Why you can’t pay me to market your books for you

People sometimes ask me if I will market their books for them in exchange for a profit share.

This seems like a good deal to them; I’ll earn more than I would otherwise once their book takes off, and they don’t need to pay me upfront. Win-win.

But the truth is, almost nobody will ever take you up on this offer.

Most book marketers want to be paid up front, and guarantee nothing.

That’s why, in most circumstances, paying for book marketing is a bad idea.

But since it came  up again today, I’m going to break it down with math.

Let’s start with this question, which is a pretty common sentiment among writers, something I’ve responded to several times.

The more I read about the marketing of books the more I realize that I am a writer not a marketer. Any spare time I have I want to put into writing. Is there any way to contract marketers based on the sales they make rather than paying them to make promises?

I get it; writers want to write and do what they’re good at, and not waste time or effort doing things they don’t enjoy naturally.

On the surface it makes sense, you hear this advice in business all the time: focus on your strengths, do the indispensable work that only you can do, outsource the rest.

Here’s the problem: marketers want to be paid for their time.

You’d have to convince them your book is going to make a lot of money first. If I knew a book was going to be a huge bestseller, I’d market it for free or for 1% because it would be worth more than I would charge (it means you’re overpaying for marketing, but it you don’t have any money, it might be worth it). However, marketers won’t do that because they’d have to evaluate every book project, and then keep track of all the projects and earnings, and trust that authors will pay them… and marketing is hard, hard work.

You’d have to sell a hundred thousand copies before you’d earn enough to be worth it. And again, I’d have to be a psychic to predict which books will do that well. The alternative of this, that I’ve considered, is to become a publisher so I can take 10% or 20%. I’d do the cover, formatting, marketing and everything, and make the book earn well enough to cover the cost of my services. I have friends who have done this, once you publish a hundred books or so you can be making a good living.

That said, the stuff we’re talking about (“marketing”) is really easy. You don’t need to hire someone or give away a percentage of your earnings. Especially if you’re going to have several books, you need to learn some of this stuff.

Sign up on some book tour websites and pay; advertise on some promo sites and pay. Play around with pricing; put an offer in the back of your books to get them to sign up to your list… seriously you can do all this stuff in a few hours. The tricky part is getting it to stick after launch, and attracting/redirecting traffic for long term sales, but that’s the kind of stuff that’s rarely worth it, it’s better to write more books and try to get one that readers like more.

Also, marketing does NOT take time away from your writing.

Learning about marketing, or more accurately, worrying about not marketing, is really the thing that distracts you.

The biggest danger about marketing is that you feel overwhelmed and frustrated, and so when you’re writing your book, you fret because you’re worried about who is going to buy it, and you know that you should be doing “something” but have no idea what to do. That’s dangerous, because it will kill your writing productivity. The solution is to learn enough about marketing to realize it doesn’t actually take very much time, and you don’t have to do it ALL the time. I market my books for one week during launch, then spend months writing more books. I blog occasionally but outside of that one week, I don’t do very much.

Granted, I know what I’m doing – which means I can do more in that one week than most authors do in a year (or, actually, I can do MUCH LESS but it will have MUCH MORE impact and result).

“I’d rather be writing” is kind of an excuse authors say when they aren’t willing to confront their education gap (the lack of knowledge about book marketing). There are plenty of people who will exploit that knowledge gap by overcharging you for things that don’t work at all, like paying $500 for a press release.

But nobody else is going to do it for you. Authors who are willing to do some things they don’t like once in awhile will probably (not always) outperform the authors who can’t be bothered. Also, nobody LOVES marketing. Assuming people will work for you for free because they’re doing what they love is misguided.

Let’s get into the numbers. 

As a thought experiment, let’s say I wanted to set up a recurring monthly fee for book marketing, $79 a month =
-100 new followers a month
-5 new reviews a month
-3 new interviews or media features
-2 new pieces of original content for your own blog

If I got 100 people, I’d make $7900, but I’d need to hire 10 VA’s at $500 a month to do all the work, and I’d still have to manage the whole business and make sure things are going well. So I’d have a monthly salary of $2900, but a lot of that would go into maintenance fees, hosting, website, etc.

It would be a good deal for authors, but it wouldn’t make enough money for it to be worth my time. I could charge $179, but then it’s not a good deal anymore and I probably wouldn’t get 100 authors. If I DID, I’d make $17,900 a month, then it MIGHT be worth my time (I’d make about $10K a month, which is nice but it would be a big, messy business.) There are easier ways to make 10K a month. BUT actually I’d hire a manager at $1K a month, to handle everything, I’d step out of it and continue earning almost 10K a month. Which would be great, except I don’t think $179 is an attractive enough price to make the business successful.


So how about if I just work for free and take 50% of your earnings?

I’d only do that if I knew I could sell 5000 copies and earn some decent money. Here’s the thing though, if I could sell 5000 copies of your book I could probably sell 50,000. Once I got the ball rolling, it would keep selling if readers like your book, so I would keep earning money off your creative content for years, always getting my 50% cut, long after I’ve stopped doing any marketing for your book.

It works out much better in my favor than yours.

But again, I’d still have to qualify leads: I’d need to accept applications, and read through a thousand books to find one that would be profitable (and I don’t get paid to read those thousand books, so the ONE I do agree to market would have to pay for all the time I spent going through proposals).


My friend has a gold mine in the Yukon. There’s probably millions worth of gold there. But renting the equipment necessary is expensive; he wants to give some permission to dig his land and split profits. From his point of view, he’s the one with the value, and he’s giving up more than is reasonable to make the offer enticing.

Someone can spend a couple hundred thousand to rent the equipment and make several million. It’s a no brainer, right? Except there is no guarantee they’ll find enough gold to earn the money back. So you’ll looking for someone to spend a great deal of money and several months hard work, on a big risk that with unpredictable odds. It MIGHT work out and pay off. But it might not. A profit-share agreement around book marketing is a similar risk.

What kind of person has the money and the time to take those kinds of risks?

Well, let me tell you, not many.

In fact I might be uniquely qualified: I make more than I need online, I don’t have a full-time job or a family to support (my wife and I live pretty cheaply), I have the knowledge to do the work and market your books.

I could afford to take a big risk like this and lose some time and money if it didn’t work out.

But I won’t do that, because it would be dumb.

It’s pretty freaking hard to sell a hundred books. A very successful launch might be a thousand books, and after that you’d have to keep finding new ways to reach your readers. A successful book might sell 10 copies a day (that’s much better than most books do).

Let’s say I took you on at 50% for three months (you’d probably want to set a time limit, but I wouldn’t accept anything less than 3 months because a lot of my hard work would pay out later. I might even demand to extend this to one year, because otherwise my efforts might get the ball rolling and then snowball after the three months is up).

But for this exercise we’ll agree on three months.

– If you sell a thousand books, and then 10 a day for three months, it’s about two thousand books altogether.

If you’re selling at $2.99 and make 70%, that’s $4186 in earnings. I’d get half of that, or $2093.

That’s actually kind of decent. I’d be just about breaking even.

Book marketing isn’t free. I tried before to offer a book launch package for $1000. We promised to get you to #1 in your category, and we were successful 90% of the time. But it cost a LOT in ads and promotion.

However, I’ve gotten a lot better since then, and am pretty confident I can do much better now. But not for $1000  – at that price I was barely breaking even, which means actually, working for free and adding a lot of stress into my life that I don’t need.

This is something authors sometimes don’t understand… if you pay $1000 for me to market books, but I spend it all on ads and promotion, then I’m working for free – in which case, I probably won’t do it anymore, because it’s no fun to work hard and earn nothing.

In the author platform course I’m launching this week (to my list only, sorry) I have a “done-for-you” option price at $2449. But it’s not really for “book marketing” because I know most book marketing will be a waste of time. Other people will take your money and try to market you but guarantee nothing. That’s because they don’t have control over the product.

In my case, I won’t do any marketing for you until I’ve checked your entire platform, your Amazon page and website, social media profiles, book cover and sales description. So I’m basically charging to use my skills and expertise to fix your author platform, to the point where you have a chance at success, and then I do enough marketing to get you to #1. I do my job well, and earn $2449, though I’ll probably spend $1000 on ads and promotion.

I actually think I priced that offer too low, and that’s why I’m only selling 15 slots as a test run to see how it goes. In the future, if I do it again, I’ll probably charge more.

I made the option because I know a lot of authors just want someone to do everything for them. It’s a compromise, but actually isn’t a great deal for either of us. I get $2449 up front and get paid for sure, without offering any guarantees (I guarantee #1 in your category but that’s usually less than 100 sales on launch actually).

You get an author platform that at least will support your book launch, instead of sabotaging your marketing efforts.

In this case, it’s worth the money because you get a designer who can actually fix your core issues that are killing sales, but usually when you pay a book marketer, they’ll skip that step and just sell the product you have, even if they know nothing is going to work because your product or offer isn’t attractive enough yet.

And again, I don’t really WANT to do your marketing for you, but that’s the lowest I could charge for it to be worth my time. And I also don’t really think you should spend $2449 on book marketing; I think it’s probably better to learn how to do everything yourself, hire the best designers to make your covers and website (which will probably cost you much more), and then learn to do a quick and powerful book launch. I’m getting out of services, so I’m building courses so you can figure this stuff out on your own.

But let’s go back to the profit share example.

At 50% of 2000 books, for a decent book launch that did pretty well, I’d make less than what I would actually charge to do it if you were paying me.

So, why would I accept a pay cut? To help people out?

I saw a cool quote on Facebook recently that said, when you give discounts for people, you’re letting their cash flow problems become YOUR cash flow problems. I actually do a great deal of free work and favors, but that’s not fair to my paying clients. I’d have a much stronger and more profitable business if I only worked with people willing to pay what I’m worth (and I’d have more free time to build more resources for authors… which is why from now on I’m going to try to be more possessive of my time).

However I’ll admit that 50% for marketing a book could be appealing, if I thought I could sell more books.

Hypothetically, I’d put up the offer, and screen all the projects, and take on one or two a month that I think have a great deal of potential. I would only accept books that I think could get into the top 1000, selling 100 copies a day, and I’d be aiming for 10,000 sales. My cut of that would be $10,465. Now we’re talking.

If I accepted 100 books, I’d lose money on some, but I’d make more money on some. I could shoot for an average of 10,000 sales per book. I’d do 10 a month and hope for $100K in profit  a month. Sweet.

But let’s break it down.

That would only happen if I got LOTS of submissions. And I’d have to go through all those submissions and probably read all those books. And I’d probably have to redo all the covers on all those books, because I couldn’t market something with a crappy cover. And then I’d have to hold their hand and edit their Amazon description, and help them get book reviews, by reaching out to bloggers and reviewers.

If I got a thousand submissions a month, I’d be lucky to find one or two solid books with a reasonable chance of success (because, while some indie books are great, lots are not… and the authors who would be willing to give up 50% of their earnings for someone to help them market have probably ALREADY put the book out, but it’s not selling at all, so they think extra marketing will help, when 95% of the time their book just doesn’t engage readers).

Let me say that again: the books that would be worth my time, probably don’t need much help. The authors who are willing to spend a lot on book marketing, or agree to give up 50% of their earnings, probably don’t have a product that could stick in the top 1000.

Theoretically, the money almost makes sense, but as a business, there’s no way I could read through even a hundred books a month trying to find a winner.

Which again, is why I won’t market your books for you.

The other way to go about this is to become a publisher – then, not only do I get to control the cover design, formatting and editing to make the best possible product, I also earn 50% for life. So if I got my 100 books published, and they all sell 10,000 copies, I’d be a millionaire ($1,046,500). And that’s only considering the first three months – actually most of those books would continue to earn some money. After 10 years I’d have a thousand books and be making over 10 million a year (in my dreams).

It is theoretically possible. And yes, the idea appeals to me, because I could just work on the projects I believed in, and I’d be compensated for my time. But then, you’d have to manage all the payments, pay the authors, keep track of everything, probably have a full-time staff, and work your ass off.

And who needs that kind of money? I can make $10K a month just working for myself, on my own projects, and work a couple hours a day: and that’s actually what I SHOULD be doing, instead of messing around with other people’s stuff. (Though I may try starting a publishing company in the future, because why not?)

Although I’m not comfortable taking your money to market your books for you, the tentative offer with my course should work because I won’t actually be doing much marketing: I’ll be fixing your platform and product – I’ll be improving your conversion so your marketing efforts actually get results (which is more important, crucial actually, and usually skipped!).

But I’d actually caution most indie authors away from spending much money on their first book launch, because you have an untested product. You hope you’ll earn the money back, but remember, far fewer than 1% of books actually earn any money at all, so the chances of you earning $2449 back in book sales is slim (which again, is partly what makes this conversation so interesting). Those books that WILL earn that kind of money and more, I’d be willing to profit share at 50%. And those books that WON’T earn that kind of money, I’d need to be paid up front because I don’t believe I’ll earn any money otherwise.

But then our relationship gets really strange, because you’d be trying to convince me your book will sell, and I’d be the asshole who doesn’t believe in your book’s market potential. And nothing you could say would convince me: I’d want to see a bunch of real reviews, and read the book, and I’d probably turn you down, which would piss you off because YOU believe your book could make a lot of money, if only someone else would market it for you.

A last word on marketing: if you think it’s something you need to keep doing, all the time, and hate that idea because you’d rather be writing, you’ve got it all wrong.

Marketing isn’t something you need to do all the time. You need to build a strong platform, and you need content that attracts readers, but once you set that up, it should run on its own. If you feel like  you’re CONSTANTLY marketing, and nothing is working, it’s not a problem with your marketing, it’s a problem with your book. It could be your cover or sales description; but it could also just be that your book is good, but not great. Which means, you probably don’t need a book marketer, you need to be writing better books that satisfy bigger audiences.

Or, perhaps you FEEL like you’re marketing all the time, but you aren’t really. You’re screwing around on social media, or trying to learn how to do new things, and feeling stressed out and frustrated… you’re spending a lot of time worrying about marketing your book, but no time actually marketing your book. And that’s why you need a clear, easy to follow, step-by-step guide to marketing or launching your book, so you can skip all the confusion and just follow some simple directions and go back to writing. That’s the kind of stuff I’ve been building for you.

From another angle, let’s say I knew enough about online marketing that I could build a big email list quickly, get a bunch of traffic and visibility, and reach the right kind of people. If could do all that, I’d want to use my skills and knowledge in the most profitable way. So I’d market really expensive affiliate products, or expensive Amazon products, or anything that paid out a lot of money per sale – Maybe at least $50 per sale. That way I’d know I could spend $25 on advertising or marketing, reach 100 people, and make one sale and be profitable.

If I tried to do that with books, I’d spend $25 on advertising, reach 100 people and make one sale at $2.99. That’s why straight up advertising for a book is usually losing money (and I’d be losing even MORE money than an author doing it themselves, because I’d only make 50%).

Again, this is basically why I’m moving into courses. You can’t pay me enough to make it worth my while to help you market your books; it’s not worth my time to share my knowledge and resources with you. But I can put together a video course that will help you build your own platform, and market you own books, at an affordable rate. You still have to learn and do the work yourself though. The good news is MOST AUTHORS will never do the work themselves; they’ll never buy a course to learn how to do things right, which means they’ll do most things wrong. That’s why the few authors who actually take the time to learn this stuff do pretty well (and it’s much easier than you might think).


About Derek Murphy

I help authors and artists turn their passions into full-time businesses, make a bigger impact, and blaze a luminous trail of creative independence. Right now I'm in Taiwan finishing a PHD in Literature, writing several books, and managing a handful of online businesses. Find me
  • Roman St James

    Derek – Thank you for this! It’s incredibly insightful and well-written. I’ve been reading lately that some book marketers believe that you can only really build a full-time income as a fiction writer by penning serials as opposed to stand-alone novels. Do you agree with that opinion?

    • It’s far easier, that’s for sure, but there are authors who do OK with just a few stand alone books. The hard part is visibility; serials allow you to go permafree on the first book and play with pricing. With standalones you have to work much harder… for me I would just make it free for three months, get over 100 reviews, then try charging…

      • Roman St James

        Thanks again , Derek! I appreciate you!

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