When I independently published Stop Putting Out Fires in 2019, there was a steep curve to learning what I needed to know about book publishing and marketing. I thoroughly enjoyed the process. I also knew then that I wanted to use my publishing imprint, Scarlet Oak Press, to be a medium for other lawyers to publish their books, which I talked about in an episode of my podcast, Lawyerpreneur. Now I’ve done that! And it’s every bit as fulfilling as I expected it to be.
Being a Medium for Others to Publish their Creative Work
As much as I enjoyed having control over the entire process of writing, editing, publishing, and marketing my own books, I know others don’t. They just want to write their books and hand it over to someone else to handle the formatting, edition, obtaining ISBNs and Library of Congress Control Numbers, and the dozens of other things that have to be done before a book can be shipped off to retailers. It’s not always fun. There is a lot of tedium involved in that work.
But it’s the kind of tedium I can get behind. So I knew that with my love of spreadsheets and having published two of my own books, I was prepared to become a medium for someone to publish their book.
The opportunity arose when a friend told me she had just written a children’s book about the basics of intellectual property. I looked around and didn’t see anything else like it on the market. There are plenty of children’s books geared toward STEM and handling money, but almost none dealing with the law.
Making a Proposal to Publish My Friend’s Book
Shortly after my friend, Becki C. Lee, told me about the children’s book she’d written, I told her that I would be interested in publishing it. We discussed it, agreed in principle, and worked out the terms of our arrangement.
For the last few months, we’ve book working on getting Do You Draw Pictures: A Little Gavels Guide to Intellectual Property ready for publication. Having only done adult non-fiction before this, it’s been fun to work with a talented artist like Walter Jaczcowski who did all the cover art and illustrations in the book.
But more important than that is the message that Becki is conveying in the book. By teaching children the basics of their intellectual property — copyright, trademark, and patent — rights, she is empowering young artists, creatives, and entrepreneurs to protect themselves and make good business decisions as they get older.
Several months before the launch of my second book, Stop Putting Out Fires, I reached out to the producer who had narrated my first book. I wanted him to narrate this second book, and I was willing to pre-pay for the audiobook narration so that I didn’t have to split royalties with him. This turned out to be a costly mistake.
Retaining the Narrator for my Audiobook
I didn’t really know the guy who’d narrated Building a Better Law Practice for me. Our only interactions had been through the messaging system in ACX. But aside from him delivering the product late (for which he was apologetic and seemed to have a valid excuse), I was pleased with the product he delivered.
So when it came time to get the ball rolling for the audiobook version of Stop Putting Out Fires, I went back to the same well. The difference was that I wanted to earn all 40% of the royalties on ACX, rather than having to split them. Alternatively, I wanted the option of not listing the audiobook exclusively on ACX, which wasn’t possible with a royalty-share option.
My solution was to offer to pre-pay for the audiobook narration. My narrator was agreeable and even gave me a discount for paying up front. This arrangement was going to work out well for both of us, it seemed.
Arranging Pre-Payment for Narration of the Audiobook
The narrator asked that I make my pre-payment through Google, which I did. Then he refunded it, and asked that we do it through PayPal instead. I made the payment. He refunded it saying there was a problem with his PayPal account, and wanted to use Google again instead. These should have been red flags, but I was both inexperienced and assuming the best.
All of this was occurring in February 2019, in anticipation of an early May 2019 launch date. I knew it would take a while for him to record. And then it takes about three weeks to get the audiobook to market after it’s been uploaded to ACX, as they run it through quality controls and get everything set up on the back end. Still, I thought we had started well enough in advance to get everything done on time.
But my narrator missed his first submission deadline. Then he missed his second deadline. He explained that some extenuating circumstances had arisen but assured me everything would ultimately be done on time. I started to have concerns that the book was not going to be delivered on time. But I hadn’t yet considered that it wouldn’t be delivered at all.
Pitfalls of Pre-Paying for Audiobook Narration
As launch day approached (and eventually came and went), I started emailing once a week about the narrator’s progress. Eventually, he stopped responding. I made ACX aware of the problem. They laid out my options, which eventually enabled me to cancel the contract with the narrator. But this did nothing to help me recover the money I had paid in advance for the narration services.
So I got creative and — since I’m a lawyer — thought I’ll offer this guy a settlement alternative that won’t require him to pay back the money. The idea was that we’d use the advance as a buyout for the first book. I sent him an email with the idea and … nothing. He had ghosted me.
I went to Google to request that they refund my money. But since I had paid so far in advance and we were now well beyond the due date, we were past their 120-day window for their resolving these issues and entering refunds.
At this point I had no options left. I had to get accustomed to the idea that the money was gone, with little chance of recovery. I didn’t have enough cash left to pay for another narrator outright, and was going to have to do a royalty-share again, which limited my distribution options too.
The only consolation left was that I knew this article would be born out of the loss. I would be warning others of the potential pitfalls of pre-paying for audiobook narration without putting any safeguards in place to protect themselves. And let me tell you, that was only a small consolation.
I eventually found a new narrator and finally got the audiobook for Stop Putting Out Fires to market. Only three months later than intended. I’m happy with the final result and am ready to continue accruing sales with this new income stream.
What I will Do Differently Next Time
Even though it worked out poorly for me the first time, I would still prefer to pre-pay for the audiobook narration of my next book. I like the flexibility that it gives me. But I will put some safeguards in place to mitigate the risk of paying for a product before it’s delivered.
I have a personal relationship with my narrator now and know him outside of the ACX platform. We have a mutual group of friends and professional acquaintances. There is more at risk for both of us if we were to treat each other inequitably.
I will only issue pre-payment within the ACX platform, such that the narrator can only access it once the audiobook has been delivered. This gives the added safeguard of keeping everything within the ACX dispute resolution process, should a problem arise.
I will keep all communication about fee arrangements within ACX’s messaging platform, rather than using outside email for some exchanges. Again, this keeps everything consolidated within ACX for easy review and accessibility.
As you consider your options for having your books narrated as audiobooks, make sure you cover your bases and protect yourself. If you haven’t yet created audiobooks out of your writing, you definitely should. It’s been a significant percentage of my book sales this year.
There are three reasons that I decided to go the indie publishing route for my second book, and they all have one common thread: indie publishing gave me greater control of my project.
Control over pricing and distribution
Control of my intellectual property
For my first book Building a Better Law Practice, I went through a traditional publisher, the American Bar Association. It is one of the largest publishers in the legal and law practice space. I worked with some really good people and am happy with how the book came out, but I learned along the way that traditional publishing isn’t for me.
Dispelling the notion that indie publishing is vanity publishing
One thing I had to overcome was a stigma that remains among certain groups of people that indie publishing is vanity publishing. In fact, a guy who’s made a career in publishing directly told me as much before I released my second book Stop Putting Out Fires. I have used that comment — “little more than vanity publishing” — as a motivating fire in my belly for the last six months.
I don’t mind telling you that my second indie-published book has sold as money copies in its first few months of existence as the first did with a traditional publisher. So now that my decision has been objectively validated, let’s look at the four factors that led to the decision in the first place.
1. Indie Publishing Gave Me Creative Control
Indie publishing gave me greater control of both the interior and exterior contents of my book, from word usage to cover design. For Building a Better Law Practice, the publisher consulted me about proposed edits and cover art, but they had the final say.
I didn’t like being in that position. I had spent immense amounts of time on the manuscript. So I wanted to control its final form. Indie publishing gave me that opportunity.
But it comes with a price. Literally. All those costs that the publisher incurred on my behalf for the first book, I was now responsible for with the second: cover art, interior images, software for interior design and manuscript formatting, an editor, ISBNs, advertising. Making and selling books is not cheap. And there’s a price to pay for being pigheaded. But it’s a price I was (and will continue to be) willing to pay to have greater control of my work.
Indie publishing allowed me to publish Stop Putting Out Fires in whatever formats I wanted, on my own schedule, with the look and feel that I desired for the project. That creative control can be paralyzing when you realize how much work really goes into creating a book. But it’s also immensely rewarding.
2. Indie Publishing Enable Me to Control Pricing and Distribution
A look at the Pricing Issue
One of the biggest points of contention between the publisher and me on Building a Better Law Practice was the pricing. The ABA wanted to price it so as to maximize their profits per book. But I wanted it priced to sell in a way that was competitive with standard market rates. They won, because the contract says they get to decide pricing.
I can’t help but that the pricing strategy for Building a Better Law Practice has left potential sales on the table. This rift between the publisher and me was the most significant catalyst that pushed me toward indie publishing. I wanted to control the price for my creation.
Having indie published Stop Putting Out Fires, I can set the price point however I want. I can raise or drop the price as I see fit. In fact, on several occasions, I have significantly lowered the price of the ebook either to get a bump in sales or just to test the market’s reaction. With indie publishing, I can experiment. I can play around. I can even give my work away for free if I choose. Indie publishing gave me greater control over how I make my book available to the market.
Then There Was the Matter of Distribution
For the first 7 months of the life of Building a Better Law Practice, it was only available on the American Bar Association website. As in, that is the only place in the world that it was available for purchase. The problem with that is that people have to go out of their way to buy it. And people have to really want to buy your stuff if they’re going to be inconvenienced to buy it.
I understand in some respects why the ABA wanted to have a monopoly on book sales. They didn’t have to sell the paperback to a retailer at 55% of the list price, thereby reducing the amount of profit on the book. And for e-books, selling it at other sites means they’d only get 35%-70% royalties. But in my view, it is a short-sighted strategy to intentionally limit the availability of the book.
Eventually, the ABA made Building a BetterLaw Practice widely available in both paperback and e-book form. But it took no small amount of coaxing from me.
Not wanting to deal with that in the future, I opted for indie publishing. Now I have control over where my books are available for purchase. For example, from its launch date on May 2, 2019, Stop Putting Out Fires was available from any retailer that people regularly purchase books from: Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, and even Wal-Mart. I wanted to make it easy and convenient for people to buy the book.
This isn’t to say people showed up in droves to buy it because selling books is hard. But I’ve been pleased with sales, particularly in the last month or so as I’ve started to figure out how to more effectively us Amazon’s advertising services.
3. Indie Publishing Gave Me Control of my Intellectual Property
Having control over my own intellectual property provides me with a great deal of freedom. And this is probably the most important bit of this decision. I envision myself as becoming an author entrepreneur. My writing will supplement my income no only for the rest of my life, but also for a period of years after my death, it will continue to support my family.
By publishing independently, I don’t have to wait on a royalty check to arrive once a year or quarter from a publisher. Every month funds from book sales are distributed directly into my bank account from Amazon, ACX, Ingram, and a smattering of other places. There are no gatekeepers. There is no one taking a cut from the profits. I took the financial risk and I (hopefully) reap the rewards.
If I want to license my books to be translated into other languages, I can do that. If I want to creative derivative works, like a workbook edition, there’s nothing stopping me. Indie publishing gave me control of my intellectual property in a way that means I can create as many streams of income from it as possible.
Gain More Control with Indie Publishing
I’ve really enjoyed being an indie author. It is a lot more work than traditional publishing. But the payoff has been worth the extra effort. This isn’t to say I would never publish through a traditional publisher again. If the right opportunity presented itself on the right project, I’d definitely give it consideration.
If you’re an independently minded person with a vision for what you want your author business to look like, indie publishing may be for you.
I’m going to go ahead and spoil the question. I don’t know whether money should affect our choices about what we write or create. In an ideal world, it wouldn’t. But that’s not space we occupy.
We live in a world in which, if we are taking time to write, then we are choosing not to do some other thing. Since we can only labor at one thing at a time, the possibility of earning money from our writing does often affect our writing choices. And honestly, there’s nothing inherently wrong with that, as long as you’re still making choices that serve a greater end or are being genuine to yourself.
This blog is an example of a writing choice for me that is affected by money. When I write here, it means I am electing not to use this time to either (1) work and bill more hours, (2) write for my law blog, which has a bigger audience and is monetized, or (3) work on any of my book projects. But I write here because I am presently very interested in thinking a lot about writing processes, choices, and business. And I can envision a book about writing deriving from this blog. In the short term, this project has a detrimental effect on my monetary interests. But earning income from writing is a long game, and I’m trying to keep that perspective.
Notable Artists Whose Creative Choices Were Affected by Money
In the early 1970s, Stephen King was working two jobs, and in his limited spare time, he was writing and selling short stories, trying to make ends meet. One evening he had an idea for a chilling story. He knew it was not a short story but would be a novel or novella. Believing he (literally) couldn’t afford to take the time necessary to write a story of that length, he threw away the first three pages of what would become his first novel, Carrie. Fortunately, his wife found the pages, read them, and talked him into writing the book that launched his career and changed the landscape of the horror genre. King’s initial choice not to write Carrie was affected by his immediate need for additional income.
Looking at the flip side of the equation, David Marchese asked Nicholas Cage in an interview for The New York Times Magazine, “How much has money driven your work choices?” Cage gave an insightful response.
I can’t go into specifics or percentages or ratios, but yeah, money is a factor. I’m going to be completely direct about that. There’s no reason not to be. There are times when it’s more of a factor than not. I still have to feel that, whether or not the movie around me entirely works, I’ll be able to deliver something and be fun to watch. But yes, it’s no secret that mistakes have been made in my past that I’ve had to try to correct. Financial mistakes happened with the real estate implosion that occurred, in which the lion’s share of everything I had earned was pretty much eradicated. But one thing I wasn’t going to do was file for bankruptcy. I had this pride thing where I wanted to work my way through anything, which was both good and bad. Not all the movies have been blue chip, but I’ve kept getting closer to my instrument. And maybe there’s been more supply than demand, but on the other hand, I’m a better man when I’m working. I have structure. I have a place to go. I don’t want to sit around and drink mai tais and Dom Pérignon and have mistakes in my personal life. I want to be on set. I want to be performing. In any other business, hard work is something to behold. Why not in film performance?
The Motivation for Money Affects My Writing Choices
I write because I need to write. I had an inherent understanding of my need to create long before I had the language to explain it. I am ambitious and driven, and would write and create even if earning income from it were not a possibility. But since it is possible for my writing to be an additional source of income that could last beyond my lifetime, money is a motivation for what I write.
I have three rather academic book ideas that would each require mountains of research and take years to write. Other than making notes and creating portions of outlines, I’ve haven’t done anything to delve into the topics. For a couple of reasons. There are other things that I’m interested in writing, and I can write about those other things much more quickly than the academic ideas. Also, if I’m taking a couple of years to pound out a project, that means I’m choosing not to create other assets that could potentially create more income for me.
I also have ideas for three novels. For the first of these, I’ve written over 10,000 words and have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to look like. I’ve done a fair bit of the research and know the story intimately. But writing fiction is far more difficult and uncertain for me than the non-fiction I write. So I’ve been choosing over last couple of years to spend time with the things I’m more comfortable with. I think the other word for this is cowardice, but … [shrugs].
To come back around to the original question — should money affect your writing choices? We live in a world where our choices are so intertwined with money as to effectively render the question moot. Money, whether it’s the lack of it or potential for it, does affect our writing choices. What you have to avoid is allowing money to be your primary motivator (because it’s hard to sell books) and cause you to deviate from your true self. Be introspective and honest with yourself about the role money is playing in your writing or artistic choices.
Selling books is difficult. There is a lot of advice — good advice — available about what you should do to increase your likelihood of selling books. You can read it and apply it. And you should. I have. But in the end you may still not sell many books. Like me.
But I don’t want you to get the impression this post is self-pitying in any way. That is not my purpose. What I am conveying to you is that being an author is hard (on many fronts) and requires perseverance. I am going to tell you that you may do all the right things, all the things the author business books tell you to do, and still not sell many books. Why? Because as Steven Pressfield wrote, Nobody Wants to Read Your Sh*t.
No one wants to read what you’ve written … unless you give them a reason to (more on that later). But giving them a reason involves enabling potential buyers to hear your message first.
Here’s What I’ve Done to Share My Message
I’ve read several books about the business of selling books. There are four that I found most practical and useful.
In promoting both Building a Better Law Practice and Stop Putting Out Fires, I did a good job of implementing the strategies those authors suggest for selling books. So I want to share with you what I did, even though you know by now that even if you do these things, you are not guaranteed to sell many books. But you at least have a better chance at launching a successful book.
Have a website. You need a website where people can go to learn more about your book. For each of my books, I bought URLs that are derived from the book titles and just have them auto-redirected to pages on my law blog website: stopputtingoutfires.com and betterlawpractice.com.
Have a mailing list. These are people who voluntarily sign up to receive content from you. They are interested in what you have to say. So they are more likely to buy the things you’re selling. The larger your mailing list, the greater your opportunity to sell more books.
Appear on podcasts. What’s great about podcasts is they are a place where people go to receive a particular kind of content. Whatever topic you’ve written about, it’s likely there is a podcast out there with someone talking about it. Do some research to find the people who are discussing what you’re writing about. Then email or DM them on social media asking if you can be on their show and why what you have to say will be of interest to them and their audience. For Building a Better Law Practice, I did five podcast interviews. I’ve only done two for Stop Putting Out Fires, and I definitely need to schedule more. If you’re interested, you can find those podcast interviews from the books’ websites (above).
Have others review your book. If there are bloggers, Instagramers, YouTubers, or book reviewers doing reviews about the types of things you’re writing about, reach out to them and send them a free copy of the book. I’ve sent out several copies for review. So far, only one blogger has reviewed it, but I have assurances that another is on the way. This is another area that I need to put more effort into.
Give it away for free. I gave out a dozen copies of Stop Putting Out Fires to law firm leaders and managing partners to they could read it to see if it’s something they wanted to buy for their associates. These were all people I know-ish from an industry organization, not folks who I cold-called. Now I need to follow up with them, since I sent the books a couple of months ago, to see if they want to place any bulk orders at a discount, which is one of the benefits of indie publishing.
Promote your book on social media. Hopefully, you’re active and have an audience on social media. There are many platforms that can absorb much of your time — I focus my energies on Twitter and LinkedIn. Make sure your social media following knows you have a book, but don’t just SPAM your channels with pedaling your wares.
Do book promotions and giveaways. During launch week for Stop Putting Out Fires, I ran a giveaway on my social media accounts. For the the first nine folks who bought the book and posted a copy of their order confirmation to the feed, I sent them a free copy of my first book, Building a Better Law Practice. I ended up giving away 6 books that way.
Put together an advance reader team. Several months before launch day, I messaged my email list and social media following about their interest in being a part of my advance reader team. I had 15 people say they wanted to be involved. I sent them a copy of the book after it was substantially completed so they had time to read it before launch and could post a reviews and help promote the book on launch day. I think only one person actually followed through with this. A bigger crew would certainly increase the likelihood of greater involvement, and I will work to increase my team numbers before the next book launch.
Use your network. Several of my friends on social media have significantly larger followings than I do. Since I have real relationships with these people, I asked them to read Stop Putting Out Fires and, if they were comfortable with it, share it with their followers. Several did so, and my network of friends are responsible for more than half my book sales.
While doing the things above (and plenty of others that I haven’t mentioned here) doesn’t guarantee book sales, it gives you a better chance than not doing them.
Give Potential Readers a Reason to Care
People don’t care what you have written, unless you give them a reason to care. That may be the hardest part of the whole thing. Why do they need to read what you’ve written? Your topic or argument has to be compelling. It has to meet some need — mental, emotional, financial, entertainment, etc. — your potential reader has. And you have to grab their attention and communicate this to them in a way that induces them to spend their money on your book.
That’s the part I’m still actively working on. I know my most recent book, Stop Putting Out Fires, has important content for lawyers. I know it can deliver on its promise of making them more efficient and profitable. I know this because I’ve affected my own law practice by my implementing the ideas I’ve later written about. Other lawyers I know have multiplied their profitability by, in part, employing tactics I encourage.
But my knowing that is only half the battle. I expect every author believes in what they’re writing about. But the successful authors figure out ways to convey their messages to potential readers, cause readers to care about the author’s ideas, and achieve the goal of selling a book to the reader. Or better yet, selling lots of books to lots of readers.
You Didn’t Sell Many Books. So What. Persevere!
Keep writing. Keep putting out more books. That’s my plan. I don’t expect to hit any of the big best seller lists. But I don’t need to do that to be successful. I just need to find the audience that’s right for me and my work. And I need to identify for them why my work is right for them and share it in such a way that I compel them to buy what I’m selling.
There are a lot of books out there about writing, the business of writing, and being a creative. Over the last few years, I’ve read a few of them. I want to share them with you because they’ve been invaluable resources for me.
Aside from actually living out your creativity (which is an indispensable necessity), reading about creativity and the business of writing is the best way to learn and by inspired.
Books That Really Registered:
James Scott Bell’s Write Your Novel from the Middle(***+): A different perspective on how to write a novel from an experienced writer and former practicing lawyer.
Donald Miller’s Building a Story Brand (***+): Many of my ideas about good business marketing are anchored in this book. I’ve been reading Donald Miller for the better part of 15 years, and this is his most practical work yet. This is more about business generally, but I’ve found it to be apply to my writing business and how I should market to potential customers.
Joanna Penn’s Successful Self-Publishing(***+): If you’re interested in authoring books, this is a must-read, whether you’re going to publish independently or traditionally.
Austin Kleon’s Steal Like an Artist(***): An interesting book about how we can develop our creativity.
Steven Pressfield’s The War of Art(***): An interesting taking of fighting the Resistance that can keep us from doing our best and most meaningful work.
Elizabeth Gilbert’s Big Magic (***+): An interesting read about where creativity comes from and how to use it so you don’t lose it.