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Why most nonfiction fails to make money

Four royalty-wrecking blunders & how to fix them

By Rob Fitzpatrick


Roughly 100,000 nonfiction titles are published each year. And yet:

  • The average NYT nonfiction bestseller loses ~98% of its peak sales within a year (source)
  • Seventy percent of traditionally published titles fail to pay out a single dollar in royalties (source)
  • Vanishingly few nonfiction books sell even five hundred copies

These are not good results.

In fact, the expected outcome is so grim that you’ll hear otherwise sensible folks proclaim that earning a reliable living from nonfiction is straight-up impossible, and that you should therefore embrace your book’s predestined doom by reframing it as either passion project or calling card.

Allow me to disagree.

For example, here’s a peek at the royalties (Amazon only) from my first two books over a two-week period, from January 1st-15th:

The reason that the naysayers are so wrong is that they understand neither how nonfiction functions as a product, nor the process behind navigating the uncertainty inherent in designing any sort of product that must survive on its own in the hostile, noisy open market.

A proper process, on the other hand, allows any diligent author to reliably and repeatably design long-lasting and profitable titles, forging a predictable path toward meaningful passive income.

Four too-common blunders that will cripple your book’s earnings before it has even been written:

  1. Signing with a publisher before you have any leverage 
  2. Creating a book with an expiration date 
  3. Writing broadly “about” a topic instead of making a clear promise about what the reader will get out of it 
  4. Giving good advice that fails to cross the air gap and reach the reader 

Mistake #1: Signing with a publisher before you have any leverage

Publishers are are extremely good at making a big book go bigger, and they are wizards at exploiting the fame, platform, and reputation of an already well-established author. But they don’t really know what to do with unknown and unproven new authors. So although they may still sign you, they’ll typically withhold the bulk of their marketing support in the early days when you need it most.

An excerpt from Write Useful Books:

To compensate for their 85% share of the royalties, a publisher needs to sell at least 5x more copies for you to break even [compared to self-publishing].

Well… they can, right? After all, they’re publishers. But here’s the rub: publishers don’t want to blow their budget on a risky, unproven book. As such, they’ll only deploy their marketing arsenal once your book has already been de-risked, which basically means that you’re either already a best-selling author, you already possess an adoring audience waiting to buy your stuff, or your book has already sold at least 10,000 copies.

This can feel a bit unfair. In fact, as an unproven author negotiating with a publisher, much of the discussion will revolve around how you are going to promote your own book. At which point, you might be asking what exactly the publisher is doing to justify their hefty share.

Having a publisher say “yes” feels amazing. But doing so at the cost of a bad deal is an ego trap. You should only sell your rights once you’re reasonably certain that the publisher is committed to deploying their entire arsenal of marketing and PR resources.

Luckily, there’s a pretty slick workaround for those of us who are still starting out. Another excerpt:

Savvy authors have recently been choosing to self-publish their first ten thousand copies and then transition afterwards into a publishing deal. This preserves full royalties from the early sales (which you hustled on your own in either case) and then allows you to negotiate with publishers from position of strength since your book is already proven.

This approach was used by Gabriel Weinberg (Traction) and by Alex Osterwalder (Business Model Generation), each of whom ended up getting an insane deal for first-time authors. It’s a strong hybrid approach that maximizes early profits without sacrificing eventual scale.

A signature is forever. And once you sign, you’re under the gun; if your book suffer a less-than-spectacular launch (causing the publisher to conclude that your book does not, in fact, have legs), then they’ll pull what little support they were giving, forcing you back into doing it all yourself, but for five times less royalties. Instead, consider putting in the work to de-risk it first and then—optionally—transition into a traditional publishing deal once you have real negotiating leverage.

Mistake #2: Creating a book with an expiration date

Nonfiction grows most reliably via recommendations, which happen whenever someone who has already received massive value from your book bumps into someone else who would benefit from the same knowledge.

As such, your recommendations (and growth and royalties) are driven by the number of happy readers you’ve already reached. Which means that time should be on your side: the more people who have read it, the more people are able to recommend it, and the further it grows.

Unfortunately, many authors prioritize the presumed PR boost of writing about a timely (and temporary) trend, topic, or tactic. You do admittedly get some free exposure by writing about a hot topic that’s in the news. But is it worth putting an expiration date on your book and sacrificing the power of organic growth and future earnings? I’m doubtful.

For example, the image below shows the monthly royalties from the first six years of my first book. Note that it took more than three years to convincingly exceed $3,000 per month, and imagine if I had written about a topic or trend that lost relevance over time:

Had I chosen a trendy topic instead of an evergreen one, my royalties would have faded away before they ever got started. That one error of scoping would have been the difference between early retirement and a day job.

Of course, for this to work, the book also needs to be useful enough to become recommendable, discoverable, and able to be profitably advertised. Which requires a sharp promise.

Mistake #3: Writing broadly “about” a topic instead of making a clear promise about what the reader will get out of it

One of my all-time favorite nonfiction books is Hemingway’s Boat: Everything He Loved in Life, and Lost, by Paul Hendrickson. Do you know how many people I’ve recommended it to? One. And only because I was specifically asked to recommend a biography.

Compare that to another favorite, The War of Art: Break Through the Blocks and Win Your Inner Creative Battles, by Steven Pressfield. Both books wrestle with the same topic of how to remain creatively productive and honest in the face of the uncertainty, chaos, and doubt thrust upon us by life.

And yet, I’ve bought at least ten copies of the latter as gifts, have recommended it to probably a hundred people individually, and a thousand more via workshops and online writing.

Which raises the critical question: given two books which I adore about largely the same topic, why have I found myself recommending one a hundred times more often than the other? The answer to this question is also the key to unlocking long-term organic growth.

It’s because Hemingway’s Boat is broadly “about” a topic, whereas The War of Art promises—and delivers—an outcome. When someone is suffering from an acute problem, and you know of a book which solves it, then giving the recommendation is the most natural thing in the world. But this requires that the author be willing to make a clear and concrete promise of who it’s for, what it will do for them, and—most challengingly—who it’s not for.

From Write Useful Books:

Specificity is good. When I was learning to sail, I didn’t buy an encyclopedic tome about how to do everything with boats. Instead, I bought a handful of focused problem-solvers with titles like Manoeuvring at Close Quarters Under Power (Johnson), Single-Handed Sailing (Evans), and Living on Twelve Volts with Ample Power (Smead and Ishihara). These books were valuable not in spite of their specificity, but because of it.

My all-time favorite nonfiction title: How to Stay Alive in the Woods, by Bradford Angier. Can you guess what that book is promising? Are you able to judge its relevance to your needs and goals? Can you guess which of your friends might enjoy hearing about it? Of course! Because its author was bold enough to declare who it’s for and what it’s going to achieve for them. And it has sold 800k copies across twenty years despite competing against plenty of similar books that are arguably better. In my view, that’s the direct result of making a clearer promise on the cover.

Will and Ariel Durant even applied this tactic to their own books. After spending more than fifty years researching and writing their eleven-volume magnum opus, The Story of History, they distilled it down into a short, 100-page problem-solver called The Lessons of History. Despite the latter requiring roughly a fiftieth of the time to write, its sales have outstripped those of all their other books combined. Why? Because it offered readers an outcome instead of just a story.

You’re obviously free to write whatever you want.

But if you want your book to get recommended frequently enough to grow and succeed without relying on your own fame, platform, reputation, or luck, then you need to take the extra step of explaining to readers what it’s going to do for them. This is called Scoping.

Beyond allowing your book to grow, it’s also the secret to a five-star Amazon rating. Both topics are covered in chapter 2.)

Mistake #4: Giving good advice that fails to cross the air gap and reach the reader

Have you ever listened to someone with so much expertise that they became completely unintelligible to you, the relative novice? They obviously hold the knowledge that you want, but they aren’t providing it in a way that can make its way into your brain.

That’s the Curse of Knowledge, and it kills an awful lot of books.

A first wave of readers may still buy your book based on its promise, your reputation, and the hype of launch. But if those readers can’t understand and act on what you were trying to say, they aren’t going to recommend it, and your royalties will show a sharp spike followed by a swift decline into obscurity, like the lowest line in this doodle:

Which is, incidentally, exactly what happens to the average nonfiction best-seller:

(Note that although the decline looks linear here, it’s actually exponential since the y-axis is logarithmic. Source.)

The solution is the same as with any other product: to increase the number and speed of testing and iterating with real readers, including both Reader Conversations and Beta Reading. Not waiting to “get feedback” after the book is already polished and beautiful, but beginning as early as possible, while it’s still rough, ugly, embarassing and—crucially—able to be significantly restructured without wasting loads of detailed editing work.

I’ll soon post a little guide on how to safely and productively use these super-early reader contacts. But if you need the knowledge now, check chapters 3 and 5.

 

Wishing you the very best with your book-in-progress,
—Rob Fitzpatrick

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