Should You Become a Content Creator?

A friend recently forwarded me an issue of author Leigh Stein’s newsletter, Attention Economy: Writing + Publishing in the Digital Age. The issue was a thoughtful discussion of the need for writers to get into content creation, titled “audience is a business problem you need to solve.” Stein writes, “I believe that writers who want to earn income for their writing—writers who want to professionalize their writing hobby—should be taking more cues from content creators.” Stein urges writers to “stop pitching and submitting” their work and to “start publishing [their] own content, to [their] own audience.” She recognizes this isn’t the advice writers are hoping for. “Writers don’t want to hear me tell them to become content creators. … Writers want me to give them another way to make real money doing the thing they love without having to think like an entrepreneur.”

Stein is talking, in essence, about building an author platform, getting paid to do it, and having a modicum of control over reaching your audience, instead of hoping and waiting for an essay to go viral. I enjoyed Stein’s take on the issue, and I agree with much of what she had to say. Do I think contemporary writers need to learn how to market themselves? I do. Do I think contemporary writers can make a living selling their work to literary journals and magazines? I don’t. Do I think writers should stop submitting their work and focus on publishing their own content? That question is two-fold, I think, and the answer to both questions is, in my mind: it depends on the writer and the writer’s goals.

Stein references several famous authors who are content creators and connect with readers that way: Anne Patchett has built a nice following for her bookstore, Parnassus Books, on Instagram, and Colleen Hoover has a following of 2 million. Stein says George Saunders has 85,000 subscribers to his Substack newsletter, “Story Club with George Saunders.” I just subscribed. For now I’m a free subscriber, but reading through all he’s offering paid subscribers, I’m considering taking the plunge. If even 1% of his 85,000 subscribers are paid subscribers, he’s pulling down close to $40,000 a year from annual subscriptions, after Substack’s 10% and Stripe’s 2.9% + $.30 per payment. I’m guessing a lot more than 1% of his subscribers are paid. But as far as whether this is helping to sell his books, I don’t know. I’ve purchased all of his books without ever following him on social media. There’s not a lot of data to back up a writer’s social media following translating into book sales.

Stein also references authors who sold their books as a result of having built a solid platform beforehand. This makes sense—publishing is a numbers game, and publishers love an author with a huge following, even though they are well aware it won’t necessarily translate into book sales. This idea of platform is, I know, especially important for non-fiction authors who are querying agents. I’ve heard that fiction authors can get away without having a social media platform, but in today’s digital age, I’m not sure that’s entirely true for a debut author.

In her piece, though, Stein is not only talking about platform building. She’s also talking about authors monetizing their writing so they can make a living from doing what they love. She writes: “I believe that writers who want to earn income for their writing—writers who want to professionalize their writing hobby—should be taking more cues from content creators.” Ideologically, I take issue with the idea that, if you aren’t making money from your writing in the short term, you’re a hobbyist. But others, including the IRS, would agree with Stein.

She doesn’t come out and say it, but a writer is unlikely to ever make a living from submitting essays or fiction to journals and magazines. She specifically mentions Substack as an alternative. Medium and Patreon also come to mind—platforms where writers can post their creative work and get paid on a subscription basis. It sounds like an ideal way to get paid for your writing, but my understanding is that it takes a long time to build an audience that’s making any kind of money, especially if you aren’t George Saunders. Still, if your goal is to gradually make a living as a content creator, you can get there. You may not have name recognition, but if you can come up with a unique concept, you may be able to break through the noise.

I realized as I read Stein’s piece that I am already a content creator. I’m writing this blog post right now, and I send out a newsletter every other Thursday. I’m getting ready to launch my own Substack newsletter, My California. What I publish on my Substack will be different from what I’m publishing on my blog or in my newsletters, and it won’t be the kind of creative work I’m sending out to publishers. My blog, newsletter, and Substack are content, but they’re free—I’m not getting paid for them. Which brings me to my other point. Whether you should give up submitting and focus your efforts on content creation depends on your goals as a writer. For example, my goals for my blog and newsletter aren’t to make money from them, but to connect with readers and writers and provide something of value to them. My goal for my Substack is to build a following, have fun writing about things that are of interest to me, and eventually enable paid subscriptions to supplement my writing income.

My goal in submitting to literary journals is to publish a few stories to help me get an agent for my book. It is slow going, for sure, and it’s hard to get published. But I know it can be done with persistence. My friend Trey Burnette publishes essays all the time. And he gets paid well for some of them. So I’ll keep trying! But to continue submitting is in alignment with my goals. My goal isn’t to make money from those stories, so it works for me. In that sense, I’m playing the long game and hoping to eventually make money from the sale of my book.

It depends, too, on the writer. When it comes to being a content creator on social media and posting engaging stuff to build an audience to buy your books, like Colleen Hoover does, my thought is this: that’s not my personality. I wish it was. Some people are good at that. For me, it would feel forced and wouldn’t come off as authentic. It wouldn’t give me the results I’d be hoping for. I do have social media platforms, but I think the best social media platforms are those that are genuine. Colleen Hoover’s is genuine, but my genuine is a lot more boring than Colleen Hoover’s genuine. I like to think I’m occasionally funny, but chances are, if you scroll my Instagram account, you’ll find screenshots of my most recent blog posts, photos of my garden, a photo of my granddaughter’s mismatched shoes, a photo of a book I’m reading, or a photo of my grandson graduating from high school. It’s me. It’s my life. But it isn’t content in any sort of entrepreneurial sense, and it doesn’t make for an interesting author platform.

So, should you publish your own work instead of submitting it to publishing markets? It depends on you and your goals as a writer. Should you become a content creator of some sort, whether it’s a Substack where you post articles or a social media platform? Probably—you’re going to need to market your book someday.

Whichever path you choose, though, stay true to who you are, and don’t let your content creation get in the way of writing your book!