Part one in my series on the future of publishing.
When the internet arrived and self-publishing took the writing world by storm, it brought the hopeful promise of a new era. No longer would writers be beholden to major companies; rather, the power would be in our own hands, sharing the writing on our own terms, and thousands more people would be able to make it as full-time authors.
Fast forward to today, and while self-publishing certainly has ushered in a new era for writers, we also can’t say that we’re not beholden to major companies, or that making a living as an author is any easier. We publish on the platform of one of the biggest companies in the world. We post on the social platforms of tech giants in the hopes of promoting our work, even as they suppress the organic reach of small businesses in the hopes that we pay for ads, and most of us won’t ever sell enough copies to be full-time writers.
All told, getting your writing to reach the masses and making a good living from it is still a challenging and even demoralizing battle.
Is publishing books even profitable?
One of the reasons that making a living as an author is so challenging is due to the sheer number of customers (readers) you need to support your work. Books aren’t expensive products, and only a percentage of the sale price goes to the author. (That number can be as low as 7.5% for traditionally published paperbacks.)
The good news is that there isn’t a huge financial barrier to reach your readers. The bad news is that you need to reach tens of thousands of them to make a living.
A report published in the New York Times revealed that 98% of all books published in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies. If you take an average 15% royalty rate on a $20 book, that means that most traditionally published books earn authors earn somewhere around $0-$15,000 in royalties.
While $15,000 might sound like a decent chunk of change, that’s certainly not enough to live on, especially when you consider that authors can spend years writing a single book. And then it can take years from the time an author starts querying agents to the book hitting the shelves. (In addition to that, authors don’t see royalty payments until they’ve earned out their advance, or the money paid by a publisher upfront for your manuscript. And not earning out your advance can mean a hard time getting future book deals.)
This is bleak news, and that’s just for traditionally published authors. For self-published authors, the situation can be even worse. Self-publishing done well means paying all costs upfront, out of pocket. When considering expenses like editors, cover designers, audiobook narrators, and paid advertisements, that amount can reach into the thousands of dollars. And according to John Hunt Publishing, most self-published books sell about 30 copies.
Even assuming a 70% royalty rate, for a $15 book that means an average self-published author might expect to make about $300. And if they spent money on editing or cover design (which you should if you hope to turn your writing into an income) that might mean a net loss on each book published.
If that’s not soul-crushing then I don’t know what is.
The problem with this model
The problem with the models we have seen for publishing so far is that the success of an author is strictly a numbers game. More readers = more sales. And for new authors who have a small (or no) platform, this can present a huge challenge.
In the attention economy, it seems like everyone online is desperately clambering for the same thing: capturing the attention of as many people as possible to grow their audience. While proper market research and product-market fit will of course help, playing the same game as everyone else in a saturated attention economy can feel like starting a bicycle up a very steep hill.
And if you might think that traditionally published authors are off the hook, think again: publishing houses make most of their money and spend most of their marketing budgets on big-name authors and highly anticipated titles (such as books by celebrities and the next Stephen King novel). Debut authors and those on the shrinking midlist get little marketing support, which means that even if you sign with a publisher, you’ll likely be on your own when it comes to promoting your work.
For authors who want to actually make it (and spend more time on writing and less time on marketing) this is tough news.
The Rise of the Serial Novel
The good news, however, is that that things are changing. Fast. And with each change comes new opportunities.
Enter the rise of the serial novel.
If “serial novel” conjures up images 19th century newspapers rather than modern-day publishing, you’d be forgiven. While serial novels were out of fashion for many years, they do have a strong place in publishing history and are on their way back. Yes, The Count of Monte Cristo was published serially in 1844 (which explains its length!) but Stephen King published The Green Mile as six different books in 1996, and Margaret Atwood began self-publishing Positron as a series of online installments in 2012.
We’ve also seen the rise of platforms like Wattpad in recent years. Wattpad is hugely popular among Gen Z, and if you haven’t heard of it yet, it’s basically like a serial publishing social network. In the age of Netflix and the closer connection we feel to creators through social media, it’s no wonder that Wattpad–with its episode-like installments and the ability to directly reach your favorite authors–has become so popular.
Perhaps the most recent example we’ve seen is Brandon Sanderson’s big announcement. On March 1, 2022, Sanderson revealed that he had spent lockdown writing five secret books, and was launching what basically amounts to a subscription through Kickstarter. While not exactly serial novels, those who sign up will get a year of content, including the release of his books and other swag items. The video shot to one of the top trending videos on YouTube, and as of this writing he has already raised over $35 million.
The Math Behind the Serial Novel
The reason that serial novels make so much sense for aspiring authors is that the math behind it paints a much brighter picture than traditional publishing, or even “traditional” self-publishing.
Now, most of us will never be at Brandon Sanderson’s level. But remember when I said that on average, traditionally published authors can expect to make roughly $0 to $15,000? Let’s take the very high end of $15,000 as an example.
Say it takes the traditionally-published author (let’s call her Izzy) three years from writing her book to finally seeing the book on the shelves. Divided over three years, that income comes out to $5,000/year. This income came from getting the book in the hands of 5,000 different readers as a result of the marketing done on Izzy’s own time and dollar. (Meaning she probably had a decent-sized author platform to reach 5,000 readers.)
But what if you want to make more than $5,000 a year from your writing? And what if reaching 5,000 people seems like a distant, grueling goal, if not infeasable?
Enter the serial model. Let’s say instead of publishing traditionally, Izzy used her platform to publish her novel serially to a devoted group of readers. She charged her readers $5/month and slowly released her book over the course of 12 months. 100 readers signed up to read her book. At the end of the year, Izzy made $6,000.
While $6,000 might not seem like a lot, that’s more than she would have averaged each year traditionally publishing (even assuming she was in the top 98th percentile).
But the biggest difference is that she only needed 100 readers to make that much money per year, instead of 5,000.
The world is moving toward subscription-based models for media consumption, and this model can work extremely well for some authors. When readership is no longer a one-and-done sale but an ongoing relationship, authors can step closer to earning a full-time living from their creative work.
Let’s say that Izzy liked making $6,000 from her book but wants to earn a full-time income from her writing. She grows her readership to 1,000 people, and with 1,000 subscribers at $5/month she’s now making $60,000 a year.
$60,000. A year.
Most aspiring writers would kill to make that much from their creative writing alone. It’s a far cry from the $5,000 per year Izzy could hope to make even with a flawless launch with traditional publishing. To make $60,000 as a traditionally published author, she would have had to sell about 20,000 copies, making her one of the top-selling authors of that year. Instead, she’s doing this with only 1,000 fans.
Now here’s where things get exciting.
Let’s say Izzy starts attracting a real fan base and wants to emulate Brandon Sanderson, and so instead of just releasing books she’s also offering swag, print editions, signed copies, and even a special Q&A session for her fans. She raises the subscription to $10/month. With 1,000 subscribers, she’s now earning $120,000 a year.
That’s definitely a full-time living for an author.
This idea of publishing a serial novel is inspired by the 1,000 True Fans concept popularized by Kevin Kelly. But I know what some of you math brains might be thinking: Wait, in the original example, Izzy’s subscribers ended up paying $60 to read her serial book, when they could have just bought the print copy for $15. Why would anyone do that?
For the same reason that Brandon Sanderson was able to launch the most successful Kickstarter campaign of all time: There are lots of readers who don’t just want to read a book. They want to become immersed in a world.
When you publish serially, you’re not just sending a product out into the world to be purchased by a consumer. By having a platform for subscribers to chat, being there to respond to and engage with readers, and offering supporting gifts and merchandise, readers aren’t just getting a book: they’re getting a whole community centered around a fictional world that they love (or a like-minded practical support group for non-fiction).
There are a thousand ways you can implement these community aspects, such as letting your subscribers name a character, taking suggestions for future books, or hosting Q&A nights. (I’ll go more into specifics on how to make this work in future articles.) Creating an experience that’s more personalized and interactive than just picking a book off a store shelf is very intriguing for many readers and authors alike.
Why I’m – almost – publishing serially
This idea of serial publishing won’t work for all writers. It does tend to lend itself more to genre fiction, and especially to novels that keep readers guessing and series that devoted fans get sucked into.
One related concern is that this method can lead to readers feeling trapped, not knowing when (or if) a story will ever end, and losing access to the story as soon as they stop paying, no matter how much they’ve sunk into it financially already. (This is one of the main reasons I see benefit in Web3 publishing – which can combine the best elements of serial publishing with an ownership-based model. I’ll get more into that in my next article.)
As someone who is getting ready to publish her first fantasy novel–set in a world that I hope to write in for my entire life–this idea of finding new ways to make a living as a writer and building a community is incredibly fascinating.
It sort of reminds me of the days when I shared my first-ever novel with a friend as I wrote it, and she shared hers with me; half the fun was having someone invested in the story as it was coming out and wondering what would happen next.
And while it may not look like what I had envisioned becoming a “successful writer” would look like, serial publishing – and its offshoots – are just getting started, and we are going to see more and more writers able to earn full-time incomes with this publishing path.
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