Economics of a non-fiction book

Jouni Laaksonen 11.6.2018

Last week I wrote about my current book project, The Hiker’s Guide to Finland. (Addition in January 2019: The book was after all named Hiking in Finland – Day Trips and Backpacking Expeditions. See more here.) Originally I wrote this text for that post, but then it started to look too long and I cutted this part away. I hope you are interested in reading another post about writing a guidebook. I promise next week I’ll take you to Finnish Lapland, to see what June looks!


Non-fiction author as a profession

At least in Finland most non-fiction authors write their book manuscripts aside their paid profession. They work from eight am to four pm in their permanent job, and write on their own time, like evenings, nights, weekends, holidays. Why? Because they are so enthusiastic about what they are writing. Some may be able to use part of their working time to the book project.

That’s not what I do. Still after 18 years I am amazed that I am able to earn my income just by writing, and about one single topic: hiking. Well, I do have another profession beside being guidebook author, I am freelance journalist as well.

This combo works nicely for me. When I do research on, say, wilderness huts/national parks, I walk, ski or paddle to the huts/in the parks. I get the facts, and I get the pics, and these I use not only to make a guidebook, but also to produce magazine articles.

Making field research for book Lapsiperheen retkeilyopas (Family hiking) in Ruissalo, Turku.

Making field research for book Lapsiperheen retkeilyopas (Family hiking) in Ruissalo, Turku. I always take tons of pics, and maybe one or a handful gets into the book. And another one or handful find their ways into magazine articles.

Making field research for a book on wilderness huts. Reading the guest book entries in Korsatupa hut.

Making field research for a book on wilderness huts. Reading the guest book entries in Korsatupa hut gave me again some good citations to enliven the book. I have also written magazine articles about this hut and the ancient passageway via it.

You cannot get rich this way, but luckily that has never been my goal. I get paid enough to live modestly, and I get to do just what I want.

Now, talking about money, how does an author’s income build up? According to the publishing contract I get a percentage of each sold book. When converted to euros that is not much, and it is mostly paid only afterwards. Let’s take an example. I started to write Retkeilijän kansallispuistot (Finnish national parks for a hiker) in 2009. I finished the manuscript in the end of 2010, and the book was published in 2011. I got a small advance payment when I gave the manuscript to the publisher, but the first real payment I got in 2012, according to sales in year 2011.

One of the dozens of field research trips for book Retkeilijän kansallispuistot. This time we are in Archipelago NP.

One of the dozens of field research trips for Retkeilijän kansallispuistot. This time we are in Archipelago NP.

Pay day is very late for an author. In a way you have to think about this as an entrepreneur: If the book becomes a bestseller, you get a lot of money. But with non-fiction books written in a small language like Finnish this is not much possible.

My goal is naturally to make good books. I hope every one of them gets into 2nd edition or more. Not because of money, but because I want the publisher to be happy. That way they are more willing to make a contract with me when I present my next book idea.

Luckily this payment from publisher is not the only source of income. Grants are super important. The minus side is that you never know if you get any grants or maybe several. The plus sides are that you get the grant in advance, and the grants are usually larger than the payment from the publisher.

There’s a wonderful system of public libraries in Finland. During last few years a “library compensation” (my own translation for lainauskorvaus) has been introduced, and it adds a bit to the author’s yearly income.

As I earlier told, I am freelance journalist as well. I don’t write to newspapers, but only to monthly magazines. The stories are longer in magazines, and I have plenty of time to finish the articles. That’s what I like. From magazine articles I don’t need to wait years for the pay day, ‘only’ a couple of months.


Do you hope to write about hiking?

If you like writing and hiking and hope to combine them, I encourage you! Of course there is a lot of competition in trying to sell articles to outdoor magazines, and it is not easy to sell a book idea to a publisher, but if you want to do it, do try.

Do the preparations well:

  • Know the magazine you are going to offer your article. Read many articles, get the feel what kind of stories and pics they like. To whom are their articles intended?
  • Write as good an article as you can, get shining good pics, and don’t send it away quite yet. Let it rest for a while, maybe try to write another article in the meantime. Then return to your text and edit it.
  • Find out who is the correct person to receive your article-to-be. Do not send it to some general email address of the editing office of the magazine. Write a polite accompanying note and attach the text, and maybe pics as well. Never combine text and pics to same file. You probably won’t get a quick response. Wait for a while and then call to the person you sent the article suggestion.

Or if you have a book idea:

  • Of course you need to be real expert on your field. In addition to knowing your stuff, you have to know also what kinds of books there already are on your subject. What is the aim of your book? Why is it important? Why is it economically sound for the publisher? Who would buy it?
  • Create a detailed table of contents. Write example chapters. Do not hurry, edit your text, and write some more. Only then approach the publisher.
  • Again, do not send your book idea to a general address, but find out who would be the right person. For example call the telephone exchange of the publishing house and ask who works with books on this-and-that field.
  • Oh, and before that consider carefully which publishers to approach. Which ones have books in somewhat same field as your idea lies? For example go to library and find books near your subject. Who published them?
  • It is not probable that the first publisher says yes. Do not get disheartened. If you get feedback, improve the points you are pointed out. Try another, and another publisher. To become an author requires tenacity.

Or if you want to write be read, and getting paid is not important:

  • Start blogging! 🙂
  • You won’t get any money, but you can express your thoughts to an audience that is theoretically almost all of the world’s population. (I know some people can make money out of blogging, but it is rare, and not within my expertise.)
  • On the other hand blogging costs nothing. Unless you want to have more plug-ins and features, or a shorter blog address, but it’s your choice.

* * *

Next week  I’ll tell a story about testing physical limits, and about hiking in June in Lapland. Hiking is not normally about testing limits, but if done willingly, it can be both instructive and fun.


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