The one with the best places to self-publish a novel
“I make about 2.5x more from my self-published books than I do from my traditionally published ones, and that's largely due to earning MUCH more on each individual sale,” says the author Michael J. Sullivan in a comment on one of my articles.
Sullivan, as it turns out, secured his publishing deal with Orbit Books around the same time N.K. Jemisin did—his advance was $22,500, hers was $25,000. Initially, he sold more books than she did, but eventually she did, their paths crossing as each attempted mastery over their perspective genres.
But then they diverged—Sullivan decided to self-publish, Jemisin stayed with Orbit. “I was earning a full-time income long before she did (mainly due to my self-published novels),” Sullivan says. “She ‘should’ have been able to make a living wage but the low payout of the traditional model meant she had to turn to Patreon in order to quit her day job.”
Using KDSPY—an analytics tool which uses Amazon rankings and the price of a book to estimate author income—Sullivan estimates that now “N.K.'s Amazon ebooks earn $33,818 per month (her cut of that would be $5,038) and my KDSPY numbers are $8,844 but my cut of that is much higher (because many of my titles are self-published).”
If all of Sullivan’s books were self-published using Kindle Direct Publishing (KDP), he would be taking home 70 percent of the sale, earning $6,190 per month to Jemisin’s $5,038—despite her much higher unit sales. But if it’s so much more lucrative to self-publish, then what’s the best way for a self-published author to find an audience?
Sullivan turned to Kickstarter, crowdfunding his novels before ultimately publishing them on Amazon. He launched eight campaigns for eight books, earning $950,000 in total for them. His first campaign had only 862 backers and earned $30,857 and his most recent campaign had only 3,692 backers and earned $169,727 (and surpassed his goal of $30,000 in only six minutes).
If he’s not proof the creator economy can work for fiction authors, I don’t know who is. He built a fandom around his work and earned close to a million dollars from only a few thousand fans. Not only that, but he put those books up on Amazon after the fact and earns that recurring monthly revenue.
If Sullivan was a Kickstarter success story, Brandon Sanderson was a runaway hit. His campaign for a 10th-anniversary leather-bound edition of his book The Way of Kings was the most successful Kickstarter publishing campaign of all time—earning $6.8 million from only 29,778 backers.
As he told Kickstarter in an article about his success on the platform, “I have always worried that the publishing industry will collapse. But knowing that I have my own direct access to my fans, and if something catastrophic happened, I have this direct line, that's part of why I set this all up. It's really satisfying and comforting knowing that if everything else collapsed, I could still do this on my own.”
Sanderson still publishes his books traditionally, but by creating a unique, leather-bound edition of one of his most beloved classiccs, he not only catered to his fandom but maximized his upside. And doing this, he says, is his insurance policy against the eventual collapse of the Big Four. (After all, it was the Big Six not too long ago.)
Still, Sullivan and Sanderson were successful for a reason: Both published a book series through traditional publishers and had established fandoms when they got started on the platform. They were also able to promote their campaigns using already sizable newsletter lists—today Sullivan has 20,000 newsletter subscribers and Sanderson has 100,000.
In my case, no one has read my first book yet—it debuts August 1st, 2021—so it is highly unlikely that one of my newsletter subscribers would support a Kickstarter for my second book. In the chicken and egg scenario that is building up a fanbase and publishing books for it, most authors put the book first. But the hard part remains: where is a writer supposed to find an audience for that first book—especially when they have zero fans to begin with?
Royal Road + Patreon
One way is via Royal Road. In fact, there are at least 15 authors who built their audience on Royal Road and now earn more than $4,000/month monetizing that audience on Patreon (please tell me if there are others). They are as follows:
Shirtaloon - At least $15,000/month (interview coming 6/13)
Zogarth - $13,745/month (interview coming 6/27)
Kosnik4 - $8,876/month
Tefler - $8,307/month
Selkie - $7,266/month (interviewed for this article)
Wildbow - $7,600/month (read my interview with him here)
G. Harthane - At least $6,960/month
RinoZ - $6,773/month
PuDDleS4263 - $6,584/month
C. Mantis - $6,145/month
SenescentSoul - At least $5,787/month
Pirateaba - At least $4,436/month
JD Fister - $4,177/month (interview coming soon!)
Mecanimus - $4,094
Blue Fishcake - $4,000
“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 between $15,000 and $20,000 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.
All of that content will eventually be free—coming to Royal Road only four weeks after it debuts on Patreon. Still, “most of my 2,772 patrons are at $10 a month, because $10 a month gives them access to everything,” Deverell says. And, “anything above that is just pure extra support for me which I massively appreciate.”
Though there is some strategy to “making it” on Royal Road, most authors tell me it’s really about product market fit. The author G. Harthane didn’t even think it would be worth interviewing him for this article because, “I just thought it'd be fun to write so I did, then posted and it got traction (I didn't do marketing / analysis / planning or anything). And then it just kind of worked out.”
Selkie has a similar story. She started writing her Royal Road fantasy Beneath the Dragoneye Moons (BTDEM) when she was laid off from her job in September of 2020. She made $343 in October followed by $1,369 in November and $1,813 in December. As of May of 2021, she’s earning $7,333/month from 1,777 supporters on Patreon—now it’s her full-time job.
This is because 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.”
An in these circles, community engagement is a must. Readers subscribe because they get personal access to the author and that means participating in discussion groups and mingling with readers online. “I do a lot of community engagement, and go through a bunch of Discords, Reddits, websites, etc. to advertise my book,” Selkie says. “Now I have enough readers where it's starting to ‘naturally’ snowball.”
Mostly though, it’s a lot of writing. “I spent something like six to seven months working 100+ hours a week on BTDEM before I finally felt like I could take a single day off,” she says. “This included working every weekend non-stop. I work fewer hours now, but that's mostly because my baby takes up most of my time. Juggling both is exhausting. It's possible for everyone, IMO, but not too many people will properly put in the hours to make it work.”
Deverell agrees. He writes five, 2600-word chapters every week and he says that’s about what fans expect to make it work. Even still, he and Selkie are the outliers on the platform. There are 2,717 “fictions” currently serializing on Royal Road and only 15 of them are earning more than $4,000/month—that’s only 0.55 percent of writers. Three hundred don’t have a single follower.
All of the Royal Road success stories fit into hyperniche genres that aren’t right for everyone—my book certainly wouldn’t be a good fit for the platform—but for the right writer, the Royal Road/Patreon combination could be the perfect match. “If you want to get into serialization,” Deverell says. “It really pays off to do preparation, do your research, and make sure you find the right place for you—for what you want to write.”
The elephant in the room is Amazon, of course.
As Paul Abbassi, CEO of Bookstat, once told me: There are a couple thousand self-published authors currently earning six-figure incomes from their ebook sales and a couple dozen earning seven-figure incomes. And, “in certain fiction genres, such as romance, science fiction, and fantasy, there are far more high-earning, self-published authors than traditionally published ones.”
One of those successful few is the author DC Kalbach, whose romance novels—written under another pen name—earn him a “comfortable six-figure yearly income, and enough to support my wife and two little kids, plus pay all the bills and the mortgage etc. etc., entirely on my writing income.”
Like the Patreon set, Kalbach writes a lot, putting two books (150,000-200,000 words) up on Kindle Unlimited (KU) every month. And he focuses on what tends to do really well on the platform: romance. “My income is almost entirely from my romance pen name, which is 95 percent in Kindle Unlimited,” he says.
Kalbach put his first book on KU in February of 2015 and was earning $16,000/month by August. At the time, he didn’t even do a lot of marketing apart from making sure his covers and blurbs were airtight. On KU, romance novels are just that much in demand, and romance readers are just that voracious. “Romance drives the whole industry, so there are a ton of readers hungry for good books,” he says. “I guess I just found an audience!”
Now Kalbach spends about a fifth of his income on Facebook ads which help him to stay above the noise—romance has become a more crowded space on KU since 2015. Even still, a large portion of his audience find his books organically. Like the Kickstarter and Patreon writers, going where his audience already exists has turned out to be a winning strategy.
But if science fiction, fantasy, romance, and YA all have devoted audiences on Kickstarter, Royal Road, Wattpad, and Kindle—what about the rest of us? Where do the literary readers read?
Even as a reader I’ve always struggled to find the surreal, haunting, atmospheric, and philosophically beautiful books I love—and I’m constantly scouring the library, Bookshop, Daunt Books, and used books on Etsy to find them. There just doesn’t seem to be a place where I can reliably find and read literary novels.
But you know what? Recently I’ve had a stroke of luck. I found The Very Modern Vampire and Solar Flow—two novels I absolutely love—and both are on Substack. And that 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 here too.
Not to make my entire newsletter about The Count of Monte Cristo—but seriously that book was published 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 enjoy seeing the Edmond Dantès flee the Chateau d’If via body bag?
In the end, I don’t think there’s a right answer. An author just has to build a platform somewhere (newsletter, Royal Read, Wattpad, Tapas), attract an audience to that platform with some kind of discovery (social media, Discord communities, Reddit, Hacker News, cross promotion), publish work there on a consistent basis, and then find a way to monetize it (Kickstarter, Patreon, Substack, Kindle, etc.).
I chose to publish my novel on Substack because I’m an avid Substack reader—and so far it’s working out for me. My audience has grown quite a bit, I’ve met some insanely cool authors writing fiction for the platform, and I’ve started reading books on Substack and I really really love it. Plus, if Dracula is here—I’m in good company. Maybe my genre does live here after all.
Maybe we’re creating it.
Thank you so much for reading. Next Sunday I’ll be interviewing Shirtaloon himself!
P.S. I’m hosting a couple of events soon!
I’m interviewing Zogarth himself live on June 17th at 4pm MT if you want to join us in our Discord Server for Substack writers. Come ask him your questions!
Along with Substack, I’m hosting a workshop for fiction writers on June 30th at noon MT. Register here to join us!
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"But if science fiction, fantasy, romance, and YA all have devoted audiences on Kickstarter, Royal Road, Wattpad, and Kindle—what about the rest of us? Where do the literary readers read?"
You've hit at the heart of it here—the heart of the problem for literary authors.
It is more straightforward (or there's a known path) for authors of genre fiction to earn a living at writing books/serials because there's incredible market demand for the work (as pointed about above, re: romance) and it's also fairly easy to find the readers for it.
If I had to stereotype the general, educated reader of literary fiction, they read New York Times or LitHub and discover books there (through gatekeepers and influencers), maybe belong to some book clubs, shop at Bookshop or their independent bookstore, and buy a lot of print and are more likely to eschew Amazon and ebooks. They're not "online literature" people ("online literature" = Wattpad, Royal Road, Kindle Vella, Kindle Unlimited, and so on).
When I worked at VQR (a literary journal that publishes journalism, essays, criticism, fiction, and poetry), I learned something very quickly: fiction or poetry sunk like a stone online. Only nonfiction went anywhere in terms of traffic or sharing. And that is directly related to the target audience for the work. They just don't read fiction online. Yet. Or in sufficient quantities to support it commercially. (More on that at the end.)
Complicating matters, the literary writing community (here I'm using "literary" as shorthand for MFA, AWP sorts, the types who read Poets & Writers magazine and not Writer's Digest) is not all that eager to embrace business, entrepreneurship or how art makes money. Building your brand or platform is anathema to many. It's an additional burden that's been foisted on the writer by conglomerate publishers. In this world, writers deserve more support (by publishers, by government, by society) to produce their art free of the burdens of marketing and commerce. Things like the creator economy (Patreon, Kickstarter, and the like) are seen as exploitative, or as Big Tech killing the artist. (See: THE DEATH OF THE ARTIST by William Deresiewicz.)
There can be real derision in the literary community for the kind of writers who use Wattpad/Patreon/etc, as some believe this floods the market with crappy work, leads to piracy, dumbs down literature—all the sorts of arguments that are actually pretty old in publishing: the fear that real art just doesn't matter any more and it's a race to the bottom. (Complaints about too many books being published go back to the days of Gutenberg.)
It can hard to identify literary writers who are able to navigate this minefield, since the literary community is full of status anxiety and writers who chase prestige, where who publishes you matters more than what you earn, and few people talk frankly about the money, at least not as they do in the genre community. But if I had to point to a couple I've discovered in my years of observing the industry: Monica Byrne (doing well on Patreon) and Kelly Link (who has self-published). Kristen Tsetsi and Nicole Dieker have also self-published their work in the literary market, and Nicole especially has talked about the numbers.
Back in ~2012, there was an interesting experiment by some folks who came out of McSweeney's. They published a serial work (speculative fiction) that was collaboratively written and released via iPhone app. It was called THE SILENT HISTORY. It was a beautiful expression of what could happen if the literary market really pursued digital innovation. (There were some other experiments at the time that were exciting, The Atavist among others.) Sadly, THE SILENT HISTORY was way ahead of its time and the project was dropped, and literary startups like The Atavist are no more. But if they launched today, would they be any more successful? I'm not so sure.
Quick correction ... Tefler doesn't post his story ("Three Square Meals") on Royal Road. He posts on SOL and Lit, two erotica fiction sites with large reader bases.