Grow Your Business

Sell ebooks: 11 lessons from our Wall Street Journal best-seller

Whether an ebook is your first or fifth product, selling an ebook can be a lucrative and effective way to promote your business and cement yourself as an authority in your niche.

But it’s not enough to just write a quality ebook.

You need to purposefully engineer your ebook to be sellable from beginning to end. Otherwise, you risk your ebook becoming invisible. And all that time, money, and sweat equity you put into it?

Poof. Gone. Wasted.

Cut through the noise

If your ebook is on “how to lose weight,” how will yours cut through the noise of 4,000 results, hm?

Our own GrowthLab ebook, “Your Move: The Underdog’s Guide to Building Your Business,” hit number one in several categories on Amazon and number one on the Wall Street Journal best-seller list. But like a good game of chess, each move toward our launch and subsequent promotion was intentional and the result of careful thought.

So in this article, we’ll go over the most critical elements to think about, plan, and execute on to help ensure your ebook sells and avoids languishing in ebook purgatory. While we can’t guarantee you’ll make millions, you can stack the cards in your favor with best practices, based on our own experiences.

Chances are, you already know what you want to write about. Maybe it’s an ebook on how to grow your business using social media or how to lose weight eating nothing but Chipotle burritos (actually, can you write that? Thanks). Whatever the topic, make sure you…

1. Conduct market research to concretize your idea

Much like validating a business idea, you need to validate your ebook idea. If you skip doing this and just “go with your gut,” you can’t be certain your ebook will actually sell and you could end up wasting time and energy down the road.

By the time we wrote GrowthLab’s ebook on online business, we had already conducted hundreds of hours of customer research and surveys to give us the confidence that people wanted this information.

Begin by going to the Amazon Kindle store. It sounds counterintuitive, but you want to confirm that ebooks similar to your idea exist. You may think that you’re breaking new ground if no other ones pop up in your search, but there’s a simpler reason than that: there’s just too little demand for it.

Ergo, no one wants or is looking for this particular topic. Doh.

Gather information on what’s popular, what are the current top sellers, what sells, and what doesn’t sell in the category closest to your niche. For us, we would go to “Business & Money,” then refine it further to “Entrepreneurship.” For a weight loss ebook, you’d go from “Health, Fitness & Dieting” to “Diets & Weight Loss.”

Next, pick at least five best-selling or notable ebooks that are similar to your idea. For each, you want to look at the ebook’s sales rank and its average monthly sales (more on how to do that shortly). Why?

Your goal is to find out if your niche and idea are profitable and be able to estimate how much similar ebooks are making in sales per day. This gives you the confidence that, yes, you will be selling ebooks. And potentially lots of them. Here’s how you find out that information:

  1. Note the price of the ebook.
  2. Scroll down to “Product details” on the Amazon page and look at Amazon Best Sellers Rank, or ABSR (see picture below).

Screen Shot 2018 05 22 at 8.46.31 PM

Then using this calculator, you can figure out approximately how many books are purchased per day (note that the ABSR is updated every couple hours or so, which can impact the calculation). Going with the example above: At an ABSR of #238, this sells about 435 books per day (at the time of this writing). Multiply that by the price and you get:

$13.99 x 435 = $6,085.65

Niiiiiiiice. Again, this is just a rough estimate, but it’s clear that people are buying this book.

To check that your idea has legs outside of Amazon’s walls, use Google Adwords (creating an account is free). Once you’re logged in, use the tool “Keyword Planner,” which normally helps you find the right keywords to target in a Google Adwords campaign, but you don’t need to actually run any ads — it’s a research tool for you right now.

Next, enter your general ebook idea in the keyword. You’ll get a list of keyword alternatives, like below for the search “intermittent fasting”:

The data points from “Avg. monthly searches” and “Competition” give you a rough idea of how in demand these keywords are (for a more detailed guide on using the Keyword Planner, check out this guide from Backlinko). A ballpark of 50,000 monthly searches is solid.

We can take things a step further by getting a few of the above keyword ideas and hopping over to another tool called Google Trends. Google Trends gives you a visual head-to-head comparison of search traffic for up to five similar keywords. This is helpful for honing in on what to write based on what people are actually searching for over a period of time, region, and categories.

So continuing from the “intermittent fasting” example above, we used a couple of the keyword ideas (“intermittent fasting weight loss,” “intermittent fasting women,” and “fasting for weight loss”) from Keyword Planner, plugged them into Google Trends, and looked at the worldwide trends over the past 12 months in the “Beauty & Fitness” category.

Google Trends

“Intermittent fasting weight loss” (blue) and “fasting for weight loss” (yellow) show potential.

There’s definitely interest in intermittent fasting in general, but people seem most interested in using it specifically for weight loss.

OK, so your idea looks to be quite profitable, but not so fast, you want to be able to set yourself apart from the market.

2. Use more research to find fresh ways of writing about your topic

In order to offer something new and valuable to readers, go through your niche’s most popular ebook’s customer reviews on Amazon, including the most detailed one-, two-, and three-star reviews, to get a sense of what customers liked, didn’t like, or wished that book discussed but didn’t. This way you can spot information gaps to fill or different approaches to the same topic.

Amazon review

Based on this review, you know you can set yourself apart by having actual quality information and writing, free from grammatical errors and typos. You’d think this would be a no-brainer, but… (Click to enlarge)

Another valuable way to get information on what your market wants to read is to check the subreddits.

Let’s say you’re writing an ebook on weight loss. Here r/fitness is the more general Reddit for all things fitness, obviously. But there are dozens of subreddits that still fall within fitness, such as r/xxfitness (fitness for women), r/keto (a popular diet), or even r/xxketo (the ketogenic diet for women). To find the appropriate subreddit, refer to this guide.

As you scrub through Amazon reviews and subreddits, you’ll undoubtedly come across popular threads and commonly asked questions. Write these down in a document somewhere to help you start outlining your table of contents. Here’s part of our table of contents for reference:

image2

Figuring out what to include in your table of contents in the early stages makes the actual writing process easier. And if you’re looking for a writing tool to organize your book, Scrivener (not free), Google Docs, Microsoft OneNote, and Evernote are all great options.

3. Carefully consider your ebook title

For more targeted, practical ebook title ideas, search on Google to discover what people search for. Scroll to the bottom to find similar and more specific related searches for more ideas.

Similar searches

Example for “how to lose weight”

If you have the budget, you can run campaigns on Google Adwords (here’s an old but still useful guide on how to do that) or Facebook Ads (and another guide here) to compare one title against another with real visitors. This way you’re able to test a demographic who has no idea who you are and have only the title of the ebook to judge.

Keep in mind that this is not unequivocal data that people absolutely love your ebook title, but it is simply another data point that helps you decide.

When we came up with the title of our ebook, for example, we brainstormed a dozen alternatives and had the team give their feedback. In the end, we chose from one of three finalists:

Brainstorming

Most people liked the idea of being an “underdog.” (Click to enlarge)

Ultimately, we wanted to make sure the reader looking at the title felt as if building an online business was possible and aspirational.

4. Design your ebook cover

Book In a Box says it most succinctly here:

“A good book cover matters to the author (because it shows what’s in the book) and it matters to the audience (because it makes them interested in what is in the book).”

For ideas and inspiration, look through Amazon (and their guide on creating your cover), or better yet, Book Cover Archive and bookmark your favorites. Take note of which ones jump out at you. The important details to consider are…

  • Typeface: Most genres have established their typography. Are you noticing which fonts similar books are using? Are they straight, contemporary, classical, etc.? Is it readable?
  • Color: Different colors convey different emotions and meaning. Regular readers of a certain genre have certain expectations for cover and colors. Which colors are most popular or most commonly used? Which colors complement each other?
  • Images: What types of images are being used? Are they stock photos, illustrations, or other?
  • Image context: If there are images, what are they? Objects? People? Places?
  • Thumbnail size: Think about the device the reader would be viewing your book on. If the reader is browsing on their phone, will the cover and overall design pop?
  • Simplicity.

Overall, your cover should capture your ebook idea in a subtle way and have a clear focus. Here’s a look at our ebook cover, as an example:

Screen Shot 2018 05 21 at 4.18.28 PM

We knew the cover had to really stand out, so we focused on bright colors and an intriguing image that captures the essence of our title.

We decided on an attention-grabbing giant, red robot (metaphor for all the big, established players in a business space) about to beat down on a much smaller robot (the underdog). Notice, too, that the font we used is also in line with our brand: bold, modern, and daring.

When it comes to actually designing your ebook cover, you could do it yourself using Canva or find someone on Fiverr to do it for cheap. But remember: a quality ebook cover helps your ebook stand out.

That said, consider hopping on 99designs, Upwork, or AuthorSupport to find an experienced and skilled book cover designer who can get it done right. But note that outsourcing your design could run you anywhere between $5 and $2,000 (for a REALLY awesome designer).

Further, looking for a capable designer can be a challenge in itself, so some quick questions to ask yourself when searching on a freelance site like Upwork:

  • Are they in the same time zone for ease of communication?
  • Do they have print experience and good print and layout skills?
  • Do they show diversity in their portfolio? (This tells you they are willing to meet YOUR specific needs.)

Here’s an example of someone we would talk to, based on their profile:

image4

This grabbed our attention because this designer’s profile demonstrates a depth of experience and a wide range of skills and styles, including print design, which makes it easier for you to tell him exactly what you want and for him to meet your goals and expectations.

5. Distribute your ebook far and wide

We published our book on Amazon with the goal of being promoted as number one best-seller (we made it to number six). We could’ve sold directly from our website to our existing subscribers, which would’ve given us more control and allowed us to maximize revenue.

However, our business goals were to promote our book to new buyers that hadn’t heard of GrowthLab and ultimately to drive new, quality leads from Amazon to GrowthLab.

Although Amazon is the largest ebook retailer (2015 figures say 65% of the U.S. ebook market), it isn’t the only ebook player. Other retailers include:

  • Apple iBookstore: Apple is a distant second behind Amazon, accounting for roughly 10-12% of U.S. ebook sales.
  • Barnes & Nobles Nook Press: Even though many of its brick and mortar stores have closed, Nook Press still makes up 7-8% of all U.S. ebook sales.
  • Kobo: Kobo allows you to tap into other markets, like Canada and Japan, and makes up about 3-4% of the total U.S. market.
  • Google Play: Google Play makes up 1-2% of the U.S. market.

From here, you have options: place your ebook in each retailer yourself, go through an ebook distributor like Draft2Digital, CreateSpace, or Smashwords to help you publish in other retailers, or a combination of both. The trade-off is that they will take a cut of your sales, and you have less control over things like pricing.

For example, you can choose to work directly with Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (which also takes a percentage), and then use an ebook distributor like Smashwords to reach other indie retailers. The benefits of working with a large ebook distributor are that they help you capture the rest of the smaller markets and widen your reach.

We published our ebook on Amazon KDP but also went with Smashwords to help us spread it to more retailers, which in turn helped make us eligible for best-seller status (you can read more about how that works here).

6. Prepare your ebook sales copy

Think of your ebook copy like a sales page: a good one digs into the reader’s pain points and makes them want to buy your book to help solve their problems.

The main component to your ebook copy is a compelling book description. On the surface, a good book description tells readers what they can expect and includes noteworthy blurbs from influencers or notable people to prove that the author isn’t just full of hot air. On a deeper level, it speaks to the reader’s desires, fears, hopes, and dreams. It makes them feel that they would be missing out by not reading your book. Here’s a peek at how we broke down our ebook description:

We first laid out all the details of what our ebook is and whom it’s for, along with whom it’s not for and how we’re unique from the market, aka positioning. In the end, our notes turned into…

We knew that our target readers were looking for a no-nonsense, non-scummy way to make money on the side, make “passive income,” or build something that lets them regain control of their life. So our copy reflects how they can achieve those things.

To add that extra dose of authority and set ourselves apart from other ebooks claiming to help readers do the same, we followed our ebook’s promises with testimonials from happy customers or notable people (aka social proof), like so:

Social proof

We strategically floated a more recognizable name like best-selling author Tim Ferriss to the top to quickly grab attention.

It certainly helps to have big, recognizable people in your niche vouching for you, but they’re not absolutely necessary. Think of the people you’ve helped or have built relationships with throughout your career. This is a good time to ask if they’d offer you a testimonial that speaks to your ability, integrity, or expertise.

7. Have a “before” and “after” marketing plan

An ebook’s success hinges on a well-thought-out marketing plan that should take into consideration preorders and the official public launch.

The reason is that by coordinating as many people as possible to buy, you increase the likelihood it shoots up the charts on Amazon and other best-seller lists (reference for how best-seller lists work), thereby increasing the visibility of your book (and business).

Wall Street Journal

What an honor it was, but it didn’t happen by accident…

You may remember, our main goal was to get GrowthLab in front of new eyeballs, so our strategy revolved around positioning the ebook at the top of Amazon’s charts. This would allow new readers to find us, buy the ebook, and follow the content, which would eventually lead them to (hopefully) subscribe to our newsletter. For this to happen, our marketing plan was split into three phases:

  • Preorder prep: This was mostly behind-the-scenes work to prepare for the preorder campaign, which consisted of planning a series of emails to our email subscribers, with the goals of getting them excited about the upcoming announcement and nurturing early adopters, who in turn, could help promote the book and write good reviews (more on that below).
  • Pre-order launch: We made preorders available for four weeks. During this four-week period, we wanted to build excitement around the pending ebook, get as many preorders as possible, and get people ready to write reviews.
  • Sales launch: This is the time when the ebook is out in the wild and people get their pre-ordered copy or can buy their copy directly. There is also a huge push for promotion across many media, including podcasts, blog posts, media appearances, livestreams, etc.

In the end, our marketing efforts got us to number one in several major categories, including nonfiction and business, and hit number one on the Wall Street Journal list for nonfiction books.

It was a tightly coordinated team effort that required a few common book-promotion strategies that you can also implement, including doing a lot of outreach, which we’ll get to next.

8. Do a lot more outreach than you think you need to widen your ebook’s reach

One of our advantages was that we had already built an audience that was happy to help us promote our ebook. But per our goal to reach new eyeballs, we wanted to go wider and outside our purview.

So we turned to those with their own spheres of influence, though when you do this make sure these people reach an audience that is relevant to your own. The likelihood of these influencers willing to help you out relies on a few things:

  1. You have a pre-established relationship with the person.
  2. You have something so mouthwatering to offer to their audience and you can write a really great email (examples below).
  3. You make things as easy as possible for the influencer. They’re busy people, and if you are making them cross oceans for you, it’s not going to happen.

Basically, you are looking for opportunities to leverage other people’s followings and platforms, whether that’s their blog, podcast, or network. Here’s an example of how we pitched podcasters:

Hey [Name],

So I just wrote an ebook on starting a business. It hit #1 in Amazon nonfiction, and we sold over ### pre-order copies in four days. And that’s just pre-order — it hasn’t even gone on sale yet.

Here’s a free copy in case you’re interested. [link]

Happy to come on [podcast name] and talk about the book/starting a business. Let me know what you think.

Here’s a sample script on how we pitched journalists in the media:

Hi [NAME],

I’ve got an article idea I wanted to pass on to you. I just published a new ebook on building an online business. It hit #1 in Amazon nonfiction within a day of going on pre-order, and we’ve already sold ### copies. Would you like to write the book up on XXXXX.com? We can also give you an excerpt to republish.

Here are a few blog article ideas based on the book:

  1. How to make your business stand out in a crowded niche (Chapter 5, pp. 61-72)
  2. The secret to charging what you’re worth (Chapter 1, pp. 20-27)
  3. What kind of an entrepreneur do you want to be? (Chapter 7, pp. 86-97)

Here’s a free copy of the book so you can take a closer look: [link]

And here’s a link to the Amazon book page: [link]

We’ll link to any article you publish on the book in an email to our list of #### people.

The author of “The Coaching Habit,” Michael Bungay Stanier (who, by the way, wrote this amazing post on selling over 180,000 copies of his own book), provides these handy pitching templates and preparing podcast questions beforehand.

If this seems like a lot of work, it is, but it’s worth it and will help sell your ebook.

Outreach isn’t an afterthought. You need to start the outreach process as early as possible. If you wait until the last minute, you’re less likely to be able to set up effective partnerships. People have their own content schedules, so you need extra cushion to work out a collaboration.

One more thing: sending outreach emails takes a lot longer than you think. Don’t be surprised to be spending at least two full days to send over 50 emails (and then follow up with them).

9. Set your price strategically

Most self-published ebooks sell between $0.99 and up to $4.99, and retailers typically take a percentage of those sales (here’s Amazon’s royalty structure as an example). Don’t just focus on the upfront cost or profit. Pricing your book strategically also helps you with more sales for reasons we are about to discuss.

A popular pricing strategy is to set the listing price at $0.00 (free) or $0.99. The reasoning here is to usher in as many sales within a short period to propel your book to the top of the sales charts in its categories or have the algorithms recommend your book to more customers (and thus, potentially get more sales). You can always adjust the price accordingly after.

But the other reason is that if you truly wrote an amazing ebook, you would be able to over-deliver on the quality of the content. And if it exceeds people’s expectations enough, they would tell more of their friends about your ebook and essentially set it up to succeed.

This is awesome

Aw, thanks, lady-in-GIF, for the kinds words.

We set “Your Move: The Underdog’s Guide to Building Your Business,” at $0.99 for the first week only. This was the lowest amount we could charge and still be eligible to hit the best-seller lists. We later raised it to $2.99 after the first week of sales. Our boon, of course, was our existing sizable audience of email subscribers and social media followers that could buy our ebook at this low price and help us drive it to the top of Amazon’s charts.

In the end, 37% of our sales came from word-of-mouth and organic promotion via Amazon’s algorithms. Not too shabby!

Additionally, the right price could nudge those customers who’ve never heard of you to pull the trigger on your ebook. Consider, for example, the pros of pricing it at $0.99. It’s just low enough for an impulsive “Eh, I have nothing to lose” buy, especially when you’re a relatively unknown author.

10. Gather reviews to help sell your ebook

The number of reviews and the aggregated star rating carry more weight than you think. They’re a form of social proof, or hidden signals that tell customers something about the ebook’s quality, and can help sway people on the fence and boost sales.

Facilitating the flood of positive reviews is a key reason why savvy marketers drop the price in the beginning — to give early buyers a low-risk opportunity to check it out and then leave a review. But don’t leave it up to the customer to know what you want them to do: follow up and directly ask them if they would so kindly leave a positive review if they enjoyed the book.

Cat GIF

Live feed of us asking people to leave a review if they liked our book.

This is why engaging with your readers is important. We spent the time finding approximately 800 of the right GrowthLab readers who would love the book, engaged with them, and generally made sure they loved it before we asked them to leave reviews and comments.

We took it a step further by creating a Facebook group with a select group of readers. It allowed students to interact with one another and our CEO Ramit Sethi, the book’s author, which helped us secure 80-plus Amazon customer reviews on the first day of sales.

11. Keep going

There’s a temptation to lean back, smoke a cigar, and bask in your victory once you get to a certain point, but as Sethi put it best:

“The real winners realize they have a hit on their hands and 10X their effort. It’s so much easier to 10X a winner than it is a loser. Suddenly, you can use the momentum of early success to generate early success.”

Use this positive momentum to sway influencers that were hesitant to take the leap before. For example, you can tell them that you’ve already sold X number of copies (the bigger the number, the better) and then ask for their advice on what else they might do. The logic here is that if you have a hit on your hands, suddenly you’d look really good.

When it comes to selling ebooks, the ultimate goal is simple: to get your book into the hands of as many people as possible. And that means spending a lot more deliberate effort, having the foresight to make room for contingency planning, planning and more planning, and sometimes, yes, a bit of trial and error.

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