5 Passive Income Streams for Writers
For anyone who seeks to make a living as a freelance writer, whether full or part-time, cash flow is always going to be a challenge. Money from advances and royalties, as well as payments for short stories and Amazon income, is often slow to arrive, and there’s often not enough to cover necessary day-to-day expenses. And when your book sales are lower than expected one month, then what? In this article, we are going to take a look at 5 passive income streams for writers.
What’s Passive Income?
Before we begin, we should define what passive income means. Passive income is simply income that requires little to no effort to earn and maintain. If you have a regular 9–5 job you have to actually show up and do some work to get paid. Passive income is money you earn whether you do any work or not.
That’s not to say that these passive income sources don’t take effort to set up. You still have to do some work at the beginning to get it going, but once it’s there it’s there, and may require only periodic tweaking, if that. There are many forms of passive income, from rental property to investing, but in this article I wanted to tailor specifically to writers and authors. So without further residue let’s look at five of the best passive income streams for writers.
This is an obious one, but you may not think of it as a passive income stream. You have to write the books, of course, get covers for them, get them edited. But once they’re published they earn you money month after month. You might have to run some ads, and freshen your covers every year or so, but for the most part your Amazon and other royalties are a passive income stream, because you don’t have to do a whole lot to keep the money flowing.
I think of every book as really 3–4 books. There’s the ebook of course. Then a print version and an audio version, if you’re doing audio books. There’s also a hardcover version, if you think that is something your audience wants (they make great convention exclusives, once we can do conventions again). So segment your books that way, and think of each title as several income streams depending on what physical form it takes. That way you can keep your ebook exclusive to Kindle if you want, but go wide with your print and audiobooks.
Sites like Amazon have affiliate programs, where you can create a special product link and, when someone clicks on it and buys something, you get a cut. It doesn’t cost the buyer any more money, and if you can drive a lot of traffic to that link your affiliate link can really add up. You can even create affiliate links to your own books, getting not only your cut of the royalties, but an affiliate percentage as well.
Here’s where it gets even cooler. Say someone clicks your book link, buys your book, then starts browsing televisions through your link. Then they buy a 70" flat screen. Guess what? You get the affiliate percentage for that sale too! It doesn’t happen often of course, but it does happen. As I stated above, if you can drive a lot — and I mean a lot — of traffic to your website, you can really rack up the affiliate sales. There are Internet marketers who make their fortunes doing nothing but driving massive amounts of web traffic to other retailers’ products.
There is a caveat, however. Amazon has all kinds of rules for when and how to use affiliate links. For example, you can’t use them in your newsletters, so if you get caught they’ll kill your affiliate account. Before joining any affiliate program, make sure you read all of their rules and regulations regarding affiliate behavior.
Unless you’ve been spending quarantine under a rock, you’ve probably heard of crowd funding. This is the practice of using sites like Patreon, Kickstarter and Indiegogo to raise funds for particular projects. I do this myself. I have a Patreon, and I’m in the final hours of a Kickstarter project to fund a anthology I’m editing. If you don’t have a specific project, you can use Patreon to get monthly income to help out with monthly expenses, offering to do certain creative things in exchange for certain reward tiers. You could write a short story for $10 a month, for example. I have a reward tier where I send signed print books to patrons once a month.
You’re not guaranteed to make very much; I certainly don’t. But it’s possible. Science fiction author N.K. Jemisen makes $5,899 a month from her patrons. Success is hit or miss on Kickstarter as well, but it is very doable. Fantasy author Brandon Sanderson recently raised a whopping — and as yet unheard of — $6,788,517 for a leatherbound edition of a ten-year-old novel. Again, don’t get discouraged if you don’t. The point is to try it. Set everything up and see what happens. And if you want to do something like Brandon did, making a new hardcover edition of an older book, make sure you have the rights. If Sanderson’s publisher still had the hardcover print rights to this book, he couldn’t do this. Learn copyright and how to exploit it to your benefit.
T-Shirts and Merchandise
What’s this guy talking about? T-shirts? I’m a writer. What do I need to fool with selling t-shirts? That’s a valid question. As authors, the primary thing we have to sell is our words. But there is still a visual element to our words. Not only our book covers, but things within the fictional worlds we create as well. Maybe your main character wears a distinctive ballcap with the name of a fictional brand you made up emblazoned across the front. Or maybe your squad of space marines has a cool logo that would look great on hats, shirts, stickers, or cell phone cases. And maybe your readers would love to own a piece of your fictional world.
I set up a store on a site called Teepublic. It was easy, and I went from just one design to six. They do everything from shirts to cellphone cases, and they’re always having good sales you can offer your customers (with an affiliate link). You don’t have to stick to just putting your book covers on a shirt either. Any idea you think up can become a product on Teepublic. One Sunday afternoon I had an idea for a shirt based on an older popular movie. I contacted an artist friend of mine, and on Monday I had it uploaded. It has since become my most popular seller. So don’t be afraid to think outside the box. Look at your hobbies and other interests for ideas. Any writerly sayings you’re fond of? Put them on a shirt. It doesn’t have to be a graphic image to sell. I still want a chess shirt that reads “Smack my Bishop.”
A few caveats. Just don’t assume you can upload your book’s cover onto a shirt. Check with your artist first to see if you have those rights. In my experience, many of them have been more than happy to create a version in the dimensions and file type that sites like Teepublic require. If you created your own cover using online photos or clip art, make sure the license you purchased includes using them on merchandise.
If you have other expertise, you can turn it into additional income streams. For example, a writer friend of mine is also a pretty good artist, and draws little sketch cards featuring superheroes that he sells at conventions (back when we had conventions) and on his website. He even takes commissions. Yeah, I know it’s not exactly passive, but once they’re done they’re done.
Courses If you are highly knowledgable about a subject a lot of other people really want to learn, you can create a course to teach them. Again, the actual course creation isn’t at all passive, and you must do some marketing to get the word out, but if you create a video course you can sell it over and over, without doing any actual teaching. Sites like Teachable, Skillshare, and Coursera let you do this. One writing couple I know even make their Teachable courses perks for their Kickstarters. So you can get some extra mileage out of your crowdfunding efforts that way. Building a course isn’t easy, but it’s an option if you’ve got some knowledge you would like to share with the world.
I can’t guarantee you will get rich tomorrow from any of these passive income streams. I know I sure haven’t. But they are a lot easier to tweak and maintain than they were to set up, and I’m grateful for every penny they earn for me. I know over time it will only grow as I add items and get more eyeballs on my work. You can do it too. All it takes is that first step.
Thanks for reading. If you know of a passive income stream I missed, or have a twist on something here that is working super well for you, let me know in the comments. A rising tide lifts all boats.