November 9, 2019 9:34 am

Old-school Typewriter
Norman Eng

From 2012 to 2015, I was toiling in academia.

The teaching. The planning. The grading. The emailing. The researching. The writing. Doing all the things I’m expected to do as a budding scholar.

Like many contingent professors, I naively thought that the PhD label would make me like TV’s “The Bachelor,” with several universities vying for my attention. Sure, my work was slowly building a foundation. But it wasn’t accelerating me toward professional recognition and success. Or financial stability.

The problem? I realized I was waiting to be chosen—by book publishers, journal editors, peer reviewers, and hiring/grant committees. Battling to get in just so the gatekeepers would accept me.

[Read that struggle in Part 1]

It was time, I decided, to choose myself.

I was going to publish the book I wanted to write (not the book I should write), massively impact the world, and break free from the shackles of academia. Go big or go home, right?

So I stopped caring about what hiring committees thought. If they only cared about books published by Pearson and Routledge, that was of my control. Like so many things in life. There was no way I would leave my fate to the hands of institutions anymore.

What better time to do this than now—when anyone can turn entrepreneurial?

So, first things first. I inventoried my knowledge and skills and asked myself: Could I, for instance:

    • help others write better papers?
    • develop better resumes?
    • research information?
    • increase their motivation and productivity?
    • copywrite?
    • engage students in the classroom?
    • present more effectively?

With 20 years of marketing and education under my belt, I was confident I could, at the very least, help the novices in those areas.

But there were other things in self-publishing to consider aside from the topic. So, I did the research. And the more I dug into the process, the more excited I got.

Self-publishing, I found, had two big advantages over traditional publishing: 1) higher royalty rates; and 2) much more freedom and control. Let me break it down.

Higher Royalty Rates

With traditional publishers, authors earn anywhere from five to fifteen cents royalty out of every dollar; so, on average, they make a dime. If my book retails for $25 and I sell 200 copies a year (which is not bad for a niche or academic book), I’ve earned $500 (1).

    • 10% royalty rate for a $25 book –> $2.50 per book
    • 200 copies sold –> $500 earned ($2.50 x 200)

While this isn’t bad, it isn’t worth the time and effort (2). At least for me.

What if, instead, I had the opportunity to earn up to seven times that amount? That’s $3,500 for the exact same book—except this time through self-publishing rather than the traditional route. And that’s just for 200 copies.

When I publish independently, I can keep much more. In some cases, up to 70 percent (3).

If I sold double the amount of copies (400), we’re talking $7,000 in a year. THAT’S motivating.

With Teaching College—this one book!—I averaged $2,200 in royalties each month, which added up to $26,500 in 2017. In 2018, my royalty total increased to $35,000. Again, this is just for one book (4). The passive income I receive every month through self-publishing’s higher royalty rates ultimately laid the foundation for my business.

I can’t overemphasize how critical this was for me. Why? Because it’s hard to build a business without money. Websites, especially when used for business, cost money. At the very least, they need a hosting platform (a place where your content lives) and email marketing services (to help you communicate with your customers), which can get expensive. Even a blog—a professional quality one at least—requires me to spend some money to start and maintain.

When tech expenses drain me every month, how can I even focus on building a business? Self-publishing a book freed me to think broader and more long term. Speaking of which . . .

Freedom and Control

Self-publishing simply aligned with the way I work, especially in terms of making decisions. With traditional publishers, the editorial team basically decided the title, the cover design, the distribution, the price, and the marketing. They also suggested (or in some cases, dictated) certain content changes. At times, that back-and-forth conversation felt like a battle of wills.

Convention, however, was what I really questioned. Knowing that most authors don’t earn much, I felt annoyed that books written by academics sounded so similar: boring, stuffy, and focused too much on theory. What if I don’t want to follow the typical way? Why were these book covers so uninspiring and “me-too” (5)? Who is going to buy this? What’s the plan? How are publishers going to generate interest and buzz for my book?

As a former marketer, I didn’t feel like they were optimizing my chances for success. How is a content-driven, nonfiction book going to get readers excited? Why will readers select my book compared with other similar titles? Why were books priced so high?

I remember filling out the publisher’s marketing questionnaire one day. It asked me to summarize my book, come up with keywords (which makes the book searchable online) and titles of similar books (so that the marketing team can position the book), develop talking points for sales representatives, and describe my book’s strengths. And while some publishers set up book fairs, conferences, speaking gigs, and/or editorial reviews for their authors, the majority of them don’t do much substantive marketing beyond asking authors to promote their book on social media.

Which shocked me as a first timer. How many scholars knew the reality? I wondered.

It dawned on me that publishers would never push my book as hard as I would. They won’t fight to ensure its success—like putting me on book tours and podcasts or spend advertising dollars on Facebook and Google. Why? Because their limited resources go to the Malcolm Gladwells (6) of the world. His book and the few others like it would make more money for the publisher than the scores of other books authored by the rest of us combined.

But what if my goal is to become a bestseller? What if my book could help the larger public in a way they weren’t being helped right now? What if my book could launch a business?

Unfortunately, my goals aren’t the publishers’ priority. Understandably.

I’ll have to pitch for my own podcast interviews and book reviews. And then market it. In other words, I’d be doing their job.

If publishers don’t have the time, resources, and expertise, then why bother? Through self-publishing, I could make all the creative and business decisions and outsource the rest. Freelancers and self-publishing services abound to execute my ideas. That’s today’s gig economy.

The process of designing my book cover illustrated this freedom and control. Since it’s all about standing out among the search results, my book cover needed to be bold and simple. My first book, Teaching College, does just that. Take a look:

The title of my book Teaching College (top) is easy to read and “get”

While it won’t win any design awards, it will catch the eyes of readers interested in this topic. It’s also easy to “get.” That’s important when browsers scroll through a list of books online, as they would on Amazon.

The point is, in a self-published environment, I have that control. I get to collaborate with my freelance designer and choose what works. Here are examples of four cover versions for a different book I wrote, Presenting: The Professor’s Guide to Powerful Communication:

(Note: only black-and-white, not colored, concepts are displayed here)

Having that variety allowed me to poll the one that colleagues, friends, and families liked most. With that data, I was able to publish the version with the best chance to sell. Talk about controlling my destiny.

(Guess which one polled best? To find out, click here.)

Would a traditional publishing house do this for me? How much time do they spend coming up with a title and cover that will resonate with readers? How can they convince me they’ve done the research to ensure their version works?

The flexibility to design my own cover was just the tip of the iceberg. What if I wanted to charge a certain amount for the book? With Teaching College, I got to test the different price points (yes, you can change the price whenever you want as an independent publisher) and find the sweet spot that maximizes sales. I launched it for free and then $0.99 to spread the word. That’s shockingly low, but I learned that hesitant customers will more likely try a new book if it’s below a certain threshold—as in below five dollars. Publishers simply have no time to test that sweet spot for all their books.

Within the first two months I gave away over 1,900 copies of Teaching College. The resulting momentum (and attention) landed it in Amazon’s bestselling list—in seven education book categories (7).

So, it’s fair to ask: Is all this a game? Let’s just put it this way: it would be no different than the game that gatekeepers play, which kept me completely at their mercy. At least when I make my own decisions . . .

In the end, our goals weren’t compatible. I wanted to transform the lives of my readers and build a foundation for a side business; the publisher, on the other hand, wanted to maximize corporate profit. That meant directing resources toward the books with the highest chances for success. That one insight convinced me I made the right choice to self-publish.

Caveats to Consider

Despite my enthusiasm, however, I didn’t realize the amount of work involved to publish on my own. I plowed through, taking on all the trials and errors. Here are my three biggest lessons I learned about  independent publishing as a way to break out of academia.

First and foremost, self-publishing isn’t for everyone. The ideal independent publisher has an entrepreneurial, do-it-yourself spirit, like I had. I was dissatisfied with the “set-it-and-forget-it” approach of traditional publishing and wanted to learn the whole process—from planning to writing to marketing. Many scholars, however, aren’t confident (or willing to go) beyond the writing part. They prefer to let publishers do the rest.

Next, self-publishing may not be right if you’re on the tenure track. Independently published books will unlikely play any role in tenure decisions. Committees still want to see books published by the likes of Routledge, Harper Collins, Pearson, and Random House. Prestige and perception still rule academia. For now.

Finally, it takes money to make money. Are you willing to fund your book upfront before seeing royalties? The cost to hire editors, cover designers, formatters, and other freelance professionals can run anywhere from a few hundred to a couple thousand dollars. I was fortunate to make that money back fairly quickly, but much depends on factors like how much you want to invest, how much the book resonates with readers, and even what book categories and keywords you choose.

Becoming an Entrepreneur

With self-publishing, I basically earned a degree in “starting my own business.” One that is insanely practical and valuable, and that doesn’t saddle me with that kind of student debt. What I learned mirrors the process entrepreneurs and startups go through—minus the pitching for venture capital:

Step 1: Have a world-changing idea (that’s been researched)

Step 2: Develop a prototype based on this idea

Step 3: Test and iterate along the way

Step 4: Release and sell this product/service

The best self-published (nonfiction) authors basically do the same: They start with a world-changing idea that’s been researched and vetted. Then they craft and revise their writing. Finally, they publish and sell the book. For the beginner, of course, there are a lot of details to consider. But by publishing, that author can leverage the book into a true side or full business—through speaking, consulting, and teaching. As I often hear, the self-published book becomes your business card.

For me, it’s led to podcast interviews, one-on-one coaching, workshop training, keynote speaking opportunities, and creating online courses—all of which is allowing me to expand.

Would any of this happened if I followed the conventional path in academia? If I had gone with a traditional publisher? I think you know the answer. I certainly would not have gained the experience and confidence to start and run a business.

If you’ve made it this far, you’re likely thinking about ways to leverage your expertise. Maybe you’re intrigued about how to become more entrepreneurial and launch your own independently published book.

With two successful self-published books under my belt, I want to pass everything I learned to the similarly frustrated or entrepreneurial-minded professor who’s spent years toiling in academia. That there are ways to turn the hard-earned knowledge and skills you’ve spent years gaining into a career (or at least side business) beyond the university walls. And do it successfully.

Start by downloading my free quick-start guide, called 7 Steps to Self-Publishing a Profitable Book in 6 Months: A Professor’s Guide.

7 Steps Self Publishing-COVER

Click here to access the guide

This guide is focused on the big picture—i.e., how to set yourself up for self-publishing success. Without this foundation, you could end up like the majority of independent authors who prematurely jump right into writing and never sell more than 500 copies lifetime.

Let’s impact the world through your book. Tell me your thoughts—on these questions as well as on my self-publishing guide by leaving a comment below!

Here’s to the start of a new journey. More to come.


(1) The amount an author actually makes with traditional publishers can get complicated. For example, he or she can earn a lot less if the royalties are based on net profit. This is the amount of profit publishers make off the book, typically 50 percent of the book’s amount. A good primer on how publishers pay authors can be found here.

(2) This amount doesn’t even consider the book advance, which is the amount authors get up front to defray costs related to writing the book. But think of them more like a loan (without the interest). You still have to pay it back, so to speak, when you start earning royalties. Let’s say I receive a $5,000 advance. Based on a 10 percent gross royalty off a $25 book, I’d need to sell 2,000 copies just to pay off that advance (i.e., to break even). Anything earned after paying off that $5,000 is what I keep. 2,000 copies is a lot to sell. Especially if I’m in a niche discipline like higher education instruction. For many academics, moving 500 copies is decent. (Then again, if I were getting a $5,000 advance, it means my publisher has confidence the book will do fairly well. They are, it should be noted, experts at calculating risk.)

(3) In regard to self-publishing, royalty rates can also get complicated. The bottom line: Rates span anywhere from 35% to 70%, which are higher than the range for traditionally published books. Amazon, the largest book seller in the U.S., lists how they break down their rates here.

(4) Note my Teaching College book included a Kindle/ebook format, a paperback, and an audiobook, which widened my audience and increased my revenue stream. I highly recommend creating multiple formats where possible.

(5) “Me-too” is a marketing term that describes products or services that are similar, and therefore, indistinguishable to each other. This is typically due to market oversaturation and lack of creativity. Think of the glut of cereal or soda brands in a typical supermarket as me-too products. As a businessperson, you don’t want that label assigned to your product or service.

(6) Malcolm Gladwell is the bestselling author of popular psychology books Blink and Outlier.

(7) The term bestseller is very nebulous, to be honest; such a status can be gamed—the same way as any prestigious status—whether it is on Amazon’s or The New York Times’ list. However, it can still act as a useful measure.

  • THIS is what I was looking for! I’ve been looking to expand, as you say “beyond the university walls.” Looking at your PDF guide and it’s a very very helpful foundation. Any chance you’ll write more about this? Or offer a class on this???? Inquiring minds want to know

    • Really appreciate hearing this, Jeff. I’ve been getting lots of positive responses and inquiries. I’ll definitely put some thoughts into this. Bottom line – a lot of profs (and honestly the general public) are interested in putting their expertise–whether from academia or elsewhere–out there. I’d love to help others feel that freedom and control as I’ve had. Stay tuned.

  • Congratulations on the success of your book, Norman! I really enjoyed reading this blog and learning more about the process of self-publishing. I am inspired and motivated by what I read here and am now looking forward to accessing your guide to self-publishing. Thanks for sharing your journey with us!

    • Glad this helps, Amita! If you ever have questions about this process, let me know! Apparently, there’s some real interest in this area, so I’m working out a way I can be most useful.

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