- What It Means to Be a Writer, Part 1 => Defining Your Book
- What It Means To Be A Writer, Part 2 => Getting a Book Deal
- What It Means To Be A Writer, Part 3 => Using an Agent
- What It Means to Be a Writer, Part 4 => Negotiating Contracts
- What It Means To Be A Writer, Part 5 => Actually Writing the Book
- What It Means To Be A Writer, Part 6 => The After Life
So you’ve finally done it: you’ve written and published a book. Congratulations! That’s excellent news. Of the many things I’ve figured out when it comes to being a writer, none is more true than this: It’s much, much better to have written a book than it is to be writing a book. Writing a book is hard, but having written a book is great.
But your life, and your job, as a writer isn’t over now (whether or not you ever do another book), it’s just beginning a new phase. If you’re unfamiliar with the mechanics of actually writing a book, then what happens next is going to be even more of a surprise.
The Hard Copies
Even after having written 23 books, that day when I receive the physical, printed copies of the book at my door is still quite rewarding. Most publishers will give you 10-25 free copies (the number can be negotiated), explicitly not for resale, and they’ll arrive around three weeks after the book has officially gone to the printer. Of course, this may be three to four months after you’ve started writing the book, and maybe a year or more since you first conceived of the idea. Regardless, finally having the finished book in your hands is a great milestone.
Before you do anything, you want to grab one of those copies and mark it as yours. This will be the copy that you can make notes in (e.g., errors or thoughts on what to change in the next edition). This should also be the copy you never give away! If you were to duck into my office, you’d find 23 books with “My Copy” scrawled on the title page.
If this is your first published book, you’ll probably want to start giving—signed!—copies to your friends and family. That’s a lot of fun. But if this is your 23rd book, your friends and family do not want them. With whatever copies you have left over, you should give them away as promotional tools. I giveaway my copies through my newsletter, Twitter, and Facebook.
Note that some groups of people, such as instructors and reviewers, can get free copies, but you should generally direct them to the publisher for those, rather than depleting your stockpile.
Speaking of promotional tools, you need to start thinking about marketing your book. This has historically been my weakness: I don’t know much about marketing nor do I think about it enough (a situation I’m trying to rectify now). Understand that the publisher is going to market your book, but they will do so along with all the other books they have previously published, are publishing at the same time as yours, or are going to publish. With this in mind, it’s important to realize that the most targeted marketing can only come from you.
To start, make sure you update the Amazon page for your book, as Amazon is the world’s biggest seller of books at this point. You want your Amazon book page and author profile to be as current and useful as possible. Also make use of social media as a promotional tool.
Know that the publisher is not going to send you on a book tour or arrange signings. Not for a technical book, not in this day and age. You can set these up for yourself, if you’re willing to do the work and spend the money. You won’t sell many books doing signings, but every little bit counts and signings are a way to build up a name for yourself. A local bookstore may want to do a signing, or have other “local author” events, as may your library. My local library is now doing author events over Skype, too!
Another suggestion, which I’m just beginning to do better at now, is to speak at user groups and conferences. Again, you won’t necessarily sell many books this way, but you’ll get your name out there. And the fact is that selling books builds upon itself: sell a few and you’ll sell a few more. Sell more and you’ll sell more. Sell more and your publisher will promote your book more. And so on and so forth.
Sell fewer and eventually the book will slip off of everyone’s radar.
Speaking of sales, what can you expect there? As I explained in my post on negotiating contracts, you’re paid an advance to write the book and only earn more money after you’ve sold enough copies for the publisher to recoup their advance. If you’re earning, say, $2 (USD) per book, this might mean you have to sell 4,000-5,000 copies before making any more money. A successful computer book will sell approximately 10,000 copies. The actual number sold will depend upon the publisher, the subject, the writer (i.e., you), and how good the book is (among many other factors). Also know that the total sales will only be determined over years, although the first couple of years will have the greatest percentage of those sales.
Depending upon the publisher, the sales will be calculated and reported to you every three or six months, and those numbers will be three months delayed. For example, at the end of September 2012 I received a statement indicating the sales of my books from April, May, and June 2012. For any book that has recouped its advance, I’ll get paid the overage. For books that have not yet recouped the advance, the remaining balance just carries forward.
Unless your book is a very good seller over many years, the first statement after the book has been published will reflect the most sales. This is because the first statement shows the initial orders by all the booksellers. Subsequent statements will be more indicative of actual sales to readers, as it reflects the booksellers restocking their shelves.
For the two or three books of mine that would count as industry bestsellers, my advance is normally covered in two or three statements. My good sellers may take two to three years to recoup the advance. But no matter how long it takes, recouping the advance is great, because it means you’ll start seeing a bit more extra money trickling in through no more work of yours. It may not be a lot of money (in fact, it probably won’t be), but it’s money. In my most recent statement, I earned another $4.60 on a book published 11 years ago! Okay, I can’t even buy lunch for that, but it is extra money.
After a few statements, you’ll likely start seeing money coming in for translations of your book in other languages and sales in other formats (e.g., electronic, used for training, PDFs of chapters, etc.). There won’t be a lot of money in these areas, in my experience, but it’s also extra money. Understand that if you didn’t grant the publisher the rights to pursue these avenues, these little streams of income will be closed off to you, unless you pursue them yourself.
Communicating with the Publisher
The royalty statements will be the most obvious and frequent communication from the publisher. In fact, depending upon both you and the publisher, it may be the only communication. By contratual rights, the publisher is obligated to tell you all sorts of things, however, such as when the book is translated, how it is selling, how it is being promoted, etc. But the publisher only has to tell you these things when you ask. The publisher is busy and is providing the same services for many other books at the same time; they are not going to volunteer this information to you. It’s just not feasible. So feel free to ask the publisher when you’re curious about something, but don’t expect them to keep you in the loop automatically.
You might be stunned to discover how little I know about what’s going on with my books. When they’re translated, when they’re available in certain countries, languages, or formats, how they are selling today: I have no idea. But I have the right to know, if I take the time to ask, and you will, too.
Readers…ah, readers. It’s trite but true: books are written to be read. But beyond that nugget, you need to think about what kind of relationship you’ll have with your readers. In fact, you’ll need to do this as you’re writing the book, as you’ll have to make decisions in the book towards that end. For example, where can readers go for help? To you? Somewhere else? Are you going to provide your email address or no? Before you complete the book, give this topic some thought and communicate your intentions (and hopes) to the reader in the book.
I try to push readers to my support forums for assistance. The fact is that readers are going to ask for help, and from an efficiency standpoint, it’s better for me if that help—and the provided solutions—are publicly available for all to see (as opposed to just being between me and the reader via email). What I’ve also discovered, though, is that providing help to readers has made me a much better writer. I get feedback on what’s not clear (i.e., what I could have handled better) and what readers would like to learn more about. This has been extremely beneficial, making the time required in providing support worth it.
Here’s the catch, however: by publishing a book, you’ve implicitly asked everyone in the world to tell you how it should have been better, whether you like it or not. It could come in an Amazon review or an email, but readers will like this, won’t like that, and may hate this other thing. Some of the criticism will be beyond your control, such as decisions made by the publisher. For example, my Visual QuickStart and QuickPro Guides use a two column format, per the publisher’s design. Some like the format, others don’t. Nothing you can do about that. Occasionally, you’ll be criticized for something that doesn’t even apply to your book (I remember an early Amazon review in which the reader said my chapter on X subject was lousy; the book didn’t have such a chapter).
So what can you do? Listen as well as you can, swallow your ego, and try to learn as much as you can from the feedback in order to do better the next time around.
Oh, and just be thrilled that you have readers at all!
One of the more surprising things about writing books, in my experience, is not that writing books itself does not pay well but rather that you can earn good money simply because you’ve written a book. Having written a book suggests a certain level of expertise in the subject, and if the book sells relatively well, you’ll achieve some good name recognition, too. The combination of these means that you’ll hopefully be presented with some good business opportunities thanks to your having written a book on a particular subject. This can be something as simple as writing articles or other books, or something as lucrative as public speaking and corporate training. I’ve been fortunate enough on occasion to earn almost as much in one week of training as I got paid for the four months it took to write the associated book in the first place! Welcome and embrace secondary opportunities as one of the best ways to capitalize on all of the hard work you put in.
So this post concludes my six-part series on what it means to be a writer. Hopefully it’s been useful for you, or if not useful, then at least interesting. If you have any questions or comments at all, please let me know.
And thanks for reading!