The one where Zogarth earns $20,000/month writing fantasy on Patreon
The author Zogarth started serialzing his novel The Primal Hunter on Royal Road in September of 2020. One month later, in November of 2020, he launched his Patreon page, earned $5,000 in his first month, and quit his day job. Now he’s a full-time author earning $20,000/month from his 3,200 patrons.
As I get ready to publish my own novel as a serial, I reached out to Zogarth to ask for some advice. He agreed to join our Discord server for Substack writers and answer some questions as part of a live conversation. Here is the transcript from our discussion edited for clarity.
How did you get your start?
I've been reading on Royal Road for years and before that, I was reading on a lot of other online platforms. I pretty much ripped off all of the other popular writers when I wrote my own novel. I started to publish whatever I'd already read online, and then people appeared to like it, and one and a half months later, I quit my job and now write on Patreon and Royal Road.
It's actually a pretty straightforward process. I began posting in the middle of September 2020. I already had a backlog of 160 chapters—around 1500 pages—and I was prepared to post them online. That meant I could work my full-time job and post seven chapters, sometimes more, every week on Royal Road. I could essentially build a following and have consistency as if I were writing full-time already. After one and a half months I had built a pretty good following.
The way Royal Road worked at the time was that whenever you posted for 30 days you’d reach the trending page—which meant you were prominently displayed on the front page. A lot of people clicked my fiction from that and I had around 50,000 to 65,000 views a day during those 30 days. After a week of trending, people began asking for a link to my Patreon.
I hadn't even considered making a Patreon back then because I was working long hours at my normal job and I was like, “Oh I'm just posting my novel for fun.” Then people kept asking me for a page—so I created one. My first month on Patreon was in November of 2020 and I made around $5,000 that first month. So I quit my job.
Pretty much every story on Royal Road is LitRPG—which I write. If you write in that genre and you publish a lot, there are a lot of people who search for those kinds of stories and you will get on some of the trending lists and gain a following—but only if you post a lot.
I never really considered publishing my novel, to be honest. I began publishing it because I wrote it for myself to de-stress, and I hadn't really considered publishing it online. I had full-time employment and didn't need anything out of the novel—that it became my job is just a happy coincidence.
Now, I publish six to seven chapters a week around seven pages each—that's around 60 to 70 pages a week. I burned through my backlog through a mix of low productivity (due to dealing with the whole publishing thing) and working full-time when I began publishing. Now I publish as I write—more or less. I normally have a few chapters ahead in case of emergencies. At least I try to.
I typically spend an eight-hour day—or longer—working on my fiction. There are a lot of other things you need to do besides write—like the community aspect. A lot of people pay for pricing tiers because they want to join the Discord and because they want to comment on chapters and discuss things. So I spend a lot of time on Discord just chatting with people.
If people are part of a community, they are more likely to stay, and they're more likely to keep being part of the community. I even have four patrons who pay me $50/month. It's a joke tier. I think around 10 people have bought it so far in total—and I'm not complaining. I make fun of them for buying it though and question their financial decisions, but it is also amazing that people are willing to support authors to that extent.
What is your writing routine?
I get up late, I edit the chapter I wrote the night before, and then I post it on Patreon and Royal Road, and schedule out all the chapters. Then I take a nap or something and start writing in the evening. I tend to go to bed around four or five in the morning. I've always been a night owl so that's one of the perks of the job, you can write whenever. I've taken one two-week break and that was because I was moving. So, I couldn't post for good reason.
As for writing, I start by plotting an awesome moment that I want. And then I pretty much think about how I can get through to that moment. I pretty much think about the climax of a movie first and how I can get everyone to that point and make it awesome. So I don't really plot as normal, it's a bit weird to explain. A lot of anime and other things like that also go for moments—and it seems to work because people like it.
What tends to work really well on Royal Road is incredibly long stories. Readers don't even want to touch a story if it doesn't have 1,000 pages, just to put things into perspective. They want to keep reading for decades to come. One of the most popular stories on the platform was taken down not long ago and it had 27,000 pages. And the author took it down because they got tired of always editing it.
There are a few things about Royal Road that are annoying when you post. For example, anything LGBTQ you pretty much can’t write about, because you're going to get your story downvoted. You're going to get criticized and people are going to hate it. If there's even a hint of a gay or bi character anywhere in the novel, it won’t do well on the platform. In fact, any romance is going to get hated on because people hate it for some reason on Royal Road.
One of the biggest stories on Royal Road right now—and the most fun one—is called Beware of Chicken, and it's about a guy who farms and has a pet chicken and a wife and he's just a happy guy. It's one of the safest stories, and it's just a happy story, and everyone likes it.
My content, on the other hand, has warnings for profanity, sexual content, and traumatizing content—and that also tends to do well on the platform. So far I have no sexual concept in mind, and I don't know about traumatizing content—though that's very, very subjective. I do have plenty of profanity but I guess that's just an element people like when it comes to fantasy. I just want to be able to write anything I want to, so all the warnings are there.
How do you schedule out your content?
Treat it like a business, but don't let people know you're treating it like a business. I think one of the biggest mistakes people make is to launch any kind of fiction with a Patreon. Because if you have a new Patreon with like one or two followers who are often just family members, people are really unlikely to click it.
Build up some hype and then launch a Patreon and have a good first month—that's what I see from all of the big ones. You need to come in prepared. Note in your description that “I'm going to publish seven chapters a week for the next five months” or something like that. “And then after a while, it will go down to five a week.” Just make it clear that “hey, I'm coming in and I'm serious, and I'm going to keep publishing it. So it's safe to read my story. “
And then commit to posting at the same time every day. Never post on full hours or half hours because the front page is going to get flooded. I've found that people are more likely to read when no one else is posting—you just have less competition. For example, I live in Denmark so I don't have Thanksgiving, so I was one of the few people who published on Thanksgiving. I didn't even know it was Thanksgiving before someone told me. It’s the same on July 4th.
I keep posting on Christmas and New Year's even though a lot of people take breaks then. I perfectly understand that and will also take a break next Christmas just because it can be annoying to publish your chapters, get everything scheduled, and keep up with comments while you're sitting at a Christmas dinner. But it’s all about expectations.
You can always include a note or something that says, “hey, I may not respond to any comments on this one because I'm currently on holiday, but I wanted to be nice and post something for you guys anyway.” Then you actually earn brownie points while you’re away. The important thing is for people to trust you—that means never miss a deadline. If you've promised a deadline you stick to the deadline. Don't ever take a break without at least giving a warning a week or two in advance that, when the new month begins, you're going to take a break on the next month.
How Patreon works is that they charge you upfront. So you need to be transparent if there isn’t going to be content after they paid for it. People can call you out on stuff and people are going to be more loyal if they trust that you are going to do what you say you're going to do. So far I haven't missed a single posting day unless I warned them I was going to take a break.
And I will take a break if I get too tired of it. Shirtaloon has managed to take a month break every time he finishes a book or something—and he makes that work. But right now I just take a holiday whenever I feel like I need a holiday. Last time I needed to move and I have something I might want to attend in August so I may just take a break again then for two or three weeks.
How did you build your online community?
I have a Discord server, though I can’t see how many people are in it because you can’t see how many people are in a Discord when there are more than 1,000 people in it.
The Discord is free for everyone to join—you don’t have to be part of the Patreon. But of course, you can link Patreon and Discord, so supporters automatically get a role and access to certain sets of stuff on the Discord and they get a different color. Some people even want to pay $50 so they can have a different color on the Discord.
The community aspect is time-consuming depending on how much time you're willing to spend on it. I spend a lot of time on my Discord, but I know all the big authors rarely spend any time on their own Discord—it just depends on how long they've been in the business. Some authors have been gone for years, they just begin zooming out and not being as active on the Discord. Some of them even have Patreon tiers that allow readers to write to them as one of the benefits.
But I do have a relationship with some of my readers. There are a lot of people you recognize on Discord and also Patreon who, pretty much every chapter release, talk a lot on the Discord or discuss the story a lot. I find it funny to tease them. Like when someone mentions a character they really like I’ll say, “yeah, it's gonna be sad when he dies.” It’s like a spoiler for your own book only it might not be true.
How do you entice readers to pay?
I have always said you don't become big on Patreon or Royal Road by having a good story—you get there by having an addictive story.
I'm convinced that if Lord of the Rings or George R.R. Martin launched on Royal Road they would get shit all over, they would flame down, and no one would read the story. There will be a few readers who say “oh yeah this is really good,” but a lot of others will be like “not enough chapters, too slow with updates, too short,” and then just leave.
So again, there’s a lot of quantity over quality—and you pretty much have to find a good middle ground between those two to keep the story going. That’s the big draw of it. I often compare it to soap operas that have run since the 70s. They produce up to five episodes a week, and they still keep going. They have consistent viewers and everyone who watches it knows it's bad, but people are still invested in them because they've been watching it for so long. That's pretty much what you recreate.
Cliffhangers are the most important aspect of the game. End on a cliffhanger where you know something really exciting is about to happen, and then cut off the chapter and say, “read tomorrow, or go pay me $5 and start reading right away.” For example: if I have a part with a lot of fighting and then there is this big dramatic moment where the big bad guy rises again and the reader’s like, “oh shit, it's not over yet,” and then I cut off the chapter—people want to read right away.
Because I'm writing a LitRPG, one thing I've noticed that people like a lot is loot cliffs. It’s like in games where you get some loot—some item—but then you show the name of the item then cut off the chapter so the reader doesn’t see the description of what it's all about. People really like those things because they want to see what it is. A lot of people play Dungeons and Dragons and that is one of the most exciting things—to find new loot—so I try to recreate that feeling.
You can have too much of a good thing though. I always say you need to climb the mountain before you can push someone down the cliff. So you need to really climb up the mountain, build up a great scene, and then have some cliffhangers a couple of chapters in a row. For example, at the end of my first arc, which is 122 chapters, I had a very long fight that was four to five chapters long—and every single chapter ended on a cliffhanger. Over the week that I posted those, I think my Patreon grew by 200 people and more than $1,000. So it’s maybe a bit immoral, but it works.
You also lose subscribers at the end of every month, or if you take a break, but I'm still in the growing phase—my graph is only going up so far. I reckon if you talk to people like Shirtaloon and others—they're more experienced with the downward slope that comes afterward.
I think one of most important things is to have fun while you're writing. If you don't actually enjoy writing the story you're writing, you are going to kill yourself with stress. So if you like the cliffhanger, that's your jam, this might be perfect. I wrote all these chapters without ever planning on publishing them, and I still had cliffhangers on all of my chapters. That’s just my default way of ending a chapter. I think, I need to end the chapter somewhere, I'm around my word count target, let's just throw in a cliffhanger in there and start up the next chapter.
At one point, you raised your prices. How did you (and your readers) handle that?
At the time I had three tiers at $3, $5, and $10. The $3 tier at that time offered five advance chapters—five chapters a week that you could read ahead of the Royal Road. For $5 you could read 25 chapters or five weeks ahead and be all caught up. For $10 you could read 25 chapters ahead—the same as the $5 tier—but you also got all of these side stories and stuff. So the $10 tier was pretty much, “hey you get all these side stories and you support me more.”
But I figured out that writing a new side story every single week is kind of hard because you need to get out something new and unique and not just continuing the main story every single week. Every sixth or seventh piece I wrote was a side story and I reached a point where I honestly couldn't get anything interesting out. So I held a vote: what if instead of writing a side story, I just wrote an extra normal chapter that the $10 patrons got?
So I did a poll among my $10 subscribers and 120 people voted that yes, they just want more normal chapters. Zero people voted for more side stories. Then I did a separate poll for the $5 readers and they were more split. At the time, the value of the $5 tier was that you were all caught up, you're reading the latest chapter that is written—and they wanted to keep read the latest chapters at $5 always. People don't like to be told, “Hey, you need to pay $5 more to be up to date.” So what I did for that tier is, I had a lot of old side stories that used to be locked away behind the $10 tier, and I started sending them those.
At the same time, for the $3 tier that was getting five chapters ahead normally, I upgraded them to getting 10 chapters ahead. That made it so that everyone got something and everyone wins. It made it a little worse for the $5 patrons but I took a bit of the pain off them by saying, “Hey, I know it hurts, but you're going to get some cooler side stories to add on to what you already paying now, you don't really lose anything per se, but you do get something.” And I think that helped a lot.
I was also very open about why I did what I did and what my plans were. I communicated it within a good timeframe and said “Hey, if you don’t like this, I want you to know a month ahead so you can just drop your Patreon if you don't want to support, or just pay twice a month if you think $10/month is too much, or even just pay every second month, that's totally fine. Any support is of course appreciated.” Just being transparent helps a lot. People are way more likely to support whatever you do.
That being said, price changes on Patreon are extremely risky. I know a lot of people whose Patreons began falling when they did that. But I made a proposal, I made a plan, and I ended up growing my Patreon from $9,000 to $13,000 the month that I did that because I managed to convert people.
I always say treat the story like your baby—like your story is your passion project—but treat your publishing platform as a business. Don’t think about the publishing aspect with a creative mind, think about it with a business mind. Think about how to optimize how you actually earn money from your passion project because as long as you earn money from your passion project, you can keep writing your passion project.
I have a bachelor's degree in business economics and a master's degree in business management, so it kind of came naturally to me to think about my Patreon as a business right away, but I think a lot of writers are creative by nature and they need to really sit down and figure out how to treat their project like a business.
You may be the greatest writer on earth but even the greatest writer gets agents to handle all the business for them. As indie writers, we can’t really afford to have an agent. In fact, consider not getting an agent, because you don't really need agents unless you are going for one of the Big Four companies, and the chance that you ever get signed with one of the Big Four companies is really, really small—not to mention, you might not even want to get signed by them.
When do you put your books on Amazon?
I signed with Aethon Books—the same company Shirtaloon did. My book is going to come out sometime next year exclusively via Kindle Unlimited, but it’s still early stages.
What you do is: say the first book is the first 60 chapters of the novel, then you take down the first 60 chapters from Royal Road, Patreon, etc.—If you have any PDFs lying around you remove those too—and then you put those up on Kindle Unlimited, leaving every chapter after that up on Patreon.
The idea is that you cut off access to new readers on Royal Road, but people that read on Amazon find that there and then keep reading on Patreon. So it's kind of a way to not screw over your existing audience, while still monetizing the earlier part of the story that is no longer being monetized on Patreon (because it’s free on Royal Road).
A lot of Amazon readers then come into Royal Road because they read the first book and they want to continue reading the story—they Google it and find a small note on the blog about “hey, the rest is on Royal Road,” and they realize they can read the rest for free on this website. That's pretty cool.
As a publisher, Aethon Books mainly provides time. I still earn $18,000 to $20,000 on Patreon every single month and I need to keep writing to keep that up. When you need to go out and get a new cover, an audiobook contact, find a deal with Amazon. etc. that takes a lot of time. I live in Denmark where Amazon doesn't exist so I have no idea how to deal with that company, but Aethon will spend a lot of time researching things to get into it, and they pretty much handle everything.
That's one of the reasons why I signed with them. You just have to send them over the manuscript. They make things easy and they streamline it for you and they pay for a new cover and they pay for marketing and they pay for proofreading so you don't need to spend anything yourself.
As far as I know, Kindle Unlimited pays money per page read—since I write longer novels, Kindle Unlimited is a lot better than publishing with normal Kindle where people just buy your book for $5 on Amazon. For shorter books, you can publish via normal Kindle and there are, of course, a lot of Royal Road authors who decide to publish there, instead of on Kindle Unlimited, because they want to keep everything up on Royal Road. You’ll likely earn less money doing that, but you keep all control of your novel, and you can keep it on whatever website you want. A lot of authors also run their own websites, and they don't want to remove it from there.
If your book is in Kindle Unlimited, you have to remove it from everywhere. So if you take the first 70 chapters and put them on Kindle Unlimited, you need to remove them from Royal Road and Patreon and everywhere. But that’s only true on Kindle Unlimited. If you go with traditional KDP, you can still keep up all the other places and still earn money from those.
And then of course I will just keep my Patreon going because there's literally no reason to ever remove your Patreon. Pay close attention to older contracts that may want to change what you’re doing with Patreon. Many of the new internet publishers know about Patreon, and they know that big authors will never sign a contract if they want to take a percentage of your Patreon. Because Patreon is secure money, way more secure than anything else.
Some can argue that I wasted five years in university, but I think this is where it helped a lot. I think it's a stupid idea for people to think they can, as an 18-year-old, just come in and write a great story and publish that online. There are just too many people who want to screw you over. I can't tell you how many emails I have gotten from people who want me to sign contracts (that are illegal in pretty much all Western countries). There are a lot of scrupulous people who, once you start to make it big, or even just make it medium and show that you actually have some selling power, come crawling out of the woodwork to offer you contracts.
A lot of young people right out of high school may not be sure about what to do. They begin publishing something they've written, they get approached by someone who offers them a contract, and of course that person is a great negotiator who makes it seem like a really good idea—but they want something out of you. So a lot of writers wind up signing stuff that's a really bad idea for them in the long run. There are especially some Chinese companies that try to make people sign bad contracts. So I think having a few years of age is very good to have. I think it helped me a lot when I went into signing contracts.
I think you just need experience and a few years of life, not necessarily some special education, just a bit of maturity because otherwise, it can be overwhelming. There are going to be thousands of people, if you make it big, who will ask you for random advice and want you to sign for things and want to get things out of you. And that can be really hard to deal with us as a young person.
Even still, the most important aspect of all is that you need to get lucky. That's it. You just need to get lucky, there's no way around it. Unless you know people and can get shoutouts from other big authors, you need to get lucky. I'm writing the most popular genre on the website, and apparently, I wrote an addictive book, and people liked it so mine just took off. But I got lucky.
Countdown to Obscurity: 5 Weeks
My own serial novel, Obscurity, will debut right here in SIX WEEKS. Stay tuned.