Book Week: The Economics of Writing a Book

This week I’m focusing on books and the book business.  Today I’ll be covering the money thing for authors, and tomorrow I’ll be reviewing a book I like for both the content and the business.  Enjoy!

Now that I’m holding a physical copy of our book in my hand, the pain of the experience has started to fade, and I can write about it with an open mind.

Books Are Products

Publishing is a business.  Every book publisher needs to get a return on their investment in you – and yes, they do make an investment in you.  You might think you’re the one doing all the work, but the publishers have to pay for:

  • Editors to check your work
  • Graphic artists to redraw your illustrations and design the cover
  • Layout pros to turn your Word doc into something printable
  • Lawyers to manage all the contracts
  • Professional sadists who love asking you if you’re done yet
  • Marketing people to convince mainstream bookstores to carry your work
  • And oh yes, the printed books themselves.  Ever notice those thousands of books in the clearance bin?  They cost just as much to print as the ones that sell for full price.

The amount of revenue they bring in for your book needs to be higher than the expenses, which means they need to sell as many copies as possible for as much money as possible.  Some publishers give away their books – but that doesn’t mean they’re willing to sink money into an unlimited number of books willy-nilly.  They’re often using these books as marketing bait in order to get emails from prospective customers.  They want to publish books that will result in a maximum number of downloads (and future customers).

So how do publishers figure out whether the book is a good gamble?  Here’s the book with the perfect odds of success:

  • Good Subject – A book on a subject that’s highly in demand
  • No Competition – No other books cover that subject matter, thereby ensuring readers will buy this one instead of others
  • Author with Expertise – An author who’s extremely experienced with the book’s subject
  • Author with Experience – An author who’s written many a book before and knows how to write well
  • Author with Time – like Jobs said, artists ship.  The book has to get done before the subject matter is no longer interesting or before other competitors move in.
  • Author with Draw – a “brand name” author who readers will actively look for on bookstore shelves.  Even better if the author will actively promote the book, like showing it on all their presentations, do webcasts about it, and blog about it.

Add up all that, and you’ve got the perfect book – but most of the time, this stuff doesn’t add up.  For example, authors don’t have enough time or expertise on a particular subject matter inside the book, so they bring in coauthors (with more time and/or expertise.)  In fact, if you don’t have expertise but you do have the time, you might find yourself getting sucked into book deals as a coauthor just because they’re desperate to get the book out on time.  If you want to be involved in a book, look at that formula to figure out where you’ve got an edge, and then look for other people who need your edge.  If there’s a published author with a book on SQL Server 2008 replication, maybe they’ll need a coauthor on their updated SQL Server 2008 R2 edition.  If you’ve got replication experience, you can offer your services, and presto – you’re in the biz.  Next thing you know, you’ll be the one pitching your own book to publishers.

Pitching Your Book Means Pitching Your Formula

I didn’t pitch our book to Wiley – Christian Bolton did that – but I’ve talked to a bunch of authors about the pitching experience.  (Not the catching experience, though.) Pitching a book involves taking that above formula and improving it with the best possible odds.

Subject – publishers want to know that a lot of people are interested in the subject.  You can prove this out with web statistics on your blog, viewership numbers on webcasts, or search engine trending numbers.  You could also prove it by looking at the sales for other books on the same topic, but if there’s more than a few, you’re going to have problems with…

Competition – search online bookstores for other books on the same subject.  Buy them (although, if you’re proposing to write a book on the subject, you probably own them already), and evaluate their strengths and weaknesses.

Expertise – the publisher probably doesn’t know you, and they’re going to want the equivalent of a job interview.  Can you prove you have the skills to cover the topic well?  The last thing the publisher wants is another James Frey.

Experience – getting a book contract is like getting a job as a DBA; you can’t get a job without experience, and you can’t get experience without a job.  The trick is to start by working as a technical editor for someone else’s book, which gets you involved in the bookmaking process in a safe way.  I’ll save the editing process for another blog entry.

Time – prove to the publisher that you can get the book out the door before a product version change or new competitors come in.  If you have any hobbies, friends, or relatives, that’s going to be a drawback, and you’ll need to bring in coauthors.  Don’t even think about doing your first book by yourself – it’s possible, but a recipe for trouble.

Draw – just like you think you’re not experienced, you probably think you don’t have draw.  You’re wrong.  As an online geek, you already have a big head start – you can create a blog, do presentations, and generally work your rear off to promote the book.  Publishers want someone who’s going to work just as hard after the book hits the shelves, and these days, you can make more than just royalties.  These days, I think this last point is even more important than the writing parts, because…

Writing Doesn’t Pay

No, No One Stole the Radio
No, No One Stole the Radio

One of the cheapest cars on the market is the 2010 Hyundai Accent 3-door in the “Blue” spec.  The “Blue” refers to the buyer in more ways than one.  Your face will turn blue as you roll the windows up and down manually, because there’s no air conditioning.  You shouldn’t try it while you’re driving, either, because there’s no antilock brakes or stability control.  Besides, you need to focus on shifting gears – no fancypants automatic transmission here.  About the only thing “Blue” doesn’t refer to is Rhythm & Blues, because you won’t be listening to any music in this penalty box – that’s right, no radio.  You’ll regret this purchase every time you turn the key – and I mean the key in the door, because there’s no power locks or keyless entry.

Work your rear off every night and weekend for a year straight to bang out a book, you’ll make just enough advance money to buy this beauty, pay the taxes, and insure her for a year.  Maybe even get gas, if you’re lucky.  Your spouse may never forgive you for leaving them alone for so long, but on the bright side, they won’t ask for the car as part of the divorce settlement.

Divide out the author work between multiple people, and it gets easier – but pays even less money.  I make more in a day of consulting than I made sweating over two chapters for months.  And royalties?  Forget about it – once you split the checks up between multiple authors, you’re not making much of anything.

Oh, and remember – this is advance money – you don’t really own it yet.  The publisher is loaning you money with the expectation that your book will make a profit.  If your book doesn’t sell enough copies, you can end up owing them money.  One prominent author I’ve spoken with has only made money on one of his last three books.  The publisher has sent him bills for the repayments of the advances on the other two books.  That’s right – he lost money writing books!

But Marketing Pays

Every now and then on my blog, I do book reviews.  The book review includes a link to buy the book at Amazon, and that link is what’s called an affiliate link.  When people click through that link, I make 7% or more of whatever they buy – whether it’s the book I recommended, another book, a mix CD, or a Wii.  The money adds up fast:

Amazon Referral Earnings
Amazon Referral Earnings

Each time someone buys our book, for example, I make $2.65.  That’s more royalties than I make for my chapters, and guess which one takes less work.  If they happen to add a Wii or a mix CD to their cart, even better.  Yes, I see what you people buy, and I giggle when I see you buying books on Japanese rope bondage and edible collagen casings.  I love you people because you make me look normal.

Anyway, the point is that when the book hits the shelves, a good author’s work isn’t finished.  You can improve your book’s formula by following through and marketing it.  Building the book’s site is just the first step, and then you can take it to the next level by:

  • Linking to that site when you talk about the book
  • Presenting to user groups (your local PASS chapter, PASS virtual chapters, C# user groups, etc) and put the site & the book in your presentation
  • Writing great blog posts that people send to each other, and in the bottom of that post, link to the book for more information
  • Running contests on your site that get people talking about the book

Yes, this stuff feels like spam.  The reality is that most readers aren’t going to know about your book until someone tells them – and that someone could be you.  If you’re not already completely turned off by the whole marketing thing, check out ProBlogger’s list of ways to make more money from your blog, and then everywhere it says “blog,” think “book.”  Later this week, I’ll blog more about how I’m planning to market our SQL Server book.

Professional SQL Server 2008 Internals and Troubleshooting
Professional SQL Server 2008 Internals and Troubleshooting

Would I Write Another Book?

I used to think that anybody who’d published a book must be an absolute genius, and I held them in absurdly high regard.  Now that I’ve been on the other side, I still respect authors, but for different reasons.  A successful author is a good businessperson who took all of the publishing factors into account, did the best they could with their equation, and crossed the finish line.

If you’re in it for the money, write blogs about books (or Wiis or collagen casings or rope bondage) and use affiliate links.

If you’re in it for the love of the subject matter, then write a book.  It’ll be a ton of work, you’ll lose your shirt (relative to consulting income), and your family will hate you while you’re doing it, but afterward, you’ll feel good.

In the long term, I’m in it for a lot of different reasons, and it’s more than just the subject matter.  My next book will be a self-published ebook (hopefully also available through Amazon in printed form), but it won’t be about SQL Server.  I’m working on a book that will combine my love of technology plus my wacko marketing experience, and the way I deliver the book will be part of the book itself.  Tomorrow I’ll talk about a book that has the potential for a really good business model.

Continue to The Wine Trials and its Business Model

Previous Post
You may ask yourself, How did I get here?
Next Post
Book Week: The Wine Trials 2010 Review

19 Comments. Leave new

  • This is excellent post.

    Book writing is one dedicated attempt. Writing a book is for sure very satisfying experience once it is done and published.

    Can’t wait to read the book containing Internals and Troubleshooting.

    Kind Regards,

  • One of the things I’ve done is make sure I didn’t take an advance for the reason you cited.

    Also, eBook publishing was definitely more financially rewarding because it was an independent where I received 50 percent of the proceeds. The print book deals were nowhere near as good, obviously.

    • I didn’t know going in that the advance was a loan, or otherwise I wouldn’t have taken it. Erika joked that I should send the publisher back the 20 copies of the book they sent me and send them an invoice too. Don’t get me wrong – I’m not angry with the publisher at all, and I have no negative feelings toward them. It’s just that it’s a little bit more of a business (and less personal) than it looks from the outside.

  • Excellent summary. It’s really, really scary taking on a book project. Even a few chapters of a book can be frighteningly difficult to deliver. The one point that can’t be over emphasized is that there are only 24 hours in the day. After working for a minimum of eight hours and sleeping for five, commuting for three, you’ve got eight hours left… to eat, do laundry, help the kids with their homework, exercise, help out with some local charity… Suddenly you’re down to one or two hours, at the most. Time to watch a movie, catch some TV, play a video game, stare at the trees? Uhhh, uh, uh. You’ve got a book to write.

    • Grant – yeah, and the guilt feeling is overwhelming. I felt horribly guilty whenever I did anything other than write. I felt bad walking the dog, going out to eat with Erika, or even just reading the Sunday paper, because I “should have been writing.” That was just painful, and it bothered me a lot.

    • This is a good point. Lack of time completely derailed my first print book (which I still think is being advertised on Amazon though the project never completed… go figure). I got switched to leading the AD upgrade for my organization and suddenly I went from working 8 hour days to working 10-12 much of the time. So the 1-2 hours a night I had to write was suddenly gone.

      This was a painful experience to learn from so I’ve made sure in subsequent projects that I’ve got a clear calendar for the time I need to spend. Even with that said, it’s still stressful trying to get in by the deadline. The last time around was the easiest, because I was merely re-writing a chapter, but I must have doubled it in size. So even that had me worried about the clock.

  • I’m with ya – most books are definitely in the “I’ll do it to raise my profile. Raising my profile means I get more job offers. More job offers means that I can raise my rates.” I’ve done books and courses for other training companies and not once did I make back the time put into it. I think that the only way to be financially successful in the book market is to have several books on the market at once. And bonus points if those books are on subjects that do not “expire” every two years!

    • I’ve heard mixed results about the expiration thing. Some authors like it because it’s easy to save-as to create the new version, and you get repeated advances/royalties. I’ve also heard that the faster products come out, the harder it is to recoup your investment. Interesting questions….

  • Nice post Brent! The biggest reward for me has been turning up on customer site and seeing a book that I’d co-authored on people’s desks. It happened to me twice with my perf tuning book and I think that’s what gave me the motivation to start the internals and troubleshooting book.

    Counting up the number people involved in just getting our book to the printers there were 29 people, only 7 of those actually wrote any content. It really is a mammoth operation.

    Would I do it again? Definitely. There’s something very permanent about having your work printed which I find very satisfying; like I’ve contributed something tangible to the world.

    • Thanks, sir! I can’t wait until the time I see my book on somebody’s shelf. I was totally blown away last week when two people came to the Chicago PASS chapter with my book in their hand, asking for my autograph. That was pretty exciting.

  • Make sure Mom gets a copy! That’s the best part for me.

    On the advance, I’ve always taken advances because it’s unlikely you’ll make that much in royalties.

    • She got the very first copy I got! I preordered one from Amazon just to know when they were delivered. My paid-for Amazon one arrived weeks before my free copies arrived from the publisher, and that cheesed me off a little.

  • Since “Accent” is not enough as a reward, i would say writing a book business is more like a volunteer work. But it’s a double win though – your community benefits from your work (like myself) and you benefit from your experience.

  • Nice post Brent and Excellent book, but when in Kindle and model change in this version ??

  • You know I really like this book because it’s not a pure DBA/Developer type book. I often work with many DBA’s who landed in the role from being a developer and are not familiar with system admin type things . This internals books does a great job of getting people more familiar with SQL at a system level (hopefully this made sense).

    I look forward to you contributing on more books. Thank you and the other writers for producing a properly sized book packed with information. Also, thank you for producing something that is not exactly the same as 5 other books out there. When a technical book is unique it rocks.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Fill out this field
Fill out this field
Please enter a valid email address.