Makers and Money

One of the first things people ask us when we tell them about Pandamian is: “So how are these writers going to make money?”

It’s an obvious question to ask, of course. One of Pandamian’s core features (which – I’ll admit, we’re currently building, and which is turning out to be a huge pain in the ass) is the ability for writers to sell books through their own ebook store, or – if they so choose – to do some sort of automated uploading to the Kindle/Smashwords/Feedbooks stores.

Our answer is unsatisfactory to most of these people: “We’re not sure that they can make enough money to support themselves. We can’t guarantee that.”

And we can’t. But the discussion does lead to an interesting question: can writers make good money if they choose to go down this path of digital/self publishing? Can writers expect to make money?

Good Dreams

I think the short answer to that question is: yes, it’s not inconceivable that some writer, somewhere, would eventually make enough money selling books on the Internet that he or she would be able to quit his/her day job. And that writer should count himself very lucky indeed. The long answer, however, is that it really depends on the number of people who are attempting to do this.

Most writers I know that publish traditionally don’t make enough from their books to write full-time. They work day jobs instead. And they keep at it because publishing – as a field – is validated by the J. K. Rowlings and the Stephen Kings – authors who are able to command an audience large enough to do nothing but write, full-time.

Making enough to write for a living is the dream, and it is a good dream. It’s why so many people keep trying to get published. And aspiring authors know that it is possible – statistically unlikely, but possible – to live this dream through the mechanism of publishing, because there are all these success stories, the kinds you experience when you watch a Harry Potter movie, or when you buy a Twilight book. And while they don’t say this explicitly, they believe alternatives like digital publishing aren’t viable mechanisms for success because there is no proof of success.

But that doesn’t make sense, does it? Because there are so many writers jostling for publication, it becomes increasingly unlikely that none of them would ever become successful. And so when people look at self-publishing and say that it’s rubbish, what they don’t understand is that it doesn’t seem like a viable alternative – because there are comparatively few people doing it.

My contention is that the more writers move to digital publishing (that is – they publish and sell on the Internet before approaching a traditional publisher) the odds that some of them succeed increases proportionately.

All Kinds of Makers

I think recent history has shown us that this is true. Writers aren’t the only kinds of people who experience a distribution of success. Other kinds of makers do as well: musicians play at night for a reason (i.e. they have day jobs) and the stereotype of ‘the starving artist’ or ‘the delusional painter’ didn’t arise in a vacuum.

But musicians and comic artists have been using the Internet as an alternative medium of publication for years now. Far longer than writers, in fact. And proportionately, they have models of success: Johnathan Coulton has been making music on the web for seven years; Randall Munroe of XKCD for four – both do this full time.

The answer to this money/credibility problem isn’t to worry that much – if there are strong reasons for writers to move online, and if they keep doing so, then eventually the medium will create for itself examples of success.


And thankfully there are compelling reasons for writers to move online. The whole process of getting published today is cause enough – it’s painful to run the gamut of submission and rejection every time you finish writing a novel. And then there’s the fact that web fiction is in itself hugely compelling to a writer – see my talk at Books in Browsers for proof of this.

I used to think that an ability to make money was a key attraction for writers wanting to move online. I spent a year or so talking about ways we could perhaps increase the probability of economic success for writers publishing on the Internet. But I no longer believe that this is true (at least – not yet). Show writers that there are plenty of compelling reasons to do web fiction and the money problem would eventually become easier to solve.

That there are no J. K. Rowlings of web fiction does not imply that web fiction is impossible to monetize. It simply means that there aren’t enough writers doing it to have a distribution curve show up. Destroying the barriers to entry for book publishing is, I think, a good first step in solving the money problem. The next step would be to build good reading filters … but that’s a hard problem, and one I will leave for another day.

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Category: Making Money · Pandamian
  • Eli James

    Note: this post was written several days ago and set to post today. I will, however, be busy with exams for the next couple of days, and likely won’t be able to respond to comments here immediately. Give me till the 24th to recover. ;-)

  • Dary

    It’s all a matter of perception though, which people still seem to ignore. They assume everyone wants/needs to earn $XXk a year to “make a living”. But what standard of living? And is it then suggesting that one standard of living is superior/preferable to another standard of living?

    You don’t need to be Rowling or King to life a comfortable life as a full-time writer.

  • Eli James

    Yes, you’re absolutely right, Dary.

    I do think, though, that there’s also this base amount of money that most full-time writers have to aim for, especially when they have a spouse and kids to support. And thank you for your comment :) – I remember you’ve written about this before, but I forgot about it as I was writing this piece.

  • Dary

    Ah, apologies if I’m repeating the same old rant XD

    It all just seems a bit weird to me when people state “only these few people make a living off writing online/webcomics”. I guess because I’m from a poor background, and have known families to survive on smaller budgets than some of these individuals make alone!

  • SgL

    I wanted to leave a general comment here. As a newbie to the “new web novel” realm I like your blog quite a bit. (I used to publish stuff all over the place for fun ten-fifteen years ago, but it was a much different internet then :) )

    In the varoius posts here – I haven’t seen a lot of comments from the artists, the webcomickers whose success people want to emulate.

    It’s important to point out that one of the things webcomickers do quite well that web novelists do not is network with people directly.

    As an artist, I see them all over at fan-based conventions (anime, sci-fi, comics) marketing their works, selling completed volumes of a comic, merchandise, and aggressively handing out cards. This is on top of the virtual marketing online — posting in multiple art communities, and aggressively using the social networks to help them advertise.

    This is an important and missing factor from the web novelist realm.

    On an unrelated note, I think Pandamanian is a neat concept. One of the things though that I would like as an option is the ability to match illustrations with text. Wattnet has a nice option to include images on the sides of the page, adjacent to uploaded pages. I also am curious if it will integrate or potentially integrate with WordPress.

  • Jim Zoetewey

    From what I understand, the whole point of Pandamian is to replace WordPress for authors of web fiction. The idea is that knowledge of technology is a significant barrier for would be authors.

    Pandamian aims to be easy to use, and to include services specific to fiction writers as opposed to bloggers.

  • Eli James

    Thanks for answering, Jim. ;)

    @SgL – what he said.

  • Alexander Hollins

    Interesting! I like the looks of pandamian. Quick question, is it intended to be a self installable module, as wordpress is? Or will it run only off your website? The other articles on it didn’t seem clear.

    As for money making… Is the intent to NEVER have a way of adding, for example, advertising to a book?

  • Eli James

    Hi Alexander,

    We made an early design decision that Pandamian won’t be self-installable – it’s a pure hosted solution.

    Part of the reason for that is that it’s hard to install WordPress, and we really don’t want to force our users to learn to code/do sysadmin stuff. The other part of the reason is that we wrote Pandamian in Python, and Python’s not something you can just run on any web plan.

    As for plans to allow advertising – we won’t allow you to add advertising in the beginning, but we *will* expose theming capabilities in the near future. It’s about number 6 or 7 in our todo list, though. Plenty of other more important things to get right first.

  • G

    Nice ideas. Thanks!

  • Alexander

    Eli, gotcha. Honestly, an advertising ability would answer the , how do i make money, question, right off the bat.

    I like the looks! Good luck. Anything that reduces barrier to entry for future authors is a good thing!

  • Radhika

    For those writers who are questioning web fiction, I must say that most of the print books don’t make that much money either. Saying it again, it’s not about the money, it’s about the readers. Perhaps it’s not even about the money, it’s about the lifestyle. The ability to stay at home and write their heart out. But, that doesn’t happen for most writers.
    I think the thing that drove me to web fiction was the readership, having people talk about every little chapter of mine, contrary to “the money.”

    The only bad part about web fiction, I believe, is the same bad part about making a full-time living from writing. You have a certain amount of time to update your next chapter, or you’re screwed.

    Also, another note that came off of the top of my head: Web fiction is new. Pandamian is probably the second website dedicated to web fiction (along with DigitalNovelists, and that came out only three years ago). We’re still unsure about it, and that’s what makes it fun. ;)

  • Alexander

    Radshika, Dream Fantastic has been running since 2001. I had another website dedicated to webfiction that was started in 97. There are a lot of websites out there dedicated to webfiction, not just to slash or fan fic, but real fiction. Its not new, its just now becoming mainstream.