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Go Entrepreneurial, Writer!

by Marcia Yudkin

Given the number of times I've heard writers cite the old saying, "Freedom of the press belongs to those who own the presses," I'm surprised that more writers don't reclaim power over their income and career by taking their work directly to readers. Of course, many authors successfully publish and distribute their own books. This article highlights three other entrepreneurial options that, unlike self-publishing a book,  require next to no financial investment.

More than once, my favorite entrepreneurial venture has earned me a net profit of $5.50 a word. Basically, I write a practical, tip-heavy article and instead of selling it to a magazine or newspaper, I use desktop design software to print it out with attractive borders and boxes on four pages. 

At the corner quick-print shop, I copy those pages onto 11" by 17" paper, doublesided, so that with one fold it becomes a four-page booklet. Then I write a press release announcing the availability and price of the booklet and including excerpts, and send the release either with or without a sample booklet (both approaches work) to the editors of magazines and newsletters reaching the target market of the booklet.

Following those steps, I sold more than 3,000 copies of "66 Ways to Make You or Your Business Newsworthy" at $2.00 each, and two years later about 3,000 copies of "66 More Ways to Make You or Your Business Newsworthy" at the same price.

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Since I also asked people to enclose an SASE, my only costs to fulfill the orders were postage and paper for the press releases, and bulk printing of the booklets -- which I arranged for only once publications called to tell me they'd be running my notice. Many, many periodicals print such notices free as a service to their readers, often using a few of the booklet tips along with the price and ordering information.

I've sold booklets the same size for $5.00 each as well. And this is only the beginning. Once people have identified themselves as willing to pay for information on a certain subject, you can then sell longer, more expensive material to a subset of these buyers. The more specialized your topic, the more easily you can price these so-called "back-end" products at hundreds of dollars each. 

And whether or not you explicitly offer your services as a consultant on this topic, often purchasers call you up to hire your counsel on an hourly basis. How-to topics succeed best with this approach, with good subjects anything from scuba diving techniques to parenting tips.

Several people I know sell booklets differently, successfully. Professional organizer Paulette Ensign creates hers in a 3.5" x 8.5" size, 16 to 28 pages long, and prints them in quantities of 500 and up. Ensign also has made numerous licensing deals, where a corporation buys the right to print up and distribute her booklet to its customers as a premium, or where a foreign entrepreneur buys the right to translate, print and distribute her booklet abroad.

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Don Massey of Fort Collins, Colorado, has used classified ads rather than publicity to sell his booklet on buying and selling used cars steadily since 1988. Independent publishing guru Dan Poynter delivers his booklets (also sometimes billed as "special reports") for $4.95 and up through his fax-on-demand system and his Web site as well as by sending printed material through the mail.

A second entrepreneurial option that involves minimal investment is audiotapes. Unlike self-publishing a book, which becomes cost-effective only with larger print runs and thus thousands of dollars spent up front, you can produce an audio master cheaply and then create copies for sale on a garden-variety cassette deck as orders come in. 

In 1992 and 1993 I spent just $200 each to record three 60-minute audiotapes for writers at a local TV production studio. Each blank tape and plastic case costs me less than $1.00, and I can buy sheets of blank cassette labels and insert cards to run through my laser printer for pennies. One of these tapes has also brought me more than $6,000 in royalties through the Sounds True audio catalog and the Writers Digest Book Club.

Jon Bard of Fairplay, Colorado, mastermind of the Children's Writing Resource Center, has also created two profitable audiotape sets: Internet Marketing for Beginners and Escape! How to Quit the Rat Race, Move to the Boonies and Make a Great Someone Who Has. 

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He recorded the tapes himself on a machine he already owned, and invested in a high-speed duplicator for about $220. The raw materials for each three-cassette set in a plastic shell with a nicely designed insert cover cost him only $3.00 to $3.50, and he sells the finished product for $26.95 or $34.95.

"Audiotapes have a novelty and cachet that set you apart from people self-publishing a book," Bard says. "They also cost you less to produce, and you can make them look more professional than the typical self-published book. I tried to make it sound spontaneous and get some humor in there, and listeners say they get a 'comfort' feeling from the tapes that they couldn't get from a book." Bard finds customers for the audiotapes through press releases and other low-cost marketing techniques.

The third low-investment entrepreneurial option is publishing a newsletter. A writing student of mine, Kathi Geisler of Chelmsford, Massachusetts, published a personal experience piece in Ladies Home Journal around the same time that she launched a subscription newsletter called Food Issues. 

Geisler earned much more from the subscriptions she sold from the announcement accompanying her article than she did for the article from the magazine. She has since gone on to other projects, but for a few years the newsletter turned a profit and represented a fulfilling way to channel her writing impulses.

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Like most newsletters, Geisler's involved printing and mailing costs, but in the last few years enterprising writers have discovered an even lower-cost formula for making money from a newsletter. Howard Rothman of Littleton, Colorado, spotted an opportunity developing out of his habit of e-mailing fascinating tidbits of information that he found on the Web and in print to friends and business associates. Strangers started e-mailing him to get on his list, and Rothman found an online brokerage to sponsor what he titled The Rothman Report, for wired entrepreneurs. Through word of mouth, his list has grown to more than 500.

"When it reaches 1,200 to 1,500 - and it's growing by 20 percent each month - I expect to be able to interest the kind of advertisers I really want," Rothman says. "I'm making some money, partly because I've published extensively about small business in traditional places and thus can legitimately claim to be an expert in the field. Other experienced writers could do something similar quite easily, I think."

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Debbie Ridpath Ohi of Toronto, who writes young adult novels and designs Web sites, has two sponsors and 7,600 subscribers 17 months after launching her e-mail newsletter for writers, Inklings. "I promised my subscribers that I would only accept sponsors who provide products or services useful to writers. I've turned down several potential sponsors who were inappropriate for various reasons," she says. 

Like Rothman, Ohi turned a profit within two years from her venture, and in mid-2000 sold her newsletter, with about 50,000 subscribers, and the associated Web site to XLibris for an undisclosed sum. When XLibris closed down the site in late January 2001, writers around the world mourned. "I would never have been able to publish Inklings as a snail-mail newsletter," Ohi adds. "Using email, sending out 100 issues costs the same in time and money as 10,000."

Each of these three options, I admit, requires that you learn at least one new skill, such as attracting media publicity. But if you know how to write a successful query letter, you can create a winning press release. Just study some samples, which you can find in my 6 Steps to Free Publicity or any other book on publicity. When you decide to reach out directly to the ultimate consumers of your work, marketing becomes your responsibility. I happen to enjoy that challenge. How about you?

Copyright 2001 Marcia Yudkin. All rights reserved.


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