Most of the self-publishing success stories we hear revolve around selling books on Amazon, and for good reason: authors like Steve Scott and Mark Dawson have used the platform to bring home six-figure salaries.
But if you’re considering self-publishing, you should know there is another option: selling ebooks on your own site. If you’re able to carve out your own little corner of the Internet, this route, too, can be incredibly lucrative.
Each method has its pros and cons, and that’s what I’d like to cover in today’s post. When does it make sense to sell your self-published book on Amazon, and when should you forego the giant and sell on your own website?
Here’s what to consider when making this decision.
Your pricing strategy, and the type of books you write
If you sell on Amazon, you’re expected to price ebooks like everyone else does, generally between $2.99 – $9.99. But if you sell on your own website, you can set your price however you like, from $2.99 all the way up to $59 or more, which can mean earning a lot more per ebook.
Of course, you only want to sell at a high price point if potential buyers see that much value in your ebook. Often this depends on the type of ebook you write. If you’re writing novels, as a lot of self-published authors do, you’re kind of cornered into that less-than-$9.99 window, because that’s what people expect to pay for fiction. But if you write non-fiction, especially how-to or advice-heavy guides (also known as informational ebooks) readers will typically pay a much higher price.
Why? Because they’re accessing your brain, your experience and your guidance, all of which is worth more than a story. And while the help-you-make-money niche has earned a scammy reputation, if your ebook helps people make money, they’ll be even more willing to open their wallets to read it.
My ebooks are a good example. How to Build a Part-Time Social Media Business, the first ebook I ever wrote, sells for $24. How to Create a Freakin’ Fabulous Social Media Strategy sells for $59. And my other two informational ebooks are priced somewhere in between.
I could never get away with pricing those ebooks beyond $10 if I sold on Amazon, because everyone prices their ebooks low on the platform. But readers get tremendous value from these resources, value that helps them quickly earn back what they spent on the guides. Because of that, it’s easy to justify the price when I sell them on my own website.
In addition to being able to charge more when I sell on my own site, I also profit more on each sale. When I sell an ebook on AlexisGrant.com, I keep almost 100 percent. My expenses are minimal: I pay $5 to e-junkie each month to deliver my ebooks — and yes, that’s a static fee no matter how many ebooks I sell — and 2.9 percent plus 30 cents for each transaction to PayPal for collecting the funds (and slightly more for international purchases), which works out to about $1 for each $24 ebook.
I also pay one of my team members to answer emails from potential buyers and anyone who has questions after reading the guides, which counts as another expense. Still, earnings from my ebook sales have an amazingly high margin because they require so little maintenance after I publish.
Now look at how much you profit if you sell on Amazon — I do have one ebook on the platform, so I’m speaking from first-hand experience. If you price your ebook between $2.99- $9.99, you earn 70 percent royalties. If you price below $2.99, you earn only 35 percent royalties.
If I were to sell even my lowest-price informational guide on Amazon, I’d probably need to price it at $9.99 to get any traction, and then I’d take home about $7 for each sale. Compare that to the $23 I earn on my own site for the same ebook!
It sounds like a no-brainer, right? Except… there are other factors at hand too, and some of them favor Amazon.
Your reach online
If you’re going to make money from your self-published books, someone has to buy them. This is the tough part for a lot of new authors; they simply don’t know how to get the word out about their book.
That’s where Amazon comes in. If you self-publish on the platform, you can leverage the millions of people who shop there every month. You have a world of potential buyers at your fingertips! A number of factors go into whether Amazon actually shows your book to those potential buyers, but if you learn how to optimize for the Amazon search engine and get good reviews, you’ll likely be able to reach readers outside of your friends and family.
If you sell on your own website, however, it’s entirely up to you to drum up buys. If no one reads your blog or visits your website, you’ll never sell a single book.
Interestingly, most of the successful self-published authors we hear about use the same tactic to rally their reader base, regardless of whether they sell on Amazon or their own site: an email list. Email marketing is the best way to grow a loyal following that will buy your books.
Amazon also gives you an advantage if you sell more than one book on the platform, as it recommends your subsequent books to buyers who already purchased an item with your byline. This referral engine is gold for cultivating a community of repeat buyers, and it’s one of the big appeals of selling on Amazon.
You can replicate this in some ways on your own site, but likely not at the same scale. For example, readers who purchase my guide on how to build a social media business get funneled onto an email list, where they receive several helpful follow-up emails via a MailChimp autoresponder. In one of those emails, I also let them know about another ebook they might be interested in, one that’s directly related to the guide they already bought: my ebook on how to create a social media strategy. I purposely created the second guide as a spin-off of the first, and beefed the strategy guide up to 90 pages so I could sell it for a higher price than the business guide. This allows readers to buy the $24 guide, see that I offer awesome information and gain trust in what I deliver… before purchasing the higher-priced ebook.
It took me a while to get that funnel in place; it’s not something I implemented right when the first guide launched. It was only when the first guide did well that I realized there was a need for more information, so I wrote the second, related ebook and set up the funnel to send buyers to it. Now that I have this system in place — it’s all automatic! — most of the people who buy my social media business guide later purchase my strategy guide, too.
(Another interesting note that might be helpful if you’re looking to sell via your own website: many of my sales come directly from search, from people who find my ebooks through Google. This is the power of solid SEO, back-links and offering tons of free information through blog posts that show my expertise.)
The bottom line: Even if you grow your email list to thousands of people, you’ll still have the potential to reach more people on Amazon. But if you have an engaged and loyal email list (my list for AlexisGrant.com, for example, is only 6,000 strong), and you sell your ebook on your own site at a higher price point, you can sell far fewer books and still make an awesome profit.
Your technical know-how
Some writers tell me they sell their ebooks on Amazon because it’s too complicated to sell them on their own site.
This might be true if you’ve never blogged before. But if you know how to blog in WordPress, you can easily set up your own shop on your website. Use a combination of e-junkie and PayPal like I do, or check out another platform that sells and delivers ebooks like Gumroad. (I’ve heard excellent things about Gumroad, but the downside is they take 5 percent plus 25 cents per transaction, in addition to PayPal’s fees.)
Because I have experience selling digital products, I find it’s much easier to get that set up than to figure out how to format my ebook for Kindle (though to be honest, this is something I’d outsource). On my own site, I typically only sell PDF versions, though I’ll probably introduce Kindle versions in the near future because so many people prefer to read ebooks that way.
Whether you crave autonomy
How important is it to you to have complete control over what you sell?
Amazon offers a lot of options for customizing not only your book itself, but the book’s sales page, too. But you still have far more control over the sales process if you sell on your own site.
On your own site, you can see who’s buying, information that might help you make decisions on what to create and how to sell in the future. On Amazon, you have to make do with their limited metrics.
On your own site, you can collect buyer’s email addresses and funnel them directly onto your newsletter list, then use those emails to offer another related product or other information that might turn that reader into a loyal fan. With Amazon, you don’t get access to any buyer information, so you have to hope readers will notice a call-to-action for your newsletter inside your ebook and take the time to sign up for your list.
I love being able to get my hands dirty in buyer details and metrics and use that information to improve my business. But if you’re not that kind of geek and would prefer to spend your time writing, Amazon might be a better choice for you. (Although I’ll caution that as we discussed above, you’ll need to learn how to market your work to succeed on Amazon.)
Questions to help you decide
In summary, if you’re trying to choose where to sell your ebooks, here’s what you should think about:
1. What type of ebooks do you write?
- Fiction or memoir: Amazon might be the better choice for you, though it depends on other answers below
- How-to, informational guides: Sell ’em on your own site, and set the price high!
2. Can you build your own loyal community of readers and buyers?
- Yes: Consider selling on your own site, though you’d likely find success on Amazon, too
- No: Sell on Amazon. And start growing your community now, because you’ll still need it!
3. Do you understand the technical side of how to run a blog?
- Yes: Consider selling on your own site, depending on your other answers here
- No: Might be better off with Amazon (or hire someone to set up an online store for you)
4. Do you care about autonomy?
- Yes: Sell from your own real estate, where you have complete control
No: Don’t worry about handing everything over to the giant!
As you’ve probably gathered by now, I’m a fan of selling on my own site because it’s more lucrative for my advice-heavy ebooks and I appreciate the autonomy. But that doesn’t mean I wouldn’t wade deeper into Amazon waters for other types of ebooks or to gain access to a wider audience.
There’s one other option here: You could sell both on your own site and Amazon.
Amazon has some rules about when you can sell your work elsewhere, but so long as you adhere to those, you could give your community several options for getting their hands on your books.
The pro here is you’ll earn more money for any books you sell from your own site, because you get to keep all the profits. The con is that Amazon’s referral engine works best when you send as much traffic and buys to it as possible, so encouraging some readers to buy from your site might hurt your book’s Amazon rankings in the long run, which means less reach on that channel.
Self-publishing success stories
So you can see these points in action, here are a few self-published authors who are doing well selling books, either on their own site or via Amazon. You’ll notice that in every case, the author has made an effort to market their work via a blog and online community.
Steve Scott: I mention him first because not only has he been successful selling ebooks on Amazon, he shares lessons for doing so on his blog, as well as insightful income reports. His advice is highly valuable.
Ali Luke: She sells high-quality informational ebooks on her own site, including a guide to creating irresistible ebooks. Her ebooks usually sell for $29 each, but it looks like they’re on sale while she’s on maternity leave.
Chris Guillebeau: He offers a number of guides on his own site, including the Unconventional Guide to Publishing. His guides typically come with additional resources as well, which allows him to use a tiered pricing structure — a smart move for the reasons Derek Happern describes here.
James Chartrand: This writer offers a number of ebooks through her own site, including one called Write for the Web.
Joanna Penn: She used to rely on a hybrid model, selling some ebooks through her website and others on Amazon. Now it looks like she’s leaning heavily on Amazon as she transitions to writing fiction. Joanna’s site is a wealth of information on how to market your work and grow an online community.
Update: Joanna got in touch to say she’s multi-platform (also sells on other platforms besides Amazon), but is no longer selling direct in part because of the new digital EU VAT tax, which affects online entrepreneurs.
Kim Dinan: I haven’t read her ebook on living your dreams, but I thought it was cool that this travel writer makes it available both on her own website and on Amazon.
My ebooks: You can browse the full list here. You’ll notice that while most of my ebooks are available only through my website, You Deserve to Love Your Job is exclusively on Amazon.
Hungry for more information? If you want to create and sell your first ebook through your own website, I offer a free webinar on that topic. You can access it here.