Shareware Story Haul: One Week In

It’s been a week since I posted “How I Proposed To My Wife: An Alien Sex Story” as a “shareware short story,” for people to read and enjoy — and, if they like, to pay me a bit for it. So how has it done, financially speaking, in the course of a week? Let’s find out together, shall we?

As of 8:30pm (Eastern), 4/23/08, “Alien Sex Story” has grossed $436.43. Not Radiohead money, but you know, not bad. $146.68 of that came from people using the Amazon honor payment system, and the rest from people using PayPal. The highest amount contributed was $20; the lowest amount offered was sixty cents. 292 people downloaded the short story package, which is a number I find surprisingly low, given the site racks up 30k+ visitors daily; of those it appears about a third paid for the story, which is an extremely high percentage of willing payers. The average payment per contributor was about $4.50.

How does $436.43 compare with what I could get for the story on the open market? Actually, very well. The story is about 7,400 words long, so in a week of shareware release, I’ve been paid 5.9 cents a word, which is right in line with what the “Big Three” science fiction magazines pay: my Writer’s Market has Analog at 6 cents/word, Asimov at 5 cents/word, and Fantasy & Science Fiction at 5 to 9 cents/word. And consider that the story is still on the market — that is, that people continue to be able to find it, read it and pay for it. It’s not unreasonable to assume more people will read it and pay for it as time goes on — probably not as much or as regularly as in this first week, when I’ve drawn attention to it. But from the point of view of whether or not I’d make what I’m make sending it to the print magazines, everything else from this point is gravy.

(It’s not as much as I’d make for at least a few online sites, interestingly: Subterranean Online and Baen’s Universe pay substantially more than 6 cents/word, which is a fact I think is occasionally overlooked. But it’s true! Look it up, people.)

Now, the caveats, and why current payment success may not be an indicator of future performance, or why this experiment might not be repeatable with others:

1. This site is heavily trafficked and thus is its own good marketing, which is an advantage others might not have;

2. People who might pitch in for a first story are not guaranteed to pitch in for a second story (or if they do, they not pay as much);

3. The fact that half of the money netted after service charges will go to charity may have caused people to pay more than they might otherwise.

Likewise, from an administrative standpoint, handling your own backend is a fiddly timesucker — Amazon and Paypal automating things makes it easier, but it’s still time spent not writing.

All that said, I do find the first week haul fairly encouraging. It’s definitely not enough to get rich on, but it is enough for me to consider having shareware as serious option when I’m shopping stories, or when I’m writing a story I like but might consider difficult to place for whatever reason. Or, you know. When I’m lazy. As I so often am.

Comments? Questions?

46 Comments on “Shareware Story Haul: One Week In”

  1. you going to have to change those numbers and those averages…I must have just missed the deadline.

    I wonder if not suggesting a price had any effect on your results. I know I was in somewhat of a quandry – not wanting to insult the author with too low an amount, not wanting to pay more for a story than I would have for a paperback…

    I threw all those considerations out and said ‘what the heck’ – and ended up sending what I could reasonably justify out of what was already sitting in the paypal account.

  2. John, wasn’t the true fans rating how many would spend $100 a year total, not per item?

  3. Maybe you should have set the minimum donation to 100 to see how many are True Fans. Though I don’t think the spirit is that they would spend 100 on everything you produce, just 100 total per year. So, you need to produce 22.2 short stories for them per year to really test the TF theory.

  4. Steve Davidson:

    When I was doing Agent to the Stars as shareware, I suggested $1 as an amount, but found most people paid more. I think people end up paying what they want.


    Possibly. I was making a joke of it, mostly.

  5. That was about my first week take for the collection I published via Lulu. It slanted downward considerably thereafter, but I think there were several external factors that influenced that considerably (like: I stopped blogging for a long while. And even took the book down for a few months). I’ll admit I was naive enough that it was a bit eye-opening to realize that not everyone who read my blog would want to buy my book, but there it is. Of course, the details are different; I didn’t use a pay-what-you-like model (although I did implement a buy-an-individual-story-instead-if-you’d-like model).

    That said, and as I intimated but didn’t really outright state in my previous comment on this subject, I tend to think this is going to become, for many authors, a better choice for making short fiction available than the rather abysmal literary marketplace for said. Not necessarily novels–I still think the traditional route is the better way to go, there.

    But for short fiction? Save a few dozen exceptions (out of, what? Hundreds? Thousands?), payment is often in contributor copies and circulation is to hundreds. I think we have the means to do better than that.

    And I think you just did. So good on ya. I’m a new reader here, but I’m regular enough to expect you’ll post more updates regarding it, and I look forward to them. And wish you luck with the continuation.

  6. I wonder what would happen if there was a system that calculated the ‘average’ payment coming in from fans/patrons/donors on the fly and posted it next to the story on the site? Would people start paying just a bit more than the current average, driving things up for their favorite author, or just lower as is more usual when a consumer scopes out things to buy?

    Like, “X amount people have paid an average of $X.XX for this story.”

    I mean, if it was free, there’d be no point in paying $0.01 to drive the average down…just don’t pay anything if you didn’t like it. So I’m wondering if the collective fandom would push the metric to swing the other way, just to see the average go up. Like a contest.

    I wonder what a whole site of authors with stories with little metrics like that would look. “Story X by Author A. B. Creator is worth an average of $hopefully.respectable.sum by X amount of fans!”

    ::realizes this is a rather geeky thought::

  7. Another Dave:

    “So it’s a complete coincidence you’re posting these results on International Pixel-Stained Technopeasant Day?”

    Well, yes, actually.

    And Howard Hendrix is indeed the former VP of SFWA. The current VP is Andrew Burt.

  8. A very cool concurrence then! I love it when things like that happen.

    The dead RSS feed, if it’s the same problem I’ve been having, is a “feature” of IE. I’ve been solving it by unsubscribing and then resubscribing.

  9. You mentioned Subterranean Online in your post, and I was wondering if the Web site, like the print magazine, does not accept unsolicited stories. I can’t find information about their submissions policy anywhere. Does anyone know anything about that?

  10. John,

    I fully intend to pony up the cash, I just haven’t had the money to do so YET. How long will you be accepting donations? Sorry if you already said, and I missed that particular entry.

    GREAT BOOK, btw!


  11. I haven’t a) read the story yet and b) haven’t gotten my monthly paycheck yet (next week)

    I expect there will be a trickle for a while. I even predict that posting results might drive up the number of paying fans…

    And if I like the story, I’ll totally be doing the word of mouth thing (or word of blog), which I think others will do slowly too. Things take time to get around the net…

  12. I’m somewhat gobsmacked how few of your regular readers made the effort to download the story. Makes me wonder what proportion of your (blog) readership are also reading your books. You should have a readers’ survey sometime!

    Picking a donation for something like this is not simple. I tried to think of the cover price of a short fiction magazine, divided by the number of stories you might get in an issue, doubled the result to convert pounds to dollars, doubled it again because of the charity element and rounded it up to $5.

    I imagine that most of those who donated went through an entirely different, but equally convoluted process to name a price.

  13. TM Beem:

    It’s up permanently, so you can send money any time. I was just charting the haul from the first week.

  14. I like that concept from #8 – Domini. Of course, if you don’t want to invoke the guilt factor, you’ll have to stay away from it.

    I also think that you (and others) would get to your 1KTFs faster if you offered a subscription service; subscribers will receive x over the course of a year for y dollars, with a discount for full payment up front.

  15. Well, it’s something I’ve thought about, but if I were to do it I would have to have the work already done, but I’m really bad at scheduling.

  16. Sort of in response to 17: I’m a regular reader who didn’t download, largely because I’m rarely in the mood to read fiction on the computer, and therefore never got around to it. I also have 4 ebooks from Tor that I haven’t even opened, and 2 waiting to download. But I have bought two pb books solely because of the site. So the dynamics are different, I think.

    Anyhow, I tend to calculate payment in terms of time of entertainment received. That is, a paperback book is $7-8 dollars and usually takes me 2-3 hours to read; a movie at under 2 hours costs about the same (I find hardcovers *very* bad value for me). I’d be a bit ashamed of the result after extrapolating that to a short story, but something like that may account for the .60 payment. I’d also be a person who downloaded, but didn’t pay (or even feel obliged to pay) until I had actually read the story.

  17. Dance:

    Well, I should be clear I’m not criticizing the person who made the 60 cent payment; I’m happy they paid at all, and thank them for it. The whole point of the shareware concept is to pay what you think it’s worth to you.

  18. About that Jackson…

    Your choice of charity touched a nerve here and resulted in an admittedly impulsive, larger-than-I-otherwise-would-have, contribution. No apologies; I just hate to skew your experiment even a little.

    For purposes of number crunching for future planning assume I’d send $2-$5 for a straight-up story download. Especially as it relates to PDF v. text-only. Given the effort taken to format the PDF by a designer or production artist somewhere along the line, I consider PDFs a kind of chapbook, i.e., of somewhat more value than a Word doc.

  19. I’m new to all of this, recently found your site and discovered you are an author …… an author who is winning awards and getting much acclaim from other authors I read. So in response to the e-book, I think I will first be buying a few of your books in paper edition, keep reading the blog… and then maybe pay for an e-edition. Matter of fact I am headed to my favorite book store for lunch today and to buy a copy of The Last Colony and or Old Mans War.

  20. Anonymous Regular:

    Well, for the record, you weren’t the only person to send in $20.

    I do suspect the charity angle of things skewed the income by about 20% or so overall, assuming those who paid in more than, say $5, did so because of the charity aspect.

  21. Many years and moons ago, in the days of Windows 3.1, I created a little game and offered on the net as shareware, with a suggested price of $10. Over the next two years, I received a hair over $1500 for it before I got an offer from a retail house to buy all the rights, not bad considering I didn’t have a blog or any other way of advertising its availability. This was out of a download total (estimated, good metrics weren’t really available then, and it was available from several sites) of about 3,000. Which is probably a more normal percentage of paying customers for shareware than your incredibly high 30+%.

    But it does help validate the point that a fair number of people will pay for value received, even if they don’t have to. Which makes a nice comment about at least some humans.

  22. I want to go on record saying that I would have paid to read this story, but I already paid to do so; I got it as part of my Creation Museum pay off.

    Now, one could argue that I should have or could have paid again if I liked it (and I did); however, I feel I paid for it fair and square (and I really can’t afford to pay twice…)

    That said, I have bought your last three hardcovers, will probably get the updated Rough Guide to the Universe and will definitely get Zoe’s Tale, in hard cover, because I won’t be able to wait. (And the High Castle, whenever that’s ready for consumption.)

    Is that “true fan” enough?

  23. Confession: I downloaded but didn’t pay because I haven’t read it yet. When I do read it, I will send you money.

  24. I paid and was happy to do so. I took several things into consideration when arriving at $5.00. I enjoyed the story. When I have made donations to Escapepod and others, I have typically done so in $5.00 increments. If I were buying a paperback I would hopefully receive several hours of entertainment for the $6-$10 spent. A short story takes far less time to read. However, I typically buy hard covers (and spend more) not just for the instant gratification or that they look nicer on my bookshelf, but I buy them to support the Author. I think if I were to regularly purchase short stories I would probably find the $1-$2 range acceptable. The fact that ½ was going to charity and I that I would love to see more of the same, I bumped it up to $5.

  25. I think the results might be skewed because (as was mentioned) this story was sent out as part of the Creation Museum pay-off. Since those who donated are very likely among your “true fans”, and because they received it already, you’ve likely lost a good chunk of your most reliable base in the tally. A “never before available” story probably would have been a much better gauge in that regard…

  26. Even with the Creation Museum thing, the numbers who had previously read it were still pretty small. I figured it was useful enough.

  27. I fall into the same category as Lanna Lee Maheux-Quinn – you already sent me the story as a result of my donation to the Creation Museum project. As a consequence, I neither downloaded it nor sent in any additional money. If this were a “new” story, I would have done both.

    If I were to be downloading a short-story on a shareware basis, I think that I would normally plan on sending you a little less than I would pay for delivery via a dead-tree system such as Analog or Asimov’s. For an author with whom I was not already familiar, such a payment would depend upon whether I felt that the author should be encouraged to continue writing.

    If the payment were always connected to a charitable donation, I would probably tend to bump the size of the payment, as long as I considered the charity to be worthwhile.

    With best wishes,
    – Tom –

  28. So, does selling the story in electronic format preclude you from submitting it to magazines or could you “double dip” by selling it again? Isn’t that what happened with Agent to the Stars?

  29. Well, Neal, I had already sold it before it went live here, since Subterranean Press bought it to make into a chapbook. So technically, this is the double-dip.

    I couldn’t sell it as an original, but I could theoretically sell it as a reprint, or to an anthology, if an anthology wanted it.

  30. Out of curiosity, and since you’re being open about these things… what general percentage do reprints tend to average in comparison to the first sale?

    Let’s round the $436.43 to $450 and pretend this was a first sale instead of a reprint. Do reprints run significantly less than the first sale at something like 50%? So you’d only pull in $225 second time around? Or could you possibly command more for a reprint if the piece was really well received? I’ve never really seen a good explanation of how reprints are handled…

  31. Dru:

    It really depends on the market. Some reprint anthologies offer as little as a penny a word, some offer more.

  32. Re #17

    Interesting question. I found the blog before I knew Scalzi was a sci-fi writer, but I have never liked much of his fiction (Sagan’s Diary was the only piece I have really enjoyed, though I haven’t read the story in question). For whatever reason, the blog content is more interesting to me than his fiction output. It would be interesting, to me at least, to see what the breakdown is between fans of the blogger compared to fans of the writer compared to fans of both. I suspect the last category would dominate, though.

    Thought he blog did work in an advertising sense — I probably never would have read anything by Scalzi if I hadn’t read the blog first. And, hey, I did enjoy Sagan’s Diary to be on the lookout for pieces by John that are similar to that.

  33. I think your expectation of how quickly the turnaround would be from offering the download, to having it read, to offering compensation is too short a time span.

    Were you expecting folks, generally, to pay before reading?

    I like reading because it isn’t a sprint. My pace of reading is slow, intentionally. Perhaps I am not a lone.

  34. You might do even better if the story had a link from the Scalzi creative sampler. Otherwise, one has to (I think) be a regular reader of your blog and engage in a little (precious little, but still) searching through old posts to find the link.

    I probably won’t download it until I have some extended business travel (because I otherwise don’t read much on my computer), though I would definitely read (and pay for) it sooner if it was available in .html format like Agent (‘cuz then I can read it on my handheld device while walking the dog).

  35. Michael O’Shaughnessy:

    “I think your expectation of how quickly the turnaround would be from offering the download, to having it read, to offering compensation is too short a time span.”

    I’m not aware of saying I had an expectation of immediate payment, actually. I was merely reporting on how much money came in during the first week.

  36. i bet downloads were “low” because many people probably visit your site while at work, and are therefore unable or unwilling to download a file to their work desktop. and people have goldfish memories, so by the time they get home they’ve forgotten all about downloading the thing.

    i dunno. makes sense to me.

  37. Have you considered using a payment processor like Plimus instead of PayPal of Google? Sure, we charge a little more (it’d probably be ~10% on these transactions), but we can get you up and running in literally minutes. Then you don’t have to worry about wasting time on coding instead of writing/marketing.

    Just a thought…

    Check us out at

  38. Have you done/are you thinking of doing an update to this? In a few months, or a year, tell us how much it ended up making from download sales? I’d be quite interested in that, particularly when compared to the first week’s numbers.

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