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How to Make Money with Subscriptions

It's entirely possible to run a successful subscription business as an author. But how do you get started?

You may have heard stories of writers such as Katee Robert or Emilia Rose, (featured on the SPS Podcast), running subscription businesses and making a living directly from their readers. But what is a subscription, how can you start one, and what do you need to know to be successful with this new business model for publishing?

Well, you’re in luck, because today we will be breaking down exactly how you can start and grow a successful subscription business as a fiction or nonfiction author in just 5 steps.

Step 1: Defining Subscriptions

In January 2020, Millennials in the United States were found to have on average 17 paid media and entertainment subscriptions. Generation Z had 14 media and entertainment subscriptions while Baby Boomers had 8 on average.

Now let’s bring this to the reading world. When we hear the word subscription, we most often consider Kindle Unlimited’s monthly subscription for readers, Audible’s subscription program, or other programs of the like. These are structured in an all-you-can-read buffet for readers.

One price for access to hundreds of thousands and in some cases millions of stories.

However, the kind of subscriptions we will be talking about today are ones in which readers pay a monthly/annual fee directly to an author or a small group of authors. Instead of paying $10 per month to access all the books in Kindle Unlimited, readers will pay anywhere from $1 to even as much as hundreds of dollars per month to get benefits directly from you.

The beauty of subscriptions for authors is that you don’t need to pull your books out of Kindle Unlimited or stop selling eBooks or audiobooks ala carte.

Instead, this is a way to forge deeper connections with your superfans and generate recurring revenue directly from them.

So in short, subscriptions are a payment directly from a reader to an author for content or other agreed-upon value. In total, platforms like Patreon, Substack, Ream, and Kofi process billions per year in direct payments to creators. And there are already thousands of fiction authors monetizing through subscriptions. You can find over 500 fiction authors that make ~$15 million per year from subscriptions in aggregate on this list alone.

Thus, subscriptions are a great way to diversify your revenue, forge deeper connections with your readership, and sell directly to them with your ability to retain valuable data like subscribers’ email addresses.

Step 2: Deciding Your Subscription Goals

Before you even begin to think about what you will offer in your subscription, it’s crucial to ask yourself what role this will play in your publishing business.

Is this one way you are looking to diversify your income? A place you hope to bring superfans who want early access to your work? A way to foster deeper connections with your readers and a direct-selling ecosystem? A place to offer book boxes or bonus content?

Your goals can be any and all of the above. But the most important thing to ask yourself is concerning your readers: which segment of your readership are you serving with your subscription and how do you plan to provide an amazing experience for them?

There is no right or wrong answer to any of these questions. But it is crucial to set some expectations before beginning any new business endeavor and think about how you can implement it in a way that benefits your readers the most.

Plus, your biggest fans want to support you. Subscriptions allow them to do so and get even more value in return from you.

Step 3: Planning Your Subscription

This step is all about deciding what you will offer to your readers in your subscription. If you look at some of the most successful authors in subscriptions such as Emilia Rose or Shirtaloon, you will see that they have many tiers with tons of different rewards.

This can be very overwhelming. How will I create a subscription or anything like that?

The trick is you won’t… at least, not at first.

Instead of planning out ten different tiers with over a dozen different rewards between them, it is best to start simple and small and grow over time with the feedback of your readers.

A tier is a solution(s) or offering(s) to your readers at a specific price point. We see tiers all the time in subscription products from Netflix offering premium 4k viewing at their higher pricing tiers to telephone companies offering different data limits at specific service tiers.

Authors can do the same thing with their tiers. The benefits and rewards you can offer are limitless.

To simplify this process, I recommend starting with the basics in the beginning. Contrary to popular belief, having a small base of readers or just starting as an author can be an advantage to starting a subscription.

Although most subscription platforms will not help you find new readers, they help you to nurture existing relationships with your core superfans who can help spread your books through word of mouth. It’s way easier to build personal relationships with your readers when you have five readers in your subscription rather than five hundred.

As a result, try not to overthink what you can give these superfans, whether you have 1 or 1,000 of them. Your readers love your stories, so give them more of them! Early access or limited bonus content are the two models that perform best with most authors operating under the early access model. Early access is when you give your readers access to your stories one chapter at a time before they are released on other platforms or retailers.

In time, as you get feedback from your readers you can launch with more benefits. However, beware of benefit/reward creep, or offering more and more rewards over time that could dilute the core value of your subscription.

The biggest factor in subscription success is trust. Most often, reader trust comes with time and consistency. Thus don’t overpromise in your subscription or else you may find yourself slipping on rewards and damaging valuable relationships with subscribers who may generate hundreds or even thousands of dollars throughout a lifetime per reader.

The trick in pricing your subscription is not to underprice yourself and to price for specific segments of your readership’s willingness to pay. Unlike eBooks, changing the price of a subscription is difficult. After all, if readers agree to a specific price point they want to know what will continue to be their monthly charge for long into the future.

Most successful authors offer anywhere between $5 and $20 per month for early access to their upcoming works to their readers, and many have thousands of readers paying them per month. On the other hand, some authors charge more than $100 for some tiers. This means readers pay over $100 each month for their favorite authors. In these instances, they are often getting physical goods such as merchandise and books or exclusive benefits such as having a character named after them or a mention in the acknowledgements of the next release. R.J. Blain is one example of an author with these exclusive, higher-priced tiers.

Step 4: Setting Up Your Subscription

Now that we are beginning to have our subscription offering planned out along with our tiers and pricing we can begin thinking about setting up our subscription. But how do we do that and where do we do that?

Many authors, to optimize their readers’ experiences and their ability to create the best possible subscription, choose to host it on subscription platforms. The benefit of platforms is that they offload most of the technical work, in exchange for a share of the revenue you make from your subscription (usually around 10% + payment processing fees). Here is a list of subscription platforms you could consider hosting on:

  • Patreon: this is the biggest subscription platform for creatives, at the time of writing. However, it lacks an eReader, strict content guidelines for romance authors, and a platform built mostly for video creators and podcasters with limited discovery capabilities for authors.
  • Ream: this is the only subscription platform built by fiction authors for fiction authors. It has a social eReader on site for your readers to interact in, a publishing scheduler that saves you hours in management time per month, and an author and reader-friendly interface. We are also friendly to romance authors, with steamy romance author Emilia Rose as another one of our co-founders. Full disclosure: I’m a co-founder of this company, so I am biased and encourage you to explore all options that may work for you.
  • Substack: this is a subscription platform for newsletter writers and journalists, however, some fiction authors have been known to use it too.
  • Kofi: a subscription and fan donation platform. Lacks some of the features of Patreon but has a simpler interface. It is designed for all creators so including artists, musicians, video creators, and writers.
  • Buy Me a Coffee: another popular fan donation platform for all creators across content formats. It has a streamlined interface, and although not optimized for reading books on the platform, is another secure space to set up and accept subscription payments.
  • Other Sites: SubscribeStar, FanHouse, Ghost, Kajabi, and too many more to list. Just like retailers and serial fiction platforms, there are lots of them, but the above contains most of the reputable ones.
  • Hosting it on your website. You can host your subscription through WordPress or other hosting providers and use plugins such as Stripe and Paypal to accept subscription payments. The downside to this option is that this can be costly with you spending hundreds or even thousands of dollars out of pocket in software per year in addition to payment processing fees. It can also be time-consuming and technically difficult. The upside is that you can have full control over branding and may be able to add additional bells and whistles to the reader experience.

Once you choose a specific subscription platform or your own website, it’s time to create your subscription. This is where you can input overall header images that brand your subscription and craft the copy for each tier.

The trick is to keep any copy short, but full of emotion and life. You are speaking to your fans here, so don’t be afraid to title your tiers with unique names. In fact, in a recent analysis, 18/19 authors with over 2,000 readers paying them monthly use unique branding for their tiers instead of generic names like “Tier 1” or “Tier 2”.

Step 5: Launching Your Subscription

Many authors think that they have to launch a subscription with fanfare. But the difference between subscription marketing and transactional marketing is that transactions rely on the product reveal (or launch) and subscription marketing relies on constant iteration.

The good news is that this takes the pressure off needing a big launch. This often means that subscriptions can have steady, gradual growth.

In addition, when promoting your subscription, it’s important to think about the reader journey. Readers who don’t even know who you are (aka a cold audience) are unlikely to trust you enough to enter a subscription membership.

Thus subscriptions are a great place to bring warm audiences or fans who have already experienced a bit of your work. Thus, when marketing your subscription, think about mentioning a call to action in your newsletters after sharing some teaser chapters that exist for a book you are offering early access to. Or you can put a link to your subscriptions using a URL or a QR code for print editions inside of the books that you write.

An amazing example is how Christopher Hopper shares with his readers about his subscription at the end of his sci-fi novel Imperium Descent Volume II. His character breaks the fourth wall to entice his readers to follow his story where an exclusive bonus chapter exists on his subscription.

A crucial, yet often overlooked step in launching your subscription is onboarding a reader into your subscription. According to Robbie Kellerman Baxter, author of The Membership Economy, forming new habits in the first week and thirty days of a new subscriber is crucial for increasing retention.

It was found that the best subscription businesses have 60%+ retention after 12 months, meaning that 60% of subscribers stay after 12 months. For subscriptions with just a $5 payment, that target retention rate goes up to 80% for a solid-performing subscription. Meanwhile, the average consumer subscription is priced between $7 and $12. For higher-priced subscriptions, retention tends to drop. Businesses, such as Netflix and Disney, lose about 3 – 5% of their subscribers each month. Kindle Unlimited likely follows a similar path (although we don’t know for sure since this data isn’t public), which is why authors like Chris Fox have stated on his YouTube Channel that he observes that genre readerships can completely churn after 3 – 5 years.

In this instance, to churn is to unsubscribe from a recurring payment, while retention is what portion of an audience segment remains subscribed to a recurring payment over a period of time.

Taking all of these learnings into account these are just averages. They are helpful to know. But decreasing churn and building lifetime subscribers at the highest possible rate is what separates career authors from those who struggle.

Just as we will have trouble being successful authors if readers read one of our books and don’t want to read any more books we write, it will be difficult to have a successful subscription if readers stay for one month and unsubscribe after the second month.

Onboarding is essential in that it helps new employees at companies to increase their retention by 82%. New members to your subscription can see similar increases in retention with great onboarding.

Keeping this framework in mind for onboarding, here are some tangible steps you can take to onboard readers into your subscription. Depending on how you set up your subscription, where these specific events take place (in email or on an app for a subscription platform) will vary.

1. Story Schedule/Benefits Overview: these are reminders for when early access chapters go out or how regular or recurring subscription benefits will be delivered.

2. Technology Tutorial: it’s helpful to give some brief tips for navigating new environments so readers can enjoy your subscription without too much of a hassle.

3. Community Guidelines: we likely have some general rules when it comes to readers interacting in our community, such as no spoilers, being respectful, etc.

4. Values and Mission: Why are you passionate about bringing your superfans together in a subscription? Why do you write what you write, and what do you hope your readers can gain from it? These reminders help cultivate deeper levels of engagement and meaning within your community — essential for any author business.

5. Introductions to Fellow Members: this is a good time to enable new readers to introduce themselves to you and fellow members and begin cultivating relationships within your fandom.

And most importantly, have fun in your onboarding process. You want to give your readers a succinct yet warm introduction to your subscription so they are primed to do the things that will get them most likely to stick around: engaging with your stories and engaging with you and your fellow readers in your community.

If looking for an even more comprehensive guide to reader subscription onboarding, check this out.

And in just a few steps, you have now completed a crash course on starting and succeeding with a subscription business model as an author. If interested in learning more about subscriptions and joining a community of like-minded subscription authors, I recommend joining the Subscriptions for Authors Facebook Group.

Michael Evans

Michael Evans

Michael Evans is the author of over a dozen sci-fi thriller novels, a Harvard student, and the co-founder and CEO of Ream, a subscription platform for fiction authors. In addition, he’s also the author of Creator Economy for Authors: A Guide to the Future of Publishing.
You can connect with him here.

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