Wednesday, April 16, 2014

How Much Is a Reader Worth?

Greetings all, John J. Horn here.

How much is a reader worth?

No, not “How much is it worth to you that someone is reading your book?”

How much is a reader worth? (Think dollar signs.)

Before you decide that I’m a heartless moneygrubber, and before you start marshaling your arguments for the age-old Art vs. Commerce debate, let’s take a step back.

Would you like to make a living writing books? Most authors, including me, answer yes to this question. It’s a goal that most of us won’t achieve, but that shouldn’t prevent us from thinking through the numbers just as we would for any other career or business venture.

My day job is marketing. Although I’m not a numbers guy, I have to deal with numbers every day, so I decided to apply some cold, heartless, emotion-void number calculating to the book world. Ready to join me? Here goes . . .

How Much Is a Reader Worth?

Let’s call your first reader “Charlie”.

Let’s call your first book “Epic”. (Remember, I’m in marketing . . .)

Let’s say that your book costs $10.

Charlie plunks down the ten required greenbacks to buy Epic. He reads Epic under his covers until his flashlight batteries die, then tries the old Bach trick of reading by moonlight. His eyes will probably pay for this in thirty years, but that’s not the point. The point is that Charlie loves your book — and he wants to tell his friends about it.

So Charlie tells James and Stuart about Epic.

James and Stuart buy Epic for $10. 2 x $10 = $20.

James and Stuart love Epic and each tells two of their friends (I’ll stop naming people here for brevity’s sake).

2 x 2 = 4 x $10 = $40.

Those dollar signs are starting to pile up, right?

Hold On . . .

Before we keep going, let’s analyze our assumptions and make sure our numbers are realistic.

Will each of your readers recommend your book to 2 people, and will each of those people buy it? No. But, considering that one person could easily recommend your book to 200 people by posting about it on Goodreads and Facebook, I think that an average of 2 recommendations per reader is actually pretty low and completely reasonable.

Let’s also remember that it takes time to read a book. So, let’s say that after Charlie’s all-night reading session, each new person takes a month to read Epic and only recommends it to 2 people.

Back to the Numbers

In the first month, Charlie was worth $30 ($10 for his copy of Epic plus $20 for James’s and Stuart’s.)
James and Stuart recommend the book to 4 people in month #2, so that’s $40.

Those 4 people recommend Epic to 8 people (4 x 2) in month #3, so that’s $80.

Do you see a pattern? Each month the number of readers and the gross value of the books purchased doubles.

One, two, skip a few . . .

12 months after Charlie read Epic, he and his friends have bought 1024 books with a gross value of $10,240.

Suddenly, getting Charlie to read your book looks like a pretty big deal.

But we’re not finished.

The Power of Upselling

“Upselling” is the idea that once someone has purchased something from you, you can more easily sell them a related service or product. Applied to our example, when you come out with book #2, it’s likely that Charlie and his friends will want to read it also. (We’ll call book #2 “More Epic”.)

For argument’s sake, only 50% of the people who read Epic buy More Epic. That’s 512 people. Gross value of $5,120.

Now all 512 people start telling their friends about More Epic. And each year you come out with another book.

I’ll let you do the math on your own, but the numbers get real big, real fast.

All because of Charlie.

The Moral of the Story

1. Write an amazing book.

All of these numbers are predicated on the idea that Epic is so amazing that everyone wants to recommend it. Hopefully you’re reading Word Painters for tips on writing amazing books, so keep reading here and everything else you can get your hands on!

2. Never underestimate how much a reader is worth.

If I had told you that it would take $20 of marketing spend to get Charlie to read your book, you would have said “no way.” Spending $20 to make $10 won’t get you far. But spending $20 to make $10,240 in a year . . . that changes the picture a little.

Caveat: We’re talking about gross value here, not net. You’re probably not making $10 profit for each book you sell. On the other hand, most books retail higher than $10, so Charlie’s gross value to you could potentially be much higher.

What do you think? Do you disagree with my numbers? Have any fun stats of your own to share? Leave a comment!

John J. Horn is a Christian writer from San Antonio, Texas. Learn more about John and his Men of Grit series and sign up for his newsletter at


  1. Good statistics. Few people like to think about the math involved, but it is important!

    But, yeah, we're not making $10 profit! Not when you have a publisher and retailers who have to get their chunk. And ebooks are so big now - most of my sales are from Kindle. And it's important to remember that even if each of your friends recommends a book, most readers have to hear about a book 8 times before they buy it. Just a thought to add to the figures...

    Thanks for this practical, marketing post!

  2. Micaiah R. KeoughApril 17, 2014 at 2:08 PM

    Great post! Thanks!

  3. Very interesting post. Number-crunching is probably not done enough in artistic fields.

    And when you consider the $10,240 that is brought to the table, hosting a giveaway (free publicity), in which Charlie gets the book for $0 in the first place . . . well, that looks more like a great gain than a loss. :)

  4. Thank you for this. It is a good reminder for us writers about valuing our readers.


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