Passive income from ebook writing isn’t passive – reflections from Avalon

Funny old game, this passive income lark. I personally define it as income that you get regardless of what you are doing. The classic dream is steady income paid while you are lying on the beach. Wikipedia defines it in somewhat US-centric terms as

Passive income is an income received on a regular basis, with little effort required to maintain it

I spent a few days soaking up the sun in the atmosphere of Glastonbury, enjoying a chilled time and exploring the place.I came just before the well-known festival, to appreciate the summer solstice – the closest I have come to the festival was a distant view of it 7 miles from Glastonbury Tor.


Unlike the festival-goers I had decent weather. I was looking for some of the background story, bought some books, but I have a predilection for books in electronic form these days. Following up the Glastonbury connection, passive income is the Holy Grail of the idler, and there are an awful lot of Knights of the Round Table chasing it. It’s bad enough that people who have at least earned the money first behave like teenagers in love:

People looking for investment income home in on bad ideas like Premier League footballers sniffing out WAGs with loose morals.

Dunno what he’d say about the wretched river of humanity out of Eden seeking the Free Lunch without Consequences, but the old boy Mephistopheles is in business in different garb offering Passive Income to the penniless, the poor, and the pecuniarly challenged.

Sometimes I wonder if these good people would use their time better getting a job and saving some of their hard-earned, but then I think that any time I stand in line behind somebody buying a lottery ticket in the Co-Op. There is something irresistible about the concept of something for nothing. It’s been there since time immemorial in the search for the Philosopher’s Stone[ref]I am aware that there are many esoteric personal transformation aspects to the story of the search for Philosopher’s Stone, but it is the profane rather than sacred that fits my narrative :)[/ref] that turns lead into gold. The story metamorphosed into the search for the perpetual motion machine in the Victorian era, and turns full circle in the search for a passive income, that turns the leaden hours of the idle into a stream of gold. I’m hassling the Calvinist work is good for you doctrine there – I for one don’t find the workless hours leaden and indeed I would regard humanity’s development of robots to do all the work leaving us to a life of leisure the pinnacle of engineering success, if only we could build a human society that didn’t start to look like a winner-takes-all Gilded Age which seems to be where we are headed at the moment.

The ebook proposition – wresting the medium and the message away from Facebook. Into Amazon – oh boy…

One of the tragic things about the Internet is that the original open platform has been taken over by corporations like Facebook, Google and Amazon , who drove out the universality of the end-to-end principle because we readers are idle, want a uniformish UI, and are suckers for attention-grabbing trivia that the platform can monetise the shit out of. In Web 1.0 ISPs tried and failed to hold customers on their ‘portal’ to save you the graft of looking for interesting stuff, but now we hire Facebook and Google to do that very job. Once upon a time it was possible to get a copy of vi, grok some HTML, create a website with useful information, serve some ads and make a modest income. I still have some website real estates from the 1990s that even after 20 years do provide a modest income this way but the trend is long-term decline. Some of this is, of course, that the topics age – let’s face it what was newsworthy/interesting in 1995 is often less riveting twenty years later on, the effort to maintain some of these with other people dropped away around ten years ago. One of the sites performs a technical service which still seems to have some fans judging by the pleading to fix I get if my web hosts changes the version of PHP and it goes titsup, it seems to have got embedded into the processes of some communities. I even tell them they can get the facility easier and more prettily using OS getamap but they don’t switch[ref]correctly, it seems – I was there before getamap and may be there after it’s been deprecated[/ref]. It provides enough revenue to be worth Googling the error code and fixing the code or third-party library to keep people happy.

It’s harder to establish a modest website on a topic now – the Internet is much larger but there are also winner-takes-all effects that raise the barrier to entry, so it’s basically a go-large-or-go-home world. The Amazon ebook seems to be the place where some of the small fry information providers have gone to, if the topic is suited to a write once read many and non-interactive format. For many to many discussions we used to have forums (before that we had Usenet and email mailing lists, but the latter scale terribly), but with the demise of the medium-sized website vis-a-vis the big beasts many of these are dying out, moving to Facebook groups

I don’t regularly use Facebook, and it’s a source of sadness for me when a forum I’ve used goes down for some reason and the topic migrates to Facebook. Facebook fosters the narcissistic and the voluble, there seems no threading or fine topic capacity, and to be honest I’d rather read people’s thoughts on the topic rather than endless trivia about their children, pets and minor ailments. As the old forums die, the wall of noise increases. Life is too short to strip out the tales of lives of quiet desperation from a Facebook group topic feed[ref]Facebook is designed to narrate everyday trivia and that’s fine – but trivia seems to pollute group topics to a degree that it never did on forums and bulletin boards, these usually had a separate section like MSE’s Money Savers’s Arms off-topic section.[/ref]

The ebook as passive income

A few years ago someone put me on to article writing as a passive income, I did well enough from that, but I’ve been around the block enough times to never view that as a passive income – I figured the model had flaws and information decays anyway. I did always try to add value. I fear this was not true of all my fellow writers who prized bang for the buck, and as a result the noise rose to swamp the signal. The revenue model turned out to be flawed and the site went titsup in it’s own good time. Then reappeared and got second wind, although it munged my articles and particularly photos terribly. Being a vain so and so I had backups, so I tossed them back up there and won a few hundred pounds before the income stream turned to a dribble. Integrated over time I was paid well enough for my work, and helped me improve as a writer because there was some editorial review in the original days.

The ebook as reader’s friend

Paul Simon’s Sounds of Silence is about communication troubles, and yet a load of text on a highly lit screen reminds me of the counterpoint

When my eyes were stabbed by
The flash of a neon light
That split the night

Before the early 1980s computer text was a dim green on a black background, it had a intimate confessional aspect, and was limited by the technology until CRT power supplies were regulated well enough that a splurge of black text on a white background didn’t load the power supply so badly that the picture bloomed enough to lose the edges of the text. Given that the sort of computer users of the day tended to come out at night anyway that wasn’t such a bad thing.  Although they’ve drifted away from it somewhat, it appears Amazon observed this tension, and therefore introduced the Kindle.

There are some sorts of content that come across better on a non-backlit screen. I read some long form articles on my Kindle transferred with a SAAS called dotepub – articles from the Guardian’s The Long Read are better presented that way IMO. Although the user interface with the Kindle stinks in several ways, and the display is low-res and gritty compared with print and above all low contrast compared to paper, it’s good enough. While not perfect, I’m happy enough reading originally print ebooks on it, though PDFs invariably suck and need converting if possible.

Ermine as author in a £0 Kindle Unlimited world

Over the course of my researches in the Somerset landscape I crystallised some ideas and things I’d have liked to have known before diving down ratholes. While there I downloaded a few ebooks as well as buying a couple of real books. Now unlike many proto-authors, I don’t need to make a living, and I only have a couple of long-form articles I want to say at this stage, but I’m not averse to readers funding some of the research. So I looked at how to actually write an ebook and launch it on Amazon.

I joined a free trial of Kindle Unlimited, cancelling immediately of course so I don’t get suckered £god-knows-how-much at somewhere under a tenner a month [ref]having cancelled KU it’s the devil’s own job to find out how much it really is without re-enabling it[/ref] and consumed shedloads of £0 ebooks. One confirmed to me what I had guessed – KU does not in fact give you unlimited access to 10 ebooks from all of Amazon – it gives you access to a subset of Amazon ebooks. And although some of these are regular books – for instance I read a decent hypothesis/description of how  the chalybeate Chalice Well and the calcifying White Well could both be served from the geology of Glastonbury Tor, I also read a lot of total trash, along with a fair amount of slightly-useful shorts.

there be iron in that there hill, boy...
there be iron in that there hill, boy…

One of the dead useful shorts told me what I already had concluded – kindle unlimited is not worth the subscription, because most of the KU books are run under the £0 free promotion anyway[ref]I am getting the feeling that there is commonality through the KDP select program[/ref] – if you want to read Kindle books for free then go find – Top 100 Free books or if you want to plough through pages of cruft then go no further than all free Kindle ebooks to find ’em 🙂 Why borrow up to 10 for a while when you can get the lot for free. True, not everything on Kindle unlimited is in Kindle Free, but there’s a hell of a lot of overlap and you only have so much time to read!

Herein lies the Kindle heart of darkness, too, because it tells you as a putative author where this market is going. It happened to the music industry, it’ll happen to the film industry, and it will happen here. If we want to know why so much consumer culture is formulaic and also-ran, we consumers only have ourselves to blame. A good story costs good money to stage, be it as a book, a song or a movie. But we want it for free, and in the rush for low-cost we destroyed the erstwhile gatekeepers who performed quality control by writing endless rejection letters to wannabe writers and musicians. So now we have the tantalising knowledge that there is good content out there, but we can’t find it in the wall of noise and self-promotion that comes along with free. And no, I don’t know where Taylor Swift fits into this picture 🙂

When I read Write! and Retire Early: How I Retired at 35 Writing Amazon KINDLE Ebooks by Mary Heinz, I am quite happy to accept she made enough to live in Thailand and sit on the beach, but I don’t accept the thesis of the title. I don’t expect her to be earning her money from her ebooks in 5 years time, though somebody with her get-up-and-go will probably be doing something else. That is not a passive income, you don’t retire on it, it is called work, albeit lucrative work in her case.

Writing ratholes are still there despite lower costs

In a previous life I wanted to retire from having made a killing in the dot-com boom bust or that classic cubicle slave just come back from holiday chestnut travel writing[ref]I had the edge on most colleagues at the time as a solo traveller and indeed travelled a lot for work but I never seriously considered this a possibility. But I’ve heard the dream expounded to me so often around the water cooler after the August bank holiday that my ears wanted to close up, or at least holler “Dude, that is soooo unoriginal”[/ref].

It takes a peculiar and rare skill to be open enough but also to observe the wrinkles of the human condition along with the inherent humour seen in the dynamic tension between the home culture and the foreign culture to write engagingly about travel. In itself it’s not enough just to hold the reader’s attention – you must also create enough product placement framework to convince stakeholders they’ll get the return to put money up front to sponsor your project. You, dear reader, may have that talent, but I don’t, and wouldn’t dream of trying. But I’ve seen enough starry-eyed colleagues return and dream of it, even though their work reports were turgid clichéd prose[ref]yeah, I know, pot kettle and all that 😉 I hope I avoid too much turgidity, although I never totally won the long battle with the passive voice.[/ref], their photography pedestrian, and did they realise that Lonely Planet might well pay for them but not their family to go on jollies to the corners of the earth? If for no other reason than families are always tourists not travellers – travel anywhere with somebody else and you have an easier time than the solo traveller, but you see much less of the place precisely because you are a group – some of your attention is on each other and there are some travel challenges you don’t face as acutely.

the male is an endangered species here – just how much fiction, and for that matter just how much romance, does this world need?

In a physical library you go to the sections you are interested in. Something that amazed me in the Suffolk e-library was how much fiction is published – stupendous torrents of it, fiction seems to outweigh non-fiction over ten to one. And of that fiction, more than half of it is romances, aimed at the distaff side projecting their animus figures somewhere into outer space by the looks of it. The same is replicated on Kindle. These female readers are clearly doing something right in having the reading time to present such a demand for tall, handsome strangers who are strong, damaged but redeemable to the authors of the world. I don’t care what people say to the contrary, the cover pictures tell the story and money talks 🙂

the ebook melds the vanity publisher with the low-end writer

At a zero cost of production, the ebook lets anybody publish. I have no idea if there is demand for my projected ebook – well, I would have bought it. Possibly – after all I spent about £30 on books, but I struggle to bring myself shell out cash for what I can’t touch. It may be purely a vanity project. Certainly all the make-money-fast-writing-for-kindle ebooks I read (having paid £0 for) seemed to say you had to pump out books for the sake of it. I’d not doing that – I don’t need the money and I don’t want to start working on things that piss me off to make money. I’ve done my share of that – I’ll only write if I feel I have something to add. A lot of the Kindle Unlimited stuff was poorly written and worth what I paid for it – chuntering stuff out as a content mill shows. One book, a biography of a local Glastonbury figure, was so poorly written that though I’d have been prepared to stump up the £5 I refused to buy it because I couldn’t stand the stilted form of the prose and in particular the endless use of rhetorical questions to frame the narrative – this is the record of the life of someone dead for decades, there aren’t many questions about the narrative to be put!

MS word seems to be the typewriter of choice for the computer-challenged

Publishers have always found it a bastard ingesting authors copy. As a magazine editor in the past I had the hurt of different file formats, taking American and British copy, the people who never got over the use of the carriage return from their typewriter days, the fact at school I was taught that the Oxford comma is wrong and the endless war of attrition against the grocer’s apostrophe. Often it was easier to rekey, though that causes errors in itself. It appears these problems were never solved – although text editors are two a penny for coders, for writers these don’t work well, because they are very much like the typewriter of old – hard carriage returns etc, so people use Microsoft Word which at least reflows sentences and paragraphs. It does that at the cost of embedding scads of spurious formatting information which seems tough to strip out.

The mechanics seem to bother people too, which is bizarre. An ebook is what the early web was meant to be before somebody invented tables and print folk started misusing them for layout. It’s obvious when you take an ebook to bits in something like Calibre, and the one nod to print is the support for style sheets. I find it hard to believe that there are any Millennials/Digital Natives who don’t understand how HTML works. Precisely why people insist on using Microsoft Word to write an ebook and then moan when it goes titsup escapes me, but maybe there’s some deep truth I am missing. Either way it seems easy enough to create and publish an ebook from a written concept.

a passive income in an unsustainable market is not a fast track to early retirement

But the bit that people seem to miss with passive income is sustainability. There’s a big difference between a sustainable passive income and asset-stripping a market where the signal the customer wants will sink in a morass of promotional noise. In investment terms that’s chasing momentum, not dividend investing. It works great for a while. And then it doesn’t…

I’m in no doubt that this isn’t a sustainable income, never mind a passive one. I can live with that. I’d have preferred to stay with the Web, as some photography is a fair part of the narrative, and on e-ink black-and-white Kindles illustrations work far better than photos. But in the end you have to follow the medium. I had not realised that ebooks and smartphones may be particularly well matched  – an ebook doesn’t demand Internet connection in the field where a website does.

In that respect an ebook is much like the CD-ROM of the early 1990s and perhaps for good reason – mobile data is damn slow and functionality stinks – like those dial-up 9k6 of old. When mobile data is sorted at an acceptable price, Facebook or its evil children will come along and clean up the field. I’ll learn something new and say something about a subject that interests me. That’s the joy of financial independence. Having to get paid always meant others get to call the tune, and put in place stupid metrics that wring the joy out of doing stuff. This way I can return to the Craftsman of ERE and if people want to buy, good, if not, well I’ll still have learned something – learning is to the intellect as a good table-leg is to the claws of a cat, you have to sharpen it every so often!



5 thoughts on “Passive income from ebook writing isn’t passive – reflections from Avalon”

  1. “A Good Read” – BBC Radio 4 – is so funny, as it shows that a book which moves one person so deeply is just plain irritating to another!

    After running out of shelf space, we used to let the library store our favourite authors. Then shock, horror! The library got rid of them as they were considered to be out of date! But we’re still big fans of libraries – all those books to browse at leisure, no pressure…..

    For me, ebooks don’t really satisfy, unless the content is so riveting that I forget the medium. A bit like the internet really. It must be a generational thing, as the young are trained to a different world. Kahlil Gibran said “Children…. strive to be like them, for life goes not backward nor tarries with yesterday”.
    I try.


  2. I learned HTML in the 90s and designed my own website with it. However I don’t mind the automated tools at all. When I migrated my blog to my own domain I had WordPress installed with a couple of clicks. Then a few dollars for a nice theme and I was all set.
    I link my blog posts on Facebook and Twitter (and Feedly for that matter) but that’s only so family and friends can find them easily.
    As for making money -Pfft! I’d do far better as an IT support person in my small town. And I don’t charge for that either.


  3. You were down near(ish) my good self by the Tor. Thought I felt consumerism shudder with another frugal soul in the area.

    “I for one don’t find the workless hours leaden and indeed I would regard humanity’s development of robots to do all the work leaving us to a life of leisure the pinnacle of engineering success” – much like an Iain M. Banks Culture series novel 😀

    ebooks and app store items seem far too fluid to ever be a real long term passive income stream, except for the very lucky few perhaps.

    Sharpen those claws.

    Mr Z


  4. @Rowan Tree interesting that you don’t get on with ebooks – have you tried a reflective screen like the Kindle? I find the experience almost up to paperback standard. Now if it was a bit bigger and a bit more contrasty that would be nice, but in decent light it[s good enough. And fantastic for sitting on a bench under a tree without hauling lots of weight!

    @Ray Same here – and I’m happy to use wordpress on here where the extra functionality is of use. But an ebook is a very narrow case of HTML. The Smashwords Style Guide f’rinstance is a tome of how to pussyfoot around MS word so it doesn’t put spurious crap in your manuscript. I’d say it’s easier to to the HTML than to put up with that!

    @ Mr Z – a lovely part of the country, indeed! Sadly Suffolk Libraries failed me on Iain M Banks. Mind you, looks like he’s of the we’re heading for a new Gilded Age school of thought


  5. Have to agree that kindle book writing is not passive income but it is income where you do the work up front and then reap the benefits over time.

    How much you make and how long it lasts are highly variable of course and the system favours high volume over quality, although I dare if you can somehow achieve both then it would be very lucrative.

    Huw over at financially free by forty is currently churning out ebooks with a view to replacing his salary before the year is out. It sounds like a lot of hard work but you have to admit, that’s impressive if he does it and is on track to do so. Check out his latest post on it, no doubt you will find it interesting if not already seen it.

    I can’t say about the quality as he is hiring writers. I guess if people are prepared to pay for information they can pretty much find for free on the internet though they must be getting some value out of it so that’s up to them. 🙂

    I agree on quantity vs quality arguments with the music industry etc as well. There is so much free toot out there now I just can’t be bothered to trawl through it any more!

    Cheers as usual for an enjoyable read.


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