How to build a 6 figure side business by self publishing books

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4 years ago I was broke, looking for a job after 7 failed years as an entrepreneur. Things have changed since, which is great but perhaps the most surprising is the business I’ve built through self publishing books. In the last 2 years I’ve written 4 books and turned them into a stand alone 6-figure side business. I never considered for a second that I would be a writer / author so it feels pretty wild.

I was recently asked to talk at the Dynamite Circle event in Bangkok on the topic of self-publishing (The 6-figure self publishing side hustle), and I thought I’d share the lessons here also, as well as my slides (available at the end of this post).

Here are all the topics covered in this post, you can click on the topic to go down the page to the content.

Getting ideas for your book

When I think about generating ideas for books I think about it as a two step process. First is how to do you think of book ideas in the first place, and second is how do you choose a good idea from all the ideas you have.

Coming up with ideas

Here are some ways to come up with book ideas and some examples from my books.

  • Community: Go to your peers and communities and see what sort of content or information they’re crying out for, or otherwise ask them directly. The 7 Day Startup Facebook group has been a huge influence in all of my books.
  • Traction/extension: Maybe you’ve recently published a blog post or had a podcast that generated a lot of interest and feedback. This may be a clue as to a good idea or topic to write about that would do well. I see books come to fruition using this method all the time. The book I am reading right now, Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of not giving a f*ck, was originally one of his most viral blog posts.
  • Inspiration: I like to surround myself with positive and inspirational people and content. Perhaps an inspirational quote may be the trigger for coming up with the perfect idea.
  • Expertise: If you’re a subject matter expert or have a skill or aptitude for something, it may be logical to write a book about it. My first two books, The 7 Day Startup and Content Machine, were founded on my experiences in successfully starting up a business on the fly and leveraging off the benefits of content marketing.
  • Relax: Put yourself in the right headspace for coming up with ideas. A relaxing environment free of distractions will help get your ideas flowing if you find yourself struggling with where to take things. Stanford researchers found that going for a walk can improve creativity by as much as 60%. Many of my best content ideas have come from one of my regular morning beach walks. Scott Barry Kaufman Ph.D, a cognitive psychologist and creativity expert, found that 72% of people experience new ideas in the shower. Do whatever you need to do to relax, and your creative juices will flow.
  • In person: Meeting inspiring people and hearing their stories has always been very motivating for me.

Here is how the ideas for my 4 books came about.

7 Day Startup – My first book started out as a blog post series where we launched a new business in 7 days. The concept got traction so I decided to write a book about it.

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Content Machine – My second book came as a result of telling our story of building WP Curve to a $1m business with $0 in advertising, using content marketing alone. This story got traction and eventually I decided to write a book about it.

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Operation Brewery – Last year me and my 2 mates landed a deal to brew the official beer for Call of Duty Black Ops III. The story of us doing that and using the momentum to go on and build our own brewery became my 3rd book Operation Brewery.

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Create or Hate – The idea for my current book, Create Or Hate, came about partly as a result of the Ricky Gervais quote below on creative inspiration.

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Choosing a good idea

Once you’ve got a bunch of killer ideas to choose from, you’ll need to choose which one is best for becoming a book. Here is a framework which I have applied to help me in choosing my final ideas.

  • Is it a neatly packaged idea? I like my books to become brands in their own right. Something that is easily transferrable and something I can build a business around. A short phrase that describes what it’s all about is preferable to a 1-word title or a long title.
  • Does it need to be written? Don’t write a book to use as a business card. Only write a book if it needs to be written. Unless you can bring a new slant or alternative viewpoint to the table, you may need to consider an alternative idea.
  • Can you build a brand around it? I like to choose a name that I think I could re-purpose into some sort of business if I wanted to. 7 Day Startup could be into education, info products, memberships, Content Machine could be a software app or content marketing service. Whether I choose to monetize them or not, I do want to have that option because if it’s an idea that I feel I could build something bigger around, it’s a good sign that it’s an idea that can spread as a book as well.
  • Is it a strong ‘why? Do you have a good reason to write a book on this idea or are you doing it just to make money or just to use as a business card? Pick the idea with the strongest ‘why’.
  • Domain availability. It always pays to check on this upfront. If your ideal domain name is already taken you may need to consider your options. I paid $5,000 for ContentMachine.com, I got 7daystartup.com for free and createorhate.com was available ($8).
  • Is it a good story? Books that are purely actionable or technical don’t really work for me. Which idea presents the best opportunity for you to weave a unique story into it?
  • There is no blueprint. This is something I tell people all the time who ask me how to make the book they’ve just written into a best-seller. There is no such thing as a blueprint that shows you how to turn a crappy product into a best-seller. You need to have a great product to begin with. You can’t look at marketing in isolation to the idea.

Writing process and tips

How my books were written

Most of the words for my books were written away from my normal working environment. I find that putting myself out of my regular location and routine works best for my writing process.

My first book, The 7 Day Startup, was written over a few weeks at an old table in my backyard, which I’d never worked at before and have never worked at since. Plane flights have worked well for me too when it comes to churning out the words. The first 12,000 words of Content Machine were written on a 6-hour flight to Singapore and the first 20,000 words of Operation Brewery came together across 2 plane flights. The first 5,000 words for Create Or Hate came to me on another plane flight. For the rest of the book, I set myself the challenge of completing it on day 6 of one of my recent 7 Day Startup Challenges.

Writing tips

Here are a few simple guidelines that have served me well when writing all of my books.

Decide upfront how many words you want to write and make sure that hitting your 100% word count target is your only goal. When writing a book I constantly track my progress with word count, even if it’s just at 5%. I call this my ‘vomit draft’ and I don’t focus on anything else to do with the book until I’ve met my first draft deadline at 100% word count.

As mentioned already, stepping out of my regular work environment and routine has served me well for staying inspired and focused. You don’t have to necessarily jump on a plane, simply put yourself into whatever new, distraction-free environment that works best for unleashing your inner writing beast.

Another thing I like to do with my book content is to publish bite-sized chunks of it prior to releasing the book. I enjoy publishing content and having to wait 6 months before being able to release something tends to de-motivate me. In the lead up to a book launch, I like to publish relevant content from it, typically in the form of blog posts or Instagram quotes. This will help build up anticipation and generate interest in your pending best seller. However, the main reason I do it personally is to keep my motivation full during the writing process. It also increases the external pressure to get the book out. Self-imposed deadlines and external pressure are great motivators.

I shared the entire Create or Hate book via the comments in Instagram in the months leading up to the launch.

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Write at a frequency that works best for you to meet your word count deadline. Some people advocate writing every day, whereas I prefer writing in intense, highly focussed blocks.

I find it beneficial to set myself deadlines and really push myself to complete my word count. Unless you’re super disciplined or write every day out of habit, your timeframe will blow out and you run the risk of losing your focus and motivation for getting it finished. I normally set myself a clear launch deadline pretty early on. For Operation Brewery we had pre-sold the book in our crowdfunding campaign so there was a lot of external pressure there. That was a hard book to write and I’m not sure if would have come together if we hadn’t pre-sold 150 copies before I wrote the first word!

Editing Fuck editing!

Yes that’s probably being a bit harsh! But for me, editing is more of a necessary evil rather than something I embrace as part of the process. I like to keep it as streamlined as possible, having just a few trusted editors on board to help me with getting it to final draft. Having an extra set of trained eyes to review your work is necessary, but too much input can mess with your vision and blow out your timeframe. Editing is a painful process and I don’t have a huge amount of value to give here on how to make it less painful. I have had a lot of great help for my books which is great but it’s still the most difficult and least enjoyable part of the process.

Nailing your design

A lot of people told me they loved the Create or Hate cover design and they asked who my designer was. But that’s the wrong question. Great design doesn’t come about by delegating the responsibility to a ‘great designer’, it comes about through a vision from an entrepreneur and a collaboration with a great designer.

It doesn’t happen via design competitions and putting 5 options on Facebook for your friends to choose from.

With the front cover image for Create Or Hate, I came up with the concept myself then sourced a quality designer with the expertise to bring it to life. It was about differentiating myself from a lot  of the other creatively themed business books out there. I wanted a striking image that could convey what the book was about, rather than going with a dry, word-heavy title. My designer Camille Manley did an epic job in the end, but she was my second designer and start to finish I probably went through 50 versions before there was that felt like what I wanted. I didn’t show anyone looking for feedback or permission, I just chose it. And it wasn’t cheap!

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Having a professional looking design is also the #1 hack for helping build immediate trust for anything in business. As the saying goes, you only get one chance to make a good first impression, which is why I don’t mind spending extra time and money on getting this right.

When choosing the titles of my books, I look for a phrase that describes what the book is about, but which can also become a brand or business in its own right. The 7 Day Startup is a succinct, brandable name which steers clear of wordy, generic titles or clever one-word titles that look good on the shelf but make it hard to build a brand around. This ends up helping the design process out a lot because it’s much easier to design around a short 2-3 word phrase than a long wordy title. 

How to format a book for Amazon and CreateSpace

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There’s a bunch of great tools out there to help you with formatting your book.

I use Adobe InDesign for the design and layout of the print version of all of my books. It’s easy to use and allows you to present a professional look and feel.

I use CreateSpace, which is an Amazon-owned on-demand publishing platform. So when someone orders one of my books on Amazon, it’s printed right then and sent. You don’t have to pre-print thousands of books.

My formatter Chris also uses Jutoh, a flexible ebook creator, to reformat my books so that they are compatible with Kindle and Mobi, which is used by Amazon.

If you want to look at selling books into bookshops either now or in the future, you generally need a higher internal design standard. You also need to make sure your books are formatted in universal sizes. The sizes I use are 6 x 9 inches for normal books and 5 x 8 inches for Create or Hate (small book). Word count might also become something to think about. My books are all pretty short (15,000, 30,000, 40,000 and 45,000), books in book shops tend to be 50,000 to 60,000 plus.

Related: 11 (mostly) free self publishing tools for your next best seller.

Launching and marketing your book

Here are a few key things that I did to market my books.

Book Marketing Canvas

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The Book Marketing Canvas is a one page, high-level book strategy template.

It’s an adaptation of Alexander Osterwalder’s business model canvas or more recently Ash Maurya’s lean canvas, which are one-page business models for startups.

Read more about it here.

Landing page

Building a landing page is fairly simple these days with tools like OptimizePress, which is what I used for both my Black Hops: Operation Brewery and Create Or Hate book landing pages. I like the 100% customizability and control over the design. If you aren’t super techy, something like LeadPages might be a simpler option.

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Email list

I use Drip for delivering automated email sequences around book related milestones and announcements, both pre and post launch. I also use it to communicate with book Ambassadors to create a personable, trusting relationship so that they feel inspired to help spread the word once the book hits.

KDP Giveaway

As I’m already using CreateSpace then it also makes sense to tap into Amazon Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) for the e-book side of things.

I use a process called KDP Select where I give my books away for the first few days. This allows my audience to read the book and leave a review. This helps it rank well in the free store, giving it some momentum when it goes over to paid.

Related: The complete guide to book marketing (how to launch a book to #1 on Amazon)

Sharing page

This is how a sharing page looks. I make it super easy for people to share the news of the launch with Click to Tweet and Facebook buttons and clear instructions. You can check out the Operation Brewery one here.

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Amazon reviews

Getting people to review your book on Amazon is vital for drumming up interest and credibility. Part of the strategy behind my pre-launch KDP giveaway for Create Or Hate was to get a bunch of reviews up early, so that when it officially became available there was some momentum behind it. You can learn more about this process in this in-depth article on book marketing which I had my marketing guy Tom Morkes write when he launched my first book.

Book content cross promotion

Get the word out there via whatever social media platforms are at your disposal. For Create Or Hate I released the entire book via a stream of posts on Instagram in the months leading up to the launch. Blog posts and podcast interviews are also effective ways to cross to promote your book.

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Testimonials board

I’ve created a testimonials board in Trello which I use to keep a record of any positive feedback I receive from readers. I can then choose from the best of these testimonials to build trust and credibility on the landing page and the Amazon page. The other thing I do with particularly positive testimonials is to add them to future editions of the book as they are printed or formatted. Create or Hate is already getting re-done right now with some testimonials from early readers.

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Thunderclap

I used tweet-automation service Thunderclap for the launch of Content Machine. The campaign got a lot of support but I’m not sure if automated bulk tweets in this way is the best way to use your audience’s attention these days. I prefer more organic methods but it’s something to look at if you like.

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Sales page

When my books go live, I convert my email opt-in page into a sales page so that people can buy it or link off to the Amazon page. This is all done in OptimizePress.

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Amazon page

Make sure you also optimize your Amazon listing page including adding early reviews to Author Central, having a compelling title and copy and nice cover.

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Upviral

Upviral is a rewards based content sharing tool where people who opt in are encouraged to share the news on your book and earn rewards. For Create or Hate I gave away copies of my previous books to get people sharing. The person who won the competition was responsible for 51 people opting into the email opt-in page. Overall I think the results were pretty underwhelming and I probably wouldn’t do it again although we were rushed and it was a bit of a bonus.

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Product Hunt

All of my books have had thousands of visits on Product Hunt, a listing site for discovering and sharing new products. If you can get on there and rank it can be a huge boost. When it’s worked well for me, it’s been someone in my community who’s added it in there and I haven’t pushed the promotion too hard myself.

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Monetization

Here is a list of potential income streams to tap into once your book launches, along with the exact amount of money I have made from these streams in the last 12 months (in Australian dollars).

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  • Amazon sales – Once the book goes from free to paid, you can make a bit of money on Amazon. I’ve made just over $20,000, mainly because a few of my books have ranked very well consistently on there.
  • Online sales – If you can sell books direct yourself, you will get a better margin. The only book I’ve sold direct so far is Operation Brewery but I am moving to selling all of my books direct. The main reason is to get the customers into my own systems but I also suspect I’ll make a little bit more money overall.
  • Audible – I haven’t yet done audiobooks but it’s on the agenda. I’ve heard from authors like James Altucher that this is a no brainer.
  • Translations – My translation agency 2 Seas has sold a lot of transactions for The 7 Day Startup and Content Machine. The total revenue to me in the last 12 months was over $35,000.
  • Create Space – Selling physical books on Amazon also results in royalty cheques from their printing arm CreateSpace, in my cast just under $10k.
  • Membership – I have sold just under $50,000 of memberships into My mastermind group in the last 12 months. The best part of this is it’s also annual recurring revenue, whereas some of the other income streams like translations probably won’t last as long.
  • Info products – I haven’t sold info products but this would be a very easy way to monetize a book. If you can create $5 of value for someone I’m sure you can create a few hundred dollars in value via a bigger course for example.
  • Public speaking – I have personally never spoken for money and don’t aim to ever monetize via this. But if public speaking is your thing, it’s a very logical way to monetize from the authority of being a best-selling author.
  • Physical sales – We sell physical copies of Operation Brewery at the Black Hops Brewery. This has been a nice little addition to our revenue but also a great way to tell our story and offer something personal and unique.
  • Bookshop distribution – I am in the process of working with http://bookboffin.com/Linda Diggle on getting a deal with a book distributor in Australia. This will be an additional income stream with my books being available in Australian bookshops.

My goal over the next year is just to maintain this 6-figure business as I have other things to focus on. But I do want to increase the membership sales and direct book sales and become less reliant on Amazon.

Results

Here are some overall results for all of my books. These might be useful for your own benchmarking.

  • 4 books published in 2 years
  • 55,000 total orders (25,000 free)
  • 680 reviews across .com, .com.au and .co.uk at 4.8 average
  • 11 translations sold
  • All books hit #1 in at least 1 category in the paid listings
  • Distribution deal coming

I think it’s always useful to see some exact numbers from launches for when you plan your own. Here is a snapshot of how Create Or Hate has been performing so far:

  • 11,742 free downloads in the first week 
  • Sold over 700 copies since it went to paid
  • Ranked #1 in Creativity and #2 in Innovation
  • 117 reviews on amazon.com, co.uk and .com.au at 4.9 average
  • 30+ unsolicited testimonials

And check out what a few hardcore fans have been up to – real people made stuff! This is always a good sign that you are onto something.

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Self-publishing tools

Here is a list of self-publishing tools, most of which are free, that I’ve used to get my books out there.

I covered most of these off in detail in a recent blog post here.

  • Facebook Groups – my 7 Day Startup free group has been huge. 
  • WordPress – keep the content going through the book writing and marketing process. 
  • Dribbble – Great place for finding world class designers. 
  • Google Docs – The software I’ve used to write all of my books (and every other doc in the last 5 or so years). 
  • Trello – Great for book planning, project management, and testimonial storage. 
  • Thunderclap – Automated tweets and Facebook posts from your audience. 
  • Upviral – Incentivized sharing. 
  • Drip – User-friendly email marketing automation. 
  • OptimizePress / LeadPages – Tools for building landing pages. 
  • InDesign – Adobe product for designing the internals of books. 
  • Jutoh – For taking the InDesign file and turning it into ebook formats for multiple platforms. 
  • Amazon KDP – Amazon service I use for publishing the books and running the free launch period. 
  • CreateSpace – Amazon’s own print on demand service. 

Helpful people and content

Download the slides

How to build a 6 figure side business with self publishing from Dan Norris

Here are the slides and some other resources:

If you have any comments or questions please feel free to ask them in the comments below and if you are interested in launching your own busines, check out my free course and worksheet.

  • Oh my god Dan. This is outrageous

  • Paul Brice

    I’m with Kelly. Awesome round up Dan. Super helpful post and like all content, it looks like getting the words on paper is about 10% of the journey. The hard part looks to come after you hit your word count.

    • Thanks! It’s all pretty fun and all hard in its own way. I don’t actually enjoy the marketing side that much. For create or hate i did very little marketing

  • TrueEntrepreneur

    Dan, what a fan-bloody-tastic post. Not sure if I should look forward to finishing a book or feel really daunted, but thanks for laying this out for me.

  • Tom

    Wow man. Bravo. Can’t think of a person who is more deserving. Love seeing this success. Oh, and LOVE the graph / graphic (on how you scaled up your revenue from your book) – I’d love to share this with my audience if that’s okay 😀

    • Go for it mate, thanks for your support getting it all going!

  • Amazing post, Dan. Thank you so much for including me!

    • Legend thanks for the great support mate.

  • Brilliant post – thanks Dan. Will be sharing it WIDELY.

  • Thanks for sharing Dan.

    I was *hoping* you’d pull back the curtain on this side hustle and the universe (personified as a red-headed, beer drinking, curse word uttering Aussie) delivered! 😀

    I see a lot of myself in you…4 years ago I was totally broke too…

    Anyway, this passage in particular resonated with me “Only write a book if it needs to be written.” It’s like a vision statement.

    You see, I’ve been re-reading the Steve Jobs biography and it strikes me more than ever that the difference between a great creation and the myriad of mediocre creations is the right vision.

    It’s subtle, but writing a book for money is going to show in the resulting creation. Writing a book because the world needs it and you actually give a sh*t…that’ll show too.

    • Truth except the red-headed part haha. that Steve Jobs book is bloody epic. The Elon book is even better.

  • Insanely great post Dan—we are honored to represent your work into the global publishing markets and you inspire us with each new book.

  • Dan, really good stuff here. You have the knack for delivering a ton of details in a readable way. I was interested to see the word count in your books. A range of 30,000 words. I’m wondering what the sweet spot is.