June 23rd, 2021

Confessions of a Naïve Author

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.

The Usual Artistic Pattern: Craft Before Business

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.

Two Important Lessons

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.

Four Sides of the "Success Formula"

Formula One

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. 

Second Formula

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.

Third Formula

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.

Fourth Formula

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!

Final Thoughts

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!

* * * * * *

About John

John Peragine has published 14 books and ghostwritten more than 100 others. He is a contributor for HuffPostReuters, and The Today Show. He covered the John Edwards trial exclusively for Bloomberg News and The New York Times. He has written for Wine EnthusiastGrapevine MagazineRealtor.comWineMaker 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.

21 responses to “Confessions of a Naïve Author”

  1. Dave Parks says:

    Where did you land, John?
    I'm the naivest of the naive and would like to learn.

    • John Peragine says:

      Hey Dave- I will send you info about the program I am in. I am not making any money on boosting that program- I just feel funny posting it. But what I can and will suggest is the Facebook group 20booksto50k - https://www.facebook.com/groups/20Booksto50k It is a private group. It can be overwhelming a bit at first, but the info shared on there is amazing!!

  2. lrtrovi says:

    This is the most impactful (is that a word?) post I have read. The parallel between learning to be a musician and the business of music makes it very clear. Your warning about how there are so many marketing "guru" crooks out there with bad information is spot on and the number is growing. It seems when you follow their formula and still get poor results, you feel like it must be you who is the failure. I would love to learn where you found truth and help. I will try to find your email contact on your web and message you and would be delighted to engage in an exchange about your path to solid, trustworthy book marketing and business practices.

    • John Peragine says:

      Wow... thank you so much. So, here is another confession. I forgot today was my day to blog, until oh, 11:00 PM last night. I thought, the heck with it, I am going to post something that has weighed heavy on me for some time. I believe being open and genuine is the way to go because then I can help others not just through my successes, but also through my failures. None of us is alone in this- we all are trying to figure this out right? So thank you for your kind words, I was so worried people would think I was nuts. Okay, maybe I am a little off, but in a fun, quirky way. My email is john@johnpwriter.com

  3. Great post! It sounds like you've figured out some things I'm still struggling with.

    I tried to send you a message via your website contact form but it's not clear I was successful. After I pressed send, the input form didn't clear. There's a small, square box beneath the input form that does clear when I press send, but it's unlabeled, so I'm not sure what it does. It looks like maybe it's intended to hold a captcha widget?

    Thanks for any guidance you can offer!

    • John Peragine says:

      I better check out my form- I am so sorry. My email is John@johnpwriter.com I believe we all struggle with the sales piece- we are artists, and sometimes promoting and feel like bragging or like we are selling Avon or Cutco knives. On top of that, the landscape of publishing and marketing is constantly changing. Feel free to reach out to me. See my comment above about 20booksto50k.

  4. Dude, great post! Many people dream, not enough do. And "publishing" a book is a different beastie from "writing" a book, as you've outlined. I finished a career in corporate marketing (yes, there's a lot of storytelling going on there) as I published my first novel and became a full-time author. For anyone who's just starting out in the business, listen to John's words. Burn them into your brain. It'll help you keep your feet on the ground as your stretch for the stars. And by all mean, stretch for the stars...whatever your stars are. But remembering this is a business based on marketing and accounting and public speaking is essential if you want to share your words with the world. Thanks, John.

    PS: I'd love to hear what your secret sauce for success is!!!

    • John Peragine says:

      I feel like I should be learning from you- you are the marketer!! Thank you for the support. I feel like I am on this deserted island- like I am Gilligan with a typewriter. (Did I just age myself?) You can reach out to me- john@johnpwriter.com also see my link to 20booksto50k above.

  5. Terry Odell says:

    Excellent advice. For me, the joy is in the writing. The work is the marketing, and I have to decide if writing is enough joy, or if I'm willing to part with some of the money I make to hire out. Words of advice from a writing conference: "Do what you love, do what you're good at, and hire out the rest."

    • John Peragine says:

      I totally agree- and I'm headed there. I still want to know what I need before I hand people money. And, automation is great. I have ads going now on Facebook. After learning how to do them, I can just check in and see how they are doing and watch them to convert to sales. I felt like I needed to post like 3 times a week or more on social media. What I discovered is that I was not converting anyone and the only people who saw my posts were the same 20 people. It took about an hour to set things up, but now the ads pay for themselves and I can do a little maintenance to keep things fresh while I sip my 8th cup of coffee. My next post is how to set up your hydration center for writing- coffee, water, drinks, and if a person is inclined, a cocktail occasionally.

  6. Ellaura S. says:

    I found your post to be very helpful and very true. I just self-published my first novel and submitted two other finished manuscripts to indie publishers and am waiting for responses. Marketing does come hard for me as I am so involved in the creative aspects of my work. My dream is to make a living inspiring people with my middle grade novels as I am inspired everyday by my favorite books no matter the genre or age rage. I've been scheduling book signings and contacting any media source who will listen to get my books out there. Your post has been very helpful and relieving to know that someone has experienced similar things on their journey as a writer. Thank you for sharing.

  7. Jenny Hansen says:

    It's so very nice for me to see someone admit to this - the publishing world doesn't really open up about the book "business" and most authors are left fumbling.

    I am a marketer by day so the marketing part makes complete sense to me, but the how to translate your OWN work into this model is another consideration. Few people can wear the writing and sales hats equally well. Also, few take into account that books are a niche market in terms of selling. This isn't a 10 minute buy, this is a 5-10 hour buy as people have to be willing to invest that time into your book.

    I also firmly believe that it is all about finding your own "1000 true fans" and I'm happy to see that corroborated with the resource you gave me.

    Thanks a bunch for the honesty!

  8. crbwriter says:

    Thanks for sharing! Authors are a generous bunch, but most of the conversation revolves around craft. Without a wealthy benefactor to rely on, we need to mine the gold in your advice.

  9. dholcomb1 says:

    Fantastic information and advice. Thanks for sharing.

    denise

  10. Barb DeLong says:

    Absolute gold here, John! I just joined 20books (well, I'm pending). I'm in the query stage with my book, but have published anthologies I could be promoting in a more impactful way. Thanks!

  11. Kris says:

    Hi John,
    Thorough and informative post - and timely, too!

    This is my season of business planning and I appreciate the guidance here.

    It's easy to work in a micro level on our projects, but its important to have an overarching plan if writing (or any creative endeavor) is your goal.

    Lacking the business savvy and vision can become the biggest obstacle to getting creative success and satisfaction.

    Thank you, once again, for your insights, John!

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