Can anyone start and scale a book publishing business?
Written by Tommy Kok on Aug. 30th 2020
You will learn the 3 most valuable lessons I’ve personally learned from 5 years of self-publishing experience. Before all of that, here’s a little bit of context so everything else makes sense to you.

It was the year 2015 when I first started. I wasn’t completely poor… yet. I had about $10,000 singapore dollar in my bank account. 16 years of age, with zero experience with online businesses, I embarked on this “thing” called self-publishing. It is basically publishing ebooks, paperback books and audiobooks online. 

Now let’s fast forward to 2016. I was trying to withdraw $20 from my bank account at Woodlands MRT to buy noodles. “Error”, it showed. Thinking that the machine had some problem, I tried again. “Error” it showed again. It was about 2pm and I was HUNGRY. Unable to figure out the problem of why I couldn’t withdraw money, I went to the shop and bought plain noodles ONLY ($1+). If anything, that is weird. No one in Singapore does that. A packet of noodles would usually go with eggs, vegetables and meat. 

I didn’t care.

I had no money and I was hungry. So I did what I had to do. Walking away, I can imagine the lady gossiping about how stingy I am. I didn’t care. I'm back home, eating my noodles. Looking at my amazon’s account dashboard and feeling sorry for myself, I almost cried. (other things weren't going well in my life too... ) That was when my mum came in and asked if everything was alright. Pretending like nothing was wrong, “no problem” was the answer. 

Having my chain of thoughts broken, I'm now reminded of my bank account. Curious, I went to log in to my bank account and noticed that I only had $15 left. With some google ninja skills, I figured that the minimal withdrawal was $20. “$%^&*()(*&^&*(*&^%”, I thought. 

I didn’t know why, but I took a photo of that bank balance back then. See the image below.
Broke and hungry, I didn't realize that the minimum withdrawal was $20. I didn't know why but I probably believed back then I would look back and see how far I've went, I took a photo.

"Shit!" I thought. I had spent all my money into the expenses of my publishing business. This includes things like hiring writers, editors, cover designers etc.

I have never been completely broke but here I was, almost turning 17, talked a big game and facing my biggest ordeal ever. I didn't know what came into me but after that moment of realisation, I was feeling eerily excited. I wrote down all the pieces of the publishing process for me back then and broke everything down. From big picture to granular details, I deconstructed everything. By then, I've already published about 10 books and those weren't even making $500 per month. Considering that over $10k were invested, the returns were dismal.

After deconstructing everything, I highlighted those areas that I needed to focus on. I was looking for the 80/20 of the 80/20. What things were working well? What were the time wasters? After all of that, I basically "restarted" the entire business. I had a newer, cleaner business model and there was less stuffs. Less created more and by 2017. I had hit my first big milestone which was making more than $10k per month. This brings me to my first valuable lesson which every self-publisher must acknowledge.
For the newer publishers, createspace was the platform to publishg paperbacks in the past.

1. Fundamentals are Everything.

By scrapping everything down, it was possible to simplify. It was a huge tangled ball of chaos before. Publishing 10 books costed me a ton of time. By simplifying and breaking things down into a step-by-step fashion, I knew what comes after research, what comes before description writing and all the nitty gritty details of the business.

By reviewing what was done and looking at the results like a scientist, I was able to drill down to what's most important.

Back then, it was:

1. Research
2. Book cover
3. Description
4. Reviews
5. Publishing more books

Obviously, from 2017 to 2020, MANY things have changed and so the priorities have greatly shifted as well... (more about that in future articles). Publishing books after books wasn't a problem at all. I could keep going and going and going. Ultimately, I had about 100+ books (in 2017). I thought that if 1 book made $100 then 100 books would make me $10,000, right? Well... I got a little lucky and it worked out well. The truth is that the top 10 books made up more than 90% of the revenue. You can check out the screenshot above and notice the number of books sold.

Even though many things changed, mastering the fundamentals is timeless. It will never get too old or too new. The best basketball players are masters in their fundamentals. Watch any documentaries of top athletes and you'll understand how deep they drill their fundamentals in.

Here's some practical ways to master your fundamentals in publishing.

Break down your entire publishing process. 

Then, observe what's most important. Make it step 1... step 2 etc. This is not the easiest or fastest thing to do but this is will bring you so much enlightenment. You'll find yourself getting addicted and breaking through to the next level again, and again, and again.

Remove wastes. 

It's not what we do that determines the success of our publishing business. It's a lot about what we don't do as well. Of course, start off by removing all the grey and black hat methods to get reviews, traffic and sales. Then, remove all the wastes that produce very little output. It's usually the rocks in our bags that are pulling us down, not our ability to climb.

Focus on what matters. 

Once you've done this process, you'll start to understand why the emphasis on fundamentals are so important. Using social media is cool and fun but seriously, what results does it bring? Doing everything isn't that far off from doing nothing.

Get better at the fundamentals. 

If there's one thing you must improve dramatically, that is writing book descriptions. Sure, you can outsource it. However, if you don't know the ingredients and make-up of an amazing book description, outsourcing it will destroy your business. By the way, this is ONE of many other things. Fundamentals is key.

Ensuring quality control. 

One mistake I made when scaling up was not setting up cheatsheets, checklists and systems fast enough. Here's why. Every book must be better than the previous one. This includes everything from what readers see before they buy till what they see after they buy. Without systems and quality control, you're creating a heck of a mess. It's impossible to ensure quality without control systems. Even pilots have checklists every single time before they take-off.

If you just do the above 5 steps, your publishing business will transform dramatically. How it operates 6 months from now will be drastically different. It will be an evolved machine.

Now... a little bit more storytelling...

When 2018 kinda sets in, competition just keeps flooding in and flooding in. Review swaps is a thing of the past now and what remains are people who simply won't give up. Audiobooks were on the rise and even though people don't credit them enough, the Mikkelsen Twins popped up on YouTube. When I noticed the new way that people "read" books, I took audiobooks seriously and never looked back. This brings me to point 2 which is...

2. Publish Audiobooks.

Entering 2018, eBooks is now a thing of the past and was already a norm. Most companies were selling eBooks and it seriously isn't anything new anymore. Think of iPod when it first came out and today... (where it no longer exist). Anyway, I noticed that there's still a bunch of publishers who don't publish audiobooks and even if they do, made a ton of mistakes. Through my own mistakes and other people's mistakes, below are some key takeaways that you will benefit from.

Publish audiobooks. 

Wait, what?! What do you mean, Tommy? Well... publish an audiobook almost no matter what. Here's what I mean. Have an erotica book? Publish the audiobook version. Have a cookbook? Publish the audiobook version. Be ready to welcome your entire catalogue of eBooks and paperback books with audiobooks. Of course, for those that makes sense like self-help books, you should already have the audiobook version published... right?

Using PFH vs royalty share. 

This mistake costed me tens of thousand of dollars. PFH (per-finished-hours) is when you pay the narrator upfront for the final work. So if the final audiobook is 1 hour long and the PFH is $50, you pay $50. Simple, right? Royalty share is a cool one which you pay nothing up front and then share 50/50 net royalties with narrator (for freaking lifetime). Yeap, I made that mistake of wanting to save some bucks and went for royalty share for way too many of my audiobooks. Here's the key: Don't be dumbo like Tommy. Go for the PFH and invest some money up front. Think of the sales that you can generate in 10 years time. (although you can probably receive the returns in less than 1 month)

Audiobook bundle. 

Now, if you have royalty share, doing audiobook bundle is not possible. If you pay by PFH, you can bundle your audiobooks together and sell them. The reason why bundles sell so well is because Audible charges members $15 for 1 credit and that 1 credit can purchase any audiobooks. Therefore, the longer, "the more worth it". Plain and simple. Create a new cover, get a new opening and closing credits, and have all the mp3 files ready for the individual audiobooks and you are basically ready to publish. Don't forget the description, keywords and title too. It is simple, easy and profitable and there's no excuses for not doing this at all.

Fill in the 5-10 minutes and reach the next price tier. This is so important especially when publishing exclusively on ACX (which means publishing only on Amazon's audiobook platform). Using your previous book's chapter 1, get the narrator to narrate and position it as a sneak preview to your previous book. You never want to be stuck at 2 hours 58 minutes because your audiobook will be selling for $6.95 versus $14.95 once you've hit the 3 hours threshold. Simple and powerful tip which you'll be super thankful for.

Collect emails still. 

First things first, if you don't have a lead magnet, go get one. Next, collect emails using your lead magnet in your audiobook too. Get the narrator to properly spell out your url name and use bit.ly for shorter links if needed. You will be selling a lot of audiobooks and you don't want to miss capturing the reader's email address. You'll have a ton more listeners too if you go "wide" with your audiobook publishing. --> meaning to publish on other platforms other than Amazon. Therefore, make sure your machine is ready to maximize.

Now, if you publish audiobooks, you can choose Amazon's exclusivity contract. Most do it. But there's a huge problem. The contract is 7 years which means that for 7 years, you can only sell that audiobook on Amazon's platform. And who knows if they change the terms within that 7 years. Basically, you are trapped in Amazon's little game plan. What's the alternative? Well... that's the third point...

3. Publish Outside of Amazon.

Publishing outside of Amazon is perhaps the best things you can do in 2021 for yourself and your business. There's a ton of reasons. On a macro view, Amazon has become so huge that books are just a small segment of their business today. Other businesses have stepped up to compete against Amazon which was impossible in 2012-2015 when Amazon was the dominant player. Today, they are thriving.

Moreover, for things like audiobooks, many smaller companies have innovated and are now fierce competitors against Amazon's Audible. That's great news for us publishers... if we know how to capture the opportunity. Similarly for eBooks and paperback books, you are much better making your books non-exclusive on Amazon and earn $38.25 less on Amazon and make hundreds if not thousands more on aggregate platforms (publishing outside of Amazon). 

Well... that $38.25 is simply a random number to show how bad non-fiction books perform on Kindle Unlimited. Of course, some might make 1 cents more or 2 cents less. Jokes aside, here's some value bomb for you below:

Publishing your eBooks on Draft2Digital.

 I've tried 4 different aggregate platforms when it comes to publishing eBooks and without hesitation, Draft2Digital is the best. So, use them. The platform is super intuitive. Just google "draft2digital", sign up for an account and publish your eBooks there. Pro tip: call Amazon KDP hotline and get them to get all your books off their Kindle Unlimited program right away. They will probably deny your request if you email them.

Publishing your paperback books on Draft2Digital. 

This is still in beta mode as of 2020 August. I'm inside the program for at least half a year now. From what I've observed, you'll probably be accepted if you are making more than $2k per month on their platform. Nevertheless, if you have a large catalogue of books, no harm emailing their support and asking. It's a little bit different but you'll generate minimally several hundreds extra from this. Remember to buy me a cup of coffee when that happens.

Publishing your paperback books on IngramSpark. 

This will be responsible for making you extra thousands if not tens of thousands of dollars more. And it requires no marketing efforts on your side. So long as your fundamentals are great, publishing your non-fiction books on IngramSpark will be a super huge win for you. Before publishing, you need ISBNs which you can get from www.myidentifiers.com. Don't even hesitate, it'll be worth it. I recommend going for at least 100 ISBNs for $575. Ideally, go for 1,000 ISBNs for $1500 if it makes sense to you. Next, you'll need a promo code to publish every book for free on IngramSpark which you'll get by becoming a member of ALLi. I'll save you 10 seconds of googling by inputting it here: https://www.allianceindependentauthors.org/member-benefits/. If you don't get this, you'll need to pay $49 per book published which will add up if you have at least 100 books. Still, it is worth it even if you pay that $49.

Publishing your audiobooks on FindAway Voices. 

Of course, if your books are already exclusive then let go and move on. Don't try to take it down forcefully or do anything funny. Just give yourself the gift of aggregate platforms and a more stable stream of income for your next book(s). It is EXTREMELY IMPORTANT that you understand that the results you get from publishing your audiobooks on aggregate platforms like FindAway Voices and Authors' Republic (another platform) is going to be painfully slow. So, be excruciatingly patient. The patience will be worth it IF you've nailed your publishing processes and the fundamentals.

All in all, nothing works unless the fundamentals are well taken care of. Most self-publishers never improve on their covers, descriptions, outlines and all the building blocks to their book(s) anymore after going through the process once or twice. Things don't just happen, things happen just. If you're not getting the results you want with your publishing business, it's probably simply because there's a hole (or many holes) in your pipe (processes, systems). To end off this article...

A great publishing business is created by design, not by default. -- Tommy Kok

Thanks for reading and hope this article is valuable for you!

Tommy Kok


Tommy Kok helps people start and scale successful book publishing businesses.  After 500 books published and 5 years of experience, his advice holds water. 

If you're interested in starting your own publishing business or scaling up and publish profitably then definitely reach out and request a free strategy session today.
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