If you’re thinking of writing a book, this piece I wrote for ScienceWriters, the magazine of the National Association of Science Writers offers what I hope is a useful reality check.
Explaining Research: the Aftermath
by Dennis Meredith, reprinted from ScienceWriters, Spring 2011
Most authors have experienced that darkly hilarious moment when they open their royalty statements and discover their minuscule income for years of toil. Indeed, my latest royalty statements for Explaining Research show that my recompense for three years of interviewing and writing, and for an investment of thousands of dollars (see below for financial breakdown), were a whopping $1,646.97—still not enough to offset my $2,000 advance, not to mention my own investment.
But the royalty statement doesn’t tell the whole story of the book, and it’s a story that I hope my fellow NASW authors and proto-authors will find useful. The lessons I learned about negotiating with publishers (discussed in the Winter 2010 ScienceWriters), marketing, self-publishing and ancillary income have made the project eminently worthwhile.
And the book itself might well ultimately turn a profit. The initial royalty statements reflect only very early sales of the book. Given indications that teachers are adopting it for academic courses, the income might be larger in the future . . . I hope.
I’m certainly pleased with the book’s publisher, Oxford University Press. Although commercial publishers give significantly larger advances and better royalty rates, Oxford was the right choice, given the book’s potential as a textbook. Also, an agent whose opinion I trust told me that the book would likely not be considered by a commercial publisher, given its academic audience. And while Oxford did all the promotion it promised—for example, sending the book widely to reviewers—the vast majority of marketing fell to my wife Joni and me. It’s a reality that faces even authors of high-profile commercial books, and one that all authors must embrace if their books are to be successful.
Marketing free (or at least cheap)!
The book taught me two major lessons about marketing. First, marketing is largely based on hunches. Investment in any marketing efforts almost never yields hard data on payback. The only measure we had of return on investment from our marketing initiatives was an increase in Web site hits, since the book is heavily integrated with its Web site.
The other marketing lesson is more comforting: that almost all the effective marketing efforts an author can undertake are either free or cheap. So, with those lessons in mind, here’s which marketing efforts seemed to work for me, and which ones didn’t:
The book’s Web site was a highly worthwhile investment in time and money. Of course, the Web site was necessary because I posted the book’s references and resources there. But beyond that, the site was the prime marketing “brochure” for the book. I think a key to the site’s usefulness was that it didn’t concentrate on highlighting me as the author, but rather the content and value of the book itself. I’ve been told that readers really don’t much care about the author—unless he/she is a brand like Stephen King—but the information the book offers.
Social media did not really work for me. I launched a blog, Research Explainer, a Twitter account (@explainresearch) and an Amazon author page. Perhaps I did not blog, tweet or cultivate contacts enough, but the traffic to none of them seemed to offer sufficient payback for the effort. A major issue—and one that faces any freelancer—is whether to spend time blogging, which doesn’t bring in a check, or freelancing, which does. So, I ultimately decided to continue to blog, but to post only when I have an idea really worth blogging about, and only when I don’t have a paying freelance assignment on deck.
The blog posts were more useful as updates for the book. When I wrote a blog post that contained new information or insights, I added a link to the post in the relevant chapter listing in the references & resources, so readers would readily discover it.
More productive, I believe, were the guest posts I did for the Oxford University Press blog. They reached the publisher’s huge audience, and seemed well worth the effort.
Another tip: I linked my blog with my Twitter and Facebook accounts and Amazon Author page, so my blog posts automatically appeared there. Also, I posted blog pieces on the relevant LinkedIn groups, of which I was a member. These groups can be quite large. For example, the Science & Technology Media Professionals group has 1,500 members, and the PRWise group has 7,310.
Also useful for marketing purposes were articles I wrote for the Chronicle of Higher Education and The Scientist. They reached large audiences that were prime targets for the book. Again, I synergized the effort by posting the articles on my blog and listing them in the press room of the book Web site.
E-mail seemed to be by far the most effective marketing tool, and it was free. Joni sent about 30,000 (yes, 30,000!) personalized e-mail messages to teachers, researchers, librarians and administrators involved in research communication. We decided that recipients would not consider the message spam since we sent only a single personalized message, and the information was useful. Indeed, we only received a few complaints, in contrast with the scores of thank-yous and requests for review copies from teachers. And, when Joni sent an e-mail blast to relevant lists, we saw a major increase in Web site traffic.
The one exception to “free or cheap” in our marketing was the $936 we spent on 500 packages of gourmet cookies imprinted with the book’s cover and reviews. We distributed those at the 2010 AAAS meeting as part of the book’s launch. They were quickly snapped up, and we did see a large jump in Web traffic at that time.
Skloot, the marketing champ
As extensive as our marketing efforts were, we don’t hold a candle to Rebecca Skloot, author of the bestselling The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks. Of course, central to her success is that she wrote an extraordinary book that has garnered deservedly rave reviews. But she is also highly adept at marketing. For example, over the decade spent writing her book, she managed her writing career to make contacts that would help secure reviews, published excerpts and media attention. And she is an adept user of Twitter. As of this writing, she has 10,988 followers and has sent out 6,608 tweets.
However, as important as Skloot’s book is, she and her father still had to organize her own book tour. Her publisher and others in the business declared the book tour “dead.” However, Skloot drew on her extensive social network to solicit expense-paid speaking engagements, and her father scheduled the four-month tour.
Lesson in self-publishing
The book also taught lessons in self-publishing, because I elected to publish a supplement Working with Public Information Officers myself. After Oxford asked for 10,000 words to be cut from the manuscript, I excised that section and used the print-on-demand company Lightning Source to produce the booklet. The advantage is that Lightning Source books automatically appear for sale on Amazon.com, Barnes & Noble and other outlets. The books are also listed in the database of distributors Baker & Taylor and Ingram, which owns Lightning Source.
The disadvantage is that Lightning Source demands that you act like a publisher, not an author. There is no handholding, and you are expected to supply the cover, layout and other data, as would a publisher. Fortunately, there are many design companies that can supply just such handholding, and I found one in 1106 Design.
Importantly, Lightning Source is not like the so-called POD publishers like Lulu, iUniverse, etc. These are vanity publishers that make their money from charging fees to authors, rather than book sales.
The print cost for the booklet was $2.52 per copy, and I set a cover price of $10. I found that I could give a “short discount” of only 20 percent, and the online booksellers would still list the book. And although bookstores will not stock a book at that discount, they weren’t an appropriate outlet for the booklet, anyway.
I’ve not made that investment back—probably in part because I purposefully “sabotaged” print sales by posting its content online as a service to researchers and public information officers. However, the experience taught me about the machinery of POD; and with the rapid rise of ebooks, self-publishing is becoming a more cost-effective route.
Platform key to making money
The key to making money from a book, I learned, is to use it as a “platform” for workshops and paid speaking engagements. After some research, I found that I should charge $2,500 for half-day communication workshops, and I charge $1,500 for one-hour talks on research communication topics. This latter fee is low. Speaking fees typically range from $2,500 to $10,000, according to professional speakers. And the fee schedule in Writer’s Market lists $5,000 as the average fee for a “national event.” The schedule also lists average fees for regional events ($615), local groups ($219) and class presentations ($183).
And while my topic of research communication is a natural for workshops and talks, just about any nonfiction book could provide fodder for an interesting fee-paid talk.
Beyond directly earning income, of course, a book also enhances a writer’s reputation and visibility, quite likely leading to freelance assignments—a phenomenon that is not quantifiable.
So, given this experience, should you write a book? The best advice I’ve heard is from veteran New York Times writer Cory Dean. In her book Am I Making Myself Clear? she declares “Don’t think about writing a book unless you really cannot help yourself.”
Well, I guess I can’t. I’ve already started on my next book.
The Accounting: Money Out, Money In
(Not counted: travel expenses for interviewing trips)
Lawyer fees: $2,950.00
Cartoon rights: $1,200.00
Books purchased for marketing: $967.86
Web site (two years)
$299 setup and $29.95/month: $658.40
Total Cost: $7.957.26
Income (as of December 2010):
Book advance: $2,000.00
Allowance for cartoons: $1,000.00
Total Income: $3,000
NET LOSS: [$4,957.26]
Working with Public Information Officers booklet
Cover, layout and proofing: $650.00
Amazon Search Inside file: $25.00
Lightning Source setup: $100.00
Total Cost: $803.00
Income (as of February 2011):
Payments from Lightning Source: $262.00
NET LOSS: [$541.00]