The Business of Writing Books

by · May 9, 201239 comments

A number of my friends either are, or plan to soon be, writing their first books. I’m really excited for them. I was in their shoes a year ago, plowing through writes, rewrites and edits, putting thoughts on paper and hoping someone out there would think the topic was interesting enough to plop down $24 for a book about it.

All of the folks I’m referring to, in addition to several others, have asked me if writing a book is worth it. While there are few thrills for someone who classifies themselves as a writer more pleasing than seeing your name on a real, hard-bound piece of literature on the shelves of a real bookstore, I thought it appropriate to share a few thoughts with you on the value of writing a book.

The Book-Only Perspective

From a strictly business perspective, and looking at the book project as a singular business venture, writing a book is a horrible idea. This doesn’t mean it’s not worth doing … keep reading. But the simple math looks like this (based on my experience as well as conversations with other author friends):

  • The average book advance for a first-time author is probably $10,000 to $15,000.
  • The average time it will take you to research and write your first book (assuming it’s a 300-page, business book) is probably about 100 hours.
  • The average time it will take you to edit your first book (same assumptions) is probably about 25 hours.
  • The average time it will take you to plan the marketing and promotions of your first book, including booking speaking gigs and the like, is probably about 10 hours.
  • The average time you will spend on the road promoting and speaking about your first book, provided you want to aggressively sell the bejeezus out of it and perhaps even hit a few best-seller lists, is about another 100 hours (and that’s conservative).
  • So let’s say you get paid a $15,000 advance and put in 235 hours. You’re basically getting paid about $64 per hour.
  • The $15,000 is an advance on your royalties. So you don’t actually get paid more than that until your book sells enough copies to account for $15,000 of your cut. This is probably going to be about 10,000-12,000 books. Most modestly successful business books sell about 5,000-8,000 copies. So, chances are, you’re not going to see a dime beyond the $15,000.

I don’t know about you, but my hourly rate is a bit north of $64. So looking at a book deal alone, it’s a no-brainer: Go do something else.


Bookshelf (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Honestly, if you self-publish, you can earn far more than the $2.00 or so per book you’ll get with a publishing company. But you don’t have distribution channels like Barnes & Noble, etc., to help you, so you’re sacrificing reach for per-book profit. While many, like Mark Schaefer, have self-published very successfully, I can tell you from personal experience that Scott Stratten could never have texted me from Melbourne, Australia, to say he just saw No Bullshit Social Media in a store had I not been with a legit publisher.

I’m sure Mark and several other self-publishers have made more than $15,000 on their books. But you’re going to need a large online audience and a hell of a topic for your book to be able to hit that number. For me, self-publishing is not a smart route if you don’t have a built-in audience of 50,000 or more blog readers, Twitter followers and the like that can account for buying 5,000 or so books. No, the numbers don’t sound high on what you need to sell, but it’s harder to get people to buy that many than you think.

And depending upon your content, maybe a paid e-book or even a “report” is a better option. Social Media Explorer is about to launch our first market research report, The Conversation: What Customers Are Saying About Banking. It will be priced at around $300 (for an approximate 100-page report) and focused on a narrow industry. But if we sell just 50 of them, the revenue will greatly exceed what I’ve made from my first book, thus far.

The Book-Plus Perspective

The reason you actually write and publish a book is not to make money from sales. Unless you’re Stephen King. You write and publish a book for credibility. That credibility allows you to charge more for what you did before.

As a social media marketing consultant, my hourly rate increased. As a professional public speaker, my fee increased. In a matter of days (on or around Sept. 15, 2011), my hourly rate jumped $50 per hour (which was conservative … I could have gone up $150). My speaking fees almost doubled. (I’m still one of the cheapest social media keynote speakers on the market, though.)

As a result, I’ve probably pulled in about $40,000 in additional revenue from September 15, 2011 until now. When you look at that perspective, writing a book is a no-brainer: Write your ass off!

But Honestly …

The worst thing I could do here is mislead you. There’s a lot more that goes into the Book-Plus perspective than just getting a book published. I know a number of people who have published books who didn’t already have an established presence or professional public speaking career to speak of and, thus, weren’t able to capitalize on the opportunity.

Sure, they raised their rates, but a book alone isn’t going to allow you to go from charging $100 per hour to $200 per hour. You’re going to need a sizable online following or audience, some strong client pedigree and the drive to go after clients willing to pay more for your services. You’re not going to be able to go from charging $2,000 for a speaking engagement to $5,000 without that same sizable audience, some really crisp keynote talks and some word-of-mouth buzz that you’re good at holding a room and delivering a great talk.

Having a book brings you credibility, but it’s not going to close the deal for you. You’re still going to have to be a stud at lots of other things before you can make “published author” translate to more dollars.

There are lots of other secrets and insights I could share about being an author, the book writing process, the book publishing world and the like. But those are for another time. (Not to mention, I don’t want to make my publisher any more freaked out than they are that I wrote this. Heh.) This gives you what I think is an honest look at what the business of writing a book is really like. Hopefully, it will help you figure out whether or not you want to dive in and get published.

Good luck!


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About Jason Falls

Jason Falls

Jason Falls is the founder and chief instigator for Social Media Explorer's blog. He is a leading thinker, speaker and strategist in the world of digital marketing and is co-author of two books, No Bullshit Social Media: The All-Business, No-Hype Guide To Social Media Marketing and The Rebel's Guide To Email Marketing. By day, he leads digital strategy for CafePress, one of the world's largest online retailers. His opinions are his, not necessarily theirs. Follow him on Twitter (@JasonFalls).

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Comments on Social Media Explorer are open to anyone. However, I will remove any comment that is disrespectful and not in the spirit of intelligent discourse. You are welcome to leave links to content relevant to the conversation, but I reserve the right to remove it if I don't see the relevancy. Be nice, have fun. Fair?

  • Mark W. Schaefer

    Jason, thank you very much for this fresh and honest perspective. I am also a little concerned about the wild-eyed book writing frenzy out there right now with very unrealistic expectations.

    Like any other content, we have to be able to IGNITE it for it to be successful.  Here is something for budding authors to ponder: If you are unable to get traction on your blog, why do you think you would you get traction on a book? You have to have some sort of a network strategy in place to ignite a book these days, some sort of brand to connect to an audience. A book must be viewed as another piece of content that you want to go “viral.”

    You’ve inspired me to write about my own publishing experience. It has worked out well for me, too. But it took years of very hard work to get to that point. And you know what? The direct and indirect income has been nice but there was also quite a thrill when I saw my book “Return On Influence” in a New York City book store on the same shelf as your book Jason. A very surreal kind of bonding experience!

    Thanks for the superb post.

    • JasonFalls

      It certainly has been a fun ride, hasn’t it, Mark? I’m glad we’ve been there together, my friend.

      And thanks for sharing your experiences and knowledge over the years, both with me and with your audience. We’re all better off for it, sir.

  • Kerry Applin

    Great article. A book was never something I considered. With the advent of the e-books I’m finding myself even more disillusioned about writing. When a celeb like Whitney Huston dies and there are a bunch of memorial books available on line before we even know what happened. I can’t help think that its even harder to be heard above the noise. Large following or not.

    • JasonFalls

      Good perspective, Kerry. I think the signal and noise varies by genre and vertical, but there’s a lot of bad books out there, for sure.

  • Lori Johnson

    Jason, I am in the process of reading your book which I acquired after attending the Explore Nashville event.  I used to work for a large publisher here in Nashville.  It is true that if a potential author does not have a following it can be hard for even an established publisher with big name distributors to get them the exposure they need to sell. Just because a big store stocks your book doesn’t guarantee that the book will be at eye level with the cover facing out.  It could end up on the bottom shelf with the spine showing.  I’m glad that you were honest about the fact that not many people write books in order to make a living.  Their living really does come from speaking and other programs that extend the readers experience with that author.  My heart really breaks anytime someone comes to me saying they have a book in their heart that they know is going to be very successful.  Even successful authors don’t always have a good following for everything they write.  And about advances…thanks again for being honest about that although, I never saw my particular publisher extend 10 to 15k for anyone.  The average for us was around 5k.  That was only about 4 years ago.

    For most social media consultants, writing a book should probably be something that is meant to be helpful for the intended audience or a giveaway that is in exchange for contact information.  I think that it would be better to write an extended version of a blog post that does really well and sell it or give it away to gain opportunities to speak or promote other programs.

    • JasonFalls

      Great perspective, Lori. Thanks for chiming in. I’m sure my range of people I polled to get my average advance total was skewed a bit. Maybe the average advance is lower, which exacerbates the issue. Thanks for that additional info.

  • Kat French

    Interesting stuff, since I’m in the middle of getting my first book published as well. My case is pretty different, since my book is fiction. I’m not getting an advance because I’m working with a really small indie publisher. I’m using the experience to learn more about the fiction publishing industry and process. 

    But you know me; I’m always thinking three moves ahead. What I learn from this experience will determine whether I decide future fiction work will be self-published, or I put some energy in to pitching a bigger traditional publisher, or whether I discover that working with an agile indie publisher and taking on most of the heavy lifting in promotion is a happy medium that’ll work long term. Congrats again, J. Hope things are going well with you and Aaron @ SME.

    • JasonFalls

      Very proud of you, Kat. And anxious to meet up and compare notes soon. Would love to know more about the fiction side of the aisle.

      • Kat French

        Let’s do that soon, man. If you’re ever in the downtown area at lunch or early evening, we should get together. 

      • Kat French

        Let’s do that soon, man. If you’re ever in the downtown area at lunch or early evening, we should get together. 

  • unmarketing

    I think that text cost me $3 to send. I’ll take it out of your royalties

    • JasonFalls

      Send invoice to: Que Publishing, P.O. Box … Heh.

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  • Jay Garmon

    The $10,000-$15,000 advance is very much a business/non-fiction rate. First time fiction advances are in in the $3000-$6000 range for just as much work and a much lower sales ceiling. (this assumes there is even an advance, as lots of publishers outside the Big 6 don’t offer an advance, but pay higher-than-standard royalty rates. They can get away with this because most of those sales will be ebooks, and ebook royalties are much easier for authors to independently monitor to avoid being screwed.) Full time book writing is a rarefied profession you achieve only after writing books as a sideline for quite a while — for yeoman’s wages.

    • JasonFalls

      Thanks for the perspective, Jay. It certainly gives the successful authors some peeks at royalty checks, but you’re right … it’s still not a lucrative business.

    • Kat French

      Very much agreed, Jay. But if you love telling stories and love writing and books… well, I view it as an apprenticeship/journeyman cost in time or lowered income in learning to make a living doing what you love.

      Jordan Stratford–another fiction author who’s got a background in marketing and advertising–has some really good math-heavy blog posts about this subject: 

  • Craig Kessler

    Interesting to hear different thoughts on non-fiction/business to fiction.  I also think there are different reasons to write both.  Fiction may also have a lower advance (if any) but typically has a broader reach than non-fiction books (unless it’s the Steve Jobs type of books).  @Kat, I’m curious why you didn’t go after a big publisher from the beginning.

    • Kat French

      Serendipity, Craig. I joined a writers group about a year ago and made friends with some local authors. One posted on FB that her small indie publisher had an open call for submissions for an anthology of steampunk fairy tales. I’d wanted to try my hand at steampunk, and figured you have to submit your first query and collect your first rejection sometime, so I sent it in. Was not at all expecting to be chosen. Figured after I was rejected, I’d write it anyway and shop it around to some other publishers. Maybe some big ones.
      My query was one of four selected, so I’ve spent my spring writing and editing a 20,000 word novella. I’ve already learned a lot; there are benefits and drawbacks to all three options. I’m still enjoying working in marketing full time, so publishing with a small indie press takes the drudgery stuff (editing, proofreading, layout, cover design, etc.) off my back. I’m left with the two orders of business I enjoy and am already good at: writing the prose, and promoting stuff online. 

    • Kat French

      Serendipity, Craig. I joined a writers group about a year ago and made friends with some local authors. One posted on FB that her small indie publisher had an open call for submissions for an anthology of steampunk fairy tales. I’d wanted to try my hand at steampunk, and figured you have to submit your first query and collect your first rejection sometime, so I sent it in. Was not at all expecting to be chosen. Figured after I was rejected, I’d write it anyway and shop it around to some other publishers. Maybe some big ones.
      My query was one of four selected, so I’ve spent my spring writing and editing a 20,000 word novella. I’ve already learned a lot; there are benefits and drawbacks to all three options. I’m still enjoying working in marketing full time, so publishing with a small indie press takes the drudgery stuff (editing, proofreading, layout, cover design, etc.) off my back. I’m left with the two orders of business I enjoy and am already good at: writing the prose, and promoting stuff online. 

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  • Geoff Livingston

    This post has officially proven to me that I am a glutton for punishment.  Why do I keep doing this after earning my first stripe?  Ugh! I must want to be an author or something!

  • dwaynekilbourne

    Thanks for sharing your inside perspective. I like that you provided varied prospective approaches. As a self-published author looking at more ideas going forward, I appreciate you showing the dual side of self-publishing. Certainly, if you have a love for writing [about whatever topic], that is a good thing and should be taken into consideration! Of course, it also comes down to opportunity costs, but it is very true that few things beat holding your first book in hand… having your name on the cover! 

  • jaybaer

    Truly fantastic post, Jason. I agree with every word of it. I wouldn’t have done it any other way, however. Not sure yet what I’ll do next, but the Book Plus model has been kind to me, to-date. 

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  • Katherine Bull

    Great balanced article about being an author, Jason. You nailed many of the pros/cons with going with a traditional publisher vs self-publishing.  

    The one thing – and I hate pointing out the ONE thing – that is off is the $10-15k advance for a first time author in the tech space. If it is two first time authors, that can be true; But the number is probably more in the $4k-$8k range for a first timer. Why? Because new authors are untested and a publisher needs to balance the financial risk if the author chokes. As you said, writing a book is really hard and there is percentage of signed authors who don’t make it. Mitigating the risk doesn’t mean I know an author is going to choke. In fact I do everything I can to make sure that doesn’t happen. An acquisition editor takes into consideration many factors for the amount of advances and royalties . The length of the book or ebook; how fast an author can write a book if the publisher wants it out as fast as humanly possible for competitive reason; the first year forecast for unit/revenue sales; how the P&L works with that advance entered as a line item;  shelf life of a book; how much people want to read about a particular subject; how big of a reach an author has in the end-user market (and not in the echo chamber but into big and small corporations); and many more.

    I think it is hard for people to reconcile that a book is a product. It isn’t any different than a piece of software or a new model of a car. I do a P&L for every product – from the shortest e-book to the 700 page coding book. If the P&L doesn’t work, the author won’t get signed.

    My viewpoint is that a good deal is a good deal for everyone. First timers might feel disappointed with the level of an advance and royalties. It is important for people to remember that if your first book sells well, an author will often get a bigger deal on the second book. 


    • JasonFalls

      And just so everyone knows, Katherine is my editor. ;-)

      • Katherine Bull

        So sorry everyone, I probably should have done some sort of disclosure. My goal was to provide additional information from an editor inside a traditional publishing company. 

        From the author side there are also factors for you to consider. Do you need the cash through the six months of writing? Would you prefer a slightly bigger royalty in lieu of cash? How will the “soft” benefits that Jason mentions impact your business and revenue in the long run?Really,  there are myriad factors to think about on both sides of the equation to get to a mutually beneficial business relationship. The worst way to start out an author/publisher relationship is with resentment about the terms of a contract. I try really hard to not have that happen because a good author/editor relationship is so key to producing a great book. 

  • DJ Waldow

    Love your “No Bullshit” straightforward, tell-it-how-you-see it perspective, Mr. Falls. That’s all I’ll say for now.

  • David B. Thomas

    Great stuff, Jason, and very helpful (and typical) of you to lay out what has often been shrouded in mystery. For me as a corporate marketer rather than a consultant, my social media book helped me gain credibility in an area where there are a lot of people claiming enterprise social media credentials. It also helped me get the awesome job I have now, and adds a cachet to customer meetings and speaking gigs.

  • Jim Kukral

    The problem is, well, one of the problems is, that 99.9999% of the people reading this post won’t be able to get a “book deal”. The business is rapidly changing. Traditional publishers aren’t signing authors like they used to, and it was hard even before all these changes. So really the only option is to self-publish.

    I have a “traditionally” published book out, and since then have self-published 7 books on my own, in less than a year. I can tell you that those books have done way more for me financially than the other one. If you run the numbers and look closely at the contracts, getting a book contract is simply a bad business decision. So the question to everyone is, why are you writing the book? If it’s for the vanity of having a “publisher” then go for it, but in terms of dollars and cents and everything else, it makes zero sense.

    Here are a couple of reasons to back up that statement.

    1. You don’t own your content. The publisher does. Want to change it? Redo it? Reuse it? Want to change the price or the cover? Sell it someplace else? You can’t without their permission. Bad business to let someone else own your concepts.

    2. The average author who gets a book contract will earn 17.5% commission on the book “after” the first run of books “earns out”, or equivalently your signing bonus is “paid back”. As Jason mentioned, that’s very, very hard to do. Bad business decision to get so little monetarily from your work.

    Don’t get me wrong. If you can get a book deal and you that’s what you want, go for it. Just weigh your options first. Whatever you do, do not have any clauses in your contract that says you have to do the next book with them. Keep your options open.

    Finally, if you don’t want to believe me, read this first, then make your own opinion.

    • JasonFalls

      Figured this one might get your attention, Jim. Love your perspective and appreciate your experimentation in the publishing world. You certainly are a self-publishing resource for us all! Thanks buddy.

      • Jim Kukral

        By the way, writing a book is ABSOLUTELY worth it, to answer your original question. It’s the best business card you will EVER have, believe me. Do it!

  • AddMe

    Maybe this area of business could help people decrease the time spending online at FB and other social networks?

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