book1The new Dan Brown bestseller came out last week. “The Lost Symbol” managed to break nearly everyone’s one-day publishing record for adult fiction selling millions of copies in the first 24 hours.
But unless you’re one of the few best-selling authors anointed by both the mainstream media and the big name bookstores like Barnes and Noble and, you’re looking at a serious struggle to make a living. Last year, there were 172,000 new titles published in America. Nearly every one of them lost money. The book publishing business is built on the idea that a few smash hits will keep the whole industry afloat while they continuously crank out tens of thousands of titles that no one reads.
book2As a result, most authors are given first-time contracts that amount to a tiny percent of book sales and many well known authors barely make ends meet.
It’s time to explore some different models of how professional writers can make an actual living instead of pinning their dreams on the Dan Brown model of book fame.
The Getting Real Model of Book Development
book3Getting Real is a fantastic little book about speed to market, written by the guys at 37Signals. These are the programmers who developed Ruby on Rails and Basecamp Project Management Software. Getting Real was published as a downloadable e-book and later as a physical copy. The company offered a great deal on a 10-pack of books to be freely distributed to friends.
This is a quote from their blog about the sales of Getting Real
We’ve been providing periodic sales number updates every 6 weeks or so. We want to show people that self-publishing is not only a viable alternative for authors with an audience, but it can also be profitable.
As of today, we’ve sold 8930 single copy versions and 925 10-copy license versions. That brings the total books sold to just about 18,200 copies. Revenue is just about $215,000. Since we designed the book, distribute the book via a PDF, and own the rights to the content, it’s nearly all profit.
This obviously isn’t an apples to apples comparison, but our first book, Defensive Design for the Web, published in 2004 with a traditional publisher, sold about 8000 copies so far. So far we’ve earned about $11,000 from the sales of that book.
The difference between the self-published Getting Real (10,000 sales = $215,000) and Defensive Design for the Web (8000 sales = $11,000) is measured in orders of magnitude. They took a moderately successful book and turned it into a gold mine by eliminating the fixed costs of printing, distribution, and old copies collecting dust on the shelves. They also created a book that can be instantly updated whenever they want to include a few additional chapters. They even email the new chapters to their customers.
But how did they sell 10,000 Copies?
book4Getting Real’s financial success was because of its self-published electronic model, but its popularity was because it was directed at an audience that 37Signals had already cultivated using all of the marketing tactics that we describe in this blog. They built an audience by being part of the development community. They created and distributed free software tools, they wrote a very compelling blog about fast-to-market development, and they build an army of followers who cared deeply about the conversation.
Give Away the Farm, Rent them the Chickens
book537Signals also wasn’t afraid to give things away. The first 4 chapters of the book were freely available online. Later, they let you read the whole book online. They understood the law of reciprocity, “give me something and I’ll return the favor.”
Design a Product to Be Shared
book6Finally, 37Signals created a book worth talking about and sharing. They came up with a novel idea to sell 10 packs of the books for $49 that lent itself well to people forwarding the book to friends and colleagues.
Pay attention as Amazon Kindle becomes a more viable platform to self-publish and sell books without them ever seeing a printing press.