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Amazon Sellers Are Self-Publishing 'Blank' Books — and Turning a Big Profit

Money logo Money 10/29/2019 Julia Glum
a close up of a box © Getty Images

Rob Cubbon has roughly 1,800 books listed on Amazon, but you’ve probably never heard of him. No, he’s not James Patterson in disguise — as a low- and no-content publisher, there’s one simple reason why Cubbon is so prolific.

His books don’t really have words in them.

See, in Cubbon’s universe, words aren’t a prerequisite for a book. Neither is storing inventory or talking to customers. Thanks to the Kindle Direct Publishing program, Cubbon can make and sell planners, sketchbooks and journals to customers all over the world, no writing experience or capital necessary.

They’re similar to the notebooks you see lining shelves at Barnes & Noble. Using software like Adobe Illustrator, Cubbon creates an interior with digitally drawn lines, dates and inspirational quotes. He works up a cover with freely available art, a keyword-optimized title and a fun font — think “Nature Walks Journal” printed on a green-tinged illustration of leaves, “Blue Dinosaur Notebook” superimposed over smiling reptiles or “The Little Notebook of Big Ideas” in red-and-white block letters. He fills out some data on the back end, and boom. The book is up.

Though the barrier to entry is low and the earnings potential is high, KDP isn’t a get-rich-quick scheme. Amazon is notoriously fickle, and the number of competitors grows every day. But with a lot of research and a little artistry, sellers like Cubbon can generate significant passive income like they might with a rental property or stocks. In 2018, over a thousand people pocketed more than $100,000 in KDP royalties.

Just look at Cubbon, a 51-year-old Brit who lives in Chiang Mai, Thailand, and earns up to $3,700 a month selling books without (many) words in them.

“I couldn’t believe that people would spend $6.99 on a hundred-paged blank paperback,” he says on his website. “But they do.”

Printing Paperbacks — and Cash — on Demand

Anyone who’s been anywhere near the internet in the past couple of years knows Amazon is no longer just a bookstore. Far from being the tiny operation Jeff Bezos started in his garage in 1994, the modern Amazon provides on-demand movies, web-hosting services, grocery delivery, cloud storage, streaming music, facial recognition and more.

It also serves as a springboard for digital entrepreneurs. For a cut of their profits, Amazon gives small business owners access to its services and a seemingly infinite number of shoppers. Two of its popular programs are Fulfillment By Amazon, where ordinary people source name-brand items to ship to Amazon warehouses, and Merch By Amazon, where they design T-shirts that get manufactured by the company.

And then there’s KDP. Launched with the Kindle in 2007, KDP started out as a self-publishing system for authors. If a person had a completed manuscript but couldn’t or didn’t want to link up with a major publisher, they could release it themselves using Amazon’s resources. All they had to do to was upload a file in a certain format.

That’s how 38-year-old Kelli Roberts first waded into the trade. An experienced eBay seller who’d used the auction site to generate grocery money during college, Roberts wanted to make money with KDP but didn’t have the desire to pen her own e-books. So she, and others, began hiring ghostwriters.

As time passed, though, her initial suspicion was confirmed: Writing books wasn’t her passion. Then, in late 2015, Roberts stumbled upon a webinar on low- and no-content publishing.

KDP soon expanded into paperbacks. It later merged with CreateSpace and built out its print-on-demand system, where a book got printed when an order came in, eliminating the need for warehouses full of boxes or covers collecting dust. Products could live on Amazon, and therefore sell on Amazon, basically forever. Sellers got a 60% royalty rate on paperback sales.

Once Roberts decided to test it out, KDP quickly consumed her life.

Roberts now has 6,000 books under her belt. She makes a lot of gifts and work-humor-themed products because they sell particularly well. She’s also experimenting with puzzle books and mazes.

In December 2017 alone, she made $18,902 from KDP.

“This method allowed me not to buy ramen noodles at the store, to not eat rice and beans all the time,” she adds. “I was obsessive.”

From Keyword to Best-Seller

Because there’s no investment needed, pretty much anyone can join KDP. But like with other passive income ventures, low- and no-content publishing requires some serious strategy. KDP sellers like Rachel Harrison-Sund are always hunting for niches, or narrow areas with few purchase options but a lot of interest, to exploit.

“From the outside, it can seem like I’m just going to slap a bunch of books together, throw them up and I’m going to be earning thousands of dollars,” 39-year-old Harrison-Sund says. “The reality is a lot of your effort has to go into your research stage.”

Experts find niches by doing extensive keyword research, which often begins on Amazon.com itself. Sellers will pull up the website, type in the word “journal” plus a descriptor and see what sorts of suggestions automatically pop up. From there, they’ll try to drill down on a target, like “chicken coops,” “magic tricks” or “volleyball.”

There are also sneakier ways to figure out whether there’s a market for a low- or no-content book. One is by checking the best-seller rank, or BSR, of similar products. (Harrison-Sund recommends looking for a BSR below 100,000, but lower is usually better.)

Another is by browsing the reviews of existing books and fulfilling customers’ demands. If someone complains a certain diary is too big, for example, a smart KDP seller will make a smaller version. (Blatant copyright infringement is never OK.)

According to Harrison-Sund, the goal is “to create a book you know people are already searching for.”

“I’m not going to sit here and go, ‘I like gardening, so I’m going to create a gardening book’ and hope for the best,” she adds. “Do you know people are looking for books about gardening?”

Only after a seller has determined their keywords will they put virtual pen to paper. At first, Harrison-Sund would spend three hours on research before ever entering the creation stage for a single product. She’s faster now and has templates to fall back on, but back then the design process could then take as long as 10 hours for a planner.

“You’re front-loading the work,” Harrison-Sund says. “Once that book is published, you’ve got a passive-income-generating asset as long as that book remains in demand and for sale.”

With roughly 800 books on Amazon, she earned about $140,000 last year.

The Risks of Relying on Amazon

Every day, Roberts wakes up by 5:30 a.m. and heads to the office: the living room of her 550-square-foot apartment in downtown Columbus, Ohio. With the help of tools like Photoshop, Keynote and Publisher Rocket, she researches, creates and uploads books to Amazon. Sometimes, she takes a break to go to a coffee shop or play tennis; on Tuesdays at noon, she hosts a YouTube live stream about self-publishing.

KDP allows her to make her own schedule and her own business decisions. Nobody tells her when to work or what to make.

That flexibility is a big draw for Roberts, as is the money. But many Amazon sellers warn against over-relying on KDP as a primary source of income. Cubbon, the seller with 1,800 books, is particularly wary. KDP and other online businesses have made it possible for him to travel the world, but he realizes Amazon could make everything disappear tomorrow without explanation.

“They always win in the end,” he adds.

December is historically a huge month for Amazon sellers because of the holidays. But given KDP’s unpredictability, Cubbon is building up an email list of customers he can market to without a middle man. He has a thriving web and graphic design business he considers his main venture, and he teaches a $199 course for people wanting to join the low- and no-content publishing industry.

For now, KDP is a fun side hustle. Cubbon is constantly searching for “diamonds in the rough,” like a recent book he made that declared “It’s Gin o’Clock.” Now, he’s considering an entire drink-themed line, including a margarita-themed planner for 2020.

“Amazon’s a huge, great playground with a load of kids playing in it,” he says. “[But] it’s their playground, and they can tell you to go anytime.”

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