The State of the Poker Book Industry

I recently heard my friend and poker hero Tony "Tikay" Kendall (For those that know us both, that is not a piss take, he genuinely is someone I look up to) is planning to write a book. I have no idea whether it will be poker related, but I for one will be buying it. 
The whole thing got me thinking that for all the poker media advice I have been writing on this blog, the one thing I haven't really discussed is poker books. 

I have written a poker book, in case I haven't spammed it enough already, I am the co-author of The Mental Game of Poker with Jared Tendler. It was one of the hardest, but most enjoyable and gratifying things I have ever done. I'm delighted to say it has been both a critical and commercial success for us, and we have just started part 2 (It was always going to be a 2 parter). 

In the two or so years between starting the book and now, we have learned a tremendous amount about the poker book industry, a lot of which was as a result of throwing ourselves in the deep end and making mistakes. The following is pretty much what we have learned so far about the poker book market:

Strategy strategy strategy
Most poker books that are sold are understandably strategy books. There isn't a massive demand for anything else unfortunately. Generally speaking, poker players are not a target market I class as great readers of books outside of this genre, I have probably let years of seeing them type "TLDR" in forum posts skew my image of them in this regard. 

There are of course some exceptions to the rule. Anthony  Holden's "Big Deal" and Michael Craig's "The Professor, The Banker, and The Suicide King" are two very enjoyable non-strategy titles which have enjoyed, as I understand it, good sales figures.There are some good biographies out there, but generally they have never been big sellers. I'd expect a Negreanu, a Hellmuth, or an Ivey biography would sell well, but beyond that I think the life stories would have to be fascinating to be a big success. 

To get reasonable sales figures, I think a non-strategy title would need to have a mainstream appeal outside of poker. A Full Tilt, Black Friday, or an UltimateBet Superuser book all spring to mind. I think there is also the slight potential that some 'Funny gambling stories' books could be a profitable subject matter (I myself have started, and stopped, writing 'poker's greatest prop bets' several times).

Back to strategy. It is a very tough market. Despite being the only thing poker players really buy, it is tremendously competitive, samey, and quickly goes out of date.

Traditional no limit strategy becomes dated very quickly, and books are in competition with forums, training sites, and coaching, as well as with other books.

Having read tons of no limit books, it is very hard to filter out the nuggets of difference between each title or find anything truly unique. It is particularly frustrating when poker books trawl through the same old 'hand rankings/explaining position' standard stuff we have read a thousand times already. 

For a no limit book to stand a chance to be lucrative, it has to be vastly different, or more likely, has to be penned by a mega star of the game. And when I say mega star, I mean like Sam Trickett, Phil Ivey, Isaac Haxton, Jungleman, Isildur1 - someone who is either a household name or at least universally respected by their peers. There are so many good players out there these days that 99% of the good pro players would struggle to sell a book. 

Differentiating from no limit
For any other poker strategy book to sell well, it has to deviate from the norm. This is an area where I got very lucky hooking up with Jared Tendler - a mental game expert who essentially teaches something nobody else does in the game. I simply would not have got involved if it was instead just some guy who was crushing no limit hold'em, because even if it turned out to be a great book, it has a limited shelf life and lots of competition. Jared's work has no competition and (hopefully) is the sort of thing that could sell for years no matter how the game changes. 

So what else could sell in the crowded strategy market? I think we are due a good mixed games book for the modern era, and stud, 2-7 draw etc all could have a shot at selling well. One thing I think has been vastly overlooked so far is a strategy book for winning poker satellites. PLO still could sell, but that's getting competitive too. There is probably a decent short-stacker book waiting to be written, but there is plenty of information out there online for that. 

Then you have some really left of field titles that zero in on one aspect of poker skill. Books like Dusty Schmidt's Treat Your Poker Like a Business, which is more of a self management book than a strategy book, and of course the titles on physical tells and poker maths. I think there is possibly a (small) book out there on game selection waiting to be written. 

Making money from poker books
I've mentioned getting good sales figures, but what constitutes 'good'? The following figures I have got from some fellow authors and publishers in the poker industry. As I understand it, a good lifetime figure for a typical poker book (And by that I usually mean strategy book) is about 10,000 sales. That was at the height of the poker boom. 20,000 is considered exceptional. The average book in any industry or niche only expects to make $500 in sales these days, so if you think those figures are small, think again.

There are some books that comfortably surpass the 100,000 sales mark, but these are usually the real classics; SuperSystem, the Harrington books, the Theory of Poker, Gus Hansen's book, and probably a few other twoplustwo titles. The above titles are still selling very strong today despite being relatively old in the market (You can tell by looking at their sales rank on Amazon) so for the truly exceptional titles, they can prove a great long term winner. 

But most poker titles won't continue to sell after a few years, because they date so quickly. One way around this is pricing. Poker is one of the few niches where you can charge over $1,000 for a single book and people will buy it. You can still buy Tri Nguyen and Cole South's "Let There Be Range" for $1,500+ on Amazon. This is because bridging a knowledge gap in poker is perceived to be much more immediately damaging to the author than in other industries. Selling such a book for such a low price, it could be argued, could have an immediate negative impact on the authors earn rate if the wisdom within it is so good it could turn the readers into the new Isildur1. 

In reality, pricing the book so high is really a short term strategy designed to make a quick buck (No pun intended). It is actually more of an insurance strategy against the content getting outdated than it is a way of keeping the knowledge within a select few. When you price your book that high, you are basically asking for people to pirate it. All you are hoping for is that 30, 50, or 100 people buy it before every poker player has it emailed to them. Ironically setting a price so high probably guarantees more people see it than they would have otherwise. To stand a chance of getting a large number of  people buy your $100+ book, you have to be truly crushing the game (Cole South was at the time) and these days only a handful of players can claim that. 

Self publishing
But what about those of us who are not crushing the game, and essentially just want to write a book? Well first of all, I'd hope seeing the above has shown you there is some merit in offering to ghost write a book for a big name who wouldn't have the time or inclination to do it themselves. Secondly, I would suggest that you almost certainly should self publish your book. 

Although the potential to write a poker best seller is not great these days, we are living in a wonderful era for self published authors. Getting your book on kindle takes a few minutes, and you now have so many print-on-demand options that getting soft cover copies of it is also very cost efficient. The biggest thing that publishers can offer these days are exposure and potentially a cash advance. 
The advances I expect would be very small in poker, if they even exist at all any more, and after that you would likely only get something like 10-15% royalties AFTER your advance has been recouped in royalties. This is fine if you have no way of marketing your book on your own, but the poker world is exceptionally small, and if your book is good, people will hear about it. 

Build a ‘tribe’
There is a little maxim here which suggests you only need 500 people to love your book in order to make it a success. After that, word of mouth will sell it for you. This is what Jared and I have discovered with our book. We marketed very hard between the book launch on April 15 2011 (Yes, we released the book on Black Friday, sigh) and the end of the year for the Christmas rush, then we put the brakes on. Our biggest month at the time was Christmas, as you would expect, but after that we expected a drop in sales, because we had stopped actively marketing it.

But the strangest thing happened, January 2012's sales were almost as big as Decembers. February's sales were big too, and March, and so on. In fact June this year was our biggest month ever and it has seen no sign of slowing down. As soon as we stopped marketing our book aggressively, our sales have been at least 50% higher than every non-Christmas month in 2011 where we worked our asses off marketing it, and in some cases it has been 100-200% higher. 

We still do the odd bit of marketing here and there when a good opportunity comes up, but the reason the sales have been high since we stopped is because enough people have the book now to be talking about it. Every week I get people asking me questions or telling me what they think of the book on forums or on twitter, and on the occasions where I myself will tweet something about the book, I can always expect a reasonable amount of retweets from fans of the book. In fact, there have been a handful of people who loved the book so much that I feel we owe them a commission for promoting it for us for free. We are lucky also that quite a few influential figures in poker like the book, so when they do retweet or otherwise complement the book, they do so to a large audience. 

Word of mouth is genuinely the most powerful form of marketing in the world today, now that everyone has a twitter, Facebook, and poker forum account. For that reason, I would advocate all poker authors self publish their books and just concentrate on building up a small following, and giving that following the chance to talk about your work. I think one of the best things we did was engage with everyone our audience on twitter and Facebook and develop relationships with the people who really liked the book. The poker forums are also golden, possibly better than social media, and I think we owe a lot to the likes of Blondepoker, the PokerStrategy forum and 2+2 (The only paid advertising I would advocate is the latter's commercial marketplace). 

Beyond that, another easy way to market your book is by offering free content and excerpts of the book to blogs, websites, and magazines. As I have mentioned in several previous blog posts, poker editors are always on the lookout for free content and will happily let you promote your book as part of a free, non-spammy, offering. It is much more effective than having a paid advertisement ever will, because not only do most of us filter out adverts when we see them, but it also gives your target audience a great sneak peak of what they can expect, with a direct call to action for where they can go to get more. 

Business cards
Even if the book doesn't sell well, there is another advantage to writing one, and that is it serves as a great business card. Interest in Jared's private coaching skyrocketed as has his personal brand in the industry. He is a very well known and reputable name in poker as a direct result of the book. I myself have seen lots of doors open because of the book, I seem to get invited to more fun things, and my twitter following has increased significantly. 

So if you are thinking of writing a really niche poker book but worried it might be too niche, this is a reason to do it. If you know a lot about poker affiliate marketing but fear the audience is low, having a book on the subject might secure you a new job or consultancy work. If you are an expert in badugi, writing the book on the game might secure you some coaching work. I myself have been toying with writing a small book on the poker media industry, which I doubt would sell more than a 100 copies lifetime, but it would look great on my CV.

It sounds clich├ęd, but just the achievement of having a book out there is worth doing it for. It may be tough to get a best seller in this increasingly competitive market, but it is so easy to self publish these days that it shouldn't really cost you much more than your time.  


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