It’s not fun to hear this, but it needs to be said—if you’re an indie author, especially a debut indie author, chances are slim that you’ll be making enough money on your books to go all-in on a writing career right away.
Instant fame after publishing your first book is about as likely as being struck by lightning. Trust me, I know! I self-published my first novel in 2018 and learned some lessons the hard way, which is why I like to write about my experiences here on my blog in the hopes that other indie authors can learn from my mistakes and successes to avoid some of those pitfalls.
The tips outlined below are based on my own personal experience as I’ve grown my writing career.
When I first published my debut novel, I was working a full-time office job. After releasing my second novel, I quit my 9-5 job and became a contracted freelance writer with a flexible schedule that allowed me to put more time and focus into my author career.
Now, as I prepare to publish my third book, I’m finally gaining enough stability to take serious steps into making author life my full-time commitment.
The first lesson I learned: book royalties alone don’t bring in much revenue unless you sell A LOT of novels. It’s all about volume.
Unfortunately, that’s just the way the industry is set up, whether you’re a traditional or independent author. And, sadly, that’s how it is for many creatives. Musicians and other artists tend to find themselves in the same boat as authors. The publishers and distributors, not the actual creators, are the ones making money on creative work.
On average, a U.S. book sells less than 200 copies per year and fewer than 1,000 copies over its total lifetime.
What’s important to understand is it’s usually not the book or the song that brings in money for the artist — it’s the brand you create. It’s your name, reputation, online presence, presentation, and culture you build around your work.
Here are two issues with self-publishing that many people (including myself in the beginning) don’t realize:
1. Your royalties will not be as big as you probably think they’ll be.
This is a common myth that perpetuates the independent publishing industry — distributors intentionally phrase benefits to make it seem like you’ll be pocketing a bigger chunk of royalties than you would be if an agent and publishing house were taking a cut.
Technically, they’re not lying. However, the numbers are skewed because even though you’ll be getting 50%+ of the royalties (as opposed to the standard 10%-20%), the print cost comes out of your share, so you’re not actually taking home that big of a cut.
After you factor in the print cost, the net online royalties are about equal to the percentage you’d get from traditional publishing. (I talk more about this topic in this blog post about publishing with IngramSpark.)
2. Marketing your book is a lot harder and time consuming than publishing it.
I knew when I decided to become an indie author that I would be responsible for my own marketing. But I underestimated the HUSTLE that task would entail. Being proactive with marketing is a monumental responsibility, although I will note that most traditional publishing houses today expect their authors to handle a lot more of the marketing than they used to in the past. So while marketing for indie authors is a daunting endeavor, there’s really no escape from those high demands regardless of which publishing route you take.
If your royalties are smaller than you were expecting and your marketing attempts aren’t yielding the big sales you were hoping for, how can you earn enough money to make writing and/or book publishing a full-time career?
My advice: expand your income with multiple revenue streams built around your books, experience, and/or writing skills. Below, I’ll go into more detail about how you can achieve that.
(Let me take a moment to mention that although this article contains affiliate links, this is not a sponsored post. All opinions and recommendations are my own. I did not receive any payments in exchange for mentioning specific products or services.)
Here are seven extra revenue streams for indie authors to earn a steady income on top of their online book sales:
1. Blogging + Website Monetization + Affiliate Marketing
You may be thinking, “Isn’t blogging dead?” The answer is yes and no.
Personal blogging is fading out of relevancy. By personal blogging, I mean posts that read like journal entries sharing your opinions, political views, life struggles, and day-to-day activities. Even influencer lifestyle blogs aren’t as popular as they used to be.
Relevant, industry-specific content creation, on the other hand, is thriving. Blogs that provide valuable information that educates, entertains, or solves a problem are springing to the top of Google’s search results and generating valuable web traffic. In fact, analysts predict the content marketing industry will grow by a whopping $417.85 billion between 2021 and 2025. That’s a forecasted CAGR of almost 16%!
Content marketing is best suited for long-form content that has a 2+ year lifespan online (unlike social media, which is lucky to last 24 hours). You probably see where I’m going with this. I’m talking about blogs.
Specifically, how a blog can help with marketing for indie authors.
Consider this: 68% of all online experiences start with a query typed into a search engine. Businesses that have a blog attract 55% more website visitors and 67% more leads compared to competitors that don’t.
If you’re serious about being an author and making a living, you should be thinking about how you’re going to build your personal brand into a reputable business so your name has some clout. Smart blogging strategies like researching focus keywords and implementing best SEO practices improve your website’s rank so people find your content organically (meaning you don’t have to pay for ad space to get noticed).
Gaining traffic while providing valuable content is a fantastic way to build your online presence, bolster your reputation, and introduce people to your work. With the right call to action, you can start directing your targeted audience right to your book. It’s also an opportunity to gain newsletter subscribers and offer free downloads.
But getting traffic to your blog is only half the battle. If you’re going to transform your blog into a steady revenue stream, you should seriously consider monetizing it.
The most popular way to monetize your website is with Google AdSense. This monetization technique allows Google to place ads on your site. The more traffic you get, the more people see those ads, and the more money you make. If someone actually clicks on an ad, you earn even more.
The beauty of Google AdSense is that it’s a passive revenue stream. If you’re writing blog posts for your target audience anyway, adding a few ads onto your website brings in money with minimal extra effort on your part.
Here’s an example of what a Google AdSense ad looks like:
You can either let Google place the ads on your website, or if you want more control, you can decide when and where those ads show up.
Keep in mind that this revenue stream is going to be more of a trickle until you’re able to build up steady, engaged traffic on your website. Don’t count on signing up for AdSense and then immediately quitting your day job.
I also recommend learning about affiliate marketing if you want to monetize your blog as part of your strategy to develop multiple revenue streams.
Affiliate marketing is when you place links to websites and/or products on your site. If someone clicks on your affiliate link and makes a purchase, the vendor gives you a small commission in exchange for sending the customer to their website. The more traffic and purchases you can drive, the more commissions you’ll earn.
However, make sure your links are relevant. You can write sponsored posts if you want, although I recommend against it since readers often feel that kind of content will be biased. Reviews and listicles are two of the best ways to naturally use affiliate links. (See examples of review posts and a book-related listicle I published on this site.)
How do you get started with affiliate marketing? There are lots of programs out there, but also lots of scams, so be cautious and do research before spending any money!
I joined Wealthy Affiliate in 2020, so I can personally attest that Wealthy Affiliate is a legitimate business. What I liked about the program is that it wasn’t just a “give me your money to watch some videos” course.
Wealthy Affiliate’s platform is set up more like a social media site where you can create a profile and interact directly with the internal WA community as you work your way through the lessons. It teaches you step by step how to target a mico-niche, create a website, write relevant content with affiliate marketing in mind, join affiliate programs, and more. I created my third website Green Witch Lunar Witch through this program.
Once my site started getting traffic, I joined Share-A-Sale to partner with affiliate vendors that fit my niche. I also joined CJ Affiliate, but to be honest, I found that platform harder to navigate, so I primarily rely on Share-A-Sale and Google AdSense.
Since blog content has a long lifespan, people will likely be finding and reading your content for months or even years if you’re strategic, which means one blog post has the potential for many views, multiple clicks, and steady commissions. Refreshing old content extends the lifespan even more, turning your blog into a passive revenue stream that brings in profits long after you’ve written and published it, even if you aren’t actively sharing or promoting it.
Amazon Affiliates & WordPress Plugins
Pro tip for indie authors: did you know that you can become an Amazon affiliate and earn extra commission on your own books? It’s not much, but every little bit helps! If someone clicks on your Amazon affiliate link and buys your book, you earn a little extra commission on the sale (plus sold a book — woo!)
Amazon also has a bounty program that gives you fixed commissions if people use your affiliate links to sign up for Audible Plus, Kindle Unlimited, Audible gift memberships, and other services that are highly relevant for indie authors to include on their website so the ads don’t feel out of place if you’re blogging about writing, publishing, etc.
If you’re using WordPress, I highly recommend the Advanced Ads plugin to manage shortcode ads on your pages and articles. It’s an easy way to manage your ads in one dashboard without copying and pasting custom html codes into every single post. Then, if you need to update your ad, the plugin automatically adjusts it on each page/article with that shortcode so you aren’t manually tracking down every ad yourself. You can also use your own custom images and links.
I originally used WP Quads to manage my ads and had nothing but trouble — ads not loading, errors when trying to create new ads, etc. None of those issues with Advanced Ads!
Patreon was a platform I resisted for a long time, mostly because I didn’t understand what it was all about. While taking a three-day business course as part of the Indiana On-Ramp Creative Entrepreneur Accelerator program, an artist in the class highly recommended Patreon. For her, it had become a reliable source of income and a reoccurring revenue stream.
So, what is it exactly? Basically, Patreon allows you to set up various membership tiers, each with a unique set of perks to offer. Subscribers then pay a monthly fee depending on the tier they select.
How well Patreon works for you depends on how creative you get. I like to explain Patreon like this: followers who get free content on my website, social media, and newsletter can enjoy the show from their general admission seats, but Patreon subscribers pay a little extra to get a backstage pass and meet the band after the show.
For example, I’m an artist as well as an author. I often post finished artwork on social media, but for my Patreon subscribers, I take them behind the scenes and share timelapse videos so they can see me create the piece from start to finish. Everyone gets to see the finished artwork, but my patrons get to be a part of the creative process.
This video will give you an idea of the type of content my Patreon subscribers can access:
I also use Patreon to share worldbuilding facts about my fantasy series, deleted scenes, early book cover reveals, sneak peeks at WIPs, exclusive promo codes, free merch, and other perks. You have total control over how much or how little you want to offer your patrons, plus how much you want to charge them for subscriptions.
From my experience, it can be challenging to get going on Patreon and build your community out of nothing, but once you start to get subscribers, you’ll have a somewhat reliable monthly flow of extra revenue coming in. However, keep in mind that you need to consistently provide content to these paying subscribers. This isn’t something you can let fall by the wayside. If you can keep posting engaging content with worthwhile perks, Patreon can become one of your reoccurring revenue streams.
3. Online Courses & Consulting Services
Full transparency — this is not a revenue stream that I currently utilize. But I know it has the potential to be lucrative for those who have the time and experience to build up an online business because I’ve seen it work.
For me, my biggest constraint is time. Creating an online course or starting a coaching/consulting service requires extensive market research, planning, strategizing, development, implementation, and management. I’m pretty open about sharing my advice and experiences here on my blog, and while I don’t seek payment for the information I provide, I do accept donations from anyone who found the content helpful and wants to say thanks.
But there’s certainly potential in building an online service in tandem with your writing career if that interests you. Maybe you want to teach others how to write a novel, develop a worldbuilding plan, self-publish, or create a book marketing strategy. There are lots of possibilities to generate multiple revenue streams with courses, consulting, and/or one-on-one coaching!
One of the best programs I’ve seen that teaches entrepreneurs how to build a sustainable, scalable online business is Julia McCoy’s Content Transformation System. I’ve worked as a freelance writer for Julia and can testify firsthand that she absolutely knows what she’s talking about, and she’s developed an intuitive roadmap to help creative entrepreneurs build and scale a business through the power of live market research and high-quality content (which we briefly discussed in #1 on this list). Julia’s CTS program even helps you write and self-publish a book on Amazon.
One thing I’ll note about many of these programs is that they advocate for creative entrepreneurs to fully step into a business owner role and delegate most tasks to an internal team or third-party freelancers. While the owner is controlling the content calendar and high-level planning, s/he isn’t the one actually writing the blog posts, building the website and courses, creating graphics, or even writing the actual books in some cases (if a ghostwriter has been commissioned to write the book under the author’s name).
For some entrepreneurs, that method works, and it’s worked well. Maybe that business model sounds appealing to you, too. It allows you to step out of the daily grind and focus on what you love doing while hiring other people to take care of the not-so-fun tedious tasks of running a business.
That isn’t how I built my brand. As an author, photographer, and artist, I take great pride in putting my name on just about every visual creation I share. I do have help with tasks like scheduling events, editing the novels, formatting the ebooks, and managing some of my social media pages, but if something needs to be created, it usually lands on me. The biggest exception in my career so far has been hiring audiobook narrators since narration is a skill that falls outside the three creative pillars of my brand (and my experience/talents).
Because I advertise myself as a writer, I NEVER outsource to ghostwriters. If you see “written by Sara A. Noë,” you can bet your butt it was actually written by Sara A. Noë. Because I’m also an artist, I created my own book/audiobook covers, graphics, maps, merch designs, Discord emojis, etc. That’s very rare for an author!
Would paying a freelance artist to create those graphics for me have saved me a lot of time and effort? Of course! But then it wouldn’t be my art, which is the whole point of building my name and reputation around my own authentic work.
When I started this website in 2016, I didn’t have the foresight to look ahead and consider how my workload might evolve over time. I boxed myself into this space. I don’t regret it, but I did limit the scalability of my business. Since I developed my brand on the foundation of my own talents, the outsourcing model really doesn’t work for me except in rare cases like producing the audiobook for A Fallen Hero.
So, think carefully about what kind of business you want to build. My way isn’t nearly as sustainable or scalable, but it is genuine, and that’s what was most important to me.
If you’re interested in developing online courses or starting a consulting service, consider how involved you want to be. Are you building a brand around your own name, thereby tying yourself to a business that depends on your direct involvement? Or are you creating an entity that gives you the freedom to hire a team that manages the day-to-day work so you can dedicate more time to writing and promoting your next book?
I highly recommend you give this choice some serious thought before proceeding with this optional revenue stream!
4. Digital Products
If you like the idea of developing on online business but aren’t ready to go all-in on creating paid courses or dedicating your time to one-on-one coaching, you might consider starting with digital products and building from there.
Writing a book is hard. Self-publishing is hard. Marketing for indie authors is hard! But we gain experience as we go through the process, and that experience is valuable to others who are just getting started.
Think about what kinds of resources you wish you had at your disposal in the early stages of your writing career. Are you the kind of person who loves outlines? Checklists? Worksheets? Why not create your own and sell them as a low-cost digital product that doesn’t require any inventory, processing, or shipping?
For example, author Kimberly Grymes diversified her business to include a mix of digital downloads, die-cut stickers, and mystery book boxes on her Etsy store in addition to her selling her own autographed books to readers.
“I originally started selling digital downloads on my Etsy page to help cover the costs for self publishing (editing, cover designing, etc…). But since I’ve started, it’s also helped me connect with new readers, which in turn has increased the number of sales for my books. It’s important to build an author brand in addition to marketing your books, and I decided to put my design skills to good use and create eye-catching and user-friendly checklists and worksheets for both readers and writers.– Kimberly Grymes
Need more inspiration? If you have decent design skills (or are willing to hire a freelancer), here are some ideas for digital downloads you could offer:
- Story Planning
- Plot Outlines
- Character Development
- Content Creation Calendars
- Social Media Planners
- Post Engagement Trackers
- TBR List
- Weekly or Monthly Planners for Writers
- Publishing Calendar
- NaNoWriMo Schedule
- Self-Publishing Checklist
- Book Launch Checklist
- Beta Reader Resources
- Writing Prompts
- Book Review Worksheets
Again… it’s sad, but it’s the truth. The publishing market is rigged against creators.
You don’t have to go out and try to find a collaboration partner like I did. You can easily design your own print-on-demand (POD) merchandise (or hire a freelancer on Fiverr to create the graphics) and start an online store where you don’t have to worry about printing, shipping, returns, customer service, or any of those pain points normally involved with a product-based business.
Sounds almost too good to be true, doesn’t it? Actually, it’s not. I promise.
I found Spring (at the time, it was still called Teespring before their rebrand) completely by accident when I noticed that a LOT of YouTube influencers had their own custom-designed apparel for sale beneath their videos.
Creating POD merch isn’t necessarily the right move for every indie author, but if you’re developing a personal brand around your books, it’s a great zero-risk way to open yet another door for multiple revenue streams. As a fantasy author, I’ve found a lot of potential in building a brand around the worldbuilding I did for my series, including merch designs. I typically sell pins, art prints, candles, and other items at my events so I have a variety of goods to offer.
Online, I operate a Spring store for my book series and a Redbubble store for my GWLW website. Both POD services come with pros and cons, so it’s hard to definitively say which one is better because it depends on your individual needs and preferences.
6. Donation Platforms
If you invite people to be generous, they will.
That’s the theory, anyway. I personally haven’t found that to be the case, but I know it’s worked out very well for some people, so why not take a shot? After all, you can’t get donations if you don’t give people the option. If your readers and followers like what you’re doing and want to support you, donations can be a wonderful passive revenue stream, even if it’s just enough to help fund the publishing costs of your next book.
I initially started with a basic PayPal donation plugin on my website, but then I found Buy Me a Coffee and made the switch. BMC integrates with WordPress, Discord, Zapier, and Stream Alert. You can set up memberships and tiers much like you do with Patreon if you want to create an online community, or you can just use it as a basic donation method.
I’ve found that “buy me a coffee” sounds much more inviting than “donate through PayPal,” not to mention the aesthetically pleasing icon and widget you may have noticed in the bottom left corner and sidebar of my website.
Within BMC, you have opportunities to create posts and follow/support other creators. People sometimes reach out to me for advice about self-publishing, and since I don’t have consulting prices set, it’s easy to invite people to donate whatever they feel the advice was worth. Believe it or not, most people are generous and likely to give more than what you would have charged anyway!
If you’re interested in getting started with Buy Me a Coffee, please use my referral link!
7. Shows, Festivals, & Conventions
I’m not quite sure where this mindset comes from, but new authors (including myself) often get the idea in their heads that the “proper” way to go about promoting their book is to do signings at libraries and bookstores.
I actually just had this conversation with a bestselling author I met a couple weeks ago at a convention. We had both fallen into the same trap in our early careers. Don’t get me wrong — there’s absolutely nothing wrong with doing those small-scale signings.
But consider this: when you’re a new author, nobody knows who you are. So don’t expect a line wrapping around the block of Barnes & Noble with a crowd clamoring to get your autograph. For the most part, the only traffic you can count on is the normal day-to-day foot traffic that would have been in the store regardless of whether you had a book signing or not.
In 2019, I did a Barnes & Noble book signing tour that spanned seven cities across three states and included two author fairs and a speaking gig in an author panel.
(Friendly tip — B&N did not set this up. It all came together through direct outreach and strategic scheduling so I could market it as a tour. If you want signings like this, contact bookstores and inquire about scheduling an event. Some will say no, especially if you’re an indie author. But enough will yes. Trust me!)
If I sold between five and ten books, it was a good signing. But there were some events where I didn’t sell a single book at all. The signing still looked great on social media from a marketing perspective, but as far as revenue goes… not so much. Definitely not sustainable (especially because most bookstores take 40% of your sales when you have a signing).
During COVID, I preferred outdoor events, so I started doing local festivals instead of indoor book signings. I had no idea how well the books would fare since I was mixed with a lot of other vendors selling a wide variety of crafts and products.
To my surprise, the festivals I did in 2021 were a MASSIVE success! I easily tripled, quadrupled, and even quintupled the number of books I sold compared to my best Barnes & Noble signing, and except for the initial vendor application fee, I was keeping my full profits. This year, I’m branching out into bigger shows, comic-cons, and festivals.
It seems a bit strange to be targeting these types of events instead of the cozy, quiet book signings most new authors picture in their minds, but the truth is, conventions and festivals give you much better exposure, traffic, and revenue. If you want to get your book out in front of a lot of people, that’s the way to do it.
I’ve found additional success in cosplaying as the protagonist in my series. While this technique won’t work for every author, it catches people’s attention and indicates that my books are fiction/fantasy right away so I’m attracting the right crowd to my booth. Another feature I’ve utilized: stacking the books into a swirling tower, as you can see in the photo below. It’s an eye-catching technique I picked up from Instagrammers.
Digital marketing is a real challenge. On average, a typical person sees between 6,500 and 11,000 ads every single day. It’s hard to compete with that! And there are so many books on the market!
I can’t stress this enough — marketing for indie authors is hard work. It’s time consuming, and if you’re trying to juggle everything yourself, it’s going to cut into your writing time.
If you want to be a full-time author and make money selling your books, my advice is to start putting yourself in prime locations where you can meet a lot of new fans and talk to them face-to-face about your novels.
For me, I see a lot much more success at busy events where I can actually meet people, hand them my book, and tell them about the story. Consider adding large-scale events into you schedule as a BIG revenue boost and opportunity to expand your fan base. Planning on at least one big event every month will help to ensure reliable income from your books even if your online sales aren’t great. Just make sure you order enough copies ahead of time!
Final Thoughts on Multiple Revenue Streams for Indie Authors
If your plan to sell books was to rely on local bookstore signings and pour money into digital advertising… I wish you the best of luck. That didn’t work for me, but that doesn’t necessarily mean it won’t work for you. Every author’s journey toward success is different.
I find a lot of wisdom in the saying “don’t put all of your eggs in one basket.” By that I mean, focusing on book revenue for 100% of your income has its risks, especially when you’re still early in your career. What if your books never take off and yield the high numbers you need to make publishing profitable? What if you run into unanticipated copyright trouble? Or what if you develop a small, dedicated base but then fail to scale it up to the point of sustainability?
I typically earn more revenue from candle commissions, merchandise sales, and Patreon subscriptions per month than I do from online book royalties, even though each of those streams is directly tied to my book series. Meanwhile, two of my three websites are monetized so I can grow my AdSense and affiliate commissions while earning sporadic donations, and I’m scheduling more festivals and conventions for major revenue boosts to bolster my online efforts.
I absolutely advocate growing multiple revenue streams, especially if you can leverage passive revenue streams that keep bringing in money even if you’re not actively managing them. These extra sources of income can be concentrated around your books and your personal brand while still operating individually. If one stream dries up without warning, you aren’t scrambling in a last-minute panic — you still have other sources bringing in revenue.
Do you have alternative revenue stream suggestions for self-published authors? Please share in the comments!
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Love fantasy worldbuilding, strong character bonds, and page-turning adventures? Check out my award-winning Chronicles of Avilésor: War of the Realms series.