How Erin Donley scaled her service-based business without losing the high-touch aspect - Kathleen Celmins
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How Erin Donley scaled her service-based business without losing the high-touch aspect

I met Erin Donley in a marketing mastermind led by my friend and colleague Caelan Huntress. We connected and stayed in touch long after the three-month mastermind period ended.

She’s a ghostwriter for personal and professional growth books, and she’s excellent at what she does.

She typically writes one book at a time, full time, for a set fee.

In any given year, she writes between three and four books.

She’s comfortable with her rates, she likes the people she works with, and yet, there’s always a bit of panic in the back of her mind when she nears the end of a ghostwriting project.

“What if her luck has finally run out? What if the next client doesn’t magically appear?”

To date, her luck hasn’t run out.

And the next client always appears. Not by magic, though. Through her power of connection.

But Erin is a really good example of someone who’s making money off her ideas.

Her opt-in is time on her calendar

A high-end, high-touch, high-impact service like the one she offers can’t convert from free to paid on a checklist or a PDF download alone.

So she has something cool set up: Book Talk Tuesdays. It’s a totally free, no-obligation conversation for people who have an idea for a book, regardless of how far along they are in the writing process.

I really like this idea, because it’s something that she can promote when she has time on her calendar. It also serves as a way to book all her calls on one day of the week, leaving the rest for her writing time.

Plus, because her offer is a big commitment, she’s only interested in talking to people who will put in the time and energy into a virtual chat. It’s a higher barrier, but that works here. It wouldn’t work if what she was selling were something “off the shelf” but her service is absolutely bespoke, so if talking to her turns someone away, that person was never going to hire her anyway.

Erin’s customer journey

Her customer journey is relatively simple. She talks about her work on social media platforms where she’s the most comfortable and has the most reach. She sends emails to her list as well. She sends people to Book Talk Tuesdays. Some of those people will ultimately hire her for ghostwriting.

But there are gaps in this customer journey, and places where people fall off.

The biggest and most immediate place where there’s a dropoff happens after someone talks to her on a Tuesday.

How can she help the people who can’t or won’t hire her for ghostwriting?

Not everyone she talks to on any given Book Talk Tuesday is a good fit for her ghostwriting services.

This is due to a variety of reasons:

  1. They don’t have the budget
  2. They already have a manuscript written (or mostly written)
  3. They’re not ready to start yet because they don’t have an idea
  4. There’s not a personality fit

Number four is huge because if there isn’t chemistry, the ghostwriting process is hard. Writing books for other people requires a level of intimacy a lot of other services don’t. There’s trust, there’s honesty, there’s a level of safety necessary to get stories, even business stories, written.

I’ve tried to convince her to work with people who already have something written or who want to write their own book by coaching them through the process.

But she didn’t want to do that. Her magic is turning conversations into books. She doesn’t want to talk about the process. She wants to talk to people who have something to say.

One big misconception about writing a book

Through many of her conversations about writing a book, people ask her a lot about the publishing process.

Questions like:

  • How do I get an agent?
  • How much money can I expect for an advance?
  • How can I get the attention of the big publishing houses?
  • Should I organize a book tour?

Most people think they need to be published by one of the top publishing houses to be a ‘real’ author.

It’s a misconception that she sees, without fail, every Tuesday.

She was telling me about how she tends to talk people out of this misconception. “You saved me six years of heartbreak,” one of her Book Talk Tuesday prospects told her.

All of a sudden, the path was made clear

“What if,” I asked her, “you became an agent for self-published authors?”

See, Erin knows a thing or two about publishing.

Her brother works in the traditional publishing industry, so she has some insight into what it actually takes to get a book deal.

She’s also seen, firsthand, what having a published book can do for someone’s business.

And the truth that she’s discovered is that for the vast majority of people, self-publishing is the way to go.

Traditional publishing takes anywhere between two and five years from idea to publication, so if current events make you think, “wow, I really have something to contribute to this conversation,” then you better hope we’re still having this conversation for a while.

Self-published authors are able to hold their books in their hand in less than a year.

Plus, they get to keep more of their earnings than they would if they were under contract with a publisher.

Now, her customer journey has more options

The program for authors who have gotten as far as they can on their own is called Manuscript to Market, and although it’s brand new, I think it’ll be a great addition to what she’s already doing.

It’s essentially what I hired her to do when I couldn’t look at my manuscript for even one more minute.

She took it and looked it over. Then told me what I had to do. I used all of her contacts but managed them directly. (Who am I kidding, Emma did the management process!)

What I didn’t know, and what most first-time authors don’t know, is that writing words into a Google doc, no matter how hard they were to get out, is less than half the process of getting a book written.

There are things like:

  • Working with an editor
  • Working with a publisher
  • Working with a book cover designer
  • Working with someone who can help figure out what goes on the back cover
  • Figuring out how to price a book
  • Buying an ISBN
  • Deciding where to upload it, and knowing whether or not to use Amazon exclusively

And the biggest help she can provide is to offer her unbiased opinion as to whether or not you have enough raw material to get it past the finish line.

Sometimes figuring out what you should offer is asking yourself, “what am I already doing that people might find valuable?”

Maybe you’re in a similar situation to Erin.

Comfortable with your pricing, certainly can’t price yourself any lower.

So you think you have only two ways to double your revenue:

  1. Double your rates
  2. Work on twice as many projects

Doubling your rates could work, but they could just as easily price you out of your prospective clients’ possibilities.

As for doubling your workload?


Humans are not machines. Ghostwriting, and all other service-based work requires creativity.

And creativity doesn’t happen in a factory.

It happens on a walk.

In the shower.

During downtime.

The reason Erin is good at her job is that she doesn’t take on more than she can reasonably do at any given time.

She’s so good at what she does that she very rarely has any downtime between projects.

That’s really impressive, partly because ghostwriting is a secret. It’s something plenty of people do, but most don’t admit to. “Nope, I wrote this book all by myself!” they tell others. So building a referral engine or having testimonials is a little more challenging.

This new revenue stream doesn’t cut into her ability to write nonfiction books

Creativity is a well, and using your creative brain takes from the well.

So when you’re thinking about adding revenue streams to your business, you have to think about how you can add ones that don’t dip from your main well.

In fact, the ideal situation is to think about how you can create an additional revenue stream that uses a completely different part of your brain.

With Manuscript to Market, Erin uses her project management skills. She coordinates with an editor, she hires a proofreader, she works with the book design company, she can get you a logo at a New York publishing house, she does all the work to help you get your book out of your hard drive and into your hands.

It’s the kind of thing she does for her ghostwriting clients anyway. And it’s one of the fun parts.

What could you add to increase your revenue?

This is exactly what we’re building in The Vault: ways to grow and scale your business that doesn’t drain your batteries.

Regardless of the type of business you run, there are always ideas for additional revenue streams that can double your income without doubling the amount of time you have to spend working.

Explore the The Vault here:

Case study:

How we earned $100,000 in a year on a digital product

Get the three things that made the most difference when we marketed a digital course and it earned $100,000 in just 12 months.

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