Remember when Livejournal and Geocities were a thing? Okay, hear me out. When you decided to share your opinions or thoughts etc. somewhere public where people could see it, these were two options. And more often than not, you went into it blind. Now we have so much information out there for us when we decide to start a blog. Who to host with, whether to go self-hosted or not, what hosting even means. There’s a plethora of information out there to help bloggers figure their way around things. And then once you get into blogging, once you start to love it, there comes the thought of ‘how can I do this all the time?’ And that’s where monetizing comes in.
As book bloggers, we’re doing a service for free right off the bat. Most often, no one is paying us to review books and moreover, there is a certain stigma attached to that. At best, we’re provided with ARCs (Advanced Reading Copies) which is fantastic. I mean, who wouldn’t want a free copy of a book they’re excited about before it even comes out? It’s kind of amazing. And it shows that the publisher or author cares about your opinion. But can you pay the bills with that? No way. There are a ton of options out there in terms of monetizing your book blog. Some are service based such as editing, copywriting, cover design, courses, etc. And some are product based like designing items for sale on Society6, creating handmade items on Etsy or selling clothing on a self-hosted service like Shopify or BigCommerce.
When I made the decision to start my own bookish business it was equal parts terrifying and exciting. But I didn’t have a lot to go on in terms of direction. If you read my May Round-Up post you’ll see that I shared my financial report as part of it. It was only until Briana @ Pages Unbound commented on the lack of transparency surrounding monetization of book blogs that I realized I wasn’t the only one having trouble finding my way around starting a bookish business.
And so I decided that I would start this “Can you Monetize a Book Blog?” series to share my journey in creating and maintaining a bookish business as well as monthly financial reports to help readers gauge the costs associated. There will be one post a month, at the beginning of the month with an accompanying financial report. My own experience will likely not be the same as others, as will my financial gains or upsets, but I hope that being transparent with these figures will encourage others within the community to share their own stories and stats and help others getting started.
Can you Monetize a Book Blog?…
Part One: Starting Out
Affiliate Links vs. Service or Product-based Business
It seems like the very first topic that comes up when you think about monetizing your blog is affiliate links. The way an affiliate link works is you sign up with a company like Amazon Associates, you write your book review, you set up your affiliate link on the review page, and if someone buys it you get money. Simple, right? When I started out my blog I had affiliate accounts for both Amazon and Indigo (Canadian-based bookstore) and religiously added the links after every review. Is this effective? Not really.
People have, however, cited success with more promotional based posts. For example, if you write a post all about how to set-up, use, and customer the Ultimate Book Blogger plugin and add a link under your affiliation then you have a much higher chance of convincing people to jump on that link. Do people actually make good money from this? I have no idea. I’ve never heard any book bloggers even really talk about using affiliate links, which seem to be more popular among bloggers who blog about blogging. But I can tell you that I didn’t make a single cent and all my affiliate accounts got deactivated . To my credit, I didn’t try very hard. I mean, passive income should be passive right?
All businesses need to start with an idea. What do you want to create? Who are you creating it for? Is this an original idea? First, you need to start with what you want to do, because if you start off with the mentality of only creating something on the basis of other people liking it, you’re going to come up against some problems later. I would say the same thing about blogging. Sure, you may get more clicks on memes than reviews, but if you don’t even like doing memes you’re taking the enjoyment out of your blog. And the same can be said of your business. I knew that I wanted to do something bookish/book related and I wanted to do shirts, and maybe later expand to things like totes, mugs, phone cases, etc. Clearly, this would be a product for book lovers or for family/friends looking for gifts for book lovers.
Now the hard part, how to be original. I find this to be the most difficult part of starting a business. How do you create something lots of people are making and stand out? One way is to look at the competition. Get onto Etsy, onto Society6, onto Google, and research the product you’re interested in creating. When I looked up book clothes I found a lot of inspiration but I also found a lot of copying. If I had a penny for every shirt with a deathly hallows symbol, or a ‘the book was better’ shirt… That’s not to say that these aren’t great ideas or designs, it’s that they’ve already been done and done to death.
Copyright infringement involves any violation of the exclusive rights of the copyright owner. It may be unintentional or intentional. When unintentional, it is called innocent infringement.
Copyright Infringement. (n.d.). Retrieved June 06, 2016, from http://legal-dictionary.thefreedictionary.com/copyright infringement
Then before you can continue with your idea you have to consider some things like copyright. I thought about doing quotes from books for awhile or taking pictures from book adaption movies and adding funny quotes. Except those things can easily fall under copyright infringement. I’m not a lawyer. I’m a researcher. I know there are a ton of people out there who put quotes from books into their designs that aren’t getting sued. The same way I know there are blogs out there using images they don’t necessarily have permission to use that aren’t getting sued. But then there’s a small minority of people that do. You have to decide if you want to gamble with that. And I decided that I didn’t.
In the end, the idea I came up with was my Character Sass Shirts. I imagine myself in the shoes of a character and create a little quote/line about how upset they are with their current situation. Then I take a free-for-commercial-use photo and I edit and manipulate it to resemble an image of a scene that might be in the book. Like for Harry Potter, I made a “When you just want to be a normal kid, but a half-giant comes along and tells you you’re a wizard.” Then to round things out, I did include the very much overdone Character Name shirts. I ended up doing these to create a familiar option for shoppers, but I’ve also done them for books that I didn’t see much character shirts for. Or I put a little twist on it, like the Harry Potter Character Name shirts/tanks. And finally, I created some original and punny bookish saying designs that I fancied up with some graphics for those more interested in colourful designs vs. the monotone of my other designs.
So you’ve got your idea, now how do you make it happen? This can be as simple as creating a checklist or as involved as an Excel spreadsheet with dates, goals, and deadlines. And this will be 100% custom to what you want to create. Somethings I thought about were:
- How will I design these? What program will I use? Do I need fonts or graphics? Can I use any graphics or fonts I buy in commercial products?
- How do I brand myself and my business?
- Where will I get the shirts/tanks? Will I need to buy wholesale? Who will print my designs?
- How will I ship my products? Can I ship internationally? How much will shipping cost?
- How will I advertise? How do I get people to see my products?
- How much will I sell or price my services for? How much will this cost me?
I would say that the main things you need to think about are 1. Branding 2. Production and Shipping (for physical products) 3. Advertising 4. Costs & Pricing.
The great thing about having a book blog is that you can brand yourself after something that already exists. I have seen people use their first name for their company and link to their blog, or use their blog name, or use a variation of their name. Whatever you decide for yourself, that brand is how you’re going to market your business. How you go about this is your own decision. When I first started my book blog I followed examples from Salted Ink and Elle & Co. to create a branding board so I had a format to follow. This is sooooo not necessary, but it’s helped me a lot. I mean, you may notice that I definitely don’t even use all the colours or graphics I created. And I’ve changed the logo a bit since then. The main point is to be consistent.
And once you have your branding design down, you have to decide how you want to spread your brand, rather that be through business cards, giveaways, stickers, temporary tattoos, etc. And don’t worry if you don’t have Illustrator or Photoshop, you can do a ton of things using Canva including business cards and social media. The only real ‘creative’ bit is if you want a logo.
Production and Shipping (for physical products)
How are you going to create your products? Once you make them, how are you going to get them to the customers? Where are you willing to ship? Who do you want to ship with?
A great way to determine what you need for production is to sit down and make a list of everything you need for your product. For example, in the case of my own shirts I needed:
- Blank wholesale shirts and tank tops
- Printer/Screenprinting service
- Adobe Illustrator for designs
And that was it. Some of you may not have a list this short or simple. For example, if I had planned to screen print the shirts by hand, my list would have been more lengthy:
- Blank wholesale shirts and tank tops
- Screen printing kit
- Inks for prints
- Exposure chemical
- Tarps for drying
- Cut Outs for each design
- Adobe Illustrator for designs
How your list looks is entirely dependent on your product. And beyond this, you have to think about how you’ll get this product to customers. Important considerations include package weight and reputation of the shipping company. In Canada, Canada Post has a terrible history for shipping and often is very expensive for tracking. You may decide whether you do, or don’t want tracking, but honestly, I would recommend it. Tracking not only helps your customer know where their product is, it also helps protect you from scammers. Aka people who receive your product, claim not to, open a dispute on Paypal/Etsy/Shopify/Whatever and then you have no tracking to prove otherwise and get forced to give refunds. It isn’t a nice thought, but it happens.
How are you going to let people know about your shop/services? What social media will you use? Should you consider paid advertising?
Personally, I find advertising to be the most difficult, painful, and frustrating aspect of creating an online shop/service. This is the part where you have to get into selling and find ways to convince people that your product has value and that they should want it. This starts by deciding what makes your product valuable. Why should they buy this from you? And then you have to take this reason and present in an appealing way. Or otherwise, you can specifically market to a particular group of people, your niche as it were. For my own business, I use mock-up images of the shirts to present the value and appeal to book lovers or people looking for gifts for book lovers. If you’re advertising a service like editing/web design, your value may be previous clients you’ve worked with, a portfolio, or a resume/CV detailing your credentials. And just a one sentence sound bite would be enough to advertise to potential clients.
Social media would be the number one free way to advertise your business. If you already have a significant following that will make things even easier for you. And if you don’t have a huge following you can build one up with an event like a giveaway where entries are following your social accounts. This way you gain new followers and you put your product out there. The important bit is to stay active on these platforms so the people that followed you actually continue to follow you. That and follow people back! I’ve definitely noticed a correlation between the number of people you follow and the number of followers you have. And then afterward be consistent with advertising. If you can afford it, offer coupon codes.
And finally, paid advertising. Should you bother? Is it useful? To be honest, I’m on the fence myself with paid advertising. The difficulty with it is that you’re inserting yourself into someone’s social media channel when they haven’t actively followed you. For some people this will be an instant turn-off. It’s like a pop-up that you have to do more work to click out of. On the other hand, if you reach someone new that looks at what you have, is interested, and clicks through, then you’ve gained a follower you might not have had originally. Personally, I would recommend trying a paid advertising campaign, read through your stats, and decide if it’s worth it for you. Through Facebook Ads, for example, you can create a responsive ad that even goes through to Instagram with a budget of $30. It’s not expensive to at least try and see. I will say that I checked my shop stats in the past week when I ran a Facebook Ad campagin 95% of visitors came from Facebook and only 5% from Twitter where I use no paid ads, advertise myself, and am an active member.
Costs and Pricing
How much is it going to cost you to create your product? What are the one-time fees and the reoccurring fees? How much will you get from selling your product? Is the markup worth the cost?
Something I learned very early on was that it was not feasible for me to have my shirts locally printed and ship from my home. Why? Because it costs about $25 or so dollars to get a shirt screen printed where I live, not including set-up fees (around $50) and then a minimum order size of around 20 shirts. So I would have to spend $500 up front, for a single design, in a single shirt colour and style, and hope to God that someone wants it. Yeah, a little too high risk.
This is the exact reason, I’m sure, that people look to print-on-demand suppliers like Society6 and Redbubble. You can just set up your design and let it ship out as orders come in. The drawback, at least for Society6, is that you cannot control the markup on items other than art prints. Items like t-shirts, mugs, throw pillows, etc. have a set markup price that you cannot change. On top of this, you will be competing with every other person selling on the site, as will Etsy. Or if you decide to sell products using your own self-hosted website (as I am with Shopify) then you have only your items available, but you don’t have the existing customer platform. And I will tell you right now, without that platform it is super hard to drive traffic to your site, and it is more expensive upfront.
You have to decide what it will cost to make and ship each of your items and determine your pricing from there. Or otherwise, you have to decide if a lower markup and competition is worth it to you. You choose what risks you want to take for what reward. BUT! And this is important, if you decide to use an outside manufacturer (e.g. a printer or outside silk screener) you must apply to do so if you want to be on Etsy. And yes, you can get rejected after four weeks of waiting. Guess who that happened to? This girl.
For a service like cover design or editing, you will also need to decide if you want to do a per hour fee or a flat rate. The beauty of a flat rate is that customers may feel that it’s much lower risk to them, and you know exactly what your payout will be. But what if you design a cover for $100, and then you have to make 5 additional revisions before the client is happy? After those revisions is it worth it anymore?
Something else to consider in pricing is what costs are you willing to absorb? For example, if you offer free shipping to customers are you going to add that shipping cost to the product price? Or will you accept that as a cost? The same with discount codes. When I decided to open my shop I thought the first week I might do a 10% discount code. Except with a markup of roughly $4, just a 10% coupon code would have me making about $1 per shirt. This is even lower than the Society6 $2 t-shirt markup. And starting out, that wasn’t a cost I could absorb.
And the final step, once you have your idea and your plan, is to start executing your plan. This may mean adding a “services” page to your book blog with details about a service you offer, previous work, and contact information. Or, like me, this may mean setting up an online store, uploading products, creating business accounts, etc.
Whatever it is, just get out there and do it. If you plan and plan forever, the goal can start to get away from you. Starting any business will be risky, whether that’s high or low risk, but if you don’t start it you’ll never know how well you could do.
May Financial Report
I included this financial report as part of my May Round-Up, but I figured I would include it here in this series as well. I’ll start this off by saying I honestly struggled with whether or not to post this. Every time I’ve seen a financial report done by a blogger it’s always been a culmination of stats ending in them making upwards of $50,000 with their business. Except whenever I’ve read those reports it felt so impossible. How could I ever reach that? It’s never felt like a realistic representation of how it is for an everyday normal stats blogger to achieve business goals. And so I decided that even though I’ve just started out, and have made zero (that’s right, zero) sales, I would share this. And yes, there is a tiny part of me screaming ‘OMG stop, everyone’s going to realize you’re a failure,’ but I’m doing it anyway. And maybe next month I’ll have even more losses and I’ll call it quits, or maybe I’ll have some gains to report. Either way, I’ll be showing from start to finish, a journey of trying to monetize a book blog. And I would encourage any book bloggers with a business to share their own stats if they feel comfortable doing so. Okay, I’ll stop droning on now…
Website hosting** – $ 9.26
Buffer** – $ 12.90
Simple Share Buttons* – $ 12.92
Short Pixel Bulk Image Optimizer – $ 13.18
Iron-On Shirt Labels + Sticker Giveaways – $ 71.57
Business Cards – $ 28.99
Sample Shirts/Tanks – $ 72.57
Graphics – $ 36.83
Graphics Commercial License – $ 31.71
Fonts – $ 6.66
Shopify Membership** – $ 43.90
Royal Bank of Canada Chequing Account** – $11.99
Total Costs = $ 352.48
LT Librarian Apparel – $ 0
Total Revenue = $ 0
Profit* = $ -352.48
*all values in CAD
**I’ve put re-occurring costs in bold. These costs occur each month.
Read the next post in this series Part Two: Branding + June Financial Report right now
If you’re interested in seeing what my shop LT Librarian Apparel has to offer, click the logo below:
PS: ALL merch is now under $30
Can you successfully monetize a book blog? Have you ever thought about it?
What would you want to see featured next month? E.g. logo creation, Shopify tutorial, etc.