Subscription & Paywall Options for Authors
The way people buy and sell books has barely changed throughout the book trade’s history. For centuries, publishers have sold physical paperbacks for fees that are relatively consistent across bookstores and territories, and everyone accepted this business model as the norm. Some variation existed to allow for retailer discounting and international markets, but the central business model of the publishing industry has remained the same: one copy for one payment.
Everything changed, however, in the last two decades. As the internet brought new opportunities, ebooks arrived on the scene, quickly followed by digital audiobooks. And with these new, infinitely replicable formats came entirely new ways to do business. We authors learned to publish our own work and gained access to vast distribution networks that required no warehousing or shipping. Thanks to tech developments, we can now give away freebies, enter our books into subscription services, carry our entire backlist in our pocket and conduct all manner of marketing activities once considered impossible.
The bookselling game has evolved, with one of the most remarkable areas of innovation being the transaction model that has underpinned it for so long. No longer do you need to rely on selling whole copies for fixed sums to make money. Indeed, many authors earn impressive incomes without selling many books at all in the traditional way – and so can you. Whether it’s via subscription services or pay-as-you-read apps, today’s blog post will explore the most prominent platforms and options you can use to make money with your writing in ways that didn’t exist only a few years ago.
We’ll start with the most obvious contender because, while Kindle Unlimited (KU) might be obvious to some, it could be an unfamiliar concept to you. If you aren’t aware, KU is an Amazon programme that enables readers who pay $9.99 a month to read as many ebooks as they want, as long as their chosen books are enrolled in the scheme. If you include your work, Amazon demands exclusivity, meaning you can’t publish the ebook version elsewhere. You can do what you want, though, with whatever books you choose not to enrol. Also, the contract doesn’t limit your paperback, hardback and audiobook distribution options.
As an “exclusive” author, with your books tied into a KU contract, you still get paid a fixed royalty when readers who aren’t KU subscribers buy your ebooks on Amazon. When subscribers download them, however, you don’t get paid – at first. In this case, how much you earn depends on how many pages your readers read. There is no fixed rate per page – that’s dictated by the number of pages read in relation to the size of Amazon’s KU payment pot. Getting free downloads and paid page reads instead of firm sales might seem like a bad deal on the surface, but the KU pot stands at almost $40 million dollars for this month and some authors make high six figures a year purely on page reads revenue.
Many content creators, including authors, are familiar with the idea of getting fans hooked on free content then putting the rest behind a paywall. It’s a proven strategy that works for all kinds of artists from poets to comedians. Authors often distribute free novels in the hope of getting readers to purchase full-price sequels. Likewise, YouTubers release extra videos on Patreon for fans who are willing to pay for them. The business model, in this latter case, though, isn’t to sell one-off products; it’s to sign up supporters to a subscription service for a continuous stream of new content in exchange for regular payments.
Creators aren’t the only people attracted by this business model. Seeing the success of Patreon, which now transacts over $1 billion a year for creators and takes a 5-12% cut, other platforms have created similar subscription programmes. Twitter has introduced Super Follows, allowing users to charge their followers monthly for bonus tweets, community access, newsletter subscriptions, and more. Similarly, Medium has launched the Medium Partner Programme. Both cater to the journalist market but you can also exploit them as an author. Providing you adapt your work, you too can amass a troupe of supporters who pay monthly for your writing using these sites. In fact, their users are receptive to short-form content, so they could even help you monetise blog posts, short stories, poetry and flash fiction, which are hard to sell on regular e-retailers.
The Australian company Radish has innovated the bookselling experience for thousands of authors and millions of readers with a simple but effective business model; it sells digital coins to readers in exchange for real currency and gives them free access to the first chapters of authors’ serialised fiction. To access more chapters, readers must spend their coins, and Radish offers authors a 50/50 split on revenue. It’s easy to see why this model works. Radish has replicated the in-app purchase idea established by gaming companies that now earn billions of dollars from players who want to “unlock” the next level. Readers only pay for what they read and authors gain access to readers that wouldn’t try their writing under the more rigid, traditional system.
Like many new companies, Radish has critics. Some authors report declining earnings per transaction on the platform and issues over not being able to remove or edit stories have arisen. As a result, it pays to read their terms and conditions before committing your intellectual property. However, if you’re fine with their terms, you can earn big money on Radish. Some of the app’s top performers report five-figure monthly incomes, and the company has even offered strong-selling Amazon mid-listers four-figure advances just to become Radish creators. Steamy and paranormal romance authors do particularly well, relying on frequent release schedules, routine cliff-hanger endings and merchandising opportunities there to pull in a strong income.
Wattpad has always worked at the vanguard of digital publishing. Bought in May 2021 for $600 million by South Korean internet conglomerate Naver, it’s a reading platform that boasts over 90 million monthly users, 5 million of whom are a mix of amateur and professional writers. What’s remarkable about it is that 90% of its users are in the Gen Z and millennial age bracket (aged 14 – 40). It appeals to a younger demographic of readers than most other reading platforms, which makes it stand out because it provides unique opportunities for some genre writers who miss out on other platforms.
Since its conception, Wattpad has provided a free reading and writing experience; authors didn’t pay to publish and readers didn’t pay to read. Recently, however, its executives have developed monetisation strategies for creators that make it a more interesting prospect. One is the Wattpad Paid Stories programme – a coin-exchange scheme like Radish’s in which readers can pay to unlock chapters of paywall-hidden content. Again, this comes with a 50% royalty split. Unlike other sites, however Wattpad readers can purchase coins with little friction, using their Apple App Store or Google Play account. Plus, due to Wattpad’s access to reading data and film studio relationships, doing well there can lead to a movie deal if you gain enough of a following.
US authors who write in English are privileged right now, as the only creators who can publish on Kindle Vella and build an audience before the rest of the world gets access. If you aren’t familiar with the concept, Kindle Vella is Amazon’s new token-based competitor for Radish. It’s late to the pay-as-you-read game and, according to Ricardo Fayet at Reedsy, it has issues generating organic discoverability for a large portion of authors, but you should never underestimate the might of an Amazon company. They have access to a massive, existing audience and can adapt quickly to the market so they could be the next big player in this space.
For now, Amazon are keeping a tight grip on Kindle Vella content and pricing. They’re requesting serial-format, episodic fiction of 600 to 5,000 words per episode, which isn’t available for free anywhere else. Like their competitors, they offer readers first episodes free but deliver a 50/50 split to authors on earnings generated by subsequent episodes. However, whereas Radish has traditionally capitalised on explicit fiction, Vella actively suppresses mature content, possibly to gain more mainstream appeal. They also price episodes based on length, which, for now, stops authors dropping their prices. Kindle Vella’s future is uncertain, but it’s an interesting prospect for authors loyal to the Amazon ecosystem who want to test this new business model.
It’s likely that there’s still more innovation to come in bookselling as tech companies test new ideas. What won’t change, however, is readers’ love of the written word. As an author, remember that writing great stories remains at the heart of everything we do. Master your craft and it makes everything easier, from launching on new platforms to connecting with fans and adapting books to sell well under new bookselling business models. The rules and tools change but those who succeed continue to write fantastic books.
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