Why Patreon? Or, the economics of being a writer

Recently I had a lovely correspondence with Christine at Love Serially. She wanted to know more about how I was using Patreon to support my writing, since that was a new concept to her.

In all honesty, it’s a new concept to me as well! So here’s a little explanation of what it’s all about, why I’m doing it, and what I hope to accomplish in the long run.

What Patreon is

Patreon is a website that allows fans to directly support their favorite authors or artists.

What that means in practice is that an individual–a patron–promises to give a set amount ($1, $2, $100, whatever) to the creator every month.

$2 a month isn’t much from the patron’s point of view, but 500 people giving $2 a month is a rent check. (Assuming you have roommates. Ha.)

This is similar to crowd-funding websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, but different in that it’s an ongoing, rather than a one-time contribution.

What’s in it for the patron?

Well, on the immediate level, creators offer specific rewards to people at different patronage levels. I’ve seen creators offer:

  • exclusive access to stories
  • early glimpses at drafts
  • personal Skype sessions
  • original art
  • advance reader copies
  • signed books
  • monthly cat pix
  • cooking videos
  • the patron’s name and likeness included in a graphic novel
  • …you name it.

And, rather more to the point, the patron is directly giving the creator time to create. And that means more books. More stories. More paintings. More YouTube videos. More giant fantasy maps. More book reviews. Whatever the thing is.

Why creators need this

Because living, as you may have noticed, costs a lot.

Even if everything goes well, one needs food and shelter–for oneself and possibly pets and human dependents.

And a creator also needs materials for creation, like a working computer and a paid electrical bill, or canvasses and paint and, yes, also a paid electrical bill because it’s hard to paint in the dark….

And, as you may have also noticed, things do not usually go perfectly. I’ve gotten the impression that the creation of a Patreon account is very frequently inspired by medical bills or other emergencies. (There but for the grace of God go I.)

So the patron is paying the artist to spend their time creating things, rather than at a Real Job with a steady paycheck.

Warning: math ahead

If you’ve never tried to make a living off a creative endeavor, it may be hard to understand how much it doesn’t pay. Let me give you a concrete example. If you’re scared by math and you trust me, you can just read the bolded bits.

At the moment, I spend about 30 hours a week being a writer.* This is more than I’ve ever done before, so it’s hard to say what that’ll mean for my production, but it’s safe to say I’ll write at least one, maybe two novel-length works a year.

(* “Being a writer” includes things like research, weeping over scraps of paper with plot points on them, gnashing my teeth at WordPress, managing RSS feeds, designing covers, trying to understand Twitter metrics, and writing this blog post. Because those are no less a part of being a writer than the actual typing-out-a-story.)

Now, if I sell a $5.99 ebook–which is considered expensive for an ebook!–I get a royalty of about $4.11. On which I have to pay income tax. Let’s do a super ballpark figure and say I get about $3 a book.

Let’s have fun with rounding!

The minimum wage in my city is $15, but let’s be cruel and say that writers should only get $10 an hour.

30 hours a week x 50 working weeks in a year x $10 an hour = I should make $15,000 a year.

To get paid even a trivial amount for my time, I’d have to sell 5000 ebooks a year.

This might not sound so bad, but it’s…a lot. The average book sells 3,000 copies in its lifetime. Not a year. In its lifetime.

And that statistic is for a traditionally-published book that’ll be on the shelf at Barnes & Noble and have a publisher’s marketing team behind it. The numbers for indie books are way, way worse. (That number is from Publisher’s Weekly via Kameron Hurley’s excellent blog post, which you should go read, but wait until we’re done here, okay?)

If I write one book a year–which is all I can reasonably guarantee–I need 5,000 people who are guaranteed to buy it.

But, Emma, (you might say), you have older books, not just the newest one! And, sure, some people who read my newest book and love it will buy all of my older books. Yet even if someone purchases everything I have available, I still make about $20–before taxes. If I wrote series, relying on backlist sales would be much more viable…but I don’t.

More to the point, when you’re an independent author, finding readers is hard. Harder than the actual writing. They will not come to you. You have to seek them out. That means purchasing advertising or marketing (which is expensive), spending time shilling yourself (which is fine, but it eats hugely into the actual storytelling time), or giving away free books (which might get you a fan, but doesn’t make you any money up front).

Having fun yet?

Enter Kevin Kelly

Probably one of the most-referenced articles on the Internet is Kevin Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans. I’d read the original version a long time ago. The updated version was included in Tim Ferriss’s book Tools of Titans, so I re-read it. And started to do the math.

Here are some very selected selections that will give you the gist:

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce.

Here’s how the math works. You need to meet two criteria. First, you have to create enough each year that you can earn, on average, $100 profit from each true fan. …it is always easier and better to give your existing customers more, than it is to find new fans.

Second, you must have a direct relationship with your fans. That is, they must pay you directly. You get to keep all of their support, … If you keep the full $100 of each true fan, then you need only 1,000 of them to earn $100,000 per year. That’s a living for most folks.

In comparison, if I’m selling Kindle books–which have the least overhead–Amazon still takes more than 30% in royalties.

The number 1,000 is not absolute. …The actual number has to be adjusted for each person. If you are able to only earn $50 per year per true fan, then you need 2,000.

This was the kicker for me. If I write one book a year, that’s still only $3 per fan. Or $6 if I write two books.

Important to note: I might have a fan who wants to support me more. But if the only way they have to support my writing is by buying books, that’s still only $3 or $6 a year. Maybe they buy a paperback too and I get another $5. Still, not much.

(Likewise if you can sell $200 per year, you need only 500 true fans.) Or you may need only $75K per year to live on, so you adjust downward.

Sort of a plus here! I don’t need $100,000 a year. I have no pets, no dependents, no car, a roommate, a freakishly good deal on rent for my area, and I’m in more-or-less good health. And I have another job which I have no intention of giving up.

However, the only reason I’m able to write 30 hours a week is because I dropped down to a four-day work week. So I’m actually losing money by writing: about $350 a month. I’d like to make that back.

And, gosh, I’d like to be able to go on vacation once a year. And go to the dentist. And…save. In case my freakishly-good-deal-on-rent goes away.

The number I came up with was this: I would like to make $1500 a month in exchange for my 120 hours of writing. Or, $18,000 a year. That’s $12.50 an hour, if you want that.

(As an aside: am I the only one who does back-of-the-envelope math on actual envelopes? Because that happened.)

When it came down to getting paid via selling one book at a time, my realistic predictions of marketing effort vs. effect kept coming up on the awful side.

But, as it happened, the other thing that kept coming up in the Tools of Titans book–which is a series of interviews with highly successful people in many fields–was that if What Is Done does not work for you, make up something different.

Ergo, Patreon

I was already familiar with Patreon and in fact had a creator page, which I had set up and never done anything with. I toyed with several other ways I could go, such as charging for an exclusive fan-only community. But although I love interacting with my readers, everything I could think of was going to be a giant time sink. And the point here is that I need time to write and not starve while doing it.

So, Patreon seemed like the best choice of platform for a variety of technical reasons, mostly having to do with making things as easy as possible for everyone involved:

  • You can login with Facebook
  • Patreon handles credit card and PayPal processing for an extremely reasonable fee
  • It proves a space for a community, in which patrons and the creator can talk with each other
  • It has a proven, albeit small track record.

The last one was pretty important. The author N. K. Jemisin–who, I grant you, just won a Hugo Award–was able to quit her day job. (I’m not even interested in doing that.) An author I know slightly has a Patreon that covers perhaps her utility bills and maybe even groceries. So I knew it was possible to ask readers to contribute in this way, and have them respond.

Going back to my math: 750 people giving $2 a month would cover $1500 a month. Some people would probably give more, so really, you wouldn’t even need 750.

This is doable. In this world of 7.5 billion people, I am absolutely certain that I can find 750 of them who like my books that much. $24 a year is cost of a (cheap!) new hardcover. That’s something that most serious readers will do on occasion.

The next question was, how do I make it a better deal for fans to become patrons than buying my books individually? Without spending all my time creating one-of-a-kind rewards? Because I know myself, and that would stress me out so much.

I also have the disadvantage of not being a short-form writer. Many authors on Patreon offer monthly or twice-monthly short pieces as rewards to their patrons. I am so deeply envious of anyone who can write a short story at the drop of a hat. I write maybe one or two a year, but I would rather stick nails through my feet than promise to do it regularly.

But you know what I do have that is free?

Ebooks. Ebooks are free, when you’re the author and you do all the formatting and file-compiling yourself and you don’t have to negotiate a publisher contract.

So, as an independent author, I realized have the ability to offer my patrons a spectacular deal: everything, for $2 a month.

Yes, everything. My whole backlist; every new book; those once-or-twice-a-year short stories; deleted scenes, teasers, sample early-draft chapters, character art.

Not everyone will think it’s a good deal. And that’s fine. But I think I can find those 750 people in the world who will think it is.

Are you an author who uses Patreon–or are you thinking about it? Or, as a reader, does it interest you as a way to support authors?

If you’d like to see my Patreon page, it’s here.

1 Comment

  1. I’m in awe of people who write for a number of reasons, but one of the reasons is the problems mentioned above. It sounds very difficult to find time to write with the demands of daily life and I support ANYTHING that will allow independent authors to continue to produce their work. Thank you for sharing the logic and teasing out some of the numbers. It’s all so interesting!


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