Why I’m Serializing My Novel via Substack

by | Aug 20, 2021

Editor’s Note: This is a guest post by Elle Griffin.

When I finished writing my novel I did the normal thing: I started pitching it to agents. I think I pitched my book to more than 120 agents in hopes that one of them might sell my book to a big publishing house who would make my book a New York Times bestseller and a hit series for HBO.

But as the rejection letters started rolling in, I realized something. Publishing houses make money by adhering to one simple strategy: Spend $5,000-$10,000 on thousands of author advances, and hope that one of them will go on to become a huge bestseller and earn the company enough money to pay for all the rest.

“There’s a saying in publishing: 80 percent of authors fail, and the 20 percent that succeed pay for all the failures,” says Rachel Deahl, news director for Publishers Weekly. “It’s about building up big bestsellers. They are the people who pay for all the people who don’t make it.”

My book is a strange little gothic novel that might appeal to a couple thousand readers, but certainly not millions. Even if a publishing house did take a chance and decide to publish it, I wouldn’t be guaranteed any marketing. And with only 12-15 percent of the sale my best bet was to earn a couple hundred dollars for my efforts. 

As Deahl says, “Most books don’t succeed even with a lot of backing. Combine that with no marketing or publicity, chances are your book isn’t going to sell well.”

Serial Fiction Is a Better Monetization Strategy Than Traditional Publishing

The New York Times caused a stir recently when, in an article about pandemic book sales, it disclosed that “98 percent of the books that publishers released in 2020 sold fewer than 5,000 copies.”

It gets worse. According to Bookstat, which looks at the book publishing market as a whole, there were 2.6 million books sold online in 2020 and only 268 of them sold more than 100,000 copies—that’s only 0.01 percent of books. By far, the more likely outcome is to sell between 0 and 1,000 copies—which is what 96 percent of books did. 

And yet, I couldn’t help but wonder if authors could monetize a niche audience. After all, 1,000 readers might not be enough to make it in the big world of publishing contracts and screenplay options, but it could be enough to be profitable—if only creator economy technologies are used. 

The “creator economy” is predicated on this very idea. As the going wisdom states: it only takes 1,000 true fans spending $100/year for a creator to earn a salary of $100,000/year. Using our current publishing model, if an author sells 1,000 copies of a book, she will earn $2,250 if published traditionally or $4,200 if self-published. But using the creator economy, an author could release a new chapter every week, charge subscribers $8 or $9 a month, and earn $100,000 a year—from only 1,000 readers. 

Non-fiction writers are already doing it. As evidenced by this chart by Alexey Guzey, there are plenty of Substack writers who are putting out quality non-fiction content for their followers and monetizing it—earning in the hundreds of thousands of dollars annually, and in some cases millions, just from reader subscriptions! 

But could fiction do the same?

It did once. When Alexandre Dumas debuted The Count of Monte Cristo it was published as a feuilleton—a portion of the weekly newspaper devoted to fiction. From August 1844 to January 1846 his chapters were published in 18 installments for The Journal des Débats, a newspaper that went out to 9,000 to 10,000 paying subscribers in France—and readers were rapt by it.

In the forward to a 2004 translation of the book, the writer Luc Sante wrote: “The effect of the serials, which held vast audiences enthralled . . . is unlike any experience of reading we are likely to have known ourselves, maybe something like that of a particularly gripping television series. Day after day, at breakfast or at work or on the street, people talked of little else.”

It was basically Game of Thrones. Readers could not wait to get their hands on the next chapter and that bode very well for the writer who was not only paid by the newspaper in real-time for his work (by the word), but also grew the popularity of his work over the entirety of the time it was being published.

“The ‘Presse’ pays nearly 300 francs per day for feuilletons to Alexandre Dumas, George Sand, De Balzac, Frederic Soulé, Theophile Gautier, and Jules Sandeau,” Littell’s Little Age, Volume 10 wrote in 1846. “But what will the result be in 1848? That each of these personnages will have made from 32,000 to 64,000 francs per annum for two or three years for writing profitable trash of the color of the foulest mud in Paris?”

That “profitable trash” earned those writers an annual salary of between $202,107 to $404,213 in today’s dollars—and the obvious disdain of that Littell writer who, even then preferred the merits of a bound and published book. The same volume goes on to say that Dumas earned about 10,000 francs ($65,743 today) per installment when he was poached from The Presse by The Constitutionnel in 1845.

Serial Novels are Already Making a Comeback

The serial novel is already making a comeback. On the apps Wattpad and Inkitt, writers can publish chapters as they are written, and followers can read and comment on them in real-time. Wattpad has 90 million users who spend an average of 52 minutes per session reading books online—mostly Millennial and Gen Z. The Inkitt app has 2 million users in the same demographic.

The problem is that authors don’t make money on either platform—readers read for free. There was some hope that would change when Wattpad debuted Paid Stories in 2019, allowing readers to pay for chapters using micropayments—three coins unlock the next chapter—but the author does not get to decide whether or not their content is part of the paid program, the platform does based on how the book performed in its free iteration. And even the best-paid authors aren’t making a living doing it. 

Two years into their paid program, Wattpad announced reaching only $1 million in author earnings, split among 550 writers. All things being equal, that’s only $1,818 in total earnings, per author, over a two-year period—and all things are not equal. The more likely scenario is that a small percentage of those 550 made up the bulk of the earnings with pennies left for the rest.

One Wattpad author, who wished to remain anonymous, told me her book reached 20 million free reads on the platform before she was invited to go paid last year. Since then, she has earned a couple million more reads and has averaged $500/month in earnings with her highest month topping out at $1,000. And this is with a YA romance novel—one of the best performing categories on the site.  

Now Amazon wants to get in the game. In April of 2021, they announced the launch of Kindle Vella, a Wattpad competitor that allows authors to publish their books serially—and does allow authors to monetize their work. Thus far, no marketing initiatives have endeavored to promote these pioneering authors—but it’s no matter. Writers pour an estimated 1.2-1.4 million books onto Amazon each year and, even if every book sells only 200 copies, the platform will earn 20-50 percent of each sale and win the whole game.

Still, if 20 million people are willing to read a book for free and a couple million more are willing to pay for it, then there is at least a market for serial fiction. The problem is that if authors are only netting $6,000-$12,000 in a year for their work—maybe we don’t have the right platforms yet. 

Substack Easily Allows Authors to Monetize Serial Content

I decided to serialize my own novel, releasing one chapter per week from September 2021 through June 2022, and I turned to Substack and Patreon for the experiment. Unlike Wattpad and Inkitt, both platforms allow authors to monetize their work, with readers subscribing directly to their favorite writers. 

Publishing on both platforms is free, with Substack and Patreon earning a percentage of income—Substack charges 10 percent of earnings plus a Stripe fee, Patreon charges 5-12 percent of earnings depending on what payment processing services a creator wants access to. And because both platforms allow the author to maintain the rights to their work, there is nothing preventing us from putting our books up on Wattpad, Inkitt, or Kindle after the subscription period ends.

I created accounts on both platforms to test the waters—though each has its share of pros and cons. Patreon, for instance, doesn’t have a free pricing tier which means I would have to build my platform elsewhere before attempting to sell into it. This is why almost all of the 15 authors currently earning more than $4,000/month writing novels on Patreon built their audience on Royal Road, a free serialization platform that lets authors share their chapters as they are written.

“There’s sort of a fixed model for how serialization works in terms of generating revenue—where you start off building an audience on Royal Road and then from there you start a Patreon,” the author Travis Deverell tells me. “And there’s an expectation that your Patreon will have a certain number of advanced chapters ahead of what goes for your Royal Road.”

Deverell’s pen name is Shirtaloon and he earns $28,532 a month from his Patreon supporters. Readers can choose whether they want to read his chapters one week ahead ($1/month), two weeks ahead ($5/month), or four weeks ahead ($10/month) of Royal Road. He also has pricing tiers at $15, $20, and $50 a month which have no additional benefit except supporting an author they love—and fans pay it.  

But Royal Road is very genre-specific. In fact, it tends to attract an audience that isn’t well represented elsewhere: hyperniche science fiction and fantasy genres such as litRPG, isekai, and power progression. “Royal Road is such a big platform for building audiences, but the audience is looking for fairly specific stuff at the moment,” Deverell says. “Like Wattpad is great for YA fiction, but Royal Road is a much better fit for what I’m doing.”

Patreon also isn’t well-suited to writing. The author Emilia Rose earns more than $120,000/year serializing erotica on Patreon but plans to move her 3,000 patrons to Litty, a new startup promising to be the “Patreon of fiction” when it launches this fall. “Patreon has set up its website like a blog, which makes the platform incredibly difficult to use for ongoing stories,” Rose says. “Since I release two to five chapters per week of a single story, it is difficult for readers to find previous chapters. From a reader’s perspective, it’s not a great experience.”

Substack, on the other hand, was built for writers. Chapters are delivered via email and books can be separated into “sections,” making the experience easy on the reader. And unlike Patreon, I don’t need to build another platform elsewhere before I can monetize my work. Instead, I can build my audience directly on Substack, writing a free newsletter that upsells into a paid version. 

The downside of Substack is that I don’t have access to all the pricing tiers I can get with Patreon—Substack only allows me to have one monthly subscription fee, plus a “lump sum” donation bucket—and I know pricing tiers are a must. After all, why would a reader pay $5/month to read four chapters of a book when they could buy a whole book on Kindle for $1.99? (This is why there are plenty of writers writing novels on Patreon earning $200/month—and plenty of Kindle authors earning $200 total.) 

There has to be added value. I want my readers to have the option to join an exclusive online community, be mentioned in the acknowledgments, or even write the foreword for my book. When the book is complete, I want to be able to send autographed, hardcover collector’s edition to premium subscribers, throw a wrap party for my patrons, or even elope to a gothic estate in France to write ghost stories together afterward. 

These kinds of value adds are, after all, how the science fiction author N.K. Jemisin achieved Patreon success. She went on to win numerous awards including a Hugo Award and, in 2020, a MacArthur Fellows “genius grant,” but when she first joined Patreon, she simply wanted to make $5,000/month so she could quit her job as a psychologist. She did—and she had five superfans paying $100/month for signed, printed copies of her books and nine paying $50/month for signed-author copies. That’s $950/month in revenue just from her top 14 fans! Authors can’t afford to miss out on that kind of patronage. 

Even without pricing tiers, I think Substack is the better bet—the whole process is already built-in and has been proven to work for non-fiction authors. And Substack has made moves to invest in fiction. On June 9th, Business Insider announced that Substack hired Nick Spencer, author of Captain America and The Amazing Spider Man franchises to entice comic-book writers to the platform. They also announced, in August, their first round of investments in comics writers

Indeed, we may be seeing the beginnings of a surge in fiction writers on the platform. The fiction author Etgar Keret joined the platform in August and the novels Anamnesis and Something Deep are both serializing on Substack. In fact, more authors are putting their novels on the platform every day which makes me wonder whether I should stop looking for where the literary writers are, but where the literary readers are. And we are definitely actively reading (and paying to subscribe to) literary non-fiction on Substack. Maybe we’d read literary fiction there too.

After all, Truman Capote’s novella Breakfast at Tiffany’s was serialized in Esquire before being published by Random House in 1958. The Martian started out as a blog on Andy Weir’s personal website before it was self-published, then traditionally published, then turned into a blockbuster film starring Matt Damon. And in 2020, Lena Dunham serialized her choose-your-own-adventure novel Verified Strangers via Vogue.com

That’s what Dumas did too. The Count of Monte Cristo was published, not in a literary journal, but in a newspaper—where people were getting their weekly news. Why wouldn’t the sort of people who follow literary journalism and societal critique be the same sort of person who enjoys seeing the Edmond Dantès flee the Chateau d’If via body bag? And Substack is rapidly becoming the newspaper of note for millions of readers. 

Of course, to make it on Substack, creators still have to build a platform, publish consistent work to that platform, and attract an audience to that platform, on top of actually writing something good—none of this is easy. But I’m going to run an experiment anyway. With creator economy technologies on the rise and subscription models rapidly proving their viability, I think there’s hope for fiction after all. 

I think we’re creating it. 

Elle Griffin is currently serializing her gothic novel via Substack—and writing a newsletter about it. Subscribe here.