How I Didn’t Make a Million Dollars Running a Book Blog

No MoneyRecently Martin Crosbie wrote a post where he talked a bit about money, communes, and paying it forward. In that article he raised some questions about the fine balance between ethics, money, and the reasonable desire to make a buck or two. The article generated some good discussion in the comments. Another discussion away from IU about the economics of running a website made me realize that many people don’t understand the financial reality. This post is going to discuss this, a bit about monetization of a blog or website, and give a hint for what readers can do to support the websites they like and frequent.

I’ll start with the expense side. It’s possible to start and run a website or blog with minimal expenses. At least in theory the expenses could be nothing. Blogger allows you to setup a basic blog for nothing. But if you’d prefer people visit your site at www.mygreatblog.com instead of mygreatblog.blogspot.com, you’ll have an expense to register a domain name. Additional capability and flexibility all come at a price. A more typical blog or website done on a shoestring might involve domain registration, website hosting, and possibly the purchase of some plugins or a theme to add functionality or improve the look and feel of the site. It’s possible to nickel and dime yourself into the poor house, but realistically you can easily cover the basics for a couple hundred dollars a year. Viewed as a hobby, this is relatively cheap.

On the revenue side of the ledger, there are a few ways to generate income. Those I’ve come up with fall into five broad categories. Display advertising, other advertising promotions, affiliate income, direct sale of products, and sale of other services. I’m curious if anyone reading can think of potential sources of revenue I’ve missed. How much revenue a website generates is always going to have some relation to the number of eyeballs you attract, with other factors playing a part. Not all of these five categories are suitable for all websites.

I’m quickly going to discuss the last two. They’re related in that they’re both selling something directly, either a product (generally one you produce) or as advertising for a service you provide. There are bloggers out there who claim to make a six-figure income from blogging. From what I can see, most of their income comes from one of these two items. It might be a $25 PDF eBook on “how to make eleventy-bazillion dollars blogging” or selling their consulting services on how to make big bucks as a blogger. For IU’s audience, these might take the form of selling your books directly (autographed paper copies or possibly eBook downloads allowing you to keep the 30% that Amazon would otherwise get) or advertising your services as an editor, proofreader, or blog tour host. I also view these as using the website to support another business, not a case of the website as money maker. Neither of these is practical and, in many instances, is also not suitable for a typical book-oriented website.

The other three categories are all practical for a bookish oriented website. Depending on the specifics of your site, advertising can be tricky. Blogger makes it easy to have display advertising using Google Adsense. You define where ads go on your page, what size they should be, and they’ll serve up ads with no effort on your part. They do a good job of matching blog content to the kind of ads that go on your site, which can be good or bad. As L.A. Lewandowski explained in her post My Perception is My Reality earlier this year, this may result in running advertising for Kirkus Reviews, Author Solutions, and the like. How much you’ll make from Adsense is dependent upon the amount of traffic to your site and, with some ads, whether anyone clicks on the ad. Position of ads may or may not figure directly into revenue, but definitely influences it. The money adds up, but not very fast. My best day was just shy of $50 in revenue, but that was with over 200,000 page views. For a typical site this is usually going to generate revenue in the single or double digits. (That’s in a month, not a day.)

Another option is direct selling ads. These may be display advertising that look just like what Google Adsense would serve up, or it could be some other paid promotion (being “featured” on a site in some fashion), the form of advertising Indies Unlimited sells. What the market will bear depends on your reach. Scanning what IU charges for their promotional opportunities and some quick back of the envelope math tells me this isn’t going to make anyone rich. Assuming IU has these priced right, you’ll want to keep in mind that what you would be able to charge might not be as much if your site isn’t in the top 50,000 websites globally. The upside to this approach is that you’re getting 100% of what the advertiser is paying and have complete control over what is advertised on your site. The downside is, managing this is a lot of work for someone. (If Kat tells me this task is going to be assigned to me, she’ll have my minion resignation letter via email in seconds.)

I suggested Project Wonderful as an alternative to Adsense in a recent post. This has the advantage of giving you more control over your advertisers. For sites that don’t get enough traffic to justify a price that would cover the time required to manage the direct sale of ads, this might be the way to go.

How advertising is going to be perceived and what you’re willing to advertise is going to depend on your site. IU has an extensive and time-consuming vetting process to insure the books we’re helping promote are worthy. I struggled with accepting advertising for my review site, eventually deciding that if it is obviously an ad, that people would understand it wasn’t an endorsement, although I do reject ads for some businesses that seem shady such as vanity presses.

The last item is affiliate sales. If you feature books, you probably link people to the appropriate sales page on a retailer’s site. Maybe multiple retailers. If you do this, you should become an affiliate of that retailer. The lovely Ms Brooks has a tutorial for Amazon affiliates that should help with this. As an affiliate you’ll earn a percentage of whatever someone buys for a period after going to the retailer using one of the specially coded links on your site. Not only will you get a cut if they buy the book you sent them to look at, but you’ll get a cut of the Kibbles and Bits, vibrator, and brand new car they buy while there. (Amazon is called The Everything Store, so they must have cars somewhere.) You don’t even have to be endorsing something to link to it and potentially make money. My biggest affiliate month ever was the money I made from people going to Amazon from a negative review and buying something else. (Items I got credit for that month included a set of computer speakers, a breast pump, and three new Kindles.)

All of these methods of monetizing are worthwhile, because a trickle of money for something you’d be doing anyway is a bonus. However, the reality for most book sites like IU and both sites I run (the big promotion sites like Bookbub being the obvious exceptions) are that a reasonable goal for most is to cover expenses. The best month ever on my review blog generated revenue that was about 5% of my day job salary. Even with a 200,000 page view day and over half a million visits in a month. I’d be thrilled with that much traffic every month, but even then, quitting the day job wouldn’t be an option.

For those who have made it this far, you’re probably wondering why people run review websites or Indies Unlimited. The answer is going to vary, but those who are in it for the money aren’t around for long. However, a little money is always welcome. If you’re going to shop at Amazon, go there by clicking a link on a site you’d like to support. Those little trickles of cash are also a sign that people are visiting and paying attention to what you have to say (one of the non-monetary rewards that keep most sites going). And if you’re in the market for a new car, I know just the site you should visit first.

Author: Big Al

Big Al (who insists he only has one name, like Cher, Sting, and Madonna) spends his days writing computer programs that are full of typos, homonym errors, and incorrect verb usage. During his evenings, he writes reviews of indie books for BigAl’s Books and Pals and has recently taken over The IndieView, a website founded by indie author Simon Royle as a resource for indie authors, indie reviewers, and those who read either.

17 thoughts on “How I Didn’t Make a Million Dollars Running a Book Blog”

  1. Al, excellent post, and very illuminating. I’m afraid many folks think there is money to be had with blogs (like with publishing books), yet the big money-maker is rare. All that we do in this industry is hard work with generally a modest payoff, but as you say, we don’t do it for the money. Thanks for a very interesting article.

    1. Thanks, Lynne. When I lived in Minneapolis and friend and I promoted some small concerts (essentially a “house concert” for those familiar with these, but in a venue other than our house). We weren’t doing it to make money (it was structured so we couldn’t), but to get people we wanted to see perform to come up from Texas, plus support some of our local favorite acts. He used to have a saying that “to make a small fortune in the music business you had to start with a large fortune.” This is kind of the same thing. 🙂

  2. Great information Al. Especially about the affiliates links. That’s an easy way to support a site. Our school’s PTA uses it, and it’s their biggest passive fundraiser ($1,300 last year just by getting parents to start their Amazon shopping experience at the PTA’s website).

    I think people see these big name sites that regularly get millions of hits, saying how they do this for a living. Well, that’s just not most sites. It would be like basing your writing career expectations on Stephen King’s or JK Rowling’s career. Getting enough people to come to your site to cover hosting costs is a major win for most sites, in my opinion. If you’re lucky enough to be an outlier like King or Rowling, booyah! But, you can’t count on it.

    As an aside, you piqued my curiosity and Amazon does not sell cars you or I would want, but they do have some awesome cars for kids.

    1. Thanks, RJ. That is a great fund raiser idea. If only everyone with kids in the school would do that when shopping at Amazon they’d make a lot more.

      I do believe there are bloggers out there making a good living at it, but they decide where to focus their content based on that as the primary goal. One of the sites on blogging I sometimes visit, the guy has a photography blog where affiliate money can add up quickly with the items he features. A percentage of a 99 cent or 2.99 kindle book, it doesn’t add up that fast. (I should hasten to add that the way Amazon works, you get a higher percentage based on the number of items sold through an affiliate for the month, so even those help, not only a few cents, but also to increase the percentage on everything.)

  3. Good topic.
    It’s definitely important to have your own domain. Having had a LOT of experience with that, much of it negative. (My first forum was under attack from day one and has completely removed three times before I set up my own domain, my domain registrar went out of business and refused to release registration, other jollies) If you are on a free blog service, they can go out of business. They can also delete your blog if you violate anything that don’t like. If anybody threatens to sue them (and there have been lawsuits over BAD REVIEWS lately) they will dump you in a minute. You aren’t paying them anything… why should they risk money loss over your?
    You can do it for like a hundred bucks a year. Don’t register your domain with the same outfit as your host. If you host goes down, you can move. If your registrar goes down, you’re in serious trouble. Don’t register with GoDaddy… they are rotten jerks. Don’t scrimp on domain registration. You’re talking about a difference of a dollar a month. Go with solid registrars.
    Anybody interested in making a few bucks off their blog should check with the online serial community. They have schemed up about anything you can’t think of. Project Wonderful is almost ubiquitous among blog-presented serial fiction. But there are a lot of other things going on, and they’ve tried them all and few besides. Monetizing RSS feed is a biggie: ads, Feedblitz-type companies, subscrtiptions. Adsense is considered passe and obnoxious, but there are a lot of alternatives. Several listed here http://www.feedforall.com/advertising-in-rss.htm . My fellow humorist Barry Parham recently put his blog on a paid subscription basis. You have to REALLY be worthwhile to get people to pay to view, but it’s working for him and some others I know of.
    One device peculiar to online serials shows how you can be creative if you put your mind to it. The model is called “Serial+” Your blog is free, but every episode has a box saying, essentially, “This story will run for 27 more weeks… but you can buy the complete ebook right now for $2.99.”
    Some blogs are provided by email–essentially a structured mailing list where people get the installments and you get their mail addresses. This is basically a variation on “content marketing”, where you provide content in return for building your list.

  4. Thanks, Al, I always wondered how the money side of things worked, or didn’t. lol
    With visitors in the hundreds not thousands, there doesn’t seem to be much point in trying to monetize, plus I have a vague memory that wordpress.com doesn’t allow it. Could be wrong about that though. Does anyone know?

    1. You can monetize links, that’s no problem at all. And the rest of it depends on some of what Lin Robinson said in his comment about having your own host and domain.

      1. I think what you’re talking about is the free WordPress sites, AC. Their TOS has something that forbids commercial sites (I forget the exact verbiage). Exactly what qualifies is vague and they’ve said very little to clarify it. I was all set when I started Books and Pals to have it be on WordPress.com (the “free” WordPress place), but stumbled onto this and was concerned enough to change plans. I thought it was unlikely it was a problem, but their verbiage was vague enough that I thought it would be hard to argue if they chose to interpret it that way. You’ll get different views on what is or isn’t allowed and how big a risk you’re running if you have affiliate links.

        A WordPress based blog (such as The IndieView or, I’m fairly sure, Indies Unlimited) that is on a paid host doesn’t have that concern.

  5. I’ve been trying to make a point of going through someone’s website affiliate links when I’m planning on making a purchase on Amazon. BigAl, you may have noticed a couple of baby boy outfits in the last few weeks purchased through yours. And a KF HDX 7″ cover with a bluetooth keyboard. 🙂

    1. I see them, MP. Thanks, for both the comment and the support. You’re saying the vibrator wasn’t you? I’ll bet I know who that was. 🙂

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