#1: Writers who don’t care about making money with their books.
#2: And writers who do care.
The writers who don’t care—the creatives, the artists—they have a story they HAVE to share … regardless of whether they make money or sell many books.
Many memoirists fall into this category. They have a lived experience that has meant so much to them that they have to get their story out of their head and their heart … and hopefully some people will read—and buy—their books, but making money is not why they write.
To be clear, it’s not that these writers are opposed to making money, it’s just that money isn’t what’s driving them. They’d write even if they didn’t make a single dime. And many of them will spend many, many dimes to help them write the best book they can: on writing conferences, book coaches, self-publishing, and marketing costs.
Their "return on investment" is not measured in dollars; it’s measured in the satisfaction of holding their book in their hands and seeing other readers holding that book in their hands too.
This is largely me as I approach the finish line with my memoir, Graveyard of Safe Choices. The worst-case scenario for me is not that I won’t sell a lot of books and make a lot of money, it’s that I won’t actually finish my book and publish it. Accomplishing that goal—getting my story, my truth, onto the page, and into the hands of readers—is my primary motivation.
The writers who do care about money are the entrepreneurs, the people who typically don’t consider themselves to be writers first. They have a business they want to grow, a brand they want to nurture, and they wonder if a book will help them achieve those goals. Is it worth the time and money and effort to write that book? What’s their return on investment?
These writers' lives will still feel complete even if they never publish a book … and yet, they'd like to write and publish that book. They have something to say, and they know that becoming a published author will level up their visibility, and hopefully in the long run, will help them make more money.
So let’s get real, and talk numbers:
The publishing world is divided into two big camps: Traditional Publishing and Self Publishing, sometimes called Hybrid or Indie Publishing
In traditional publishing, the publisher assumes the financial risk upfront. Writers do not pay to publish. The Big Five, aka as New York publishers Penguin/Random House. Hachette Book Group. Harper Collins. Simon and Schuster, and Macmillan pay the author what's called an advance, which is an advance on the sales they expect for the book. A typical advance for a first-time author is between $5,000-10,000, although depending on the book, it could be much higher.
So let's say you receive a $7500 advance. After you give 15% to your agent—note: an agent is almost always required for the bigger publishers— that would mean that you’d earn $6375 upfront, more if your book sells beyond the advance. The same rules apply for smaller or university presses—you, the author, do not pay any upfront costs. And you receive a percentage, a royalty of the books sold. With smaller presses, sometimes there is no advance, and if there is, it can be as low as $500.
With Hybrid/Indie/Self Publishing, the writer bears the upfront costs, which typically start at $2,000 but can go much, much higher. The writer keeps a much higher percentage of royalties. For example, if you publish through Amazon’s self-publishing arm, KDP, you receive 70% of royalties on your book sales.
But here’s the reality: the average U.S. nonfiction book sells less than 250 copies per year and less than 3,000 copies over its lifetime.
You, of course, can beat those odds by being savvy about marketing your book.
But when you do the math, you’ll see that most authors will not make a lot of money from book sales. It’s unlikely you’ll be able to buy that island in the Caribbean and sip margaritas for the rest of your days.
That’s the truth about book sales.
So you may be thinking, why would anyone write a book if they cared about making money?
Here’s why: While you are unlikely to make significant money on your book sales, there are many other ways to make money with books.
Take the business coach who has a book she’s self-published and it’s available on Amazon as an ebook and as a printed book. However, she also occasionally gives away a PDF of her book on her website in exchange for people's emails.
She gives it away! But people who downloaded this coach’s free book become aware of her consulting services and training programs and eventually buy them. She brings in multiple six-figure revenues because her book became part of her brand, part of her sales funnel.
So as an entrepreneur, start thinking less about book sales, and more about how a book can fit into your long-range growth strategy. Think about how you can build and deepen relationships with readers, who may ultimately convert to become clients.
Think about your own experiences. You start with the book first—it's a low investment (or even a giveaway). Take the book on author platform that cost me $10.89. I liked what the author had to say. I went to their website. I checked out their offerings. The book brought me into the coach's universe. I joined his email list. And next thing I knew … I was buying an online course from him. I was thinking about doing some private coaching. This happens to me all the time!
So book sales or giveaways can lead to new clients, expert status, and speaking gigs. When's the last time you heard a prominent speaker who didn’t have a book?
With my memoir, Graveyard of Safe Choices, I want to start a conversation with women at midlife about listening to and trusting their inner voices. And even though my primary motivation isn’t financial, I do hope that some of my readers will go to my website and check out my book coaching offerings. I hope that my book will help me get more speaking engagements that will further level up my profile as not only an author but also as a book coach who specializes in working with women at midlife.
I hope you're starting to see how it’s all connected. As you publicize and market your book, you are publicizing and marketing your business.
What’s the conversation you’d like to start with your book? And who’d you like to start it with?
#1: Understand what’s driving you to write your book, and the role money is playing in that motivation.
#2: If money isn’t what’s driving you to write your book, relax! The satisfaction of getting your story out into the world, of holding your book in your hands, is a totally legitimate way of thinking about your “return on investment.”
#3: If you’re motivated by money, be realistic about what you can make from book sales alone and think of your book in the broader context as part of building your brand.