Writing Excuses 16.9: Crossing The Revenue Streams
Key Points: Successful artists have lots of different eggs in lots of different baskets, earning money from many different revenue streams. First. look at other ways to write fiction besides just selling your stories. E.g., sometimes a publisher will pitch a series to you. Look for ways to avoid the pigeonhole, get new audiences, and work with new publishers. Watch for anthologies, and write to a theme! Tie-in fiction can help. Gaming companies need fiction, too. Balance new skills and audience versus money, money, money. Try to learn something, to grow your audience or as a writer, when you take on new projects. Second, consider ways to make money from writing you have already done. T-shirts, coins, merchandise. In-universe artifacts. How much work do you have to do to make money off it, and how much profit is there in it? Consider Kickstarter. Keep looking for other opportunities.
[Dan] This is Writing Excuses, Crossing Revenue Streams.
[Erin] 15 minutes long.
[Brandon] Because you’re in a hurry.
[Howard] And we’re going to need more than one stream.
[Dan] I’m Dan.
[Erin] I’m Erin.
[Brandon] I’m Brandon.
[Howard] And I’m Howard.
[Dan] So, one of the things that I think is common to every successful artist that I know of is that they have lots of different eggs in lots of different baskets. They are earning money from a lot of different revenue streams. So we want to talk about that is the final class in Brandon’s intensive course on career planning and business information. So, Brandon, take it away. What do people need to know about multiple revenue streams? Why is this an important part of an author’s career?
[Brandon] So, you need to find a way to make money off of your writing. This is the… This is what you’re going to have to do. This is what… If you want to go pro. You don’t… You don’t have to, but, if you’re looking at this as a business, one of the things you should be looking at is, how can I make money at this? The obvious answer is sell a book. However, for at least most authors I know, once you sell a book, you want to go full-time, you probably should go full-time to make a living at your writing, but you probably can’t earn enough off of that book to go full-time yet. Indeed, even if you’re a newer aspiring writer who’s selling short stories and things like that, or maybe you’re… Maybe you’re a longtime writer who selling short stories. You are going to need to find a way to make a living or at least you’re going to want to find a way to make more money off of your stories. So, this is ways to make money with your writing that aren’t necessarily the obvious ways of you write your book, you sell your book, you get money for it. We’re going to talk about all sorts of other types of revenue streams you can have as a writer to keep yourself going during those maybe lean years.
[Dan] So, I told the story to Howard last week, but when I went years ago to my 20th high school reunion, they did the little games, like who has the most kids and who’s done this and who traveled the farthest and all that kind of thing that you do at a reunion. The question who has held the most jobs since graduating high school, most people were on like four or five. Except for me, the professional author, and my friend who became a professional filmmaker. We both tied with 14. That’s not even counting all the freelance work that I do. So artists really need to hustle to pay all those bills.
[Brandon] Yup. So one of the first things we want to talk about here is other ways to be writing stories that aren’t maybe necessarily the write a book or you write a story, whatever you want to write, and sell it. There are job opportunities that are still writing fiction in the area you want to be in that you can get. I wanted to have Dan talk to us about it, because Dan had the experience of a series that was pitched by a publisher to him, right?
[Dan] Yeah. This is actually… Not a lot of people know this, but that’s where Partials came from. The publisher came to me, two editors, Jordan Brown and [Ruta Remus] at HarperCollins. They had an idea for a really great kind of post-apocalyptic dystopia YA series, and were looking for an author who fitted. So they actually brought that idea to me. It was not something I had considered doing, because at the time, everything I had written was horror, but number one, I really welcomed the opportunity to jump into something very, very different as a way of making sure I didn’t pigeonhole myself as the serial killer guy. For a number of reasons. That’s not the identity I was looking for. But number two, this was a chance for me to build inroads to a brand-new audience I had not yet been reaching, to a brand-new publisher that I had never worked before, to do just a lot of new frontiers. I really saw it at the time as a brand-new revenue stream. Then, when that whole YA career kind of crumbled in let’s say 2014, that’s the same… I used that same strategy again, let’s find a brand-new audience and build a brand-new revenue stream, which is how I got into middle grade.
[Brandon] This happens a lot with anthologies, also. People will ask you if you want to be a part of an anthology or it’ll go around in the community that an anthology is being made on this topic and they’re accepting proposals or submissions. Once you become part of the community, you can get… Watch some of these forums or these newsletters or these things like that. This comes into the networking that we talked about in a previous week. But anthologies can be a good way to make money off of your writing other than just I’m writing a story and submitting it, you can write to a theme.
[Dan] Yeah. Tie-in fiction has also been really helpful for me. My only Hugo nomination for prose… For a pros category has come from tie-in fiction. Now, this can be hard. I’ve got a friend who rights Star Trek novels, and I was kind of grilling him for how can I get into this, because I’m a huge Star Trek geek. He basically said you have to wait for one of the rest of us to die.
[Dan] So these established properties can be hard to break into. But what I have done is I’ve made some pretty good contacts with gaming companies. I’ve written for Privateer Press, I’ve written for several others. The one that I’ve just finished is a Kickstarter for a board game called Cult of the Deep. They came to me and they said, “Hey, we’re coming out with this thing. It’s horror. We want to have some fiction built so that we can use it as part of the Kickstarter. Will you write it for us?” So always being open for and looking for these opportunities to write other stuff has been super helpful to me.
[Erin] I think that…
[Dan] Go ahead.
[Erin] I think that’s something… It’s really interesting, because it’s a trade-off. So I do a lot of freelance writing work, some game stuff, I’ve done some writing for, like, Paizo, and I write for Zombies, Run!, the running app. So, things here and there. But what’s… The balance is figuring out what is adding to your skill as a writer or expanding your audience, and what is just like I like money, money is fun.
[Erin] So, whenever actually a project comes to me, I play Say No to This from Hamilton, and I… A picture of my freelance client is like the woman saying, “I should say no, but I will always say yes.” But I’ve actually had to say no to projects, because they are far enough off from what I’m doing that I’m like, “I’m not going to learn anything, I’m not going to grow either my audience or as a writer,” which, I think either one of those are a good reason to do extra stuff in addition to the money.
[Brandon] so, the second big thing I wanted to cover is ways to make money off of writing you’ve already done that isn’t necessarily writing prose. The reason I want to talk about this is because Howard is a genius at this. He has had to make his whole career off of monetizing something that people aren’t paying for. Howard, what can you tell us about how to monetize things that are free, or get extra money out of something that you’re charging a little bit for?
[Howard] I’m… Okay, I’m laughing because, on the one hand, yes, the comic is available for free and we have all kinds… I say the comic. Schlock Mercenary, available to be read by you, fair reader, at no charge at schlockmercenary.com. Yes, it’s free, and we sell T-shirts and coins and whatever else, but most of the merchandise that… The most profitable merchandise we sell is book collections of the comic. So a lot of what I’m doing is getting enough people hooked on the book that they want to own it in print. But there are things that the comic created, there are things that it built, that lent themselves really well to being an independent revenue stream. So that even if you didn’t want a print collection of the comic strip, maybe you wanted this other thing.
[Dan] Awesome. So, can you tell us about our book of the week, which happens, very cleverly, to tie right into this?
[Howard] Why, yes I can. We created The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries, which is a sort of coffee-table book of very, very bad advice. Malevolent canon. It’s often referred to in-universe. I’ve been making fun of the Stephen Covey, the seven habits thing. Then, years and years and years ago, Stephen Covey started going after anybody who was saying the seven habits of anything. Basically saying, cease-and-desist, don’t do that anymore. We went ahead and did a retcon in Schlock Mercenary and started referring to them as maxims, and there aren’t seven of them, there are 70 of them. Then I realized, you know, I might be able to make stuff out of this. So we made some twelve-month calendars. Well, print calendars aren’t as big a thing as they were 15 years ago. So, about five years ago, we released the Seventy Maxims book, which we created as an in-universe artifact in Schlock Mercenary, and we did it as part of the Schlock Mercenary role-playing game called Planet Mercenary, which is itself a whole nother thing that is not the comic. The Planet Mercenary role-playing game paid the bills all by itself for like two and a half years. That is the best thing we’ve ever made. I mean, except for the comic. Which makes this topical.
[Howard] The fun thing about the Planet Mercenary book is that my whole approach to it from the word go was, boy, it sure would be nice if I could make money off of my world book notes that I have to refer to all the time. I still refer to the Planet Mercenary PDF all the time. But, the book of the week, The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries. It is a lovely little coffee-table book that’s great for starting conversations about things you should never ever do, please.
[Dan] Now, one of the things that I love about this book, and specifically about the plan that caused its creation, is I’ve always compared your maxims to Star Trek’s Rules of Acquisition for the Ferengi. You made a decision that they did not make, and maybe this ties back to our art versus business discussion. You were able, because you eventually ended that list and codified everything in it, you were able to publish it. Star Trek has never done that. They’re missing out on a big chunk of change. They could have, at the height of DS 9, sold copies of the Rules of Acquisition, hand over fist. They decided not to, presumably because they liked the flexibility of not having codified the entire list. But these are the kind of decisions that, as creators, we need to make. Do I want to leave this open? Could I turn this into something that I can sell? It’s a really smart tactic.
[Howard] Let me look at… Let me talk about Paramount’s decision, there. Back in 2006, Robert Khoo, who was the business guy for Penny Arcade comics. He’s the reason there’s a Penny Arcade Expo. Robert Khoo said, “No single source should ever be more than 60% of the revenue that you take in.” Now, he was talking to an audience of self-employed, self-publishing web cartoonists. He was talking about things like Google ads and books in print and T-shirts and whatever else. But the advice really stuck to me, stuck with me, and it was super salient three, four years ago, when Google ads cut me off, and I realized, “Oh, no. That’s a big chunk of my revenue.” That’s… Well, it’s about 10 or 15% of my overall revenue. That did not end my life. Because we had multiple revenue streams. So the operating principle here is don’t have anything that you’re just super dependent on. With Paramount, making a book of the Rules of Acquisition, the Ferengi Rules of Acquisition, would have meant devoting a writer to the process of compiling that and making it special and wonderful. Ultimately, it never would have generated more than chump change, if you will, compared to the business that they were in, which is making a TV show. So they made a business decision to leave… I mean, what would have been for me, hundreds of thousands of dollars, to leave that on the table. But hundreds of thousands of dollars, that’s… That gets like four episodes shot.
[Howard] It’s not very significant. So the decision about revenue streams hinges, for me, heavily in part on how much work do I need to do in order to make money off of this, and how much profit is there in the thing that I’m making. I love books, because they don’t cost a lot to make, if I don’t factor all of the time involved in writing them, but we can sell them… The profit margin is large on the physical merchandise. But for a print-on-demand T-shirt, the margin is very small. If my limited market of people is all busy buying print-on-demand T-shirts, I’m actually not making as much money as I would be if I could convince them all to buy copies of The Seventy Maxims of Maximally Effective Mercenaries.
[Brandon] One of the things…
[Dan] [inaudible… Should all…]
[Brandon] That’s interesting here to talk about is this idea that there are, once you are lucky enough to be getting fans and keeping them, there are people among them who want to give you more money then… They want to support your work. I remember when this first began with me. I actually got an email from someone who said, “Hey, can I just send you a bunch of money? I happen to just be very well-off and I want to just send you a tip.” I’m like, “Really? You just are offering to send me money?” People like to support artists. So, having some of these extra products that you can sell is a good way to go. It does require time. Dan was the first writer I knew personally who made T-shirts. I know that T-shirts are… T-shirts are one of the harder things to do because you have to carry them in multiple sizes and they are just a… There’s a saturated market of cool nerd T-shirts out there. So making a dent and being… Selling those is hard. But they are a nice… Like, one thing that we need that Paramount… Paramount needs it on a different scale. We need multiple revenue streams, in that if something collapses, we aren’t destroyed by. When Borders went out of business, this was a big deal. Right? It’s possible that other sources like that will just banish. So, even if T-shirts are a small amount of your business, knowing that you have that extra revenue stream can be very comforting. About three years ago, maybe, Howard came to me and I was talking about the leatherbounds that we do. The leatherbounds are one of the things I wanted to bring up here. I am in a privileged position in that I have a big enough audience to support a luxury product like this. I was talking about it, and Howard said, “Brandon, you need to do a Kickstarter on these.” I’m like, “Why?” He’s like, “Oh, Kickstarter has a lot more tools you can use. You can generate a lot more interest by offering rewards to people. Trust me, do a Kickstarter.” I had never done one before. I went to my team and said, “Howard says we should do a Kickstarter, and Howard is the smartest person I know about this sort of stuff. So let’s do a Kickstarter.” Last summer we made almost $8 million on a Kickstarter.
[Howard] I got a free book.
[Brandon] And Howard got a free book. This… It was true. It was bigger than the money we made… The peace of mind knowing that we could now self-publishing any of my books if the publishing industry went belly up or something happened at Tor. That piece of mind is enormous, knowing that I have another way to reach my fans. Now, granted, it’s through someone else’s platform. That is scary. The fact that if Kickstarter went away, I can’t sell them on my website as effectively as I can through Kickstarter. But it gives me someone other than Amazon, because the rest of my life is controlled by Amazon. 80% of my books are sold through this one store that if Jeff Bezos decides he doesn’t like me and says, “Pull Brandon’s books,” then my career collapses. Well, not anymore, because I have learned how to sell my books through Kickstarter if I need to because of Howard.
[Dan] Fantastic. Good job, Howard. Yeah. So, this has been a really good discussion. I hope that what our audience takes away from this more than anything else is that you need to be looking for these other opportunities. Regardless of what those might be, and regardless of how big they are. I could never in my wildest dreams make $8 million self-publishing something the way Brandon does, but I do have lots of other work that I do, and lots of other little streams of revenue. So, even the little stuff helps and is valuable. You need to look for opportunities to do that. So, thank you very much for listening to this episode.
[Dan] Let’s have our final piece of homework from Howard.
[Howard] Okay. I want you to look at… Identify the places where you are getting money. They may be checks from a publisher, they may be checks from Amazon, they might be… I don’t know where you are getting money from. But identify each of those as a revenue stream. Then identify… Write it down… What is the activity that you are performing that is generating that revenue. If it’s ad revenue on your website, then the activity is not necessarily writing, it’s publishing things to the web. So, establish a framework for where the money is currently coming from. Now, start looking at the ideas, the concepts, the conceits, the whatever that are in your work that could be turned into other things that might make you money. Maybe it’s a T-shirt, maybe it’s a commemorative Christmas ornament. Maybe it’s a… Maybe it’s a flag that goes on the back of a pickup truck. I don’t know. But make a list of the possible places that the ideas, the concepts, the conceits in your work could be turned into other merchandise.
[Dan] Fantastic. All right. Well, this has been Writing Excuses. You are out of excuses. Now go write.