Many of us dream of starting a side business selling our knowledge, in one way or another. Though the market is highly competitive, selling eBooks or technical reports is one of the easiest businesses to set up. One of the problems is that technical PDF documents are incompatible with standards publishing formats available for digital readers, most notably ePub, or KPF for Kindle. Sure, you can easily convert PDF to these formats, and for science fiction books, read linearly and consisting of text only, it works very well. But for a technical document filled with figures, tables, formulas, internal links and designed for non-linear reading, the result would be disastrous. Also, Amazon Kindle takes a 65% commission for eBooks above $10. And users are unlikely to buy anything above $25 from self-publishers on Kindle. Kindle (or other similar devices) is just the wrong solution.
There is a much better way to do it on Amazon. The purpose of this article is to explain how to do it. This is not just for particular individuals, but also for businesses, small or large, interested in selling digital technical reports on Amazon.
First, you need to find a domain name if you don’t have one. Lists of dropped domain names (google the term) are a good starting point. That’s how I’ve found MachineLearningRecipes.com and MachineLearningFundamentals.com. I purchased both for under $20/year. AdvancedMachineLearning.com is still available, but will cost you $2,450 at the time of this writing. Then you probably want to incorporate. You can easily do it online with MyCorporation. The cost is likely to be around $700. You also want your own eStore that sells digital documents. I built mine alone in 15 minutes, using the platform offered by the company managing my mailing list (Constant Contact). My web and domain name hosting company offer similar services. Yours most likely offer the same services. They will take care of everything, like secure domain and e-payments, for a low monthly fee (free in my case as I am already a customer).
Setting up your Amazon Merchant Account
You will want to be on SellerCentral. Signing-up is a bit of a pain, but can be done within an hour or so. I selected the “Book” category for my products. You can not upload your PDF. Each sales must have a paper trail attached to it: typically the print book that you ship. I don’t ship books (yet) so here is how to get this to work.
First, you need to upload a picture of the book cover, and then select the binding type (paperback, hardcover, and so on). My picture is just one of the figures in my book, since I don’t have a book cover. And Amazon allows you to choose “unknown binding” or “Misc” for the binding type. I chose Misc. To ship a book (yes, somehow it still involves paper), I’ve found going through Amazon to be by far the easiest and cheapest option. After all, they are experts in supply chain optimization. You click on “Buy Shipping” on the platform, rather than doing it your own way (also allowed but more difficult). Then you immediately get your shipping label on your screen (with tracking number) and you print it.
How Does it Work?
In my case, I ended up with USPS as the carrier. After clicking on “Buy Shipping”, my order was immediately marked as shipped. You have 48 hours to actually get it out via snail mail. The client expects fast delivery, and you can be shut down if you fail to comply. The process is as simple as dropping your package in the outgoing mail.
I didn’t ship a book. I shipped a letter in an envelope, with instructions to download the book, accompanied by the purchase order. The buyer knows that it works that way. He/she even has the option to request immediate delivery by email, but I still have to send my shipment (the letter). See how my product is described on Amazon, to comply with their policies and make sure the buyer understands the mechanism.
I also purchased the ISBN number on the official Bowker website. It is very expensive (above $100) though cheaper if you buy in bulk. I believe you can get one from Amazon for a much lower price, and maybe you might be able to do without any at all. The SKU number was automatically generated by Amazon, at no cost. Amazon will accept yours if you have one. I was also able to select a very specific sub-category for my product, as precise as to include the keyword “Stochastic Processes”.
When you enter your book description, it is not obvious how to format it using HTML. In fact, this option is not available. Yet if you enter basic HTML tags such as
<li> and so on, Amazon will render them properly.
In your letter sent to the buyer, you will include a link to download the book. My eBook is stored on Sync.com, the link expires after 30 days, and requires a password (provided to the buyer, in the letter) to access the document. The URL is very long and made up of random letters and digits. So I also provide a shortened URL using bit.ly. Both are included in the letter. In addition, the link is typed using the Courier New font. It makes it easy to distinguish between (say) I and l (the first is capital i, the latter is l as in lambda).
Amazon’s fee on the $32 item is $6.60. There is also a fixed $39 monthly fee. Then I had to purchase the shipping label for $3.49. For shipping, if I had chosen UPS independently from Amazon, it would have been $11 instead. I guess the big gap between these two prices would allow some smart business people to make a living arbitraging the price difference.
At this point, I discourage people to buy my eBook on Amazon because the fees are much lower on my own eStore. And you are supposed to offer your lowest price on Amazon. Otherwise they might lower your price if their algorithms find a cheaper price. On my eStore, it also sells for $32.
In the end, if Amazon brings more volume, it might be worth the extra costs and shipping burden. I might as well offer a real print copy if it works better. Something I need to test. I know I can get my books easily printed for about $10 (companies such as Lulu offer this service) but then I am likely to boost the price, maybe not by as much as $10, but in such a way as to maximize overall revenue. Here we go, I have a new machine learning problem to solve now, price optimization!
Benefits of Digital versus Print
Even though in the end, you still send a “package” to the buyer, there are some benefits. First, you can advertise that your eBook is saving trees. Then, if you update your book or fix typos, you don’t have to re-upload the book on Amazon. On my own eStore, I would have to re-upload the document. The process is not straightforward: you need to create and add a brand new product to your eStore.
A user can also request a PDF version with a bigger font, or automatically receive revised versions free of charge. This is easy to implement with eBooks, and cost-prohibitive with print books. Also, you can sell (say) in Autralia. On my Amazon store (unlike my own eStore), I can only sell in US, Canada and Mexico. If I want to sell (say) in UK, I would have to go through more hoops. I haven’t explored that option yet.
One benefit of Amazon (or my eStore, for that matter) is that the buyer does not need to provide his/her email address or phone number to the seller. Thus, you can reach customers reluctant to provide personal data other than a physical address.