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Indie Authors and the Creator Economy: Earnings Beyond the Books

Indie Authors and the Creator Economy: Earnings Beyond the Books — Alliance of Independent Authors: Self-Publishing Advice Center

The creator economy is the section of the wider creative economy in which readers, audiences, and customers of all kinds directly fund the work of creators. As other sectors of the economy struggle post-pandemic, the creator economy is attracting attention for its acceleration: from $1.7 billion in 2016 to nearly $14 billion last year. Businesses in the creator economy that seek funding reportedly saw three times the capital flow last year that they’d received in 2020. Many more are bootstrapping their way to success.

This pandemic has accelerated this trend that was already on the move. The combination of lockdowns and worsened unemployment sent those with creative talents searching for new ways to earn a living, while readers and other consumers looked for ways to fill increased leisure hours and were seeking more mindful and personalized experiences online.

Today, at the start of 2022, creator run enterprises are now the fastest-growing type of small business across the world, over 50 million people globally call themselves creators, and a recent survey found that more American kids want to be a YouTube star (29%) than an astronaut (11%).

Publishing, like music, art and film, is being turned on its head by this trend. All the big social media platforms are currently jumping on and new publishing platforms, new literary forms, and new genres being unleashed.

But what does it mean for indie authors? How much is hype and how much is true opportunity? And how do we give ourselves the best chance of success?

The Creator Economy for Indie Authors?

Most indie authors have seen how the pandemic sped up trends already begun some years ago, trends that will continue to grow in 2022–the growth in digital publishing (which doesn’t just mean ebooks but also digital audiobooks and print-on-demand), niche publishing (publishing books for a targeted readership) and what the trade calls “backlist publishing” (not giving up on old titles).

Today’s global publishing environment means that even if your topic or way of writing is very niche, you can make income from it, if you write and publish well enough. At ALLi, we have many members who are completely unknown outside their niche, who do not appear on any bestseller lists, including Amazon’s, but are making a living (or in some cases, a killing!) from their writing.

Besides making and selling books, the most ambitious indie authors are now sourcing their most loyal readers and taking them with them into their publishing adventures, through patronage, crowdfunding, premium products, and many other ways.

Creators can theoretically rely on more dependable income from supporters. They can choose which kinds of work they take on, whether it be newsletters, livestreams, or audio chats. “They don’t have to care about fighting against the current of the platform,” says Sam Yam, the co-founder of Patreon, a pioneer of the creator economy. “It’s value exchanged for creativity.”

The creator model promises a more human and less automated interaction than social media “influencing”. Instead of anonymous followers racking up on your profile page, you have fans, customers, supporters, patrons. Yam predicts a future that replaces social-media giants and the creator-economy brands like his own with individual creators, each with their own custom-built platform. A true owner-creator economy.

Ways in which an author can earn include:

and more.

In theory, this all sounds wonderful but profiting from publishing is as challenging as it ever was.

And wherever there’s opportunity, there’s competition. As millions of aspiring authors try to build a readership for their work, each niche becomes more competitive than ever.

Lower barriers to entry set a higher standard.

Indie Authors and the Creator Economy: Social Media Influencers

Social media platforms are central to the creator economy. It’s not 100% necessary to be on social media but if you’re not, you need to source another way to let people know about your books and get to know, like and trust you.

Instagram is the social media platform most associated with influencers, as it first recognized and developed that marketing space, allowing “influencers” to partner with brands to mutual benefit.

There is overlap in the platforms and publicity methods used by creators and influencers but they are not the same thing. A creator is primarily a maker, focused on creating quality content for a defined group of followers or fans. The focus for an influencer is on leading purchasing decisions though earned authority or relationships. They may create content as part of that, but it’s not their primary intention.

The creator is driven by passion for the process of creation itself. This makes for a more authentic and deeper connection but it can also mean the creator is more inclined to neglect the marketing and managerial aspects of the job.

Indie Authors and the Creator Economy: Social Media Platforms

Ad-driven platforms Facebook and Twitter have long profited from our data and our readers’ attention without giving much back. Now the success of the creator economy has ignited interest from social media platforms.

Recognize that our collective effort makes their platforms compelling (aka profitable), they are moving from selling ads based on over-all engagement to setting up ways for creators to get paid by followers.

As competition between the platforms intensifies, it’s good news for authors and other content creators.

“We want to build the best platforms for millions of creators to make a living,” Zuckergberg said in a Facebook post about rewarding creators, especially those just starting out, with a new bonus program that pays those who are eligible for hitting certain milestones when they use Facebook’s tools. They also intend to provide seed funding for creators to produce their own content.

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The platforms pay at the moment, because of competition, and because we creators keep consumers on their platforms, which keeps their ad revenue up.

Will the time come that they start charging us for the privilege? Perhaps, but keeping to the core business principles outlined below will mean you won’t be caught out, should any one provider change their terms.

It’s your responsibility to ensure that you don’t follow your passion into poverty.

Indie Authors and the Creator Economy: Purpose Built Platforms

In addition to the established social media platforms, all sorts of services are now popping up to serve the creator economy.

At ALLi, we have concerns about some of the agreements these platforms are producing, both from a rights and payment perspective.

Don’t license rights to anybody who is not investing in your work. Never sign away all rights: instead limit term, territory and format. Make sure you are clear about what you are being paid and for what. Always keep to the principle of non-exclusivity.

Please contact us if in doubt about any self-publishing agreement.

Indie Authors and the Creator Economy: How to Succeed

In the highly competitive creator economy, it’s not enough to write and produce a good book. You must rise above the noise that every reader is wading through to get attention for your book and the other products or experiences you’re selling.

There’s no way around it. Every successful author in the creator economy must become a hype artist as well as artist.

To succeed in the creator economy as an indie author, you need to understand what Michael Schein calls “hype“: the kind of activities that generate an emotional reaction from your readers, which will lead them to buy your books and go further: do other things you want them to do, like buy a premium product, become a patron, join your membership…

This aspect of publishing frightens many authors. They want to sit in their maker corner and “just” write and/or “just” make books.

Engaging with empathy, delighting your readers, writing brilliantly, publishing brilliantly: these are skills. Like all skills, they are learnable. Like all skills, they can always be improved.

But learning how to do that well, while remaining true to yourself, takes time, experimentation, and self-care.

Here are ten tips for succeeding in the indie author creator economy.

Creator Economy for Indie Authors 1: Value Yourself

In the creator economy, your main platform is always your own. You think about social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter, and publishing platforms like Amazon and Apple as ways to bring people across to your own base.

You understand that you will get paid in the currency you ask for. Ask for clicks and likes, and that’s how people will pay you. If you want to make a living in the creator economy, you ask for money.  

Your intention is to move your readers and fans off social networks onto your own website, apps, and other paid platforms. You use social media platforms to grow your readership and bring them over to your own website to purchase.

Some signs that you value yourself:

Don’t worry if you’re not there yet. If you’re not, the important thing is to feel the discomfort around these issues, listen to your self-talk about them, determine to grow and value yourself more.

Creator Economy for Indie Authors 2: Value Your Readers

To create a strong bond, you must understand your readers and what they value. Social media analytics and reader reviews offer quantitative and qualitative data that help you to understand where your readership is coming from, what they like, and what you should offer. When you know what your readers value, give it to them, consistently. Again, observe any resistance that rises around this.

Creator Economy for Indie Authors 3: Do Things Your Own Way

Keep looking at what others are doing in the same field and what new things you can do too. Indie authors often play follow the leader. It’s good to learn from others but don’t get lost in the crowd playing copycat. Readers respond well to differences. Exaggerate your appeal. Develop your unique style, in your books and beyond. Go creative!

Creator Economy for Indie Authors 4: Ditch Comparisonitis

Don’t get enthralled by others’ success. You’ll never know their full story, their background, advantages, hard work, struggles–and it doesn’t matter anyway. Look at what others are doing to learn, not to compare.

Creator Economy for Indie Authors 5: Stay Consistent

Consistently creating good content is how you increase your following and engagement. Make it your intention to learn and grow through regular creation and feedback.

Creator Economy for Indie Authors 6: Keep Improving

Work on your craft– your writing craft and your publishing craft.

Creator Economy for Indie Authors 7: Readers First (brand deals second)

Reputation and reader trust are your most powerful assets. When you become visible online, you soon find brands reaching out for collaboration. If that’s what you fancy, great! But before accepting any deal, do your research. Only collaborate if you can integrate this brand authentically into your mission. Understand the advantages and disadvantages of association (there are always disadvantages, it’s always a matter of balance).

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Creator Economy for Indie Authors 8: Create a Team

Like all players in the creative economy, indie authors need time for creative rest and play, time to explore and experiment, time to interact authentically with followers and fans, while also writing and publishing new books.

This breaks down into lots of tasks, some of which you are best placed to do but many of which are better delegated to others, and some of which call for expertise you can’t have and must be outsourced, e.g. editing or design.

A good book is always a team effort. The cumulative effect of multiple minds is better than one mind working on numerous things. Identify what only you can do, source good team members, and delegate wherever possible.

Creator Economy for Indie Authors 9: Simplify and Delete

Our business is complex and we find ourselves doing things that have little value. Be rigorous. If you’re doing stuff that isn’t getting results, drop it. Go core. Delete all busy work and only do value work.

Creator Economy for Indie Authors 10: Take Care of Yourself

Indie authors work hard, put our hearts and souls into our jobs, and put ourselves out there. It’s challenging, especially when our books get poor reviews, or when our hype or success triggers social media hate. Yes, it happens to us all, but that doesn’t mean it gets easier.

To play a long-term game as a creative, you must have a proven outlet for creative anxiety and stress. You must know how to take care of yourself.

Your creative work can be an act of self-love but it can also turn into the opposite: a stick to beat you down. The fast-paced nature of social media and publishing schedules puts authors at risk of burnout.

It’s not necessary, or productive, for a creative to work hard. Working well is what’s required. Which comes back to our first point: valuing yourself.

Which at its most fundamental means valuing and looking after your mental and physical health.

Self-Publishing in 2022: Other Predictions

As ever, there will be lots of other things happening in the self-publishing space in 2022. It’s customary for us to make predictions for the year to come in January (Here are the links to the last two year’s predictions: 2020 was also a prediction for the decade to come, and here’s what we predicted in 2021. ) Below three members of the ALLi team consider some of what’s coming down the track for indie authors in 2022.

Michael LaRonn, Author and ALLi Outreach Manager

Michael LaRonn Member Q&A Podcast Co-Host and Outreach Manager

“2022 will be an interesting year. I am watching a few things closely. First, AI narration for audio appears to finally be a viable option for nonfiction. Combine that with the seismic changes that have happened in the audiobook market over the final months of 2021, and I believe we could be on the cusp of several watershed moments in terms of how authors bring audiobooks to the market.

Second, the effects of inflation are hitting writers and readers in every area of their lives…except with book prices. Should authors raise their prices? Will retailers like Amazon shift prices slightly upward to account for inflation? On one hand, you can make an argument to keep book prices low as a refuge for readers. But on the other hand, that doesn’t give writers much help in these crazy times—after all, the costs of cover design in particular are on the rise. It will cost more money to produce a book in 2022 than it ever did in 2014. The value of a $2.99 commission just isn’t as powerful as it used to be, and we’re only talking an 18-month period. More people are starting to talk about this and debate it, and I’m curious where we’ll be a year from now. Authors are understandably cost-conscious right now.

Third and finally, AI-assisted writing tools seem to be on the rise, and I foresee more conversations happening on that front. In any case, I felt that 2021 was a much better year than 2020, and I hope 2022 will continue to take us in a better direction for our careers.”

ALLi News Editor Dan Holloway

Dan Holloway Self-Publishing News Editor

“The biggest news story of 2021 came in November, when Spotify bought Findaway, so I expect the repercussions of that to ripple throughout 2022. I don’t expect we’ll know for sure whether it marks the start of a land of opportunity for us or the beginning of the end of meaningful payment for audiobooks, but we should at least have an idea.

I also expect artificial intelligence to come up with voice narration that’s not only good but genuinely indistinct from human narration. Again, whether this is an opportunity or part of how the creative industries change for the worse forever is unlikely to be clear within a year.

Publishing has committed to tackling climate change en masse. I wonder if this might mean 2022 is a year in which more traditional publishers turn to print on demand, where printing is more local to customers and there are no, or fewer, returns. This could either level the playing field and mean better facilities are built that we all benefit from, or it could see indies competing for printing facilities with traditional publishers.”

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ALLi Special Projects & UK Ambassador Debbie Young

Debbie Young Special Projects & UK Ambassador

“I wonder whether the alarming and constant rises in paper costs, and supply issues in shipping paperbacks will make trade publishers start to embrace ebooks more enthusiastically and effectively than they have done until now. So often the big publishing houses price ebooks almost as high as their print equivalent, and the cynic in me has always wondered whether they do this to try to persuade buyers that as it’s only a buck or two more for the print, they should buy the physical book instead.

Indies have known for a long time that it’s possible and probable to make more money pricing ebooks at much lower prices than print, because then they are likely to sell more copies. If the big trade publishers get on that wagon, it will not only add competition for lower-priced indie books, but it could also hugely undermine the brick-and-mortar stores that the archaic physical book ecosystem is designed to sustain. Bookshops have never been good at selling ebooks or even ereaders, and have largely abandoned them, which frankly was no surprise – what physical stores do best is to sell beautiful print editions, with “puppy-dog selling” techniques – ie the reader gets to pick up, examine, stroke the products, which makes them far more likely to buy. Stores are also underpinned by the sale-or-return mechanism, allowing them to buy new books on the basis they can return them to the publisher for full credit, and Dan Holloway has already addressed in a recent news report the inherent waste that this leads to, with returned books generally being pulped.

Which leads me onto another environmental issue related to paper costs – how come when we’ve all been striving over the last decade or so to save trees by not wasting paper, has the book industry become so profligate with paper? (Although that’s always seemed a spurious argument to me because surely the trees used to make paper are purpose grown, and would not be grown otherwise? – I’m not sure printers go felling rainforests for book paper… but I digress!)

It’s become increasingly commonplace to bulk up print books with bigger margins, larger print, and wider line-spacing, and to have more and more pages in the front and back matter. The cynic in me suspects this is done primarily to make a book look better value for money, eg spinning out a novella to look like a chunky novel. I appreciate book production qualities become higher and the end products more beautiful with each passing year, but isn’t there a huge disconnect between this attitude and modern environmental goals? I think there is an opportunity for indies to lead the way here – as we do with so many other aspects of publishing – by repackaging our print books to be far less wasteful.

This can be done without making books less attractive and less readable. We have a vast array of fonts at our disposal, and narrower margins and less leading, once our eyes were attuned to them, would still be perfectly legible. We could be less wasteful of front and back matter – why do we still persist in having half-title pages, which were necessary in the early days of print but aren’t needed with digital presses. (Definition of half title page). Do we need so much back matter? Do we really need to start each chapter on a new page, or even on a right-hand only page? (An old-fashioned habit which I confess I’ve done in my books until now because I like it, but I shan’t be doing that in future books.)

You have only to look at the books printed during the Second World War to see how much slimmer books can be when paper was strictly rationed.  The paper is lighter, with very narrow margins and small print, yet made durable with hardback covers. I collect war-time editions of old favourites because I positively enjoy reading them, not least because they are so much more lightweight and easy to hold and to carry around than the same book in 21st century paperback. Of course it is still important to produce large print and dyslexia-friendly books for those who need them, but those are a small minority of readers. As an industry, we can make a significant different to our carbon (and tree) footprint by rationing ourselves. We could also revert to smaller formats – lots of trade publishers produce huge paperbacks initially, before going on to smaller mass market runs later in the life of a book. Are this ginormous tomes really worth their environmental footprint?

I realise a lot of publishers (including indies) may be loath to sacrifice the look of a book – and therefore its customer appeal and competitiveness – for environmental benefits, but I’m calling Emperor’s New Clothes on this one. Will I be a lone voice in the new year? Time will tell…”

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