Creating a Cottage Industry Around Your Book, Art, or Other Hobby


Actual things I’ve seen work time and again over 27 years


One of the things that continues to strike me, even in my 27th year as a book publisher, is the unique collection of expectations almost every individual author heaps upon their book — and, if these expectations haven’t been clarified and specifically pursued, how the publishing experience can yield as many disappointments and frustrations as rewards.

Having coached creatives, small business owners, and side-hustling hobbyists alongside authors for the last 15 years, I know the struggles are similar across endeavors. Adapt the following for your situation.

Let’s be honest. Nearly every author wants to make money on their book. Enough to cover costs. Enough to demonstrate that the book has an audience. Enough to feel the effort was worth it. Enough to validate them as a writer. Enough to be a decent source of a full or partial income. Whatever one’s goalpost for a publishing triumph, financial compensation can provide a stark measure of how close an author is to reaching that mark.

Some charmed authors will have the right combination of natural ability, ideal market timing, a wildly popular topic, and good old-fashioned luck to make money easily as authors. For the remaining 99.9%, one reliable, solid alternative route to satisfying monetary returns is making a cottage industry out of, or around, your book (or art or hobby).

By cottage industry, I simply mean a side gig, a side hustle, a part-time business, a full-time business, a DIY source of real income. I like cottage industry, though, because it evokes what’s important here for succeeding: It’s on you. You’re making something, and it requires industriousness. You do it from where you’re at, and it’s a business and needs to be treated as such.


First, it’s important to realize that there are tens of thousands of authors out there already building reasonably successful cottage industries around their book and their authorhood. I know authors who have created profitable side businesses (even full-time businesses) around a single title or series for five, seven, or even ten years or more.

Second, know that this can look very different for every author and every book — there is not one specific path. Cottage-industry authors I know have garnered their extra income by such varied approaches as leveraging relationships, pursuing publicity, giving public programs, becoming a workshop leader, and/or starting a business related to their book’s topic. Pricey corporate workshops, grade school programs funded by grants, a new career on the speaking circuit, a research business, a historic consultancy, a provider of oral histories, an underground dining club, and a tour company: These are real, exciting, and juicy options developed by authors I have published to keep their books selling, their expertise alive, and the money rolling in.

 

In getting started on the path to your own cottage industry, you can keep the following suggestions in mind.


1. Customization for you, your book, your goals, your resources, and your lifestyle is key See the areas I’ve identified that you, as an author, can look at when creating a personalized sales-and-promotion plan that works for you and your book.

 

2. Next, the top ways for almost any author to make money from their book are events and volume sales. Period. Begin by exploring what each of these two things can look like/be like for you and your book. (Read more about author events and volume sales.)

You must approach your cottage industry as a business and not a hobby. It is work — and for most people there’s also quite a learning curve when it comes to both the mindset aspect of business and the skills component. Embrace the learning. Accept failures and setbacks as part of the process. Commit to ongoing development and improvement.

Do not be afraid of quantity. That means that visiting one shop a day to show off your book may not be enough; you may have to visit ten. Calling five leads about volume sales every day may not be enough; you may have to call 50. (Yes, that’s really sitting down with the phone and making one call after another, putting all discouragement aside.) Pitching a couple of reporters each day may not be enough; you may have to pitch 20.

One thing that happens when you work numbers like these day after day for a couple of weeks is that you eventually hit upon the right number. That is, you will discover how many of any specific thing you have to do to yield the results you want [1]. If you get the results you want, you will know approximately what that will cost you in time and effort. Then, you can decide if it’s worth it.

Because…business is continuous testing. It’s trial and error. This works, that doesn’t. Changing this one thing increases sales by 10%. Awesome. What’s the next thing to try for a boost?

And when you test and continuously improve, you realize the details matter. Momentum builds with every correct detail that is added to the mix. Take the example of the standard bookstore signing. You show up, hopefully a few readers show up, you sign and sell some books, and you go home disappointed because it wasn’t more. Now, start attending to the details of every event you do (before, during, and after) and making more and more details standard with every one. (Hint: Start creating checklists for yourself that you continually tweak.)

Before the event, you can…

  • Promote the event on social media and to your growing email newsletter subscriber list.

  • Contact the local press and have a reporter come out.

  • Set up radio, TV, or podcast interviews, and mention the event on the air.

  • Practice and improve your presentation.

During the event, you can…

  • Focus on the crowd and not your anxieties.

  • Personally engage everyone who shows up and the store’s staff.

  • Take names and email addresses for your mailing list.

  • Use the old candy-dish ploy to get people to stop and talk.

  • Invite the audience to write Amazon reviews or to share photos of the event on social media.

  • Ask the staff if they’ll keep up your signage or display for another week or two. Make special shelf tags to highlight your book or the fact that you’ve left several autographed copies behind. Ask if they’d like postcards of your book cover as bag stuffers.

After the event, you can…

  • Do your own debriefing, and make notes on what to change for next time.

  • Send a thank you note to the staff, and ask if they have any recommendations for your program.

  • Ask employees if they refer you to other stores in their chain.

  • Do your own social media follow-up.

You get the idea. Whatever your approach, the details matter, and they can accumulate to your benefit.

 

3. Finally, think in terms of sending out ships The royalty of yesteryear sent massive, well-funded expeditions out onto the high seas or over vast deserts for years at a time. Sure, many ended in demise — expensive, failed ventures — but the few that succeeded yielded untold treasures, agricultural wonders, new trade routes, and colonies.

For the big payoffs and the big leagues, you’re going to have to launch ships from time to time. It takes forethought and proper planning, and an investment of creativity and energy to send out a ship. It also takes guts and deep reserves of self-confidence, patience, and vision to cushion you against long lead times and inevitable failures. What might a ship be in this case? Working with a local theater company to produce a play of your book. Creating a local tour based on your book and teaching it to tourism professionals.


Undertaking a 50-state virtual book club campaign. Doing corporate speaking events, where a book for each audience member is part of your package deal.

Push the boundaries of your comfort zone, stretch, think bigger, and play bigger. How can you sell 100 books at a time? Or 1,000 books? Who can your partner with to gain huge visibility for you, your book, or your book’s topic? And what can you create to ensure a steady stream of cash?



[1] For more how-tos on establishing such habits, I highly recommend James Clear’s Atomic Habits* (New York: Avery, 2018).


*affiliate link