Saturday, October 9, 2010

You can sell the same words more than once.

When I was in Mrs. McGarthy's class in fifth grade, each student had to choose an American president to write a report on. I don't remember why, but I picked James Buchanan. It may have been because I was a stamp collector and had a "plate block" of three-cent stamps showing Buchanan's home, Wheatland, which was issued in 1954.

Buchanan was the 15th president, serving from 1857–1861, right before Lincoln. I don't remember much more about him. He was the only president from Pennsylvania and the only non-married president.

Buchanan's significance to me greatly outweighs my knowledge of him, because that report became the source of a valuable lesson that has served me well for over fifty years: You can sell the same words more than once.

When I was a school kid, I wasn't selling words for money as I did later, but I did have to convince my teachers of the value of my words to get good marks, so the processes were related. Then and now, it's good to maximize income and minimize effort.

The Buchanan report I wrote for fifth grade was subsequently improved, modified and lengthened and submitted to my teachers in sixth, seventh and ninth grade, plus my junior year in high school, and for an American Studies course in college.

I also wrote a report on Warren Harding and used it in two classes. I think my brother recycled it, too.

Ironically, U. S. News & World Report ranks Buchanan as the worst president ("He refused to challenge either the spread of slavery or the growing bloc of states that became the Confederacy.") and Harding as second-worst ("He was an ineffectual and indecisive leader who played poker while his friends plundered the U.S. treasury."). Was there a sunconscious pattern to my picking?

After college, as a freelance writer, I often sold variations of the same article to multiple magazines with different audiences, such as Rolling Stone and Country Music, or Esquire and Ingénue.

It works the same way with books.

A year ago, I published Become a Real Self-Publisher: don't be a victim of a vanity press, which was written for people who don’t use self-publishing companies. In the middle of this month, a spinoff--aimed at writers who do use self-publishing companies--will go on sale. It's called Get the Most out of a Self-Publishing Company: Make a better deal. Make a better book. I'm also updating the original book for publication by the end of the year as Independent Self Publishing: the complete guide. This weekend I started another spinoff, Brainy Beginner's Guide to Self-Publishing, aimed at writers who are unsure of their path to publication. Parts of the first book were also used in my Stupid, Sloppy, Sleazy book about Outskirts Press.

All of those books include material originally posted on my blogs, and some material written for my books eventually shows up on my blogs.

Look at what you've already written and figure out how you can Recycle, reuse, repurpose, revise, sequelize and serialize.

My first book about phone equipment has had two spinoffs, and two more are coming.

My funny memoir has had one spinoff, so far.

Many thousands of books reach readers without booksellers. They are distributed—sometimes for free—by entities that want information or opinions circulated. These “special sales” can generate high profits, with no risk of returns.

A book you’ve already written may be perfect for use by an association, corporation, government, charity, foundation, university or a political party. Perhaps a book you’ve written needs just slight changes and perhaps a new title and cover to become perfect. Maybe information in your book is fine, but the book needs a new point of view or emphasis. Make a deal.

(Buchanan portrait is public domain, from the White House)


  1. I like this idea but can't see how it would work for fiction writers. Would it?

  2. To Patricia:

    You have fewer options than with nonfiction, but you do have some options.

    As long as you control the copyrights, you can reuse any book parts you want. Consider selling a few chapters as a short story, or building a new novel that springs from the characters in an existing one.

    This is frequently done on TV.

    NCIS came from JAG. NCIS Los Angeles came from NCIS. Mork and Mindy, Laverne & Shirley, Blansky's Beauties and Joanie Loves Chachi came from Happy Days. Maude and SIX other shows came from All in the Family. Flo came from Alice. The Mary Tyler Moore show led to Rhoda, Lou Grant and Phyllis.

    This has been going on for 50 years, and there are probably hundreds of examples.

    Also--maybe you previously conceived a story line or characters and rejected them--but maybe they can be revived.

    Maybe characters who exist separately in one book can come together in another book.

    Look at your characters and pick some who deserve starring roles in a new book(s).

    You can also rewrite one of your books, perhaps eliminating and adding some characters and writing a new ending. Give it a new title and very different cover. In the front matter, explain that some of the material previously appeared in "book name."

    Although it's mostly nonfiction, my funny memoir "Stories I'd Tell My Children (but maybe not until they're adults)" is an update of an earlier version I wrote primarily for friends and family.