Since your first title sold 10,000 copies in its debut month, you’ve been able to quit your day job and pivot to making writing your full-time profession. As reliable as the sunrise, a royalty check finds its way into your mailbox each month. Your phone pings hourly to let you know that yet another reader has shared your book on social media. Your publisher is waiting on book number two, and the journey you’ve long been waiting to embark on as a professional novelist is now your reality.
And just like that, the alarm goes off, and there you are, snapped awake from the dream of so many aspiring and active authors—awake again to the reality that even when you become a bestselling author, you aren’t necessarily a financially successful one. Nowadays, arriving at the top of the bestsellers lists is no longer a ticket to monetary and professional success.
Don’t believe me? Consider that, according to the New York Times, 98% of the books publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies. Or that, per a report from Berrett-Koehler, 2022 saw approximately three million new self-published and traditionally published titles released, and only 789 million books sold. That’s an average of 263 copies per book! Even factoring in uncounted potential audiobook and e-book sales, most books land with a thud, not thunderous applause. If that data isn’t enough, consider this, from the same report by B-K: “BookScan found that only 6.7% of the new titles released by these companies were selling more than 10,000 copies in their first year of sales.”
The data tells a clear story for aspiring authors: unless you are among the lucky few, your book is not now—not ever—going to be a one-way ticket to success. And when I say success, I mean the ability to make a viable living by writing. A bestselling book is a moment in time. Success is long-term stability and freedom. So how do those authors who publish regularly make their living by writing?
To achieve the kind of success you dream of as an author, you need to flip the script you’ve conceived of around publication. In the decade or so that I’ve worked with authors, I’ve come to understand who has what it takes to achieve their goals, and who doesn’t. Those who succeed view their book not as a culmination but as a beginning. Many authors tend to think about their book’s publication as a climax—the final draft of a story they’ve been longing to tell, the pinnacle of a decade spent in research, the finale of a years-long journey. But the successful authors I’ve worked with each viewed their book as a starting point—the launchpad from which they could tell new stories, expand on their relationship to the material, and to readers.
To consider what this means for you, think about what relationship you want to have with someone once they’ve read the last page of your book. Follow you online? Attend a seminar? Buy a product? Hire you to speak? Remember, 50% of the publishing business is... business.
To put some numbers to it, let’s assume that you’re one of the lucky one in three authors who have 1,000 people buy your book in its first year. Realistically, you’re not bringing in much money in the way of royalties on that—but 1,000 readers is still 1,000 readers. And if you wrote a good book, it is likely these readers visited your website or joined your online community. Maybe 25% of them would be willing to engage even further. Perhaps your book, a business book, could be paired with an online coaching program that sells for $50 per month.
If those 25% do sign up for six months of that online program, that’s $75,000 that’s entirely your own. Not your agent’s, not your publisher’s—yours. That kind of money can give you the level of comfort you need to turn your eyes to book number two. That’s success.
Now, if you’re reading this and are unsure how this could apply to you, perhaps steal some inspiration from authors I’ve worked with to make the shift:
• The doctor who launched an online health training and coaching service after publishing a book on women’s health;
• The fitness influencer who launched a weekly meal plan program after the release of his cookbook;
• The mystery novelist who serialized rough drafts of unpublished works in a paid newsletter;
• The true crime writer who offered training programs to amateur detectives.
Remember, the path to becoming a successful author goes beyond book sales alone. Embrace the possibilities, think outside the box, and build a multifaceted authorship journey.
Jonathan Jacobs is a marketing executive and consultant, as well as cofounder of the marketing agency Digital Natives Group.