It was November 2012 and I was becoming desperate. I was in charge of organizing a panel for the Middle Eastern Studies Association annual conference, but panelists kept dropping out, forcing me to scramble and find last-second replacements. This was against the backdrop of juggling multiple part-time jobs. My wife and I were both teaching English to supplement my meager PhD stipend. We could barely teach enough to pay our bills. Whoever wasn’t working was looking after our 10-month-old. I was falling behind in my dissertation because I didn’t have enough time to research while simultaneously teaching hours of English lessons a day.
Fast forward six months. I was no longer teaching any English lessons but earning more than ever. I could take an unfunded research trip to Europe without worrying too much about expenses. We were even planning a two-week vacation in August. I would continue to earn money from my new job even though I wasn’t working.
Everything changed for me in December 2012 when I discovered self publishing on Amazon. I had written a popular history of the Middle East called “From Muhammed to Burj Khalifa: A Crash Course in 2,000 Years of Middle East History” and tried getting it published a number of different ways – from traditional publishing to web-only outfits. Nothing worked. I started hearing about opportunities in self-publishing but resisted. It was long stigmatized for being the realm of failed authors and conspiracy theorists. But then I learned that the royalty rate is 70% – approximately seven times higher that what a traditional author could ever hope to earn. They are even higher than an academic author’s total earning potential, which rarely rises above the triple digits due to paltry sales.
I figured I had nothing to lose, so I went over to Kindle Direct Publishing, formatted my Microsoft Word file for Amazon using this book, and paid a graphic designer five dollars to design a book cover (yes, only five dollars.) It was up and running. I then emailed everyone who would be even slightly interested and posted it all over Facebook.
In the first month I earned $900. It required no work beyond the initial upload. This was equivalent to 45 hours of English teaching. It earned even more the next month. Sales dipped into March and April, but I began working on two new book projects. They launched successfully in the spring. The link between hours worked and income started to dissolve in my mind.
I’ve never met an academic whose royalty checks do more than pad out their weekend beer fund. While I am not familiar with superstars of the social sciences, for most scholars, $500 per year is a good yearly haul for book royalties. Even a definitive book within a field will rarely move more than a few thousands copies, thanks to a pricing strategy that excludes almost anybody but a university library.
I’m not even a stand-out when it comes to academics finding success in self-publishing. One such success story on Amazon is Andrew Hartley, a Shakespeare scholar at the University of North Carolina. He has had tremendous success adapting MacBeth into a thriller, among many other novels. He has adapted it for audio and is now working on Hamlet. He taught Shakespeare in academia for 10 years before selling his first novel. Now he is able to pursue his passion in retelling the Bard as historical fiction with a Game of Thrones vibe to it, albeit with the accurate details of 11th century Scotland filled in.
The other benefit of writing ebooks on Amazon is the ease of spinning off books into other products. Amazon is affiliated with Createspace, a print-on-demand service. Any ebook can be turned into a print book with a little bit of formatting work. Since each book is printed to order, no physical inventory has to be kept. Amazon is also affiliated with Audible, an audiobook service. I worked with a voice narrator to turn my history books into audio books. We do a 50-50 royalty split (or to be more accurate, 20-20, since Amazon keeps the rest), but some months I earn nearly as much on audio books as I do on ebooks or print books. All in all, I regularly earn $3,000-$5,000/month with self publishing.
Self-publishing on Amazon isn’t perfect. It can take months or even years to become an established author. My story might sound like I struck lightning on the first try, but it only came after a year of rejection from other publishing outlets. Even if books are successful, they typically slip off the charts after a few months. They have to be resurrected by marketing pushes or a new book in the series. The only way to make steady earnings is to keep writing. Buoyancy can’t be maintained unless you continue to tread water.
But I can honestly say that the ratio of hours for dollars is better in self publishing than any other job I have ever done. Yes, I have to keep treading water, but it feels like keeping afloat in the saline-rich Dead Sea rather than the cement blocks that teaching English represents. Self-publishing has allowed me the flexibility to spent month-long burst of time working on my dissertation or a conference without worrying about finances.
In future podcast episodes and blog posts I will interview scholars who have had wild success with self publishing. Until then, feel free to post something in the comments below and we can keep the discussion going.