As in any pursuit, you learn as you go.
When my first book came out in May of 2015 I planned to take a big part of the distribution and sales duty on my shoulders, grind it out, and make money. Instead, I got discouraged and gave up, relying on other people to sell my book, and leaving royalties as my only source of revenue from the project.
I’m going to be clear here: unless you sell hundreds of thousands of copies, authors don’t make shit off of royalties. I mean, the pay from this is so laughably low that my publisher doesn’t even bother telling me each year when my royalties are ready — I have to remind them, whereupon they will send me a check that’s tantamount to a joke (or insult). I believe I make something like 25 cents in royalties per book sold.
The real margins from writing books is made in the sale to the end consumer. Bookstores and authors can generally purchase books from the publisher for a 40% discount. This 40% margin should mean everything to you as an author, as it’s where you can collect your rightful earnings. But in order to claim this money and make authorship an actually profession, you need to work for it.
I didn’t do this for my first book. I mistakenly thought that because I had an established publisher with an international distribution network that I could just sit back, as if my job was done. However, what I came to find out that the day a book is published is when the real work begins.
When Ghost Cities of China was published I flew from China to London at my own expense and had a pretty incredible launch event at the popular Waterstones bookstore in Piccadilly and gave a talk at the famed Probthains bookshop. I did media appearances across town — I was on websites, on the radio, and got an excellent review in The Guardian.
Things were moving fast — I went from an obscure independent blogger to a published author in a matter of weeks, but a bit of the wind gushed out of my sails when I returned to North America to give a presentation at a big urbanization conference in Canada.
The organizers at the event invited me to sell my books there and do an author signing after I gave my talk. Excellent. I told my publisher; I contacted their Canadian distributor — everything was a go for getting books to the event. But two days before the conference I emailed the Canadian distributor to find that they had no books available, and I arrived at the event to find my author signing booth empty. The book signing was advertised in the event’s promotional material. People asked about it and couldn’t do anything but shrug. “Sorry.”
I was a little irritated. It was clear that my publisher wasn’t interested in putting energy into promoting and distributing the book after the launch, and if I wanted to really sell books I would need to do so myself.
I didn’t do it, and I’m not sure why. I should have taken a suitcase of books up to Canada myself, sold them for $20 ($2 off the cover) and pocketed roughly $7 per sale.
During my short book tour in China, where I went from Beijing to Chengdu to Suzhou to Shanghai, I sometimes sold out bookstores’ entire stocks of my books — sometimes 40+ in one fell swoop. I’m confident that I could have sold 30 books at this conference in Canada. 30 X $7 = $210 extra dollars I could have made + royalties on top of this. When combined with the $600 that I was paid for doing the event, that would have been a nice chit for a couple days of work.
Instead, I sold zero books for a profit of nothing and was left with a bad taste in my mouth towards my publisher and their “distributors.”
My disfigured mindset not only led to this missed opportunity to make money from my book during this conference but also a missed opportunity to develop a successful strategy that I could have used to sell hundreds of more books and make thousands of more dollars off of this book throughout the coming years. But instead of making money off of my work, I threw up my arms, cursed the standards of the modern publishing industry, and gave up.
How to actually sell your book
This is what I should have done:
1) Re-imagine myself as a business that creates and sells rather than a passive author hoping for royalties. The modern media creator is a business: we create, promote, and distribute our ideas. The notion that we can be successful not doing all three is a fantasy. I, author / journalist / filmmaker, am a business.
2) Aim to be the main distributor and vendor of my book. I should have viewed all other distribution and sales channels as competitors — including the publisher themselves. The 25 cents I make in royalties per sale isn’t enough to view them as an equitable partner. I should have aimed to purchased books with my 40% author discount and resold them a touch under the cover price.
As far as Amazon sales go, I have no idea why I just sat back and watched other sellers make money from my work. What I should have done is set out to corner the market of my own book on Amazon, supplying the books to Amazon’s warehouses and profited from the sales — which I would have enhanced by dropping the price, aiming to profit roughly $5 profit per sale.
3) Gone on an actual book tour. While I did travel around a little giving talks about ghost cities, I should have organized a true book tour where the object would have been presenting the topic for the purpose of selling books. This works. When you give a good talk you establish kind of a relationship with the audience, and they often want to elevate / commemorate this by going home with a signed book. I’ve sold 30+ books in one go before — money that I could have made for myself if I put the time and effort into it.
4) Not given so many books away. This is an easy one. I gave away more books than I sold. This leads me back to my first point above about viewing myself as a business. As just about everybody knows, the business owner who gives freebies to his friends doesn’t stay in business very long.
5) Finished building GhostCitiesOfChina.com. I have a website for Ghost Cities of China, but I never really did anything with it. I should have used it as not only a sales channel for the book but also a continuously updated information source about the topic, with an ongoing stream of updates and interviews that would have charted the cities as they developed.
6) Better promoted the book digitally. While I wrote about Ghost Cities at length on this blog, I didn’t really promote it much online outside of this platform. I probably should have tested the FB and Twitter ads market; invested a little cash into advertising.
As a creator you learn as you go. Even when you think you know what you’re doing it often turns out that you have no idea. This is an ever evolving game, and constant self-evaluation and re-strategizing is necessary to win … and winning means little more than making enough cash to be able to create another day.
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