So, I was thinking about the different models of work and how an author can subsist. And one of the thoughts that struck me was the different methods authors (mainly) generate their incomes depending on the way they structured their business.

Either are looking to subsist on their backlist (i.e. books already published which generate income) or forwardlist (books that aren’t published yet / will be published).

The Backlist

Now, I don’t think I need to explain how you generate income from a backlist as an indie publisher. But I am anyway. 

You write a book, you publish it. After the first month of nice sales, it drops (often significantly) and might continue to sell, but nowhere as much. Even if you release another book in the series, it never really hits peak of release (mostly. Yes, there are exceptions and promotions and the like, but this is in general).

Authors that exist off their backlist derive a stable(ish) income off their work that they’ve written before. Often, they try to generate additional interest in prior work, but with sufficient also boughts and other word of mouth, the amount of promotion is not necessary.

Importantly, with backlist, anything you make is nearly pure profit (especially if you aren’t promoting it much and have paid for its production cost).  In addition, in general, the more books you have, the bigger your backlist, the more you earn. At least, in theory. It’s possible to drop off entirely and/or never earn much because you never caught enough interest. But that’s a different discussion.

Anyway, here’s some numbers. 

1 book generates, $3.00 per sale.

If you write and release 30 books, and each sells one a day, you earn (30 x 3 x 30days) = $2,700.

You have just generated a decent monthly income with your backlist. So, the backlist strategy is dependent (in some ways) on having a big number of books already published. 

The negative of this strategy is that some of your most ardent readers (say someone who has finished all 30 books) CANNOT give you additional funds. The only way for them to do so if you write another book.


What? How do you make money off books you haven’t published? 

Quite a few ways actually in this new world (and old!). You have traditionally published advances for books that aren’t published yet. You also have things like Kickstarter and, most interestingly (to me), Patreon and webnovel platforms like Royal Road and the like. 

Here, you’re selling work that is not available to the general public. You are making a promise (in Kickstarter’s case) of upcoming work or already have finished work that needs maybe minor editing / polishing in the case of trad pub or Royal Road and the like.

Readers / patrons / etc are basically buying books / chapters into the future. This has the advantage in the sense that you are tapping into a group of readers who are currently engaged in your work, who are looking for more of what you’re writing and – importantly – will continue to give you money so long as you continue to produce content.

Especially in the Patreon scenario, where chapters are gated via the amount a patron pays. The readers are ‘buying’ the future.

The negative of this strategy is the fact that you are selling future production. The moment you stop producing, your income will drop. So while you might earn more per reader (consider a patron who subscribes for $5 a month on patron will get you $60, compared to maybe 4 books you could release in that time, which is… $12) you are also more dependent on their continued interest and your ability to produce work on the regular. 

Even with something like an advance or kickstarter, you might be paid in a lump sum, but without finishing up fast and producing more work, you will not see further income. At least until release (wherein you then hope for backlist money!).

Mixing the Strategies

Of course, most people mix a little of both. I have a patron where people can read what I’m working on in the future. And I have a big backlist. Pirateaba has created ebooks and audiobooks now, both of which contribute to her backlist and offering some stable form of income. And, as mentioned above, those subsisting off backlists need to write again to make more from the same fans.

In either case, both strategies face the perennial problem of finding an audience. But it’s worth considering how you’re setting yourself up for on-going income since it’ll affect your writing and business strategy.

Last Word  – Terminology

Btw, I made up the idea / term of forwardlist.  It doesn’t really mean anything, and this is more just to give people an idea of what and how to structure their own business and writing. 

As always, most of this is just a thought experiment. Like any model or theory, it’s meant to make you think rather than an actual guide, prescription or even a true example of reality.

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