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The Book Publishing Pyramid

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Erin Wright, USA Today bestselling author —

Erin Wright

Instead of trying to do everything all at once, authors and indie publishers should use a leveling-up approach to focus their efforts.

Article Synopsis:

  • Focus on e-books in the beginning of your publishing journey, as they will provide the most stability and income.
  • Diversify your income by adding other revenue streams next, including paperback books in English and large-print books.
  • Lean into your strengths for the next level, whether that be audiobooks or translations.

One of the things that many authors at the beginning of their writing careers struggle with is knowing what to focus on. Working with newer authors over the years, I’ve heard it all.

“There’s e-books, of course, but also paperbacks, and should I get my book done in hardcover? And what about translating into German? All my friends are saying it’s the new hot market, and I need to get my book there, like, yesterday. Not to mention audiobooks. Oh, and branded merch off my site. And what if someone wants to option my book for a movie?!”

*breaths deeply*

In the author world, there is some serious FOMO (fear of missing out) at play. You know you’ve been bit by the FOMO bug if you spend a lot of time and energy reading posts and blog articles by other authors and thinking at the end of every article that you must implement every single suggestion in order for you to succeed.

Goodreads giveaways? You betcha.

BookBub CPM ads? Of course.

Takeover parties on Facebook? Pshaw. What self-respecting author wouldn’t do them?

A+ graphics on Amazon? Better do them today.

Hardcover special editions? A necessity.

Translations into Hungarian? Don’t know how to continue
without it!

“All successful authors are doing this! If you don’t, you will never succeed! Do you want to be an author or not?!”

By the end of one day of listening to podcasts, reading articles, and scrolling through author groups online, an author can have a to-do list that an army of assistants couldn’t get done in a year, and, of course, the newly minted author will feel like a complete failure when they don’t have it all done by next week.

This is where understanding the publishing pyramd can help you.

Level 1: E-Books

Setting aside marketing strategies and release-day strategies and all the other strategies that can make a person’s head spin, let’s focus on the simple facts of self-publishing in an adult genre such as mystery, romance, sci-fi, or other mainstream genres.

You will make most of your income from your e-books in English. Think of e-books as the base of your pyramid. It’s what is going to provide the most stability, the most income, and, thus, it’s what you should focus on the most, especially in the beginning.

Even better, e-books in English also happen to be the easiest part of the publishing world, so it makes sense from every angle to focus on them out of the gate. Use from every angle to focus on them out of the gate. Use e-book publishing as your training wheels; make your mistakes, and learn when the cost of those mistakes is low rather than on a print run of 2,500 hardcover books with gold foiling.

Level 2: Paperback Books

Paperback books in English are the next level up in the pyramid; they are both more complicated to produce than an e-book and will make you less money. However, once you’ve published a few e-books and have a handle on how to upload to storefronts, advertise in paid newsletters, and have a solid author website in place, it makes sense to diversify your income by adding another revenue stream.

Is a paperback book more complicated to produce than an e-book? Yes. Is it as hard as writing a new book? Well, let’s put it this way: If it is, you’re doing it wrong.

By putting together a PDF interior and cover (or hiring someone to do those two pieces for you), you can start selling to those who still love the feel of paper in their hands, reaching a new audience without having to write a single new word.

Release a few more books, and now you’re coming up on maybe eight to 10 books in your catalogue in both e-book and paperback form, all of it in English. Now is the time to tackle large-print paperbacks.

Level 3: Large-Print Books

Yes, you heard me right: large print. As a former library director, I can personally attest to the fact that there are far too few large-print books available in this world. It is an underserved market with a dedicated clientele (librarians) who are always on the hunt for books for their most avid readers.

A large-print version of a book isn’t necessarily harder than a regular-print version, but I do suggest tackling them separately simply because they are different. By not having to learn both regular print and large print in one go-round, it’s less likely that you’ll get frustrated and want to quit.

The writing and releasing of new books should continue throughout, of course, and once you’ve got your large prints released and selling briskly, it’s time to make the decision of which layer of your pyramid should come next: audiobooks or translations.

Level 4: Audiobooks or Translations

Both have a much higher cost attached to them than e-books or paperbacks do, and thus take a lot longer to pay off. Also, for the most part, both have to be produced by someone other than yourself. Unless you’re a trained actor with high-end audio equipment and a home studio, or unless you speak another language as fluently as you speak English, both of these forms are best handled by a professional. Some authors are also audiophiles, and getting their books into audio format is a lifelong dream that should be prioritized. For other authors, they might speak another language as fluently as they speak English, and translating a book into that language is something they can do themselves, or can at least easily vet a translator.

These kinds of variations are why I said this next level of the pyramid is up to you. It makes sense to lean into your strengths, whatever they are.

Still, the question becomes: How do you know when you’ve hit that level of your career that it makes sense for you to pay for an audiobook or a translation? These can cost thousands of dollars per book to produce. Many times, authors will say, “I know they cost a lot, but if I pay for an audiobook, then I’ll be making money from that audiobook every month. Even if I have to go into debt to do this, it’s necessary to take my career to the next level.” The truth is, if you haven’t spent the time building up your career to this point by focusing on e-books, paperbacks, and publishing in general, any income you make from audiobooks or translations will be minimal. If an audiobook or translation costs $3,000 to produce, and you only make an extra $20 each month from it, it’ll be over a decade before you make your initial investment back, let alone any profit.

That’s not exactly a stellar investment. You’d be much better off putting that $3,000 into BookBub Featured Deals, or investing in new covers, or buying a Mac and Vellum so you can create your own interior files for e-books and paperbacks. Honestly, the list of worthwhile uses for that money is as long as my arm, and almost all of it will help you grow your career faster than having one audiobook available would.

Knowing When to Level Up

My audiobook narrator shared an excellent rule of thumb with me that helps authors to figure out if they’re ready to move up to the next level of the pyramid:

Look at the release of a new e-book in English. Take all income from Day 1 (which will include any preorders you’ve accrued) through Day 30 from all storefronts, and add this together. Pretend for a moment that you have no other costs: No editing or cover costs. No need to pay the power bill. No food to grace the dining room table. You can simply take all income from Day 1 to Day 30 from all storefronts and put every bit of it toward an audiobook or a translation of that book.

Could you pay for it with just this money? Could you take that first 30 days of income from a new release and send it all to a German translator and have it cover the cost of translating that book into German?

If you can, you’re to the point in your career where it makes sense to translate your books into German (or Spanish, French, etc.).

Or, if you prefer, it makes sense to pay to have a narrator narrate your audiobook.

By focusing on e-book, regular print, and large-print paperbacks up to this point, and growing your career through those avenues, you can now afford to take your career to the next level and have it pay off before your great grandkids keel over from old age.

Each stage in your career should grow to the point that the income from it can pay for the next stage in your career. The exception to this, of course, is the initial stage: the production of your e-book. That almost always requires outside cash to do right: proper editing; a high-quality cover; the purchase of products like BookFunnel, Vellum, a newsletter service, and a website. All of this comes with a cost, and that has to be paid for somehow.

But once that base has been put into place, you should be paying for your regular print covers using the income from your e-book sales. You should be paying for your large-print covers using the income from your regular print and e-book sales. You should be paying for your translations using the income from your e-book and print sales. You should be paying for your audiobooks using the income from your e-book, print, and translation sales.

Going into debt so you can “get to the next level” faster almost always backfires. You want to use the time you spend in each level to improve your craft, your marketing skills, and your knowledge of publishing as a whole so when it comes time to level up yet again, you’ll know what you need to do. If you “cheat” by putting it all on a credit card, you don’t have the time necessary to learn all that you need in order to be successful, and you’ll end up with thousands or even tens of thousands of dollars of debt on projects that won’t break even for a decade or longer.

Let your career grow naturally; never compare your beginning to someone else’s middle; stop letting FOMO rule your life; and always keep the publishing pyramid in the forefront of your mind. This is the path of a long, successful, low-stress career, and isn’t that what we all want?

Erin Wright is a USA Today bestselling author who has worked every job under the sun, including library director, barista, teacher, website designer, and ranch hand helping brand cattle, before settling into the career she’s always dreamed about: author.

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