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Finding Alternative Revenue Sources for the Books You Publish

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by Richard-Anthony Lena, President, Brattle Publishing Group —

Richard Lena

Four small steps that may lead to special sales opportunities for your books.


  • It’s difficult to sell direct to consumer if you don’t know who your primary customer is, so you first must identify them.
  • Seek out sources that will help you learn more about your customer.
  • Once you have all the data, evaluate it closely and begin catering to your demographic.
  • Derivative products can help you sell your existing products and can be another source of alternative revenue.

As independent publishers, we typically feel disruptions and sales trends even more than the big guys. Although the book publishing industry has not seen significant growth, pandemic spending has resulted in book sales continuing to trend upward. On the surface, that sounds good, but does this really work for small, independent publishers?

To outlast the storm, many of us have looked at costcutting measures such as lower cost design services. We should definitely be watching our spending, but we should also be looking at the rest of the picture, including exploring alternate sources of revenue. How do we find these alternate sources? Let’s try small steps—steps that may appear to be basic but can lead to
new opportunities.

We all have sales channels or preconceptions about what these channels should be. For many, they are based on traditional distribution leading to retail sales. It appears that only a few of us actually succeed with this business model. It rarely results in significant revenue and, many times, it results in loss. Why not try seeking sales from other sources? This is alternative revenue. It can be direct-to-customer sales, alternate sales outlets (other than bookstores), and even derivative products.

Step 1: Identify your primary customer before you identify alternative sources of revenue for your business.

We all know that direct-to-customer sales can be lucrative but hard to come by. It is even more difficult if we don’t know who our primary customer is or know where and how to market to them. If you haven’t identified your primary customers, now is the time to identify them and to create new strategies for reaching them.

Social media is a wonderful source of inexpensive market data. If you are selling books through Facebook, Instagram, or Shopify and other e-commerce outlets, spend some time looking at the analytics. See who is visiting these sites and stores, and who is looking at your products and making purchases. You can also analyze the demographics of other online outlets that distribute your books. Can you connect sales to the data? Can you see who is ordering from you? Troll around and look closely at who is following you. Here are some questions that you might want the answers to in order to develop new outlets for your books:

  • What are the typical ages of your existing customers?
  • Are they married or single?
  • What are their hobbies or pastimes?
  • What type of work do they do?
  • What organizations or associations do they join?

They may not be a large group, but finding the answers to these questions can shed some light on your followers and pave the road ahead for you. Are there trends in your research findings? Another tip is to research authors with similar books. Who follows these authors? What do they do in their spare time? The same questions apply.

Step 2: Evaluate the data you’ve mined closely to identify trends. Look for additional research.

Using social media can provide a strong foundation, but you can also seek other traditional sources that will help you learn more about your customer. For example, a savvy analyst could visit the Pew Research Center and pore through the reports to find consumer data, such as spending by age group or current perceptions or trends on buying. This can help to inform you about new product ideas or ways to market your books. You can register for a free Pew Research Center account at pewresearch.org.

Step 3: Use the data to plan strategic marketing campaigns.

Once you have all the data, evaluate it closely. You might discover that the audience for your mystery book series is largely senior citizens who are upper middle-income professionals. This particular group likes to spend time in Florida and the Caribbean; they may be members of AARP or their local senior citizen centers, and follow certain authors online.

Once you’ve established a demographic and reader profile, then plan and execute marketing campaigns to that group through the connection points you’ve established. For example, identify popular Florida retirement communities on social media and target your marketing campaign toward those specific communities and the followers of those communities. Run social media ads and target these potential customers. Run ads on the YouTube channels that you know they follow. You might even approach community centers with promotions for direct purchases of bulk copies combined with author events. Suggest events, book launches, or promotions, such as book readings and author Q&A sessions. This strategy, of course, can be done safely through Zoom or with local proxies in small groups and will become much safer as the threat of COVID-19 lessens.

Once you’ve identified your audience and the demographic profile, you can continue to mine other nontraditional retail sales outlets or touchpoints.

  • Research where these people spend their free time, such as clubs, crafting groups, and adult learning centers. Then, think about a business plan that can benefit both organizations. For example, you can provide a potential partnering organization with a percentage of sales, advertising in your marketing campaign, or even an area exclusive event.
  • Prepare a proposal and a marketing plan and approach the organization. Create the model with multiple local partners in mind (e.g., a club, a diving group, automobile association catalog or newsletter, or a local business sale flyer) so that you are hitting
    these groups from multiple touch points. Professional association chapters, libraries, and historical societies often seek event and partnership opportunities.

Don’t be discouraged if you do not connect with local partners on the first try. Keep trying.

Step 4: Seek alternative revenue through derivative products.

Now that you’ve determined some alternate marketing strategies and other ways to gain revenue, it’s time to think about low-cost derivative products that you can create from your existing content. Derivative products can help you sell your existing products and can be another source of alternative revenue. They can span a variety of media forms, but they all have one thing in common: They are based on your original product.

Here are a few examples:

  • Podcasts. Many publishers and author-publishers have tapped into the lucrative revenue that can be found in podcasting. Using podcasting platforms such as Stitcher, Wondery, or Apple Podcasts, you can explore creating a podcast related to your book content or use the platform for a reading or partial reading of your book.
  • Excerpts, Workbooks, and Added Content. Others have created products using excerpts or segments of their existing products. For example, break apart a compilation of short stories to sell them as small collections or e-book novellas. An educational publisher might explore creating a workbook from some of the content in a textbook. Some publishers have also explored re-releasing older books with updates that include additional content—new short stories added, added resource pages—anything that can make an edition seem new or breathe life into a backlist catalog item. But, in creating these new and derivative products as revenue sources, you should always keep in mind your primary audience, their likes and dislikes, and all of that data that you uncovered in steps 1 through 3.

Real-World Successes

Finding alternative revenue sources can be challenging, but with careful research and strategic marketing, you can build steady sources of revenue. Many of our association’s members have explored alternative revenue sources. Here are some examples.

Ian Lamont, Founder, i30 Media Corporation

“For my company, most of my alternative revenue sources started out as experiments, but almost all are rooted in the books themselves,” says Ian Lamont, founder i30 Media Corporation.

Lamont and his team created the successful IN 30 MINUTES guides, a series of how-to books on everything from genealogy to Google Drive and Docs. In an effort to market the series, the team created the IN 30 MINUTES YouTube channel in 2013. The channel was intended to promote the IN 30 MINUTES guides with quick how-to videos, but eventually it attracted enough subscribers and views that YouTube allowed i30 Media to enable monetization through advertising.

The channel now generates a notable revenue stream and is an example of a successful derivative product generating a consistent revenue stream. “I didn’t set out to make the channel a source of alternative revenue, but, as with other experiments, once they reach a certain critical mass, new possibilities arise to launch new products, use new sales channels, or tap new sources of revenue,” Lamont says.

Steve Himes, a founder of Telemachus Press, helps his authors identify their primary audience, a secondary audience, and even derivative products as part of their initial development discussions. “Nobody knows that you wrote a book and, frankly, nobody cares. So, we need to tell them with solid marketing. But you can’t really do so effectively without understanding your audience,” Himes says. Many of his authors build from that with merchandise lines to bring in more revenue while they market their books, he says. “I’ve had authors design book-related T-shirt lines, coffee mugs, posters, and even stuffed animals. It seemed a bit overdone, but it worked for them.”

Richard-Anthony Lena is the president and publisher at the Brattle Publishing Group, an independent publisher and full-service development house.

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