Don’t Write for the Royalties

Inspired by’s Business Book Publishing reports.

It should come as no surprise that the more books an author sells, the better the effect on her business, but consultants who are considering writing their first book may not realize how little book sales actually contribute to a business author’s income. interviewed 200 business book authors to find out whether writing a book was worth the time, effort, and expense involved. The introduction to The Business Impact of Writing a Book describes becoming an author in decidedly unromantic terms:

What conventional wisdom fails to tell you is that the act of writing a book is an enormous investment in blood, sweat, and all too often, tears. Writing and publishing a book is a time-intensive, laborious process that begins well before the actual writing of the book, and continues through the long editing, publishing, and book marketing process. Aspiring authors may have to deal with finding agents, marketers, publishers, negotiating contracts, and, ultimately, the marketing and publicity of the book—all while keeping up with their everyday business activities. (p. 6)

Nevertheless, 96% of the consultants who participated in the study, only a few of whom had written best-sellers, agreed that publishing a book had a positive impact on their business. But it wasn’t fat royalty checks they referred to when asked what publishing had done for them. In order of popularity, the benefits of publishing they cited were:

  1. Improve my brand
  2. Generate more speaking engagements
  3. Generate more clients
  4. Generate more leads
  5. Charge higher fees
  6. Generate more desirable client base
  7. Close more deals

Marketing, Marketing, Marketing

A book is a marketing tool for an author. More book sales result in more awareness of and credibility for the author. You have to market the book before the book can market you. The correlation between the number of books sold and the author’s business success was so high that the researchers concluded that marketing the book was the most important part of the entire process.

Part of the reason the author needs to focus on marketing is that publishers have less money and fewer personnel to devote to marketing books than they used to. As a result, even authors who sign with major publishers need to do most of their own marketing. Authors who self-publish need to do all of their own marketing. In general, those authors who put more into marketing got more out of it, and those who hired professionals to help them sold significantly more books than those who did not.

Indirect Revenue

Among the authors surveyed, direct revenue from publishing topped out at about $100,000—still quite a tidy sum and considerably more than most business book authors will ever earn in royalties. Indirect revenues were double the direct revenues in the 25th percentile, triple in the 50th percentile, and quintuple in the 75th percentile (p. 42).

According to Chip Bell, author of Managing Knock Your Socks Off Service, “If you work at it, you can probably make about ten times as much revenue from sources generated through your book than from the royalties themselves” (p. 43). Given that most traditionally published authors make about $1 per book in royalties, it’s easy to see why a book’s greatest value may be as a glorified business card or brochure.

Even authors who sell fewer than a thousand copies of their first book are still in a good position to raise their rates. But the more books you sell, the more you can charge for speaking and consulting. If your book actually makes it onto the best-seller list, you become a hot commodity. (And, conversely, if you’re already a celebrity, your book has a much better chance of becoming a best-seller.)

Most business books sell about 5,000 copies, which means about $5,000 in royalties. In most cases, it will cost the author far more than $5,000 to write, publish, and market the book, even if her only investment is time. To ensure your book is profitable, you need to take a look at the other ways it can increase your income.

How many new clients would you need at your current rates to make your book pay off? How much would you have to be able to raise your rates? How many speaking engagements would it take to balance out the costs involved? What can you up sell most easily? Can you convert the book into a series of spin-off products and capitalize on what you’ve already invested?

Publishing a book is by no means a get-rich-quick scheme. Becoming an author is hard work, even for those who like to write—or those who hire a ghostwriter. But it pays off in many ways over time.

© Sallie Goetsch 2006