This Writer's Roller Coaster Ride
By Steve Gillman - October 11, 2014
I started with nothing
but simple websites, made it to six figures and a book contract,
then had to take minimum wage jobs, and then started a new career
When you consistently make money writing you're a "professional
writer." As for myself, I would write even if I wasn't paid,
and I would be happier to be called a bum for double the pay.
Unlike labels or recognition, money can be translated into freedom
-- a topic for another time. For now, if you're an aspiring writer,
let's see if you can learn something from my story, and translate
that "something" into cash.
The lessons will be positive and negative, and about accepting
the randomness of life. In other words, I'm going to tell you
what I did right, what I did wrong, and how much blind luck (good
and bad) was involved. I'll highlight the lessons in case you
want to just scan the article and pick them out.
In twenty years of occasional writing I never sold anything
I wrote, perhaps in part because I only once submitted a manuscript
to a publisher.
Lesson: You can't sell a book
just by writing it.
Then I discovered the internet. In 2004 my wife and I put
up our first website and signed up for Google AdSense so we could
make money from the site. It was about poetry, and because of
a lack of income I'll probably be letting the domain name expire
by the time you read this.
But our website on cheap homes made more than $100,000 over
the years, and other websites, on topics ranging from brain power
to carpet cleaning and backpacking also did well. We eventually
had dozens of websites, some in Spanish (my wife's, one of which
is the best we have left).
Lesson: It's difficult to make
money with some subjects.
Lesson: Try more than one thing.
Within about a year of starting our little business we were
making a living. Later we were making over $10,000 per
month net profit. We made it from AdSense clicks, affiliate
commissions on products we linked to, advertising we sold, and
e-books I wrote.
Most of my 30 hours of work each week were spent creating
new web pages or writing articles that we distributed to promote
our websites. I was essentially making a good living writing
--something that wouldn't have happened without the internet.
Of course, it was a lot easier back then to make money online.
We happened to start at just the right time. Don't buy the bullshit
line that success is just doing the "right" things
and perservering. It's beyond silly to think that Bill Gates
would have been the billionaire founder of Microsoft if he was
born in Sub-Saharan Africa instead of within walking distance
of one of the first time-share computers in the United States.
You can work hard and fail or work hard and succeed, and sometimes
even work just a little and succeed anyhow (less common, but
it happens). You do your best and see what life brings.
Lesson: Life is unpredictable
and random chance plays a role in your results.
Fortunately the fact that people stumble upon success doesn't
mean there is nothing to be learned from their stories. Life
is unpredictable, but there are still patterns and causes. Being
in "the right place at the right time" can be happenstance,
but can also be arranged. You can follow a path to success consciously
after seeing someone else stumble down it, which brings us to
how I stumbled into a book contract...
Why I Was Asked to Write a Book
I had a funky little website about unusual ways to make money
(which made over $1,000 per month), and in 2007 I created the
"Unusual Ways Newsletter," a weekly email that went
out to a growing number of subscribers (now hosted on this website).
I also created other email newsletters (my Mind
Power Report had 40,000 subscribers at one point), and
I self-published a paperback, "Secrets of Lucky People,"
Visitors to my sites, readers of my many short e-books, and
subscribers to my newsletters emailed me hundreds of compliments,
which I read and deleted. At some point I realized my mistake
and started saving these testimonials for use on my sites and
in promotional materials. As you can see I never was much of
Lesson: Nice emails are also known
as testimonials -- and should be saved.
I got lucky with my $800 investment in Secrets of Lucky
People. I sold enough through our websites and newsletters
to cover the cost, and then a Japanese agent happened to see
the book. He found a Tokyo publisher willing to pay me a $2,000
advance for the rights to publish the book in Japanese. The right
elements were lining up for a bigger deal, although it wasn't
any plan of mine.
Lesson: Self-publishing can sometimes
I was sitting at my desk in September of 2010, watching the
deer in the backyard (we lived in Colorado at the time), when
the phone rang. It was a senior editor from John Wiley &
Sons Publishing. He asked if I wanted to write a book on strange
ways to make money. He had visited my website and noticed my
weekly newsletter. One of the first things he asked was how many
subscribers I had. There were about 5,000 on the "Unusual
Ways" list, and another 25,000 more on various mailing lists
for topics like real estate and brainpower. He liked that.
Lesson: Build a mailing list if
you want to get publsihed.
He asked if I had sold many copies of my book on luck. Well,
maybe, I said, if you include the Japanese version and the e-book
sales. The numbers -- or lack of them -- didn't impress him,
but he liked the fact that I had a book out there.
Lesson: Contrary to some writers'
belief, self-publishing doesn't hurt your chances for landing
a contract with a traditional publisher.
Learning the Book Business
The name Wiley seemed familiar. I discovered they publish
the "For Dummies" series, and are the largest publisher
in the country some weeks (sales go up and down). Obviously I
knew very little about the book business, but I was learning.
I quickly understood that publishers want authors who already
have an an audience. This "following" can be developed
online more easily than elsewhere.
Lesson: Build an online presence
if you want to make money as a writer.
I later learned that a traditional publisher can do some things
more easily than a self-published writer. For example, the publicist
at Wiley got me an interview on Fox News and other television
networks. I'm sure that "101 Weird Ways to Make Money"
would not have sold as many copies if I had self-published it.
Lesson: There are some real advantages
to getting published traditionally.
Even though Wiley called me they still wanted a formal book
proposal and "author marketing plan." They sent a form
and guidelines to help me prepare the latter. It suggested that
public speaking is one of the best ways to promote a book, and
I was prompted to attach a speaking schedule for the next year
with estimates of the number of audience members.
Lesson: Publishers want authors
who are speakers.
Lesson: Publishers want authors
who will take charge of marketing.
Number of audience members? That part of the form was returned
blank. I don't do public speaking. I don't want to speak in front
of people. I like sitting at home in my underwear speaking through
I was told it's good to buy large quantities of one's book
to give to clients and audience members, to build recognition.
My "clients" were anonymous readers of web pages and
newsletters who sometimes clicked on an ad. My wife was my only
live audience. The form asked how many books I intended to buy.
I left that part blank.
I even crossed out the line in the contract requiring a minimum
purchase of 100 books, because it would have eaten up 10% of
the advance I was getting. What was I going to do with all of
those books? Despite that alteration and others, we came to an
agreement. I would buy ten books, but get them from Amazon because
it was cheaper than the wholesale price offered by Wiley.
Lesson: It may be risky, but you
can negotiate almost any part of a book contract.
When the editor asked about previous interviews I mentioned
the dozen or so radio shows on which I'd been interviewed. At
that time if you had a website about anything you were an expert
on the subject, and so you got interview requests. I was an "expert"
on weird ways to make money, real estate, brainpower, and creativity
in various interviews.
Lesson: Act like an expert (even
by accident) and you become one.
He suggested that I contact all of the previous interviewers
to get on their shows again near the publication date of the
book. Oops. I should have kept records of interviews and other
publicity. I remembered that they were morning "shock jock"
shows and one might have been on a station from St. Louis, Missouri.
Lesson: Keep email addresses and
notes from all interviews and other publicity events.
I almost walked away because of some clauses in the contract.
Our internet business was doing well in any case. But after a
few changes I signed the contract and got a check for half of
the $10,000 advance, receiving the other half after the manuscript
I spent six weeks writing 101 Weird Ways to Make Money
in the fall of 2010. It isn't even conceivable that, prior to
the internet, one could research and write about 101 ways to
make money, plus interview a dozen people on how they make a
living, all in six weeks. Times have changed for writers. Wiley
was a bit slower: the book was published in the summer of 2011.
Lesson: Doing research online
and doing email interviews has made it possible
to put a book together faster than ever before.
My editor told me that if we sold 3,000 copies it would be
a flop, while 5,000 to 6,000 copies would be normal. Anything
over 10,000 would be great. According
to a Huffington Post article, the average non-fiction book
sells fewer than 3,000 copies total, and only about 250 copies
per year. The article also noted that "A book has less than
a 1% chance of being stocked in an average bookstore."
I got lucky again. It wasn't a best-seller by any means, but
Barnes and Noble pre-ordered 3,000 books for their stores around
the country before publication, and I've sold more than 13,000
copies so far. I quickly "earned out" my advance. Yes,
I learned new jargon. An advance is really just a loan against
future royalties, and "earn out" one's advance is to
make more in royalties than the money already received -- something
not all authors do (fortunately, as far as I know, they never
ask for the advance money back).
I've had a few nice checks since then, although my next one
will be only about $500 for the previous six months' sales, so
the run is almost over. Perhaps I should have written another
Lesson: Books have a limited lifespan,
so start another if you want to keep the royalties coming in.
Some people say I was lucky to get the contract and to sell
a decent amount of books, and I'm one of those people. I'm also
lucky to have several insiders I can talk to at Wiley if I decide
to write another book. I stumbled into this opportunity, but,
looking back, the steps I unwittingly took seem repeatable (create
an online presence, build a list, get interviewed).
Marketing is What Sells Books
I don't do marketing very well, even after studying it for
years. When I did well with e-books it was because I wrote a
lot of them and got to keep a bigger share of each sale (a $17
PDF book sold through Clickbank nets me a $14.81 royalty, and
from a $5.99 Kindle book I get $4.19). Having a publicist at
Wiley helped a lot with sales.
Still, I wonder how many copies I might have sold if I wasn't
such a reluctant marketer. I could have tried speaking at events.
I could have contacted more radio programs.
John Locke created a series of crime novels specifically for
Amazon's Kindle platform, and did so well that he later wrote
the book, "How I Sold 1 Million eBooks in 5 Months."
He says he's primarily a marketer who just happens to write.
His book got me excited, but I eventually decided that marketing
is more of an art than a science, which explains why an intelligent
guy like me can't quite get it right.
Hey, that's not a bad excuse, and it has some truth to it.
But even the most truthful excuses don't accomplish much other
than makign us feel better about inaction, and I don't want you
to start thinking that writing success is likely without marketing
efforts. I got lucky... for a while. But now...
The Rest of the Story
On March 31, 2011 we bought the closest thing to a new car
we had ever had -- for cash. On April 10, 2011 our six-figure
income dropped in half overnight. A simple change in the Google
search engine algorithm meant... Continue