Six things I learned writing over 75 non fiction books

Publishing is one of those industries that has always been on the brink of collapse. The latest broadside is from (wouldn’t you know it) the Internet and the proliferation of ebooks. You can say what you like about Fifty Shades and whether it benefits humanity to just allow people to publish whatever they want, but it’s hard to think of a legal means of stopping them. Anyone with a keyboard and an internet connection can now get their work out there and call themselves an author. As a result, there is a vast, swelling bubo of cheap ebooks, most with very little quality control, market for the work or adequate punctuation.

I am responsible for nearly a hundred of them. And you could be too. Just don’t expect to get rich or famous. Because:

1. It’s hard to see where the money comes from.

I don’t write about subjects I have have any interest or expertise in. I answered an ad online for ghostwriters, and received my first title, a guide to simple Korean cooking. I nervously protested to my international paymaster (a man I know only by his first name, have never met, spoken to or have any idea of the company he runs) that I didn’t really know anything about that. He told me that the work needed to be “100 per cent original” and left me to it. Three days of googling and adapting recipe ideas, and I had my 5000 words, formatted into the templates he supplied. He paid me $50 and sent me the next title. Within a few weeks, I had branched out from recipes into self-help, urban survival, life hacks and (ahem) sex tips.

Out of curiosity (believe me, that wears off) I googled the titles and found my work under a variety of amusing pseudonyms. And then I had the thought that you are having now, namely: “Hang on! If Jimbo [name of paymaster changed to prevent reprisals] can afford to pay me a whole $50 per book, he must be making more than that out of my writing. Why don’t I just cut out the middle man and publish direct?” After all, I had the templates, Amazon has a nifty little wizard for designing a cover and I could, by that point, turn out the required 5000 words in a day.

I didn’t branch out too far from the topics Jimbo usually sent – after all, he was the one making the money, so presumably he knew what sold. The book I wrote was longer, funnier, more complex and had a better cover than a similar one I’d written for him, and I set it up to have the same price point and be part of the same Kindle Unlimited system as the others. In nearly a year since it was published, I have made an average of 29 pence per month from that book. In nine and a half years, I will have made more money than I would have got from Jimbo. Result!

Now, obviously, that book can quite happily sit there for ever until the royalties pass to the beneficiaries of my will, at which point they will experience a moment of quiet disappointment. I’ve written a few more that sit beside it, and I could (if so inclined) build up a list of hundreds, each dripping their tiny income into my account each month. Presumably, this is what Jimbo does. But he’s put in the upfront investment, and I find it hard to see how he is making any money. Of course, the books I write for him seem to generate much more positive reviews than the ones I’ve written for myself, and, while I’m not leveling any accusations at Jimbo….

2. The reviews are fake

I know, right? I can hear your gasps of amazement. Pretty much every book I’ve written garners an immediate set of three reviews, (two 5-stars and one 4-star, for added conviction) which encourage others to buy the book. Often they reiterate the book description, along the lines of “low carbing is a great way to lose weight, feel great and never go hungry!” or “Smallholding is growing in popularity and it’s not hard to see why!”. Any day now, I expect Jimbo to offer me a few dollars to log on and give five extra stars to a hundred of his other titles.

Sometimes they aren’t even subtle about it. I’ve found reviews which admit to not having read the book but are “looking forward to it”, one from a weight loss guide which said “I can imagine how delicious they would be if I actually cooked it ” and one which simply proclaimed “this is the best book of my life!” (If you’re wondering, it was a guide to living in a tiny house. Possibly it was the only book the author could fit in).

After the fake reviews you get the real ones which can be a problem because….

3. You can amuse yourself (up to a point)

I imagine that Jimbo read my first few books to make sure they didn’t just degenerate into me mashing the keyboard with my elbow, but I’m pretty sure he doesn’t bother any more. I can be reasonably confident of this because I often entertain myself by having a subtle dig at the subject in question. If I’ve been asked to write a guide to losing ten pounds in ten days, I will spend the introduction pointing out why this is neither healthy nor desirable. A guide to ‘Achieving your dreams through self-confidence’ is likely to include a rant about why the goal of healthy self esteem should be to have a realistic, secure image of yourself, not to grant you god-like powers. The Paleo diet kicks off with a brief rundown of how we know what we know about our paleolithic ancestors and why the science behind ‘eating like a caveman’ is shaky at best, before moving on to the recipes. And every so often, there’s a reviewer who spots this.

A book on ‘Living the minimalist life’ was described as ‘kind of cold blooded’, after I suggested that people should destroy their wedding photographs on their one year anniversary. In a guide to ‘learning languages without study or effort’, it was pointed out that ‘the author makes some unfounded suggestions’. A book that promoted ‘A debt free life in a shipping container’ ended up by ‘wander[ing] off topic into seemingly talking you out of trying to build with shipping containers’. Well spotted, reviewer.

There are some titles that I simply won’t take – no magic spells, get rich quick ideas, or guides to ‘seducing women with your eyes’. Although the potential for subverting these topics is huge, the sheer unpleasantness of the websites I would have to visit first is enough to put me off. However, the research for some topics can be illuminating, since…

4. You’ll have to tell people stuff you didn’t think you had to

When researching this article (by which I mean googling my work – I’m going to get “never read the comments section” embroidered on a cushion) the phrase ‘it’s just common sense’ came up a fair bit. Although I think the reviewer meant it as a criticism, I was pretty relieved. You would be amazed at the kinds of things it is worth pointing out. I devote some energy in ‘Uses for Hydrogen Peroxide’ to impressing upon my readers why you shouldn’t give yourself home colonic irrigation using H2O2. This wasn’t something I had randomly decided to get worked up about – I had found sites online which advocated this. Similarly, people who are planning on starting one of the many wooden pallet projects in ‘Pallet Projects for Beginners’ shouldn’t just ‘take one of the many pallets often left in building sites and depots’. For one, it’s stealing, and secondly, wooden pallets may have been used to transport industrial chemicals. Think you have thrush? Check with a doctor before douching with lemon juice. Want to forage for your own mushrooms? Just don’t. There’s a huge amount of bad information out there, and while I may have contributed to the ‘useless’ end of the spectrum, I hope I haven’t added to the ‘dangerous and inaccurate’ section.

So if I don’t enjoy it, why not just write something else?

5. The money is bad (again)

I don’t just turn out endless non fiction ebooks on subjects I am neither interested nor supportive of – I also write the occasional bit of historical fiction or even (when I have the energy) erotica. But breaking the $10-per-thousand-words barrier is hard. As it is, the quickest, simplest way (for me, you may be more successful) to make money from writing is like this. It’s steady, it’s easy and you can listen to podcasts while you do it.

I recently got offered a job writing some historical fiction. It was for a man I’d worked for before, who publishes a lot of this kind of stuff, and I had previously turned in a piece of work I was proud of. I’d worked hard, gone above and beyond, and taken the meagre payment as a kind of loss leader, in the hope that we could negotiate for future commissions. He was extremely complimentary about my work, and a few months later, offered me a second story. He wanted 120 thousand words for $300.

To give you an idea of scale, an average novel is about 90 thousand words. This guy was asking me to write a fat blockbuster in exchange for just under two hundred quid. I can write reasonably quickly, but a long story is pretty demanding – you have to maintain plot, pace, characters and events. It’s hard and you need to think about it. It would have taken me at least two months, and that would be with doing very little else. I offered instead that I would write 60 thousand words (still a novel) for $600. I said I understood that this was a significant change from his starting point, but that I felt it was fair in exchange for my time and effort. I never heard from him again, not even to laugh in my face. The book he commissioned is now available on Amazon, so I’m guessing he managed to find someone for even that pittance.

And the erotica? No better paid. And it is actually very demanding – if you don’t believe me, give it a go. Turning out one-handed reads is not easy cash. If you write historical or genre erotica (I have written a fair bit of supernatural stuff) I promise you that you will find yourself googling archaic slang for genitals, and trying to decide if your main character can really get away with saying “Swive me, Achibald! Right up Cupid’s Alley!” (NB: They cannot). Despite repeated requests, I have never shown anyone who knows me any of the racy stuff I’ve written. Which is useful because…

6. You’ll stay anonymous (and be glad of it)

It’s not just the spank pamphlets that I’d rather not get traced back to me – pretty much everything I’ve ever had published has been ghostwritten, which means that, as soon as the money changes hands, I lose all right to be identified as the author. It’s not just that I can’t say that I wrote it – legally, I’m not the author. I’ve even had to alter the titles of the books mentioned here, in case someone dinks around and finds them.

And, just like pretty much everyone, I’d like to be a proper writer some day. I’ve got novels languishing on my hard drive and (unpaid) articles in a few national publications. The last thing I want is for ‘Ten Tips on living in a Disused Horse Trailer’ to come out of the woodwork when I’m trying to look like a serious author.

The author is a freelance writer of ebooks, articles, and…hey, you just read the article. You know what she does. If you want to hire her, contact The Library. You already know she’s very reasonably priced.

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