Best Selling Author…Or Best Earning Author?

One of my favorite writer stories is the one about the guy who dropped everything to write full time. He exclaimed, “I made three sales my first year! I sold my house, I sold my car, and I sold my furniture!”

We all know it’s never been easy to make a living as a writer. The landmark Author’s Guild survey of the 1970s indicated that the average writer makes a little bit more per hour than a person flipping burgers at McDonalds.

To which I respond, “Who wants to read a book by an average writer?”

This is why we all have so much respect for the concept of the bestselling author. It took me more than twenty years before a book I wrote made the bestseller list. In my case, it was Dropping the Ball, which I co-wrote with Dave Winfield. Seven more bestsellers quickly followed, including my (so far) only book on the New York Times Bestseller List, Making Jack Falcone, which I co-wrote with FBI undercover agent Joaquin Garcia.

Having taken this long to crack the bestseller list, I can tell you that it means a lot to me to have done so. And then, somehow, once you get in the club, it gets easier and easier to repeat. In 2012, I have three books with major publishers, and there is every reason to expect that each of them will be a national bestseller as well.

But how important is it today for authors to be bestselling authors?

Unless you do what I do for a living—ghostwrite and co-write—does it even matter at all?

When I ask my clients about goals for their books, they often say the same thing: They want to be a bestselling author.

That makes sense. Sales have always been the yardstick by which we measure a book’s success. And if you’re competitive by nature, why wouldn’t you want to be a bestseller? Why wouldn’t you be in it to win it?

But it’s necessary to define what “winning” really means.

A bestselling book is a payday for the publisher, and not necessarily one for the author. A New York publishing house typically takes 85 to 90 percent of the income a book generates, leaving the author with just 10 to 15 percent. If a book is sold in a foreign market, including Canada, the publisher might even take 95 percent. If the book is sold through the Book of the Month Club, the author may just get 3 or 4 percent of the cover price. So your book can do very well for the publisher’s bottom line and give you the glory of being a bestselling author. But that doesn’t necessarily translate into what I call CPR—Cash in your Pocket Right now.

Today, it actually means less to be a bestselling author than in years past. That’s because you can game the system on Amazon all too easily and create for yourself national bestselling status in the blink of an eye. Here’s how:

Do a mailing to everyone on your list. Tell them you have a new book coming out, and ask them to buy the book between, say, ten and eleven pm on a given day.

Amazon recalculates its bestseller list once an hour. If a book makes the top 100 on Amazon’s overall list of books, even for an hour, it can legitimately be considered a nationally bestselling book. Amazon also has sub-lists on every topic you can think of, so as to make it as easy as possible for book browsers to find the book they need. These sub-lists are also updated hourly. It’s not a huge stretch of the truth to claim that a book that appeared in the top 100 for one hour on any of Amazon’s sub-lists is also a national bestseller.

But even if you want to be in the top 100, you can do it if your friends buy 750 copies of your book within a sixty-minute time period. Sometimes, it can take as few as 400 copies sold to get your book into the top 100 category. And then your book is a national bestseller for all time, and so, by extension, are you.

If you sell 750 books on Amazon in one hour, you (or more likely, your publisher) will be enriched to the tune of about $1,500. Maybe more. While $1,500 is not an amount of money to be sneezed at, it’s certainly not enough to fund your retirement or even a family vacation, in many cases. That’s why I tell my clients that being a bestselling author isn’t as meaningful as it seems.

The only people who really need to be nationally bestselling authors are those who make a living, or intend to make a living, from public speaking. It’s all but impossible to get meaningful, paid speaking engagements unless you are an author, and it’s even harder to be taken seriously if your book is not a national bestseller. So if the speaking platform is in your business model, go gather your 750 closest friends and become a bestseller as quickly as possible. But if not, then you need to focus on something else: becoming a “best earning author.”

The books I write with celebrities are enormous fun to do.  On the other hand, books I write for my business clients are incredibly lucrative for them, even though they may never sell a single copy. The bread and butter of BusinessGhost, if you will, are books that our clients use as marketing tools for their businesses or practices. That’s because there’s nothing like a book to confer authority on an individual, to create a sense of uniqueness and preeminence, and to tell one’s story in great detail.

This last point is incredibly important. In today’s world, pretty much everybody’s website in any given industry looks the same. In fact, they all look great! Some video, some attractive photos, some well-written copy, some endorsements from past clients. A decent website demonstrates credibility. But it doesn’t demonstrate what makes you special. It doesn’t get your unique story across.

That’s because there just isn’t time.

When people read a website, they typically aren’t even reading—they’re glancing, they’re noticing, they’re watching some video, but they aren’t deeply engaged in a transfer of information, let alone deep knowledge, about a topic. And they’re certainly not getting clarity about the most important topic of all: why they should hire you and not a competitor.

That’s where books come in.  They create a sense of certainty that you truly are the world’s leading expert on a given topic.

What would it be worth to your business if every prospect with whom you came in contact knew that you understood the problems they faced, that you were the unquestioned authority on solving those problems, and that you had a clear path to providing solutions that they could read and discover for themselves?

We have financial planners for whom we have written BusinessGhost books, and they make $40,000 to $50,000 or more in fees every time they add a new client. We have companies that add million-dollar clients to their rosters on an ongoing basis, because their book tells their story.

We advocate giving away books for free. Our clients will print up hundreds of copies and give them to their prospects, so as to get this incredibly important body of knowledge into those prospects’ hands. We also make our books available to our clients as downloadable PDFs, which our clients offer for free on their websites, in exchange for contact information.

What’s the good of making $2 or $3 a sale on a book when you could make $50,000 a client instead? Or in other words, are you going into the book business with your book, or are you using your book to build your business?

This is the way we want our clients to think about the books we are creating for them.

Look, there’s nothing wrong with wanting to be a bestselling author. It’s exciting and fun. But the real game is to be a best earning author. And as you can see, it can be a lot more lucrative to be a best earning author instead of a bestseller.

If your heart is still set on bestseller-dom, not to worry. I have a colleague whose business takes books and launches them to the top of the bestseller list (for a fee, of course). He took one client of mine and boosted her novel to the #2 spot on the overall Barnes and Noble list. He swears he would’ve made her #1, had President Obama’s book not been lodged firmly in first place that day. He took a nonfiction book a client of mine wrote and pushed it to #10 on the overall Barnes and Noble list. (If you want to get in contact with him, let me know.)

The point is that whether you get 750 of your best friends to buy your book, hire my buddy, or simply do the hard work of having a book reach the bestseller list of its own accord (and thus enrich your publisher), I hope you’ll agree with me that being a bestselling author is terrific. But becoming a best earner? That’s really the way to go.

Michael Levin About Michael Levin

As one of the most established ghostwriters in the nation, New York Times best-selling author Michael Levin has written, co-written or ghostwritten more than 100 books, of which nine are national best sellers. He appeared on ABC’s Shark Tank on January 20, 2012. In the past, Michael has published with Simon & Schuster, Random House, St. Martin’s Press, Putnam/Berkley, and many other houses. His works have been optioned for film and TV by Steven Soderbergh/Paramount, HBO, Disney, ABC, and others. One of his own novels became Model Behavior, an ABC Sunday night Disney movie of the week.