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Writing a book probably won’t make you rich but could boost your career

Pile of books
Roughly 1.6 million independently published books came out in 2018.
(Getty Images / iStockphoto)

Is publishing a book a good side hustle? At a time when cheap self-publishing options have turned book publishing into a burgeoning cottage industry, authors have mixed opinions.

The debate revolves around book economics.

While everyone knows stories about authors who have made hundreds of millions of dollars — J.K. Rowling and James Patterson, for example — there are also millions of authors who toil for years on books that simply don’t sell.

Roughly 1.6 million independently published books came out in 2018, the most recent year for which statistics are available. That was up 40% from the year prior, a growth rate that shows no sign of slowing. Yet experts say the “average” book in this category might sell just 100 copies. After costs and commissions that would likely net the author less than $500 — hardly worth the effort.

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Low hourly rates

Moreover, many authors pour so much time into writing, editing and researching their manuscripts that even a six-figure book deal could work out to a poor hourly rate. You can do less, authors acknowledge. But your name will forever be associated with that book. Sloppy work could ruin your reputation.

“It’s a really iffy way to make money,” says Liz Weston, a columnist for NerdWallet whose book “The Ten Commandments of Money” earned a six-figure advance. “If you are a professional writer and are accustomed to getting paid a reasonable amount for your writing, the idea of writing a book is a tough sell because there is so much uncertainty.”

Upping your profile

That doesn’t, however, mean that book publishing is a waste of time. While it may be a questionable pursuit on its own, publishing a book could be a good side hustle if it supports your main job.

“The hourly rate for book writing is terrible,” says Jane Friedman, a publishing industry veteran who advises other authors. “That doesn’t mean it’s not worthwhile. Published authors can sometimes use that accomplishment to attract more clients, secure speaking gigs, get tenure.”

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Authors add that a book can be a great calling card, establishing your credibility on a specific topic. Books can also be used as a sales tool to market other products, such as classes and investments. And they can help raise the profile of a budding website.

“I didn’t expect to get rich off books,” says Fo Alexander, founder of the Mama & Money website and an author of two books. Her first book, she says, “established me as an expert, which allowed me to get quoted in articles from pretty big sites. A book is the best business card that you have.”

‘Escalation funnel’

Chris Huntley isn’t an author himself. But he was such a fan of “The Compound Effect” by Darren Hardy that he spent thousands of dollars on courses offered by the author.

The book directs you to sign up for related resources on his website, Huntley explains. If you do that, Huntley says, the author has you in his “sales funnel.” After buying the book, Huntley purchased the author’s $2,000 video course and a live presentation that cost $10,000.

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“If you want to make money on a book, don’t think about book sales. Think about getting people into an escalation funnel where you can sell them what you actually want to sell them,” Huntley advises.

What’s your motivation?

Naturally, all this brings up the question of motivation. What drives you to publish? If your goal is simply to earn money on book sales, you’ve got to strategize to make it worth the time, says Joseph Hogue, an author of 12 books.

Hogue’s books have earned anywhere from $1,000 to $20,000 each, he says. With that wide variation, Hogue acknowledges that writing a book for its own sake may not pay off. However, he also has a blog — My Work From Home Money — and writes posts for that site every week. His current book strategy is to simply repurpose his blog posts into books.

“The trick is to build them into a content strategy,” he says. “I write a chapter a week and use that in my blog post schedule.”

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When he has completed the series on his blog, he reformats the posts and turns them into a book. Meanwhile, all the posts that make up the book are linked to a page that sells the entire text.

“I would definitely say it’s worth it if you build it into your content schedule,” he says.

Is publishing the best use of your time?

If you earn more money doing something else, dedicating the necessary hours to a book could be a money-loser.

Colin Jones, for instance, says that even though he got a fairly generous deal to write his book on playing blackjack — “The 21st Century Card Counter” — he earns far more with his primary gig, a YouTube channel.

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“I’ve made 50 times more money off of creating a valuable YouTube channel than the book,” Jones says. " I wish I could reallocate those hundreds of hours I put into writing a book back into the YouTube channel.”

Publishing strategies

That said, if you want to be an author, there are two ways to go. You can try to secure a book deal with a traditional publisher or you can self-publish.

If you go the traditional route, you’ll need to find an agent who is willing to back your project, create a book proposal and have the agent shop it around. If a traditional publisher likes what it sees, it’ll typically offer the author an advance and royalties — a percentage of the profit on future sales.

The advance is essentially an up-front payment that’s paid back through sales. Few books “earn out” those advances, Friedman says. So you should expect that whatever you get from a traditional publisher upfront is likely to be all you earn on that book.

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Low-cost self-publishing

With self-publishing, the author pays the cost of producing, editing, proofreading, formatting and marketing the book — but also keeps most of the profits from sales. Because those upfront costs can be high, no-cost options such as Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing are the most popular hybrid alternative.

Kindle Direct allows you to load your book onto the site, format it, upload your own cover and start selling the finished work — free of charge. When someone purchases your book, Amazon takes a commission. Still, with this model, you retain up to 70% of the sales price, versus the 6% to 12% that a traditional publisher would pay the author in royalties.

Authors say you’d still be wise to hire someone to do a professional edit and proofread to make sure your book isn’t riddled with errors. A number of websites, such as Reedsy, connect prospective authors with seasoned proofreaders and editors, who can charge by the hour or the word. Kirkus, best known for its book reviews, also has author editing packages that can provide proofreading or full-service editing for a reasonable cost.

“There are people who make a ton of money on books. But I think they’re like the professional actors and athletes that really make it,” Weston says. “They’re one in a million.”

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Kristof is the editor of SideHusl.com, an independent website that reviews money-making opportunities in the gig economy.


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