One Dollar At A Time: The Ultimate Guide To Earning Money From An Internet Audience

This guide is for writers, artists, musicians, filmmakers, game creators, and anyone else who wants to raise money from their audiences. I discuss Kickstarter, Patreon, self-publishing, and many more tactics and tools.

Share!

 
October 2014

Everyone knows that the creative businesses have changed. You can still get huge book deals, record deals, and other deals — but those business models are not the only answer anymore. Now independent creators can reach their fans directly.

One dollar at a time picture by doctorwonder

We’ve all heard the Kickstarter success stories. But not everyone knows all their options. Talented creators are using Patreon, self-publishing, and many other tools to raise money one dollar at a time. This guide will explain and describe the best ones!

(If you’re new to my site: Hi! I’m Lydia, a writer and media strategist. I have personal and professional experience with these tools and I’ve helped other people figure them out, too. If you want my advice or help for your project, feel free to leave a comment or contact me directly.)
 

Important Note:
This Is The Wild West

Before I cover all the options, I’ll point out that these tools are evolving rapidly. And there’s more change to come.

I hear about new relevant startups every week. The almighty Google just announced that they’re developing features that allow fans to fund their favorite creators on YouTube. This is on top of Google’s other new service, which sells music through YouTube.

I’ve heard suggestions that Apple’s $3 billion purchase of Beats happened because Beats could become “a platform for artists to build businesses.” And even Lady Gaga’s social network, Backplane, just recreated itself as a monetization tool for creators.

Click to tweet: Twitter is starting to offer its users the ability to sell directly to their followers!

Meanwhile, over in China, people can already sell directly to their audience on Chinese social media platforms like WeChat. And Twitter will soon offer its users the ability to sell directly to their followers! I’m so excited that this is happening — I’ve been hoping Twitter would do something like this for a long time.

So the future is bright! But let’s talk about what creators can do right now! For each strategy below, I describe some current tools that cover it. Then I give pro tips for using them.



 

Table of Contents

Memberships, Patrons, and Recurring Donations (Patreon and pals)

Crowdfunding and Pre-Funding (Kickstarter and cousins)

Direct Sales and Self-Publishing (Amazon and other tools)

Classes, Consulting, Meetings and Gigs (Udemy and others)

Merchandise and Affiliates (Gumroad and others)

Advertising (Passionfruit and others)

Paywalls (Tinypass and others)

Budgeted Micropayments (CentUp and others)

Ongoing Publications (29th St Publishing and others)


 

Patrons,
Memberships,
and Recurring Donations

This option works for creators who produce something that fans can experience for free, like a Youtube series. Even when their favorite media is free, some fans will gladly send money to keep it alive. And some of those fans will sign up to send money regularly.

Click to tweet: Even when their favorite media is free, some fans will gladly send money to keep it alive.

Sometimes, regular donations can create a dependable income stream. The webcomic SMBC is literally making over $8,000 per month in recurring donations right now, although the whole webcomic is free to read.

One of the most successful tools for this is called Patreon. When a creator makes a Patreon page, they ask their fans to donate per month — or they can ask for a donation every time they produce their thing, like a podcaster who receives donations every time they publish a podcast.

Here’s what the Patreon page for the webcomic SMBC looks like:

Zach Weinersmith / SMBC on Patreon
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

On the left side of this Patreon page, you’re seeing a space where people can sign up to send monthly money to the webcomic artist. Right below that box, you can see how many patrons he has, and how much money he’s getting. On the right side, he’s put up a video to convince fans to support him.

Supporters make a Patreon profile and put in their credit card information, and are automatically billed thereafter. Patreon takes 5% to fund the company; creators earn the rest. (Sidenote: Patreon is a startup launched in 2013, and they just raised $15 million in Series A funding here in San Francisco. Way to go, guys.)

 

Pro tips:

Patreon logo

• Patreon (like Kickstarter) allows creators to offer rewards. For instance, a person who donates $1 per month might get a nice “thank you” on Twitter — whereas a person who donates $100 per month might get a signed print mailed to them monthly. This often tempts creators to offer merchandise like t-shirts, etc.

The drawback: merchandise can be a real hassle, especially when you have to mail it to hundreds of people. For one thing, shipping is annoying for many obvious and non-obvious reasons. So if you want to offer merchandise, it might be worth some extra research first.

Also: If offering merchandise is your primary goal, then there are tools specifically for merchandise. (I have a Merchandise section below, yay!)

• There are some great “title-building” memberships, like the science fiction magazine Clarkesworld, which has a “citizenship program” where supporters earn titles. People earn the titles over time — and they earn the titles faster if they’re donating more.

So, for instance, a Clarkesworld supporter can earn the title “Overlord” after 100 months of support, if she gives $1 per month. Alternatively, she could earn the title “Overlord” after 25 months at $4 per month. Here’s a screenshot of the first two levels:

Clarkesworld on Patreon
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

• Creators can offer “exclusive updates” on Patreon — i.e. updates that are only seen by their supporters. These can be used for “early access.” For instance, a podcast’s supporters might receive the podcast recording one week before everyone else hears it. This is also a great way for creators to get feedback on work-in-progress.

 

Crowdfunding

Kickstarter! It’s awesome! Most people know how it works: First, a creator sets a fundraising goal; then supporters pledge to the campaign. Campaigns can last a maximum of 60 days (it used to be longer, but Kickstarter shortened it after some interesting data analysis).

Kickstarter logo

If the campaign meets its goal, then the supporters are billed and the creator gets their money. Otherwise, no money is transferred. Kickstarter fees in the USA are 8-10%, and the creator gets the rest.

Most creators raise less than $10,000. But a rare few have earned millions, like the musician Amanda Palmer. She aimed for $100,000, and here’s a screenshot of how her Kickstarter looked by the end:

Spaceteam Kickstarter!
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

On the right side, you can see that Amanda raised over a million dollars from almost 25,000 supporters.

In recent years, creators have developed a zillion time-tested tips and tricks. This means you can read all the best practices ahead of time (such as: how to manipulate Kickstarter’s algorithms to increase your chance of becoming “most popular”).

You can also hire consultants, or you can use auxiliary tools like BackerKit, which helps manage supporters.

 

Pro tips:

• Creators typically use Kickstarter to raise funds for a specific project. But some creators run frequent campaigns to support ongoing work. For instance, an author might run a whole new Kickstarter fundraiser for every new book in a series.

Click to tweet: Some media creators have started raising salaries over Kickstarter, instead of funding specific projects.

Some creators have started doing Kickstarter campaigns for their salary. The electronic musician Ott just Kickstarted 6 months’ living expenses, so he can work on his next album instead of traveling to play gigs. The independent game designer Henry Smith just raised a year’s salary, so he can make free games for the whole year.

Smith’s campaign followed the success of his innovative free game Spaceteam, so as part of his Kickstarter, he promoted a worldwide Spaceteam tournament called the Admiral’s Club:

Spaceteam Kickstarter!
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

• Now that Kickstarter is a Thing, creators can get discovered through Kickstarter — especially if they get featured on Kickstarter’s front page. Plus, the company recently released “social features” that notify people when their friends support a campaign.

For instance, I learned about the woodcutting artist Gabriel Schama after I received an automated email from Kickstarter telling me that a Facebook friend supported him.

Indiegogo logo

• There are many Kickstarter alternatives and competitors. Indiegogo, for instance, allows anyone to post a campaign (whereas Kickstarter only approves some campaigns). It’s also possible to create an Indiegogo campaign where the creator is paid even if they don’t raise the full fundraising goal.

Tilt logo

Another platform, Tilt, allows creators to put the campaign on their own site, whereas Kickstarter campaigns can only exist on Kickstarter.com. (Note: Tilt used to be known as Crowdtilt.)

Seed & Spark logo

The most interesting alternative might be Seed & Spark. It’s aimed at filmmakers, and it has a lot of advanced features that make it special. For example, supporters on Seed & Spark can pledge film equipment instead of money.

• Like I said in the Memberships section above: Creators often offer merchandise on Kickstarter. But lots of people underestimate how expensive and annoying merchandise can be.

Again: Shipping. It sucks. Also, unexpected production issues can easily destroy a creator’s profits, like this creator who raised $65k but only earned $5k.

Moral of the story: Plan ahead thoroughly when you devise merchandise rewards. Alternatively, you could just sell merchandise to your fans instead of conducting an all-or-nothing campaign (see my Merchandise section below).

 

Direct Sales
and Self-Publishing

Just like Kickstarter, there are a few creators making millions of dollars self-publishing. That’s drawn a lot of attention. Obviously, most people don’t make that much, but it’s incredible that it is possible!

Most creative types can self-publish in some way: Authors can put ebooks on Amazon or Smashwords or many other platforms. Musicians can sell songs through TuneCore, CDBaby, and others. Game designers use Steam, and others. All the platforms have different rules and take different percentages.

Click to tweet: Luckily, self-publishing is a well-developed path by now. So there are best practices and tools and people to help.

It’s a horrendously complex process! Luckily, self-publishing is a well-developed path by now. So there are auxiliary tools and best practices and consultants to help. For instance, there are writer tools like Creatavist, which makes it easy to format ebooks. And one of my favorite communities is Booktrope, a platform for writers that helps them connect with cover designers, editors, and ebook marketers before publishing.

Booktrope logo

In fact, the self-publishing market is so developed that some people will try to convince you that you “can’t” or “shouldn’t” self-publish unless you hire a team of freelancers to help you. They’re wrong — but it is true that doing it all yourself is a lot of work. If you have money and not time (for example, if you have a full-time day job) then you should hire freelancers and consultants to help you.

Also: If you want a Traditional Deal (like a book deal through a traditional publisher), then self-publishing can help you get there. If you self-publish a successful book, game, music, or anything else, then publishers might take an interest in you — and you’ll have more backup if you start approaching them directly.

 

Pro tips:

• Bundling and re-bundling are great strategies for self-publishing. For instance, you can bundle your own books/games/songs by different themes (like “My 3 books about werewolves!”). You can join forces with other creators, and bundle your stuff with theirs (like “3 great authors write about werewolves!”).

Click to tweet: If you write a lot of short pieces, then you should definitely curate and self-publish a Best Of collection.

“Best of” is one of my favorite bundle types, especially for writers. If you write articles or essays or short fiction, then you really should curate and self-publish a best-of collection. After all, you’ve already done the hard part and written the pieces — you just need to pick your favorites and stick them together. Or you can hire good formatters, designers, and editors to put them together for you.

Plus, there are services that bundle stuff, like the Humble Bundles, which promote creators by bundling their work with a batch of other people’s relevant work.

• Price strategy is a giant, interesting topic. Many people have written about “the best prices for [indie games / ebooks / whatever]” already — here’s a good one that focuses on ebook prices.

Personally, I’m interested in what some folks have achieved by allowing their fans to pay whatever they want. But although some creators make good money using “pay what you want,” some have lost money using the same approach. Some famous creators who used to support the idea are now publicly skeptical.

• Pre-orders can work really well, and they aren’t hard to set up. The founder of Smashwords recently published a slide deck about pre-order strategy; it focuses on using Smashwords for ebook pre-orders, but most of his tips are applicable for all kinds of pre-orders.

Of course, a crowdfunding platform like Kickstarter can be part of a pre-order strategy. When people run Kickstarters for books or other consumer projects, they’re basically offering a pre-order.

Createspace logo

• There are easy ways to self-publish physical copies for some things, like paperback books. Createspace is one of my favorites for writers. It prints books on demand — like as soon as a buyer buys your book, a copy is printed and mailed to them. The writer doesn’t pay anything up front. Createspace takes its cut (which depends on the book’s size) at the moment that the book is sold, right before book is printed and mailed.

However, this involves some extra work, because the book has to be reformatted for print. Many ebook authors don’t bother publishing paperback copies because even when they try physical copies, almost all their sales are ebooks anyway.

• Within any given industry, there are multiple platforms with idiosyncratic rules. For example, Amazon is the biggest self-publishing arena for writers, but there are also indie author platforms like Smashwords. Smashwords usually gives writers a higher cut of their sales, and it provides extra services, like syndicating ebooks to other platforms (so if your ebook is on Smashwords, then it can appear automatically in other ebook markets like Barnes & Noble).

 

Classes,
Consulting,
Meetings, and Gigs

Lots of creators offer Internet classes and consulting. For video classes, Udemy is a great tool. They have a lot of structure to help instructors develop classes — and of course, one of their most successful instructors has a class about how to make a class.

I have no idea if this Udemy course about how to draw comic book anatomy is a good course — but it looks like over 1,400 students have enrolled. The teacher also offers other courses for other aspects of how to draw comics.

Anatomy comics course on Udemy
A screen from the comics anatomy course.

Udemy currently allows instructors to keep 100% of sales for students they brought to Udemy. So if you make a course, and you refer students through your own marketing, then you keep 100% of that money. Udemy only takes a cut when they refer a student to the course creator. (This is a recent change to their pricing structure.)

In contrast to making classes for hundreds of people, one-on-one consulting can be relatively simple — meet the client over Skype and receive payment by PayPal. I haven’t seen anything that beats the simple Skype + PayPal combination (but if you’ve seen something better, then I’d love to hear about it). And if you’re having a lot of these meetings, there are tools that ease the pain of scheduling ten million appointments — like YouCanBook.Me, which integrates with Google Calendar.

 

Pro tips:

• Some creators sell personal experiences instead of consulting, like grabbing lunch with a fan. There’s always public appearances, too.

Click to tweet: One webcomic artist sold her deepest darkest secret on Kickstarter. To two people.

My favorite “personal experience” was offered by the webcomic artist Abby Howard in her ingenious Kickstarter. For supporters who gave $3,200, Abby promised to tell them her “deepest darkest secret.” And two people bought it!

Look, I got a screencap:

Abby Howard's deepest darkest secret
It’s so awesome that this worked for Abby.

• Classes are typically more lucrative for creators who teach skills in business or tech, even if the creator isn’t a business or tech person. For instance, a designer could offer Photoshop courses. Still, people make money teaching stuff like writing and artisanal baking, too.

Of course, in-person workshops are a possibility too. Every circuit is different. It might sound obvious, but you need to figure out what sources of money are available for your expertise, and then sell the lessons those people want. Some markets just don’t have much money in them, but sometimes you might find money available for you to speak to surprising groups, like student groups at universities.

• Classes are also a great way to cross-market with other educational products, like books or guides. One smart illustrator, Kyle T. Webster, sells his own Photoshop brush tools (i.e., the Photoshop tools that he developed to make his art).

Kyle Howard's brushes on Gumroad
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

(Kyle uses Gumroad to sell these brushes; I discuss Gumroad in the Merch section below.)

• If you don’t like making videos, then you can still look at some of the other tools in this guide, like Ongoing Publications. For example, I’ve seen lots of text courses delivered by email. You could use a tool that enables people to pay for email subscriptions to create an email course.

 

Merchandise
and Affiliates

Merchandise has been around as long as the Web has been around. Many venerable websites earn revenue by selling hilarious t-shirts.

Gumroad logo

If you want to sell merch directly from your website, and you’re willing to take care of all the manufacturing and storage and shipping, then Gumroad is a great toolkit. It also enables you to easily deliver digital goods, like ebook downloads, which can be emailed automatically to the buyer.

Gumroad’s payment system is much cleaner and nicer-looking than a PayPal button. It takes a 5% cut of sales.

(Sidenote: Gumroad also has a tactical blog for creators, and the company hosts clever events in San Francisco. Also, props to Gumroad, because Twitter chose the company as a partner when they recently started offering a limited ability for Twitter users to sell directly to their followers.)

On the other hand, maybe you don’t want to design merch, and you don’t want to do any storage or shipping — but you still want to earn money when your audience buys stuff that you recommend. In that case, you can refer your audience to outside merchandise vendors and earn a percentage of the sales. For instance, it’s really easy to list your top 10 favorite books and earn a commission when your followers buy them.

Click to tweet: It's really easy to list your top 10 favorite books and earn a commission when your followers buy them.

To do this, you link to products using “affiliate codes” that notify the vendor that the buyer came from you. Not all online vendors offer affiliate codes, but many do.

I can attest that whenever I link to anything on Amazon, I use my affiliate code because I earn a percentage of the sale price. In fact, you can do me a huge favor by using one of my links to Amazon next time you shop at Amazon, because I earn a commission on all Amazon sales from my links even if you don’t buy the specific thing I recommended. Thanks! :)

Obviously, this is awesome if you have your own things for sale on Amazon, like books — because you still earn the affiliate fee if you link to your own book. In fact, if you’re an author working with a traditional publishing house, then your Amazon affiliate fee can sometimes be higher than your royalty cut on a book sale.

 

Pro tips:

• Let’s say you want to design merch… but you still do don’t want to deal with hosting the site or manufacturing the stuff. There are options like Cafepress, which makes merch to your specifications and ships it whenever someone buys it. Similarly, there’s Createspace and other “print on demand” services for books, etc.

However, these services take a bigger cut of your earnings. You will pay less per item to have your stuff manufactured if you get it done in a big, efficient batch. So if you start getting tons of sales — or if you pre-fund your merchandise item through Kickstarter — then you should look into mass production.

You may be thinking, “Oh Lydia, I will never have so many sales!” Well then, I am giving you something to aspire to. :) Even better, if you start having a lot of sales success, then you will become attractive to people who could run the business for you. And contrary to stereotypes, not all of these potential partners will drain the creativity from your work in pursuit of commercialism.

For instance, the merch sales site TopatoCo was started by an indie web media creator, and it organizes sales for many indie web media creators. As they explain on their page about how to become a TopatoCo client, “Most of our clients are people who sell so much stuff that they need a new and more efficient way to produce and fulfill their popular products. That is where we pick up the slack.”

Dillon Francis will go vegan for $40,000

• Merch can inherently be marketing for your other stuff. When I was a young lass, I worked in a bookstore that offered a 20% discount to customers who came in wearing the bookstore’s t-shirt on a certain day. This worked well for the bookstore, because it meant the whole neighborhood got blanketed by people wearing the bookstore t-shirt.

Also, if you have an exceptional knack for designing merchandise, then your store will be marketing for your creations. For instance, the DJ Dillon Francis has a merch website where he sells important objects and services like “Dillon Francis will call your mom in the middle of the night for $300” or “Dillon Francis will be vegan for a year for $40,000.” (To do this, Francis uses a tool called Merchtable, which isn’t available to the public right now.)

Click to tweet this quote: The DJ Dillon Francis says he'll go vegan for a year in exchange for $40,000. So far no one has put down the cash.

I never heard Dillon Francis’s music before I saw his merch. But now I mention him all the time! Alas, no one has put down the cash to make him go vegan for a year. I’m not sure whether anyone has paid him $300 to prank call their mom in the middle of the night.

• Some creators offer subscription merchandise, like a regular gift box mailed monthly. You can use Gumroad to set up recurring payments if you want to try this.

Quarterly logo

There’s a site called Quarterly that offers regular gift boxes from media creators, but it’s hard to get into Quarterly (much like TopatoCo). Still, you can browse their creator list for ideas.

• Merch prices usually need to be in line with typical prices for that object. But there are well-worn sales tricks for pricing. For instance, if you want to sell mugs, then you might have a hard time charging more than $15 per mug — but if you sell a limited number of special mugs, then you can try charging more per mug. These strategies are much-discussed in retail and they have tactical names that you can research on Google, like “upsell” and “limited edition.”

Plus: Sometimes you can ask for extra money if the merch is part of your Kickstarter or Patreon campaign. Sometimes fans just want to see your project happen, and the t-shirt is just a cute perk, like a thank-you note.

 

Advertising

Ah yes, advertising. Lots of people hate ads, but ads are the main thing that has supported Internet media until now. Sadly, for a number of reasons, ads are becoming less lucrative — which means many media companies are getting desperate. There’s a 2013 paper about this called Peak Ads, which outlines the forces at work.

There’s still a ton of money in ads, though. And there are many ways to put banner ads on your thing, depending on what your thing is. Typically these ads are organized through “ad networks,” which are complex statistical mammoths of algorithmic optimization. One popular ad network for bloggers is called Passionfruit.

Passionfruit charges bloggers $3-9 per month to be part of the network; your earnings will depend on how many people enjoy the ads on your site. The alternative service Adproval is free, and is also reputed to be a good beginner tool.

1977 Polaroid sunglasses ad

Think of the possibilities. If bloggers had existed in 1977, then I’m sure they would have been very excited to put this Polaroid Sunglasses ad on their blog. (I found the ad on Flickr).

When you’re big enough, you can start selling sponsorships. Sometimes advertisers will pay to simply be mentioned in the credits of your creation. But sometimes they’ll want an in-depth article or video in their honor, and sometimes those people will pay a lot for the privilege. You need a lot of traffic before you can try this, but there are independent creators who make it work.

Ariel Meadow Stallings, who created the Offbeat Empire series of lifestyle blogs, sells sponsored posts on her blog:

Offbeat Bride sponsored content
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

 

Pro tips:

• As an indie creator, you are more valuable to advertisers if you can fit yourself into a category where people spend a lot of money. So bloggers who cover, say, “fashion” or “weddings” are likely to have better luck with ads than bloggers with the same amount of traffic who cover “arcane feminist theory.”

Click to tweet this quote: Will you lose fans if you run ads? It usually depends on the ads, but it also depends on the audience.

• There’s been a lot of speculation lately about whether audiences feel okay about ads, sponsored content, and so on. Will you lose fans if you run ads? It usually depends on the ads, but it also depends on the audience.

On the one hand: There’s evidence that today’s audiences — especially younger audiences — have zero problem with ads and sponsorships. Here’s an interesting interview about this with venture capitalist Jason Calacanis.

On the other hand: The Atlantic, a venerable journalistic outfit, was slammed hard in 2013 for running a poorly judged sponsored article about Scientology.

Here’s what the article looked like at the time:

Ridiculous Scientology sponsored content in the Atlantic
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

 

Paywalls

Paywalls restrict access to a website unless the reader has paid a subscription fee, like the New York Times popup that prevents you from reading more Times material after you’ve read 10 articles. Paywalls are controversial in the creative world, and no one knows for sure whether they will work long-term. But some large media brands are having success with them for now.

It’s not just the Times — there are also big indies like Andrew Sullivan, a famous independent blogger who raised almost a million dollars last year through his paywall. Sullivan uses Tinypass, a paywall tool that takes 15% of the creator’s earnings.

Sullivan’s paywall looks like this:

Andrew Sullivan's paywall
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

 

Pro tips:

• “Leaky paywall” is an industry term for a paywall that restricts some parts of a website, but not all of them. The New York Times paywall is like this. There are other approaches, too. You could have a paywall that looked just like the Times paywall, but that asked for donations after readers dropped by more than 10 times — or that directed them to your merchandise page.

In other words, paywalls don’t always wall off your site. Plus, they can combine nicely with membership strategies. I’ve seen several sites where subscribers are the only readers who are allowed to comment on articles, for example.

Click to tweet this quote: Paywalls can hurt a media site's ad revenue by reducing its audience size.

• I love this piece by the social psychologist Jonathan Cook. It talks about recent psychological research around paywalls, and it describes some factors at work in successful paywalls. It also makes the important point that paywalls can end up hurting ad revenue by reducing audience.

 

Budgeted
Micropayments

There are services that I think of as “budgeted micropayments,” because they involve tiny amounts of money being assigned to creators out of a supporter’s designated “money for creators” budget. These services are subtle and interesting, and I’m curious to see where they’ll go.

Flattr logo

One example is Flattr. Flattr hooks up to a creator’s social media accounts. Supporters who want to help creators can put a budget in their Flattr account. Then, every time the supporter “likes” something that the creator made on their social networks, a fraction of their budget gets sent to the creator.

For instance, if I have a Flattr account with $10 in it, and I heart a creator’s Instagram photo, then Flattr will record my Instagram heart. At the end of the month, the creator will receive some percentage of my $10 budget, depending on how many other people I’ve also Flattr’d. Flattr supports Instagram, Youtube, Soundcloud, and several other platforms.

CentUp logo

The other main example is CentUp. CentUp makes a button that creators can put on blogs or other sites. Supporters have a CentUp budget every month. When supporters click a creator’s button, then some of their budget goes to support that creator.

Some of the CentUp money also goes to charity, which I think is really awesome. It’s awesome because supporting charity is awesome, and it’s also awesome because it could be a good cross-promotional channel for CentUp. In fact, I’ve been generally impressed with CentUp’s promotion of creators on the network — they also send digests of the best stuff from their creators, which most payment platforms don’t do.

Here’s what CentUp looks like when I support Gapers Block, a Chicago-centered arts & culture publication. I previously designated my “charity of choice” as WBEZ, a Chicago radio station. So when I click the CentUp button at the bottom of a Gapers Block post, I get the “CentUp Button” popup window that you see on the right side of the screencap below:

CentUp / Gapers Block / WBEZ popup
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

 

Pro tips:

• I think it’s possible that someone will make it big with this model, but I’m not sure. I have not heard about individual creators making significant money with budgeted micropayments — but if you’ve heard stories, please tell me!

 

Ongoing
Publications

An ongoing publication like a digital magazine can be awesome, because it means steady subscription income for the creator. It’s a ton of work, though, and creators don’t always anticipate how much extra work it will be.

Digital publications are strategically similar to other options like memberships, self-publishing, and paywalls. Still, there are many separate tools for them. For instance, 29th Street Publishing is a startup that builds digital magazine software. When they create a digital magazine, then it gets delivered to subscribers’ iPhones and iPads, or subscribers can also log in through a web browser.

My favorite publication built with 29th Street is Scratch Magazine — a magazine about how writers make money (or don’t make money ;).


Scratch has two scrappy editors who are super-familiar with the publishing world:
Jane Friedman and Manjula Martin.

Another approach is paid email lists, where subscribers pay a fee to receive the creator’s emails. For instance, Dan Lewis has been publishing a daily trivia email called Now I Know since 2010, and he recently made a paid version where his biggest fans sign up for extra Now I Know emails.

To do this, Dan uses a tool called Tugboat Yards, which integrates with the email delivery service Mailchimp. Tugboat, the payment processor, usually takes roughly 3% of payments. Mailchimp, which helps people do email distribution, is free for creators with up to 2,000 email subscribers; after that it costs a flat fee depending on how many subscribers the creator has.

Finally, I want to mention Beacon Reader. Beacon is a publication itself, with multiple writers, but subscribers choose a specific Beacon writer who they want to support. Thus, if I sign up to support Arikia Millikan, then I can read all the stories on Beacon, not just Arikia’s stories. Most of my subscription fee goes to Arikia, but some of my fee goes to the rest of Beacon.

Here’s what pops up when I click the “Become a Subscriber” button on Arikia’s Beacon page:

Arikia Millikan Beacon screencap
Mobile users click here to view this screencap on its own.

So the writers on Beacon rally support from their own audiences, and they make extra money from their own audiences, but they’re also sharing audience with the other Beacon writers. In some ways, it is similar to joining the staff of a publication (but writers at publications usually aren’t expected to pitch in and raise money). I’m intrigued to see how this model works out for Beacon as a company, which launched about a year ago.

 

Pro tips:

Ongoing digital publications are strategically very similar to other options. So if you’re interested in making a publication, then it’s worth reading these three previous sections:

Memberships

Paywalls

Self-Publishing

 

The Upshot,
and The Case for True Fans

Okay!! That was a lot of information. Obviously, I would love it if you shared this guide with others — and please give me feedback! I’m especially interested to hear about innovative strategies that I didn’t cover.

This world is evolving so fast that I expect half these tools to disappear in the next few years. The companies might go out of business or get acquired; the tools might break. We are living in a ridiculous, Wild West time. But some tools will be huge — and lots of scrappy creators will make money in this fracas.


I hope this monkey makes a million dollars by publishing his story on the Internet.

I’ve mentioned a lot of success stories here. There’s also a much-discussed article by Kevin Kelly from 2008 where he floats the theory of “a thousand true fans.” Kelly points out that any independent creator only needs a thousand fans — as long as each fan gives the creator $100 per year. At that rate, the creator will make a comfortable living.

So we have these examples, and we have this mathematical model… but how do you actually make it happen? How many people are really making this work?

Notably, the author of the original True Fans piece has not actually done the True Fans thing. I also like this followup piece he published, where a working creator delivers an in-depth analysis of his finances to Kelly, and demonstrates that the process is hard. And yes — it’s so hard. Most people won’t succeed. Most people who succeed will need to put in many years of extremely hard work before they succeed. Speaking as someone who spent years making a living as an independent writer, I can attest that it’s a grueling path.

Many independent creators make their webcomics or songs or books in the interstices of their lives, and support themselves economically with other things. And while the tools I listed in this guide can make it easier to earn money, no one can solve the hard parts for you, like building an audience.

But. But. But….

There really are real people making it work full-time — making a great living — right now. Remember that webcomic I mentioned on Patreon? The last time I looked at it, the guy is receiving over $8,000 per month from only 3,307 fans.

These tools can help a lot. And the business is developing so fast that opportunities are emerging everywhere. I’ve been thrilled by the successes of recent years, and I’m psyched about the future. Good luck, and tell me your story if you get the chance!
 

The money airplane was published by Dave77459 on Flickr under a Creative Commons license. The stack of dollar bills picture was published on Flickr by doctorwonder under a Creative Commons license. And the black-and-white monkey at a typewriter was likewise published by Oliver Hammond on Flickr under a Creative Commons license. Other images in this post are screencaps, logos from the companies described, or stock images.
 

I got my start in digital media at age 15, when I was invited to intern at a game design company. I went on to write games for White Wolf Game Studio; from there, I branched out into blogs, articles, a few books, and general social media mayhem. I have spoken at universities across America and at South By Southwest Interactive. I have also traveled extensively, including Peace Corps service in Swaziland, Africa.

3 Comments
  1. Hi, thanks for putting all of this useful info in one article! I just came across another interesting crowdfunding option that uses Bitcoins — https://www.swarm.co/. Something to maybe consider for future posts. I’m interested in researching this type of issue myself.

    Cheers,
    Larry @Liminal333



     

  2. Thanks for the tip, Larry!



     

  3. Lynda Metref says:

    Thank you very much for this very complete summary.

    Your point of view on micro-payment fee model would be interesting. I know that at some point Flattr was quite criticized for the 10% fee per transaction because it highly unprofitable to re-flattr the money you get by this way.



     

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *