This week authors J. Thorn and Crys Cain discuss the different subscription platforms available, how and when they can be valuable to authors, and what an author will be expected to provide to their subscribers.


Crys: Hello and welcome to The Author Life Podcast. I’m your host, Crys Cain, with my co-host, J Thorn. We’ve been batching and we’ve had guest hosts, so it’s been about a month since we’ve had a catch up. So what is going on in your writer life, J?

J: Wow, lots of things. Carbon Almanac came out, so that project finally came to fruition. That was pretty exciting.

Crys: Can you give quick recap of what that project is? Because it’s huge, so it’s hard to recap, but…

J: Yeah. Yeah. It was a Seth Godin led project that started late last year. And the idea was to create an Almanac based on climate change. So it was not political. We were saying facts, not fear. It was a hundred percent volunteer nonprofit effort. So on the writing side, there were like 300 contributors to the Almanac spread across 90 different countries or something like that.

It was all done like with Google docs pretty much. And then there was a whole team of designers. And then Seth sold the book to Penguin Random House, so they were the publisher. It came out last week and to celebrate the launch on July 16th, we had a world signing day. Anyone connected to the book could set up a table at a local bookstore or library, or anywhere really, and do a signing. And we had zoom, we were all on zoom at the same time, and we’re gonna try and break a world record. So totally a gimmick, like we all admit that, but just to get the word out.

Yeah. Yeah. So that was kind of the big thing. Yeah.

Crys: Yeah. And then what’s going on right now? Are you in a break for writing? Are you in the midst of writing?

J: I’m working on the revision of the how to write how-to book, a bit meta there. So yeah, working on that and a few other projects I can’t talk about publicly that are taking a good chunk of time, but they’re a lot of fun and they could definitely be worth it.

What have you been working on? I know you’ve been traveling a lot and stuff.

Crys: Yeah. I wanted to say that the how-to project, I’ve heard so many people say, ugh, J convinced me I needed to write a nonfiction book with that project.

J: With challenge.

Crys: So when that comes out, warning to everyone, you may be forced to write a non-fiction project.

J: Compelled to write one.

Crys: Yeah, so I basically did no work for the last two weeks up until I got home this week because of travel and family, and that was a whirlwind. I don’t think I’ve ever gone back for that quick of a trip for visitation purposes. I’ve gone back to do a task and then come home. But I had five days with my ex’s family for Smalls to hang out with them and then five days with my family. And that is far too short for my preferences, but it’s the time we had with the midyear school break.

And then when I got back I spent a lot of that time thinking, since I wasn’t writing, about what my co-writers death meant for my business and what I needed to focus on. And I’ve let myself slack over the last two years because of COVID, because of divorce, because of all of that. And I’ve just been very lenient with my cell phone, how I spend my time, how much time I give towards writing, and I decided that time is over. It was needed, it will probably be needed again. But now I have to get back on the words first wagon and be really consistent about that because especially with my fears about the economy right now, like I gotta make sure that the money’s coming in.

J: Yeah.

Crys: So one of the topics that has come up in my thinking time especially, but also over the past few months, that I wanted to talk about was subscriptions for authors. And what I mean by that is having readers pay you a subscription to have access to your content. A lot of authors use Patreon for this, currently. Some authors use their websites, it’s not as common. I think a few use Gumroad, but Patreon’s the main one.

And you have experience with subscriptions. We both have experience with subscriptions on the non-fiction side. And I’m trying to figure out how to lead you into this question. But like in the non-fiction world, like how are subscriptions looked at as an income stream? Like where do they take place in the hierarchy of things you should be doing?

J: That’s an interesting question. Subscriptions are a bit of a catch 22, in much the way that crowd crowdfunding is. If you don’t have an existing audience, it’s hard to get a campaign off the ground. There is some discoverability on Kickstarter organically, but not a lot. And I feel like subscriptions are the same way.

If you start a brand-new podcast and you open up a Patreon account, nobody knows. Like there might be some people who are browsing Patreon and find it, but that doesn’t mean you shouldn’t do it. I think it’s almost the kind of thing where if you can start a subscription model earlier than you think you should, it won’t hurt you. And then it’ll just roll along there in the background.

I think the danger with the subscription model that authors have to be aware of is that, and I hear this in nonfiction and fiction, which is giving like a whole laundry list of CTAs. I hear this on podcasts all the time, like rate and subscribe on iTunes, check out my Patreon, download the free this. And the listener’s just tuning it out. It’s too many things. So I think you have to be careful and you have to think about and prioritize what you want the reader or the listener to do, and a subscription can be part of that.

Once you get someone subscribed to your stuff, over time it builds a nice, reliable, steady stream of income, which is different than royalties. Royalties are gonna fluctuate based on where you are in the series, how new the book is, what genre you’re publishing in. Whereas if you get a nice base established in subscriptions, you can count on that money. And it’s a slower growth and it takes some time, but it’s definitely more reliable.

Crys: Yeah I forgot to mention one that is been on the edges of like, is it good or is it not as far as do people use it, and that is Substack, which is more used for non-fiction, though some authors have used it for fiction.

One of the reasons this has been on my mind a lot lately is Amelia Rose, who has been on a few podcasts lately, and for the life of me, I can’t remember one of the main one that I’m thinking of, but I’ll see if I can find it for the show notes. But she posted in Facebook about her subscription business which is about 50% of her income, and it’s six figures. And she started out writing on Wattpad originally, just for free, with no intention of ever making money off of that original fiction.

It wasn’t fan fiction, it was original fiction, but she was posting it there. And someone, perhaps her husband, I’m not really sure, pushed her to see if she could make money off of it with releasing early to Patreon, which is what she ended up using. And especially because she’s writing steamier stuff and there’s certain things she couldn’t put on certain platforms because of ratings and all that, she gave out the super steamy stuff over on her Patreon where people could get access to it. And so it’s grown into this really consistent income for her.

Like you said, like that’s the benefit of subscriptions. And I think for writing for authors for fiction, rather than nonfiction, though it’s probably is true with the nonfiction., you have to have something free out there to prove to people that they’re going to get value behind the paywall. And I said maybe it applies to nonfiction, no, absolutely, non-fiction’s been doing that for forever. That’s how non-fiction moves from free, to buy the book, to buy the course. That is the entryway to the funnel. And it’s not something that indie authors have been utilizing much beyond a free first in series.

J: Yep. Very true. And it’s funny, we didn’t talk about this episode before we showed up today, but I was on a call with Amelia and Michael Evans, who are building something called Ream. And it was originally gonna be built for Amelia because she wanted her own subscription website, and then they realized like, wow, other authors could do this too.

And I think the reason why I’m mentioning this is because Amelia’s being really smart in how she’s approaching it, in that whether it’s romance or whether it’s some other “questionable” content, if you’re on someone else’s platform, you always have the risk of being shut down, deleted, suspended. And in Amazon’s case, like sometimes you don’t even know why. Like all of a sudden your accounts suspended and you can’t get back in.

Eventually, and this is not every author right now, but I think eventually, you look at what Joanna’s doing with the Shopify store and she’s building that out on her website, or having an independent or homegrown platform for your subscriptions is definitely the way to go. Now, I think you have to start on the other platforms to understand how they work, but I think that’s gonna be the future. Like you want to have control of those subscriptions, you want to own those customers and that data, and you don’t want to be at the mercy of the owner of the platform who can change the rules at any time.

Crys: I had a client today ask me why isn’t everyone doing subscriptions rather than locking themselves into Amazon exclusivity and KU? And one of the reasons is a lot of people are afraid of the commitment that showing up regularly every week requires of them to keep their patrons happy. And I get that. If that is something you know is not gonna work for you, subscriptions probably aren’t gonna work for you unless you already have an entire back catalog of things that you can slowly give out to your people. But even then, I haven’t seen anyone do that successfully because why wouldn’t they just go buy your stuff when they want it? So that’s a wibbly-wobbly area.

But if you’re someone who is, one, a planner, planners could really benefit from subscriptions because you can plan things ahead of time. You can make them ahead of time, have your release plan ahead of time. If you’re someone who works really fast and you’re not a planner and you get energy from the feedback loop, which is where a lot of the folks who originally started on writing on Wattpad or other sites like that really get their energy from is getting that response, subscriptions could really work well for you.

As we say with everything, nothing is gonna fit everyone, but subscriptions are really good for people who hate fluctuations in income.

J: And I’m glad you mentioned the mindset piece because the subscription model for writing is not right for me, for that reason that you talked about. You almost have to go in with the understanding that you’re gonna write on a regular basis indefinitely. You can’t stop. Like that’s the double-edged sword with the subscription. If someone’s paying for ongoing content, you have to provide that ongoing content.

Now you can mitigate against that, right. Like you can batch, you can write ahead of time, but ultimately you’re responsible for showing up week after week, much like we do with a podcast. For me, a podcast doesn’t feel as much of a commitment because I’m just talking, but it’s the same concept. And it’s for that, I know myself well enough to know that I might enjoy that for a month or two, but would I enjoy it for two years or three years or four years? I probably wouldn’t. And it’s for that reason why I haven’t like really stepped fully into it.

Crys: Absolutely makes total sense. My question for our listeners is: does the subscription model intrigue you? Or do you know like absolutely not, that’s not for you? I’m curious what everyone’s personal answers are to that.

Thank you all so much for showing up to spend this time with us each and every week. If you would like to have these conversations with us more often, you should definitely check out where you can apply to join our community.