The one where Shirtaloon makes $20,000/month writing LitRPG on Patreon

Travis Deverell—aka Shirtaloon—earns between $15,000 and $20,000 a month writing fiction for Royal Road. His first two books debuted on Amazon this year and his second one already reached number five—across all genres—on the Amazon charts. Here is our interview, edited for clarity.

How did you start writing serial fiction?

I had gone and done a university degree—an English degree—and had done a lot of creative writing. I had the good fortune of working with a local award-winning author who teaches creative writing at the university here in Tasmania and, after I completed that, I basically jumped straight into preparing for this.

I was quite lucky because I was collecting unemployment benefits before I started this—I was actually very poor. So I got to the point where it's like, “well I have to release now, because I'm either going to need to get a job, or have this be my job,” and I was really lucky that it worked out.

Royal Road is a platform where anyone can throw up stories. They have content guidelines for good taste, decency, or criminality—you need to avoid plagiarism—but for the most part you can pretty much put up anything you want there for free, which means zero barrier to entry, which is great for anyone looking to get in.

But this also means that there is a massive amount of content out there, much of which is of questionable quality due to the complete lack of filter. If you want to get any kind of success, you need to find some way to break through the noise—which I wanted to do—so I did a lot of research on how to make that initial breakthrough.

I also spent quite a lot of time just writing, writing, and writing. I think I had 75 chapters in the can before the first one came out on Royal Road—and then I did sort of a release Blitz at the start to try and get noticed. On Royal Road, the goal is to get on the front page. There's various lists from most popular, to highest rated, to the trending list for new writers—that's the one that is the aim to get on. But there's also top reviews, and I got lucky. I started releasing at the end of July 2019, and then I got this review in early August. It became the top review for something like seven weeks, which was just sitting on the front page, which is excellent.

So I started to build a readership—with a big spike based on being on the front page because of this review—and then about one month in I started to get people asking about a Patreon. 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. And there's an expectation that your Patreon will have a certain number of advanced chapters ahead of what goes for your Royal Road.

Different people do that at different levels. I know at least one successful writer who writes hundreds of chapters ahead—although he's definitely an outlier. I do up to 20 chapters ahead or essentially almost a month. So through Patreon, readers can get 20 chapters ahead of what eventually comes out for free. But there's nothing that I put out on Patreon that doesn't eventually go free. There's no hidden exclusive content.

When I started my Patreon I was very, very nervous—because that was the moment where I was like, “okay, this needs to work now, or I need to stop this and go get a job.” But my Patreon exploded very quickly—much faster than I anticipated. And that was when I started getting noticed because my Patreon did unusually well.

That first month, in September of 2019, I think I pulled in about $3,000—which, if you're just a single guy living frugally, is more than enough to live on, at least where I am. It was way more than I ever expected because I'd been doing research into how much money people make doing this, and that was already on the higher end.

Over the next year, it grew quite a lot. I released my first full volume, which took me about 10 or 11 months, and then I went on a big break because by that point I'd been doing it for quite a long time and I was tired. When I came back, I had another big spike in growth. And that was when things were really taking off and I got contacted by an audiobook publisher.

I started with Amazon, because there's sort of a fixed pathway for doing what I do. If you want to make money at it you start with Royal Road for free, then you move to Patreon, and then eventually you start transitioning to Amazon, which is very common. People do it with mixed success and I had a lot of concern when I started moving to Amazon because, if you go into Kindle Unlimited, you have to take down the content you're putting on Kindle Unlimited from everywhere else you have it.

Royal Road was, and is still to this day, a huge driver of new readers. So functionally you're exchanging Royal Road for Amazon for new readers, and if the Amazon thing doesn't work out super well, you may just be shooting yourself in the foot. Luckily, it's gone pretty well for me because, though a lot of people self-publish on Amazon, I’m going through a publisher and they do the marketing and the publicity, make sure it’s a professional product, provide good covers, and help get the audio book together—because I would have no idea how to even even start looking at that.

That was basically my pathway. I started off with Royal Road, went to Patreon and started generating revenue, and then eventually started releasing on Amazon. And my second book just came out on Amazon last week—and I got to number five on the Kindle store!

How much do you earn monthly as a writer? Is this your full-time job now?

I was actually offered a job—a five week contract—right when I went live on Patreon. But then my Patreon took off! In my first year, just from Patreon, my earnings climbed up to around $15,000 a month. And then that dropped down to about $10,000 when I went on a break. Then after I came back that quickly grew to somewhere between $15,000 and $20,000 a month.

It was a wild ride for the first several months. After not earning a lot for quite a long time and seeing how much was coming in I just thought this was some kind of prank. I mean, I’m paying more in taxes every quarter than I used to earn in a year—which is so great. I'm actually saving up to buy a house and to take my mom on a big holiday next year!

Most of my 2,772 patrons are at $10 a month, because $10 a month gives them access to everything. Anything above that is just pure extra support for me which I massively appreciate. The only real access those top-tier supporters get is a special channel on my Discord, where they can just ask me questions with the knowledge that I will answer them sooner or later.

Amazon is very new to me—my first book came out on Amazon in March and my second book came out last week—so I haven’t actually seen to what degree this will translate to actual earnings. Audiobook royalties are lower due to the production costs involved, but revenue per sale is higher. Kindle sales, which largely come through Kindle Unlimited in my genre, have a much higher percentage but lower cost per sale, which led to my first quarter income being closely equivalent from both streams. Podium who release the audio, and Aethon, who release the ebook have both been fantastic in helping launch my work and I'm very happy with their efforts.

But sales have been very high—I can tell just by virtue of them climbing up quite comfortably on the Audible and Kindle charts. My first book got to number 50 in the Kindle store, and my second one came out last week and it made it all the way to number five which, I'm not certain, but may be the highest LitRPG book to get that high. In my specific sub-genre, a huge portion of readers consume their content through Kindle Unlimited. And Kindle Unlimited is really a matter of how many eyeballs you get on your story.

My big concern once I started transitioning to Amazon, was that it would hurt my Patreon income but it has been just the opposite. It has opened me up to new readers and my patrons have actually grown a little. But if I make on Amazon a good chunk of what I make on Patreon already then I'll be very very comfortable—I've been very fortunate in that regard. There's not a lot of people working in this genre who have been lucky enough to get that kind of success—but it’s a growing genre. What I do as a model wasn't even possible 15 years ago.

Can you tell me more about your genre (and how to be successful writing in it)?

LitRPG is a bit of an unusual genre. Essentially it means that it has video game elements that are diegetic—they appear directly in the text. LitRPG means “literary role playing game.” It just means there's video game-style elements directly within the world of the story.

Sometimes that means the whole thing takes place in a giant VR simulation. Sometimes it might be just a weird effect of science fiction or fantasy. But that's essentially what LitRPG means—it means you’re world building. And if you’ve done a sloppy job with your world building, the readers will literally be able to see it on the page.

With LitRPG, it's important to know that when you're doing serialized fiction, there is still a very limited number of genres that are successful. Royal Road is such a big platform for building audiences, but the audience is looking for fairly specific stuff at the moment and one of those things is LitRPG—which is good for me.

If you want to do something a little more literary, then you aren't going to find anywhere near that level of success on that particular platform. So it's quite restrictive. There are some success stories, and I'm lucky enough to be one of them, but there are only a handful of people who really exploded on Royal Road, even though there are tens of thousands of stories that have gone there—most of which fade into immediate obscurity.

Which is why getting that sort of initial breakthrough and getting some visibility really helps.

Did you do anything specific to get that visibility?

What I did was schedule my releases. When I first broke in, I did extra chapters—three per day for the first week and then two per day for the second week—before settling into my current schedule of five chapters a week at about 2600 words per chapter.

By splitting those chapters out across the day, you can get onto the front page, albeit very briefly, because they always post the latest chapters on the front page. But that'll only put you on the front page for maybe an hour—maybe less because there are lots of chapters that go up every hour.

The other thing is: there are a lot of people who spend time scrolling through new stories and looking for great stuff that they can recommend. There are even a couple of reviewers who make great big lists that some of the most avid readers go to that say: this is the new stuff this month that's worth taking a look at.

Getting on those lists is great and the best way to do that is to get a chunk of content out early and be consistent. There's a lot of unreliability in Royal Road stories. You'll get people who start stories, get into it heavily, and then for one reason or another, they'll drop it. For readers, it's like reading half a book, and then finding the back half of the book is just blank—and that is terrible.

So everyone who reads a lot of serialized fiction has learned to recognize the red flags of when a book is about to go on indefinite hiatus. And as a writer you need to ensure that you avoid those red flags and sort of demonstrate to your readers that you are in it for the long haul. And one of the ways to do that is consistency.

So I set a schedule and I keep that schedule. I release five days a week, at the same hour every day, which is 9am my local time, and I make sure that those chapters are always there completely reliably. That is my way of showing people that if they invest in my story, if they invest their time and invest in my story, it will be there.

How do you maintain the quality of your work when you’re putting out that much content?

That's part of the appeal of serialized fiction, because it is being put out there in a less than complete state. I don't get as much time to do any kind of broad scale editing, I do that chapter-by-chapter. And because of my schedule, I don't have the time to stop and do great big revisions that I might like doing. I put out a book about every four months—which is somewhere in the realm of 200,000 words—but there still has to be that balance of quality vs. quantity.

But this is a genre that I think has an immense amount of potential—and it's still growing—and there's only a limited amount of it, at least in the serialized world. People who start on Amazon have a much higher level of quality because they're not coming from serialization. They take their time and it’s more of a traditional writing process.

But when you look at serialized fiction, because of that low barrier of entry, there are a lot of great ideas that maybe aren't as well-written. There are a lot of amateur writers. So bringing a level of quality to the subject goes a long way. And I'm not saying I'm the best at doing this, but I think I’m capable, and I studied what I needed to do to make it work on the platform. I think there’s still a way to go before LitRPG reaches mainstream awareness, but it is starting to grow on Royal Road and I've benefited from that. Like Wattpad is great for YA fiction, but Royal Road is a much better fit for what I’m doing.

If you want to get into serialization, 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.

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Travis said he gets a lot of questions about his journey, so he made a PDF that he sends to inquiring readers. Here’s that PDF for those interested.

I publish interviews with successful authors every other week. Subscribe to The Novelleist to get these in your inbox. Thanks for reading!