One of the most common problems we see from authors are unrealistic expectations about what a book will get them.
So many authors have fantasies in their head surrounding their book, and those fantasies lead them to make bad decisions about their book. A book is a wonderful thing and can help both you and your readers immensely, but it doesn’t work well unless you have realistic expectations for what it can get you.
I’m going to walk you through the most common unrealistic expectations authors have, then explain realistic expectations for a non-fiction book.
Unrealistic Expectation #1: “My Book Will Sell Millions of Copies!”
The first fantasy authors usually have is about book sales. Some authors truly think that their book will sell millions of copies.
This is deeply unrealistic. Let’s look at some numbers:
- According to the best estimates, the average non-fiction book is now selling less than 250 copies per year and less than 2,000 copies over its lifetime.
- The competition for sales is fierce. Bowker estimates that in 2015, there were about 1 million new books published (that is total books, not just non-fiction).
- Other estimates put the number at about 300,000 books published—just in America.
- This is in addition to the 13 million+ that are already in print (again, all types of books).
- There is large supply, but not a big market. The total market of non-fiction book sales is only 256 million print copies sold in 2013 in America, and that includes all adult non-fiction categories combined. That’s a little under one book per person sold in America.
- According to BookScan, only about 250 books per year reach 100,000 copies sold.
- The books that sell 1 million per year is even fewer, probably around 20 (and almost all of those are fiction).
- The list of books that have sold 10 million copies in history is so small there is a Wikipedia page about them.
The facts are clear: very, very few books sell a lot of copies. The reality is, if you sell even 10,000 copies of a non-fiction book, that is very good, and you should be very happy with that.
For most non-fiction authors, the return on time invested is horrendous if you measure it only in terms of the expected value of book sales. It’s basically the same thing as saying that your retirement strategy is to “play the lottery.” In fact, your odds of winning most lotteries are better than selling a million copies of your book.
What’s even worse, even if you sell a decent number of copies, you can’t charge enough for books to generate good revenue. The highest you can charge for a book is usually about $25, give or take. Even the greatest book ever written, if priced higher than that, won’t get picked up. People have a low limit on their perceived value of books.
There is only one group of people who must focus on how many copies they sell: professional writers (novelists, fiction writers, etc.). They need to worry about selling copies of books because book sales are their main source for making money! They don’t have anything else to sell but a copy of the book.
But this isn’t true for most authors.
Realistic Expectation: “My book can make me money in many different ways.”
The good news is that a book can make you money, if you look at it from a different perspective. This is how most of our authors look at books:
A book is a multi-purpose marketing tool with the special ability to create authority and visibility that authors can turn into profit.
For entrepreneurs, consultants, professionals, and other business people, the book itself creates credibility and authority that is the means to selling other, larger opportunities that can be very profitable.
For example, if you’re a consultant and have skill or knowledge that is very valuable to people, the best way to get more clients and charge them more money is by writing a book about what you know. This establishes you as an authority and gives you credibility, as well as giving you a consistent pipeline of people looking for the exact type of skill and experience you offer.
For example, you can also use a book to get clients or paid speaking gigs, promote your company, raise money for a fund, or launch a brand. There are dozens of examples of ways to use a book to make money here.
Unrealistic Expectation #2: “My book will be a New York Times Bestseller!”
The New York Times Best Seller List is the most prestigious list (though for dubious reasons). Generally speaking, you need to sell about 10,000 books the first week to be certain you will hit the list.
The thing most people don’t understand is that the bestseller list is, plainly put, a racket. The only way to get on it is to have a traditionally published book, then either have a large pre-existing audience to sell to (in order to organically sell that many copies), or do what most authors do and “cheat” by buying their own books through bookstores to make it look like their book is more popular than it is.
This is not impossible. It can and does happen. We’ve even had some authors we worked with do it. However, hitting the New York Times Best Seller List is expensive, time-consuming, and an immense amount of hard work.
Here’s the worst part of hitting a best seller list: it does not get you much.
Just like having the line “These pretzels are making me thirsty” in a small indie movie isn’t going to make you famous, having a book that spends a week on the New York Times Best Seller List does not mean you’re famous. It barely gets you any attention at all.
Here’s a fun game that shows this:
What are your three favorite books?
Were any of those books bestsellers?
When I ask this to people, there’s usually a stunned silence, and then the inevitable answer, “Wow. Yeah…I have no idea.”
Realistic Expectation: “A book will get me authority and credibility in my niche.”
A lot of people like to say that “a book is the new business card.”
I disagree. You can go to Office Depot and get business cards. You can’t go to Office Depot and author a book.
What I like to say instead is that “a book is the new college degree.”
It used to be, about forty years ago, only about 15% of people had college degrees. If you had one, it was a major signal of credibility and authority. It meant something.
But now that 70%+ of people go to college, a college degree doesn’t signal credibility much anymore, because everyone has one.
But a book is a credential that is credible and meaningful. Why?
Because it is hard to write and publish a book—especially a good book.
It’s easy to write a bad book. You can even pay someone to write an OK book for you.
But you can’t fake your way into a good book. Either you know what you’re talking about or you don’t, either your book is professional or it’s not.
A book gives people the opportunity to see your knowledge and evaluate it. A book shows you can commit to something and follow through. It shows you get things done—things that are hard and prestigious and require a lot of skills.
Yes, asking to be judged based on your book is risky, but that’s why you get so much credit for a good book. A book puts you in a place that most people are unwilling to go—being judged—and it usually requires a lot of work to do.
That’s where the credibility and authority come from: the difficulty of pulling it off well.
Unrealistic Expectation #3: “A book will make me famous.”
Lots of people want to be famous, and they think a book will accomplish that.
First off, there are very few famous authors. Start naming famous authors, and you’ll realize quickly that 80% or more of your list are dead (Hemingway, Twain, Lee, Tolkien, etc.).
The other people you name will be famous for something else, and you probably read their book because of their fame in another area.
Writers simply aren’t celebrities in America anymore. In fact, it goes the other way around in most cases; people get famous for something else first, then they write a book that becomes a bestseller.
Being famous is usually why their book sells; they don’t get famous from their book.
In fact, there are only about 15, maybe 20, living people who are famous only for writing (and nothing else). Malcolm Gladwell is one. J.K. Rowling is another. You can probably name a couple more.
Not 10 more. Definitely not 20.
There are a lot of famous people in America, but virtually all of them got famous in some way other than writing books.
Realistic Expectation: “A book will raise my visibility and help me get media coverage.”
A book—by itself—will not make you famous. But this is not to say a book will not help you become more well known. It can and it will.
Think about it: when a media outlet wants a comment on something, who do they go to? The expert, right? And how do they know someone is an expert?
Because they wrote the book. Once you have a book, media coverage is 10x easier to get.
And it goes beyond books. “Has a new book” is a required box to tick for the gatekeepers who control access to areas of the arenas you most want to enter: lecture halls, television studios, podcasts, boardrooms, media pages, special events, people’s minds.
Larry King doesn’t say, “My next guest has just posted a cat video.”
How many people in your field have you seen get a lot of attention simply because they wrote a book? Even if you knew more than they do, they got the attention that you didn’t—only because of the book.
If you want media coverage and visibility in your field, being the authority and the expert is key. And if you want to build a big brand or platform, a book by itself won’t get you there, but it is a big part of a larger campaign that most definitely will.
Unrealistic Expectation #4: “This book will transform my life.”
People have a lot of fantasies about what a book will do for them, and almost all of them are not going to happen. I think this is summed up perfectly by Hugh Macleod, the renowned cartoonist and author:
“A successful book agent I know tells me that at least half the people he meets who are writing their first book, are doing so not because they have anything particularly interesting to say, but because the idea of ‘the writer’s life’ appeals to them. Tweed jackets, smoking a pipe, sitting out in the gazebo and getting sloshed on Mint Juleps, pensively typing away at an old black Remington. Bantering wittily at all the right parties. Or whatever. Anybody who wants to write books for this reason deserves to suffer. And happily, many of them do.”
Doesn’t this seem like so many other things? We all say we want to be rich, lose weight, start a business, etc.
But it’s the idea of being rich or skinny or an entrepreneur that’s more appealing than actually putting in the work to do it. The idea sounds glamorous, and we want glamour.
Here’s the thing: we don’t get glamour by “living the writer’s life,” or by wearing the best gym clothes, or playing the “startup game.”
Glamour is the result of hard work and doing something that other people find valuable. Notice what’s missing when people say that?
Realistic Expectation: “This book will open doors and create new opportunities for me.”
One of the things we’ve seen consistently is that books provide authors all kinds of opportunities—both ones they anticipated and ones they did not.
The ones they did anticipate are great, but often it’s the others that take them by surprise. Here’s usually how this works:
The #1 search engine is Google. #2 is YouTube. You know what #3 is?
And even more relevant to entrepreneurs and business people, it’s the #1 search engine when looking for products and services (with 44% of searches for products and services starting there). This means it is literally the largest search engine for professionals.
Think about it—how many times have you had a problem and tried to solve it by finding a book about it?
Well, what if you were the person who wrote the book on how to solve that problem? Then you’re going to get all those people coming to you.
That’s how it works—having a book brings people to you.
It lets them know exactly who you are and shows them how you can help them. It’s the best marketing tool you could ever use, not just to build your brand, but to attract clients.
Lemme give you a personal example: when we started our company, Scribe, we realized we had a rocket ship that we didn’t know how to fly. We needed to learn how to scale our company.
What did I do? I went to Amazon to read books on the subject.
Turns out, there are not a lot of great books out there about how to professionally manage and scale a fast-growing company. The best I could find was written by Cameron Herold (it’s called Double Double, and he has two more called Meetings Suck and Vivid Vision).
I read the book and thought, “This is genius. But I need more. I need this guy to coach me directly.”
I reached out to Cameron, and he now advises our company (and owns a piece of it). That’s how valuable he’s been.
It all came about because he had a really good book that led me to him. There are probably five hundred other people out there who could have taught me the same things, but Cameron is the only one that had a great book that I could read and use to determine that he was the guy to teach me.
I never would have listened to a sales pitch or paid attention to an ad. I had to see proof, and his book was it. It caused me to come to him.
The point is, a book is not something magical that will make you rich, famous, and important. But it can help you accomplish a lot of other goals, if you use it correctly.
This means writing a book that has knowledge that is valuable to a specific set of readers, and delivering it in a way that serves them.
In fact, if you do that, you can get a lot of benefits, and maybe even make some money and be well known—at least in your niche.
Why Do Unrealistic Expectations Hurt Your Book?
You might be wondering right now, “Well, what’s wrong with dreaming about hitting it big? Some books sell millions of copies and become bestsellers. Why not hope for the best?”
There is nothing wrong with wanting your book to do well. The problem with turning an unrealistic expectation into a goal is that it impacts your decision making about what book to write, and it usually gets you a worse book.
For example, if you decide you want to write your book to sell millions of copies, you will try to make it as wide and accessible a topic as possible. But that trades off with reaching a niche audience, which is the key to getting authority and credibility.
Or if you want to write a book to be famous, you’ll worry about how the book makes you look, instead of focusing on your audience, which is what makes a good book and gets you visibility.
Getting the most out of a book is very much like the zen koan about the target and the prize:
“Focus on the target, and you’ll hit it. This gets you the trophy. Focus on the trophy, you’ll miss the target. This gets you nothing.”
Books work the same way. If you focus on your audience and what they need, you will write a great book, and that will get you all kinds of great results. But if you have unrealistic expectations, then you’ll focus on those and get nothing.