How can I profit from my passion?

Hobbies can range from the very frugal, to the very expensive. Yet even hobbies which might seem frugal at first can quickly turn expensive if we’re not careful. Somewhat ironically, it’s often when we decide we want to make money from our passion or passions that they suck us dry.

Why is this? – And how can we avoid it happening to us?

Prefer to listen to this post? Enjoy it in podcast format!
CORRECTION: The podcast refers to 30% royalties on Amazon. Please keep in mind this should be 35%, but the conclusions remain the same.

Makeover your life

Years ago, when we first started our journey towards financial independence, I completed Jacob Lund Fisker’s superb ‘21 Day Makeover’ challenge. It isn’t, as the name might imply, a superficial challenge to makeover your face or your wardrobe (as one glance at me would verify!). Instead, it’s a challenge to makeover your life.

Over the 21 days, Fisker walks readers through the steps to financial independence, beginning with finding a place to live, decluttering, grocery shopping, and dropping your cell phone plan. Day five’s challenge, however, is one I want to focus on today: finding a free hobby.

The spectrum of hobbies

According to Fisker, there are three kinds of hobbies:

1. Hobbies that cost us money. He gives his own previous high-tech lifestyle as an example, constantly upgrading his computers, cameras, hifi equipment, and so on.

2. Free hobbies. Learning a language, playing chess, and starting a garden are Fisker’s examples. Even though there might be some minor initial outlays involved (like buying a chess board or seeds) the cost-per-hour is close enough to zero in the long term (and if you’re growing vegetables you can eat, the savings will even cancel out the costs).

3. Hobbies that make us money. Fisker has a whole list of hobbies that could make you money.

Of course, there’s an enormous difference between hobbies that ‘could’ earn money, and hobbies that do.

Writing as a hobby…

Take a hobby like my own – writing. (I’ll use writing as an example throughout this article, but most of what I say should apply to any creative activity).

Writing can easily fit into any of Fisker’s categories: If you spend a packet on a state-of-the-art laptop, hanging out in cafes, whisky, cigarettes, and berets, not to mention writers’ retreats and expensive conference tickets, you’ll be in debt before you even sell a copy to your mum or your next-door neighbour. Then there’s all the book-related expenses too: editing, proofing, cover design, formatting, printing, distribution, marketing, and so on.

(And in case you’re thinking ‘I have no interest in doing all that stuff myself, I’ll just have the publisher do it for me’ you might want to read my recent post on SarahNeofield.com which explains why the majority of traditionally published authors are disappointed in their publishers’ marketing efforts)

…vs. a profession

If you use your existing computer or stationery, or if you spend no more on your writing than you make from it, writing can be an extremely low cost or even free activity, especially if you don’t get carried away with expensive marketing tactics. I recently had the opportunity to review Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s book The Frugal Book Promoter. Frugality and books. What more appropriate topic could there be for a blog focused on money and language like Enrichmentality? And, as you probably know from previous posts here, frugal certainly doesn’t have to mean boring or ineffective. In fact, monetary constraints can often foster creative thinking.

Finally, if you manage to write a runaway success, like the Harry Potter series, you could even wind up a billionaire, like J.K. Rowling. That would seat your passion firmly in the ‘makes money’ category – provided you manage the pressure.

Art vs. Money

Artists, like most of us, have a complicated relationship with money. Some consider wealth and success to be inextricably tied. We see this in phrases like ‘rich and famous’, and witness some authors attempts to buy their way onto the bestseller lists. (And, as I’ve learned recently from Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s excellent Discoverability series, publishers do the same, paying to have their authors’ books placed on in-store bestseller stands.)

Others consider accepting money in exchange for art distasteful at best, or, at worst, in direct violation of what art is supposed to represent. As Make Art, Make Money: Lessons from Jim Henson on Fueling Your Creative Career by Elizabeth Hyde Stevens points out, ‘For the most part, money is the enemy of art’ and ‘art is, anthroplogically speaking, a gift.’

Is it any wonder then, that many artists – writers included – prefer to divorce themselves from the ‘dirty’ side of creativity – the one that involves ‘filthy’ lucre?

Transforming a costly hobby into a free one

Often, we don’t notice how much our hobbies cost us – especially if the purchase of the materials or equipment related to it are separated in time from their use. For example, it’s easy to think of home made cards or gift wrap, or home made jam as ‘free’ if they come from materials or ingredients we already have. In reality, however, home made gifts and cards can often cost even more than store-bought (even though, sadly, there’s often a stigma attached).

If you have a hobby like baking, sewing, or anything else other people find useful, you may have also realised that other people tend to underestimate the costs involved when they ask for a favour. Making and decorating a traditional wedding cake can cost hundreds of dollars in ingredients. Sewing a simple dress can cost more in fabric than buying a similar dress off the rack. But often, when something is ‘home made’, friends, family, and neighbours expect to get it for free.

If you’re looking to make your hobby cost neutral, it’s important that you analyse how much it’s really costing you, so that you can work out how much you need to charge in order to recoup your losses. Make a tally of the cost of ingredients. Work out whether it really is cheaper for you to make a card than buying one from the store (or, whether you can do without cards entirely).

Transforming a free hobby into a profitable one

If you’re wanting to make a profit, then you need to assess not only how much the materials cost, but factor in your time – and a profit margin, with enough room for taxes and other expenses. A painter, for example, would need to not only cover the costs of her canvas, and paints, but some portion of her easel, brushes, and other equipment, as well as her time, and then some.

This advice might work well for physical arts – but creators of music and writing and other infinitely replicable art forms have a slightly different situation.

Although it costs a baker roughly the same amount per cake whether they’re baking one cake or two, two cakes or ten, for a writer, the cost of distributing a second copy of an ebook is virtually non-existent. This can lead us to think of books as ‘free’. But, even if we discount the time and effort involved, that’s often untrue.

How much does it cost to publish a book?

It can be hard for writers to get a handle on how much publishing a book might cost them. One useful resource is Dana Sitar’s contribution to The Write Life, which showcases four different authors’ publishing costs. Although precise figures weren’t given by every author for every category, we can see that, while self-publishing isn’t necessarily cheap, the costs involved can vary greatly: by my calculations, these four spent between $170 and $2,277 on self-publishing their books.

Derek Murphy puts the average indie author spend between $2,000 and $5,000, while Reedsy estimates costs up to $8,000 – far more than most independently published books ever make. (According to Chris McMullen, most indie authors sell only 100 to 250 copies of their self-published titles. Ever.)

And of course, the more you spend – on your book, or on any passion you want to turn into a source of income – the more you must sell in order to recoup your expenses.

The frugal way to turn your passion into profit

The formula for making your passion profitable is as basic as the formula for saving money at home, or for running any kind of business at all: your income must exceed your expenses.

It’s as simple as that.

Taking indie publishing as an example, when you’re selling ebooks, there are two factors you can play with to recoup your losses, and hopefully, make a profit: You can sell more books, or you can charge a higher price.

But both of these methods have their limits. Let’s take a look at two different authors who spend two different amounts on their books.

An $8,000 ‘investment’

Author Amira Anneway spends $8,000 on her ebook. If it sells 100 copies, which is about the average we can expect from a self-published book, she’d need to earn a mammoth $80 per book just to break even.

$8,000 expenses / 100 books = $80 per copy

That’s a ridiculously tall order. Especially since books over $9.99 on Amazon earn only 35% royalties. In order to earn a royalty of $80 per copy, Amira would have to charge an enormous $228.57 per copy to break even. (And at $228.57 per book, it’s very unlikely she’d be able to sell one copy, let alone 100!)

Alternatively, Amira could try and sell more copies. At $2.99 (a price at which she’d receive 70% royalties, or $2.09 per copy, on most Amazon platforms) she’d need to sell 3,827 books.

$8,000 expenses / $2.09 per copy = 3,827 books

That might not seem like a lot, especially since we routinely hear about those superstars who sell millions of books, but it’s worth bearing in mind that not only is this almost forty times the average indie title’s sales, but it’s also almost double the average number of copies a debut book from a traditional publishing house sells. Amira will need one heck of a good marketing plan to beat those numbers. At 99c (a price at which you’d receive only 35% royalties, or 34c per book sold) she’d need to sell 29,592 copies.

$8,000 expenses / 34c per copy = 23,592 books

I don’t know about Amira, but there aren’t enough people in my home town to sell that many books to!

A $170 ‘investment’

Author Benito Bobway spends just $170 on his book. If he sells 100 copies, he’ll need to earn $1.70 per book in order to recoup his spend.

$170 expenses / 100 book = $1.70 per copy

That’s far more achievable. At $2.99 Benito would receive a 70% royalty of $2.09 per book – for a total of $209 if he makes 100 sales. This would give Benito a profit of $39 (minus tax) right off the bat. (Pricing his book just one cent cheaper, however, would drop Benito’s royalties to only 35%. While that’s still far higher than most traditionally published authors receive, it equates to just $1.04 per book – meaning Benito’s 100 sales would net him $104 – not enough to cover the book’s production costs.)

In fact, to break even, he’d only need to sell 81 copies.

$170 expenses / $2.09 per copy = 81 books

In other words, even if his book sells 20% fewer copies than the average indie ebook, breaking even is quite achievable.

The option of lowering the price and trying to sell more copies is also available to Benito. At the 99c price point, with a 34c royalty, he’d need to sell 500 copies to break even.

$170 expenses / 34c per copy = 500 books
It’s still a lot – but it’s nowhere near as many as the 23,592 copies Amira needs to sell. In fact, it’s 23,092 copies less. For every book Benito sells at 99c, Amira would need to sell 47.

Show me the money!

As the examples of Amira and Benito show, the more you spend on producing your book – or the more you spend on ingredients for your cakes, or the more you spend on fabric, or whatever your costs are – the more you will have to charge, or the more you will have to sell, before you can make a profit.

The key is to figure out which improvements to your book, fancy ingredients, or spangles, are crucial and which are optional extras.

If your book has a bad cover, if your cake has ugly frosting, or your dress has a cheap-looking trim, you may sell no books, cakes, or dresses at all.

On the other hand, if your book comes with super expensive swag, your cake has too much gold leaf, or your dress is covered in diamonds, even though you may sell a lot, you may not make any money – or even wind up in the red.

Linguistic trickery

All too often, we justify financial decisions via linguistic tricks. Advertising has taught us to think of purchases as ‘investments’. Rather than saying we bought a new pair of shoes, we say we ‘invested’ in some new shoes. Or a new jacket. Or a new computer.

The thing is, none of these purchases in and of itself constitutes an ‘investment’. In fact, shoes, jackets, and computers typically lose value very quickly. And require maintenance. That means they’re more accurately considered liabilities.

For something to really be an investment, we need to see evidence that it will make us money, not take it away.

Invest in your craft

Writers and artists of all stripes are often encouraged to ‘invest’ in their craft. I’ve even seen some writers comment on websites that spending money on your book should be considered akin to getting a degree – an investment.

To an extent, I agree with this point of view. Especially when we are asking readers to pay for our work, we owe them the best reading experience possible. And we owe our work the best chances of being appreciated. This means quality editing and design, among other aspects of book creation.

But you know what it doesn’t mean? Indiscriminate spending on anything and everything.

After all, there is one big difference between investing in an accredited degree and dropping thousands of dollars on book trailers and blog tours and book-related swag.

And that is evidence.

The importance of evidence

While exceptions in poorly regulated jurisdictions exist, at least for as long as they can get away with it (*cough* Trump University), institutions of higher learning provide quality training which is evidence based, benchmarked to industry standards, and anyone who is interested can easily look up the likely career outcomes for graduates of that degree. You can see precisely how much a degree will cost, how long it will take, and what sort of return you are likely to get on that investment of time and money if you get a job in your chosen field – and what the chances of getting that job are.

No manufacturer of bobbleheaded dolls or flashy videos that I have ever seen has shown such clear-cut evidence that their services will likely provide a solid return.

And, as I explore in the post on my author blog, authors can do all of this – go down the traditional publishing route, sign the six-figure contract, spend up big on tours and merchandise – and still wind up not earning any royalties, drowning in debt. That is, you can try to do everything the ‘right’ way, and still end up with a hobby that costs you money, instead of a career that supports your lifestyle.

Does a bigger spend = a bigger return?

All four books profiled on The Write Life (which, as you may recall, cost between $170 and $2,277 to produce) appear to have sold well and had very positive reviews overall. Yet, there was no obvious correlation between the amount of money spent and a book’s success in this small sample. The book which cost the most had the lowest rank. Meanwhile, the author who spent the least had the highest number of reviews per year. The two books that cost the least to produce had slightly higher overall ratings than the two more expensive to produce books.

The slippery slope of spending

So far, we’ve focused on the costs involved in producing your art. But, as The Frugal Book Promoter highlights, there are often costs involved in getting it to sell, too. This is the slippery slope of spending.

The more you spend on creating your work, the more you have to charge people, and/or the more people you have to charge.

This means you’ll need to convince more people to pay for your work, and/or convince people to pay more.

For many authors and other creatives, this means panicking – throwing money at advertising to try and recoup your losses. But without taking a critical approach to spending, promotional efforts can result in digging an even bigger hole of debt.

A critical eye

At the start of this post, I mentioned that it’s often precisely when we try to transform our passions into profitable businesses that we make the mistake of over-spending.

In a world in which artists are having to take on more promotional and public relations duties than ever, it’s easy to think that throwing money at marketing might be the best solution. Especially when most of us aren’t trained in advertising or promotions, we trust the so-called ‘experts’ for help.

When we consider our hobbies as simply that – hobbies, something we do for entertainment, and not as a main occupation, we are perhaps more critical of how much we spend on them.

But the minute we consider our hobbies as an additional income stream, or a potential side hustle, all of a sudden, we give ourselves licence to throw around words like ‘investment’.

Are you really investing?

When we convince ourselves that we’re ‘investing’ in our craft… that’s when we can wind up in debt. Like Lisette Calveiro, who racked up a debt of $10,000 in her quest to become a social media influencer. Or Heather Demetrios, whose dream writerly lifestyle and book promotion efforts resulted in her losing over a third of a million dollars in advances.

Mark Coker, author of Secrets to Ebook Publishing Success has my favourite quote on this topic:

‘NEVER NEVER borrow money to publish a book – Never go into financial debt to support your book. Debt is evil because it steals your future freedom.’

There is really only one thing proven to improve your craft – whatever that might be.

Are you ready for the big secret?

It’s time.

Time spent writing. Or playing your guitar. Painting. Shooting hoops. Programming. Or whatever your hobby might be.

If you want to hone your skills in anything, you need the time to do it.

So anything that steals your freedom is detrimental to your art.

Every bit of promotion you do should, at a minimum, pay for itself. By all means, try new things, but analyse them mercilessly.

How to analyse your promotional efforts:

First, your time is valuable. If you’re going to be promoting your flower arrangements or your cake decorating or your jewellery making or your scifi novel or your calligraphy yourself, it should be a form of promotion that sharpens or maintains your skills in some way. Maybe you want to upload a video of a new arrangement each week? Set yourself a calligraphy challenge? Release snippets of your fiction online? Something that relates to the skills you’re looking to develop in some way, and which you enjoy. As Carolyn Howard-Johnson says, promotion should be something you love.

Second, your money is valuable. If you’re going to be spending money on advertising or any form of promotion, you really need to examine very closely the returns you get from that method.

One way of doing this is to ensure that you only run one promotion at a time, or to use special links so that you know how people found your website. If you run a whole bunch of advertisements at once, you might not know which one is working (and hence, what to cut in future). You’d be surprised at how many businesses with enormous marketing budgets fail to do this, though.

Art is a long-term investment

In my analysis of authors’ use of social media, I found the average bestselling author had written well over 30 books. None of the indie authors on the Smashwords top 12 were first-time authors when I checked.

As Kristine Kathryn Rusch says, ‘It’s a rare writer who hits on the first novel, and usually that’s a fluke tied into something going on the culture. You can’t control the culture. You can’t control book buyers. But you can control what you do.’

In fact, Rusch cautions that using the promotional strategies in her series is a waste of time and money unless you’ve published at least ten books in the same series or genre.

Don’t bet on yourself. Invest in yourself.

If we are to transition writing – or any hobby – from passion to profit, we need to stop looking at it as a gamble, and start looking at it as a long-term investment. In other words, we need to move away from the mindset that traditional publishers take – that if something doesn’t take off immediately, we should cut our losses and run – and instead, put in the hard yards. To really kindle the spark of creativity in our work, and tend to its flames.

This can be hard. Some books take a year to write. Others might take four. There are few people who have the patience and the stamina required to slug away at something for decades in order to achieve the success we dream might befall us overnight.

In the meantime, we all need to eat. And while our art might not provide for us – and some of us might not ever have that as an aim – we can at least reduce how much it costs monetarily, so that we have the freedom to devote more of our time to it.

Take a frugal approach

To transform your hobby from a money suck into something that is at least neutral (or, at best, even makes you money!) Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s The Frugal Book Promoter may be just what the doctor ordered. Although it is focused on books (both fiction and non-fiction), many of its tips on how to creatively (and frugally) market your work will be applicable to creative people in various fields.

While The Frugal Book Promoter provides a decent overview of promotion generally, what sets Howard-Johnson’s book apart is not only its focus on frugal, but on strategic, ethical promotion.

‘Frugality’ is a loaded word, and one which carries a lot of stigma in certain circles. On Enrichmentality, I’ve examined the differences between being ‘frugal’ and being ‘cheap’ – and a big part of that distinction is being strategic in your approach.

1. Find experts you can trust

In addition to analysing the time and money involved in any decisions, you should also look carefully at who is offering the advice. Many of the pointers we’ve covered here on Enrichmentality regarding seeking financial advice also apply to advice across the board.

You need to consider the purpose of any resource you come across. Is it a free booklet designed to get you to sign up to an expensive video course? Or an academic article on marketing strategies designed to educate? Is the intended audience experienced authors, painters, or sculptors, or novices?

Consider also the authority of the person giving the advice. What is the author’s background? Do they cite their sources? Over the past year, I’ve read or sampled close to a hundred books on marketing and book promotion, and the number of authors who have successfully published a book on a topic other than publishing and achieved favourable sales and reviews (without tricks!) is smaller than you might think!

Why have I read so many books?

Long time readers might remember a post I wrote about avoiding bad advice, which featured the tip of reading to ‘saturation’. That is, in order to understand a topic well, it’s important to read enough books that you know what most people are saying about it. That doesn’t mean that the majority rules. Rather, it will help you more easily identify outliers – advice that is unusually good, as well as unusually bad. Without a frame of reference, you might not notice that the ‘guru’ or ‘expert’ you’re following is suggesting untested methods.

2. Understand new trends, but beware the bandwagon!

While publishers may ‘coax and command’ authors to have websites, there’s nothing to say that authors must spend mega bucks on this – and Howard-Johnson provides some free options. Her own How To Do It Frugally website is an example of a basic, yet functional and information-rich site. As my research on authors and social media shows, a flashy website is absolutely not a prerequisite to success as a writer.

Chapter 23 also describes the fragility of social media, using examples from Howard-Johnson’s own experience. This is something I often find missing from book marketing books. While Twitter, Facebook, Instagram, Pinterest and so on provide us with unprecedented opportunities to network with fellow readers and writers, meet our fans and favourite authors, and find new books our promote our own, the power is completely in their hands. Twitter, for example, suspended one account I used for no apparent reason. When asked why, they declined to explain, and refused to engage any further. Mysteriously, several weeks later, with no notification or apology, the account was fully reinstated. I still have no idea why this occurred, but this kind of experience illustrates the fragility of our reliance upon tools owned by others.

3. Don’t forget the classics

As Howard-Johnson notes, there can be – and are – entire books written about how to use specific social networking tools. By opting not to go into specifics, her book is eminently better poised to become a ‘classic’ as opposed to something like ‘Guide to the 2,999 best hashtags for authors on Instagram in 2019!’ (I just made that up… I hope it’s not a real book!)

These kinds of books are what I would consider the ‘milk’ of marketing books.

Milk is great. It provides nutrients. You’ll need it for certain purposes, like baking a cake. But nobody wants milk that’s past its use-by date.

Likewise, guides to this year’s hot new social media platform provide useful information. You need them for certain purposes, like figuring out how to use Snapchat or TikTok. But they, too, will go sour quickly. Even if a platform remains viable and popular, its rules, tips and tricks, and demographics, will rapidly change. Look at Facebook. What started out as a platform which misused data and gave people the opportunity to judge the ‘hotness’ of their classmates has turned into… a platform that misuses data and gives people the opportunity to judge the ‘hotness’ of their former classmates. Oh. Maybe things haven’t changed that much. (More to my point though, Facebook is no longer a teenager’s platform. Even though many still use it, more than a third consider Facebook ‘for old people’).

Fine wine

Carolyn Howard-Johnson’s book, however, is more like a fine wine (or so I’m given to understand, since I don’t drink!).

Comparing the updated third edition with the older version I previously read, I did not find many major changes – and this, I believe, is because the advice in The Frugal Book Promoter is designed to age well.

The Frugal Book Promoter is full of promotional ideas that don’t cost much – and many that don’t cost anything at all. While many of Howard-Johnson’s ideas will be most suitable for established authors, given the cautions against spending too much time or money until you’ve gotten at least one other title under your belt, it’s an invaluable guide for novice writers too, who want to feel like they’re doing all they can to give their work the best possible chance, without going into debt to do so, or making their project unprofitable in the process.

Skip the expensive book tour (which, contrary to most author’s expectations, publishers don’t often pay for) and promote your book with a blog tour, or what Howard-Johnson describes as an ‘un-tour’ where your tack your promotion on to your existing travel plans. Use your email signature and QR codes to drive traffic to your site. Reach out to fellow authors. (If you’re in this boat, or you just love books – perhaps your hobby is reading, and you’d love a free book? – there’s still one week left to join my street team!) Engage with the media – journalists are looking for things to write and talk about, you can help each other out.

Recap:

If you’re looking to turn your passion into profit (and there are many reasons you might not want to, but let’s assume for the purposes of this post that you do!), here are the steps:

1. Assess how much your hobby is currently costing you, and where it sits on the spectrum. Is it a hobby that costs you money? Is free? Or that makes you money?

2. Consider how you can make your work cost less. Look for free or inexpensive alternatives. Can you borrow equipment? Share with a friend? Swap editing with a critique partner? Trade skills (e.g. proofreading a designer’s website in exchange for a cover)?

3. Consider how you can make your work earn more. Look for free or inexpensive promotional ideas, such as those in The Frugal Book Promoter.

4. Do the numbers again. Constantly evaluate. Will the reduced costs and increased earnings transform your costly hobby into a free one? Or even, a profitable one?

5. Keep reading, watching, and listening. Constantly learn. Find experts you can trust by examining their purpose and authority. Subscribe to or follow those experts who are good at explaining trends. Borrow or buy the books of those experts who are good at explaining long-term strategy (and revisit these resources at different points in your creative career)

Now that you know how to turn your passion into profit, want to find out more about frugal (and effective) promotion? Check out my author blog!

You can find my review of The Frugal Book Promoter on Goodreads, and sign up to my Street Team here to learn more about opportunities for promoting your own projects.

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