Is Patreon the Way Forward for Publishing?

This week, fantasy author N.K. Jemisin used Patreon to raise almost $4,000 in monthly pledges so that she could quit her day job and write full-time. I really enjoyed Jemisin’s debut novel, The Hundred Thousand Kingdoms, and although I haven’t gotten around to reading more of her work, I was impressed enough with her writing to be happy that she’s able to devote more time to it.

NK Jemisin's Patreon Page Header

The Patreon model involves creators asking fans to pay a monthly dollar amount to the creator, usually in exchange for some sort of reward. Jemisin, for instance, will send a monthly picture of her cat to $1 patrons; $2 patrons will get the cat pics and access to patron-only blog posts; patrons at the highest levels, such as $50, will receive signed copies of her new books as they’re released. Creating these perks will take time, but the assumption is that they’ll take less time than a full-time day job.

Patreon certainly seems to have potential to help authors devote more time to their writing. And the benefits of a steady income can’t be denied. Advances and royalties are wonderful things, but they don’t come every month. Rents and mortgage bills do. Authors who aren’t huge sellers can’t count on enough income from sales to cover the cost of living life, and Patreon can give an author some additional peace of mind.

Plus, a regular full-time job can require a lot of mental energy, leaving little for writing. Authors trying to build a writing career on top of such a job may struggle to fit in household chores, family responsibilities, and activities that are just for fun. Authors, like anyone else, need to be able to step away from work once in a while. The steady income available through a Patreon can make that possible.

However, I’m skeptical about Patreon’s potential as the way forward for most writers. Jemisin was able to succeed quickly because she’s a talented writer with a strong following. I doubt that writers who are just starting out will be able to garner that level of support. This seems to be a model that would work best for authors who have an established fan base but who haven’t hit the big leagues in terms of consistent sales. I could imagine it also working for bloggers, vloggers, and other creators who’d like to move into a different format but need time to do it.

Jemisin also had an advantage because she’s one of the first big-name authors that I’m aware of who’s tried this. What will happen as more creators enter the Patreon marketplace? How many authors will fans be willing to support, on top of buying their books? A monthly pledge is a commitment only a limited number of people will be willing or able to make. That limited number of people could get spread thin if huge numbers of authors move in this direction. And if an author doesn’t earn enough to live on, the work of fulfilling the rewards might make Patreon too much of a burden.

There’s also the question of how patronage affects sales. Will patrons be willing to purchase books on top of their monthly pledge? Jemisin plans to give her patrons drafts of some of her chapters, in sequence. She notes that the drafts are clean but may not be published for months or years. How will her publishers feel about having hundreds of people see the work before it’s complete? On the other hand, providing draft chapters only from the first half of a book could be a remarkably effective teaser for the full novel, as long as the fans don’t revolt when they don’t receive the full novel as part of their patronage. (It’s not clear from the description whether Jemisin’s patrons can expect the full novel.)

Being clear about patron rewards and managing expectations from the start would be crucial. Essentially, a Patreon creator is working for many different bosses at the same time. As I write, Jemisin has more than 650 patrons. Will they all be happy with the rewards she’s offering? Will a significant number of them feel that, as financial supporters, they have a say in the direction of the story? Luckily, most of Jemisin’s patrons are pledging $10 or less a month, so she’s not relying on keeping any one of them (or any 10 of them) happy.

What do you think of the Patreon model? Would you support an author you love in this way? I’m curious to see if this one success turns into a trend and, if it does, how far it will go.

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