How to Earn Passive Income Through Self-Publishing

I could literally sum this up in one sentence: publish a book that people want to buy.

Of course, most financial stuff could be summed up in a single sentence.

Don’t spend more than you earn.*

Look for ways to increase your income.

Invest your extra earnings in something that is likely to increase in value over time.

A self-published book, in most cases, will not increase in value over time. There’ll be a spike of sales in the first few months, followed by a slow decline. (My most recent monthly Amazon royalty payment was for $6.51, for example. Last July, when I released the second volume of The Biographies of Ordinary People, my monthly ebook royalties hit $203.84.)

However, a self-publishing career might increase in value over time. As you build your readership over subsequent books, each individual book is likely to generate more sales—both at the time of publication and afterwards, as new readers catch up on your back catalog.

There is no guarantee that you’ll be able to build the type of self-publishing career that generates a sustainable passive income stream, so don’t go into self-publishing just because you want to make money. As I teach in my self-publishing classes, there are many ways to define self-publishing success, most of which are a lot easier to achieve than a passive income stream.

If your definition of “self-publishing success” equals “building a readership, going on book tour, seeing your book in bookstores and libraries, and winning awards,” well… all of that is a lot easier to achieve than developing a passive income stream of any significance. You’ll still sell books, and you can even earn back your expenses if you’re thoughtful with your budget, but you’ll find yourself in a situation where you earn, like, $5,000 in royalties in Year 1 and $500 in Year 2.

Yes, that $500 is technically passive income because you didn’t have to work for it (you already published the book and did the marketing, and at this point you’re getting paid whenever someone finds you online and decides your book looks interesting), but you can’t live on $500 a year.

So you have to write another book.

(Really, for most authors, it’s “you get to write another book.” The writing is the fun part!)

A publishing career, whether you work with a publishing house or become your own publisher, is a long-game endeavor. You get big chunks of money all at once and then little dribbles of money here and there, and in an ideal situation you’d release enough books to keep bringing in occasional big chunks of money while simultaneously earning passive income from all the little dribbles of money.

However, this system doesn’t work out for everyone. If you’re not writing books that people want to read (see the opening sentence of this blog post) you won’t build the readership that turns the long game into a sustainable passive income stream.

Sure, you can write a book that a small subset of people want to read. I’ve done it, and it can be a very satisfying process. Getting the right book into the right hands is always worthwhile.

But if you’re trying to maximize your income while also standing out from all the other writers trying to do the same thing, well… you can either hope you’ve got the kind of book that’ll appeal to a wide range of readers and that you get lucky enough to release the book at the right moment for it to become a bestseller (e.g. Andy Weir publishing The Martian), or you can focus on building your online presence first and then publish your book after you’ve become well-known for being yourself (e.g. insert your favorite celebrity/influencer here), or you can focus on a narrow segment of the long tail and publish hyper-focused genre fiction like “older woman younger man humorous romance where the younger man has a really cute dog.”

Ugh, that sounds discouraging, right?

Here’s the secret.


In other words: the odds of you successfully reverse-engineering a bestseller are so small that you might as well write what you want.

(Especially in the early stages of your career, when you don’t have enough of an audience to know the type of book they’re hoping you write next.)

Yes, it’s nice if what you want to write lines up with what someone else wants to read.

Yes, it’s worth learning how to build an audience and how to make money from your creative work (luckily, I have posts on that here, here, and here).

Yes, it’s also a good idea to structure your budget in a way that allows you to make a profit on every book you self-publish, though I haven’t been able to do that for every book I’ve published and I do this kind of thing for a living.

But it isn’t the only thing I do for a living, which is one of the reasons why I’m able to keep doing it. This isn’t just a self-publishing thing, btw; the majority of traditionally published authors have additional income streams as well.

So go after that self-publishing passive income if you want, but try not to focus on how much passive income you’re likely to earn from your first few books. Instead, think of the money you put into your self-publishing career as an investment—not just in your bottom line, but also in yourself and your readers—that might increase in value in the future. ❤️

*Don’t spend more than you earn is actually a terrible financial platitude. It really should be more like “don’t spend more than you earn UNLESS you need to go into debt to survive OR that debt will help you earn more in the future OR this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity that you can pay off with future earnings OR other valid reasons that I haven’t thought of.”

A Halfway Point Update

So we’re roughly at the halfway point of this year’s “blog every day at Nicole Dieker Dot Com (in addition to all of your other writing work)” project, and so far we’re at what you might call sustainability, if not growth—which is to say that my readership and subscribership has remained almost uniformly constant since I started the project (thank you!) but hasn’t expanded.

The two tools I incorporated to monetize the blog have brought me zero dollars so far; the Jetpack ads decorating the white space have technically earned $56.43, but that isn’t enough for Jetpack to pay out (they don’t give you any money until you earn $100), and the IndieBound affiliate links have yielded 18 total clicks and no sales.

This isn’t me complaining about not earning any money, btw; if you’ve been following this blog (or my writing at Lifehacker) you already know that this has been my highest-earning freelance year ever.

In fact, I’m tempted to take the ads off the blog, because maybe I don’t need them.*

Or, more specifically, maybe you don’t need them.

So, as we move into the second half of 2019: what would you all like to see on Nicole Dieker Dot Com? More thoughts on writing? More thoughts on money? More insight on how I get work done? More book reviews? More guest posts? (I have the budget for more guest posts.)

Here are the most viewed posts over the last 30 days, if you’re curious:

These stats suggest that my readership is divided between “regular readers who are mostly reading the new stuff” and “people searching specific terms like 1000 Words of Summer or Women With Money by Jean Chatzky“—which, honestly, isn’t that much of an insight, it’s literally EVERY BLOG EVER.

But when I check the search terms (that is, the searches that lead people to this blog), I see a lot of people searching specific names/titles like “1000 Words of Summer,” “women with money,” “Seth Godin,” and “Andrew Yang.”

In other words, people aren’t coming to this blog looking for answers to questions like “how do I self-publish my novel?” or “how do I get started as a freelancer?” Maybe that’s because I’m not writing posts that effectively answer those questions (or, more likely, that I’m not optimizing those posts for search).

However, my blog is currently the fifth Google result for “Seth Godin problem solving,” the fifth result for “women with money,” and the second result for “1000 Words of Summer” (the top result is, of course, Jami Attenberg’s newsletter).

Which means I could continue to grow my readership by writing specific posts about specific things, instead of less specific posts about coming back from vacation or whatever, and I am absolutely going to do that.

But that won’t be, like, the only stuff I write in this space.

So let me know what you’d like to see in addition to the book reviews and the “thoughts on other people’s thoughts” posts, and I’ll do my best to work ’em in.

Because you’re the core readership, after all. ❤️

*Yes, I’d still get the $56.43 in ad revenue I’ve already earned. You get paid out if you earn over $100 or if you quit your ads (as long as you’ve earned over $25 before you quit).

How I’ve Grown My Blog (Since January)

In preparation for Jane Friedman’s Magical Marketing Trifecta webinar this evening — which you can still sign up for, tickets are only $15 — I thought I’d take a look at how I’d grown Nicole Dieker Dot Com since revamping it in January.

According to Jetpack, I’ve already brought more viewers to my blog this year than I did in all of 2018; my total 2018 views were 15,433, and views since January 1, 2019 are currently at 17,366.

Going from bi-monthly-ish posts to daily posts helped this growth, as did getting a few retweets from people and organizations with lots of followers, like the Reedsy Discovery post that Reedsy has now retweeted/reshared twice. (Full disclosure: Reedsy invited me to write that post, though I was not paid for it. I said yes because I support Reedsy’s work and because I knew it would bring more potential readers to Nicole Dieker Dot Com.)

Twitter and Google search share the top spot for “most common way readers find my blog,” followed by The Billfold — no real surprises there.

The most common search term used to find this blog is “Nicole Dieker,” followed by a few search strings related to self-publishing and a few search strings where people, assumedly readers who are already familiar with the blog, are clearly trying to find a specific post (e.g. “Nicole Dieker the work and the life are two separate things.“)

This suggests that if I want to boost readership through search, I should write more posts on self-publishing — and I have one of those in the works for next week, so that’s a start.

Here’s a list of the most popular posts this quarter:

From this data, it looks like a lot of people are hitting the front page of Nicole Dieker Dot Com but not reading any of the posts — which, right now, are only shown as excerpts (that is, you see the first few sentences but have to click to read the post). I wonder if tweaking the blog so it showed full posts on the front page would encourage people to start reading and following.

On the subject of followers: 23 readers are currently subscribed to my blog through WordPress, and 20 are subscribed through email. (If you want to subscribe, check the sidebar to sign up by email and the admin bar — which you’ll only see if you also have a WordPress blog — to sign up through WordPress.)

Since installing Jetpack Ads in January, 30,292 ads have been served with an average CPM of $0.52. Total earnings from ads: $15.70.

Going forward, it looks like the best way to continue growing Nicole Dieker Dot Com might include:

  • Writing more posts about self-publishing
  • Writing more posts that can be retweeted by people/orgs with lots of followers
  • Reviewing self-published books submitted to Reedsy Discovery, which will get me retweeted/shared both by Reedsy and by the authors (and will also be beneficial to both Reedsy and the authors, it’s not all about me)

I don’t want this to be “just a self-publishing blog,” in part because I wouldn’t recommend anyone have “just a self-publishing career.” It’s a good way to make money as a writer — so good, in fact, that I’m going to be teaching an online class on the finances of self-publishing next month — but it’s not going to be your sole source of income unless you are in the top 1 percent or whatever of self-published authors. So I want this to be a site about all the aspects of a creative career, including “how to build multiple income streams” and “how to schedule your workflow to accommodate multiple income streams.”

And, like, the personal posts about my life, my writing, my vulnerabilities and struggles — because I want to be realistic about all of this, and honest, and not one of those blogs that’s all “here are ten impersonal tips that we are sure will work for everybody.”

Also, the personal posts tend to be the ones that garner the most response, because readers — and writers like me who write for those readers — value connection.

Anyway, that is The State of the Blog on Friday, March 8, 2019.

Let’s see what I think about all of this a few hours from now, after I finish taking Jane Friedman’s webinar. ❤️

Dana Sitar on Making Sure Your Creative Work Fulfills a Real Person’s Needs

Continuing our discussion of building THE AUDIENCE — this morning, The Write Life ran a must-read post by writer and editor Dana Sitar titled How the “Ideal Reader” Myth Hurts Your Writing Process:

When you set out to define your “ideal reader,” you’ve probably already decided what you want to write — maybe even written it.

You’re sitting on that romance novel, self-help book or blog about what cats have taught you about love, and now you’re ready to market it. So you dream up a reader who fits the bill. They’re male orfemale, between ages 18 and 54, probably own cats and are single. So, obviously, they’ll love your blog.

Voila. You’ve got your ideal reader.

Except that’s useless. All you’ve done is reverse engineer an audience for yourself, and you can’t do that with real people.

If you want to attract actual readers, you’re going to have to do it the other way around: Learn what real readers want, and write it for them.

Go read the whole thing.

Read it twice.

Read it eight times.

Sitar’s formula for making sure your creative work fulfills a real person’s needs — or, as I described it earlier this week, convinces a person to give you money in exchange for an emotional experience — is applicable to nearly every creative project, from the artistic to the commercial.*

I’m not going to share the formula here, because I want you to go to The Write Life and read the entire piece.

But I am going to start applying it to my upcoming work, whether I’m drafting NEXT BOOK or completing a freelance gig.

I should probably even figure out how to apply it this blog.

*I can hear you thinking but what if I just want to create something from the heart and see what happens? DO IT DO IT DO IT, nobody is stopping you! Those kinds of projects are often amazing because they come with a level of emotional connection and personal vulnerability that are absent from more calculated works. BUT BEFORE YOU PUBLISH, remember the difference between play and performance. Make the thing from your heart. Make it just for you, if you want. Then figure out how to turn it into a gift for an audience.

How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 3 (Getting Your Work In Front of People)

Before I get started on the work of getting your work in front of people, let’s recap what we’ve covered so far:

To earn money from your creative work, you need to create a piece of work and decide how the payment aspect will intersect with it. As I wrote in Part 1, there are a bajillion ways to make money from your creative work: you can sell the work, you can give away the work for free but put ads on it, you can give away the work for free but sell T-shirts, etc.

But before you can earn money from your creative work, you need to find your audience. That’s what we discussed in Part 2: you won’t get any money from your work, no matter how good it is, unless you put your work in front of people who might be interested in it.

Today we’re going to look at how you do that.

As far as I can tell, there are four basic ways of getting your work in front of the people who might become THE AUDIENCE.

I’ll present them in order of difficulty:

Share your work on multiple channels.

This is both the easiest and in many cases the least effective way of getting your work in front of people. On the one hand, sharing your work on your website and your Twitter and your Facebook and your Instagram and your Tumblr and your Snapchat and your YouTube account and your mailing list and your local open mic (or the equivalent thereof) can help you pick up a few additional audience members.

It can also tell you where your audience is likely to be located. Maybe they hang out on Wattpad but don’t spend much time on Facebook, for example. Maybe they prefer mailing lists to Instagram stories. (Knowing something about your audience’s demographic and which social networks your demographic uses can be useful here.)

On the other hand, sharing your work across every possible channel can be viewed as placing tactics before strategy. Or, more specifically, wasting time on actions that doesn’t give you much value in return.

Collaborate with someone who already has an audience.

This is the ABSOLUTE BEST WAY I’ve found to build an audience.

It isn’t about making the perfect post/book/podcast/video and tagging a bunch of influencers with the hope that one of them will share it with their networks and you’ll go viral and everyone will love you.

It’s about finding a way to offer value to a person or entity that already has an audience, and by doing so grow your own.

Write a guest post for someone else’s blog.

Pitch a website that runs content related to the creative work you do.

Go on HARO and offer yourself as an interview source.


I realize that this method favors people who can write well, because so much of the internet is still about writing, these days.

But there are other ways of getting this work done, such as volunteering at an art gallery* or auditioning for a local theater group.

Figure out who’s giving opportunities to new creators, and then go after those opportunities.

And remember — you can always pitch me.

Invite people to collaborate with you.

I’m listing this step below “collaborate with someone who already has an audience” because if you’re in the early stages of your creative career, it’s going to be a lot easier to get a guest post on someone else’s blog than to convince someone else to write a guest post on yours.**

This is where being part of a community of creative peers can really help — and I do mean “peers” literally.

When I was at VidCon 2011, for example, I heard Hank Green give a talk on the art of growing your career through collaboration. He suggested working with people who were at your level or just above your level, because they were likely to be the people most interested in working with you.

Also because — for lack of a better phrase — a rising tide lifts all boats.

If you find your community of creative peers and begin collaborating with each other, and if one of your peers gets a bit of additional creative success that grants them access to a larger audience, that person might recommend your work to their audience or collaborate with you on a project that’ll go in front of that audience or etc. etc. etc.

And it goes without saying that if you are the person with the additional creative success, you should do the same.***

There’s another way of using this technique to grow your audience: if you are an established creator with an established audience that you’d still like to grow — because audiences are constantly shifting and changing and attrition is a real thing — you can give opportunities to other people. These people may only have a small audience (for now), but if they get excited about their guest post or podcast interview, they’ll share it with their followers and some of those followers might become your followers.

This is the other reason why you should pitch me.

Create new work.

This is the final and hardest step in building your audience, because THE WORK is both the most important part of your creative career and the most time-consuming part (and the part where you’ll agonize that it’s not good enough, or worry that you haven’t made enough revisions, or feel disappointed that it doesn’t look the way it did in your head, or feel like you need to rush to get it out there).

A single piece of excellent work might get you THE AUDIENCE.

But you’ll need a steady flow of new work to maintain and grow your audience — as well as convince your audience to give you money in exchange for the emotional experiences they’ve come to expect from your work.

So keep working. ❤️

*Volunteering can be tricky, because some organizations are really happy to let artistic types hand out tickets and pick up trash, even though everyone involved knows the volunteers want to do more than that. If you volunteer with an arts organization as a way to meet people and form artistic collaborations (vs. volunteering because you want to help with the grunt work) and your volunteering work isn’t helping you connect with other collaborators, FIND ANOTHER ORGANIZATION.

**If you have a well-written guest post, you are offering value to someone else — specifically, the value of giving them something to put on their blog without them having to do the work of writing it. You can offer this value regardless of the number of followers you currently have, if the work is good. (ASK ME HOW I KNOW.) On the other hand, if you don’t have many followers yet, asking someone to do the work of writing a guest post for you takes away time they could have put towards a more valuable project.

***There’s a really hard moment when you have to decide that a former creative peer is no longer someone you want to collaborate with, either because their work hasn’t grown and improved or because they don’t share your values. I’m not going to write much beyond that, except to note that it’s a really hard moment.

How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 2 (Finding THE AUDIENCE)

Before you can make money from your creative work — before you can even ask for money for your creative work — you need to find your audience.

Which, in keeping with the conventions of this blog, we’re going to call THE AUDIENCE.

Finding THE AUDIENCE is a creative project in and of itself, which is one of the reasons some creative people hire other creative people, e.g. publicists, to help them.

It’s also one of the reasons people sell the rights to their work to a larger company, e.g. a publishing house or a record label. These entities are theoretically supposed to find the audience for you, although lately it’s become more of a collaboration and many artists feel pressure to prove that they already have an audience (you’ll see this called “the platform”) during the early stages of this process, e.g. when querying agents.

At its core, finding THE AUDIENCE is a simple process.

All you have to do is put your work in front of people who might be interested in it.


Until you have enough people to form THE AUDIENCE.

You also have to maintain the interest of the people who initially showed interest in your work, but you can generally do that by creating NEW WORK on a REGULAR BASIS and putting that in front of them as well.

In fact, every time you create NEW WORK, you have the opportunity not only to maintain and/or grow the interest of your current audience, but also to share your work with new people who might become part of THE AUDIENCE — and might be interested in both the NEW WORK and your back catalog.

That’s also how you make money from your creative work. You put it in front of people who might be interested in it, over and over.

Then, when enough people are interested, you give them the opportunity to participate in the creative work by paying for it.

I’m using the word “participate” deliberately; as you might remember from my post on play vs. performance, a successful piece of creative work is an experience that includes THE AUDIENCE — and people are very eager to pay for experiences.

Think about the types of creative work you’ve paid for in the past month. Why did you make those purchases? I support artists like Mikey Neumann and Lindsay Ellis on Patreon because the stories they tell about storytelling help me see the world in different ways, and I want them to keep providing me with those types of experiences.

When I went to the Maggie Stiefvater Portraits and Dreams writing seminar earlier this month, I bought a copy of a book I had already read multiple times, for free, at the library because I wanted the experience of meeting Maggie in the book signing line.

I own a red Steven Universe T-shirt with a yellow star on it because maybe someone will see it and say “hey, I also like Steven Universe,” and then I’ll have the experience of meeting someone new.*

None of this is about making sure artists get paid or wanting to show my appreciation for their work or anything like that. I mean, it kind of is, in that I understand that if people like Mikey and Lindsay don’t earn money they’ll stop making videos, but mostly it’s about ME ME ME.

So. If you were to email me and ask how you can earn money from your creative work — and people do — I’d suggest:

  1. Create the type of work that takes an audience through an experience.
  2. Put that work in front of people.
  3. Create new work.
  4. Put that work in front of people.
  5. Give those people the opportunity to pay you, either for the work itself or for accessories related to the work.

When we continue this discussion, we’ll look at how to put your work in front of people, because — as I noted at the beginning of this post — that’s a creative project in and of itself. ❤️

*I also own a red Steven Universe T-shirt with a yellow star on it because some days I want the experience of feeling courageous and thoughtful and empathetic like Steven.

How to Earn Money From Your Creative Work: Part 1 (of Many)

There are one bajillion ways to earn money from your creative work.

You can make a single unique piece of work and sell it for a lot of money.

You can make an easily duplicated piece of work and sell each duplication for a smaller amount of money.

You can give away your primary creative work for free, but put ads on it.

You can give away your primary creative work for free, but sell community-identifying accessory materials such as T-shirts.*

You can give away your primary creative work for free while creating an online community of financial support through services like Patreon.

You can do the above while also selling your work, i.e. you can sell the primary creative product and the T-shirt and have a Patreon going at the same time.

You can sell the rights to your creative work to someone else, e.g. a publishing house, and collect royalties.

You can sell tickets, either to watch you perform the work, to watch you create the work, or to watch you give inspirational lectures on how you created the work.

You can teach classes on how to create the work.

You can write a book about how you created the work.


But you can’t do any of this unless you have a group of people who want to give you money for your work.**

In other words, you can’t do any of this until you have an audience.

That’s where we’ll start tomorrow. ❤️

*I don’t need to explain that we wear the T-shirts to advertise ourselves as a member of a certain community or fandom, and/or to connect with other people in that community, right?

**The enthusiastic consent model works really well here.