Self-Publishing, Non-Fiction, and Ebooks

 In Unimenta Blog

A guest post for Indie Author Week by Dorothy Zemach.

When companies like Amazon and Apple developed their self-publishing platforms, they opened a lot of doors for non-fiction. For one thing, they essentially removed the barriers to publishing; now, anybody can upload a book (and sometimes, it seems like just about everybody has!). But I think a more important change affects readers as well. In this column, we’ll look at just three of these: length, royalties, and price.

To create a print book, your manuscript has to be a certain length. Not just to sell well, but to physically exist. If a book is too short, it can’t easily be bound into a book. That’s one reason you’ll sometimes fine books that seem to have a limited amount of information but are packaged in a book that is, well, padded with things like a long introduction or copious decorative photos.

Ebooks, however, are electronic files—they can be just about any length. Even the very, very long ones won’t hurt your arms as you prop them up, and short books won’t fall apart in your hands. For writers and readers of non-fiction, this is great news. Now a book can say only what it needs to say and nothing more. You can still have photos and drawings, of course, but there’s no reason to choose one just to increase your length. Instead you’re more likely to include only those that truly belong in your book.

For example, I publish a series for students of English as a foreign language students in which each book contains 50 tips for improving a certain skill, such as listening, writing, speaking, reading, and so on. These books are short, because I want them to be accessible to people whose English level is low intermediate and people who lead busy lives and want something fast and accessible. The books are around 5000-6000 words; they’re not long enough to be a paperback, but they’re just as long as they need to be to accomplish those goals.

In traditional publishing, royalties, especially in non-fiction, are actually decreasing—and in some niches, (such as textbooks for teaching foreign languages) disappearing altogether. Royalties for self-published works are higher; in fact, a lot higher. For traditional non-fiction, royalties started at 10% of “net to publisher” (the publisher’s earnings after subtracting costs such as discounts to distributors and bookstores), and in traditional fiction, 25% of net.

But for self-published books, you’ll typically be earning 60-70% of cover price (the retail price to consumers). Amazon does lower this to 35% for books priced under US$2.99—but that’s still exponentially higher than what you’d earn from a traditional publisher. For example, I have some traditionally published textbooks that retail for around $50, yet bring me anywhere from .25 to $2.50 per sale. On the other hand, one of those 50 tips books, which sells for .99, brings me .35.

As a single person publishing, you have much lower overhead than, say, a publisher headquartered in New York or London. You can therefore sell fewer copies and yet earn more money. That has an added benefit for readers, too, because you can write for smaller market niches, since your profits per book are higher. This brings us to…

Since you’re earning more per copy, and you have lower expenses, you can therefore charge less to the consumer. Lower prices often means more sales, too, an added benefit to you. Readers who would hesitate at dropping 12 dollars on an unknown writer might feel better about risking 2.99.

Of course, it’s important to remember that self-publishing is self-publishing, not just typing. Since you’re doing everything by yourself, you’re responsible for making sure your work is edited and proofread, well designed and formatted, and has a genre-appropriate and attractive cover. However, you can hire people to help you with these things. In fact, you can often hire the same people that larger publishers do! as they too have come to rely increasingly on freelancers. You’ll need to save up or free up enough money for a quality editor, proofreader, and cover designer in advance; but you’ll only pay for these things once, and your book will (we hope!) keep bringing you income for many years.

If your interest has been piqued, there is a wealth of guides to self-publishing available. One that I often recommend is David Gaughran’s Let’s Get Digital, available wherever ebooks are sold, including Amazon.

If you want an even more personalized and guided approach, I’m teaching a month-long online course in self-publishing in September 2018. It’s tailored to teachers of English, but would be suitable for anyone who works in education or training. Find more information about it here.

And happy writing!


Dorothy Zemach holds an MA in TEFL and taught English for over 25 years before turning to publishing. She’s worked with Cambridge University Press as an in-house senior development editor, and has written and/or edited as well for Oxford University Press, Macmillan, Pearson, Cengage, and the University of Michigan Press, among others. In 2012, she founded Wayzgoose Press, an independent publisher of fiction, literary non-fiction, and educational materials. Dorothy’s website:

Leave a Comment