You’ve probably heard the flashiest self-publishing success stories. There’s The Martian, the sci-fi blockbuster that lost Matt Damon an Oscar in 2016. It began its sales life as a 99-cent Kindle download. And there’s the Fifty Shades trilogy, which infamously originated as Twilight fanfiction. Scrubbed clean of copyright violations and released through print-on-demand, it transformed Fanfiction.net user “Snowqueens Icedragon” into multimillionaire author E.L. James.
Of course, it’s not all sunshine and movie deals. Like all sustainable side hustles, it can be a risk: self-publishing isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme, and most indie authors won’t be writing the next Fifty Shades. But with a dose of diligence and some research savvy, you can score a healthy secondary income stream by writing a book — all without having to deal with the gatekeepers at traditional publishing houses.
You don’t have to be the next Shakespeare, or even the next Sally Rooney. But if you’re a self-starter with a knack for clear writing, you might very well turn your ambitions to conquering KDP (or another marketplace of your choice). For all you aspiring indie authors, here are 6 tips for turning self-publishing into a side hustle.
Make sure there’s a market for your idea before you start writing
Maybe you’ve been sheltering the Joycean seed of a novel inside your head, an aggressively anti-commercial masterpiece worthy of college-seminar debates. If you want to, write it. Let it loose on the world and, hey, maybe it will become the next Ulysses.
But if you want to approach self-publishing as a business venture, and not an art project, you’ll want to pay more attention to market trends than your inner muse. No matter how effortlessly you speed-write, it takes time and energy to produce a book. Don’t invest yours into an idea with limited sales potential.
Think you’ve got something with skyscraping commercial appeal? Time to scope out the competition. Get to know the Kindle store, paying special attention to the books that clawed their way up to the top of your genre.
Say you’re seeing nothing remotely resembling your idea. Either you’ve stumbled on the El Dorado of untapped ebook niches or — more likely — you’ve got something with low demand.
But if you find proof that there’s a market, start thinking through how your book will fit into that commercial landscape. Get to know the titles you’re competing with, until you’re able to articulate how yours adds value to that niche. How will your book be better than all the others in the fray?
Choose your categories strategically
Unlike, say, “full-stack web developer” or “management consultant,” writer isn’t exactly a job title that screams wealth. But self-publishing companies and self-publishing platforms like KDP have made it easier than ever to profit from a book — and a lot of that has to do with strategic marketing.
Spend some time browsing the Kindle store and you’ll quickly pick up on the importance of categories. With more than 10,000 of them onsite, they go beyond mere genre. Categories range from the generic (like “Nonfiction” or “Science Fiction & Fantasy”) to the hyperspecific (like “Matrices” or “Norse & Viking Myth & Legend”).
The millions of potential book-buyers on Amazon browse the site by these categories, making them a useful tool for reader discovery. Even more importantly for your purposes, the site itself uses them to organize its bestsellers lists — one of the biggest factors powering its infamous algorithms.
Amazon’s algorithms get their fair share of hush-hush speculation. But they’re not inscrutable alien deities. Their goal is simple: to promote the books that have the best shot of actually selling.
As a result, the algorithms favor titles that already have a strong sales history — leading to a catch-22 where you need to have sales to make sales. This sounds like bad news for new authors. But, luckily, you can front-load the work of snagging an algorithm-bait sales rank: just be strategic when you’re choosing your book’s categories.
Every author who self-publishes through Amazon can select two categories for their book right through the KDP dashboard. Post-publication, you can contact Amazon directly to add up to 8 more. The categories you choose can hold heavy sway over your eventual sales because, of course, some are much bigger than others.
Compare “Military Science Fiction” — overstuffed at 20,000 titles — to the comparatively wide-open, 5000-strong “Galactic Empire.” If you’ve got a premise that can comfortably slot into both, go for the one where you can more easily compete.
Don’t skimp on the cover
Readers are told not to judge a book by its cover. But if you want to make money through self-publishing, you can’t afford to take this sentiment to heart: book-browsers on Amazon absolutely will judge your book by its cover.
Not to say that they’re all superficial art snobs. It’s just that the Kindle marketplace is so glutted, readers have to keep their eyes peeled for any tells that a book is worth their time. A professional-looking cover is just that: it signals that you invested in your book — that you put time and care into giving readers a high-quality experience.
Remember, you’re not just competing with other indie authors here. The full design firepower of Random House and Penguin are also duking it out with you on the Amazon marketplace. To compete with these industry juggernauts, you need to make sure your book cover looks professionally done — even if you designed it yourself.
Spend some time studying the top books in your category. What do their covers have in common? Beyond high production values, you’ll likely see some motifs cropping up again and again. Among thrillers, that’s bold color palettes and stark, sans serif typography. Romance, on the other hand, is all about the shirtless heartthrobs.
You might be tempted to ditch these visual cliches in an effort to make your book stand out. But that would be a mistake. A unique cover isn’t as good as a cover that communicates effectively with book-buyers, and that’s what these conventions are designed to do.
Don’t think of your cover art as, well, art: it’s advertising. It exists to show would-be readers that they’ve found what they’re looking for in your book.
Launch your book with some reviews at the ready
Reviews don’t directly play into how much the Amazon algorithms like you. But they have a huge impact on your ability to turn browsers into buyers. And your sales record, as you know, does affect the algorithms.
To sell books, you’ll need to leverage social proof — evidence that your book is already popular. The best way to do that? Snagging some reviews.
Your cover draws in readers, and your blurb whets their appetite for your writing and expertise. Reviews, though, give you powerful street cred. They’re proof that actual people liked your book — and liked it enough they went out of their way to praise you.
How can you make sure you’ve got a few of these all important reviews? Before your book is set to go live, start sweeping the internet for book bloggers who tend to review similar works. You can start off thinking in terms of genre — not sending your self-help book to a hard sci-fi review is a good start. But to maximize your odds of scoring those reviews, try to be more precise in how you characterize your book.
Come up with some comp titles — established book similar to your own. Is your YA romance more like The Fault in Our Stars, or To All the Boys I’ve Loved Before? Where does your epic fantasy fall in the LOTR to ASOIAF scale? This gets beyond genre, to your book’s overall message and underlying vibe. After all, two titles in the same genre can be polar opposites in other ways, and a reviewer who loves melodrama might not appreciate hilarity — or vice versa.
Once you’ve identified some reviewers who seem like a good fit for your book, it’s time to start pitching. Reach out to them and explain why they should be interested in your book. Try to namecheck some comp titles to prove you’ve done your homework. Above all, keep it short, sweet, and individualized — you don’t want to sound like you’re spamming them.
There’s no shame in clickbait
The book description on your product page will be most readers’ first point of contact with your writing. Of course you want to draw them in with rigorous content and elegant prose — work that’s representative of your work as a whole. But let’s be honest: your blurb should also be about 200% more clickbait-y than the book itself.
Your blurb should absolutely tell readers what they should expect — but not in a way that sounds like a Wikipedia entry. Think of it as a verbal extension of your cover art: a punchy ad that plays to genre conventions, with the goal of drawing the right sort of reader.
Instead of a blow-by-blow outline, go for keywords indicative of your genre and style. Who are your target readers? Is it a spine-chilling tale about a “serial killer”? A fitness program founded on “sustainable lifestyle change”? A compelling “queer romance”?
Now’s also a great time to quote some of the positive reviews you cultivated before your book launch. Distill them down to a hooky, memorable pull-quote, and pop them into the first — or last — sentences of your blurb. There’s no better clickbait than a glowing endorsement.
Tell your friends not to mass-order your book — seriously
Indie authors publishing on Amazon have a tendency to freak out over their Also Boughts. If you spend any time shopping the site, you’ve definitely seen them. They pop up under labels like “frequently bought together” and “customers who viewed this item also viewed,” and they’re supposed to show items related to the one you’re browsing.
Why are Also Boughts important if you want to make money by self-publishing? They represent how Amazon sees the connections between your book and other books. And these matter because they figure hugely into the site’s algorithmically generated recommendations.
Say you’ve written a Gen Z-friendly personal finance guide and launched it on Amazon. Something weird happens, and the site starts lumping it in with early modern poetry collections. Any time someone browses The Complete Poetry and Selected Prose of John Donne or Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions and Death’s Duel, there’s your book, hanging out inexplicably in the Also Boughts.
This is horrible news for you. Amazon will start blasting your book out to Donne scholars and Milton fans. Will some of these folks be interested in your take on early-stage investment for digital natives? Maybe — if you’re really lucky.
But most of these metaphysical poetry junkies will see your book in their email inboxes or on-site feeds, and they’ll scroll right past it. What happens next? Amazon determines it should stop recommending your book at all. No one wants to buy it, so it must be bad, right?
Here’s how to prevent this: keep your Also Boughts “clean.” This means aggressively targeting only the people who read in your category. So tell your friends and family not to mass-order your book. If they want to read it, don’t direct them to Amazon — send them a copy with a personalized note.
All these tips will have you well on your way to side-hustle paradise, and who knows? In a year or two, maybe you’ll be writing your own book on how to make money from self-publishing; now that would be the meta cherry on top.
Desiree Villena is a writer with Reedsy, a platform that connects authors and publishers with the world’s best publishing professionals. She’s very passionate about indie publishing and helping authors reach their dreams! In her spare time, Desiree enjoys reading fiction and writing short stories.