My Reader, My Patron: How Authors will Survive in the Brave New Publishing World

I want to tell you about a musician friend of mine from college. The fact that this particular musician is a long-ago friend of mine has given me some serious street cred with my boardgamer buddies. But I’m not telling you about him to increase my geek-chic quotient. Instead, I want you to know that this very smart guy figured out how to make a living in the music industry–even though the industry had changed overnight from a scene dominated by major labels to a fragmented cyberworld of digital downloads. (Sound familiar to anyone in publishing?)

Six years ago, Jonathan Coulton realized that he had to appeal directly to his fans to support his art. He quit his job and started amassing a collection of his music online. He put fans on their honor to pay him for his digital music downloads, even though they could be downloaded free. He recommended a donation of $1 per song. Here’s an article about what he did. You’ll see many parallels in his life to what’s going on for authors in publishing today.

It worked. His determined fan base gathered around his website and sent him money to buy his music, because they knew that without it, he could not continue to make art. Eventually, he moved to a more traditional sales model, but the foundation of his success was appealing directly to his fans and letting them know they were his only patrons.

Writers, we need to support a similar revolution in consciousness among our readers. Right now, readers don’t realize that each one of them is a patron of the arts–that each buying decision determines which writer will survive and which will not. The reader’s power is disguised by the middle men: publishers and booksellers. Readers think that because our books are available in bookstores, someone must be buying them, correct? So what does it matter if they pay for a book or just get one from the library?

We have this new and growing problem: readers who would ordinarily be our most devoted patrons are starting to get our books for free through promotions, especially through e-book giveaways. These valuable readers don’t realize that the cascade of free books will eventually cause the professional demise of the authors they love. It’s not clear to them that they are our patrons, and without their support, we perish.

As a reader, I have my own strategy to support my favorite authors and allow them to keep writing, so I’ll share it with you here as advice for those who also wish to support the novels they love.

Patrons must be selective. When you choose books to buy, make sure you’re buying the books you love most. If you receive books for free, but you absolutely love one of those books, then go out of our way to purchase a copy of that same book. Give multiple copies as gifts, if the book is that good. If you don’t buy it, you can’t count on other people to do so and thereby support the author so you get to keep reading his books. YOU are the patron.

I hold fast to the hope that in the next few years, new models of publishing will develop that strengthen the bond of support between reader and author. I think we’re going to see a resurgence of patronage for writers through these more direct sales channels, and wonderful things will result. But as we move into this brave new world, we’re all going to have to be more conscious that as readers, we are patrons. And as writers in a world where books are being devalued by giveaways, we need to find tactful ways to make it clear to readers that without their financial patronage, our work will not survive.

35 thoughts on “My Reader, My Patron: How Authors will Survive in the Brave New Publishing World

  1. there have always been more books and authors than patrons. Now with POD and eBooks the equation is even more lopsided
    I believe that marketing and promotion of well written, well plotted books is the way back to profitability in writing – for those lucky enough to rise above the masses,
    However, it is an uphill battle as alternative media competes with books.
    Books will continue they are the garden of ideas, even movies.
    We just have to be more protective and yet involved in releasing our precious works into the world and hope that they flourish

    • Yes, quite right that there are more books than patrons. And it’s also true that quality is the way to attract patrons. That’s how Jonathan did it in the music world. No one wants to be a patron for cruddy stuff–his music is unique, creative, and well-written and sung.

  2. Great post, Rosslyn. There are so many of these issues coming up. One blog I read talked about the fact that most digital media– music, movies, etc– people were expecting to get for free. The issue being, how does the artist, earn a living wage for their work? I like what you said that as a reader, you are a patron of the arts.

    I think both writers and readers need to consider this. Some have backlashed against those who are e-publishing offering books at such a low price– 0.99 cents. Will that lead to a general expectation that all books should go for that rate?

    I’m not sure what the answer is and it will be interesting to see what happens. What I do know is that it takes me 9-12 months to write a novel. As a debut novelist, I am completely willing to pay my dues to build a library and a readership. I fully expect to invest most, if not all, of what I make back into my business.

    However, there may come a point where real life says– you can’t continue to give up all this time and not even make a little. I pray that doesn’t happen. I do my part and God is in charge of the rest. But I fear many writers are faced with this decision.

    • Jordyn, I think you speak for many! The problem for me is that I have gifts, training, and passion in a couple of areas in which I could serve besides writing–teaching, for example. If I can get paid for one and not for the other, and both are equally satisfying in different ways, then I will have a tough decision to make. At the moment, we can still earn money from our work. And I think we will in the future, but we will have to come up with more creative ways of finding patronage (assuming our work is worthy of such patronage).

  3. Most musicians have a day job to pay the bills, which allows them to pursue the craft that they love, be it performing, recording, or songwriting. I have an extraordinarily talented musician friend who has been trying to make inroads into the music biz. I am amazed at how similar her struggle is with that of us writers.

    I have read about the duo Civil Wars, who has been successful in connecting directly with their fan base and developing a loyal following. Their story is an example for us.

    • Peter – True that most musicians have a day job, as do many authors. Thanks for pointing that out. I’m also interested to hear about Civil Wars and will Google them.

  4. Rosslyn, this is a great post.

    I have a knack for finding…”adventure”, I guess you’d call it. Hubby and I bought a new home in 2004…yeah. (Thank God we bought a house for half what the mortgage broker told us we could afford!). And I began writing in 2008. I seem to have a penchant for finding and riding out turbulence, though I’m terrified of it on airplanes! 🙂

    But one thing I know. The arts are as much a part of the human experience as eating and sleeping. Music, art, storytelling, dance…these things will always be sought after. As writers, like musicians, can upload their fare on digital/electronic medium, the market will have to adjust to the onslaught. But the cream usually rises to the top, to coin a cliche. And good timing has something to do with it as well.

    I rest assured that the market will find its footing and that readers will understand that patronage matters. Again, good food for thought on a Thursday morning.

    • Smiling ruefully about the house…we *almost* bought in 2004 but were too scared of the market. I’m glad you kept yours to a wise budget level given what has happened since!

      I love your comment about art and the human experience. It’s true–from cave-dwellers to urban sophisticates, we’ve always created and sought out art.

  5. Thank you, Rosslyn for giving us a lesson in thinking outside the box. My first reaction to a new situation is to sit in a corner and whine about how things have changed way too quickly. I need to readjust my thinking in creative ways to visualize the possibilities inherent in the situation. Inspiring post!

  6. Love your strategy to support authors you love, Rosslyn. With Christmas coming up, it’s a great time to support those authors and give their books as Christmas gifts. Or we can support authors in general and give gift cards to Barnes & Noble and other favorite bookstores.

  7. Love the gift giving idea! You broach many valuable points in this post. I’ll be so curious to see what happens to the industry in the coming years and in the meantime, I’ll buy more books.
    ~ Wendy

  8. Excellent post! It really made me re-think how I acquire the books I read and how my decisions impact the author. We need to spread the word, and your post is a terrific beginning.

  9. Maintaining personal connection and open communication with those we’re privileged to serve makes all the difference in the world. Great reminder, Rosslyn!!

  10. Hi there Rosslyn!
    This strange world of publishing is something wild isn’t it? I’m thrilled to be part of it as I know you are. I believe in supporting writers, musicians, artists, etc. that I love AND debut authors like us who are just getting started. 🙂 I’ve bought so many books I love over the years, and will continue doing it. But I also have a day job that I love. I envision doing both for a long time and know I will continue writing after I retire from the day job. Of course with the state of our economics I may have to do both till I can’t do either. 🙂

    I think one of the things I have to rethink is how much money I’m going to sink into conferences from this point on. I’ve attended many, and I love them, but I may have to re-evaluate so I have more money for supporting my own writing career and buying those authors I enjoy reading.

  11. Publishers have to stop giving away so much for free. Are they not learning from their newspaper and magazine counterparts who now rue the day of posting their paper content online for free? I don’t get it. The WORDS are the value whether they’re in paper or digital format.

  12. This is a question that has been much on my mind lately. What will free ebooks do to the publishing model over the long term? I’ve talked to people who said they didn’t feel the need to buy books anymore. They bought an e-reader and if they wait six months to a year, today’s new releases would be free.

  13. Such a good post (I know I’m echoing what others said). I like the idea of thinking of myself as a patron of the arts — embracing that role whenever I purchase another writer’s book. And, yes, I do still pay for books. Hey, I’m a writer too. I know writers have to make a living!
    I also believe in the intangible value of word of mouth marketing: letting others know about my favorite authors and their books.

    • That’s true, Beth! And I’m very choosy about whose books I recommend by word of mouth. One I’ll recommend to anyone, though, is Allison Pittman’s Sister Wives duet of books. For Time and Eternity, the first book in the series, is an amazing novel, and the second is coming out any day now.

  14. This is a great post filled with lots of wisdom. When in doubt with marketing, go straight to the people who buy your stuff and engage them in what you’re doing! Keep up the awesome perspectives you guys!

  15. Thanks for the thoughtful post, Rosslyn. Yes, we need to understand that consumer of art need to understand and appreciate the partnership that is between the artist and their intended audience.

    • I appreciate your comment, Megan. I’ll be very interested to see what forms this partnership takes as a result of the new intimacy between authors and readers.

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