As recently mentioned, I’m about to release my next book, Four Weeks: Reflections for Advent. It’s the 2nd ebook I’ll release this year and the 6th book I’ve published overall (the others are here). All this means that I totally know all that being an author entails, right?
Not really. I feel like I’m flying by the seat of my pants every single day with this stuff. I’ve learned some things with each new book’s publishing process, but I still don’t think I’ve even scraped the tip of the iceberg when it comes to being an author.
Let me be clear: I know how to write a book. I can do that part. In fact, I’d call that the easiest part. It’s everything that comes after that I’ve found more difficult. And I’ve learned some hard truths about the reality of authorship that others aspiring to publish a book should know going in.
Please understand that these aren’t meant to deter you from pursuing your dream of writing a book. Even after I’ve learned each of them, they definitely haven’t deterred me. I just think that people need to go in with their eyes as wide open as they can.
Here are five of the biggest truths I think aspiring authors need to know.
1. You have to be your own marketer. Most presses outside the biggest and most resourceful don’t have the people power to provide marketing services on your behalf. And those that do offer such services might charge you. There are agents and publicists out there who dedicate themselves to this sort of thing, and if you can find one who charges reasonable fees while promising a certain ROI, then go for it.
I thus far have not gone this route, and so for the above reasons I’m flooding social media, setting up release celebrations, rounding up readers to hopefully maybe someday leave reviews to help boost the book’s signal, flooding social media some more, planning giveaways, contacting publications in the hope that they’ll review the book, and so on.
It’s one thing that you’ve done the work to write a book. Again, in my experience, that’s the easy part. It’s trying to make sure other people know that you’ve written a book that is much more challenging, because you usually have to do it yourself.
2. You won’t make a ton of money. I think that this is the most well-known truth that will appear on this list, so maybe you won’t find this surprising. Most authors aren’t able to make a career from their books. Why is that? Because even though you’re promised a certain percentage of each sale, the publisher still has to recoup expenses. And whatever is left over after the online seller and publisher and whomever else take what they need, you get what’s left, which might be enough to buy a really nice shirt or something (there’s a certain one of my books that brings me enough royalties every year to buy me lunch at Chipotle and that’s about it). Book sales alone aren’t going to be enough for you to make a living. That being said…
3. You’ll make more from speaking gigs. Again, unless you have a steady stream of these events every weekend or several times a week, you probably won’t meet basic standard-of-living expenses. But in my experience, your book can be a gateway into being asked to keynote events or lead workshops because you being a published author and presumed expert on certain subjects will make you attractive for those sorts of things. The trick is to calculate what might be a reasonable fee for you to travel, take a few days to get there and back, and so on. In other words, decide what you believe you’re worth and factor in what the group or venue can afford. AND DON’T LOWBALL YOURSELF. They’re asking you for a reason, embrace it.
4. You’ll have to give copies of your work away for free. This ties in with the “be your own marketer” truth above. If you’d like people to read and review your work to gain a larger audience or to consider you for speaking gigs, you may have to give away some books in order to gain those other things. There’s no guarantee that you’ll get what you’re looking for in return, but the exchange here is for greater exposure, which always comes with risk. That being said…
5. You’ll have to set a limit on how much free work you’ll do. Not all opportunities promising “exposure” are created equal, and some are outright exploitative. Assess the odds that certain outlets are offering something real vs. when they just want something from you without any obligation of giving you something in return. You could write posts for 50 different websites that won’t pay you anything but state that you can include a reference to your book in the bio underneath it, but how many of those will actually be worth it? What’s their reach? What will it really matter if you plug your book in your bio; how many people read those things? A certain amount of free work may be expected, but there comes a point where you’ll need to realize that you and your work are worth more.
I could probably come up with five more truths, and many more beyond that. But these are five of the top things I’ve learned. Again, these aren’t meant to dissuade you from pursuing a dream. But you should know what such a dream really entails.