5 Steps for Success With Self-Publishing on Amazon

Do you have a book idea? Here are 5 steps to succeed with self-publishing on Amazon.

If you have a book idea you might think you first need to get a traditional publisher to offer you a publishing contract. That then leads you to think about hiring an agent.

But before you jump down through that rabbit hole and start writing countless query letters which will probably never get answered, you should consider a much easier alternative instead.

Like me, you can self-publish your book through Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) and become your own publisher. With 17 books under my belt and four years of experience, I know what works and what doesn’t. So trust me when I say, if you put in the necessary work, self-publishing DOES work.

Self-Publishing? You mean…”Vanity Publishing”?

Steps for success with self-publishing on amazon

Self-publishing used to have a horrible reputation. It used to be known as “vanity publishing” and involved paying a printer absurd amounts of money to print your book.

You would then pay for the copies up-front and have them sitting in your house while you try to get your friends and family to buy them, so you can hopefully recoup your money.  More often than not, you didn’t sell many copies and lost a lot of money into the bargain.

But with the internet, self-publishing has undergone a vast transformation, and arguably you have Amazon to thank for that. The rise and popularity of their Kindle eReaders have made eBooks a mainstream part of publishing. Moreover, with minimal upfront costs involved, the risks in self-publishing today are minimal.

Self-publishing gives you more control over book development, publishing, and marketing, not to mention a larger share of the royalty rate. Amazon KDP gives you up to 70% of each sale (depending on the sale price). While, if published through a small press, you’re likely to get a rate between 30% and 50%. That figure gets calculated from the original 70%

Also, many self-published authors let publishers find them online once they’ve already demonstrated some success with their book. So instead of having to pitch your idea to a publisher and hope somebody eventually says yes, you can now just self-publish your book and prove to everyone that your idea is sellable. 

In short, self-publishing on Amazon gives you a raft of options, the chance to reach an audience, and even earn a nice living. And if it flops? What have you lost? Not much except being able to say you wrote a book, which not many people can claim to have done. You might also be wondering why Lydia Davis is refusing to sell her next book on Amazon.

The Steps to Success for Self-Publishing on Amazon

Having an idea is just the beginning. For it to become an actual book, you need a plan to succeed with self-publishing on Amazon.

So before you start up your word processor to compose the first paragraph of your epic tome, browse this step-by-step guide to successful self-publishing on Amazon. First impressions do count, so you need to get this right the first time. With so many books on offer on Amazon, readers can afford to be unforgiving to authors who cut corners. You might find our explainer on the pros and cons of self-publishing your book helpful.

Research and Plan Your Amazon Self-Published Book

Amazon books
Self-publishing means, you’re also in charge of everything else, including research, marketing, and promotion

First, you need to learn more about your potential audience and whether or not there’s a market for your niche. You also need to study your competitors in-depth, figure out their sales figures, learn their strategies, and more.

If your eyes are already glazing over, I don’t blame you. You’d rather be writing, right? Unfortunately, being self-published means, you’re also in charge of everything else, including research, marketing, and promotion. So just think about your potential future earnings to motivate yourself, pour yourself an enormous coffee, and let’s get into it.

Research broad categories

An excellent way to begin is with a good understanding of broad book niches to make sure you know who you’re writing for and the size of the market. To get started:

  • KDP offers some tools and guidance for authors on its Categories page.
  • Tools like the Kindlepreneur sales rank estimator can provide estimates of book sales for bestsellers in various niches. Another good one is Publisher Rocket (previously known as KDP Rocket). It costs $97, but if you’re serious about self-publishing, it’s an excellent investment to make.
  • Study bestsellers in your Amazon niche to understand why they satisfy readers. Look at the book covers and study the designs. Read the blurbs and study how they’re written. Read the reviews and see if there’s a common theme amongst the readers’ opinions. Make copious notes.
  • Some authors try to look for broad categories where bestselling books have a sales rank from about 5,000 to 10,000. Much lower ranks may mean there are potential opportunities. Much higher ranks may mean that the category doesn’t have enough appeal. So never ignore the sales rankings. They can tell a lot.

Plan Your Book

Authors tend to fall into two categories — the plotters and the pantsers. They’re neither better nor worse than the other. Everyone just has their own efficient way of working.

  • Plotters carefully outline each section of their book before they write the first sentence. Some plotters go to extremes by writing such detailed outlines that it’s the length of an actual novel itself. Jeffrey Deaver and Jonathan Kellerman are two examples of people who do this.
  • Pantsers tend to write “by the seat of their pants” and let their creativity take them where it may. In other words, an outline horrifies them. This describes me to a tee, and in my opinion, this approach makes writing so exciting. You never know from one page to the next what’s going to happen.

It may take some time for you to discover into which category you fall. So don’t be afraid to experiment with being a plotter and a pantser, and then see which one you prefer.

Writing Your First Book Draft

Now it’s time for you to put some words down on paper, finally. But as you do so, remember that the first draft will never be the perfect final draft. Instead, you should look upon the first draft as baking a cake. It’s a work-in-progress, and you can’t eat a cake while you’re putting the ingredients together and baking it. 

The same goes for a book. It takes time for all the elements to come together as a finished product for the readers. So don’t despair if your first and second drafts turn out to be less than perfect. As you progress to the third and fourth drafts, the story will improve by leaps and bounds.

Once The Book Is Finished, the Real Work Begins

After you’ve completed your book, it’s time to get some proofreading and editing assistance. Even if you’re a competent writer and editor, you should know that it’s tougher to spot your own mistakes than somebody else’s.

You already know what you think you wrote, but sometimes your fingers don’t cooperate with your mind. So it’s always best to get a second pair of eyes on your work and get an independent assessment. It’s an extra cost you may struggle to afford, but one you can’t afford not to do.

Of course, first-time authors might not happen to know any editors. But there are plenty of places where you can find one. 

  • Network with other authors on places like Facebook and Twitter. Many authors network and publicize on social media.
  • Search online for editing and proofreading services. For this, Google is your best friend. Two highly recommended sites are Fiverr and Reedsy.
  • Shop around for the right balance of price, experience, and style. For example, while Fiverr has many editors advertising their services, their lower prices sometimes reflect their abilities and experience. On the other hand, Reedsy is more expensive, but you are also likely to find someone more professional and skilled.

To use KDP to self-publish, you can upload a Word Document, PDF, or pre-formatted Kindle file. Kindle Direct Publishing also supports other formats, which you will find listed on this page.

Here are some helpful formatting tips to keep in mind: 

  • To format your book correctly for uploading, you can consult this KDP formatting page. That page also includes a link to instructions for Mac users. 
  • Some authors find it easy to follow formatting instructions. However, it’s also not difficult to find affordable freelancers who will handle that part of the job for you. Look in the same locations as editors to also find formatters.

If you find formatting easy and prefer to do it yourself, some popular formatting software for authors includes Reedsy, Scrivener, and Vellum. Although Vellum is for Mac only, it’s, in my opinion, the best choice if you have a Mac. It produces beautifully formatted and professional eBook files.

Recruit Beta Readers

Once you’ve gone through at least one round of editing, try to gather a team of beta readers (also known as a “street team”). These enthusiastic readers can provide valuable feedback and help round up any final mistakes that eluded you and your editor.

As with finding editors and proofreaders, recruiting beta readers takes a bit of work. While your friends and family may support your writing, they’re not the best beta readers because they won’t want to hurt your feelings. Or they may not support your writing dream and, therefore, may be overly critical of your work.

To find neutral and unbiased people, you can look for online groups of beta readers, form a beta-reading cooperative with other writers, or solicit help in forums or pages dedicated to your genre. Once you start a mailing list and develop a following, finding beta readers becomes much more manageable.

However, some authors detest the idea of beta readers, considering them free-loaders and “writing by committee”. So beta readers are not strictly necessary if you decide it’s not for you.

Add Front and Back Matter 

Frontmatter refers to the title page, copyright statement, and a dedication (although dedication isn’t necessary if you don’t want to do one).

Amazon authors generally create an email subscriber list link, an author website, and a request for the reader to leave an Amazon review when they’ve finished the book. Include those in the back matter at the end of the book. You can also add links to your other books once you’ve published a few more.

Crafting Your First KDP Amazon Book Cover

You know that old saying about not judging a book by its cover? Well, forget about that. Readers WILL judge your book by the cover.

Your book may have the best edited and formatted story, but nobody will know about it if the cover doesn’t catch their attention first. As the number of eBooks on Amazon rises, you need something for your book to stand out from the others — the cover is precisely that.

As I said previously, you need to study the book covers of your rivals and see what elements are in common. Make sure the design matches the genre. For example, don’t have a spooky cover for a romance novel (unless it’s a ghostly romance, of course).

Otherwise, the reader may make a buying decision based on the cover, then realize from the story they’ve been deceived. There’s your first negative review in the making right there.

Book covers need to be professionally designed. You should strongly resist the urge to make the cover yourself (even though Amazon gives you the option). DIY covers can be spotted a mile away and scream “AMATEUR!” to the reader. If you want to be taken seriously, spend the money on a proper cover. If the book is successful, you’ll recoup the money in no time.

You can find book cover designers the same way you found your editor and formatter. But finding the perfect one can take time. When you find one you like, make sure you give them a strong design brief so they know precisely what your requirements are. Give them some examples of other covers, say what you would like your cover to look like, what colors you’d want, and so forth.

A good designer will also come up with their own suggestions, but they will never turn down your help to make their life easier.

Start Self-Publishing With Amazon KDP

Finally, it’s time to self-publish your book. Amazon makes uploading a cover and formatted eBook file relatively easy from within your KDP account.

When starting your KDP account, make sure your tax information and other details are uploaded first. It’s best to get the nitty-gritty details out of the way first. Also, consider publishing under a publishing business name. Otherwise, Amazon will list you as the publisher, which is another way readers will know you’re self-published.

Picking categories, choosing keywords, and pricing tend to present the most significant challenges at this point. Also, self-published authors need to decide if they want to enroll in KDP Select or not. So let’s look at each of these in a little more detail:

  • Categories: Hopefully, you’ve already invested some thought into your categories during your planning and research stage. You should follow KDP guidelines to select your final categories. Also, use Publisher Rocket to find out the categories your rival authors are using. If it’s working for them, it’ll work for you too. One thing to note though is that you are only allowed three categories in KDP. But you can easily add more by emailing KDP and asking them to add them manually. Categories are also automatically generated from your book description. This may occasionally lead to the wrong categories being applied, so you should regularly check that you are in the right categories.
  • Keywords: It’s also helpful to browse KDP’s information on keywords as keywords are probably the biggest headache for a self-published author. The right keywords can give your book more exposure and, therefore, potentially higher profits. In contrast, the wrong keywords will put your book in oblivion where nobody will ever see it again. You have seven boxes. Use the most important keywords in each box, avoid superfluous language, and fill the boxes up as much as possible. Amazon’s search bot is smart enough to find relevant matches, even if your keywords are in a different order.
  • The book blurb: the book blurb is another word for the plot description, and this is your chance to excite the reader into buying the book. But there is an art to this. Say too much, and you pretty much tell them the whole story, and they won’t buy. Say too little, and they’ll get bored – and they won’t buy. So start by reading the blurbs of other authors in your genre. Study how they’re written. Now try and write your own, but keep working on it until it’s just right. Don’t forget, you’re relying on the blurb to close the deal with the reader.
  • Pricing: If you choose KDP Select, you can price your book from 0.99 to 9.99. You can choose a 70% commission on pricing over 2.99 but only 35% on lower prices. Amazon has a couple of book promotions you can use to make your book free or temporarily lower the price. The best advice to begin might be to scan prices for similar-length, bestselling books in your genre. It’s very much trial-and-error to start with, and eventually, you’ll find the right price point. Many authors believe in giving the first book away for free or cheaply (0.99, for example) to hook the readers on your series. But if you’re in KDP Select, you’re not allowed to give the book away for free.

KDP Select

KDP Select is when you give Amazon exclusive rights to your books. There are many other eBook publishers out there, such as Barnes and Noble and Kobo. If you choose to sell everywhere, this is called “going wide”.

But if you decide to be exclusive to Amazon, you’re banned from selling elsewhere. Choosing KDP Select comes with some pros and cons, and each author has their own strong opinions about whether KDP Select is worth it or not.

  • Each enrollment period lasts 90 days, and during that time, you have to assure Amazon you’ll only sell your eBooks on their platform. Don’t lie to them as they check on the other platforms, and if they see your books elsewhere, you run the risk of being permanently banned from Amazon, which can be a death blow to an author’s career.
  • Your book automatically gets put into the Kindle Unlimited program, where you get paid on page reads from Amazon members and book sales. Page reads are when Kindle readers ‘borrow’ the book on their Kindle, and you’re paid for each page of the book they read. Your book also gets better promotion on Kindle, leading to a higher chance of new readers discovering your work.
  • You’re entitled to a couple of opportunities during the 90 day period for book promotions, with a limited-time chance to offer discounted or free books.

Marketing & Promoting Your Amazon KDP Book

Once the book is live on Amazon, you might think the hard part is over. Think again. The hard part is about to begin, as, without a strong marketing and promotion campaign, your book is going to wither and die.

  • Start an author website – the first thing you need to do is get your domain name. Resist the temptation to use a free domain service like Wordpress.com. Instead, see if your real name is available as a domain. If so, snap it up and design a site. If you’re not good at website design, again, you can easily find someone to do it for you. Just look on Fiverr to get started or get a recommendation from a fellow author. One well-known website designer in the self-published author world is Caro Begin.
  • Start a mailing list Amazon won’t tell you your customers’ email addresses, so you need to get them yourself. This is where a mailing list comes in. There are lots of mailing list services, but the one you should use is Mailerlite. Not only is it affordable, but there is also automation that sends out emails at certain times, which is invaluable if you’re doing an email campaign. Make sure the link to your mailing list is on your website and in your books.
  • Start a Facebook group most of your readers will likely be on Facebook, so that’s where you need to be. Start up a group and invite your mailing list subscribers to it. Put the link on your websites and at the back of your books.
  • Consider writing a freebie – if you are in KDP Select, you can’t give away your books for free. So consider writing something which isn’t registered with KDP Select and give away that. For example, I wrote a prequel to my series and gave it away free to newsletter subscribers. It isn’t in KDP Select, so I’m not breaking any rules. It doesn’t have to be a long book; a novella is enough, which is typically around 20,000 words. Consider it a long-term investment.
  • Start promoting on Bookfunnel – one site you must sign up for is Bookfunnel. This gives you the ability to offer downloadable content to your readers as well as run and participate in book promotions with other authors. You can also generate download codes, landing pages, and much more.
  • Promotional graphics – You can easily find graphic designers to make your social media images and other graphics. Your book cover designer can probably do it for you. But you can also try this yourself by using Canva. Canva is probably the most accessible tool ever for making cool-looking graphics.
  • Amazon ads – Amazon also lets you run pay-per-click (PPC) ads from within your Amazon account. You set a budget, time, and target, and Amazon does the rest. However, it’s essential to bear in mind that mastering Amazon ads takes a lot of research, time, and testing, so set a modest budget to start. Many people find Amazon ads extremely difficult to use, and initial results may be disappointing. So make sure you have a well-tweaked list of keywords and a lot of patience.
  • Facebook ads – These used to be highly effective, but as Facebook keeps tweaking their algorithm, the profit margins on Facebook ads have become a bit shaky and uncertain. Many people still swear by them, though, so don’t discount it., As with Amazon ads, do your research, optimize your ads, and maintain a very strict budget.

Can You Turn Your Amazon KDP Book into a Full-Time Living?

Like everything else in life, success or failure in self-publishing all depends on how hard you’re willing to work at it. As I said, writing the book is half the battle. The other half is a daily battle marketing, publicizing, and hustling to make sure the book stays in the minds of potential readers. You might like to read about 8 famous authors who self-published.

Plus, you have to start the next book more or less right away in order to maintain momentum. A publishing delay of even six months between books might prove fatal to your bottom line.

But if you master the steps outlined in this article, you’ll already be on your way to success.


  • Mark has been a freelance technology writer since 2004 when he wrote a regular eBay column for AuctionBytes (now renamed eCommerceBytes). He also contributed articles to the now-defunct Bookologist, Google Tutor, and a few other sites now lost to time (although you could probably find them on the Wayback Machine). Then came a couple of years of soul-destroying English teaching work before MakeUseOf asked him in 2007 to become the managing editor.