Good news from Hourigan & Co. in 2014: self-publishing is booming. There’s huge buzz around the topic, market share is on the rise, and the stigma formerly associated with “vanity publishing” is now turning into the glamor of being “independent.”

We help authors achieve their dreams of being self-published, in a way that allows them to keep control of their work and revenue by ensuring they have their own publishing accounts. We call this “assisted self-publishing.” The assistance part varies: as I’m an editor of over ten years’ experience, editing and proofreading manuscripts is the core of our service. But we also do:

  • professionally typeset print interiors
  • print on demand
  • e-book production
  • cover design
  • upload of print and e-book files to publishing accounts
  • marketing advice and assistance
  • website creation

All of this is charged at professional rates, and we find that the typical self-publishing project (which involves some combination of the above services) will cost the author around $2500. This represents many hours of work for us, but it also represents a substantial investment for the author in their writing career.

One of my clients, who I’ve spent a good deal of time mentoring through the process of writing and (soon) publishing his first book, recently wrote to me and let me know that as he has been through some tough financial times, he needs to be sure that he would get his money back from this investment. Like many authors do, he has high expectations for sales, revenue, and reputation, and he wants to know that he’s going to get there.

If only there were such certainties in life! Things worth having seldom come to us without hard work and struggle.

Yet, this client is thinking in exactly the right way, by wondering how he’s going to get a return on his investment. I want my clients to be successful so they keep writing and come back for more help. I stake my reputation on the quality of my service, and I also need my clients to stay in the game.

So, I sent this writer a 4,500 word email, which turns out to have been full of important information for any aspiring independent author who’s approaching a business like mine to help them with the process. It’s somewhat rambling, covering multiple topics as it does, but in many ways it captures some of the most important advice that I could give a self-published author about how they should set their expectations and how they can make money from their work in the long term.

Here are the highlights! I’ve cleaned them up so that they’re more generally applicable.

Beginning the letter

Hi, X,

Thank you for your honesty. I did wonder if we’d come up against this question of return on investment (ROI). First let me say that I’m sorry you’ve been in trouble, but glad to know that you are making the best of it by continuing to write and drawing inspiration from the experience.

If you’re ever in need of personal finance advice, I recommend checking out the Barefoot Investor and signing up to his free newsletter, which is full of good common sense more than anything else. I pay $300 a year for a subscription to his Barefoot Blueprint, mainly for the dividend stock picks. That might seem like a bit of a tangent, but I want you to know that with good discipline and planning, you will be okay in the long run, and also that you’re quite right to account for every penny.

The pitch

Now comes the part where I convince you that it’s worth spending your money on our assistance.

I’ll start by attacking the question of return on investment, which is key. It’s important for you to know that I can’t guarantee you anything in terms of sales, and that you should be very skeptical of anyone who says they can. I’ll be as straightforward with you as you have been with me, and say that shifting thousands of copies as a self-published author (or even a traditionally published author) is hard work—but it can be done.

In terms of the value I can offer you from your $2,500, many of the key things aren’t the sort of thing that you can break down into a list of key features. But I’ll do my best.

First, my work is focused around the editing that I do. While I do take a lot of pride in the production quality of my e-books, print interiors, cover designs, and websites, it all starts from this: in terms of working a profound transformation on your book, you will be hard-pressed to find other editors who can do the job that I will do.

Here’s a testimonial that author Michael Johnson wrote to me after I edited and helped him publish his book Keep it Clear:

Please accept these words: You are awesome. I love it beyond words. It is perfect in every which way. I do not know how to say thank you. I bloody love what you have done. With all of the information I have given you. I would hug you right now lol but lets not go that far lol 🙂 Thank you so much Ben. I could not have done a better job even If I tried. This is by far the best way anyone could have explained this. Like I said, I am so very glad you are my editor. Thank you so much.

Next, I’m here for you as a coach and mentor, if you want me to be. On a personal level, I feel like it’s the right thing to do; on the business level, my goal is to make you satisfied with the outcome so that you keep writing and come back to me with another book (as a few of my authors are planning to do). I don’t bill for any of this stuff, like all the letters I’ve sent you, but I’m always looking out for “my” authors, and here to answer any of your questions.

Here’s another testimonial from Grant Finnegan, whose novel The Seventh List is now available for preorder:

Thanks for your thoughts on this personal side of my life and your words of encouragement, it shows that you are like me as far as forming good working relationships with people you do business with, this in this day and age is a good thing, it makes all the difference.

An important thing about this is that I have skin in the game. I’m living the writing life, and I’m motivated to keep researching, experimenting, and learning about how to make it work. At the moment, my key focus is marketing, and I’ve been going back to some of my authors with advice on how they should adjust some of their practices for the best results. Just recently I’ve repositioned the categories of my novels so that they’re both on top 100 lists and I can claim “Kindle Bestseller” status in my marketing materials, and this morning I’ve (with her permission) put in a category change for Anna Kurz Rogers’s The hCG Protocol Companion so that she can crack a top 100 list too (she’s a gun at marketing her books, so she’s really excited about this).

[Note: As of writing, The hCG Protocol Companion is ranked #18 in its category, “Diets > Healthy”.]

Finally, I’ll just explain again (I think I might have done this before), the way I view what I do for you in a self-publishing sense. My aim is to make you self-sufficient, with your own publishing accounts, so that you

  • get involved in the process (with my assistance),
  • learn about it,
  • keep as much of your revenue from sales as possible,
  • and aren’t dependent on me.

For your next book, you can do it all yourself, get another editor, or do whatever you like, and nothing will be put out of order—because everything belongs to you.

Getting serious about return on investment (ROI)

You’re right that your book will be one of millions out there. More specifically, let’s say you were self-published, I recall there’s about 200,000 new books per year that go out through Smashwords alone. To make that a little less discouraging, be aware that many of these aren’t genuine books: a large proportion of them have some combination of the following traits:

  • are less than 10,000 words (not a real “book”, by any stretch of the imagination), often less than 5,000
  • have hideously unattractive, poorly-designed covers
  • aren’t proofread, edited, well-written, or well-conceived

If you approach this professionally, you start out a little ahead of the pack. But the odds are still stacked against you. It is hard work to be successful! Don’t let me or anyone else varnish that for you.

So, let’s say you invest $2,500 in an edit of your 50,000-word book, which with me includes e-book and print production. On top of that you spend another $550 on a professional cover design with us, which I strongly recommend if you’re self-publishing, and which will take the total up to $3,050. If you were considering traditional publishing after the edit, your best shot at getting your money back all in one go would be to then submit that edited MS to agents, and also to some publishers that take direct submissions. You will be waiting probably at least six months to get a serious response (i.e. an acceptance), if you get one, and maybe 12 months or more to get any money back. Your advance is likely to be no more than $5,000, as a first time author, and it’s also likely that will be the only money you ever see from the book. Additional royalties will be in the order of 20c to $2 per copy sold, once you earn out your advance, depending on format.

This is why a lot of authors are going the self-publishing route as a first preference. While the millions and billions to be made (for a very small few) are all in the traditional publishing sphere, you might say that the average result for a self-publisher is better.

First:

  • you will be published
  • your royalties might be $2 a copy even on a $3.99 book, which lets you potentially shift more copies—and then you only have to sell 1,525 copies to get your $3,050 back. On a $9.99 e-book royalties are about $7, which means you need to sell 436 copies to make your money back (definitely achievable over time).

But if traditional publishing is part of your dream, I definitely would recommend taking some time to go through the submission process, knowing you can come back and self-publish later if you don’t get the result you want.

There are also authors who decide to “graduate” to traditional publishing after building a reputation in self-publishing. Big names in the US are Amanda Hocking and Hugh Howey, who accepted big advances to go traditional, and in Australia Darrell Pitt recently signed a multi-book deal with Text after a start in the self-publishing world.

Since you are planning to write not one but two books, you are also setting yourself up for success. So glad I don’t have to convince you to do that! Successful self-publishers are universally agreed that you must write prolifically to give yourself the best chance at making money out of writing. I’d view these three books as essential reading for self-publishers:

I especially like Gaughran, as he gives a lot of very practical advice, and champions the value of a professional edit (at rates in the same ball-park as what I offer). I’ve found that Let’s Get Digital and its sequel, Let’s Get Visible, allowed me immediately to go on and do things to improve the visibility of my own books.

Making money on copy sales

There still is a chance that you could make your money back on copy sales. Anna Kurz Rogers made her investment of about $2,500 back in just over a month, mostly from PDF sales using the Payhip facility I set up for her (see her website at hcgprotocolcompanion.com), and the book is still selling. Let’s say there’s maybe a 20% chance that this could happen quickly for you, if you are very systematic.

Anna is selling primarily to online communities for her specific diet, and her network of clients as a diet coach. Community here is the key word: she’s already part of what marketers might call a “tribe”, and she can pitch her work straight to them. Developing this kind of “platform”, which can take some time, is a crucial part of becoming a successful author.

I know it doesn’t seem especially glorious now, but setting up a mailing list initially seeded with friends, relatives, colleagues, and clients, as I suggested, is pretty much where we all start. If you read Gaughran and Platt and Truant, you will see that they agree on the importance of mailing lists in the long term. Eventually there will be more than friends and relatives on there.

Your best shot at making your money back

In my experience, those self-published authors who are most satisfied with their experience, and the most likely to make their money back, are those who are not relying on copy sales for revenue.

Sounds kind of paradoxical, doesn’t it? The best way to make money from being an author is not to rely on money from selling copies of your books? Really?

Actually, I long ago read marketing guru Seth Godin saying something similar to this, and proceeded to ignore it. Then it became my life.

Here’s a list of “my” most successful authors.

Me

I don’t make much at all from copy sales, but by getting out there and doing the work, and learning how to do my own production at a very high standard and using innovative methods, I built a small business that allowed me to quit my job. What kick-started it all was a stroke of luck: my website benhourigan.com was ranking well for searches for “self-publishing Australia” or something similar, which led to an interview and a huge photo in Fairfax newspapers across Australia one Sunday in January 2013.

I’d been freelancing for years, but this opened up a new line of work in helping others to self-publish—which brings us right up to the present moment! The income from what I do is exceedingly modest, and I have to work very hard to win clients, but so long as I am alive, free, and out of debt, I count this all as a huge success. I’m happy doing what I love for a living, and I’m building a business and a public profile that I own, instead of working on a boss’s dream.

Mark Reister

My first self-publishing client. Kudos to Mark—he stuck with me while I was still working out how to do everything. Mark’s book How to Buy Unlimited Investment Properties is a dream project for him, and although he will one day make his money back from copy sales, in the meantime he’ll have more than made it back from his real estate business.

Having a book out allows Mark to further position himself as a property investment expert. His print books are a great piece of marketing collateral, and they will continue to win him extra business until the day he retires. Mark has been on one top-100 list, alongside books by Donald Trump and Robert Kiyosaki.

Mark started out with me (Nameless Books) as publisher, but as my business model has changed, I’m shifting him over to using his own accounts. He told me a few days ago he’s substantially through writing his next book.

Anna Kurz Rogers

Anna works as a diet coach; her main motivation was to distil the knowledge she’s gained in her years of experience into a form that could be more easily shared with many others—to give her message greater reach. She started out with the motivation of helping people, with sales and profile-building a secondary benefit, and happened to do very well with sales as well.

I haven’t checked in on her dashboard recently but I expect she’ll be at least a few thousand dollars in profit by now, on a 13,000-word e-book (The hCG Protocol Companion) that will continue to pay off for her in sales and as a diet coach.

There might be a lesson in there for you—the edit component of Anna’s book was only $800 because of the length, and she used the rest of her spend on a website and so on. While I wouldn’t recommend cutting your book to save money, there is a road open for you to perhaps write a few shorter works focused on very specific topics.

Most of Anna’s sales revenue has been from the PDF/ePub/Mobi bundle promoted on her website and sold through Payhip. For this bundle she gets 95% of proceeds ($9.50 on a $9.99 book). I also expect her to crack a top-100 list once her category change goes through within the next day or so. (Update: As mentioned above, the book started out at #18 in its category.)

So what I would like you to consider, for the sake of your own success, is how in the initial stages of your writing career you can find additional ways to help your writing make money for you. This is part of what the Barefoot Investor might call “building a side business”—which is one of the things he advocates people (especially young people) do to build their income and their ability to invest.

One thing that you have on your side (and all authors should aim to) is that you already have a good job. For a few years before I started writing and freelancing full time, I was in a similar position. With two jobs, while I worked very hard, I managed to save about $60,000 (not very much, I know) in the space of three years by living off my day-job income and saving every cent I got from my side business. Having that behind me gave me part of the security I felt I needed to have a go at striking out on my own.

It’s up to you, of course, to decide what shape any business based on your writing may take, but in your case, you might be able to make additional money as a:

  • life coach (you can even do this online: have a look at Google Helpouts)
  • motivational speaker

Other authors might make money from performances, consulting or other professional services—and their ordinary careers.

Also consider whether there’s any way that you could play this into your existing career. Can you leverage being an author into a higher-paying position? Could you write another book with professional slant and go on to offer training seminars? One of my clients and friends started a side business a few years ago teaching people a professional skill in courses he sells on Eventbrite. He recently told me that in March 2014, he made … I won’t goad you on with a dollar sum, but let me say it was a very substantial amount of money, and I’m flabbergasted that he made it out of something that he started just as an experiment. He’s currently trying to get me to try something similar in my own business.

This is just to inspire you to think more broadly, and to suggest that often the most immediate earning opportunities from being an author are not from book sales themselves. Big successes can happen, but typically they will do so only when you are at least a few books into your career—think of J.K. Rowling, for instance. Harry Potter didn’t really kick off in a big way until book three.

Okay—that’s probably enough pitching for now! There’s a huge amount of information in there, so do ask me any further questions. I hope it’s enough to sell you on the value of the service, and of me looking after you in a more generalized sense. Do write back and let me know your thoughts.

(That last bit goes for you, too, reader. Please leave a comment if you have any thoughts or questions you’d like to share. I’d love to hear from you.)

—Ben Hourigan

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Ben Hourigan is an Australian-born novelist and freelance editor. His novels Kiss Me, Genius Boy (2011) and My Generation’s Lament have been Kindle bestsellers, reaching #9 and #10 in the World Literature > Australia & Oceania category. Since 2013, Ben has worked full-time at Hourigan & Co. while writing his third book. As Hourigan & Co. grows, Ben continues to work with businesses and institutions while cultivating a growing practice in editing, publishing, marketing, and mentoring for self-published authors.
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