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Cracking the Code: The True Return on Your Investment in a Thought Leadership Book

Author: Eric Schurenberg, Amplify Publishing Group Editor-in-Chief, Former CEO of Inc. and FastCompany

When I talk to first-time authors about creating a book with Amplify, one question inevitably arises: “Will my book sell enough copies to make a positive return on my investment?” I don’t think it’s the right question, exactly, but I get it. So, I give the author a choice of two replies: the strictly factual one and the useful one.

The factual answer is that sales depend on a host of imponderables. To name a few: the breadth of your book’s audience appeal at the time of publication; the size and devotion of your following; the elbow grease you’re willing to put into marketing; the presence or absence of competitive titles at the time of release; and the book’s staying power over time. Because Amplify’s policy on bulk sales is particularly favorable to authors (you keep 85 percent of the cover price versus 70 percent at the typical competitor), another factor is how likely your book is to win bulk sales.

Still, let’s be honest: Bestsellers are vanishingly rare. If your main reason for writing is to get rich off of book sales alone, you’re playing some mighty long odds.

There is a more useful answer, though, and it starts with another question: For you, what really counts as return? You would not be reading this post if you didn’t already believe

a) that you have knowledge others find valuable and

b) that you get personal satisfaction out of deepening that knowledge and sharing it.

I’ve seen how instrumental a book can be in raising an author’s profile and burnishing their reputation. I’ve seen that building a personal brand delivers significant financial return. I’ve also seen how deeply fulfilling it can be for an author to research, build unique knowledge, and deliver a book that serves a personal mission. In other words, if you can measure success by something other than the cash registers at Amazon or Barnes & Noble, let’s talk.

Start by thinking about what a book is. It is a sustained, deep crystallization of the unique ideas and perspectives you bring to the world. Even in a digital world, a book carries magic. It has an impact. It changes minds. And it endures in a way that more transitory content can’t. Think of the books that have moved you. In the business world, Good to Great, The Big Short, Moneyball, and The Hard Thing About Hard Things are still quoted today, decades after their launch. In personal growth, Don’t Sweat the Small Stuff and Daring Greatly still inspire years after publication. You can’t say the same about those authors’ decades-old blog posts or podcast episodes.

The very effort involved in creating a book solidifies any existing reputation you have as an expert and can actually create a new identity, which can have a powerful payoff. Take, for example, David Pachter, a serial entrepreneur whose book Remote Leadership discusses how business leaders can embrace a remote workforce and build a company culture to support it. The book landed just as the COVID-19 pandemic dispersed workers to home offices, and publications like Time, Forbes, and Business Insider devoured it. In an instant, Pachter became more than just a small business executive. The book and the exposure it triggered established him as an oft-quoted thinker on one of the most powerful trends in workplace management.

Even without a media splash, a book can serve as a calling card—a memorable way to establish both your credibility and your unique ideas. Alisa Cohn, a top-ranked executive coach, introduces herself not by naming the CEOs she has coached but by name-dropping her book From Start-up to Grown-up. She explains, “In a matter of seconds, the book cements my credibility—because a book gives you credibility like nothing else—and my area of expertise, which is helping startup founders make the journey to full-fledged CEO.” Since the book was published, Alisa has found herself forced to turn away business from start-up founders eager to get her guidance on their journey.

More than just a calling card or a repository of your ideas, a book can be the source for a whole platform of ancillary thought-leadership content, including webinars, online courses, social media newsletters, and podcasts. For example, Ben Lytle, the visionary former CEO of healthcare provider Anthem, mined his book The Potentialist to create a three-part webinar series about the future of higher education. Kate Purmal reengineered whole chapters from the audio version of her personal development book, Composure, into podcast episodes. If listeners liked what they heard, they could order the audiobook. The added exposure reinvigorated sales of Composure, which in turn sparked other business for Purmal. “As more people began to get the book in their hands,” she says, “I began to get new inbound opportunities for speaking, executive coaching, and hosting internal corporate programs and workshops.”

More than anything else, the investment you make in a book is an investment in yourself. It is a bet that the hard-won knowledge you have acquired in your life—the stories you have to tell and the ideas you have to share—is of value to others. If you’re right about that, the financial ROI can manifest in any number of ways besides book sales, as it has for many Amplify authors. A book is also a bet that you will find satisfaction in assembling your knowledge and life experience into one coherent work of literary art. If you’re right about that, the ROI there may be harder to quantify, but it’s real. There’s only one way to find out.

Eric Schurenberg is Amplify Publishing Group’s editor-in-chief and a media executive, award-winning journalist, and the former CEO of Mansueto Ventures, the owner of Inc. and Fast Company media properties.

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