This post outlines eleven business models for indie authors that are working right now, those most widely used by members of the Alliance of Independent Authors. The first four are most typically employed in the early years of an author business. Models six through eleven require a following and a high-traffic website or social media presence to succeed. For many, you need a transactional website: not just a brochure site that shows books but a shop where readers can buy books and other products directly from you.
To run any successful creative enterprise, you need to shape your skills, talents, services, and expertise into something you can sell, otherwise known as a product. What indie authors sell, obviously, is books—and for some authors that is enough to create a viable business. But many other authors, out of need or want, go beyond the book to sell other products too.
As an indie author, you are already more than a writer, you’re a publisher and business owner too. Your enterprise can incorporate other passions and pleasures, particularly those that integrate with the content of your books in some way, to form part of a broader business.
Earning a living from book sales alone has always been rare, particularly in certain genres like literary fiction and poetry. Traditionally only a few authors writing in such genres were likely to sell enough books through physical bookstores, given the limitations of shelf space and sale-or-return.
That has changed with the global audience and infinite shelf-life now available through digital publishing—every genre now has enough global readers to support an author who knows how to publish well. But it is still easiest to run a books-only business model in genres that attract what are known in the business as “whale readers”, readers who continuously consume a lot of books.
For authors in less consumption-driven genres, setting up for success often means seeing your books as part of a bigger picture. In business terms, this means considering the business model around your books.
It is easier to create an author business that lasts over the long term and is capable of ongoing growth and expansion (in business lingo, sustainable and scalable) if you incorporate other products. In Book Seven in this series, Becoming an Authorpreneur, we look more closely at the idea of assets and the indie author product ecosystem, and how we can package all sorts of projects so that they are replicable and saleable at scale. Here it is enough to begin exploring business models that allow you to bring your mission and passion to readers in a multitude of ways.
If your books have a teaching element, for example, you can set up a course that positions you as an expert, an authority, a thought leader in your field. If you write fiction or poetry, your value to the reader may be amusement or inspiration. What sort of experiences can you create for the reader that expands on or deepens the effect of your books. Or is there something else, something completely unrelated, that satisfies another part of your character, pleasures, or passions?
This is different from being a freelancer or employee, doing work for others to meet the bills. This is integrating activities that support your mission as a writer, your passion as a person, into your author business. For the entrepreneurial author, this offers a real alternative to taking a day job.
See ALLi’s Self-Publishing 3.0 Campaign for more on this.
Business Models for Indie Authors 1: Book Sales Only, One Outlet: Write Fast, Publish Often
This is probably the most visible publishing model in the self-publishing community, through Amazon’s bestseller lists and promotion engines, and a number of vocal authors who run this model run courses or write books about how to do it. Authors employing this business model are Amazon KDP authors, often in the exclusive KU arrangement, writing in a popular genre, publishing fast and often, and always with a close eye on the Amazon algorithm.
Some authors employing this model publish only in e-book and do not buy their own ISBNs.
This model has delivered excellent sales for authors in genres with whale readers. In fiction, that’s romance, crime, and science fiction/fantasy. In non-fiction, it’s self-help and business books. And in poetry, it’s love poetry, self-help and inspirational. Writers who do well in these genres find it impossible to keep up with their readers, which is why a number of authors in these genres are now commissioning other authors to write in their fictional world, or for their publishing companies.
“A whale reader is any reader who will read at least a book a week,” says Michael Anderlé, founder of LMBPN Publishing and the popular Facebook group 20 Books to 50K who counts himself as such a reader. “We can read three to five books in a weekend,” he says in an interview with Publishers Weekly. “When you start feeding whale readers really quickly, they like what they see and they will get it fast.”
The advantage of this model is its simplicity. You can focus just on writing books, and on the marketing methods that send a book up the charts on Amazon, and harness the power of the Amazon algorithm to find new readers. The downside is that, as we’ve seen, it is risky to be bound exclusively to one distribution outlet, as risky as being exclusively bound to a single trade publisher.
That said, the single outlet model with Amazon KDP has been incredibly positive for many indie authors. Another example is Marie Force, a bestselling author of contemporary romance, romantic suspense and erotic romance. Her books have sold more than 10 million copies worldwide, have been translated into more than a dozen languages and have appeared on the New York Times bestseller list more than thirty times. She is also a bestseller in the lists of USA Today and The Wall Street Journal, as well as Der Spiegel in Germany.
Business Models for Indie Authors 2: Book Sales Only, Going Wide: Multiple Formats, Multiple Retailers
These authors also use a books-only model but publish through multiple outlets. The indie author community refers to this model as “going wide”: publishing through a variety of distributors rather than going exclusive directly uploading to Apple Books, Google Play, IngramSpark and Kobo in addition to Amazon KDP and ACX, as well as using aggregator distributors like Draft2Digital, PublishDrive and StreetLib.
Their aim is to reach as many readers as possible by being available not just through as many distributors as possible, but also in as many formats as possible and across as many territories as possible. The advantage of this model is its diversity and consequent stability. Authors using Model 1 are tied into the systems of a single platform and at ALLi we have seen many authors suffer a catastrophic drop in income without knowing why, or how to correct course. Authors using Model 2 are not after a quick win so much as long term stability and they choose a publishing method that enables them to grow a consistent readership steadily, over time.
There’s a popular Facebook group called Wide for the Win run by three authors using this model, Erin Wright, Suzie O’Connell and Skye MacKinnon.
Business Models for Indie Authors 3: Book Sales Plus Speaking or Performance and Other Content
In this model book income is supplemented by speaker or performance income at events. Offline, there is a fee with back-of-the-room book sales at a physical, paid performance. Online events try to mirror the physical experience and have also added some new income stream possibilities.
For example, non-fiction authors use free or paid online video webinars lead people to buy books and often upsell to other premium products like online courses. This is a popular strategy in our own self-publishing space, especially around book marketing and promotion.
Novelists and poets podcasters and YouTubers give paid online performances, sometimes called laptop concerts or web revues or internet events, where they air their work for a fee as audio or video content. These events can be reader-directed, making the show available online for a small fee or suggested ticket price or donation, and reaching audiences who can’t physically attend a performance. They are hosted on platforms such as Stageit, or more informally using social media tools like Facebook or Instagram Live.
Or the events can be venue-directed, whereby authors stream a series of paid online events through the platform of venues that would typically pay for a live performance, sometimes with the cost of e-book book included as part of the ticket pricing. Libraries, arts centers, museums, historical societies, retirement homes are all good venues for authors, and the talk or performance can be streamed from the venue as part of a multi-author event, or festival.
Business Models for Indie Authors 4: Book Sales Plus Teaching: Supported Learning
The time-honored way for authors to supplement their writing income is by teaching at a university or school. Now it happens online too, in the form of guided digital courses, mentoring, coaching and consultancy. The difference in this model is that it’s active teaching in a learning-supported environment. The author sets assignments, which are monitored and graded, along with class chat sessions, and other feedback opportunities. There may or may not be accreditation but this model aims to give students a full, pedagogically structured, classroom experience.
An example is Dan Blank. For more than a decade, Dan has worked full-time with thousands of writers and creators to develop a human-centered approach to marketing and reaching readers through his company We Grow Media. “Human-centered marketing is what I am here to help students to accomplish so yes, they get direct one-on-one feedback and assistance from me. I answer questions directly, I brainstorm ideas, and I ensure they have a clear strategy to reach your goals.”
Business Models for Indie Authors 5: Book Sales Plus Affiliate Income
Under this model, authors supplement their book income by recommending products or services to other authors. They often recommend products and services to their readership that they have used and believe in. The products are often linked to the author’s subject matter, theme or world, and the author promotes them through blog posts, articles, videos and podcasts with affiliate links to the products.
We see this model a lot in nonfiction. One author who has used it to great effect is book designer and ALLi advisor Joel Friedlander. Done properly, being an affiliate for other people can be a win-win-win proposition, Joel says:
• Readers win because they get curated, experienced, and balanced recommendations on products and services they need, saving time and frustration and reducing risk, without paying any premium.
• Bloggers win because they fulfill their mission to help their readers and make passive income at the same time. Recommending resources not only gives them subjects to blog about that their readers are going to be interested in, it also creates a perfect environment for content marketing, where their writing is what leads to interest in the affiliate product or service.
• Producers win because they can put a large, committed and educated sales force—their affiliates—in the field to market for them. By supporting the affiliates, they magnify their marketing by an order of magnitude over what they could do by themselves. And for producers with more products and services, affiliates supply a constant flow of new, qualified prospects.1
The secret to having a positive affiliate business is to only recommend products, services, and people that you have used or thoroughly vetted, and that you wouldn’t hesitate to pay for yourself.
Business Models for Indie Authors 6: Book Sales Plus Articles, Poems or Short Stories
Independent authors using this model are not those who use freelance journalism around other topics as a day job. This business model for indie authors is about writing shorter articles, poems and stories, in ways that complement their books, and are also an income stream in themselves.
They may be paid by traditional media outlets like newspapers or magazine, new media crowdsourced payment sites, or run the publications for payment on their own websites or patron sites. The latter version of this model requires a high-traffic website.
Book Sales Plus Reader Membership 7: Benefits for Close Readers
Authorpreneurs in this model invite keen readers to subscribe monthly or annually to a membership program that offers various benefits. This model often works better for non-fiction authors, although some fiction authors and poets are achieved great success with it.
There are three membership models: how-to, motivation, and access.
The how-to membership sites solve a distinct problem e.g. how to play guitar or how to run a business.
Motivational memberships offer encouragement and support towards achieving a goal. Members share their struggles and successes.
The connection model, also known as the community model, offers people a place to connect and belong. Members are often united towards a common cause.
Book Sales Plus Influencer Income 8: Sponsorship or Advertising
Some authors have a following that is attractive to brands. They might sponsor an aspect of an author’s work in return for exposure to the author’s followers and fans. Individual books can also be sponsored or carry advertising. The Bulgari Connection by Fay Weldon (2000), for example, was sponsored by the eponymous Italian jewellery company. Under the deal, Weldon was required to mention Bulgari at least 12 times but was happy to mention them 34 times. Sponsorship and advertising in books is controversial.
Business Models for Indie Authors 9: Book Sales Plus Patronage
Many literary novels and deeply researched nonfiction books begin with a thank-you to a grant body or award that “made the book possible.” A grant can be a boon to a writer and there are many stories from the 19th and early 20th century of writers who could not have kept going without their benefactors e.g. WB Yeats and Lady Gregory, James Joyce and Sylvia Beach.
Wealthy patrons have never been as generous to writers as they have been to fine artists. These days, those offering patronage to an author are less likely to be a wealthy ruler or merchant than an arts council or literary organization. Most patronage, these days, however comes from readers, through direct donations on authors’ websites or through Patreon or similar platforms.
Indie author and creative business coach Jason Zook raised significant money for his first book through crowdsourced sponsorship. Starting on page 1 at $600 and decreasing the price per page by $3 ($597, $594, $591, etc) down to page 200 priced at $3 brought in a total of $60,000 for the inner page, plus inside cover flaps at $5000 each, and front and back covers at a five-figure sum each, before selling a single copy of the appropriately named Creativity for Sale.
Business Models for Indie Authors 10: Book Sales Plus Publishing Rights Licensing or Merchandising
As we saw in earlier chapters, independent authors are selectively licensing some of their publishing rights to partners, rights buyers and licensing operators in their home territories and abroad. Authors are also mining their own merchandising, translation and multimedia rights. This model requires the author to have significant success in book sales.
One of the early success stories of self-publishing was US author Hugh Howey with Silo, his series of post-apocalyptic science fiction novels that started in 2011 with the self-published short story Wool. Howey has retained full e-book rights, while signing a deal for film rights to 20th Century Fox and a print-only US and Canadian rights deal with Simon & Schuster. Half a decade later, he says:
Every author should begin their writing career self-publishing, even if their dream is to be with a large publisher… Write a lot, write great stories, publish them yourself, spend more time writing, study the industry, act like a pro, network, be nice, invest in yourself and your craft, and be patient. If you can do all of these things, you’ll earn some money. Maybe enough to pay a bill every month… Maybe enough to quit your job. Thousands of writers are doing this [now].
Business Models for Indie Authors 11: Book Sales Plus Author Services
In this model the author combines their own writing and publishing with a product or service based around one of the seven processes of publishing: editing, design, production, distribution, marketing, promotion or rights licensing.
It is possible to combine a number of these models and enjoy multiple streams of income in addition to book sales but it can take a lot of juggling.
From observing our members, it would seem that best results are had when
- any other projects and products in the business mirror the same mission and passion that inspire the books and
- the author has an ecosystem of products that includes the following product types: gift product(s), free reader-magnet product(s), core products (books) and premium product(s).
Whatever model you choose, the benefit of being an independent author is that you get to choose how you run your business. If something doesn’t work, you get to change it.
These ten business models for indie authors represent what’s working now, but with our changeable industry the future might hold ten more possibilities.
OVER TO YOU
Which one of the ten business models for indie authors do you use? Is there another model we haven’t yet identified?
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