Building A Sustainable Writing Career: How To Develop Multiple Income Streams

Let’s admit it: we are all very reliant on Amazon. Now, this isn’t a dig; there are lots of valid reasons why Amazon tends to be favored by indies.

Aside from having the most intuitive, powerful digital self-publishing platform and the majority of the market, Amazon is considered the most “indie friendly” of the retailers.

I don’t mean Amazon necessarily goes out of its way to do us favors, but at least they don’t actively sabotage our visibility like Barnes & Noble and Apple.

When you add all of that to relative ease of marketing to Kindle users compared to other e-reader owners, it’s easy to see why Amazon can be responsible for 80% to 90% of a typical indie’s sales, rather than the 60% or so of the market they are estimated to hold.

However, it should be clear why this situation isn’t healthy. If you sell all your widgets to one client, they get to dictate terms. And when everyone is making widgets, you have no power at all.

Relying exclusively on one retailer or one market leaves you particularly susceptible to outside shocks. But, if you spread the risk, if you develop multiple income streams, you can insulate yourself.

Then, when Amazon holds a Big 6 sale, or a storm knocks out power for 5 million homes on the East Coast, it will only put a dent in your sales, rather than grind them to a halt.

Looking longer term, Amazon might be paying golden royalties now, but that may not be the case forever. Spreading the love will leave you less exposed.

But how do you go about that?

The Magic Bakery

The first step is take all your content, upload it everywhere you can, and sell it in as many ways as you can. Dean Wesley Smith has a nice analogy called The Magic Bakery, which is worth reading in full, and will start you thinking the right way. (In fact that whole series, Killing The Sacred Cows Of Publishing is essential reading).

Seriously, go read Dean’s post. When you’re done, come back. Just remember that putting the books up for sale on the other retailers isn’t enough. You need to promote those listings too.

If you think your Nook sales, for example, aren’t worth the bother, ask yourself honestly, what are you doing to promote yourself to Nook owners?

Foreign Markets

What about foreign markets? I don’t just mean having your books on Amazon UK and Amazon Germany (that should be a given). What are you doing to sell them?

Germany might be tricky, but there are a number of venues where you can promote your work direct to UK readers. The KU Forum is a good place to start.

(As usual, don’t just barge in and plaster buy-me links everywhere. Respect the rules, take the time to get to know the readers on the site, and you will reap the rewards. Doing otherwise is a waste of your time, and annoying for the forum regulars.)

But this is only the beginning. The Spanish Kindle Store will be open before the year is out. Deals have been struck to sell thousands of e-books from the top Italian publishers on Amazon, indicating an Italian Store is on the way. And there were lots of rumors flying around yesterday that the French Kindle Store will open next month.

Your books should be listed there automatically, but to really exploit the potential of foreign markets you will need your work translated. Foreign publishers are one option, but not without their downsides. And anyway, only a limited amount of self-publishers will be approached.

Those of a more pro-active, entrepreneurial bent, may consider something along the lines of what Scott Nicholson outlined on Monday: working with translators on a profit-sharing basis, rather than paying up-front fees.

I will return to this issue again in a future blog post, discussing all the pros and cons of going with a foreign publisher, the ins and outs of hiring a translator, and more detail on the profit-sharing model, but you should start considering this.

Selling Direct

We have covered the issue of selling e-books directly from your website before. While it may not be viable for some writers due to local laws/regulations, for most, you should be thinking about this already.

By selling your own work through your own website, you are not beholden to any corporation. If Amazon changes its policies, algorithms, or royalty rates, that can have a dramatic effect on your income. Same goes for the other retailers.

If you can develop some percentage of your revenue coming directly from readers through your own site, at least some of your income is safe from such changes.

But there are other benefits too: collecting readers’ emails, offering deals, bundled content, selling other formats such as PDFs, or even some form of subscription deal if you have enough backlist.

It can cost you nothing too (other than minor PayPal transaction fees); there are plenty of free, professional-looking solutions out there. If you want to get fancy, only a minor outlay is required.

Collecting readers’ emails should be a priority, right from the start of your publishing journey. I have an occasional newsletter which I use to announce new releases; this has really helped my books climb the charts on day one, giving me instant visibility and reviews (and you have a note in the back of your books requesting those, right?).

I use MailChimp; it’s powerful, the newsletters look great, and it costs nothing. I have an automatic sign-up right here on the blog (with a visible link both at the top and on the right-hand side). You should do the same. I will return to the subject of newsletters and selling direct in a future blog post.


Writing partnerships have been storming the UK charts, and successful self-publishers such as Joe Konrath have long seen the value in putting two names on the cover and doubling both writers’ potential audiences.

If that’s not for you, cross-pollination can occur on a simpler level, through things like blurb-trading, anthologies, and guest posting.

But there are innumerable ways that writers can collaborate, expanding their reach and spreading their message beyond their own audience. Collaborative blogs like Wicked & Tricksy and The Writer’s Guide To E-Publishing are just one possibility.

Networking through forums such as Kindle Boards, and Facebook groups such as Indie Writer’s Unite can lead to all sorts of opportunities, and if you are not active in some form of online self-publisher or writer community, you are missing out.

Traditional Markets

If you are a short story writer, you shouldn’t dismiss traditional markets, which are in reasonable health, especially those that are breaking new ground with online and e-book editions of their magazines.

In fact, you could easily set up a system where you submitted a story to a magazine or anthology, explored any traditional reprint sales when the rights reverted, then self-published them. This could maximize your return from each story.

You may not want to do it with all of your stories, but you should at least consider it for some. Magazines have their own built-in readership, and engaging their audience should expand your own.

I have a story now in a hardback anthology (for which I got paid, and will receive a share of the royalties). That book will reach readers I never could and I’ve since self-published the story.

Stop Aiming For Home Runs

When I was reading Scott Nicholson’s excellent book The Indie Journey: Secrets To Writing Success, he said that his aim is to sell 10 books a day each of 10 titles rather than 100 a day of one book.

That, to me, is doable, whereas aiming to sell 100 a day of one title is more like hoping for your lucky numbers to come up. You might hit that now and then, with a new release or some fortuitous promo (like getting featured on KND or Pixel of Ink), but we are looking to build something sustainable here, which requires being realistic.

Instead of spending all your time squeezing every last sale out of one title, you should be focusing on getting more books up. Spread the load. That way, if one has a dip, it doesn’t drag your numbers down disproportionately.

Even better, aim for a mix of stuff: novels, shorts, novellas, different genres. If you are a romance writer and 300 Barbara Cartland backlist books get uploaded at the same time, your sales could be on life support.

But if you have an erotic short, a YA novella, and a romantic suspense novel you wrote for fun, you will have other titles in other genres to keep you going until the storm passes.

Building A Sustainable Business

These are just some of the ways that you can decrease your reliance on one retailer and one market. But the only real limit here is your imagination.

Authors are trying new things all the time (I think Dean Wesley Smith’s e-book as gift card idea is a particularly good one). Keep your ear to the ground. Open your mind to new ideas. Don’t be afraid to experiment – especially when it costs you nothing but time.

As with any endeavor, don’t rush into anything without a plan. If you don’t have clear goals, you have no way of measuring if you are using your most valuable resource correctly: your time.

Time spent on anything like this is time spent away from writing. But, if you are hitting your writing targets, you should devote some of your energy to making your business more sustainable.

Doing that will insulate yourself from external shocks by spreading the revenue-earning load around.