how a writer (or other creative) can develop multiple sources of revenue, part two
“There is a home,” says Kevin Kelly, “for creatives between poverty and stardom.”
Amen to that.
Kelly’s idea is that an artist can strive not (just) for bestseller-dom but direct contact with 1000 True Fans (surrounded by concentric rings of Lesser Fans who might one day convert into more True Fans). True fans are the fans who will support you and sing your praises and buy anything you make. And if you have 1000 fans who will spend $100 a year on your work – which you sell directly to them, and thus collect all the profit – then you can lift yourself out of the Long Tail and into a viable creative life.
So your first goal is to build out your audience and find those True Fans. (Which is easier said than done, of course, and not the subject of this post.) This requires an online home – usually your blog. The main purpose of your blog is to offer frequent, entertaining, useful content that will pull readers into your orbit and keep them there. In this way do you promote yourself, your work, your services, whatever it is that you offer. As you build your audience and get to know them better – their likes and dislikes, how they respond and what they respond to – you’ll start to develop a sense for the kind of content that you can spin off into paid or “premium” content.
It doesn’t happen overnight. It requires patience, hard work and a long-range view. But it is possible to create your own creative ecosystem: multiple streams of revenue that promote and leverage off of one another. (The idea of cultivating multiple streams of revenue, by the way, is a key principle behind wealth-building in general. As Keith Cameron Smith points out in one of his books on finance, millionaires build multiple sources of revenue. The middle class has only one or two, so if they get yanked out from under you, you’re kind of screwed. Don’t be screwed.)
When people fall in love with your work – and you – they will want to support you. Here are some ways to allow them to show the money.
Asking people for donations – or, as Kelly called it, putting out the “tip jar” through widgits and plugins like this one – is kind of like the Internet version of busking. Somehow I doubt it’s very effective. (When was the last time you made a donation to a random artsy website? Thought so.)
It’s human nature to want to reciprocate, but it’s difficult to invoke that urge in someone who’s just breezing through and has no connection to you or your work. Hence, I think you’d want to be careful and strategic in how you ask. Be like Mozilla and offer some kind of token in thanks. Align yourself with a relevant nonprofit and say that a percentage of the proceeds will go to a good cause. Make people feel like they’re part of something cool, a community or movement.
Someone who does use the donation model effectively is David Rowell, whom Chris Guillebeau writes about in his Writer’s Digest article “Make Your Passion Make Money For You.” Rowell has amassed over the years a large and devoted following. Once a year – exactly once – he puts out a call for donations. His fans appreciate his work and will donate a range of sums in order to ensure that they continue to have access to it. (The rest of the year, Rowell doesn’t mention donations at all.) The thing to note here is that Rowell put in the time and effort to earn those donations through the consistent creation of worthwhile content over a period of time. (There is no escaping this.) And because he only asks once a year, he makes sure that he gives more – and more frequently – than he takes. (A good general rule for promoting yourself and your work online is: give. Give. Give your freaking face off. And then give some more.)
Some artists will seek donations to fund their projects. Through sites such as KICKSTARTER or INDIEGOGO or their own variation thereof, they present the concept and hope you like it enough to help fund the piece. If you’re going to get people to buy in to your ideas this way, you might be more successful if you offer opportunities to include them in the process itself. This form of online collaboration is known as crowdsourcing and artists such as Aaron Koblin are particularly known for it.
Along a similar note, Chris Guillebeau offers up Robin Sloan who benefits from his “crowd-sponsored fiction”. Sloan first hooked readers through a series of short stories which he gave away for free off his site. Then he announced that he was writing a novella and anyone who donated to his writing enterprise would get a copy. As Chris observes, “He set an initial goal of raising $3,500, but ended up bringing in more than $13,000 in just a few months thanks to his free short stories’ engagement of eager readers who wanted more..”
A variation on this idea of get them hooked, then start charging money (just think of yourself as a friendly neighborhood drug dealer but, uh, the good kind, the really really good kind) is that of a book serialization. Give chapters away, and then, once the reader is hooked, charge them to download the rest of the book. Catherine Valente has profited this way. Likewise, Smashwords allows you to download the first 25 percent of any novel for free, then charges you for the rest. Baen allows you to download an entire book for free in hopes that you’ll get hooked on the series and buy all the sequels.
(Paperback Writer mashes up her free and paid content in order to promote awareness of the latter: she offers certain books for free, and includes in the back excerpts from her for-pay novels. Handy marketing trick. )
When most people think about how to monetize a site, they tend to think advertising. Bloggers can use programs like the highly popular Google Adsense, which tailors its advertising to your content so that it appears at least remotely relevant. But be warned that people are getting better and better at tuning out “intrusive” advertising, and some may be so annoyed that they’re being so blatantly marketed to at all that they’ll leave your site and never come back. Another drawback to Adsense is that it requires a great deal of traffic blowing through your site in order to get any kind of click-through rate that will make you any money. Also, the ads suck aesthetic ass.
An alternative is to sell individual adspace yourself, which gives you control over what gets put on your site and its overall relevance to your general content. You can also engage in affiliate marketing through programs like Amazon Associates. You can connect with bloggers whose work you admire and join the affiliate programs for their products, whether it’s Danielle LaPorte’s Firestarter Sessions of any of Chris Guillebeau’s Unconventional Guides. When you’re able to tailor the products you sell specifically to your audience, the emphasis is no longer on the quantity of traffic but the quality. What’s the point of 50,000 visitors if no one clicks through on an ad? You’re much happier if you get 500 visitors, 50 of whom might actually buy something that you are selling – and from which you get a cut of the profit. The key here is to know your audience.
PRODUCTS AND SERVICES
Many creatives not only sell their creative work through their site but also hire themselves out as copywriters, editors, speakers and consultants. The blog becomes not only a way to promote your work and develop a relationship with your readers, but establish your authority and credibility within your field and your genre. Hang a shingle on your blog, let people know that you’re for hire (and what they can hire you for), keep an open mind about how you can package and repackage your various skills, and there’s likely one or more streams of revenue just waiting to make themselves manifest.
This might even happen accidentally. You might wake up one morning and discover that somebody, somewhere, thinks you’re an expert on something (remember that expertise is relative, it’s a spectrum, you don’t have to be the absolute best at something, just better and more knowledgeable than a bunch of other people who are eager to know what you already know). They might ask to interview you for a publication or have you speak at a workshop or conference. (If it’s happened to me, and it has, it can happen to you.) Which means that there’s probably something there, some body of knowledge that you were possibly taking for granted, that can be monetized.
“Teach to reach” has long been a powerful form of content marketing. You reach people through providing useful content that acts as a gateway to your more creative work. (I’m a longtime Lawrence Block fan, for example, and I love his Matthew Scudder series. But I initially discovered him through his books on how to write fiction.) An established blog and a developed audience provide you with the opportunity to take your teachings and turn them into information products. These products can be as simple as ebooks or white papers, or as elaborate as an entire e-course. Many of them tend to be multimedia affairs that combine video, text, audio and sometimes personal consultation sessions via Skype or your humble landline. Check out Danielle Laporte’s The Firestarter Sessions, Chris Guillebeau’s World Domination Guides, or the World-Changing Writing Workshop for a sense of what’s possible – and what’s in demand.
And don’t forget webinars and teleseminars. You can gather your audience online and hold a tutorial without even leaving your bedroom. You don’t even have to wear pants.