Near the top of Amazon’s bestseller list this holiday season is a paperback created and published by a San Antonio couple who has mastered the $1 billion e-commerce market.
Good Days Start With Gratitude: A 52 Week Guide To Cultivate An Attitude Of Gratitude is the work of Reagan and Sada Lewis, founders of Pretty Simple Press. Their book has been a consistent best-seller since hitting the market via Amazon’s self-publishing platform three years ago. On Tuesday, it was listed at the No. 10 spot of Amazon’s Best Sellers, a list that’s updated hourly.
Since 2015, they have published a total of 65 titles and in 2018 sold 1.2 million books through the e-commerce giant that changed the way books are sold.
Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP) is an online platform that allows independent authors and publishers to make their books available in Amazon’s Kindle Store. Authors upload a formatted copy of their book and its cover design according to Amazon’s specifications and terms of service. Whenever a buyer selects the book, Amazon prints the book and ships it out to the buyer.
The print-on-demand platform makes for lower overhead and inventory costs. More than that, it has leveled the playing field in the publishing industry so that legacy publishers such as Random House and HarperCollins, which once dominated and controlled the book market through their relationships with booksellers, are now playing catch-up.
Self-publishing also has given authors more control over the content and a more direct and profitable path to both readers and income. In 2017, Amazon paid out more than $220 million to authors, according to a report by The Atlantic, which said authors who self-publish e-books on Amazon also earn a 70 percent royalty on books priced between $2.99 and $9.99, and a 35 percent royalty on books that cost more or less than that.
The Good Days journal ($6.99) is currently selling at a pace of 2,500 copies a day, Reagan said. In the last two weeks, they have sold 200,000 books among all their titles.
To be ranked in the top 10 or even top 100 of Amazon’s millions of books, self-published or otherwise, is significant and the result of smart marketing.
Books, and other products sold on the site, are ranked by Amazon according to how well they sell. Every book that has sold at least a single copy is assigned a rank in relation to the tens of millions of other books on the site. Last holiday season, and this, Regan and Sada had four books in the top 100.
Reagan and Sada got their start as self-publishers three years ago when Reagan was working as chief financial officer at the Boys & Girls Club of San Antonio, and Sada was caring for their first child and working as a photographer. Both Trinity University grads, they met while working at the accounting firm EY.
Reagan started his career in accounting, but his entrepreneurial spirit led him to try other things, including launching some phone apps that were not successful.
“I got my degree in accounting, eventually becoming a CPA, but it was just boring, doing audits or tax returns,” Reagan said, except for those times when the CEO of the Boys & Girls Club encouraged him to pursue ideas he had regarding new program ideas for the children.
But once he got started in self-publishing and found success, Reagan stepped away from that job to spend more time with the new venture as well as his growing family. The couple has since welcomed a second daughter. Being their own bosses means they can work when and where they like, which is often at Local Coffee or Hotel Emma at the Pearl.
Their success on Amazon is due at least in part to Sada’s skill in creating cover designs that not only fit within Amazon’s design standards, but also are eye-catching in thumbnail size on the screen, Reagan said.
Reagan’s abilities come into play when advertising the books on Amazon. “I always thought marketing and advertising was this artsy [thing], but it’s all analytics,” he said of reviewing spreadsheets every day to analyze ad performance and make adjustments, which is especially critical this time of year when he’s buying a lot of ads.
In addition to Good Days, some of the couple’s other titles have shot their way to the top-seller list despite the tight competition with both the traditional publishing houses and one-person shops. Though the industry is new, and there’s no real guidance on how to stay on top, Reagan seems to have managed to break the code.
“I wish I could find someone to [help out on] certain things I’m doing but a lot of what I do, there’s no precedent for it, and you just have to figure it out,” Reagan said.
Amazon can be like the wild west, he added. And as it evolves, everyone is working to make a buck, even if it means breaking the rules. “There’s a lot of competition right now, and there are people doing crazy things,” he said, such as rank manipulation through false product reviews.
“We’ve kind of just said what we’re going to do is focus on making good quality products, and we’re going to do a good job marketing,” Reagan said. “… If you focus on good quality products and you do a good job marketing, it’s hard to beat that. And so that’s kind of what we’re sticking to.”
This year, the Lewises launched their latest publishing imprint, Paper Peony Press, which consists of creating, printing, and marketing their own line of offset printed books – separate from the print-on-demand model. They print overseas and manage a warehouse of inventory in North Texas that delivers to Amazon as orders come in.
“We’ve moved into actually printing inventory because we’re kind of limited in terms of the quality of the specs on [KDP],” Reagan said, which is limited to paperback and mostly black-and-white pages (color is costly). “Which is fine for certain types of books, but we’ve moved into more premium books that we’re actually printing inventory for and warehousing, and that you can price a little higher.”
One example of that is Rosalie, a new children’s book written and illustrated by two women in Oregon who Reagan met while on a trip to meet with Amazon staff.
But Amazon self-publishing is still their bread and butter, Reagan said.
And even Amazon has taken notice of the Lewis publishing powerhouse, inviting them to the Seattle headquarters to meet with the advertising department.
The couple is now working with a handful of other authors to publish hardcover books through Paper Peony Press, making agreements with the authors that are more like joint ventures, Reagan said.
“We give them a much larger cut than 10 percent of a watered-down number,” he said. “And we bring a lot to the table from an Amazon standpoint. We’re specialists when it comes to that. … So the author who creates the content gets help with the marketing but they get a good chunk of the revenues.”
One of those authors recently joined the Lewis team.
Whitney Farnsworth was working at the counter of Bird Bakery when the bakery’s owners asked if she would do the lettering for their menu board. Sada said she was in search of design help when she happened to notice the boards and asked the designer’s name.
That began a relationship between the Lewises and Farnsworth that has led to several more books, including a hardcover, spiral-bound how-to book on calligraphy, Pretty Simple Lettering, and a children’s journal.
Next up for the Lewises is an effort to get their books into brick-and-mortar stores. They have an agreement with JoAnn’s Fabrics and they’re also looking to get into Michaels stores and Hobby Lobby. They are entering those relationships cautiously, however, keeping an eye on the bottom line and their goals in life.
“In today’s day and age, when it comes to e-commerce or Amazon, there’s always going to be someone who’s selling more,” Reagan said. “If you based your success purely on just metrics like sales, there’s always someone who’s going to be selling more.
“So our thing is we want to work with just genuinely good people creating good content that helps the world.”