This article, written by Kelly McClymer, is from the February 2023 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
Most indie authors focus on selling books through the major book distributors. We study ads and agonize over how to get visibility and traction on these sites. We watch our numbers go up and down with pride and alarm.
But, as we’ve been doing that, a few pioneer authors have been forging other paths to readership:
- Serial apps
If you find them all tempting, no worries. You can avoid overwhelm by reminding yourself you can do one of these—or none of them. They are extra, optional ways to reach readers with books you are already writing or have already written. Choose only what fits into your life, author strategy, and comfort zone.
Making money before you publish your book
Wattpad is a community of writers who share their writing, mostly for free, in chapters as they write. It was founded in Dec. 2006 as an online community of writers and readers who shared writing without compensation. By 2016, they had teamed with publishers and media producers to help find stories that wowed readers. They now call themselves a global entertainment company and have added a publishing arm, and WEBTOON Studios for films. They advocate the platform as a way to expand the diversity in fiction that Gen Z and beyond readers are demanding. Data indicate “four out of five Gen Z readers look to online sources for diverse stories.”
Still in beta, Creators Program (conditions apply) is Wattpad’s answer to the request by authors to be paid for the work that runs the platform. It is aimed at the writers who use the platform, not those who want to post a manuscript and do nothing more. Those in the program receive perks: opportunities for brand partnerships, mentorship, and to get paid. Another pro is getting early word of mouth on your story so that when you publish on retailers like Amazon, you already have some buzz.
Because you must be an active author in the Wattpad community in order to be considered for this program, however, it means learning another social media platform and what Wattpad readers like. Your stories must be in one of 15 specific categories.
Wattpad introduced an invitation-only Paid Story option in 2019. Since then, they have announced milestones such as 550 writers and 750 stories, a 30 million minutes reading average per month for stories in the program, and over $1 million paid out to indie authors by April 2021 (reported to be $2.6 million paid out to top writers in 2022).
Some other potential pros are clear: reader feedback as you release chapters, potential publishing deals with Wattpad Books, TV and film deals, and sponsored brand collaborations.
Patreon is a community platform that reports more than six million active patrons and 210,000 creators. Patrons made over $2 billion on Patreon before it reached its tenth year in operation. The platform takes the ancient “patron” model for creatives and artists into the modern age. Instead of having one wealthy patron, as they did in Elizabethan times, a writer or artist gets their support directly from the fans and supporters of their art in small monthly contributions.
The platform is free to set up but requires the writer to bring fans and supporters to the community platform and subscribe. This is done by offering different levels of patronage, often starting at $1 a month, in exchange for something as small as a hearty thank you from the writer. For example, science fiction author N.K. Jemisin starts her tiers at $1 per month and offers a picture of her cat Ozzy in exchange. At $2 per month, patrons get two Ozzy pictures and occasional Patreon-only blog posts. At $5, Jemisin shares a previously unseen early draft of a short story or novel scene. Authors can get creative without a lot of cash or time outlay. It isn’t until patrons sign up for $50 per month that she offers a signed copy of any book that comes out during a patron’s subscription.
Choosing tiers is an art. Giving away something unique that fans will enjoy and that won’t eat into your writing time is a delicate balance. Studying successful writers and what they offer is the best way to see if this can work for you.
Pros: Earn regular income between book releases, reward your fiercest fans, have a little fun with your readers, and build your audience. If you have other creative or artistic offerings like music, painting, or filmmaking, you can showcase them here, where they have more value.
Cons: This is a platform for keeping fans happy between books, not a way to build a list. Even superstar writers like Jemison tend to bring in no more than a few thousand a month; Patreon takes a cut of the patron subscription.
Kickstarter has been around for a while, but novelists have not typically paid attention to (or been successful on) this platform until recently, unless they were offering something special like a collector’s edition or graphic novel. Like Patreon, Kickstarter gives a writer the chance to make money in between books or before a book launch. However, Kickstarter works on the short launch method where you put your Kickstarter offer up for 30 days and promote it heavily to reach your self-set goal. Only if you reach (or exceed) your goal do you have to fulfill your offer.
Novelist Brandon Sanderson’s $41 million Kickstarter is familiar to most authors. It made international news because it is outside the norm for most Kickstarters, and far outside the norm for most book Kickstarters. However, in a publishing world where a $2,000 advance is not uncommon, indie authors can create their own similar advance while testing the audience enthusiasm for that book. And you’ll know in advance what your book launch will earn before you invest in a cover and editing.
Authors Monica Leonelle and Russell Noelty have been helping authors run successful Kickstarters by running their own for Get Your Book Selling on Kickstarter. Their recommendations: set your goal low, be aware of the amount of work you will need to do in 30 days to get backers for your Kickstarter, and deeply understand the Kickstarter game as it applies to your backers and fans.
Like Patreon, Kickstarter is best fueled by your current readers and supporters like family and friends.
Unlike the Wattpad community, which is built on unpaid serial writing and reading, there are also paid serial apps that cater to the younger reader marketplace. They read on their phones, enjoy voting for their favorite serials and episodes, and otherwise like being part of a book’s active community as the book is being written and released.
The top three serial apps are Kindle Vella, Radish, and Yonder. All work in a similar manner: Authors exclusively release episodes of 500–5,000 words serially, until the book is complete. Readers use in-app currency to unlock and read episodes. Readers are able to vote up episodes/serials and follow authors. Authors are paid based on how many readers read and like an episode. Each platform has a few specific differences to be aware of:
Anyone can start a Vella (no curation or invitation necessary). Readers buy “coins” to unlock episodes, but authors are paid from a pre-determined monthly pool of money (like KDP Select authors), plus bonuses for bestsellers. Vella books and sales can be accessed from the KDP dashboard.
Radish is curated, so you need to be approved before you can publish. Anyone can apply. Generally, Radish wants a complete manuscript for your first serial (unlike Kindle Vella). They don’t want to make readers unhappy with serializations that don’t complete. Radish payments are complex and based upon the contract you sign (which does allow for negotiation). Radish also recognizes that authors looking to build readership may be interested in reaching a younger audience by serializing a novel pre-release.
A newer entry into the marketplace, Yonder was created by Wattpad to compete against Radish and Vella. This is an invite-only program, separate from Paid Stories (i.e., if you have a Wattpad Paid Story, and the same book serialized on Yonder, your reader would need to pay for access separately).
Writing serials requires slightly different craft techniques than you might use in a novel (hooks at the beginning and end to make sure readers start a new episode and eagerly look to begin the next).
Post-publication ancillary markets
Wattpad: Any perma-free first book in series can be released in chapters on Wattpad to reach a younger audience of readers for the rest of the series.
Patreon: Releasing snippets of original draft work can be done to keep those who really loved the published book engaged and feeling a part of the author’s community without extra work.
Kickstarter: Although best results come from new works, some authors have found a way to pay for collector editions of published work for their most devoted fans. A Mark of Kings is a great example.
We talk a lot about not having all our eggs in one basket. These non-retailer options are worth a look if you’re ready to expand your bottom line. As always, avoid giving away exclusivity except for short periods of time that work strategically for your author career.
Kelly McClymer has been a proud NINC member for 20 years and an indie author looking for the mythical easy button marketing for 13. Her permafree first in series receives new reads and upvotes every week on Wattpad. Her neglected Patreon profile reflects the reality that marketing matters. And her humorous Vella The Billionaire's Christmas Giveaway may not be finished until 2024, but she’s going to enjoy writing every episode.