your forthcoming e-book on social media, in a newsletter, or anywhere else that makes sense
  • Finalize a cover design
  • Do a cover reveal on social media
  • Make your e-book available for pre-order (announce that, too)
  • Release your e-book

…and make any other marketing moves you want to make before you put your masterpiece out into the world. (We’ll cover marketing in the next step.)

For the first book, I recommend keeping your launch strategy simple and low-cost. It’s a good idea to get a sense of which strategies are most effective for connecting you with your specific readers before you dump a ton of time, energy, and dollars into them.

When you’re ready to write your second e-book, review what you learned in round one and tweak your launch strategy accordingly. Eventually, you’ll create your launch strategy even before you start writing the book. 

Once you know when you’re going to publish, you can start thinking about how you’re going to publish.

Publishing Platforms

Where will your e-book be available?

Some indie e-book authors opt to publish exclusively on Amazon. The benefit of this is that they are able to include their book in Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited program, allowing subscribing readers to “borrow” your e-book for a couple weeks without buying it. 

This can be especially helpful for lesser-known authors, as it allows readers to take a chance on an unfamiliar name without having to make a purchase. But it’s also common for established authors to make a good portion of their e-book sales from Kindle Unlimited.

Other writers prefer to “go wide,” which means they’re not exclusive with Amazon. Other popular platforms include Kobo, Apple Books, and Barnes and Noble

To simplify things, there are also services that will distribute your e-book to multiple storefronts on your behalf. Smashwords, Draft2Digital, and IngramSpark all do this in exchange for a cut of your sales.

Cover Design

Overhead view of an e-reader displaying the book cover for The Friend Zone. Beside the e-reader is a pair of glasses, magazine, plant leaves, and a white bedsheet.

This is so important. Really important. Of the greatest possible import.

Your cover design must:

  • Reflect the current cover style of your genre
  • Be eye-catching and easy to read in thumbnail
  • Be fire

An unprofessional cover will make readers assume it is an unprofessional book. A cover that looks nothing like the genre standard will make readers assume the book is not for them. 

You can lose countless untold sales with a bad cover. 

If you are serious about making money with e-books, I strongly recommend hiring a professional cover designer. Popular places for finding cover designers include Fiverr, Reedsy, and BookBaby. You can also turn to your writing community for suggestions.

Blurb

The blurb is the book description that shows up in your book’s online listing. It is your second most important marketing tool after the cover, so workshop the life out of it. 

A great blurb reveals:

  • The protagonist (why are they interesting?)
  • The world
  • The central conflict (what’s at stake?)
  • The genre (how will it feel to read this book?)

As you did with the book itself, share your blurb with others and ask for feedback. If possible, share it with people who haven’t read your book. Does this interest them? Would they buy it?

Revise and polish until you have the kind of blurb that will move e-books.

Pricing

Not surprisingly, pricing is pretty essential for making money with e-books.

If you price them too high, they won’t sell. Price them too low and you’ll be pulling in pennies. And remember, your publishing platform takes a cut of the sales.

Then there are your expenses to consider. Did you a hire an editor, a sensitivity reader, and a cover designer? Do you plan to run any paid ads for your book? What will it take to make that money back in e-book sales?

Nisha created a great guide for pricing your self-published book according to your goals, platform, and market.

For now, I’ll say that many authors consider $3.99 to be the sweet spot. Some charge more. Many charge less (or even nothing) as a way of boosting sales and growing their readership. 

If you look up the cost of your favorite e-books, you may find that they’re somewhere in the $9.99 range. Be aware that this price is much easier for traditionally published books to pull off. Readers expect to pay less for indie reads.

Reviews

Reader reviews are powerful. They heighten your book’s credibility with readers and with Amazon’s algorithm. 

So how do you get reviews?

One option is to send advanced reader copies (ARCs) to readers in exchange for an honest review when your book goes live. If you’ve built up a social media following or mailing list, you can use those platforms to find advanced readers.

It’s also a good idea to put a request for reviews in the back of your book with a link to your book’s listing on Amazon, Goodreads, or wherever else you’d like the review to land. Be explicit with this request; only ~1% of readers will leave a review without prompting.

Step 4: Marketing

An overhead view of a white desk with glasses, a cup of coffee, a computer keyboard, a houseplant, and an e-reader with that says "online marketing" on the screen.

You know by now that making money with e-books means thinking about marketing throughout the journey, not just once your book is out there.

But I had to organize this article some kind of way, so we’re calling it step four.

A solid marketing strategy involves three essential steps:

  1. Study your audience
  2. Choose the right channels
  3. Measure and optimize

Let’s look at each one. 

Study Your Audience

Oh, hey! You’ve mostly already done this!

You started paying close attention to your readers with all that market research you did in step zero. You probably learned even more from working with beta readers, gathering reviews, and interacting with your followers.

So you probably know the kinds of characters they love, the aspects of the genre that keep them coming back for more, and how they engage online.

My only suggestion here is to keep learning, keep noticing. Readers are people. Their interests will evolve, and as they do, you’ll see new trends and new priorities. Stay in the know. 

Choose Your Marketing Channels

The best marketing channels for you are the ones that accomplish three things:

  • They’re the best avenues for reaching your readers.
  • They’re channels you will enjoy using consistently.
  • They fall within your budget.

These are questions only you can answer. But to help you analyze your options, here are some go-to marketing channels for e-book authors:

  • Author website
  • Author blog
  • Social media (both organic content and paid ads)
  • Author vlog
  • Email marketing
  • Podcast

If you’re looking for something with a minimal time/money investment and maximum reach, I recommend setting up a newsletter and a social media account… especially a newsletter. Your newsletter is the only marketing option where you control your visibility, regardless of algorithms or SEO rankings.  

You can also use other people’s platforms to market yourself. Pitch yourself to be a guest on podcasts that relate to your book’s topic or genre. Or reach out to book bloggers about introducing your book in a guest post as part of your virtual book tour.

Try what makes sense to you. Then:

Measure and Optimize

Did this month’s newsletter get more opens and clicks than last month’s? What did you do differently?

What about that TikTok video you put out two weeks ago? What kind of engagement did it get compared to your last Twitter poll?

Pay attention to those details—or metrics, as the business types say. Notice what works and do more of that. And if you make a bold marketing move and it’s met with crickets? Celebrate. Now you know not to waste time on that thing anymore.

Every day, you understand your readers better. That understanding turns into more sales and more of those sweet, sweet e-book bucks.

Step 5: Build Your Backlist

A person in a white shirt carrying a tall stack of books in front of full bookshelves.
Stack 'em up! (But, like, in a digital way.)

The final step is to do it all again. And again and again. You won’t make a living off of one e-book. You need a backlist.

Imagine a new reader discovers your third book and loves it. They’ll go looking for more and immediately discover books one and two. By the time they’ve finished those, you’ll be releasing your fourth. Bam! You sold four books by marketing only one.

And to get even more sales power from your books:

Consider writing a series. You have a much better shot at getting repeat readers if you leave them desperate to know what happens to your characters in the next book.

Try a rapid release strategy. Rapid release is when you hold off on publishing a series until all (or some) of the books are written. Then you release the books one by one with a super short window between them. This can be an effective strategy for keeping readers with you while your series is still top-of-mind.

Refresh your books as needed. The beauty of self-publishing is that you can go back and change your work at any time. If an older book on your backlist isn’t selling, tap into what you’ve learned since you first published it. Could a different cover perform better? Is it riddled with errors? Refresh and re-release.

Offer freebies. Offering one of your e-books (typically a novella) for free can draw in new readers, especially if the freebie is the first in a series. But only do it if it feels right to you. Some writers (myself included) can’t quite make peace with the implications of providing good work free of charge.

Let It Take Time

One thing writers and entrepreneurs have in common is the knowledge that incredible things blossom over time. That growth happens gradually. That all those annoying platitudes about success being non-linear are absolutely true.

If making money with e-books is something you want, stick with it. Commitment and patience are mightier forces than “luck.”

And remember, Dabble can make plotting, drafting, and revising a smoother process so you can build that backlist faster. No need to take my word for it; you can try it yourself for free for fourteen days without entering a single digit of your credit card. Just click here.

Abi Wurdeman

Abi Wurdeman is the author of Cross-Section of a Human Heart: A Memoir of Early Adulthood, as well as the novella, Holiday Gifts for Insufferable People. She also writes for film and television with her brother and writing partner, Phil Wurdeman. On occasion, Abi pretends to be a poet. One of her poems is (legally) stamped into a sidewalk in Santa Clarita, California. When she’s not writing, Abi is most likely hiking, reading, or texting her mother pictures of her houseplants to ask why they look like that.