How to support your favourite authors
Even if you can't buy their books!
Hello, friends old and new. Thank you for offering me the privilege of your inbox! 😊 For a reminder of what this letter is about and where to start with previous letters, go here.
This letter discusses the best ways to support your favourite authors and keep their lights on. Reading time is 12 minutes. (And Happy Spooktober!)
Despite completing revisions for Warrior of the Wind last month, I was out of sorts afterwards, unable to focus on much. What I usually do in such scenarios is start a new podcast or audiobook (A Psalm for the Wild-Built by Becky Chambers, which I thorougly enjoyed). I also read tons of interesting essays, including one by an author who spoke of waiting tables even after publishing their first book (which called back to my previous letter about the sacrifices authors make to survive in publishing).
While reading the comments beneath the essay, I realised many folks have no idea how traditionally published authors earn money. Many simply think we’re rolling in dough (which couldn’t be funnier, or more wrong). Worse, most readers want to support their favourite authors and help keep their lights on, but are not sure how best to do that!
So, in lieu of a craft letter, I decided to write something actionable to show you how.
A quick primer on author earnings
This is by no means an exhaustive list, but [traditionally published]1 authors earn from a myriad of sources, including:
- Royalties: This is the percentage of every book sale that a publisher pays to the author in exchange for the right to print and/or publish the book. The percentage earned will differ depending on the format (hardcover royalty rates differ from paperback, ebook, audiobook, etc), region published, and various other factors. Often (but not always), publishers will pay the author a chunk of these “expected royalty earnings” up front, as a show of faith and commitment to the author—this is what is known as an advance on royalties, or more colloquially, an advance. Often, authors don’t begin to earn new royalties until all the advance royalties have been earned back.
- Appearances: This includes everything from giving a talk or speech, visiting a school or institution, teaching a public class or workshop, appearing as a guest panelist at an event, etc. Not all these end up being paid opportunities, but for some authors (depending on their genre, audience, etc), it can be a signifcant source of income.
- Other rights sales: Sometimes, authors sell other kinds of rights to their work that may earn them money, e.g. film/TV rights, reprints in educational materials or other formats, IP licensing and merchandising, etc. Earnings here could range from the small hundreds to the millions, depending on various factors.
- Non-royalty writing: There are other instances where authors may be commissioned as work-for-hire (i.e. they will not earn royalties). Examples include writing in an established property like Star Wars or Marvel, or writing stories that may/may not be published for sale or public consumption (e.g. for a company or special purpose program), etc. In this case, authors are paid a fee for their services.
- Day job, side gigs, other income streams
That said, you can see that book advances/royalties and paid appearances are the two surest ways for an author to earn money from their published books. But they are not the only ways an author may “succeed” (higher earnings =/always= publishing success).
This means you can support authors both with and without your wallet, and the effect will still be felt and appreciated. Here’s how you can do that.
If you can afford a purchase…
1. Preorders (before release)
As a reader, I’m sure you’ve come across authors screaming from to the rooftops for you to preorder their book, but you’ve probably just thought, “Eh, I’ll get it when it’s out” (or when my paycheck hits, or when it costs less, or when it’s in paperback, or when I have time to hit the bookstore, etc). For a myriad of reasons, even if you’re excited about a new book from your fave author, there may still be little reason to go out of your way to preorder their book (outside of enticing perks and goodies).
But what if I told you that, in this day and age, preorders may just make or break the success of a book?
Many publishing professionals will disagree with the statement above, and they’d be partially right: nothing in publishing is ever certain. But one known fact about preorders is this:
*Where break out and succeed could mean anything from (or a combination of):
- Getting on the bestseller lists: bestseller list count ALL preorders as part of first-week sales, which means the chances of getting on such coveted lists are higher for your favourite author (and they get to put that on their bio forever, even if they’re there just for a week!) - (NOTE: NYT and other bestseller lists only count purchases from select bookstores that report sales to them, including Amazon and other massive chain stores like B&N and Waterstones. You may want to find out the best possible places to preorder the book from!)
- Improved publisher support: Because publishers have so many books and limited resources, most of their resources pivot toward the books with the likeliest chances of selling well. This includes publicity, marketing, bookstore liaisons, etc. Strong preorder numbers signal to publishers that a book is in demand, causing them to increase their support, which contributes to already ongoing buzz and creates a snowball effect.
- More bookstore orders and library purchases: Did you know that libraries buy books too? And not just individual libraries, but library systems (i.e. the collection of libraries serving a region). They purchase a certain number to stock each library with (as do bookstores). And guess how both libraries and bookstores decide which books to stock? Those with strong demand, signalled by preorders, amongst other things.
- Increased word-of-mouth: As with everything else above, a book with strong preorder numbers tends to get boosted and recommended often as an in-demand book to be read.
TL;DR: Whether in hardcover, paperback, audiobook or ebook, if you can afford to preorder a book you’re excited about, you should probably do so. It will help the author more than you think, and you sometimes get special perks in return.
2. Purchases (after release)
If, for some reason, you were unable to preorder a book, no worries! Regular purchases are good too. In fact, after the on-sale date, anywhere that’s easiest to get your hands on a copy (in any format) is fine. What to watch out for here are:
- used copies (usually on Amazon, eBay and other resell sites)—such a sale goes to the reseller and the merchant, and none to the author or publisher (you may buy used copies if this is all you can afford; simply note that the author earns nothing from that sale);
- pirated copies (mostly on Amazon)—all the money from such a sale goes to Amazon and the thieving pirate, and none to the author or publisher; and
- discounted copies (anywhere)—the author’s earnings from these are marginal (but please buy them if this is all you can afford! Every sale counts!)
3. Bookstore requests (anytime)
When you want a book and a bookstore does not have it, did you know you can ask them to order it? (And they gladly will—all bookstores want to do is sell books!). So, if multiple people request a book they don’t stock, they will be forced to order from the publisher to meet that need, resulting in sales for the author. One caveat, though, is that when you request a book, bookstores order it with the expectation that you’ll return to buy it, so they might contact you once it’s in stock. You don’t have to buy it (they’ll just put it on the shelf if you don’t), but the general expectation is that you will.
If you can afford time…
Sometimes, our pockets don’t agree with our love for literature. Here are some ways to support authors and their books without spending money:
1. Word of mouth: buzz & recommendations
Word-of-mouth (or WoM) is the singular, most effective marker of book sales and success an author and their publisher can wish for. You may know it by other names, such as hype or buzz or chatter. It’s pretty much the Holy Grail of publishing, and remains one of the most difficult aspects to manufacture, simply because in its best state, it is truly organic and unplanned.
As a reader, the best way to boost WoM is recommendations, i.e. saying “I read this, I liked it (or I’m excited for this) and you should give it a chance,” where “you” could be anyone from your close friends and family members to strangers on the internet to professional work colleagues to your neighbours, etc. And even if you’re one of those folks who’s shy about recommending books to people, here are a few safer options where recommendations are not only welcome, but expected:
- Book Clubs and reading groups: “Hey, could we read X for our next book? I loved it/am excited for it—and here’s why!”
- Interviews and features (podcasts, YouTube, print/digital media, influencers, etc): “Hey, I love author X and their work is just like those on your show / magazine / channel; maybe you could feature them in an upcoming podcast / audio / profile / post?”
- Reviews: “ 5 stars, and here’s why I loved it. Anyone who loves Thing A, Thing B and Thing C will enjoy this book, and I encourage you to buy it!”
2. Boosting & social interactions
Boosting/Sharing overlaps with word-of-mouth, with only a tiny difference: rather than a focus on recommendations (which require you to sort of “speak up” for a book/author), the focus here is on sharing and contribution, which only requires adding your voice to those already speaking. Consider it the lower-stakes version of recommendations.
In order of time expenditure, self-involvement and value to the author, this includes:
- Posts: Making your own post on any social platform (Twitter, Instagram, YouTube, TikTok, Reddit, Tumblr, Facebook, etc) is probably the highest form of engagement, and overlaps 100% with word-of-mouth. But if making a whole new post is way too much work (especially on video-driven platforms like TikTok, Instagram and YouTube), then you may want to go the simpler route of…
- Reshares (Retweets, Duets, Reposts, Share to Stories, etc): With these, you can simply boost what someone else has done, and add your voice if you wish (e.g. a Quote Retweet). It will surprise you that these often have more engagement impact than an original post!
- Comments: Despite being low-stakes in terms of time and engagement, these are the sole way of growing social conversation, and the easiest way for an author to be favoured by the almighty social media algorithms. Comments are so important, even if it’s just a throwaway line!
- Likes / Favourites /Upvotes / etc: And for the lowest of the lowest stakes, a simple click to boost. This often serves to push the post/discussion up the rankings, and is useful too. When in doubt—like!
Any keen eye will note that I did not include Follows here. An author’s followership might have once been a strong selling point, but the parameters have since changed. These days, an author will benefit much more from a post or reshare than a follow.
3. Early ARC reviews
Before a book is published, publishers send out advanced review copies (or ARCs) to interested parties—critics, reviewers, readers, influencers, etc—for early reviews to build publicity for its release. If you can land one of these, you are in VIP territory. But with great power comes great responsibility, and you’ll be expected to give a significant review of the book in exchange for this free copy. Here are some venues where you may do that:
A note about reviews: The most important thing about reviews is not how well they’re written, but that they simply exist. Even if you feel not-so-great after reading the book, review it anyway. Don’t be worried about reducing enthusiasm for the author’s work (and if you are, you may simply do what I do and opt out of rating it, but write the words anyway). The reason is that (1) algorithms, duh; and (2) sometimes, it is within your seemingly dismal review that someone else would see a reason to buy and read the book. Besides, people who absolutely hate a book for the most basic (Font too small to read!) or discriminatory reasons (racism, etc) will not hesitate to tear it down. Your little review can help rebalance that scale.
4. Post-release reviews
Ditto everything above, but after the book has been released. Just as important as pre-release reviews, if not even more so (books have a long tail, and late-arriving readers will use your reviews as a decision-making tool on whether to buy the book or not).
5. Library requests & borrowing
Remember how I explained that libraries buy books? Well, just like with bookstores, you can also contact your local library to request that they stock your favourite author’s book. But unlike with a bookstore, you don’t have to pay for it. What they expect you to do (once they’ve purchased it) is to come by and borrow it. In most places where libraries are widely available and widely used, this is a free service as long as you can prove your residency.
This is a huge way to help authors, because libraries purchase a lot more books than people think, and at a higher price point (therefore earning the author more money).
On reader review platforms like Goodreads and Storygraph, readers can add a book to their reading shelves or lists as an indication that they’re interested in reading the book (colloqually known as shelf adds). As with most things, both the platform algorithms, publishers and the industry in general uses the number of shelf adds as a gauge for reader interest in a book. The higher the number of shelf adds, the more a book will be featured in anticipated lists, the more it will get publisher support, the more bookstores and libraries will order copies, etc. You get the gist.
(If you’ve been wondering, Why is Suyi always linking to his Warrior of the Wind Goodreads page?, this is why).
7. Fan art, crafts and other creations
Another thing that introduces new readers to authors and their work is fan art, crafts and other creations. This includes anything from drawings/paintings/illustrations of characters from your beloved author’s book to writing fanfiction about them to designing a cool bookmark, etc. People see it, get excited, then look up the book/author. It helps a bunch. Feel free to tag your fave authors when you share these things on social media—we love to see it!
8. Follow (socials) & subscribe (newsletters, etc)
Keeping in touch with an author via their social channels or newsletter is a good way to support them while keeping abreast of new developments. Sometimes, you may even get something else out of the deal—like this informative newsletter!
9. Recommend, nominate & vote for awards
If you’re the kind of reader who’s invested in awards and voting, you may want to consider nominating your favourite author and/or their work for an award when the season comes around. You can look up the awards they may be eligible for within their genre (e.g. within science fiction and fantasy) or in other capacities, like national, institutional or community awards. You may also pay attention to any award eligibility posts they might put up (e.g. mine from last year).
Awards may be fully juried (voted on by a selected jury, e.g. the Ignyte Awards), partially juried (partly voted on by the public and a selected jury, e.g. the Nommo Awards) or fully public (e.g. Goodreads Awards). Sometimes, the “public” in question is limited to subscribing members of the award association (e.g. the Hugos, Nebulas, BSFA, etc). Other times, approaches are split between nominations/longlists and finalists/shortlists.
Either way, figure out how best you can support your favourite author, and do so if you can. Aside bestseller lists and high sales numbers, awards are another important factor that determine if an author will be “successful” and get future book deals or not.
10. Send a note!
I always encourage readers to reach out to their favourite authors if they can. Publishing is such a tough industry—sometimes, an author just needs a reminder that there’s someone out there who enjoys what they’re doing. Even if we’re too busy to respond, I can 100% assure you that your note is seen and appreciated. For some, such notes could even be the difference between quitting and sticking with writing.
Plus, trust that those who detest us are not hesitating to send us messages. They’re in our inboxes all day, every day—especially for authors from historically marginalized communities. Your little note could be the shining light that obliterates those orbs of vileness and restores our faith in humanity.
Whether via email, via DM, via contact form, via snail mail—it doesn’t matter. We love to hear from you!
Are there other ways you support authors that aren't listed above? Share them with us in the comments!