What’s your dream? When I was a teen, I read Stephen King’s “The Gunslinger” and decided I wanted to be a novelist. I was already an avid reader but there came a moment as I finished “The Gunslinger” when I realized I didn’t just want to partake in stories, I wanted to tell them. Back then, I imagined writing a story, handing the manuscript to…someone…and their mind being so blown away that they would heap piles of money on me. From there I would retire to my writing desk to pen my next masterpiece without a care in the world. I’d never once thought about the practical opportunity to earn a sustainable income from creating stories.
Stephen King and J. K. Rowling tier writers are very few and even further between.
But that does not mean you can’t earn a living as a writer!
Back in 2008, Kevin Kelly penned an article titled “1,000 True Fans.” In this piece, Kelly argues that the power of direct connection through the Internet allows creators to earn a living from their art if they have only 1,000 True Fans.
Let’s break down Kelly’s theory and see how it can apply to self-published authors.
First, we need to address the two criteria Kelly identifies as requisite for building a True Fanbase:
- You must generate enough content to earn $100 from each True Fan per year;
- You must create and foster a direct connection between you and your 1,000 True Fans.
Alright, before I lose anyone, I know that both criteria seem tough. $100 a year from book sales is unrealistic. If you sell your book for around $15, you’ll be taking home around $8 a sale after printing costs. I’m guessing most authors aren’t putting out more than one book a year. $8 and $100 is a big difference.
Doing the Math
As Kelly points out, his count of 1,000 True Fans is arbitrary. He’s just making a point, which is the core of what we’re talking about today—breaking down your expectations allows you to set real and achievable goals. To achieve sustainable income as a writer, you must first define the parameters.
Here’s a better way for authors to think about the imperative to reach True Fans: determine how much you want to make on your writing each year. Kelly’s 1,000 True Fans formula results in $100,000 a year earning if all the criteria are met perfectly.
Honestly, though, $100,000 is ambitious. Let’s say you just want to get the ball rolling. You’ve written a book and you have a few people you know will buy it. You’re not quitting your day job and you are set up to earn $8 per sale. 1,000 fans will make you $8,000. That’s a reasonable sum to expect to earn from your first offering. But not quite enough to qualify as sustainable income.
You’re most likely adding this to your income from your day job, so being an author is still a side gig at this stage.
The key element here is to apply the basics of Kelly’s formula when you design your book marketing plan. You don’t need to aim for selling to 1,000 people initially. But if you set a realistic goal and work toward it, you can earn good money—maybe even enough to quit that day job and write full time!
Let’s outline a few hypothetical examples to better break down and understand how to make money as an author.
You want to earn $10,000 a year selling books–
Earning per sale = $8.00
Individuals on your mailing list and following you on social platforms = 500 combine
If each follower buys a book, you’re at $4,000.
This means you need to aim for an additional 700 purchases in the year.
- Around 58 sales a month
- Or around 2 sales a day
Bottom Line—if you have a fair number of followers and some contacts on your email list, it is completely achievable to earn $10,000 in a year with 2 or 3 sales a day. Not necessarily easy, but doable.
You want to earn $5,000 a year selling books–
Earning per sale = $8.00
Individuals on your mailing list and following you on social platforms = 300
If each follower buys a book, you’re at $2,400.
This leaves you needing an addition 300+ purchases.
- Around 25 sales a month,
- Or less than 1 sale a day
Bottom Line—earning $5,000 in a year, with only a modest social following, demands to sell less than a single book a day. That’s a very achievable goal!
Even better, if we keep our sights modest and aim for around $5,000 in book sales a year, we have our backlist to think about. That first year’s goal with 300 or so followers and selling 1 book a day is difficult but very doable. The following year when you release your second book?
Well, that follower list will have grown. And you’ll have some residual sales from the first book still trickling in. It’s not unimaginable that you might get up closer to $7,000 that second year. And if you release the third book the year after?
I think you can see where I’m going with this.
Investing in yourself
Don’t misunderstand me. Earning a sustainable income as a writer is not easy. It will (probably) never be easy.
What Kelly’s piece does is something all creators should do when they start to think about monetizing their work—break their creations down into commodities.
This doesn’t mean you devalue your work. You’ve created something unique and amazing. That’s important in and of itself.
What it does mean is that, when it comes to selling that amazing thing you’ve created, you have to think about it like any other consumer item. You have to look for cost-effective ways to get to your goal. And you have to ensure those goals are reasonable so that achieving them is possible. Print-on-demand enables self-publishing, which allows authors to put the profit directly into their hands while retaining control over their work. A tremendous boon for authors everywhere. But with that added benefit comes additional work. To build a sustainable income, you’ll need to work at it.
Now those very same authors have to learn the lessons larger publishing companies learned decades ago regarding marketing and distributing those books.
- Set reasonable goals
- Know your market or niche
- Engage your audience regularly
- Motivate your followers to buy.
All of those points lead to one concept—if you want to be profitable and successful as a self-published author, you have to identify and secure True Fans.
The True Fan theory in practice
True Fans, as I said earlier, are fans who will always buy your work. They have assured sales. Getting a core group of these True Fans is likely to be your biggest challenge as a self-published author. But also the most valuable.
So how do you do it?
- Start small–attend a local writing group. Or start one. Build a small group of fellow writers. These folks will help your writing grow and serve as a constant inspiration as you keep writing.
Likewise, seek to build a relationship with the local bookstore. This can be crucial, as you’ll be asking them to host you for a signing and to feature a few copies of your book on the shelves at some point. Build that relationship early.
And of course, connect with the local library. Volunteer. Get to know the regular readers. And be transparent. Make sure the staff knows you are an author working on publishing. There is a very good chance they feature local authors and you might be able to get a copy on their shelves.
- Expand with the Web–Once you’ve begun building a strong core of local, in-person connections, look to expand that online. This can be in the form of blogging, frequenting online writing or reading groups, or even through social media.
Early on, the best path is probably looking at online forums and engaging directly. Try to find groups focused on your genre, as these will be your most likely readers. Then talk to them about books. Maybe even join a reading group and engage in regular discussions about content from that angle.
Blogging is a tough one because it is slow and demanding. Still, I advocate for starting and maintaining a blog. You’ll want a website to direct new and old readers (and fans) to, so all you end up needing to do is host a blog on the site. This provides fresh content to encourage return visitors and gives you a medium to publish teasers or excerpts.
- Attend and host events–You must build on #1 and #2 to be successful with events. Once you’ve got a core group of True Fans, expand that with an author signing or book sale at the local bookstore.
Or attend a writing or book convention and meet an even wider range of authors, book publishers, and book designers. This is fairly intensive, as it’s going to mean investing in the tickets and trip, but it can pay off in a lot of ways too. For our True Fan search, the biggest benefit may be the opportunity to connect with other authors and attract some of their fans.
Don’t think of other authors as competition. That’s assuredly not the case. You need to view every single other author you can connect with as a possible extension of your reader network, and a means to acquire more True Fans. Because another author’s True Fans, on that author’s recommendation, can easily become one of your True Fans too.
These are just a few ideas. Be creative in thinking about ways to attract True Fans. Maybe a Youtube series. Or maybe other hobbies like fantasy football or yoga could lead to a group of people you can transition into True Fans.
These True Fans will not be your only source of income either. They’re simply central to maintaining a consistent and sustainable income over time. If you’ve got a relatively large network of online followers, many of them will simply be a follower; someone who might buy a book, might not. They might read your blog or like your Facebook posts, but not rush to buy your newest book. These fans will help support you from time to time, but the True Fans are the ones contributing with purchase for every product your produce.
That’s why the True Fans are so critical and why generating a strong base group of them is so important to earning sustainable income as a writer.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.