This morning, I’m inspired by Seth Godin’s latest article, Looking for the Trick.
As I see it, there are two ways to earn a good income from books. (There’s also a hybrid version, which I’ll talk about later in this article.)
The hungry audience
One way is to find a desperately hungry audience — readers who are so frantic for the kinds of books they enjoy reading, they’ll buy and read almost anything. For them, “good enough” can be good enough… until really great writers show up and offer them something better.
That’s true in fiction and in nonfiction.
The more books you publish, the more you can earn. Book quality, cover design, book title, and book description… each can be a factor, but the basic business model is, “Find a hungry niche. Publish lots of books in it. Make money.”
The only tricky parts of the equation are (a) finding a category with desperate fans, and (b) throwing enough “good enough” books at them.
And, of course, when to move on to the next hungry-but-underserved audience.
On this path, publishing books is “just business.” To succeed with this model, you MUST separate yourself from how you feel about your books. You cannot care about snarky one-star reviews, and jeers by competing authors.
Income is all that matters. As long as the money is there, don’t change anything.
The realm of your passions
The other business models relies far less on marketing.
(If you’re at all practical, category research is probably a good idea. Not imperative, but a good idea. Obviously, Neil Gaiman can write anything he wants, and his books will sell. As he describes his process, “I make things up and write them down.” But, even Neil Gaiman had to build his career, gradually.)
Let’s say you love the Victorian era. If you could “live” in that era, in your mind, and write books, that would be bliss. So, you might write Victorian romance, mysteries, adventures, steampunk, dreadpunk, or books in any other genre that can be kinda-sorta set in a Victorian context.
Or, maybe you’re a nonfiction writer, and love producing books about the latest weight-loss trends, or musing about royalty, past and present.
Perhaps you wake up each day, eager to see the latest news about UFOs, reptilian aliens, or treasure hunting opportunities. You can hardly wait to share your enthusiasm with others, in your books.
If you know that there’s an audience — even a small one — and you write with passion, insights, and originality, you can build a successful career as an author/publisher. Whether it’s as fast a route to success as the first business model… that’s a coin flip.
With either of these two approaches, you don’t have to have a bazillion eager fans.
The 1000 True Fans rule applies: Produce enough things (books, audios, courses, mouse pads… whatever) that your 1000-or-so fans keep buying, and you’re set for life.
(If you like that concept, here’s Kevin Kelly explaining it in 2016.)
But, whether or not the 1000 True Fans concept seems practical, the real question is which business model will make you happier, long term.
(I’m assuming that — until we live in a Star Trek-ish reality with a guaranteed basic income — paying your bills is an essential part of “happier.”)
Each of those two business models — publishing for money or writing for love — can involve equal amounts of passion and energy. Each can be equally satisfying, depending upon your goals.
With one approach, you take pride in your ability to meet audience demand quickly, with just enough effort to see your income grow.
With the other, you’re immersed in a very personal world where you are happy. Money is secondary. You’re thrilled if you can earn enough to “live” in the world of your books, every day. Or even a few hours a day. Or on weekends.
Is a hybrid path the answer?
Many aspiring authors decide on a hybrid path.
That’s a business model that uses “hungry audience” book categories as a springboard to achieve your long-terms goals as an author.
To start, you can spend hours (days, or even weeks) researching different book categories, to find desperate, under-served readers. Then, you’ll identify the essential tropes necessary to sell to them.
Or, you’ll pay a consultant (or join a related mastermind-ish group) to identify those categories and tropes for you.
And then you’ll publish books in the recommended categories.
That income will pay the bills while you work on your true love… the books you love to write.
Fingers crossed, by the time you’ve hit burnout as a “good enough” publisher, your own books are reaching an appreciative audience and the income is good.
At that point, you no longer need the “good enough” books to pay the bills.
But, as Godin suggests in his article, that hybrid path can be the most toxic choice among the three. No matter how “quick, cheap, and easy” the shortcuts seem… sometimes, they aren’t.
Shortcuts – do they cost too much?
There’s the financial cost of business consultants & memberships, hiring ghostwriters, and advertising.
There’s the emotional cost. To be honest, turning out “good enough” books can feel like a sham. It can erode your creative soul and embitter you.
But, being practical, you say to yourself, “It’s this or working in fast food,” while you’re building the career of your dreams.
(Okay, it may not be that extreme. However, even a pretty good 9-to-5 job — more like an 8-to-7 job, now — can leave you with little energy for your own writing. “Publishing to market” — as some call the first, hungry market business model — can be a far better alternative.)
On the flip side, if you pour your heart and soul into your own books, you run the risk of not being recognized for your work… not in your lifetime, anyway.
(You may also pour buckets of money into high-priced editors, cover designers, and book marketers.)
You can feel just as jaded as the “I’m in it for the money” indie publisher.
So, neither path is a sure thing. Even the “it’s just a business” approach can fall flat, if a book category isn’t as viable as it looked… or if (and when) too many others start exploiting it.
Sometimes, decisions aren’t easy
If you’re trying to earn a living wage from books, trial-and-error may be necessary.
I’ve been a full-time writer/author/publisher for over a dozen years now. I used to write for sites like Suite 101 and for Write For Cash, earning $15 per article. I averaged about $10/hour, and supplemented it with Google AdSense income, back when that was viable.
I still work with traditional publishers. I’m still under contract, but only for books I write in a specific nonfiction sub-niche. I also write large portions of seasonal, traditionally published anthologies.
And, I’ve been self-published (indie) for decades.
My current business model (late 2016)
Right now, my hybrid to-do list includes a tangle of book projects. Over the next year, I hope to narrow it to two main categories.
- As of September 2016, I’ve spent months writing short fiction in “hungry audience” sub-genres. Fortunately, I like these sub-genres. (This route isn’t as easy as it sounds in sales letters.)
- I’m writing nonfiction in a niche I love, and where I have some fame. But — to be honest — that audience tends not to buy books. (I absolutely love my fans. Thank heavens for Kindle Unlimited “pages read” income, and libraries that buy print copies of my books.)
- I’m publishing coloring books and related nonfiction, which provides a little more income each month. They’re fun, and the fan mail is wonderful.
- I’m writing the occasional topical book (my fast nonfiction) for quick cash. It’s exhausting but profitable… in spurts.
- And, I’m working on short fiction in sub-genres that I’m more-or-less making up. They’re what I enjoy, but even those short books take time… lots of time, as I weave story threads in my mind. I scribble long passages on pads of lined, yellow paper. And then I rewrite them the next day. Gradually, those stories take shape.
With lots of different book projects providing income, I’m able to put any one kind of work to one side, if I need a break from it. I’ll return to it, weeks or months later, with a positive outlook and fresh energy.
However, books and creative projects are my “day job.” Every morning, I can choose what to work on. I know that I’m lucky/blessed in that respect.
Are you making great stuff?
So, I’m looking at Seth Godin’s article, and nodding my head in agreement. Making great stuff is the best path of all.
The challenge for most of us is: finding a personal path that’s practical, but leaves us enough energy & enthusiasm to pursue our great stuff.
The answer is not one-size-fits-all. Some false starts may be involved, and a few glimmers may fizzle out.
Of course, guard your bank account. Investing in every “shiny thing” that shows up in your mailbox or in conversation… that’s a Very Bad Idea.
But, more importantly, guard your creative soul. If you’re doing anything that puts it in jeopardy, look for another, better path.
“Overnight success” may not be on your menu of options.
Find a path you’re contented with. Find one that — even if it meanders — is leading you in the direction of your dreams.
And, if you have a minute or two, let me know what that is. Leave a comment. I’d love to know what you’re working on, and what you’d love to be writing.