Can you still make a buck out of a book?

The recent launch of Apple Music, overnight a gorilla-sized player in the streaming music industry, has again raised debate about, essentially, reward for effort when it comes to creativity. I came across an excellent blog post by Hugh Hancock on this topic the other day that does a great job of pulling apart what is happening in the creative world.

All this, and other recent discussions, has got me rethinking the value of the non-fiction business book to its author.

Production is getting easier

Hancock's article is a fairly deep analysis of what is happening in film and television making, computer game production and various other formats. The gist of his conclusion is this: in all these areas, production has become vastly cheaper and easier than it used to be. In film making, for instance, it is now entirely possible to make a high-quality production with handheld cameras and a crew of two, including the director. Needless to say that's a lot less people than you'll see on the credits of the average Hollywood flick.

The same can be said of music, where home studios are now commonplace and results of very high standard can be produced on relatively inexpensive equipment. The 'barrier to entry' for a new and completely unknown musician is lower than ever.

Writing, of course, became 'easy' (in the mechanical sense) a long time ago when word processors came along. I don't think many writers yearn for a return to the days of the typewriter and white-out. With the advent of desktop publishing and then digital printing, it became entirely possible for a writer to inexpensively produce their own book from start to finish. And with the ebook, writers can send their books out into the world at virtually no cost.

Making a living is getting harder

So on the production side, creative people have never had it better in terms of the tools available to them. (I'm leaving out of this any discussion of the challenges of coming up with original material – that's a whole other discussion.)

On the other hand, it has never been harder to make a living in any of these fields.

Hancock points out that independent film makers can find it almost impossible to get their movies distributed. You can make them, but no one will see them. The alternative is to make them available online, in which case some people might see them, but they won't pay for the privilege. On the off chance that your picture does go 'viral', according to Hancock you might earn about $2500 for every million views in advertising revenue.

The same certainly applies to books. You can make a dollar out of a printed book if you have the means to sell it in quantity – if you are a speaker or trainer, for instance, and can sell your book 'at the back of the room'. But if you are thinking you'll make your fortune by finding a publisher and getting mainstream distribution ... well, let's just say that J.K. Rowlings don't come around every week.

You need to be smart

Where does this leave us? Is writing a business book a pointless exercise?

Not at all. If success in your line of business depends on having credibility as an expert, the printed book remains one of the most powerful ways of adding to that cred.

But perhaps the smart thing to do today is not to put all your eggs in that one basket. Writing a regular blog and/or producing a series of smaller ebooks can be equally valid ways of building your reputation and shouldn't be ignored. They both require less 'overhead' in terms of your time and money. And they can both be more manageable if you're disciplined about them.

The best thing about either of these options is that they can ultimately provide the material for a printed book anyway. Many very successful books, including Chicken Soup for the Soul have started as compilations of previously collected materials.

Ultimately your value rests in your knowledge. Be creative about how you get that knowledge out there if you want to get value back.

As usual, if you have any questions or comments, please add a comment below or contact me.

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