by John Peragine
When you embark on the journey to go a non-traditional route of publishing, including self-publishing, hybrid publishing, or small/medium-sized publishers, you take on a lot.
We concentrate so much on the craft that when it comes to handing it over to someone else, we often want to crawl back to the comfortable place and begin the creation process again. We don’t want to be bothered with publishing and, more importantly, how to actually sell that book.
It might be fun to pick out a cover or a cute font because that continues to be in our creative wheelhouse, but the rest I put under the umbrella of the “business of book writing.” I realized that this is where so many of us trip and fall down. Hard. Scraped knees with stinging mercurochrome slathered on top.
I spent many years learning how to play the flute. Technique exercises. Etudes. Sonatas and Concertos. Mixed in were orchestral excerpts. I played with concert bands, pit orchestras, and symphonies. I had private lessons, masterclasses, performing arts high school, and another five years of college. Can I play the flute? I hope so. Too many hours of practice and money were invested not to be a decent performer.
You know what they don’t teach? The business of music.
All those years of learning how to play and I didn’t know how to find work, negotiate a contract, approach a music producer, or any of those things that would actually monetize my efforts. I was so naïve, and it was not bliss. It was learning the tough way - via failure.
I got screwed a lot when I first got out of school. I should have paid the organizers of gigs for the pleasure to play because I didn’t know what my craft was worth or where to go to make more money. Did I learn? Sure I did, or I would have become the cliché starving artist.
Artists, authors included, starve not because they are bad at their craft, but because they are bad at selling their art.
When I decided to write full-time in 2008, I was even more naïve. I didn’t know what a "good" book contract was, I was just happy to have one. I can tell you, I gave everything away. I happily signed my rights to the works with my name on them for pennies. The publishers who bought those books continue to this day to make money off those books. I make nothing. Not a penny.
I got smarter right? Smarter, yes, but wiser? Not so much.
I learned about all kinds of things like author platforms, marketing, and what a return was. Powerful, very costly lessons. I was so excited to see Costco, Sam’s Club, and Barnes and Noble buy my book. I could walk into those stores and see columns of my books. Oh, the painful vanity of it all! Three months later, all those beautiful royalties turned from black to red.
I needed a cure for my almost terminal naivete, or I needed to hang it up. I had to do two important things: I needed to figure out my relationship with making money at writing, and I needed to figure out how to do it.
The first lesson came in the form of a new book that covered the history of the world-renowned Iowa Writer’s Workshop. Their history was deep, and Iowa City was only an hour away. I had a publisher send me a contract- I was ready to go. I was going to talk to the movers and shakers, the gods and goddesses of literary fiction.
I felt I was one of them. I was a published author. They were published. We were kindred.
We were not kindred.
They wrote for the excellence of the written word. Their prose is elegant and sophisticated. They didn’t write for the money. It was about perfection and artistry. Money and the concept of genre fiction were the dirty words of sell-outs. To say I was run out of town might sound dramatic, but alas, that is what happened. It became so bad, I had to break my contract with my publisher. I was shunned and could not continue my research.
I looked at my writing. Did I want a Pulitzer, or did I want to pay my mortgage? I am not suggesting that those two things were mutually exclusive, but I am a genre writer at heart. The idea of going back to school to get an MFA was not something that I felt was going to help me achieve my goals.
I’m not saying that I didn’t want to write great books, but I wanted to be able to sell them for a profit. I am a ghostwriter, and I have written many books, so I knew I could write something commercially viable. I needed to consider part 2: how to make money writing.
Here is the simple formula of just about any business. And books are a small business that you can grow.
Money makes money.
Simple right? Yeah, if you have the first part of that formula. Even if I had a traditional contract, I needed to know how to make money alongside their efforts.
So here is the second formula that I figured out.
The fewer people who know you and your work, the more it is going to cost you.
Name recognition or book recognition is worth literal gold bars in your bank.
Having a bunch of followers and an extensive list does not mean dollars in your account.
I could have a million followers and a robust mailing list, and unless they are the right audience and I knew something about how to get them to buy my book, then I could be the next JK Rowling on paper and not make a single sale. This is true of self-publishing or a traditional publisher.
The smaller my ignorance, the greater sales I was going to make.
I didn’t need to invest more money in ads because I may as well take that cash out back and set it on fire. Instead, I needed to make an investment in myself. I needed to pay for some learning.
Oh boy…there are more crooks in the space of teaching you marketing than there are in the space of vanity publishers. Lots of bad info, and just absolute trash. I did find success, but I will not publish here where I landed because I do not want to make endorsements on this blog. Send me a message and I’ll tell you.
What I have found was that I was even more profoundly misinformed and ignorant than I knew. I have tested what I have learned now, and not only am I making more money, I am paying less money for marketing. In fact, the process has been so positive I feel ashamed to have called myself a semi-successful author for as long as I have.
This time I've made money with some actual knowledge, and I am growing my writing career. In the short term, I can create an automated process of selling my books with predictable outcomes. But it is still taking me time away from creating new works. That is short-term because my long term is to hire someone else to take over some of these tasks. I feel confident in hiring someone because I know better what I need and want them to do.
I spend time EVERY day learning more. Taking classes and taking notes. I spend time testing what I have learned and make adjustments as needed. It is exciting to see success and feel like I can grow my writing career that even has a built-in retirement plan. Imagine that!
My takeaway for you: accept that you need help. We all do.
Educate yourself. Invest in yourself. Take the time necessary to achieve your goals. Of course, they are your goals, and so my methods for achieving mine may not work for you. But I can say unequivocally that unless you establish a dream, make a plan to achieve it, and revisit it every day, you will feel frustrated and unhappy with unpredictable results. A defined dream has a much higher chance of becoming your reality.
What's your writing dream? What are you doing to educate yourself? Who do you recommend and why? Please share it with us down in the comments!
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John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPost, Reuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine Enthusiast, Grapevine Magazine, Realtor.com, WineMaker magazine, and Writer's Digest.
John began writing professionally in 2007, after working 13 years in social work and as the piccolo player for the Western Piedmont Symphony for over 25 years. Peragine is a member of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. You can learn more about his books at JohnPeragineBooks.com.
His newest book, Max and the Spice Thieves, was released on April 20, 2021. Click here to buy a copy.
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