The Business of Writing Books
The Business of Writing Books
by Jason Falls

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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