Reasons to write
Money! Awards! Readers!
A warm welcome to November. I hope you all had a good Halloween. We had our 8 year old dressed up as Evil Dr Strange from What If? which worked out pretty well. After everything was shut down for Covid last year it was fun to get out onto the streets again - Norwich does good Halloween.
Today I’m taking a look at different reasons why we write. It’s not a zero sum thing, of course, but I think it’s crucial to examine your own motivations at the start, as it’ll help you not only set expectations but also get closer to your goal. At the moment, in 2021, your particular ambitions can significantly affect your approach to publishing.
Before then, a couple of bits of housekeeping. First up, there’s another great book promo kicking off today called Sci-Fi Fantastic. I like that name because it sounds like a classic anthology magazine from the 50s or 60s. There’s a LOT of free books to go grab (including No Adults Allowed, by me). Do check it out.
Meanwhile, a new chapter of my on-going serial Tales from the Triverse went up on Friday. If you missed it, here it is:
OK, continuing my How to Write Serialised Fiction guide…
Before we go any further it’s time to figure out why you’re here, because it might be for considerably different reasons to me. People write for all sorts of reasons - to entertain, to make money, to banish inner demons, to make a point, to win awards, to explore an idea, to change the world, to be remembered, to inspire others - and it’s important to figure out why you write up front.
Why? Because if you don’t, you risk chasing after the wrong targets, and setting yourself the wrong measures for success. Don’t go after someone else’s dream.
When I wrote the first version of this guide five years ago, I was quite clear that serialisation - and writing in general - was not a way to make money, let alone a viable living wage. While it is still extremely difficult to turn your writing into a useful income stream, the good news is that things have shifted in that half-decade considerably. Self-publishing is even more established, with many readers not distinguishing between it and trad publishing, and the creator economy has exploded in myriad directions, in the process providing viable financial opportunities.
Let’s take a closer look at some of those motivators.
This is the tricky one. Let’s be honest up front: if you want to make lots of money, don’t be a writer. JK Rowlings don’t come along often. Or, to take an example from self-publishing, not everyone can be a Mark Dawson. Or, to look at the world of Patreon-powered serialised fiction, not everyone gets to be a Zogarth.
Most writers make very little money. Elle Griffin covered some of the numbers in one of her newsletters: “There were 2.6 million books sold online in 2020 and only 268 of them sold more than 100,000 copies.” Doesn’t matter how you get to market, books just aren’t operating at the scale needed for authors to make a reliable, livable income. That’s why so many professional authors have part-time or even full-time jobs alongside their writing. Here’s Elle’s post:
I would strongly advise to not go into writing, especially serialised writing, with the single, specific goal of making lots of money. It’s a recipe for disappointment.
All that said, and to disagree with myself for a moment, there’s never been a better time for writers than right now. There are lots of opportunities to earn for your writing, from paid subscriptions to Patreon and Ko-Fi style patronage.
Unless you’re extremely fortunate, though, building up your writing income to a sufficient level to quit the day job is going to take many years, so keep that in mind.
If you want to get on the shortlist for the Booker Prize, or the Women’s Prize for Fiction, or in fact any prize whatsoever, big or small, you only really have one option, which is to go the traditionally published route. While this is disappointing for indie authors, I do understand the predicament faced by awards bodies - the publishing industry keeps the scene manageable and ensures a certain level of coherence. Add self-publishing into the mix and everything gets much more complicated very quickly.
There are awards for other publishing routes, of course. Wattpad have The Wattys, and winning one gives an instant adrenaline boost to your book (as I discovered with my first serialised book, A Day of Faces). Amazon have various literary awards for self-published work, some of which have hefty prize money attached. At the moment, though, none of these have the same cultural cachet as something like the Booker.
Bottom line is that if you’re interested in literary prizes, or critical acceptance, or being part of that mainstream literary conversation, you’re not going to get there by publishing a serial online.
Now we’re talking. As that Elle Griffin newsletter noted, very few books sell in big numbers. As she notes, “the more likely thing is to sell between 0 and 1,000 copies—and that was 96 percent of books.”
A maximum of 1,000 copies? Even if you factor in books being borrowed and shared, that’s still a very small number of readers overall. Forget about sales per se, and how much the book is earning - it’s just not many eyes on the words. Of those sub-1,000 purchasers, an even smaller number will have started the book, or finished it.
I can’t help but compare that figure to A Day of Faces, which currently sits at 183,000 reads on Wattpad. That’s a maximised number, though, as it’s cumulative across all the chapters. A more comparable and relevant figure would be to look at how many people read the first chapter - that’ll be closer to the actual number of people who came through the door. For A Day of Faces, we’re talking 32,100. That’s a lot of people, especially compared to the tiny numbers seen by traditionally published novels. Bear in mind that I’m by no means a big shot, either - some Wattpad writers have readerships in the millions.
Most of us write because we want the work to be read. If this is a primary motivating factor for you, then publishing online in serialised form is an incredible opportunity. As well as those raw reads, A Day of Faces also has 1,300 individual comments left by readers, which is a level of feedback and interaction you don’t get to enjoy in many other literary forms. There are people in the world who read and enjoy my work, and I have the proof right there. I can’t think of a better motivator, or clearer validation.
It was all worth it.
Combine these numbers with the more recent monetisation opportunities and we start to get into very interesting territory. Those sub-1000 sales figures for trad books? That’s a single purchase, probably at standard paperback pricing. Unless you write and publish another entire book, you’re not going to get any further income from that project. With online readerships, those are all potential subscribers, all people who will come back week-on-week, and some of them will be happy to support you with a paid sub.
To continue using A Day of Faces as the example, think about those 32,100 people who started reading the book. They are all potential subscribers. Of course, only a tiny percentage would ever convert to paying readers. But even if only 5% liked the work enough to pay for it - and were in the financial position to do so - that’d still be 1,605 subscribers. If they each paid £3.50 per month for early access and additional bonus content, equivalent to the price of a single coffee, then suddenly we’re talking about £5,600. Per month.
That noise you just heard? That’s the publishing industry flipping upside down.
I put A Day of Faces out entirely for free in 2015, which I don’t regret. It was a different scene back then, and it helped to establish me as a writer (both to readers and to myself). It’s now 2021 and I have three books behind me, and the situation for online serials is very different. I’m excited to see what happens next.
When I started writing that first serial on Wattpad in 2015, it was primarily an experiment to see if I could pull it off. I thought it might be fun. I soon discovered that not only was it possible, it was the most enjoyable form of writing I’d ever attempted. It effectively cancelled any sense of writer’s block and has enabled me to publish consistently ever since.
There’s no way I would have attempted to write my fantasy epic The Mechanical Crown without becoming a serialised fiction writer. Even if I had, I absolutely would not have been able to complete it, 250,000 words later.
If you don’t care about awards, or prestige, or money, or even readers, then know that writing serials will help you write more, which in turn will help you write better. And, really, that should be enough.
I’ve been going doing several newsletter rabbit holes over the last few months. Each week I’m going to look at recommending something to read. Today let’s talk about:
Here’s a quick flow chart of how I discovered Molly Knox Ostertag:
Also: I really need to work on my handwriting if I’m ever going to letter my own comics.
Molly has just completed a whistle-stop guide of how to write and illustrate a comic, covering everything from concept through to inking, making covers and publishing. As someone who has always wanted to make a comic it was an invaluable read. It’s also very succinct and straight-to-the-point.
I’ll leave it there for today. Thanks for reading!
Simon K Jones