“I want to be a bestseller.”
That’s a sentence I’ve heard countless times over the course of my career as a business ghostwriter. It seems like everybody wants to be a national bestseller. It’s a big ego boost as well as a sense of joining a very exclusive club.
But here’s what they don’t tell you about being a bestselling author—the pay is lousy.
“You’ve got to be kidding,” I hear you exclaiming. “If you’re a national bestseller, you’re making a ton of money from your books, right?”
In the traditional New York publishing model, the publisher is the one who makes all the money. The standard New York publishing contract puts 85-90% of book sales in the hands of the publisher, not in the hands of the author.
On top of that, your publisher expects you to be a doobie and traverse the country, speaking, selling books, and pressing the flesh, as if you were running for office.
But actually, you aren’t on the road making money for yourself. You’re on the road making money for your publisher.
This is why publishers love bestselling books—it’s essentially free labor. Some of the most famous people in the country, even as we speak, are crisscrossing the nation, typically on their own dime, making money not for themselves, but for their publisher.
That’s why you want to do a reality check before you even seek to do a book with a national publisher. First, you’ve got to decide whether your interests and those of the publisher are aligned. The publisher wants your book to be a bestseller because it will make the house a lot of money. You, by contrast, probably couldn’t care less whether your book sells a million copies or one copy, as long as your book makes the phone (and then the cash register) ring.
Bestseller status would be a nice adornment for you, but it’s not something that you can put on a deposit slip.
Whereas for the New York publisher, bestseller status means all the money in the world.
A second cause of misalignment between authors and publishers is the question of where your audience can be found.
I once worked on a book project with two of the most famous—at least in their region—radio DJs in the United States.
Despite the fact that they could probably sell a million books in Southern California, no New York publisher had the slightest bit of interest in them—because they weren’t national.
How dumb is that?
But you’ve got to ask yourself: where’s my audience? Is it a national audience? Or is it strictly local?
If you’re planning on using your book as a marketing tool, chances are your audience is either located in one city or town—within driving distance of your office—or it’s a niche market that exists nationally, but is small in numbers.
For example, take a consultant who is an expert in the area of big data and how it applies to retail sales.
That consultant might have a potential prospect base of only, say, 5,000 companies nationwide. If she gets, say, 15 of them, that’s a seven figure income.
But try to sell books to 5,000 people? Good luck. You’ll be fortunate if you even make back the cost of the marketing.
For someone like this individual, who has a niche audience, even though they are scattered around the country, the smarter play would be to identify the hundred prospects closest to her physical location and simply mail the CEO and CMO of each of those companies an autographed copy of her book.
You can call it guerrilla marketing or just saving on postage, but it means that she won’t have to be crisscrossing the country to try to sell books for a publisher or spending half her life in airports serving a far-flung client base.
Bestseller status is terrific, but you’ve really got to decide whom you are trying to enrich—yourself or a New York publisher.
If your audience is niche, and you really don’t care how many copies you sell as long as you make a whole bunch of money at your business or professional practice, the ego thrill of getting a deal from New York is not nearly as important as the sound of that ringing cash register.
If your book is going to make someone a lot of money, why shouldn’t it be you?