Is Patreon a good source of income for writers?

What is Patreon?

Patreon is an internet-based crowdfunding platform that allows creators to build a subscription service for their content. Created in 2013, by Jack Conte and Sam Yam, the platform is particularly popular among artists showcasing their work digitally (e.g. through YouTube). Many of these artists survive off ad-based revenue and Patreon was built to eliminate this reliance, allowing creators to gather sponsorship direct from fans (rather than clicks-per-ad) so they can focus back on their work.

How does it work?

Like other crowdfunding platforms (e.g. Indiegogo and Kickstarter) the premise of Patreon is pretty simple: a fan sponsors a creator for a set amount of USD and in return (depending on the amount) they receive a reward for doing so. The difference in Patreon is that it’s subscription-based (either per month or per release) and will keep charging patrons until they decide to cancel it. Rewards usually come in the form of ‘Patron-only’ content. There is the option to offer no reward, but those who do tend to have more patrons [1].

Do writers make money from it?

Since it was launched the service has generated over $100 million for its users [2] and, as of March 2016, 10% identified themselves as ‘writers’ [3]. The following list summarises the number of patrons and the earnings (all in USD) for ten of the biggest (by number of patron) writers on the site, as of April 17th.

#

Creator # of Patrons USD per month/release

Average support

1

Jim Sterling 5,332 11,844 2.22

2

‘Wait But Why’ 4,293 12,661 2.95

3

Gary Brecher 1,972 9,092

4.61

4 Seanan McGuire 1,383 8,682

6.28

5

N. K. Jemisin 1,170 5,670

4.85

6

‘Tefler’ 908 1,521

1.68

7

Jeff Gluck 833 6,606

7.93

8

‘McMansionHell’ 664 1,874

2.82

9

Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu 569 2,966

5.21

10 Laurie Penny 541 4,489

8.30

This was compiled from Patreon’s ‘Top Creators’ page [4] and is not a ranking of the ’10 best writers.’ It doesn’t seem to consider every writer, as I manually added N. K. Jemisin after visiting her Patreon and seeing that she could easily place above others on the list. It’s unclear whether the writers on the ‘top creator’ list pay for their exposure or whether Patreon has employed some kind of rotation method.

Anyway, these figures look pretty appealing – but they are the ‘big leagues’ after all. In reality, the average writer on Patreon makes around $200 per month [3]. Whilst this may seem less glamorous, remember that many of the creators on the site don’t receive income for their work. For example, the user ‘Tefler’ (#6) releases content chapter-by-chapter on Literotica.com, which is free to access. In this case, Patreon highlights the willingness of fans to support and pay for content that they could access for free.

So, it depends on how many fans you have?

It’s true that many of the writers I’ve listed above have a large number of patrons (and therefore probably had large fan base to begin with) but the table also proves that writers don’t need thousands of patrons to make a significant return. The writer listed at #10, Laurie Penny, has around half the number of patrons as the #5 writer, N. K. Jemisin, but on average her patrons pledge twice as much and the two make a similar amount.

How reliable is it?

It’s argued that fans are more consistent sponsors [4] but I think it’s worth noting that when I first took a look at Patreon’s ‘Top Creators in Writing’ list (just one week ago) it was different to the one that I replicated today. If this isn’t a rotation-method used by Patreon to showcase different writers, then it suggests a degree of fluctuation when it comes to patrons.

I also noticed that users can enable a ‘charge up front’ feature – which suggests that all patrons are charged at one point during the month and that some would be able to access content mid-month and leave before everyone is charged at the beginning of the next month. Surely charging up-front should be the standard for taking payments? If a writer wasn’t aware of this loophole their income could be seriously affected.

Whilst this may not be a problem for writers with a large number of patrons, where losing a few won’t affect the overall amount earned that month, Gareth L. Powell (author of ‘Ack-Ack Macaque’, which won the 2013 British Science Fiction Association (BSFA) Award for Best Novel) points out that the same might not be said for those with fewer. He has just recently started his own account and says: “Right now, the loss of even one or two subscribers could put a serious dent in [my] income.”

The unreliably could also be highlighted in the way some writers decline to make Patreon a permanent source of income. Listed at #4, Seanan McGuire (2010 John W. Campbell Award winner and New York Times Bestseller) has utilised the site to fund moving to a new house. She writes on her Patreon homepage: “Because [it’s] a Patreon with a purpose, I’m not planning to keep it running forever. The current intent is one year from start to finish.” Seanan is a popular author to begin with and I imagine that this temporary-format doesn’t reflect her doubt in Patreon but rather her faith in her fans supporting her through book sales.

How can I get more patrons?

If a writer already has a small fan base, but their sales are inconsistent, then they can benefit from using Patron [5] as it allows them to reach out a little further. When asked whether Patreon allowed her to connect more with fans, Wen Spencer (winner of the John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer of 2003) said, “Yes, I think so […] it shows the fans everything I post.”

Half of running an effective Patreon campaign seems to be in building this sense of community with readers [6] as fans that receive this attention tend to be more likely to recommend the writer on to further readers, and thus further sponsors.

There’s a wide degree of flexibility in what a writer can offer fans in return for support. They can customise their content to what the fans ask for and there’s even the option to let patrons decide what to write next. There is the option to limit patron-choices to things that you already want/need to work on in the first place, but be aware that fulfilling these rewards can still be time consuming and may distract from writing [5], or perhaps stifle creativity.

Is it more hassle?

Richard M. Ankers (previously a winner of a gold medal on the HarperCollins’ Authonomy site) warns, “I think the concept [of Patreon] is good, but there is a lot of work involved for the writer.”

Depending on how many patrons a writer has (and what rewards are being offered) they could run the risk of getting overworked by admin tasks. Because Patreon is controlled solely by the creator, there is the added pressure of organising the accounts (managing patrons, ensuring that each received the correct reward, etc.) alongside the writing that must be done to produce content.

Freelance writer and artist, Rebecca Sherratt, agrees, saying, “If I personally were asking people for money each month, I’d feel like I’d have to dedicate a lot more time [than I’m currently able to].”

This issue must be carefully considered before starting a Patreon. A limit can be placed on each reward (e.g. allowing only five people to get a specific reward that would require physical copies to be mailed out) and, as mentioned previously, there’s also the option to offer no rewards, letting patrons sponsor a writer simply to support them for work that would be produced regardless.

Is Patreon a useful for new writers?

We’ve already seen that Patreon can provide a substantial income for writers –  with some making more in a month than the average writer does in a year [7] – but these tend to be those who have been active for some time, steadily collecting fans as they go. What about new writers? Is Patreon a useful tool to collect fans from scratch?

I would argue no. There is nowhere on Patreon to see the full-list of users (unlike Indiegogo and Kickstart who list all projects) and, as mentioned before, only high-earning users are featured on the site. This is interesting because it appears that Patreon doesn’t care about their low-earners, or about boosting them. By featuring these high-earners, Patreon obviously aims to attract new users with the promise of a big return – but this only ends up being misleading because if a writer is new, and they don’t have a big following, then Patreon won’t help to advertise them to potential sponsors and nothing will come of it.

There is also no way clear way to link patrons away from Patreon.com – so even if people did somehow find an unestablished writer through the site, how would they then find this writer elsewhere online? This is a double-edged sword as surely potential patrons want to check out a writer before they’ll decide to sponsor them? They would have to google the name of the writer, and if the writer didn’t have another form of online presence, then it’s a lost cause.

Because of all this, Patreon seems to be best-suited to writers who already have established fan bases. But they don’t need to be huge. It could be as simple as a twitter account, or as elaborate as a fantasy website, but the key is that a writer must have some form of previous contact with fans before they’ll be likely to run a successful Patreon.

What about the currency?

Currently, patronage only seems to be available in USD. Freelance writer A.R. Frederiksen doesn’t have a Patreon and says, “It does seem like a very natural progression for the creative arts in the age of digitalization […] though I do wonder if living in Denmark (or just simply not in the US) somehow would make it more difficult.” This is interesting, because many of the top authors shown on the site are American. In fact, the only one on the list who appears to be outside of the USA is #9, Sylvie von Duuglas-Ittu (who produces content in Thailand) – but she is still an American citizen.

Looking at the issue from a British perspective, I wonder if things like Brexit affect it at all. Gareth L Powell is an English writer and doesn’t seem to be worried. He says, “There is some variation due to the exchange rate, but as we’re talking about $100, the difference isn’t much.” Being a new writer therefore seems to be a benefit in this situation.

Is it worth it?

Obviously, all this talk about currency and patron-reliability is moot if there are no fans to begin with. After having a look at the service, I would encourage new writers to build up their online profile first (gathering steady support for their work, through social media and author websites) before asking if any fans would be willing to offer support through Patreon.

And even though the income from Patreon seems tempting, I would warn ANY writer away from relying on it as their sole source of income. The service seems best utilised as a supplement for another income (whether through ads, traditional publishing, the sale of e-books, or another job altogether).


References

[1] Patreon (a)

[2] Manjoo, F.

[3] Defreitas, S.

[4] Patreon (b)

[5] Preston, T.

[6] Dieker, N. 

[7] Flood, A.


And a huge thanks to all the people who responded to my questions! Please follow the links to their websites because they’re all great.

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