Over the last couple of years I’ve tried various ways to make quick cash online, to varying degrees of success. Disillusioned with “matched betting”, forex trading and poker bots, I wanted to go meta: try to make money online by writing a book about making money online.
Being neither resourceful nor talented enough to score an actual book deal, I decided to self-publish an ebook. Although sales of print books accounted for over 80 percent of the UK’s book market in 2019, the digital market – which includes audiobooks and ebook sales – is still worth a respectable £653 million. I’ve often seen ebook publishing touted as a viable online money-spinner, even for first-time authors. But is that success achievable without a blue tick or thousands of Instagram followers?
Coming up with an idea for the book was easy, at least: I’d write about making money online, drawing on everything I’ve learned over the last few years. Given that half the country is currently either furloughed or laid-off because of coronavirus, it seemed like a timely topic.
I spent a week going over old notes and compiling them into seven chapters, totalling a hefty 16,000 words – by far the longest thing I’ve ever written, though still only about a third of the size of an average nonfiction book. I gave it a legit-sounding name, Side Hustles: How to Make Extra Money Online, then formatted my error-strewn Word document into a proper ebook file using Amazon’s free software, Kindle Create.
Job done, but had I penned a potential bestseller?
“Honestly? No,” says Kerry Wilkinson, a successful and prolific self-published author of crime novels. “I could go onto the Kindle store now and find a thousand titles about the same thing. Some will be free. Some will be written by famous names. Some will already have hundreds of reviews. You're competing against a lot of people who are already in the game.”
It sounds harsh, but Kerry’s right: even 50 Cent is flogging a financial self-help book at the moment, and he has way more fans than me. Self-publishing is about more than just writing well – you also have to take responsibility for all the stuff publishing houses would traditionally do on behalf of their authors: marketing it, paying for advertising, understanding the importance of keywords and designing or buying a decent cover for the book.
“Once all that's in place, you might be able to sell a book,” Kerry says. “Except that's still only part of the job, because you also need a decent product. If you don't have that, your reviews will be bad and nobody will want to buy your work.”
Like Kerry, Ben Galley is one of those annoyingly talented people who has mastered both writing and marketing books. He’s been self-publishing fantasy novels for over a decade and offers a “shelf help” consultancy to help aspiring writers do the same.
When I speak to him about my idea he breaks the self-publishing process into simple-sounding steps, almost making it sound easy, until we get to the part about actually selling the book. I’ve always been crap at publicising my own work – and the thought of getting into online marketing nearly gives me a nosebleed, but Ben says it’s an unavoidable part of self-publishing.
“Back in the day you could publish an ebook and the algorithms and the competition were a lot more favourable,” he explains. “But those days have shifted, and organic discovery has been diluted by paid advertising and the sheer mass of products out there.”
Given the competition and my limited resources, I focus on selling the book on one platform, Amazon’s Kindle Store. Although this means potentially losing sales from other platforms, Kindle is the biggest ebook seller in the world, and it’s easier to focus my efforts in one place, rather than format and market Side Hustles across Google Books, Kobo, Apple’s iBooks and the other ebook platforms.
I chose to publish using Kindle’s Select programme, which requires making the book exclusive to Amazon. In return, I’ll receive royalties depending on the number of pages of the book that are read by Kindle Unlimited subscribers, who can access it for free through their subscription, as well as 70 percent of each sale to non-subscribers.
Ben suggests I try a “soft launch”, which is really just a polite way of saying I have no chance of organising a big marketing campaign to build interest and sales. Instead, I run a free promo to hopefully boost my bestseller ranking before the paid version launches. Amazon only allows free promos for five days out of every 90 that a book is listed for sale, so I message as many friends, relatives and pub acquaintances as possible, and ask them to download the book.
I get a couple of reviews and it starts moving up the charts – appearing on the first page of results when I search “side hustles” on Amazon, above some shitty-looking guide to forex trading and an erotic fiction book that also happens to use side hustles in its name. I guess anything can sound horny if you put your mind to it. I average around 20 free downloads per day for the five days, which I think is pretty decent. At one point I reach number five in the “personal finance” category and break the top 100 in self-help, though it fluctuates through the week.
When it comes to actually selling the book, I decide to price it at £2.99 – cheap enough to justify its short length, but meaning I still make around £2 profit from every sale after Jeff Bezos takes his cut. I sell my first few copies, but there’s no way to tell if these are sales from people finding the book through Amazon, or just friends buying the book to be nice.
After a couple of days, Side Hustles is at number 60 in both the personal finance and personal money management categories, and shows up pretty high when I test search terms related to the book. I’ve sold around three copies a day so far, which is OK, though I’m not exactly threatening to knock 50 Cent off his perch. Maybe no one but a handful of my friends is willing to drop £2.99 on 40 pages of waffle about making a relatively small amount of money online?
But after refreshing one morning I notice I’ve sold a couple of copies and immediately go back to thinking I’m a literary phenomenon: the Sally Rooney of personal finance ebooks.
With the soft launch doing about as much as could be expected (not that much), I turn to other methods to try to increase sales. Both Ben and Kerry suggest I recruit the help of influencers or celebrities to promote the book, which would be great advice if I knew any. Instead, I write a blog post for money website The Escape Artist.
I first met Barney, who runs the site, when I was writing about the financial independence movement last year. He lets me post a lengthy piece about the book, with links to the Amazon page. I notice a big increase in sales the day it’s published – 11 copies, which is over three times my daily average so far. It does increase sales for a bit, but they even out afterwards, as does the book’s bestseller rank. Mind you, it’s still competing with Jack Monroe in Amazon’s top 50 personal finance books.
Ben says his biggest marketing method is paid Facebook and Amazon advertising. While he admits he has at times lost money on particular pay-per-click adverts, because he has such a big collection of books these losses are outnumbered by his customers bouncing from one book to another. I consider dropping some cash on adverts, but I find various forum posts from authors who have paid for adverts, only to generate a few extra sales and ultimately lose money.
With my book priced so low, theres’ little room for error when targeting the adverts, which can cost up to 50p every time someone clicks through to the sales page. “It is a complete risk,” says Leslie Gilmour, a digital marketing consultant at Cube Digital. “I think it would be quite difficult to use Facebook ads to show a reasonable return. If you’re ending up paying £30, £40, £50 for an ad on Facebook, you don’t have much leeway on the number of people who click before you’re losing money.”
Without adverts, I’m left with few other options to try to increase sales. I spend £95 on Amazon keyword software Publisher Rocket, though it does have a 30-day money back guarantee, so I’m not out of pocket. The software has tools for analysing keywords and ways to find relevant but niche categories on Amazon.
“I'm a firm believer in writing books that correspond with the keywords readers are already searching for on Amazon,” Publisher Rocket’s creator, Dave Chesson, tells me. I know I’m only supposed to be in it for the money, but it’s difficult to think of a more soulless approach to writing a book than that.
A couple of weeks after the launch, my book is still averaging a few sales a day, though its ranking is falling off a bit. I’m at number 47 in personal finance, floating around with the likes of How to Be a Landlord and Currency Trading for Dummies.
I want to boost my rank and hopefully keep shifting copies, so I follow in the footsteps of this legend, who lost his top 10 position in the Sunday Times bestseller charts after revealing he bought 400 copies of his own book, The Cleaner, to increase his position. I buy a few copies of my book – at a loss of £1 a go – and over a couple of days my bestseller rank increases. It’s nice to see the book doing well, but my self-bought success is fleeting. A few days later, I’m slipping down the charts again.
So, was Side Hustles a success? Not an unqualified one. I came into self-publishing having already been paid to write stuff in the past, with loads of material for the book and a cover designed by a VICE illustrator – and I still only just sold enough copies to make it worthwhile. But I did manage to write and publish a book in just over a week, and some people even read it, which is more than a lot of authors can say.
“Because self-publishing is so easy, anyone can figure it out,” Kerry says. “Actually being noticed is significantly more difficult.”