Lessons from self-publishing my first book

Lessons from self-publishing my first book

As some of you may have noticed, I published a book last month—it’s called Thirty-Three: My Jesus Year in Blog Posts, and it’s available in both Kindle and print versions. As the name implies, it’s a collection of posts from this blog between February of 2013 and February of this year that, taken collectively, serve as a memoir of the personal journey that I embarked on over the course of that period of time. I didn’t publish it to make money off of it or to reach a wider audience or any of that, though; I did it for two reasons: 1) those posts are pretty long, and I think they lend themselves well to a longer format for any of you who are interested in reading them that way, and 2) I wanted to see for myself precisely what’s involved in self-publishing a book these days, including having an excuse to play around with some online marketing tools.

This post is going to be entirely about #2—and yes, I am enjoying the irony of writing a blog post about a book of blog posts from this very blog :) Note that I focused exclusively on Amazon, so I can’t speak to the other self-publishing platforms out there.

The basics

There are two roughly similar processes you’ll need to go through on two different platforms to publish your book, one for the Kindle version and the other for the print version. The Kindle platform is called Kindle Direct Publishing, or KDP (kdp.amazon.com), and the print platform is called CreateSpace (the website is createspace.com, but it’s a wholly owned subsidiary of Amazon now). I published the Kindle version of my book first and then did the CreateSpace version afterwards, but if you want to save time and you’re OK with the inferior CreateSpace cover creator program—or you create or pay someone to create your own high-quality cover image, which I’d recommend if your goal is actually to sell copies—you can skip KDP and just click a button during the CreateSpace process to cross-publish it as a Kindle e-book too.

The major pieces of content that you need in order to publish on either platform are a manuscript (any MS Word document will do), a cover file, and a handful of metadata (a synopsis, your author bio & headshot if desired, and your list of keywords for on-site search purposes). The entire publishing process took me about 5 or 6 hours, the vast majority of which went to creating the two cover files and proofing my manuscript once it was online.

The manuscript

CreateSpace has a very specific template you’ll need to use that conforms to whatever printed dimensions you choose for your book; for KDP the only piece of special formatting I did to my existing document was to add an automated table of contents using MS Word’s Heading 1 and Heading 2 tags so that readers can skip between chapters on the e-book (see here for full instructions). If you’re looking to save time, do the entire thing in CreateSpace and then just push it to KDP; I can’t speak from experience, but I would imagine that as long as you include an automated table of contents in your CreateSpace file it should transfer to KDP, too.

Both platforms have an online proofreading tool that you can use to go through your book page by page to make sure everything lines up properly after it’s been uploaded (the KDP version lets you simulate different reading devices, too, which is nice); you can also order a hardcopy proof from CreateSpace, or just approve it based on the digital version.

If you go through KDP you’ll encounter a blank for your ISBN—the short answer is that you don’t need one for an e-book, but they can be useful for certain purposes. I stopped researching it pretty quickly after I established that you don’t need one for an e-book :) Print books, as far as I know, do require an ISBN, but CreateSpace makes it easy to either buy one or get one for free as part of their process—I paid $10 for one to avoid listing CreateSpace as the publisher for one of their free ISBNs. 

The cover

KDP and CreateSpace both have their own automated cover creators that let you design your own cover if you want to. KDP’s gives you a lot more flexibility, but you’ll only be able to use what you design for the Kindle version of your book; CreateSpace’s automated tool frankly kind of sucks, but if you manage to make something you like with it you can download the file for future use and, as with the manuscript, automatically push the whole package to a Kindle e-book. I didn’t do this, so I can’t speak to it directly; I designed my Kindle cover using the KDP tool and my CreateSpace cover using their tool.

If your goal is to sell as many copies of your book as possible (mine wasn’t, in this case), I’d recommend paying a professional to design your cover for you—CreateSpace offers $400 and $600 cover design packages, and I’m sure there are a bunch of other places out there that’ll gladly make you a professional-looking cover in exchange for a little cash. If you have your own cover file, you can upload it directly to either platform.

Royalties, KDP Select, etc

On KDP, the basic decision you have to make when you decide how much to charge for your book is whether you want to charge $2.99 or more and get 70% of the proceeds of everything you sell (less a very small per-megabyte charge to cover distribution costs) or charge less than that and get a straight 35% royalty (with no additional per-megabyte charge). I started mine off at $2.99 thinking I would keep it there, but once I started playing around with AdWords in earnest I dropped the price to $0.99, just to eliminate the variable of cost from the equation. You also have the option to enroll your book in KDP Select, which entails agreeing to distribute the e-book version of your work exclusively through the Kindle store (i.e., not simultaneously in Nook, ePub, iTunes, etc versions) for the first 90 days after which it’s published in exchange for making your book part of the Kindle lending library, which lets Amazon Prime members borrow it for free and gives you a portion of a $6 million pot of money that Amazon’s set aside to compensate lending library authors based on—as far as I could tell—the percentage of overall lending library downloads of your book vs all other books in the program.

On CreateSpace it’s much simpler—they’re an on-demand printer, so there are no order minimums or anything like that, but as a result the per-unit price is much higher than it would be otherwise. The minimum list price for my book was $7.28, which would have yielded royalties of $1.45 per sale; I went with an even $9.99, which works out to $3.08 in royalties per Amazon order according to their calculator. As a point of comparison, the Kindle price point that gets you to $3.08 in royalties is $4.44 (at the 70% royalty level).

Online marketing

One of the biggest reasons I was excited about publishing the book was having an excuse to play around with Facebook ads and AdWords (Google’s paid ad platform—those little text ads you see to the right of your search results)—and it didn’t disappoint :) The short version, for me at least, was that Facebook ads were a complete waste of money, whereas AdWords worked well in the beginning and then fantastically well once I tweaked my ad copy a bit.

The copy that I used in my Facebook ad and my first AdWords ad were identical; they both linked directly to the Kindle product page, but the Facebook ad included a thumbnail image of the book cover, whereas the AdWords one was just text (headline underlined):

My “Jesus Year” in essays 33 was a tough year…but also one of my best. $0.99, or free with Prime.

Not the greatest copy, as I would learn, but the numbers were still very eye-opening: between April 22nd and April 27th I got 36,055 impressions and 18 clicks from my Facebook ad, for a click-through rate of 0.049%. My average cost per click was $0.62, so I paid a total of $11.16 for those 18 clicks.  Over the same period of time, my AdWords campaign generated 25,342 impressions and 124 clicks, for a click-through rate of 0.49%–which I’d never noticed until just now was exactly 10 times my Facebook click-through rate—and my average cost per click was only $0.04. So not only were the AdWords clicks 15.5x cheaper than Facebook’s, I was also getting them 10x faster. I canceled my Facebook campaign on the spot and left the AdWords one running at the rate of $1/day to get more data and then largely forgot about it.

When I checked back in on May 10th, the numbers were pretty similar—398 clicks from 92,005 impressions, for a click-through rate of 0.43% with an average cost per click of $0.03—and I decided to see what I could do increase my click-through rate, with 1% as my initial goal. I looked at the AdWords data to see what organic search terms had driven most of those 398 clicks, and I rewrote my ad to cater more explicitly to them, which resulted in the following (headline underlined):

A cheap Kindle ebook :) Self-published personal essays on loss, redemption, and joy. $0.99

The self-consciously super-SEO headline clearly worked—over the course of the past 10 days that the new ad has been running, it’s had 22,251 impressions and  3,503 clicks at $0.01 per click, for an almost unbelievable average click-through rate of 15.74%. That’s 32x higher than the click-through rate for my original AdWords ad, and 320x higher than for my original Facebook ad. I turned off the campaign earlier today, because a) I already had the data I wanted, and b) I’m really and truly not making any money off of this book—my purchase conversion rate from all those clicks was pretty much zero, so it didn’t make sense to keep paying for it. I knew that would most likely be the case going in, though; the market for Thirty-Three is people who know me and want to read a bunch of my unfocused, loosely structured personal essays, and that market is almost completely a subset of my friends, family, and followers on social media.

I approached this as an exercise in how to publish and drive clicks to a book online, and in that sense it was a smashing success. My next time around I’ll try to tackle the question of how you actually get people to buy what you’re selling—the next book I write will be written with a much larger audience in mind and with an explicit goal of selling copies, so sales conversion rates will be the main metric I’ll be looking to.


Looking back on this little experiment, I can honestly say that I got everything I wanted from it and more—I’m comfortable with online marketing now, and any mental roadblock I once had about the difficulty of self-publishing is gone, leaving me that much freer to focus on what really counts when it comes to online publishing: what I want to write next :)

If you’re considering going the self-publishing route yourself and you want the quick and easy takeaways from my experience without reading the whole post, here you go:

  1. If you’re going to publish both a print and an e-book version of your work, start with CreateSpace and use it to quickly and easily transfer your print content to an e-book. There’s virtually no additional cost to offering a print version (I paid $10 for an ISBN and another $15 or so including shipping to have a proof mailed to me, but you can skip the physical proof and even get a free ISBN if you’re willing to let CreateSpace list themselves as the publisher), and it increases your potential market beyond people with e-readers, so it’s worth considering.
  2. You’ll make a lot more money at a lower price point on e-books than printed ones (assuming you’re charging at least $2.99 for your work and going with Amazon’s 70% royalty option), so an e-book should definitely be part of your strategy.
  3. Use Microsoft Word’s automated table of contents feature (see instructions here) to create a table of contents that you can use for the print version of your book but that will also enable Kindle hyperlinks for your e-book readers.
  4. For online marketing, forget about Facebook and focus on AdWords—set a small daily budget, let it run for a while to get some good data on how people who click on your ad are coming to it based on their search terms, and then adjust your ad copy and tweak as necessary to increase your traffic.

That’s it! Let me know if you have any other questions about my experience, and good luck if you’re embarking on the self-publishing route yourself :)


2 thoughts on “Lessons from self-publishing my first book

  1. Thank you for sharing your experience …it answered my question about whether publishing to print or e-book or both. I plan on the course you recommended: use CreateSpace to develop the printed book and enable the e-book option.


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