how a writer can develop multiple streams of revenue: part one





I’m intrigued by phrases like “portfolio career” and “multiple streams of revenue” and how they apply to the idea of the 21st century writer.

A “portfolio career” is when a person manages a portfolio of part-time jobs that combine (hopefully) into a full-time income. Writers tend to have to do this anyway. So how can the 21st century writer create less of a portfolio and more of a writing eco-system, where each stream of activity (and revenue) feeds into, promotes, leverages off another stream?

Once you’ve built up your author platform and developed your tribe of True Fans — those people who will pay for your work and follow you anywhere — a number of things become possible.


The Internet changes our sense of how content is packaged and delivered. Those of us who are not digital natives grew up with a definite yet oddly arbitrary sense of what a movie is (two hours long) or a television episode (30 minutes) or a novel (300 pages). (And as for short stories, novellas, poetry, well, it’s not like anyone really reads or publishes them anyway, and the exceptions only prove the rule. Right?)

Content was product.

Now content comes streaming at us. It doesn’t have to be bound by any restrictions of form other than what it itself wants to be. You have the freedom to upload anything you want, regardless of length, and thanks to the ease of technology we can no longer – and no longer afford – to fit ourselves into just one role. We are not just writers but curators, producers and publishers of content. Which means we have to figure out how we’re going to reach into that stream of ours and find or spin off the content that will pay the rent and put food on the table.




I don’t think, in the future, this will be an either/or proposition. J.A. Konrath is an excellent example of someone who uses both traditional and self-publishing to his advantage. As he puts it, his self-published books featuring his series characters act as a “gateway” to his traditionally published novels featuring those same characters.

The introduction of Amazon’s Singles platform give writers the chance to publish the kind of works – the really long short stories, the really short novels – that traditional publishing has always looked at askance.

Traditional publishing gives you a level of prestige and credibility that self-publishing perhaps never will. But self-publishing allows you to experiment with different forms and ways of storytelling that traditional publishers might not be willing to risk on your behalf. Once a writer has built a significant platform – like Konrath has – I think the most exciting aspect of that platform is the chance to complement your traditionally published novels with more experimental fare that you can sell directly to your readers.

In a best-case scenario, your published and self-published stuff works together to build out your audience (and your income). In a worst-case scenario, you take a risk with some self-published stuff, it doesn’t fly, and you’re not that much worse for wear (ie: you won’t be dogged with poor sales figures that send your career into a downward spiral). One of my favorite quotes is from David Bowie, who in turn attributes it to Brian Eno: “Art is a plane crash that you can walk away from.” A strong author platform, a devoted following of True Fans, makes that kind of risk and freedom a genuine possibility.


If there’s anything we can learn from the porn industry – and, according to Nick Bilton, there’s a lot – it’s this: people will pay for quality content.

They will pay monthly fees for that content. They will subscribe. The porn powers-that-be recognize that the revenue from one-off purchases can pale beside the recurring revenue from subscriptions.

As Alan Murray of points out here, a mix of free and paid (“premium”) online content can be a powerful business model. Free content attracts readers and catches them in your tractor beam by closing the “trust gap”: proving to them that you’re worth the time and money.

For this reason, your most popular online content should be free. You use it to build traffic.

Premium content, like your self-published novels and novellas, should appeal to a niche – the narrower the niche, perhaps the better.

Several years ago I subscribed to Caitlin R Kiernan’s storytelling “service”: for ten dollars a month, I got a short story delivered to my email. Kiernan is an accomplished novelist with a unique and lyrical voice published under both major and independent publishers. She has a devoted following. These stories combined fantasy and erotica: decidedly niche, and hard to find in your typical Barnes & Noble.

Another possibility is subscription via iPhone application. Look at the McSweeney’s app. It’s pretty cool. It sells for $5.99: a buck for the app, the remainder for a 180-day subscription to an exclusive selection of McSweeney’s iPhone content which you can’t get on the Web. You can renew your subscription in 180-day increments through the app itself. The app also exposes you to the publisher’s full offerings, which makes it not just a service but a cool marketing tactic. So as a content provider, you could hold back certain forms of content and push it out to paying iPhone subscribers as part of your own exclusive digital channel.


Oct 14, 2010

7 comments · Add Yours

Very interesting. Some things here I’d never considered before. The porn comparison especially is something I’d not related to writing. My first thought is to dismiss it as the content in porn is much less plentiful than the content of “reading” but in nitche markets It might be applicable.


Justine: Great content again. Thanks for the thoughtful work. – Jeffrey Davis


@Stephen the porn model is pretty simple: people like sex. It’s much less a niche market than you think. Also the subscription model works for them in that people will sign up for a site and forget that it renews every month. Most people won’t even notice the $30-something credit card charge. Multiply that by a couple of 1000 users and you have a mint.

Not that I know porn or anything… just the web ;)

This sort of discussion goes on all the time in my community, i.e. web comics. People argue about how someone can make money by “giving away” their work online. But there are many revenue streams available, as you’ve discussed here (though the subscription model hasn’t worked 100% for comics, yet).


I can’t wait for the next installation! I’m looking now to transition from part-time writer, part-time wage slave, to full-time writer. And I’m exploring ways that I can write the content that thrills me and use it to pay the bills.

It wasn’t that long ago that finding others who enjoyed reading/content in a similar niche was kind of difficult. Now there is the promise through the internet that we can reach those 1000 readers who love the same stuff we love to write. This post gives me continued hope that I can make this work for me.


Great post, Justine. I’ve been thinking a lot about ways to make money writing lately. Usually while I’m avoiding doing the drudge work at my office job – as I am right now, haha. I had never thought
about the possibility of providing subscription content before. Very interesting idea. Thanks!


Very interesting. Self publishing works for those with a following developed through their traditionally published books, but for those without those ‘credits’ marketting is the problem. If you don’t give your premium content away – and I don’t suggest that you do – don’t you run the risk of people thinking all your work is of the same ilk?

Multiple income streams ( I’ve always had this – casual teaching, performing, mask making and now writing ) is definitely the way to go and different works for different niche markets is a good way to think.


Fascinating. I particularly liked the idea of using self-publishing to explore those risky areas that might not work for traditional publishers. I’m aiming for traditional publication for my serious fiction, but I have some ideas for decidedly-less-than-serious work rattling in my brain. It might be worthwhile to see if self-publication would work for these.


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