Writing books is not a good idea

The New York Times caused a stir recently when, in an article about pandemic book sales, it disclosed that “98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.”

Though this statistic was shocking to many, it is not new information. People don’t read books—and the ones that do aren’t buying them. To make matters worse, “books that publishers released” are only the “success stories”—those books that scored hard-won Big-Four publishing contracts—and those are already a small piece of the book publishing market.

According to Bookstat, which looks at the book publishing market as a whole, there were 2.6 million books sold online in 2020 and only 268 of them sold more than 100,000 copies—that’s only 0.01 percent of books. By far, the more likely thing is to sell between 0 and 1,000 copies—and that was 96 percent of books last year.

Source: Bookstat

(Even on the high end, there were only 11 books that sold more than 500,000 copies—which is paltry when you consider that the 10 best-performing Netflix films last year saw more than 68 million viewsin their first month. If even our best-selling books hit only a fraction of the audiences of best-performing films, books as a medium just don’t have an audience—or rather, they have a very niche audience.)

As an author, this is distressing. If I can spend two to three years writing a novel and my best-case scenario is having it sell a couple hundred copies on Amazon, perhaps it’s time to face the music and realize that writing books—like knitting or playing the harp—is nothing more than a hobby. Something I can do for fun on the weekends but should never hope to earn a living from.

And yet, I can’t help but wonder if somewhere in the middle lies a sweet spot: books that sell between 1,000 and 100,000 copies—that are loved by a small but devoted few. That might not sell enough to make it in the big world of publishing contracts and screenplay options, but could sell enough to be profitable—if only creator economy technologies are used. 

The publishing industry needs to be disrupted

There’s no doubt that the current publishing model doesn’t work for authors.

If most books sell between 0 and 10,000 copies, then most books are earning between $0 and $42,000 in a year. An annual salary of $100,000 only happens once an author has sold 45,000 copies traditionally or 24,000 copies self-published—and there are very few books that sell that many (see above chart). Not to mention, an author would have to come out with one book a year to maintain that salary.

Based on sales prices from the average traditionally sold book and the average self-published book.

Many authors hope that securing a contract with a Big Four publishing house will provide more marketing and sell more copies of the book, but the reality is that traditional publishers are looking for a sure thing. They want an author who already has an existing platform and can guarantee an audience. And if the author has that, they might be better off going it alone.

As Rachel Deahl, news director for Publishers Weekly once told me: “Publishers are always looking for people with really big platforms. If Kanye West is going to publish a book, he's got a big audience already—you don't have to build an audience for him. Someone with a built-in audience, who can reach out to them and say I'm publishing a book, that book can become a bestselling book immediately.

“That's really hard in fiction. In fiction, publishers are looking at the long-term. They want to build an author so they can become a Stephen King or Gillian Flynn. Because now those authors have huge platforms.” Unfortunately, “most books don't succeed even with a lot of backing. Combine that with no marketing or publicity, chances are your book isn't going to sell well.” 

Could the creator economy work for fiction authors?

If all of this sounds very upsetting to the aspiring author, perhaps there’s hope in the creator economy. After all, three percent of books still sell somewhere in that 1,000-100,000 range—and that’s enough of an audience to monetize if creator economy technologies are used. 

As the going wisdom states: it only takes 1,000 true fans spending $100/year for a creator to earn a salary of $100,000/year—and every year there are 83,397 books that sell more than 1,000 copies—the problem is they’re only earning $4.20 per copy—at most.

Using our current publishing model, if an author sells 1,000 copies of a book, he or she will earn $2,250 if published traditionally or $4,200 if self-published. But using the creator economy model, an author could release a new book chapter every week, charge readers a $9/month subscription fee, and earn $108,000/year—from those same 1,000 readers.

Non-fiction writers are already doing it. As evidenced by this chart by Alexey Guzey, there are plenty of Substack writers who are putting out quality non-fiction content for their followers and monetizing it—earning in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and in some cases millions, just from reader subscriptions! 

But could fiction do the same?

It did once. As I mentioned in a previous article, when Alexandre Dumas debuted The Count of Monte Cristo it was published as a feuilleton—a portion of the weekly newspaper devoted to fiction. From August 1844 to January 1846 his chapters were published in 18 installments for The Journal des Débats, a newspaper that went out to 9,000 to 10,000 paying subscribers in France—and readers were rapt by it.

In the forward to a 2004 translation of the book, the writer Luc Sante wrote: “The effect of the serials, which held vast audiences enthralled… is unlike any experience of reading we are likely to have known ourselves, maybe something like that of a particularly gripping television series. Day after day, at breakfast or at work or on the street, people talked of little else.”

It was basically “Game of Thrones.” Readers could not wait to get their hands on the next chapter and that bode very well for the writer who was not only paid by the newspaper in real-time for his work (by the word), but also grew the popularity of his work over the entirety of the time it was being published.

The ‘Presse’ pays nearly 300 francs per day for feuilletons to Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, De Balzac, Frederic Soulé, Theophile Gautier, and Jules Sandeau,” Littell’s Little Age, Volume 10 wrote in 1846. “But what will the result be in 1848? That each of these personnages will have made from 32,000 to 64,000 francs per annum for two or three years for writing profitable trash of the color of the foulest mud in Paris?”

That “profitable trash” earned those writers an annual salary of between $202,107 to $404,213 in today’s dollars—and the obvious disdain of that Littell writer who, even then preferred the merits of a bound and published book. The same volume goes on to say that Dumas earned about 10,000 francs ($65,743 today) per installment when he was poached from The Presse by The Constitutionnel in 1845.

Is there a market for serial novels?

The serial novel is already making a comeback. On the apps Wattpad and Inkitt, writers can publish chapters as soon as they are written, and followers read and comment on those chapters in real time. And Wattpad already has 90 million users who spend an average of 52 minutes per session reading books online—mostly Millenial and Gen-Z. The Inkitt app has 2 million users.

But authors don’t make money on these platforms—readers read for free. There was some hope that would change when Wattpad debuted Paid Stories in 2019, allowing readers to pay for chapters using micropayments—three coins unlock the next chapter—but the author does not get to decide whether or not their content is part of the paid program, the platform does based on how the book performed in its free iteration. And even the best-paid authors aren’t making a living doing it. 

Two years into their paid program, Wattpad announced reaching only $1 million in author earnings, split among 550 writers. All things being equal, that’s only $1,818 in total earnings, per author, over a two-year period—and all things are not equal. The more likely scenario is that a small percentage of those 550 made up the bulk of the earnings.

One Wattpad author, who wished to remain anonymous, told me her book reached 20 million free reads on the platform before she was invited to go paid last year. Since then, she has earned a couple million more reads and has averaged $500/month in earnings with her highest month topping out at $1,000. And this is with a YA romance novel—one of the best performing categories on the site.  

Now Amazon wants to get in the game. In April of 2021, they announced the launch of Kindle Vella, a Wattpad competitor that allows authors to publish their books serially. Thus far, no marketing initiatives have endeavored to promote these pioneering authors—but it’s no matter. Writers pour an estimated 1.2-1.4 million books onto Amazon each year and, even if every book sells only 200 copies, the platform will earn 20-50 percent of each sale and win the whole game.

Still, if 20 million people are willing to read a book for free and a couple million more are willing to pay for it, then there is at least a market for serial fiction. The problem is that if authors are only netting $6,000-$12,000 in a year for their work—maybe we don’t have the right platforms yet.

Which platform is best for fiction writers?

I decided to serialize my own novel as an experiment, releasing one chapter per week from September 2021 through June of 2022, and I created both a Substack and a Patreon account to test the waters. Unlike Wattpad and Inkitt, both platforms allow authors to monetize their work, with readers subscribing directly to their favorite writers. 

Publishing on both platforms is free, with Substack and Patreon earning a percentage of income—Substack charges 10 percent of earnings plus a Stripe fee, Patreon charges 5-12 percent of earnings depending on what payment processing services a creator wants access to. And because both platforms allow the author to maintain the rights to their work, there is nothing preventing us from putting our books up on Wattpad, Inkitt, or Kindle after the subscription period ends.

Each has its share of pros and cons. Patreon, for instance, doesn’t have a free pricing tier which means I would have to build my platform elsewhere before attempting to sell into it. This is why almost all of the 15 authors currently earning more than $4,000/month writing novels on Patreon built their audience on Royal Road, a free serialization platform that lets authors share their chapters as they are written. 

“There's sort of a fixed model for how serialization works in terms of generating revenue—where you start off building an audience on Royal Road and then from there you start a Patreon,” the author Travis Deverell tells me. “And there's an expectation that your Patreon will have a certain number of advanced chapters ahead of what goes for your Royal Road.”

Deverell’s pen name is Shirtaloon and he earns $28,532 a month from his Patreon supporters. Readers can choose whether they want to read his chapters one week ahead ($1/month), two weeks ahead ($5/month), or four weeks ahead ($10/month) of Royal Road. He also has pricing tiers at $15, $20, and $50 a month which have no additional benefit except supporting an author they love—and fans pay it.  

But Royal Road is very genre-specific. In fact, it tends to attract an audience that isn’t well represented elsewhere: hyperniche science fiction and fantasy genres such as litRPG, isekai, and power progression. “Royal Road is such a big platform for building audiences, but the audience is looking for fairly specific stuff at the moment,” Deverell says. “Like Wattpad is great for YA fiction, but Royal Road is a much better fit for what I’m doing.”

Patreon also isn’t well-suited to writing. The author Emilia Rose earns more than $120,000/year serializing erotica on Patreon but plans to move her 3,000 patrons to Litty, a new startup promising to be the “Patreon of fiction” when it launches this fall. “Patreon has set up its website like a blog, which makes the platform incredibly difficult to use for ongoing stories,” Rose says. “Since I release two to five chapters per week of a single story, it is difficult for readers to find previous chapters. From a reader’s perspective, it’s not a great experience.”

Substack, on the other hand, was built for writers. Chapters are delivered via email and books can be separated into “sections,” making the experience easy on the reader. And unlike Patreon, I don’t need to build another platform elsewhere before I can monetize my work. Instead, I can build my audience directly on Substack, writing a free newsletter that upsells into a paid version. 

The downside of Substack is that I don’t have access to all the pricing tiers I can get with Patreon—Substack only allows me to have one monthly subscription fee, plus a “lump sum” donation bucket—and I know pricing tiers are a must. After all, why would a reader pay $5/month to read four chapters of a book when they could buy a whole book on Kindle for $1.99? (This is why there are plenty of writers writing novels on Patreon earning $200/month—and plenty of Kindle authors earning $200 total). 

There has to be added value. I want my readers to have the option to join an exclusive online community, be mentioned in the acknowledgments, or even write the foreword for my book. When the book is complete, I want to be able to send autographed, hardcover collector’s edition to premium subscribers, throw a wrap party for my patrons, or even elope to a gothic estate in France to write ghost stories together afterward. 

These kinds of value adds are, after all, how the science fiction author N.K. Jemisin achieved Patreon success. Her work has since become critically acclaimed and has won numerous awards including a Hugo Award and, in 2020, a MacArthur Fellows “genius grant,” but when she first joined Patreon, she simply wanted to make $5,000/month so she could quit her job as a psychologist. She did—and she had five superfans paying $100/month for signed, printed copies of her books and nine paying $50/month for signed-author copies. That’s $950/month in revenue just from her top 14 fans! And authors can’t afford to miss out on that kind of patronage. 

Even without pricing tiers, I think Substack is the better bet—the whole process is already built-in and has been proven to work for non-fiction authors. And Substack has made moves to invest in fiction. On June 9th, Business Insider announced that Substack hired Nick Spencer, author of Captain America and The Amazing Spider Man franchises to entice comic-book writers to the platform. They also announced, in August, their first round of investments in comics writers

Indeed, we may be seeing the beginnings of a surge in fiction writers on the platform. The fiction author Etgar Keret joined the platform in August and the novels The Very Modern Vampire and Something Deep are both serializing on Substack. In fact, more authors are putting their novels on the platform every day which makes me wonder whether I should stop looking for where the literary writers are, but where the literary readers are. And we are definitely actively reading (and paying to subscribe to) literary non-fiction on Substack. Maybe we’d read literary fiction there too. 

After all, Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was serialized in Esquire before being published by Random House in 1958. The Martian started out as a blog on Andy Weir’s personal website before it was self-published, then traditionally published, then turned into a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon. And in 2020, Lena Dunham serialized her choose-your-own-adventure novel Verified Strangers via Vogue.com. 

That’s what Dumas did too. The Count of Monte Cristo was published, not in a literary journal, but in a newspaper—where people were getting their weekly news. Why wouldn’t the sort of people who follow literary journalism and societal critique be the same sort of person who enjoys seeing the Edmond Dantès flee the Chateau d’If via body bag? And Substack is rapidly becoming the newspaper of note for millions of readers. 

Of course, to make it on Substack, creators still have to build a platform, publish consistent work to that platform, and attract an audience to that platform, on top of actually writing something good—and none of this is easy. But I’m going to run an experiment anyway. With creator economy technologies on the rise and subscription models rapidly proving their viability, I think there’s hope for fiction after all—maybe we just haven’t found the right case study yet.

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