Over the past several months I've explored several ways to build a diverse income through your creative exploits, from freelance writing to creating merchandise for your books to selling completely unrelated art. Today I'm going to talk about something that's become quite prominent in creative circles: subscription services.
What are subscription services?
When you hear the word "subscription," the first things you probably think are magazines and newspapers, because their business model has been subscription-based since the beginning. But subscription services can be for virtually any product.
This is particularly true in 2018, as the combination of increasingly busy lives and more trust in online shopping have made subscription services more appealing. There are even subscription services for ready-to-cook meals.
What do subscription services look like for authors?
As authors, most of us don't have the technical skills to set up our own subscription services, but third-party services can help us build a subscription-based income. Of these services, the most well-known is Patreon, but several alternatives have popped up in the past couple of years, like Podia. Even Kickstarter is jumping into the subscription service game with Drip, although Drip is currently invite-only.
Of course, there is another problem with the subscription-based model for authors: most of us can't publish twelve books per year. Heck, most of us can't even publish three or four books per year. So, what can authors offer subscribers?
I've seen authors on Patreon offer a variety of things:
Private updates on their novel progress and short snippets
Excerpts from their upcoming book
Short stories (often related to a world the writer has published books in, but sometimes a separate serialization)
Regular Q&A sessions
The opportunity to suggest topics for their blog, vlog, or short stories
The chance to name characters/make other suggestions for coming books
You can offer any or all of these things on your own subscription service. The one thing authors consistently recommend is to avoid creating extra work for yourself. Your subscription services should largely be things you already do, so it supports your novel-writing rather than becoming a separate job.
Pros and cons of subscription services
To be honest, I think a subscription service is possibly the smartest way an author can ensure a regular income, but drawbacks may still exist. I'm going to step back and take an objective look at subscription services so you can make the best decision for your unique career.
Regular income – With a subscription-based service, you get paid every month, and you can rely on that income to be somewhat stable from one month to the next. It likely won't replace your day job, but it will provide a nice side income.
Increased confidence/motivation – I don't know about you, but for me, there's something incredibly motivating about having readers be eager for my next book. A subscription service, even with only a handful of subscribers, provides even more motivation to keep writing.
You choose what you commit to – You can create as many reward tiers at as many different price points as you want to, or you can limit yourself to two or three reward tiers. You can expand those offerings as time becomes available to do more.
You deepen relationships with your super fans – Sharing behind-the-scenes content gives your readers a window into your writing process, and thereby who you are. You can also give them opportunities to influence your content, either on your blog or in your actual books. Last but certainly not least, all of these platforms provide ways for you to contact readers directly.
Regular donations are a hard sell – Most people are happy to buy a book once from a new author and to buy new books from their favorite authors as they come out. Those are one-time purchases that guarantee at least a few hours of entertainment. Only your super fans will be willing to fork over even $1 on a monthly basis. If you don't already have a significant fan base, you probably won't see much in the way of funding.
There's increased pressure to produce on a regular basis – If people are paying for monthly content, you need to produce that content on a monthly basis. And it needs to be good enough to keep people around. This can put an enormous amount of pressure on you, especially if you're doing all this on top of a day job.
The income isn't actually guaranteed – You will probably be able to 100% count on some of your subscription service income, but subscribers can quit their subscription at any time. You won't be able to calculate your exact payment until it's being processed each month.
Should you start a subscription program?
As I said before, I personally believe every author or at least every author writing a series should attempt to create some kind of subscription-based income. This is because you can use a lot of the content you're already creating – like excerpts and world-building notes – and get ongoing support to continue that work.
But the truth is the answer is different for everyone. You should only launch a subscription program if you're confident that you'll want to do the work every month. Since regular payments are a hard sell, you might also want to wait until you have a significant fan base. This is why I haven't started one of my own, though I do have plans to launch one eventually.
A quick note about Patreon
Patreon does have some competition now, but it's still the best option for authors. There are already thousands of authors on Patreon and millions of other creators and community supporters. People are more likely to support creators on a site they already know and trust, so unless you have a massive fan base to bring to one of the other services, you should probably stick with Patreon too.
Authors with subscription programs:
Note that this list only includes authors making at least $100/month so you can see how successful subscription programs work and the range of success authors can experience with these services.
Dianna Gunn is the author of YA fantasy novella “Keeper of the Dawn” and a columnist at Writer's Corner. She also blogs about creativity, life and books at The Dabbler.
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