Can you make money from an “orphan” book?

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People ask me that a lot, usually when I’m giving a seminar about publishing. I presume they ask it because they are one book deep.

Incidentally, an “orphan” book is a stand-alone, in a field without support products or other books to promote along with it. Like a publisher of fly fishing books releasing a singular tome about stud poker or cat whispering.

We have a long-earning, very successful “orpan” but I’m always reluctant to go into details because it’s wiser to bunch up books or products that are related so one sells another.

Or at least that was the case (and probably still is the best advice) before “ancillary publishing” came along and made it fast and almost free to publish your book. (That’s what I explain in How to Get Your Book Published Free in Minutes and Marketed Worldwide in Days.)

I’ll tell you the story. The book in question is Treasure and Scavenger Hunts: How to Plan, Create, and Give Them. It’s now in its third bound and fourth digital editions.

When I was in college, in the knicker era, a fraternity member where I waited tables asked if I knew how to lay out a treasure hunt. I asked why. He said that his brothers had a mixer scheduled with a sorority and they had promised a treasure hunt, but none of them had been on one. He also mentioned $20 if they could get one done by the next day. I was an instant $20 expert!

By the end of that year I averaged a couple of hunts a weekend, for $25 each. There were 56 fraternities and 28 sororities at the University of Illinois then, and I guess they talked to each other because I never spent a penny advertising.

I also quickly discovered that I needed hunts where nobody picked up clues–because the first team there would just pocket the others’ clues!

About 20 years and 100+ hunts later I was in a publishing lull, had three weeks open, and thought it might be fun to write up the process, get some artwork and a cover, and release the how-to mystery to the world.

It took longer to get the cartoon-like drawings than write the 140-page text, but about five weeks later out came the first edition.

It was a tough little critter to sell in volume. Bookstores didn’t know where to put it, it was hard to promote as a stand-alone, and soon I got involved publishing a new niche line.

Yet the book somehow found its own buyers, and I still get a weekly order from Amazon.com. Mostly, the digital copy gets downloaded since folks who Google and find it seem to have their party a day or two later! And there are party planners, tour hosts, cruise directors, and school teachers who apparently tell each other…

It earned about $800 the first year, then kept increasing to about $10,000 annually until a couple of years back, and now it’s back to the $800 level again. It may have topped six figures. I’ve lost the exact amount from the early years.

I know: it’s a lousy example to share, and that I should have vigorously marketed it, or at least given it diligent promotion. Except it was always the least promising book in the herd, and it seemed to do okay on its own.

So I can hardly encourage my hungry listeners to do as I did, particularly when the Niche Publishing system is so much more rewarding and far easier to explain!

But if you have a book, write and publish it. Be more creative in its marketing. The important thing is that you wrote and published a book, and your genius is exposed for others to use and appreciate. And it might even, despite itself, linger around forever and bring a healthy sinecure!

What did I do to deserve such a generous but forgotten book? I’ve mostly just kept it in stock, with a website link and order page. It’s even less demanding now with digital download and P.O.D. printing–though today it’s on my mind because I just ordered 150 more copies the day before Thanksgiving.

I’m also thinking, again, for the 20th time in 20 years, of getting serious about this lovely “orphan.” Yet it’s still as baffling to promote as it was before.

So that’s why I don’t mention it in my seminars, unless asked. Nor boast much about it, though it probably put both of my girls through college.

It’s turned into my own quiet, hidden treasure. The best kind of wee treasure: it finds me!

Best wishes,

Gordon Burgett

P.S. I talk about more substantive things in my newsletter, free and monthly. You can also see a few of my other non-niche, “orphan” products at www.gordonburgett.com/order3.htm.

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