Friday, March 28, 2014

Thoughts from a "book millionaire"

One statistic I have always tracked for fun is the gross sales of my books. (I take actual unit sales figures when I have them, add reasonable estimates for things like foreign rights sales, and multiply them by the list price of my books.) Nowadays, my lifetime gross sales are approaching a million dollars.

Now don't break out the champagne quite yet - or ask me for a loan. I've been writing pretty steadily for over 20 years and have published a lot of books. If you take my average book royalty (less than 10% of net price), and divide it over the number of years I've been at this, I am not about to start the Rich Gallagher Foundation.

But still, wouldn't you agree this is a pretty cool number? I don't know many people whose hobbies turn into a million dollar industry. And it is a nice validation of a craft that now feels comfortable and familiar. Put another way, when I wake up and look in the mirror, I generally see (on my better days) a fairly legitimate writer looking back at me.

So now that I've reached a milestone of sorts, what would I tell other writers? Here are a few things:

Writing is a skill, not an art. I am frankly not the world's greatest muse. But I am a quick study. And far and away, the single biggest reason I succeed is studying what sells, deconstructing other good writers, and learning how to smell like a published author. I've written about this extensively in other blogs. Successful writers are, first and foremost, students of other successful writers. 'Nuff said.

Hard work isn't the point. You might expect me to talk about how much work I put in to become a good writer, and eventually a publishable one. And you would be wrong. Yes, I have done a lot of writing and still do. And I will always put a lot of effort into getting even better. But frankly that isn't the point.

Here *is* the point: I love to write. When you love doing something you keep doing it, keep learning, and keep improving. Even when I write about public health tax policy for clients, I am having fun. I love bookstores and get excited about other people's book projects and book launches. And those rare times when I have a moment to spare, the first thing I start thinking about is my next project.

So my advice isn't to work harder at writing. That sounds miserable. It is to do what you love, and let it pull you where it wants you to go. And if you love to write anywhere near as much as I do, don't ever let anything stop you.

Follow the money. If you want to sell a million dollars’ worth of books – in my case, an average of 3000-5000 copies of most books I’ve written, plus a couple of higher-gross sellers – you need to examine who sells books in these kinds of numbers. My biggest grossing book, for example, is a 1990s computer graphics textbook you’ve probably never heard of – it sells for over $200 a pop, has been in print for 20 years, and had a lot of course adoptions in its day. Conversely, my highest unit sales are for a bargain-book edition of How to Tell Anyone Anything available in every Barnes & Noble in America.

If you haven’t published before, it is a dirty secret that most books sell in frightfully small numbers, once you get past the hottest bestsellers. So while I respect the debate between self-publishing and royalty publishing, if you want to move thousands of books you must either (a) have really good sales channels or (b) become good enough to go the royalty route. I’ve always chosen the latter.

Know who you are. I appreciate the “you can do anything” crowd. But if I listened to them, I’d probably be writing a lot of books that have no chance of ever landing a publishing contract. Your writing style, your platform, and your skills all have their place in the world. Socially, most of us do best in neighborhoods where there are a lot of people like us, and I feel the same is true in publishing.

I have a great literary agent, and one of the best things she does for me is give me feedback about what markets I can’t compete effectively in – because their best selling authors have bigger platforms, the genre is fading, or whatever. And conversely, she lets me know where I *am* competitive, and helps me be successful in those markets. If you can get the same kind of feedback, you are very fortunate.

To sum all this up in one neat package: Love writing, be serious and professional, and become a student of the publishing business, as well as feeding your muse. Do these things, and I feel you have a surprisingly good chance of joining me in the “millionaire’s club.” Good luck!

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