Using Patreon and YouTube to Grow a Writing Career: Q&A with Jay Swanson

Jay Swanson YouTube Patreon

I first learned about author Jay Swanson in 2015, when he successfully crowdfunded his fantasy series, Into the Nanten. My first Q&A with him is here. Later he wrote guest posts for this site on commissioning original illustrations and cover art for his fantasy series, as well as producing audiobook editions.

Jay has been notable from the start for his ability to directly engage his readers, both online and in-person at fan conventions. Earlier this year, he was a speaker at Digital Book World to talk about his indie publishing efforts, which have been ever evolving and multi-dimensional, spanning real-time blogs; deluxe, limited run print editions; audio editions; and video.

Most recently, Jay has had considerable success with Patreon, which allows his fans to pledge monthly financial support. This effort has centered on his YouTube channel and vlog, which now has more than 2,000 subscribers.

Two years have passed since I ran my first interview with Jay; here’s what’s happened since then.

Jane: I’m going to be first to admit that I’ve never been an advocate of a video content marketing strategy for fiction writers. But you’ve been doing YouTube videos for 4 years now, and much of it is oriented toward Paris and France, where you currently live. Did you start this vlog initially for fun, as a way to promote your novels, or for some other reason?

Jay: I can understand why you might not want to encourage it—video requires a lot of work, whether or not you’re doing it well. I’ve been making videos since I was nine, so I have the benefit of a lot of practice behind me when approaching the current “Vlog a Day” project.

Making videos is a lot like blogging or any other attempt to build an audience for fiction outside of the fiction itself—you might be able to gather people around any other subject, but getting them to jump from that to your book when the time comes might be downright impossible. Proceed with caution.

As for why I do it, the answer is manifold.

The first reason is because I love making videos, I always have, and I wanted to reintroduce the process into my life in a consistent way. The discipline of making one literally every day seemed like a perfect, if slightly masochistic way to achieve that.

The second reason is personal growth and long-term documentation. I’ve been posting a photo every day for over five years and a big part of that was trying to keep my family up to date with where I was at and what I was doing. I also hoped it would serve as a personal journal while I moved around West and Central Africa.

Sounds good in theory, but a photo and caption do not do any given day justice (especially with how little effort I put into a lot of captions). In the style that I do it, however, vlogging works wonders. My family rarely feels like they’re out of touch with me now and I can always go back and remember exactly what I was wearing, what I ate, or where on Earth I physically was on any given day. Like, remember that one castle? Oh yeah.

Swanson castle

Finally, yes, self-promotion is very much interwoven into all of this. Writing is hard. Promoting your writing is harder still. I could dedicate an entire post to my theories and philosophy of personal branding as an essential tool for any author who wants to someday knock books out of the mixed-metaphor park. Our world is increasingly personality and celebrity-driven—if you want to sell a lot of books, people need to have already bought into you.

I find most people burn out on these things after a year or two. How or why have you been able to sustain it? (Also: how much time does this take out of your day?)

I love making videos. I also think that every day is worth taking the time to notice, inspect, and savor if possible—missing one feels like a waste. So that accounts for desire, which I think is a vital component.

Discipline is another. Having a daily deadline and pre-recorded intros means that I have to show up or I’ll fall behind, and the whole project will start to unravel. Fans are another great motivator, if a newer one (I went for a few months in the first season without gaining a single subscriber). This could be reconstrued as stubbornness. I refuse to stop—come hell, high water, hangovers, or cute women winking at me from down the bar, it will get edited. It will get uploaded.

Jay Swanson Days of the Week - Season One

I’ve been pushed recently to make a video about how I make videos (vlogception), but it does take a chunk of time. Filming throughout the day usually adds minimal time; setting up and walking through a shot doesn’t add that much to your schedule. That’s more about energy and willpower—sometimes it’s the hardest thing in the world to set your camera up and take a stroll down a hallway when all you want to do is get down that hallway and to wherever you need to be.

Edits are where the real time sink is. Editing my vlog takes anywhere from two to four hours every night, although I average much closer to two hours per video now. I’m pretty judicious with what I shoot.

The main issue is finding time to sleep.

How much crossover is there between your vlog fans and readers of your fantasy series?

An increasing amount. I’ve noticed an uptick in my readership, as well as my newsletter growth since I’ve started linking to it. I was writing a weekly newsletter as a behind-the-scenes delve into YouTube/Patreon stats and strategies, as well as my thoughts on the whole process, but I have enough on my plate at the moment as it is, so I’ve dropped back to monthly for now.

The theory (as hinted at above) is that if people show up, get to know me, like me, and want to hang out with me, then when my next book comes out they’ll be game to give it a try. They don’t have to—they can just watch my vlogs or tweet cat gifs at me—but people get invested. It’s a privilege to have people’s attention. But like any good story, once you’ve proven you’ll make good on your promises, people will only want more.

Videos are an easier point of entry than anything written. People actively ask me what my YouTube channel is when I mention I make videos. No one asks for links to Amazon when I tell them I’m a writer. This deserves its own full-length post as well, but I digress.​

swanson transitions

How much of your success do you think is attributable to you being good on camera or having some kind of charm or charisma? For example, I often talk about how successful YA author John Green is with video, but always point out: he scripts these things, he knows how to cut the videos to make them fun and appealing to his audience, and—bottom line—I think he knows how to perform for the camera.

It’s funny that you’d bring John Green into this as he’s plastered all over Paris right now for his new book. He and Hank were huge influences on me when I started vlogging five years ago; I stole their style wholesale for a while (just like I would later steal Casey Neistat’s—”Good artists borrow…”).

I think my answer to this would be twofold. For me in particular—for the style of video I make and how I’m hoping people come along for the ride long-term—yes, charisma helps a lot. Editing and scripting can get you a long ways, but personality is unarguably a differentiator.

Still, it all depends on content. If you make videos on subjects people want to know more about, you’ve got something. There are a lot of people out there like John Green who may struggle to be on camera, but the content they develop is phenomenal and there’s an audience out there craving it. And never forget the magic of editing. YouTube is a wonderful thing because anyone can do it, and I believe everyone who wants to should at least give it a try.

One other thing that I often mention: listed among my personal goals for my first year of daily vlogging was wanting to get even more comfortable on camera. Specifically, being on camera in live environments, out and about in the world with people staring at me and making faces or looking generally concerned. We all start somewhere, but with practice and repetition I think we can all look good on camera.

Your growing pledges through Patreon are stunning. Have you spread the word mainly or primarily through the vlog/YouTube, or have you been using other methods?

It is nuts. I think one of the coolest and most encouraging aspects of this season of vlogging has been my Patrons, who are so amazing it shocks me regularly. And I’m not exaggerating. When it comes to their generosity, “stun” is the right word to use.

Patreon has grown for a number of reasons, but principle among them is that I’m actually pushing it this year.

Originally my Patreon was geared towards my writing, Into the Nanten specifically, but that didn’t work too well when Into the Nanten came to a close. People wanted to support me, but I wasn’t giving them much in return. Enter my vlog, and my two biggest Patrons joining just to support me for making it. This was a turning point in realizing what I had on offer in my vlog was not only something people valued, but was significantly easier to get people on board than for my writing.

Don’t believe me? Try asking a stranger to read your book sometime, then ask them to check out a YouTube video. There’s a stark difference in the response.

I reformatted everything as I approached season two, geared the rewards toward things that would interact directly with the vlog (in the form of polls), and relaunched as I started the second season. I link to the Patreon everywhere, mention it occasionally on video, and stay very interactive with my Patrons. It’s grown by 20% per month since I re-launched the vlog, and as October comes to a close it’s grown by over 40% in this month alone.

Jay Swanson Patreon growth

One of the big motivators for Patrons, beyond making me eat weird things or climb tall buildings, has been disposable cameras. I inherited a pile of old cameras from one of my friends here in Paris who said “I know you’ll do something with these.” It made him feel better than just throwing them away, and didn’t take long to figure out how to put them to use.​

Swanson camera oneI took photos in and around Paris and showed the camera in the vlog as I went, which created an immediate response from a handful of people who asked what they had to do to get that camera!? I responded that I would figure something out through Patreon, and what I wound up doing was this: I would develop Camera One and turn the photos into postcards, which I would send to each of my Patrons around the world. Camera Two, when full, would be given away undeveloped to a Patron at random. The plan is for this pattern to continue, odd cameras getting developed and even cameras given away.

It’s a natural call to action within the vlog, and one that I think can be credited with doubling the growth rate of Patreon this month. I have some more fun things in mind for the future, but you’ll have to join me on Patreon to find out what they are.

This is an unfair question, but I’ll ask it anyway: would you rather spend more time doing videos or more time writing books?

I WANT TO SPEND MORE TIME WRITING BOOKS. Sorry, caps lock broke there for a second.

Seriously though, I really want to spend more time writing books, but I firmly believe that investing in my vlog now will provide that opportunity later. I think vlogging goes hand-in-hand with my future writing and creative careers. If I can live full-time off vlogging within another year (we can dream, can’t we?), then I no longer need to carry a day job. Theoretically, this frees up a lot of time that would otherwise be spent working, which can then be spent on vlogging and writing in turn. Vlogging also exposes more people to my writing, making for stronger book launches, and people who discover me through my books have an entire world to dive into if they want to get to know me better as a person.

Enter Archivos, an app in beta that I’m steadily using to build up a map of the people, places, and tasty restaurants I visit in every vlog (I get asked for this information a lot).

That’s the other really cool thing about vlogging: it’s about my life. I’m not limited to any particular subject or interest. So if I’m writing all day, the vlog can be largely about where I’m writing and how I’m feeling about it. I don’t have to dance to the music (too often), which is why it’s an ideal format. This also makes it a long-tail format, one that has less initial chance of “going viral” or growing with insane rapidity, but one that I think will build a strong foundation for the future.

It’s that foundation that I believe will make all the difference in the years to come. So while I don’t think that video is for every author out there, I do think it is well worth the effort if you want to give it a try. And like you regularly remind us all, if anyone is going to start, stick with it long enough to give it a real chance to grow.

Update, September 2018: Jay says, “I just crossed 300 Patrons and $2,000/month in August; when we did the interview, I was hovering around $350/month. Even though I was excited back then to see that things were working out, I’m glad I don’t have to go back and do it all over again.

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