If you’re writing a book, don’t be a one-trick pony.
Early in my writing career, when I was freelancing for magazines and before I had the opportunity to write my first book, I was at a writers conference where I heard an editor with a major New York publishing house say this:
We don’t want one-book authors. We don’t make money on your first book—we’re happy if we break even on that book. Authors typically don’t get profitable for publishers until their second or third book, after they’ve established a following. So when you send us a book proposal, be sure it includes your plans for at least two more books.
I’m paraphrasing, of course, but that was the gist of his message.
A woman in the back of the room raised her hand and said:
I’m 85 years old. It took me ten years to write my book. I don’t have time to write two more. What am I supposed to do?
The room full of younger, eager authors erupted in laughter, but she had a serious, valid question. Though the editor was sympathetic, he reminded us that publishers are businesses and they have to make a profit to stay in business.
Today, of course, that woman could publish her book on KDP. It might not sell many copies, but I’m not sure she cared. Of course, that wasn’t an option back then.
Though much has changed in publishing since then, many of the fundamentals have not. One of those fundamentals is the point that editor made: First books are rarely profitable for either the author or the publisher. It can take two or three (or more) books for an author to find an audience.
Indie authors who self-publish should keep that in mind. If readers who buy your first book like it, they’re going to want more from you—another book, a newsletter, articles, and so on. So have a plan to give it to them.
Your later books can boost sales of your first book. If a reader happens to discover you through your second or third book, they’re likely to go back and buy your first book.
Are there times when it works to only have one book? To be a one-trick pony? Sure, but that depends on why you’re writing a book. I’ve had several business clients over the years who wanted a single book to achieve a specific business purpose that had nothing to do with the success of the book. Those clients are not the kind of authors this message is for.
You can always find one-hit-wonder success stories that are the exception to the business model of building an author’s career with multiple books. To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee is one. Gone with the Wind by Margaret Mitchell is another.
If you’re hoping to join the ranks of those legendary one-book writers, know that the odds are stacked against you. If you can write one book, you can write two or more. It will increase your chances of success as well as expand the number of people you’ll reach with your stories or messages.