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Writing: a business, a serious hobby, or a pastime?

I’m doing one of my regular assessments of where I’m at, in terms of books in progress or published, earnings from my writing, and future prospects.  I find it helps to take a cold, calculating look at my position from time to time, and figure out whether I’m achieving my goals, or whether the latter need to be revised, or whether I need to change how I’m going about achieving them.

In the process, I’ve been reading other creators’ assessment of their successes and/or failures.  Some of them seem to regard themselves as failures because they can’t earn a living from their writing.  They fail to understand that very few writers can do so – probably no more than 1-2% of us, if truth be told.  Yet, many of us (including yours truly) aspire to earn at that level.  The question thus arises:  are we fooling ourselves?  Are we living in cloud cuckoo land?  Or is that objective worth pursuing?

In my very first contribution to Mad Genius Club, back in 2013, I noted an article titled “1,000 True Fans” by Kevin Kelley.  He postulates:

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. These diehard fans will drive 200 miles to see you sing; they will buy the hardback and paperback and audible versions of your book; they will purchase your next figurine sight unseen; they will pay for the “best-of” DVD version of your free youtube channel; they will come to your chef’s table once a month. If you have roughly a thousand of true fans like this (also known as super fans), you can make a living — if you are content to make a living but not a fortune.

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. That is easier to do in some arts and businesses than others, but it is a good creative challenge in every area because 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, unlike the small percent of their fees you might get from a music label, publisher, studio, retailer, or other intermediate. 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.

There’s much more at the link.  Recommended reading.

I believed Mr. Kelly then, and I believe him now;  but the playing field has changed since he wrote those words in 2008.  Now, there are a whole lot more indie artists and content creators, all competing for the same entertainment dollar.  (For example, when I began indie publishing in 2013, Amazon’s Kindle Store offered less than two million books, both paid and free.  Today, it no longer publishes total numbers, but an extrapolation from various sources suggests that it offers approximately ten million books.  That’s a fivefold increase in six years, and they’re all chasing the same crowd of consumers.)

As Simon Owens recently pointed out:

But while the goal of generating 1,000 super fans may seem achievable, it’s actually tremendously difficult … To understand why it’s so difficult, one needs to consider the typical conversion cycle that leads to a casual reader transforming into a paying subscriber. A person doesn’t just land on an article, podcast, or YouTube video and then convert into a subscriber after consuming that content for the first time. It typically takes multiple touch points before that person even becomes aware of who you are as a content creator. Data compiled by News UK found that the average consumer had to come into contact with one of its media properties at least seven times before subscribing.

. . .

What does this mean in a practical sense? That in order to generate 1,000 true fans, you would need your content to reach many multiples of that number.

. . .

Was Kevin Kelly correct in his assertion that the internet opened up new avenues for direct distribution? Of course. But what I think he underestimated was how difficult it would be for creators to drive revenue in an ecosystem where they’re not only competing with plenty of free content, but also every other creator who’s trying to lock in their own 1,000 true fans.

Again, more at the link.  Owens also links to an article by musician Brian Hazard, analyzing his experiences trying to build a fan base on Patreon.  It hasn’t worked very well for him, and he has some interesting insights into the frustrations of trying to achieve success.

I think one thing all of us need to do is to ask ourselves, on a regular basis, whether we’re delivering what our fans want from us.  I’ve talked to a number of my more dedicated readers over the past year, trying to get a sense from them of where I’m fulfilling their expectations, and where I’m not.  Often this dialog can be frustrating, in that they know what they want, but I’m simply incapable of delivering it!  (For example, there have been periods when I haven’t published a book for up to a year, due to health issues.  I find I simply can’t write creatively when I’m in serious pain, and kidney stones will do that to you in spades!  I have to get beyond the pain for the creative writing genie to start working again.  Unfortunately, most readers either don’t know about my health issues, or don’t care.  They want Volume 3 of the series right now, and they don’t want to wait!  That’s one – but not the only, or even the main – reason why I wrote the entire “Cochrane’s Company” trilogy before publishing a single book in it;  to make sure I could deliver on the implied promise of a completed series.)

Cochrane's Company Books 1, 2 and 3 - 350 pixel

This brings us back to the headline of this article.  Each of us needs to be brutally honest with ourselves and our significant others in answering the question.  Is our creative writing a business?  If not, is it a serious hobby that can bring in a certain amount of income, albeit not enough to live on exclusively?  Failing both of those alternatives, are we being honest with ourselves and acknowledging that it’s a part-time pastime, something we find amusing and entertaining, but don’t expect it to support ourselves or our families?  Whatever level we write at, are we giving it enough of our time and attention to be successful at that level?  Are we giving it too much or too little?  Have we got our work-life balance right?  (My wife says I haven’t yet.  Sadly, she’s right . . . which is one reason for my current self-reassessment.)

If writing is a business for us, we need to be paying at least as much attention to editing, preparation, presentation, marketing and promotion as we are to writing.  The latter is only the first step in a long series of activities that all need to be addressed if we’re to be a success.  We have to be honest with ourselves about this.  For example, I find Kristine Kathryn Rusch’s “Business Musings” series of articles to be valuable inputs into a businesslike approach to writing.  In a sense, it’s a litmus test for authors.  If they’re willing to put time and effort into reading, understanding and applying that sort of resource, they’re approaching their avocation in a businesslike manner.  If they’re not, or they find it “boring” or “uncreative” or whatever . . . not so much.

If our writing is a serious hobby, it requires that we treat it as such.  You don’t find a true model airplane enthusiast who assembles his models in a slapdash, haphazard manner, with globs of glue marring the surface, paint and decals inexpertly applied, and generally looking as if it’s just been near-missed by an air-to-air missile!  A real enthusiast takes time and trouble to produce the best work possible.  Are we doing so, or are we just scribbling our manuscripts, not bothering to put much effort into editing and revision?  Obviously, we can’t afford to put as much time into those tasks as someone for whom writing is a business, a profession.  We have to earn our daily bread, too, and if we’re looking to another job to provide that, it has to take precedence over our hobbies, no matter how interesting we find them.

(Bear in mind how few authors actually make a living from their writing.  It’s a very small proportion of us.  Many of us, including myself at this time, have to rely on other income – our own and/or our spouse’s – to make up for what writing can’t or doesn’t yet earn for us.  There’s no shame in that, as long as we’re honest with ourselves, and keep a balance between income generating activities, so that one doesn’t cause the other to suffer.)

Finally, if our writing is simply a pastime, something that isn’t critical to keeping body and soul together, a pleasant occupation to be tackled in between more important tasks, we need to acknowledge that reality.  There’s no point in pretending that we’re a serious writer if we don’t intend (or are unable) to give our writing the time, focus and attention it needs to attain that standard of output.  Sadly, I’ve met dozens of that sort of writer.  They’ll spend a lot of money traveling to conventions, seminars on how to write, and other gatherings, almost all of which is wasted expenditure, because they won’t learn from what they hear and see at such events.  They enjoy, and flaunt, the title of “writer”, but aren’t willing to invest enough time and effort (and change their less-than-successful approaches) in order to become a successful writer.  Again, there’s no harm in being a “hobby writer” at all, and I know many who are quite happy to be known as such;  but they’re not deluding themselves.  Sadly, many others are.

If we see writing as a profession, we need to be working hard at building up our personal “1,000 True Fans”.  We need to be engaging with our fans on our blogs or over social media, constantly learning from our mistakes and reinforcing our successes, never ceasing in our efforts to become better every day.  This is hard work, and most of us don’t enjoy it.  Nevertheless, if we aren’t willing to invest that effort, how can we ever expect to achieve success – particularly when so many other would-be indie authors are investing it, and chasing hard on our heels?

Let me close with some personal good news.  I’m cautiously optimistic that with the help of a couple of “natural remedies”, alternatives to expensive and painful hospital treatment, I may have gotten a handle on my recurring kidney stone issues.  I wrote about them on my blog last month.  With that problem hopefully under control, I’m writing up a storm.

  • I’ve just finished the third volume in my “Ames Archives” Western series, to be titled “Gold on the Hoof”.  Look for it in July.
  • I’m working on the sixth volume in my “Maxwell Saga” military science fiction series.  I hope to publish it in August or September.
  • I’m also working on the third and final volume in my “Laredo War” trilogy.  I hope to have it out by the end of the year.
  • I’ve almost completed a stand-alone fantasy novel, “Taghri’s Prize”.  I hope to have that out this year as well.
  • I’m putting together a how-to book on preparing for emergencies and disasters;  not a typical “prepper” book, but one that’s based on cold, hard experience in Africa and the USA.  It’ll debunk a number of popular theories, and discuss real-world examples.  Publication date is uncertain as yet.
  • Finally, I’ve just signed a contract for a collaborative novel with a well-known military science fiction author.  We’ll be starting work on it soon.  It needs to be finished fairly quickly, according to the publisher, so we’ll see what we can do.

Sleep?  Who needs sleep?

14 Comments
  1. TRX #

    > the average consumer had to come into contact with one of its media properties at least seven times before subscribing.

    That’s interesting, but there’s no clear connection between cause and effect. I’m bombarded by advertisements for clothing, automobiles, clothing, and foods I’m not going to buy no matter how many ads they run.

    June 14, 2019
    • Nah, the cause and effect on this one is extremely clear; it takes several “touches” for a business or product to build enough of a presence in a consumer’s head to be a viable option when they’re choosing. This is exactly why you’re bombarded with ads: the companies are fighting for your working memory.

      There have been billions of dollars of research poured into this, and it’s why you see Pepsi and Coke supplying banners for little league teams, and bud and miller saturating sports games on TV – because one of the touchstones is, on average, a customer has to see a soft drink logo at least 7 times before it enters the working memory register of “options when I’m thirsty.” So you have lots of companies fighting for eyeball space for “will you even think of this as an option”, and then fighting to compete with your favourite drinks to be on the top of the “I want something. What do I want?” decision list.

      Indie publishers, being mostly indie authors, generally start ignorant of the extremely fierce war going on for their attention, and have a steep learning curve when they put a book out. Thankfully, the trad pubs generally aren’t very good at marketing either, so it’s not like we’re trying to compete against Mattel, General Motors, or Miller Brewing Company.

      June 14, 2019
      • Stanley Miller #

        The flip side of attracting fans and followers is keeping them.

        I can’t count the number of newsletters and such that I have unsubscribed from because they waste my time. Bad enough if the link to the new book is buried under two pages about your cat or whatever but if I get to it and it is some silly tracking link that my network blocks as unsafe, well I’ll mention it a couple times and then I”m gone.

        If you think the chatty e-mails work for you by all means send them but also have a second list for book announcements that just has the links, cover image and blurb, folks wading through their morning 200 e-mail dump will appreciate it.

        Having a blog or website is a good thing if it is well done and not an aggravation of pop-up menus and such. Put your book list down one side, titles of your earlier posts down the other up at the top, follow them with your less important stuff. Look at your site with and without ad-blockers, make sure what you want shows up and things you don’t like your host’s ads aren’t taking center field.

        Keep in mind the website site or blog is passive and waits for the reader to visit, while the e-mail reaches out to the reader.

        June 14, 2019
    • I’m thinking the research shows it’s a necessary but not necessarily a sufficient condition.

      June 14, 2019
  2. TRX #

    > aren’t willing to invest enough time and effort (and change their less-than-successful approaches) in order to become a successful writer.

    I suspect those efforts are worthwhile only if you’re an independent.

    I’ve read accounts from traditionally published authors who built their own marketing campaigns, only to find the print run was sold out and the publisher wasn’t interested in making another run because the latest figures showed zero sales…

    June 14, 2019
  3. TRX #

    > I’ve talked to a number of my more dedicated readers over the past year

    All too often, listening to what readers want leads to writing vampire porn…

    You have to be careful about feedback. You might have a group of readers who are enthusiastically vocal about $X, but chances are most of your readers don’t care, and some other portion dislike $X and wish you’d just STFU about the whole thing.

    You can’t *know* what the proportions are, but just because you get positive feedback from something doesn’t necessarily mean you need to write more of it.

    June 14, 2019
  4. They want Volume 3 of the series right now, and they don’t want to wait!

    Well, you could try to do like this guy does. He “only” co-authored 20 books in April 2019 and 16 books in May. Guess the May slowdown was due to him taking off Memorial Day weekend, maybe? And lots, lots more, but those were the only months I bothered counting. And lots more coming. All the titles I checked running to 250 to 300 pages. And Amazon is apparently copacetic with this. Makes James Patterson look like Patrick Rothfuss, and sends me away thinking KU is still a hive of scum and villainy.

    Also, Joe Konrath wrote a rather depressing blog entry recently where he essentially boiled his success down to luck. Very sobering read. Won’t link to it, since I’m guessing more than one link will gum me up in the spam blockers.

    June 14, 2019
    • “I am the master of my fate,
      I am the captain of my soul.”

      How we all long for this to be true! Captaining one’s soul seems a required responsibility to me, but mastering fate is a ludicrous idea. IMO. There are far too many factors in play.

      I agree that Konrath’s post is sobering and realistic. Here’s the link: http://jakonrath.blogspot.com/2019/06/your-marketing-plan-wont-work.html

      I’m rather relieved that he’s no longer pounding so loud on the drum of “the harder I work, the luckier I get.”

      I would say that hard work is necessary, but not always sufficient.

      June 14, 2019
      • I read the blog post, Mr. Konrath seems a bit salty about the whole advertising universe.

        My experience of paid advertising is that the local freebie paper half-page ad works pretty good, for pushing a retail store sale. Sales do go up after the ad goes in.

        Caveat, it doesn’t pay for itself. Sales do not go up enough to pay for the ad.

        Conclusion, it is a good way to get into debt really fast.

        Google, Bing, Facebook paid ads flat-out do not work. Every penny wasted.

        Having a web-presence, facebook page, Twitter account, nice for letting people know when the store is open and what’s on sale this week. Otherwise, complete waste of time.

        The one very interesting thing Konrath said was about book length. He likes 75K words because he can do five of them in a year. 1000 words a day, he can do it.

        I write -really- long, because I like to see what everyone is doing, and I like to find new characters. But this isn’t really supposed to be pure recreation, and I can find out what everyone is doing in a series of 75K books instead of one immense 203K tome of doom.

        I can definitely do 75k easier than 203K. So much less typing. ~:D

        June 14, 2019
  5. George Phillies #

    WIth respect to fan count, the number of Amazon authors is perhaps more important than the number of Amazon books. Chris Nuttall produces his novel a month, but all those novels together collect his fan base; he doesn’t need a thousand fen for each novel.

    June 14, 2019
  6. Synova #

    So what is a good place to learn about web site development? Is everything templates now?

    This is maybe a bit sideways to the post except for the idea of creating another potential point of contact with readers. Web sites seem less popular than they were for a while though. It’s hard to decide if the answer to “why bother?” is sufficient but it’s also possible that social media will upheave any day now.

    June 14, 2019
  7. “Are we living in cloud cuckoo land?”

    I certainly am. You should see my castle! ~:D

    June 14, 2019
  8. 23 skidoo

    June 15, 2019

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