By Simon Owens
Tim Pratt cut his teeth writing short fiction. The science fiction and fantasy author spends most of his days now working on novels — his website bibliography says he published three in 2015 alone — but a little over a decade ago, when he was still in the early stages of his writing career, he would regularly write short stories for small zines with names like Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet. In 2004, a short story he wrote for a small press anthology was chosen by Pulitzer-winner Michael Chabon to be reprinted in the annual Best American Short Stories, which is arguably one of the most prestigious and venerable anthologies for short fiction. This feat was especially impressive when you consider the fact that the anthology series has historically printed very little genre fiction. “I’m a competent novelist,” Pratt told me in a phone interview. “I’m getting better. But I’m a really good short story writer.”
So why did he abandon the format to focus mainly on longform fiction? The answer boils down to economics. There are few publications that publish short fiction and fewer still that pay well. The Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America, a trade organization for genre writers, considers a “professional” rate for short fiction to be 6 cents per word (any freelancer will readily tell you this is nothing close to a living wage). Major New York publishers are reluctant to publish short fiction collections, mostly because they don’t sell very well, so it’s common to see even established authors turn to the small press when they want to publish short stories. “It got to the point where most of my time went toward writing novels,” Pratt said. “I would still occasionally write short stories, but only when I was commissioned by an editor to write for a themed anthology or special issue. That’s cool and I like doing that, and for a while I thought that was a way I could keep my hand in, but the thing is, almost all of those have some sort of restriction; for a themed anthology I might have to write a story that’s Lovecraftian or one that involves robots. I miss that thing I used to do when I first started out where I would just spontaneously generate ideas and try things and see where they’d go.”
But then several months ago Pratt noticed that more and more artists he knew of were signing up for a site called Patreon. The platform was co-founded in 2013 by Jack Conte, a well-known YouTube musician who struggled to make a living on YouTube ads and wanted to develop a way for an artist to leverage their fan base for financial support. Unlike Kickstarter, which is geared primarily toward raising a lump sum of money for one-off projects, Patreon allows fans to provide ongoing support for creators who regularly produce new work. There are two forms of “patronage” on Patreon: a fan can either pay a certain amount per month or per artistic creation. The site simply charges the agreed-upon amount to the person’s credit card. Many YouTubers, for instance, configure it so their fans pay a set amount per new video.
Though it has nowhere near the scale of larger crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Patreon has seen growing adoption among indie artists and creators; it’s particularly popular with YouTubers and podcasters who use it to supplement their advertising income. One of its most high profile users, the singer and artist Amanda Palmer, launched a campaign in 2015 and today generates over $31,000 per “thing” from 6,300 patrons. In a 2014 blog post, Patreon announced that its patrons were paying out over $1 million a month to creators, and that figure has likely grown significantly since then.
Pratt had already seen some success funding his novels on Kickstarter (I wrote about his efforts back in 2011), so he figured Patreon might provide an opportunity to create short fiction regularly and fund it with a steady stream of income. “I tried to consider how much time I could devote and I figured I could probably write a story every month,” he said. “I could find a weekend or take a break from other projects.” So he launched his Patreon account and blasted it out to his email list and social media followers. Right now, he has 121 patrons who pay roughly $536 per story, which is about what he would be paid from an anthology or magazine. “Now, I’m once again carrying around a notebook and jotting down ideas that occur to me,” he said. “And now I have enough short story ideas to last me for a couple more years.”
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If this model becomes more widespread, then it could significantly alter the cost-benefit analysis that any author applies to writing short fiction. Kameron Hurley, a speculative fiction writer who has published five novels and won two Hugo awards, is constantly inundated with requests from her fans for new short stories. “There is no money in short fiction,” she told me in a phone interview. “You’ll spend 30 or 40 hours on a short story, and you’ll get paid $200. It’s just not worth your while. People would ask me, ‘Hey Kameron, why don’t you write more short fiction?’ Well, short stories were a nice way to get my name out there in the early 2000s, but then I realized I’m getting $200 for an incredible amount of work. I started doing a lot of copywriting work, and I charge $90 an hour for copywriting. If you look at the costs and benefits, you realize writing short stories doesn’t have any financial benefit and it doesn’t make sense.”
So when Hurley launched her Patreon page in 2015, she had one goal: “My bare minimum was $500,” she said. “If I could get that much for a story, and if I could resell it as a reprint or as an original to the short fiction markets, you’re starting to make something that resembles a fair wage.” One reason she found Patreon to be particularly appealing was that the reward fulfillment is easy; you simply provide the piece of short fiction your subscribers are paying for (it’s become quite common for those who have completed successful Kickstarter campaigns to complain that they underestimated the time and money that would go into fulfilling all the reward tiers they set). Whenever Hurley is ready to publish a new story, she simply uploads multiple versions — PDF, EPUB, and MOBI — to Patreon, and it alerts her subscribers so they can download it. While there are more involved rewards if you pay more (for $25 per short story you get one printed chapbook mailed to you per year), she doesn’t anticipate the fulfilment to be too onerous.
Before launching her campaign, Hurley polled her fans (she calls her followers “Hurley’s Heroes”) to ask whether they’d rather pay a certain amount per month or per new piece of work; they chose the latter. So she put together a short PowerPoint video explaining the project and then began promoting it on her social channels. Though she generated a few subscribers from Facebook, Tumblr, and her website, Hurley got most of her traction from Twitter, where she has over 6,000 followers; whenever someone new would subscribe they’d often announce it to their own Twitter following, and it snowballed from there. “We hit $500 within a week, and $800 within three weeks,” she said. “After the first story dropped it jumped up to $1,200, and it’s now up to $1,600.” About half of the 340 subscribers pay the bare minimum of $1 a month. The rest pay $3 or higher, with over 60 patrons paying more than $10 a story.
What does this mean in practical (read: monetary) terms? “It’s meant I can turn down some freelance copywriting jobs,” she explained. “Instead of writing marketing emails or website copy, I just spend my time writing stories, which is what i really want to do. So that’s how it changed my day-to-day life.”
One question that has yet to be definitively answered is whether a short story uploaded to Patreon should be considered “published.” Though the $500 Pratt receives every time he uploads a short story is comparable to what he’d get from a magazine or anthology, the story is only seen by the 120 patrons who subscribe, and he’d ideally like it to reach a larger audience. But not all short fiction publications take reprints, and even those that do often pay significantly less for them. “Some are a little more open to it, saying if it’s a sufficiently small audience, we’ll still pay for it,” he said. “Honestly, I don’t worry about it that much, because I’m getting $500 for the story anyway at this point, so if I’m going to get paid less, that’s fine.” In 2014, a writer named Andrea Phillips polled several magazine editors as to whether a Patreon story would be considered published, and most said that it would. At the time we spoke, Pratt said a magazine editor was considering publishing one of his Patreon stories as a reprint
Before you set out to launch your own short fiction Patreon campaign, first take note that the two writers I profiled here were already established prior to setting up their own. “It is certainly easier to attract a crowd if you already have a crowd,” said Pratt. “Even when people already know who you are, crowdfunding is still tricky. This is probably not a great way to build an audience.” Hurley agreed: “The people who do the best do tend to be the folks who have some sort of following,” she said. “They’re a blogger, a writer, a musician. They already have a core audience who they can go to and who will help socialize it for them.”
And though Patreon has had a not insignificant impact on their incomes, both Pratt and Hurley agreed that it should remain just one of many irons to have in the fire. “Whenever I talk to people who ask about freelance writing, the first thing I tell them is to have multiple revenue streams,” said Pratt. “Do not have just one editor who likes you. Don’t just write for one magazine or one company. Because things are going to go away. So for me, [Patreon] is just one more thing. When you combine this, novel sales, editing gigs, and freelance work, all these little trickles add up to helping me keep a roof over my head and food on my family’s table.” But even if the pay is supplemental, it’s brought these writers one step closer to a career many aspire to but never achieve: making up stories for money.
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