On Becoming a (Self) Publisher

In Digital by Nick Ruffilo

By Nick Ruffilo

Nick Ruffilo

Nick Ruffilo

I’ve been involved in publishing startups for the a little over six years now and have participated in quite a few “publishers don’t get startups” and “startups don’t get publishing” discussions. After offering my opinion, I realized that I couldn’t honestly say I knew what it was like to be a publisher. I’ve never worked for a publisher, and beyond being the producer of the webcomic “Amazing Super Zeroes,” I’ve never directly participated in the publishing process.

With the help of numerous people, to whom I owe many bottles of wine, I took a journey to create a small publishing empire. Below is a high level overview of my adventure, the lessons I’ve learned, and some tips/tools I found.

Publishing is Difficult

Whether you are self-publishing, a publisher, or doing any other type of content sales, it is hard. Very hard. Some self-publishing super-stars tout the benefits of being independent and show sales numbers from their latest book as results of success. They often fail to show the years of work it took them to build the writing skills, build the audience, and put together the team necessary to publish a successful book. Yes, even self-publishing folks need a team. You need an editor, a cover designer, a web-designer (to make your blog and/or style your author pages on Amazon/GoodReads, etc).

The Easy Part — Writing

Not to say that writing is easy, but I was shocked at how easy it was for me to actually write. I personally love to write – more than coding, management, and probably equally as much as starting new companies. While the process of writing took quite a bit of time, I had full control and my passion made it easy to write. For my experiment, I wanted to set up a few different types of content. While not all books are finalized, below are a list of titles that should be released, if not by the time you read this, then soon:

  • Epic One – Episode One: A collaborative writing project, the first to come out of SharedEpic.com
  • Amazing Super Zeroes – Episode One: The full-comic edition of the Amazing Super Zeroes Webcomic (see web version)
  • Amazing Super Zeroes – Web Archive (not yet published): The full web-archive in digital format (206 strips) of Amazing Super Zeroes.
  • HTML5 Possibilities: A collection of HTML5 examples to provide creative ideas for those dealing with interactive ebook creation.
  • Zen of Technology – Managing Your Inbox (not yet published): Non-fiction guide on how to manage your email to reduce stress, maximize productivity, and maximize happiness
  • Unlocking the Power of HTML5 – Presentation Code: The source code to a presentation I did for Digital Book World on HTML5/CSS/Javascript.

The Hidden Value – Editing

Epic oneI owe a great deal to all of the editors I’ve worked with. While I can read through something I’ve written and find grammar and spelling mistakes, editors can take a detached look at your work and craft it. Editing can make or break a good book. My first cut at the Zen of Technology mini-guide seemed to have all the right information, but after I got my editors comments, I realized that I could be adding much more value.

I was lucky to know a few editors who were willing to help me with these experiments, but if you need to find an editor, there are services like BiblioCrunch that help you find editors for your project.


My experiments were published in multiple formats, in multiple channels. I had a reflowable mobi file for Amazon, a zip-archive of HTML/CSS/Javascript which I sold direct via Gumroad and through the DBW ebook store, a fixed-format KF8 sold through Amazon, as well as many fixed-format web-books sold direct through Aerbook.

There is not one tool that suited all my needs, but I found the process of packaging/creating my ebook (once I had my assets ready) quite simple. All my fixed-format books were created using Aerbook. I created reflow books using Microsoft Word (then imported into Amazon) and Pressbooks – both quite easy if I didn’t want to do anything complex with design. For my presentation, that was hand-coded in UltraEdit.


AmazingSuperZeroesWhile there are many wonderful services, such as Ingram Spark, that really make distribution simple, for my experiment, I wanted to do things manually. Selling direct was very easy to set up. For Gumroad, I created an account, put in some payment information, then uploaded a file. From there, I just needed to send out a link to the buy page. They even paid me every week (as long as there was money to be paid). Aerbook was similarly easy. Once my content was created, I enabled the Cloud Reader, then set my price.

Amazon was reasonably easy as well. Amazon did not require I submit an ISBN, but I did (more on that later).

The most difficult part of submission was creating quality metadata. There is no lack of both digital and print content on any of the retailers websites, so getting found, and then convincing customers to buy your content once they find it takes work (more on this in the marketing section).

Generating Sales – AKA Marketing and PR

This is the hardest part by far. Also – you won’t go viral. Very few non-free content goes viral. Fifty Shades of Grey is a black swan, and it won’t happen to your book (if it does, wonderful, but don’t ever expect it).

Since marketing was never my strong point, I asked the advice of quite a few book marketers and boiled down their notes into the following:

Do everything you can afford to put yourself ahead of others.

  • Get a Professional Cover – People will judge your book by its cover. If your book comes up in a search result, you want it to convey quality, grab their eye, and make them click.
  • Get and ISBN – This is hard to quantify the exact value, but for books with little sales data (just released) Amazon seems to favor books with ISBNs (if you’re willing to purchase and give a book an ISBN you must know more than someone who isn’t?). Additionally, Google considers ISBN a high-value keyword as it is authoritative, which helps SEO. Lastly – if you want to do anything with print, you need an ISBN.
  • Plan Your Brand – If you plan on publishing more than one book, you want all of them to link to one another, you want consistency in your approach, etc.
  • Create a Presence Everywhere – Get an ISNI, create an author page on Amazon, create an author page on GoodReads, once you have both of those, create a Wikipedia page (or pay someone to create one for you).

Marketing is extremely time consuming. Setting up an interesting author bio will help to sell your works. Readers follow authors, which helps to build your platform. It also shows that you care about your writing and your readers.

Want to see what good metadata looks like? Check out best-selling author-brands like Debbie Macomber or James Patterson. Between the book descriptions and author bio, they have pages set up to sell.

Special Note on KDP Select

Amazon offers a program called KDP (Kindle Direct Publishing) Select. It provides you with few benefits, such as 5 promotion days where you can offer your content for free, a free listing in their lending library, and you get better royalty rate. The drawback is that you pledge a 90-day exclusive for your content. Certain publishers can do free promotions without being in KDP Select, but small and self publishers can only do promotions through Select.

As this was an experiment, I decided to give it a try. I also decided to advertise on eBookFling’s free-book email as a way to get the word out on launch day. While it was a success (numbers below), I did a few things wrong.

Free Promotions

Do not do a free promotion until you have at least 10 reviews. Getting 10 reviews may be difficult, but since you don’t need to purchase the book to review, you can usually get a few reviews simply by e-mailing your personal network and asking them to write some reviews (provided they have read the book, of course). Why 10? Because that is the magical number that I kept hearing from book marketers is the number that works.

Plan your free promotion. Amazon gives you 24 hours. All those free downloads count towards your Amazon Sales Rank, so your book can get thrown at the top of the list in your categories of choice as well as the top kindle downloads (which many people use for book discovery).

Get as many press mentions as you can and line them up for your free promotion. Keep in mind that most blogs with any notable traffic have at least a 1-week lead-time on posts, so approaching them the day before is useless.

By The Numbers

I collected enough data to fill a handful of white papers, but I’ll share some of the highlights below.

Free Campaign

Book: Epic One – Episode One
Marketing: eBookFling email, post on Digital Book World for launch of SharedEpic.com
Cost: (List Price $11.95, I got a reasonable discount)
Total Free Downloads: 2179
Top Amazon Sales Rank: #88 top free, #2 Science Fiction, #2 Adventure
Resulting Sales (trailing week): 17 sales, 2 borrows.

I tried doing the free promotion on launch day, which was a mistake. I should have waited until I had 10 reviews first. I only had 3 reviews at the time the promotion ran. Not exactly sure how things would have turned out, but after speaking with eBookFling, I had lower-than-average performance for my campaign.

An additional note on the follow-up sales: 17 is actually quite amazing since the content is given away for free on SharedEpic.com. Additionally, it is only part 1 of a book (so not an entire book). All this information is provided in the description as well as the sample (read inside) for the book. A full-length novel would see much higher post-promotion numbers. No other marketing for the book was done.

Selling Direct

Book: HTML5 Examples
Marketing: Co-published with Digital Book World, they advertised on their mailing list, I advertised on my twitter, as well as through webinars.
Views of Book Preview: 1330
Purchases: 17 ($259.18)
Conversion Rate: 1.28%
Direct Sale Partner: Aerbook.com

Book: Unlocking the Power of HTML5/CSS/Javascript Presentation
Marketing: This was offered to the attendees of a free web-presentation I gave, 400 registered, 150 attended. Also marketed via e-mail.
Views to Product Page: 122
Total Sales: 4 ($39.96)
Conversion Rate: 3.3%
Direct Sale Partner: Gumroad.com


The content I was selling was highly-specialized and highly niche content. The content was priced high yet still managed to have a reasonable conversion rate. I did not have any selling platform or marketing channels, which made selling direct difficult.


I knew going into this that marketing would be tough, and selling content would not be easy, but I was surprised at the value I found in the editing process. With good marketing, you can sell content, but good content is easier to sell and will help sustain sales. Only really good content and bad content get reviews. Reviews really help drive sales on Amazon and other major retailers.

By setting up a brand, and linking all my content, I’m setting myself up for easier publishing in the future. Through direct sales, I now have a list of e-mail addresses of purchasers that I can contact to sell future content. I can capitalize on the success of a free campaign on a new (or old) book to sell other books that are under my publisher (or me as an author). These take foresight – as I have to set things up now to work correctly.

There is so much more to the publishing process than writing a good story (fiction or nonfiction) and submitting your content for sale. In fact, that is only the start of a very long journey if you want your content to sell and be a commercial success. I have a full-time job, so I was unable to do things like set up blog tours, engage in GoodReads discussions, engage in twitter discussions, cross-promote, and do a bunch of other marketing techniques, but this was also an experiment, so I did not need my cheese sandwich, as the amazing Margaret Atwood would say.

DISCUSS: Is More Crowdsourced Editing Coming to Books?

About the Author

Nick Ruffilo

Nick Ruffilo is currently the CIO/CTO of Aerbook.com. He was previously Product Manager at Vook and CTO of BookSwim.