The New York Times caused a stir recently when, in an article about pandemic book sales, it disclosed that “98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.”
Though this statistic was shocking to many, it is not new information. People don’t read books—and the ones that do aren’t buying them. To make matters worse, “books that publishers released” are only the “success stories”—those books that scored hard-won Big-Four publishing contracts—and those are already a small piece of the book publishing market.
According to Bookstat, which looks at the book publishing market as a whole, there were 2.6 million books sold online in 2020 and only 268 of them sold more than 100,000 copies—that’s only 0.01 percent of books. By far, the more likely thing is to sell between 0 and 1,000 copies—and there were 2.6 million of those last year (96 percent).
2020 online book sales according to Bookstat
(Even on the high end, there were only 11 books that sold more than 500,000 copies—which is paltry when you consider that the 10 best-performing Netflix films saw more than 68 million views. As it turns out, books as a medium just don’t have an audience—or rather, they have a very niche audience.)
As an author, this is distressing. If I can spend two to three years writing a novel and my best case scenario is having it sell a couple hundred copies on Amazon, perhaps it’s time to face the music and realize that writing books—like knitting or playing the harp—is nothing more than a hobby. Something I can do for fun on the weekends but should never hope to earn a living from.
And yet, I can’t help but wonder if somewhere in the middle lies a sweet spot: books that sell between 1,000 and 100,000 copies—that are loved by a small by devoted few. That might not sell enough to make it in the big world of publishing contracts and screenplay options, but could sell enough to be profitable—if only creator economy technologies are used.
The publishing industry needs to be disrupted
There’s no doubt that the current publishing model doesn’t work for authors.
If most books sell between 0 and 10,000 copies, then most books are earning between $0 and $42,000 in a year. An annual salary of $100,000 only happens once an author has sold 45,000 copies traditionally or 24,000 copies self-published—and there are very few books that sell that many (see above chart). Not to mention, an author would have to come out with one book a year to maintain that salary.
Based on sales prices from the average traditionally sold book and the average self-published book.
Many authors hope that securing a contract with a Big Four publishing house will provide more marketing and sell more copies of the book, but the reality is that traditional publishers are looking for a sure thing. They want an author who already has an existing platform and can guarantee an audience. And if the author has that, they might be better off going it alone.
As Rachel Deahl, news director for Publishers Weekly once told me: “Publishers are always looking for people with really big platforms. If Kanye West is going to publish a book, he's got a big audience already—you don't have to build an audience for him. Someone with a built-in audience, who can reach out to them and say I'm publishing a book, that book can become a bestselling book immediately.
“That's really hard in fiction. In fiction, publishers are looking at the long-term. They want to build an author so they can become a Stephen King or Gillian Flynn. Because now those authors have huge platforms.” Unfortunately, “most books don't succeed even with a lot of backing. Combine that with no marketing or publicity, chances are your book isn't going to sell well.”
Could the creator economy work for fiction authors?
If all of this sounds very upsetting to the aspiring author, perhaps there’s hope in my third point. After all, three percent of books still sell somewhere in that 1,000-100,000 range—and that’s enough of an audience to monetize if creator economy technologies are used.
As the going wisdom states: it only takes 1,000 true fans spending $100/year for a creator to earn a salary of $100,000/year—and there are 83,397 books every year that have at least 1,000 true fans. Theoretically then, an author could release a new chapter every week, charge subscribers $8 or $9 a month, and earn $100,000 a year—from only 1,000 readers.
Non-fiction writers are already doing it. As evidenced by this chart by Alexey Guzey, there are plenty of Substack writers who are putting out quality non-fiction content for their followers and monetizing it—earning in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and in some cases millions, just from reader subscriptions!
But could fiction do the same? That is a yet unanswered question. There are a few serial fiction writers on Substack—but none are paid. There are thousands of paid fiction authors on Patreon but only 25 earn more than $1,000/month, only six earn more than $2,000/month, and only one earns more than the $5,000/month (and she’s already a bestselling author).
The real success story here is N. K. Jemisin who was earning $5,068/month publishing fiction on Patreon before she received a traditional publishing contract and went that route instead. But she is the only real case study we have.
If we don’t yet have enough case studies to determine whether fiction could be successfully serialized and monetized like non-fiction content, we at least know there is a market for it. Wattpad currently has 90 million users who spend an average of 52 minutes per session reading books online—most Millennial and Gen Z. Similarly, Archive of our own (AO3) has upwards of 40 million users following fanfiction stories online.
On both sites, new chapters come out as writers write them and followers read and comment on those chapters in real-time. The problem with both platforms is that readers read for free and authors don’t earn anything from their work—but that is starting to change. With the launch of Wattpad’s Paid Stories in 2019, readers are starting to pay for chapters using micropayments—it costs three “coins” to unlock the next section of a book.
Unfortunately, the author does not get to decide whether or not their content is part of the Paid Stories program—Wattpad does based on how the book performed in its free iteration. And two years into the program Wattpad announced reaching only $1 million in author earnings—split among 550 writers.
All things being equal, that’s only $1,818 in total earnings, per author, over a two-year period—and all things are not equal. The more likely scenario is that a small percentage of those 550 made up the bulk of the earnings with the rest floundering at the bottom like the rest of us.
One Wattpad author, who wished to remain anonymous, told me her book reached 20 million free reads on the platform before she was invited to go paid last year. Since then, she has earned a couple million more reads and has averaged $500/month in earnings with her highest month topping out at $1,000. And this is with a YA romance novel—one of the best performing categories on the site.
If 20 million people are willing to read a book for free and a couple million more are willing to pay for it, but the author still only nets $6,000 to $12,000 in a year—what hope is there for the novelist as a profession? Even when creator technologies are used, there just aren’t enough people willing to pay for fiction for fiction authors to make a living doing it.
Amazon knows this better than anyone, and perhaps that’s why they announced, in April of 2021, the launch of Kindle Vella—a Wattpad competitor that allows authors to publish their books serially and earn 50 percent of what readers pay to unlock the next chapter. Because there are so many millions of us who will pour our books onto Amazon in hopes of becoming the next Dan Brown that Amazon will earn a pretty penny of those 50 percent profits—even if we only ever sell 200 copies apiece.
They’re like the gym membership that makes money on everyone not showing up.
Alas, I am one of those who can't help but persist in the dream—and I keep that kindling alive with one tiny spark of an idea: that we used to think no one would pay $5/month to subscribe to an individual writer when they could pay $4/month and subscribe to all of The New York Times—and Substack has since proved that wrong.
Perhaps that’s why, with my last candle, I still hold hope that we just haven’t proved the case for fiction yet. If you'll indulge my fantasy a while longer....
Which platform is best for fiction writers: Wattpad, Patreon, Substack, or Amazon Vella?
If I still harbor some hope that the creator economy might work for fiction authors, the question remains: which is the best platform for fiction novels?
Certainly, Wattpad and AO3 are obvious contenders for those who want reads over earnings. Both platforms have an enormous fanbase and offer the author a platform on which they can develop a following for their work. As an added benefit, in either case the writer retains the rights to their work.
(This is not true with Amazon Vella. If an author chooses to publish their novel using the platform it cannot be published anywhere else—and again, Amazon is earning 50 percent of the earnings here which is pretty steep as far as royalties go. Especially without the promise of any additional marketing and with an unknown market. The author can, however, remove their work from Vella after publishing serially and then publish the manuscript elsewhere.)
Because of this, Substack and Patreon have the edge when it comes to monetizing serial content (though Wattpad could be a contender later on depending on whether they open up their paid program). And because both platforms allow the author to maintain the rights to their work, there is nothing preventing those authors from putting their books up on Wattpad, AO3, and Kindle after the subscription period has ended.
Having determined that I would serialize my own novel as an experiment, releasing one chapter per week from August 2021 through May of 2022, I created both a Substack and a Patreon account to test the waters. Ultimately, though both have their share of merits, neither are ideally suited to fiction—yet.
Patreon, for instance, doesn’t have a free pricing tier which means I would have to build my platform elsewhere (Substack, Royal Road, social media, etc.) before attempting to sell into it. Substack does allow me to have a free newsletter that easily upsells into a paid version, but I don’t have access to all the pricing tiers I can get with Patreon. (Substack only allows me to have one monthly subscription fee, plus a “lump sum” donation bucket.)
Substack has the right idea—it is far easier to keep an audience on one platform and upsell them than it is to move someone from one platform to another—and yet I know pricing tiers are a must. After all, why would a reader pay $5/month to read four chapters of a book each month when they could buy a whole book on Kindle for $1.99? (This is why there are plenty of writers writing novels on Patreon earning $200/month—and plenty of Kindle authors earning $200 total).
To make the creator economy work for fiction authors there has to be added value for the reader. In my own case, I would love to have pricing tiers that would allow my readers access to an exclusive online community; be mentioned in the acknowledgements section of my book; write the foreword for my book; receive an autographed, collectors edition, hardcover copy of the book when it’s done; attend a wrap party at the end; or even elope to a gothic estate in France where we could write ghost stories together afterward.
This is, after all, how N.K. Jemisin reached her Patreon success. She had five superfans paying $100/month for signed, printed copies of her books and nine paying $50/month signed-author copies that came out while they were subscribers. That’s $950/month in revenue just from her top 14 fans! And authors can’t afford to miss out on that kind of patronage. (Think of Pottermore—the fandom just keeps on giving.)
Ultimately, I decided to serialize my novel using Substack—the whole process is already built-in and has been proven to work for non-fiction authors—but I still don’t know whether I will add pricing tiers via my own custom Stripe account, a Venmo business account, or even by combining my Substack account with Patreon pricing tiers. I think I’m still hoping that Substack will come out with the feature on their own by the time my book publishes on August 1st.
I have faith that Substack will get there. If not by my first book, then by my second. They have a proof of concept, a lot of investment coming in, and just this week announced the option to add sections to publications—which will allow me to have a newsletter separate from the chapters of my novel.
Even with the help of these emerging technologies, the creator economy might not work for fiction authors—nothing else really has since the invention of the television. But I’m going to run an experiment anyway and see what happens. Because you never know, maybe there’s hope for fiction after all—we just haven’t figured it all out yet.
As always, thank you so much for reading, and I’ll see you in two weeks!
Me holding a first-edition copy of A Christmas Carol, one of my favorite novels.
Fiction writers on Substack
I’ve been collecting and following authors who are currently writing fiction on Substack in hopes of learning from them as I get ready to launch mine. I add them to this Twitter list when I find them—here are just a few:
Monday Morning Mark by Mark Starlin is one of my favorite newsletters. He writes short, humorous, fiction stories that remind me of Deep Thoughts by Jack Handey (remember those?). I laugh out loud to myself almost every time.
Inykaethel is the memoirs of a vampire that I am very excited to read once it starts.
And if you’re wondering what order I put that in, the answer is aesthetic. I wanted to make it do that vee thing so that it looks like a flock of geese.
A discord server for Substack writers
All of us above (and several more Substack writers) have a discord server where we share all of our Substack writing secrets. You can join here.