The Case for Writing a Book Even If It Sells No Copies

The benefits of the process plus Amazon's amazing self-publishing platform.

Posted Feb 14, 2019

Alpha Stock Images, CC 3.0
Source: Alpha Stock Images, CC 3.0

I’ve written 11 books, most published by Wiley, Random House’s Ten Speed Press, etc. Yet perhaps surprisingly, I feel best about the few I self-published using Amazon’s CreateSpace and its Kindle Direct. And here’s the punchline: That’s true even though those self-published books have sold far worse than my commercially published ones.

Especially today, when most publishers will look only at agented submissions—and it’s hard to get a respected agent—I believe it’s usually wise to write for self-publication, even if you've previously written books that have sold well. Indeed, I made that choice with four of my five most recent books. (I couldn’t refuse the opportunity to write another for Dummies book. The brand is too helpful. It's Careers for Dummies.)

Why am I so high on self-publishing?

The process

When you write for a publisher, it’s a partnership with your editor, with the latter having final say about everything: the book’s structure, content, cover, etc. Of course, you have input but, unless you're a big-time author, the editor ends up with most of the decision-making power.

In contrast, when self-publishing, you have complete control. Yet if you want input, you, of course, can get it from people you select to read a draft and/or with a consultation from an editor or book packager.

Whether self-published or not, if writing comes relatively easily to you, it's worth writing a book for other reasons:

  • You clarify your thoughts on the subject.
  • You learn a lot from your research.
  • You get to work on a long series of small but solvable challenges that culminate in a major achievement: a book.

So even if you don’t sell a single copy, all those process benefits can make writing a book more worthwhile than how most people spend their discretionary time.

Thanks to Amazon CreateSpace and Kindle Direct, you can easily take your Microsoft Word manuscript and convert it into a print and a Kindle book with a beautiful cover. CreateSpace has a remarkably easy-to-use set of cover templates—you’ll have a professional looking cover in just minutes. (You might want to have a book designer massage your Microsoft Word file into a version that will look good in print and a version that will look good on Kindle.)

And then there’s the time-saving. With CreateSpace, you go from completed manuscript to publication on Amazon.com in just a few days, with your new book in your hot little hands just a week or two later. In contrast, with most publishers, it can take months after submission until the editor finally approves the manuscript and six months to a year after that before the book is published. And occasionally the publisher changes its mind and decides, after all your work, to not publish it at all!

The outcomes

Even most books that are published by a reputable publisher sell poorly unless of course, you’re a household name or have a major platform, like a nationally popular show or column.

But even assuming you don’t sell a single copy, your book is a great gift to give to friends, relatives, clients, colleagues, and, if you're a job seeker, to prospective employers. And Amazon’s policy is that you can buy your book, in quantities of even just 1 at remarkably low cost, like $3 for a 200-page book with full-color cover and black-and-white interior.

And chances are you will sell some copies. Books self-published using Amazon get posted in major wholesaler catalogs and on Amazon.com so it’s easy to tell your friends how they can effortlessly buy it. And you’ll certainly sell some if you do even a bit of marketing: emailing the Amazon link to your friends and on your social media, giving a reading at a local library or bookstore, throwing a book launch party—whatever feels pleasurable for you.

Yet another benefit of the Amazon platform is that you get to keep 70% of the sales, unlike with a publisher, which usually pays you just 5 to 10%.

The takeaway

Even if I knew in advance that my next book would sell no copies, I’d write it for those process benefits: the challenging project, the learning, speed of publication, and control of what ended up in my book. And unless a respected publisher threw serious dollars at me, I’d self-publish. I encourage you to do the same. Write on!