Most advice for writers is based on what worked in the past. Let’s take a fresh look at how a writer can build a sustainable career in today’s world.
As we enter the 2020s, writers have more opportunities to build a sustainable and satisfying career than ever before. However, much of the advice out there describes what worked in decades past and is tied to outdated paradigms. Technological advancements have lowered the barriers to entry and removed gatekeepers. However, the sheer number of options and potential paths can be overwhelming. This article will help you find your way to success.
Before we describe the opportunities available to writers today, however, we should first understand how things have changed since the internet became mainstream in most first-world countries in the mid-1990s.
Publishing in the Internet Age
1990s - The Internet Takes Off
Online forums became easier to access and use, providing a place for non-technical people to write and publish online.
Amazon started selling books.
People increasingly read news and journal articles online.
A limited range of audiobooks existed, mostly purchased on CD, and primarily catered to people with vision impairment.
Audible (now owned by Amazon) starts selling audiobooks online from 1995.
Online publishers, and the earliest of bloggers begin email newsletters.
2000s - The Internet Goes Mainstream
Amazon’s progressive disruption of books and magazine distribution became mainstream, but people still greatly underestimated how big it would become.
Computers had become much more affordable, reliable, and easy to use. However, wi-fi had yet to proliferate to a large degree, and laptop battery life was not good.
Blogs became easy to start and more people to set up their own place online and build an audience. Savvy bloggers monetize with ads and sponsorships.
Writers began self-publishing ebooks, though it remained relatively niche.
People still preferred to purchase glossy magazines for their gorgeous photos and books were much more preferable to reading on computer monitors.
Apple starts selling audiobooks and ebooks.
Audible starts delivering purchased audiobooks to mobile devices.
By the end of the 2000s, professional blogging had become a possibility thanks to automated advertising systems such as Google AdWords.
Online publishers are at the mercy of search engines to bring them traffic - especially Google.
Email newsletters grow in importance as they help both online publishers and bloggers withstand changes in search engine algorithms that might take away a large amount of traffic overnight.
2010s - Smartphones Take Over
Apple starts selling ebooks through its mobile devices.
Amazon launches Kindle Store with 88,000 digital titles. Kindle apps make their way onto both Android and iOS devices and come to dominate the ebook market, followed by Apple.
Mobile devices have become far more affordable and easier to use.
Wi-fi proliferated and gradually increased in speed and reliability.
Mobile data plans continued to offer higher speeds and lower costs.
Audiobooks gained popularity as they became more accessible to buy, download, and listen to on mobile devices. Audible becomes the dominant player followed by Apple.
People increasingly got their news through their devices, especially through social media.
Writers had a growing number of platform options for online publishing, building a readership, and monetizing their work.
While search engine traffic remains important for online publishers and bloggers, they become increasingly at the mercy of social media platforms for traffic, as more people rely on them for content discovery. Email newsletters remain critical for online publishers and bloggers to weather any algorithm changes.
As the 2010s progressed, the various forms of self-publishing became easier and so publishers transitioned from being gatekeepers into partners. Self-publishing became a legitimate path for a growing number of authors.
By the end of the 2010s, earning from ads on blogs because progressively difficult. There was more competition for readership, and savvy internet users had ad-blockers installed. Savvy writers transitioned into various business models such as becoming “influencers,” while others introduced paid subscriptions for a portion of their work.
Apps like Pocket let people rip articles from websites, stripping all ads and website clutter, and allowing users to read a “clean” version or have it read to them by their device in an increasingly natural sounding artificial voice.
Entering the 2020s - Spoilt for Choice
Most people in developed economies have smartphones with relatively fast internet access and a screen capable of showing high-resolution images and crisp text.
Amazon dominates the sale of physical books, ebooks, and audiobooks. Apple remains in second place.
Consumers expect audio versions to be available for all popular books.
People ask their smart assistants to read news articles to them or play them audiobooks.
Several easy to use platforms allow writers to charge subscriptions for blogs and email newsletters.
Cryptocurrencies are emerging as ways to pay writers. They are still not yet mainstream but should become much more convenient and easier to use for the average person by the end of the decade.
Now that you’ve got the big picture, let’s look at the best ways to earn as a writer in today’s world.
Making Money as a Writer in the 2020s
Forget Publishers for Now
Have you ever tried to get a loan from a bank? They prefer to loan to people who have such a solid financial situation that they don’t need the money. Banks don’t chase after people with poor economic prospects offering loans.
It’s a similar situation with publishers. They expect that you already have a large online following, have published at least one book that became popular to at least some degree, and have other publishers interested. So, forget them for now. In fact, if you are successful, you may find that you never need a publisher. And, anyway, they’re no longer the powerful gatekeepers that they were.
So, let’s look at some of the ways you can earn as a writer. The idea is to have multiple streams of income rather than being entirely dependent on just one.
If you’re just starting out, then the fastest way to earn is by offering your skills as a service provider. Freelance job marketplace websites such as Conyac provide a range of gigs including the following:
Content Writing: Often companies want to run a blog to attract customers, but lack the resources in-house to write the content. If you’re knowledgeable in their field, you could score regular ongoing work writing blog posts for them. You might also offer to manage their social media and email newsletter.
Proofreading and Editing: There are many people around the world for whom English is a second language. They may be experts in their niches, but need help from a professional writer to polish up their work. You might be working on anything from resumes to reports, white papers, blog posts, or website marketing copy.
Translation and Localization: If you speak another language, perhaps you can work as a translator or on localization projects. If you can find a client that needs specialized knowledge that you have, this can be a great match.
Research: If you are good at finding and organizing information into reports, then clients may hire you to do ad-hoc research work. Combine this with domain expertise and a foreign language, and this puts you in a stronger niche.
Blog Platform Partner Programs
You may not yet have your own website or blog. That’s fine, but you should definitely start one because it’s a great way to showcase your skills as a writer, attracted attention from potential clients, and let people know you’re available for work.
One way to get paid for your writing is to find a blog platform that has a partner program. Two well-known ones are those run by Medium and Quora. The advantage of these platforms is that they have a built-in audience. This makes it easier to start than setting up your own independent blog from scratch.
Before you invest a lot of time into their programs, be sure to read all the fine print, rules, terms, guidelines, and any tips they provide for success. Also, study who seem to be their current top writers. This won’t be quick or easy to achieve success. Nor will it provide a reliable and regular source of income. However, if you do everything right, and are successful, it could pay off nicely.
Subscriptions and Donations
Several writers are doing quite well by charging subscriptions. People who love their writing are willing to pay a small monthly fee to support their work and get more access.
The idea is that, once you build up a following, you can start to offer a certain amount of your content for paying subscribers. How much you charge readers will vary depending on the quality, quantity, and frequency of what you’re sending them.
I’m going to assume that you’re not a web developer, and so want a simple way to set this up. In that case, you’ll want to sign up for one of the following platforms.
Revue and Substack let you start a blog that people can subscribe via email. You can choose which posts you’d like to be for paying members. The services have a lot of similarities, but also some significant differences in features and their overall aesthetic. Only Revue will let you use your own domain name (example: YourName-dot-com).
Patreon and Subscribestar were initially designed for YouTubers to offer various tiers of membership. However, some writers have successfully adapted these platforms to suit their needs. As a platform, Patreon is the most feature rich and mature. However, it is known for being quite censorious, so if you want to write edgy, politically incorrect content, you’ll want to go with Subscribestar.
PayPal is the most common way for writers to receive one-time donations and is probably the easiest to set up.
Crypto: By the end of the 2020s, cryptocurrency is expected to become a significant way writers get compensated online. Several startups are working on solutions to facilitate quick, easy, and low-fee micropayments for both one-off donations and regular subscription scenarios. However, as of the time of writing, I would only recommend you look into these options if your audience is technically savvy and likely to already be into crypto.
It’s easier than ever to publish an ebook today. Amazon’s Kindle Direct Publishing dominates the market followed by Apple Books. Some authors sell ebooks in ePub or PDF format directly from their website or blog.
Similarly, the technical requirements for producing an audiobook have been democratized. Of course, you could still hire a professional voice talent and have them read the book in a prestigious recording studio, but cheaper options are available. With a decent microphone (under $200), some free software, and a little persistence, you can make a reasonable home studio.
Next, you can use ACX (Amazon Creative Exchange) to publish via Amazon, Audible, and iTunes/Apple Books. Alternatively, if you don’t want to do the reading or audio editing yourself, freelance marketplaces such as Conyac allow you to hire people to do it for you.
Despite the proliferation of mobile devices and ever-improving reading experience for ebooks and audiobooks, many people still prefer to buy paper books. Once you have your manuscript, explore print-on-demand options such as Amazon’s CreateSpace and Lulu.
Getting Your Writing Noticed
1. Your Online Persona(s)
While publishing is easier and there are more options than ever, that’s only half of the battle. You still need to get people to notice what you have on offer. Successful writers understand that they have to build a brand.
To get an idea of what that might look like for you, let’s look at two extremes of branding that writers use when building personas.
Type I: Maximizing Privacy
Many writers opt to conceal their identity and protect their privacy by using a pen name. They never use their real name, show their face, or reveal any identifying information about themselves. This can grant you a lot of freedom and, for some writers, be crucial for their physical safety.
Here are some basic items that you’ll use on all the platforms where your persona will be active:
Your pen name: Take your time to come up with something catchy and unique. Tools such as Namecheckr can help you see if the name has already been taken on various platforms.
Your icon: Can be anything, as long as you use it consistently. Search Pexels or Unsplash for a face or animal that matches your writing persona. Some apps can apply special effects such as changing a photo into a cartoon. Or, if you can’t get the look you want, hire an artist on Conyac to help.
Your bio: Come up with something under 150 characters that expresses your persona and what kind of writing you offer. You can adapt to the length of the bio field on each platform.
Type II: The Writer/Influencer
At the other end of the spectrum are writers who use their full real name, a profile photo of their real face, and share highlights of their lives regularly online.
If this is how you are wired, then you probably already are halfway there. To leverage it for your writing career, you just need to make sure that you’re showing up consistently wherever you are. For example:
Some influential writers get a professional headshot for their profile photo and use it on all their various online accounts and profiles. This makes it easy for someone who discovers them on one platform to recognize them on others.
Similarly, using the same username everywhere can help too.
If you changed your name due to marriage or other reasons, it could help if you write your name in the same way on each profile.
You don’t have to choose between the extremes of Type I and II above. Perhaps you’ll combine elements of both and be roughly half-way. Some writers do both in parallel. A secret persona for their edgy stuff, and another for their personal brand.
2. Your Online Home
All the various places you show up online should be working to send people to your home base. For some, that will be a website, for others, a blog.
There are various models. Some will make all of the blog posts freely available and ask for subscriptions or donations. Others will make just a few of their posts free and put the rest behind a paywall. Another option is to have your blog completely free and use it to drive sales of your books, and audiobooks. You’ll eventually find the pattern that fits you. The important thing is to get started.
If the subscription/blog platforms I mentioned earlier (Revue, Substack, etc.) aren’t appealing to you, here are three other popular options to consider.
WordPress is a feature-rich platform that can serve as anything from a blog to a sophisticated website or even an online store (hosted, self-hosted). The self-hosted version has various options to enable charging subscriptions and setting up a newsletter.
Ghost is an online publishing platform somewhere in between the above two extremes (hosted, self-hosted). They are considering adding a way to charge subscriptions, and you can connect newsletter systems such as MailChimp.
As you publish more on your blog, over time, your writing will start to show up in Google search results. However, you can’t only rely on that. Another way to get samples of your writing into the hands of people is to aggregate it via apps that they might be spending time on.
Choose one or more of the following platforms. Then, each time you publish a blog post, reproduce it on these platforms, and include a link to the original saying, “Originally published on ____.” People will click on the link to visit your blog. It also tells Google that the post isn’t an unauthorized copy, but rather, is aggregated from the original.
Medium: In addition to their partner program mentioned earlier, another use for Medium is to import posts from your blog and republish them here.
Quora: There are two ways to publish here. One is to post answers to user questions. Another is to use it as a blogging platform and republish your articles here just as you would on Medium. This is ideal for blogs that are informative or educational in some way.
LinkedIn: If you are writing about business topics, then aggregating your posts on LinkedIn will make a lot of sense.
Facebook Notes: A lot of people don’t realize, but Facebook contains blogging functionality. Whether on your personal profile or a separate page, you can publish “Notes” which are effectively blog posts.
There are many other platforms, but these are the best-known ones and the largest in terms of traffic.
In the 2020s, having a cozy relationship with an editor at a publishing company in a big city is no longer necessary. If you have a computer, internet access, and the time to do the work, you can, over time, build up an online following. The keys to success, however, are timeless; hard work, persistence, consistency, and a long-term perspective will always be required.
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