For the first half of my publishing career (from 1994-2010) I worked on 56 book projects and while I knew how to make money writing, I never really understood how the money side of publishing worked.
At the beginning of my career, I worked in traditional publishing. The authors and publishers who hired me had large book advances and would use part of their advance to pay me. I wasn’t cut into any book sale percentages, I just got paid $10 an hour for my work. As my work got known, I was referred to other authors, and I always seemed to have a book or 3 in the hopper, which was great. Whether the books were commercially successful or not, I was getting paid.
A publisher recruited me after a few years to come on staff and offered $55,000, which might as well have been a million. I had been getting by on about half of that. The job wasn’t glamorous. It was in the computer publishing space, and I was acquiring and editing titles all about the (spoiler alert: nonexistent) Y2K computer bug. Whether or how much these books earned wasn’t my concern. What was my concern was making sure they were well-written, not just how I was making money from writing.
On the morning of January 2, 2000, as the dust settled and the bug amounted to nothing, it was clear my job at Curtco Freedom Publishing was complete.
I was in grad school for media studies, and I wanted to branch into Internet projects. I applied to tech companies to do something that would become known as content marketing but had not yet been named. My next job paid an eye-popping $80,000, and I was writing about mobile computing.
For the first decade of the 21st century, I made between $80K and $240K a year writing about technology. I had entered the world of self-publishing without realizing it. Still, my salary was the same whether the books I wrote sold or not. Now instead of a publisher funding me, it was venture capitalists. All the projects I worked on at this time were funded by VCs looking for their unicorns. It was the technology they had invested in, not the books. Sure, the business plans and books I wrote about the technology helped. My work was used to secure funding, speaking engagements for the CEO, PR placements about the company, and leads for the software we were selling, but my income wasn’t affected by book sales. In fact, during this period, the books weren’t even sold, they were given away.
Working for traditionally published authors – I made $10 an hour. They made their book advance plus about 10% of royalties which was usually $0 or close. Still these authors had other income sources, and all seemed to be making 6-figures as writers being paid for their writing and reporting.
Working for a traditional publisher – I made a salary. They took a risk that books would sell and made 90% of those sales. In this case, we did sell quite a few books because people thought the Y2K bug was real… but I don’t really know how the money broke down, except the company went out of business not long after, so I’m gonna guess it wasn’t a wildly profitable business model.
Working in VC-funded tech start-ups was different. These companies were losing money hand over fist! The burn rates would be $300-$500k a month which they were losing! Making money would come through building IP and selling or going public. I went through both. The books I did affected the valuations and contributed in theories millions to the exit, but it couldn’t really be quantified. It was the documentation of the IP.
When I worked for Bain Capital in 2007 or 8, a different picture emerged. Ben, the partner I interacted with, started asking me about numbers… how many books did we give away? How many people who go the books bought the product? How much revenue did we get per book?
I’d never thought that way! I was a paid writer! I got paid to write and edit! Did he want to discuss the quality of my writing? No, no, he did not.
He called these 7 am KPI meetings. I had a toddler and daycare opened at 7. I had to get up at 5:30 am, drive the hopefully still sleeping baby in pajamas to work with me, dress him in the back of my Toyota Prius, beg Kindercare to open 5 minutes early, rush across the parking lot to work and stumble into those 7 am meetings bleary-eyed after just leaving a screaming and stunned child with a stranger. (But thank God the Kindercare was so close to work, even if work was 90 minutes from home.)
Ben taught a Masterclass in direct response marketing in those meetings…
How many people came to the website yesterday?
How many people got the book?
Has inside sales followed up with everyone who got the book?
How many appointments have they set up for outside sales?
What percentage of outside sales meetings closed?
What is the average revenue per client?
I was just a journalism major and a professional writer. I was lost. Most days I worked until Kindercare closed at 7pm trying to answer his questions.
Soon I’d know those answers in my sleep…
200,000 visits to the site meant 2,000 book downloads, 200 sales appointments, 20 sales at $5K a piece or $100,000. If we wanted more sales, we needed more traffic or higher conversions.
I changed the books so they would convert higher. Now instead of writing titles that described the contents (like a white paper), I was writing books that were titled based on our prospective buyer’s dream come true. I researched my client avatar, studied their language, and learned to write copy that converted. Soon 200,000 visits to the site meant 20,000 book downloads, 2,000 sales appointments, 200 sales at $5K a piece or $1,000,000. No change to the traffic, but 10x the conversion. Was I becoming a math girl?
I loved the challenge. I did not love the lack of sleep.
I could see how books could make money now, but I hadn’t put together how even though I was doing it. I was just doing it at Ben’s command. He saw the vision and created the plan to profitability. I just executed.
My dream was to have my own publishing company. I wasn’t thinking about how this would make money. I guess I thought if the books were good, people would buy them. I spent my driving time thinking about a new book series that could compete with the Dummies guides.
I started by registering the trademark. Then (with no understanding of the numbers) I hired a designer and focused on the design and formatting. After all, branding matters. I hired an editor to write editorial guidelines. I hired a lawyer to write publishing contracts.
There was no path to revenue for any of this!!! But I couldn’t see it. I kept working on the idea. What vast topics would be covered in my book series? I hated being called a dummy. These would be guides for Smarties. It would be huge.
As South Park once explained:
Phase 1: Collect underpants
Phase 2: ?
Phase 3: Profit
I was focusing on “collecting underpants,” in other words, developing the product I would sell.
With my buddy Ben from Bain Capital, it was allllll phase 2 all the time.
Phase 1: Build a Minimum Viable Product (just enough to sell).
Phase 2: Drive traffic with ads, convert traffic to leads with good copy, convert leads to prospects with inside sales, convert prospects to clients with demos and sales engineers, make sure revenue outpaces expenses.
Phase 3: Profit
But for me, with my “I’m going to create the next For Dummies series!” It was all vision boards and question marks.
I wasn’t asking – how do the Dummies Guides make money? How did they find their development? How long until they were profitable? How many of the books in the series are profitable? What’s different about the profitable ones?
I just wanted to make them GOOD. Really good! Beautiful. Witty. Well-designed.
This, my friends, does not a business make.
I THOUGHT I was bootstrapping it, but how could I bootstrap when I was years or decades from revenue with this business model? To bootstrap, you need a way to make money now. The only path I had to revenue was a salary.
I had watched The Secret, attended Body & Soul conferences, had my Akashic records read. Plus, I’d been in publishing for years and the idea was good. No one wants to be called a Dummy! If anyone could make this work, it was me. So why wasn’t it working?
Ben’s 7 am meetings did not seem related. That was big money. VCs. Unicorns. I just wanted a little company that produced great books. So I poured my last bits of credit card debt into a business coach. And not just any business coach – the coach who had worked with the Dummies guides and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. Certainly, he could unlock the mystery question mark. His sales page said that’s what he did.
Of course, everything I needed to be successful I had actually already learned from Ben’s drill sergeant approach to sales and marketing, but it took me years to piece that together.
The business coach told me without a single avatar or a major funding source; I’d never be successful. Publishing companies don’t make money, he said.
“But what about the Dummies guides and Chicken Soup for the soul?” I argued.
“That’s different.” He said. “Pick a niche.”
“Fuck off,” I thought.
I took my vision board and found a life coach.
Recently a friend said he thought life coaching was ultimately about teaching people to cash in on their privilege. He is probably right.
My life coach encouraged me to keep dreaming big. “To the moon! If you can dream it, you can do it.”
Yes. This was more like it!
I focused on eliminating the thoughts that were standing in my way. I ignored the numbers. I made plans. I spent borrowed dollars from my kid’s future. I kept working full time to pay the debt I was accruing starting this business – robbing Peter to pay Paul.
I didn’t see that those book series that I was trying to emulate came about before the Internet. I didn’t see that the model could never work.
“If the books are good and my thoughts are perfect, I will attract success,” I thought.
And then, I lost my job. My thoughts around my business were all-consuming. I was so good at living this future where I was successful as a book publisher that I was no longer an energetic fit to do my job. It made sense. My head was not in that game. But that game did not have a big national debt-sized question mark in the middle of it. The game my head was in did.
The rubber had hit the road. If I was going to go all in on my dream, the time was now.
Come on, law of attraction!!! Let’s do this!!!
I did not do this.
This, in fact, was not doable.
If you can dream it, you simply cannot always do it.
You will not make it as a lamplighter, or a switchboard operator, or a pin-setter. Even if you can imagine it or make a great vision board for it… the jobs don’t exist.
The market had changed. The funding I would have needed wasn’t there. The profit on a $20 book was so minimal I’d need to sell hundreds of thousands of books to break even and that wasn’t how books sold. It didn’t matter how good they were if no one was buying them. The question mark was unsolvable.
After 5 months with no revenue and none in sight, I started to think about what that business coach had said…. Maybe I needed a niche.
Suddenly I found myself drawing inspiration from Ben’s 7 am meetings… I needed a business idea where the question mark could be turned into numbers.
There are ways to get paid as a writer without thinking about this stuff. I did it for 20 years. I was an editorial assistant, a staff writer, an acquisitions editor, a content marketer… but those are jobs. Being an author with a traditional book contract is kind of like being a business owner with one client: the publisher. You aren’t taking the risk on the book; the publisher is. Your money, if you can get this elusive gig, is tied to work product, not risk.
As a business owner, your product might be your writing (or speaking, or teaching, or thinking), but your revenue is funded by your ability to take risks, and the big risk of business ownership is answering the question of how do you connect a product or service to the revenue.
The answer is not making the product “good” by your definition and living into your vision boards.
The answer is having a plan to drive and convert traffic into paying customers. You can still get paid to write without figuring this out, it’s just not business ownership.
You don’t have to be a business owner to make money from your writing, but it’s good to understand why some business models work and others have gone the way of the Dodo bird. I have outlined three paths to making money with a book that work today. You can check them out at www.CanIWriteABook.com.