Income: Best Nonfiction Tactics

At this moment, I’m knee-deep in fun: writing and illustrating holiday books.

But, last week, a friend and I discussed some of our best nonfiction tactics. Some are definitely worth sharing immediately.

In nonfiction, there are at least three main ways to earn a steady income. (Some of these tactics apply to fiction, as well.)

1a) Lots of focused books

Write lots & lots of books. Preferably about a single, focused topic, if you’re using the “1,000 True Fans” business model. (And yes, that works.)

If you like that idea, this video explains the concept in detail.

1000 true fans from Anna Do on Vimeo.

PROS

  • You can write shorter, highly focused books, and price them low. (In Kindle, they’re sometimes categorized as “short reads.”)
  • Then, you can also “bundle” a bunch of those shorter books into one larger book, and charge a higher price (earning a far bigger royalty, per book sold), and still give your fans & readers a bargain.
  • Those larger books can also be published in print, via CreateSpace, Nook Press, etc. Your individual, per-book profits can be higher than with Kindle books, and libraries may buy your printed books, in bulk, one or two for every library in their networks.
  • The exposure you get from lots of good books is a great way to be noticed, quickly.  That moves you towards the tipping point of (theoretically) 1,000 true fans.

CONS

  • Your books must be very good (or at least very original) and stand out in the crowd. You must have a pretty good understanding of the field, too. (You can acquire this as you research.) Choose your niche wisely.
  • Unless you’re absolutely fascinated by the topic, by the time you get to the third or fourth book, you may be bored out of your mind. Worse, if you’re bored when you’re writing, your readers are likely to recognize that… and stop buying. So, the time and effort you invested up to that point…? Poof. Gone.
  • If you’re planning to outsource each of your books for $200 or less, or if you expect to use software (and a bunch of high-quality articles you’ve copied, online) to “spin” and turn out books… forget it. You must write your books with a compelling “voice” and viewpoint that’s unique to you.

1b) Lots of topical books

This is the model I describe in “How to Write Fast Books about Hot Topics in 10 Days or Less.”

Basically, you find a trending (or soon-to-trend) topic in the news (or in pop culture).

At the very least, I look at:

  • News headlines.
  • Words and phrases trending at Google and Twitter.
  • Upcoming movies, books in pre-order at Amazon, and trending TV series (and topics related to shows that Amazon Prime TV is testing).
  • Anything I see, online or off-, that makes me want to learn more.

And then I choose a topic (or question) that “glitters” for me. That is, I have a gut feeling that the topic is going to trend in the near future, and it seems like fun to research.

After that, you work crazy-as-a-loon long hours, researching & writing the book.

Then, you publish it via Kindle. (I recommend KDP Select, at least for the first 90 days. Then, people can “borrow” your Kindle book and you get paid for however many pages they read.)

After the first 90 days, if the “pages read” income isn’t significant, take your book out of KDP Select (but leave it in Kindle), and then publish it in a variety of markets via Draft2Digital.

And, you (hopefully) ride the exhilarating wave of popularity (and book sales) for a month or two, or longer.

Then… you do it again. New topic. New books/s.

I describe this in more detail in my article, Several Questions – Answered.

PROS

  • If you’re already interested in the topic, this can be so much fun, you don’t notice that you’re working 12- and 14-hour days. (If you have a day job, you can do most of the work over a single weekend.)
  • Your research can produce multiple books. They might be tightly focused niche topics. Or, you might write one book from one viewpoint (say, “true believer”) and a second one from the opposite angle (“rabid, frothing-at-the-mouth skeptic”). Tip: In New Age niches, skeptical books rarely sell as well as the “true believer” variety.
  • The money can be kind of amazing. Four figures per month, when it goes well. Even higher if you’re living a charmed life and you hit all the “hot spots” for eager readers: Brilliant topic, perfect editorial angle, superb research, eye-catching cover, and a title that grabs attention. Not necessarily in that order.
  • Some of these books remain popular for years. In one case, I’ve earned a high five figures from a book that took me less than a week to throw together.

CONS

  • Three or four long days into the topic, you may realize you’re just not that interested in it. The remaining long days can be excruciating.
  • Since the book is rushed, it will contain errors, not just typos. Some critics will rip you shreds over that. (My advice: Don’t read your reviews. If you absolutely must know what critics are saying, in case it’s valid: hire someone at Fiverr.com to skim the reviews and summarize them for you.)
  • Also, all the same warnings, listed above, related to writing lots of focused books.
  • The topic may flat-line so fast, your book never stands a chance. Only about 20% of my books have met that fate. But, I don’t flinch at working long hours for disappointing results. Not as long as 80% of the results are worth the time, effort, and exhaustion.

2) … Plus peripheral products and services

If you’re a pro (or can become one) in an area where people seek experts, coaches, courses, or peripheral products (worksheets, or related products you can make, outsource, or drop-ship), a few books can earn you a pretty good living.

The money won’t be so much from the books, as from everything else you’re selling.

Choose any somewhat popular niche.

I recommend anything related to a hobby or subject that’s interested you for years, preferably since childhood. Ideally, you already know a lot about the topic, and relish any excuse to delve more deeply into it.

Of course, make sure the niche isn’t saturated. However, I’ve yet to see any popular (or evergreen) niche with zero opportunities for specialization. (See the “long tail” discussed in the “1,000 True Fans” video, linked above.)

PROS

  • It’s easy to remain focused. You’re only interested (researching & writing) about one topic. You may need to cast a wider net, to include fresh insights — from other fields — in your work, but that’s what will help you stand out in the crowd. 90% of your work will be about one thing, and only that one thing.
  • There’s no limit to what you can add to your income streams, especially if you attract enthusiastic fans who buy all of your books. Sure, they’ll want your niche-related products… they may also want the baseball cap, the mouse pad, the coffee mug, the calendar, the coloring book, the blank journal, etc.
  • Adding a blog (perhaps with curated content and guest bloggers), plus some social media marketing, can be free, easy, fast marketing. Some authors compile and expand a collection of their own blog posts, and turn them into best-selling books.  (Using articles about being a successful author, Chuck Wendig — whose language will curl your hair — has done this, successfully.  Dean Wesley Smith has done this, as well.)

CONS

  • This isn’t as passive as a business model that’s wholly focused on book royalties.
  • You may be dependent on others. Whether you hire staff, use outsourcing or drop-shipping, someone needs to keep an eye on quality control. That part of this model can spread you fairly thin. Be prepared. Hire reliable staff, early.
  • If the bottom falls out of your specialty, you may need to start all over again, from scratch. Be very watchful of trends, especially if your focus is something that’s emerged in the past few years. But hey, that’s true of almost any niche (in nonfiction and everyday life), or even genre (in fiction).

3) …Or, become a celebrity

This is a business model I’ve stumbled onto, repeatedly. I seem to have a knack for it. (I’m not kidding, and that’s not self-aggrandizement. If you know me in real life, you know what I’m talking about.)

If I were to choose this deliberately, here’s what I’d do.

First, I’d look at my own interests. Specifically, anything I’m already enthusiastic about, that’s also related to a pop culture trend. (Preferably one that’s still in its early days, and gaining popularity steadily.)

Then, I’d look at existing books, TV shows, successful podcasts, and topics of panels/talks at related conventions and conferences. (For the broadest possible range of pop culture trends, start with past program lists from Comic-Con and Dragon Con.)

Then, I’d choose a slightly under-served niche, create a hybrid niche, or focus on one where I know I’m already an expert.

And then, I’d choose a pen name (for privacy), set up a blog with news related to the topic, as well as my own work (for fans to enjoy, when they discover me), and write lots of short, focused, fun books on my topic.

After that, I’d start applying to small, local conventions that are related to that general (or specific) area of fandom/enthusiasm.

And then, I’d build from there.

From fly fishing to the original Battlestar Gallactica, there are conventions related to any topic. Some are small, at public libraries. Others occupy multiple hotels in major cities, for three-day weekends.

The money in this business model can come from books. The more books you write & publish, the better.

However, far bigger income may result from personal appearances (and perhaps book signings) at conventions.

Even at the “C list” celebrity level, I could earn four figures per weekend, and all of my travel expenses were included. Often, I was given a really luxurious hotel suite, not just a Motel 6 room that was kinda-sorta near the event site. (The more popular you are, the better your accommodations will be.)

In most cases, all I had to do was speak (or be part of a panel) for a couple of hours during the weekend. And, there may have been a meet-and-greet or autograph session (or both), usually with yummy snacks and great conversations.

To be honest, I’d have gone to many of these events, free of charge, just to have time in the “green room.” That’s where the speakers & celebrities spend their free time, relaxing, and sometimes talking about everything except whatever they’re famous for.

The conversations are rich, delightful, and sometimes hilarious. I’ve treasured every one of them.

Tip: At first, you’ll market yourself and get your own gigs, sell your own books and merchandise, etc. Then, you’ll hire a manager (make sure your contract is great… ask a contract lawyer to review it). And, you’ll probably hire staff to man your event booth/table.

PROS

  • If you’re already enthusiastic about this topic, you won’t be “working.” You’ll enjoy every minute of it. Whether it’s scribbling blog posts, writing books, interacting with fans & fellow enthusiasts via social media and forums, or speaking at events… this can be non-stop fun. It won’t seem like work.
  • The money. I know people who appear at two fan-related events every weekend, every month. Just for showing up, they’re earning five figures per month… and that’s just on weekends. (Some of them have “day jobs,” as well.)
  • Every time you write a book, or create a related product, your “1,000 true fans” will buy it. For as long as you have loyal and enthusiastic fans, your income is guaranteed.

CONS

  • Events can be exhausting. And they take time away from your social life and personal relationships. Most celebrities I know limit themselves to one event per month, at the most. Fewer events = less income.
  • Some enthusiastic fans know no boundaries. If you’re a relatively private person, your privacy diminishes the more popular (and visible) you are. A few people (Tasha Tudor, J. D. Salinger, and others) have managed to achieve wild popularity while living somewhat reclusive lives. Whether you’re shopping for groceries or taking your kids to soccer practice, the fans will still stop you and ask for autographs. And they’ll want to talk. And talk. Some celebrities love that. Some don’t, and — as soon as it’s viable — they hire staff to minimize their exposure.
  • The more popular you are, the less privacy you have, in media, too. Critics will start making personal insults. Expect that. (See my advice above, about not reading your book reviews.) Anne Rice has been a high-profile example. Personally responding to her books’ snarky reviews may not have been a smart choice.
  • When the popularity of the topic collapses, your audience can diminish in a blink. The handwriting may have been on the wall for some time (I’m thinking of the recent cancellation of Ghost Hunters on SyFy. The phrase “docusoap” suggests the market had been declining for some time.) But, if you retain your 1,000 true fans… even a near-total collapse of the general fan base can be okay. Also, it might be an opportunity, because you’ll have far less competition for book buyers and fans.

Nonfiction can earn as well as — or better than — fiction

Fiction writing can be an easier choice for some writers.

Your books never have to be updated. New fans will continue to discover you… forever.

Many fiction authors — especially indie authors — can earn a comfortable, full-time living from their book royalties, and nothing else. No book signings, no personal appearances at events, etc. That can be appealing.

However, for those who can look “outside the box” (or perhaps “outside the books”), nonfiction can provide a stronger income and a more interesting, diversified lifestyle.

Fiction and nonfiction share a lot in common. But, looking at them as business models, you’ll see some sharp contrasts.

Choose the one with the most appeal, for now. You can always shift gears (and pen names) if you change your mind.

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