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This is a bit of a meta question, but not the sort I can see in https://worldbuilding.meta.stackexchange.com/ so I'll leave it here.

I love my job, but I still love worldbuilding more. Can I monetize this somehow? What options are there to become (at least part time) professional at something minimally related to worldbuilding?

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    $\begingroup$ Have we ever been asked this before? Professional worldbuilding is just a form of creative writing, so this kind of question might make more sense on Writing, but I'm beyond tempted to suggest that asking questions about the "profession" of worldbuilding is on-topic for this Stack. Thanks, Dario. The world should be surprised by a question now and again. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 at 22:22
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    $\begingroup$ @JBH that's what worldbuilding is about IMO. $\endgroup$
    – Dario
    Jul 27 at 8:13
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    $\begingroup$ Seriously ... four people voted to close because this is not about worldbuilding?! Come on, why can't you admit that the real delete criteria on StackExchange are Too Useful, Too Creative, and Too Close To Home. You could remake the little dialog box and everything. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 16:28
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    $\begingroup$ This Q is on the verge of being closed. I'm not advocating one way or the other whether or not it should - but I have opened a meta question about extending the rules to embrace questions about the profession of worldbuilding. If you're not normally interested in meta... this one might deserve your attention. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 20:49
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    $\begingroup$ From the help centre: "When asking questions keep in mind that the goal of the site is to help you build your world..." This question is not about building a world (no more than, say, "Carpal Tunnel Syndrome is affecting my worldbuilding, can you recommend a treatment?" $\endgroup$
    – rek
    Jul 28 at 14:52

13 Answers 13

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When can an artist become a businessman?

A very long time ago I remember watching an episode of The White Shadow, a show about an urban high school basketball team coached by an ex-pro. The episode sticks out for having the Harlem Globtrotters... but I never forgot the point the episode made. Here's a Youtube clip from the episode, but leave it to someone to only show the basketball and not the final scene that made the point!

The kids meet the Globetrotters working at a car wash and make fun of them (not knowing who they are) for not being "basketball stars" like themselves, but rather, "manual labor." They're challenged to a game, and the game is fun to watch (those guys make basketball look so effortless). What the clip misses is the last sequence when the kids shut out the lights and run away from the obviously better players. When they're coaxed to return to the court, the Globetrotters are in uniform. No wonder they were being beaten!

And that brought us to the point of the episode (and the part that's salient here). The coach had the Globetrotters introduce themselves. They did, each giving their name...

... and their college degree1...

Cool story, grandpa, what's the point?

I'll be honest with you, unless you were born with an unholy talent for worldbuilding, you can't just quit your day job. Here on this Stack it's all about creativity and having fun.

But in the real world, it's about results, deadlines, and the bottom line.

Artists have always needed patrons

The simple reality is that you can't easily peddle worldbuilding on the side of the street any more than you can art. Oh, you can busk for donations, sell at fairs, yada yada yada, but if you want a profession, then you need to be (must be!) as much the businessman as you are the artist.

Why do people buy art?

And that's "art" in any form: music, writing, movies, theater, paintings, sculpture... worlds.... There's a lot of it out there. There always has been. The average person buys a little of it. But no one can make a living on onsey-twosey sales. That means you need to build one world that's whomping valuable, or you need to build a lot of worlds and make a little off each one.

Practical business... it's a harsh task master. And that brings us to those college degrees the Globetrotters have. We can give you pointers, but in the end, what you're doing is developing a business, not worldbuilding. In my experience, if you don't think of it like that, you'll be a starving artist.

What kinds of degrees are useful?

  • Creative writing
  • Engineering (problem solving!)
  • Business management
  • Data Monetization
  • Entrepreneurship

I know that what you want to do is spend your time building worlds — but you'll need to spend as much or more time building your business. If you hang your painting up for the world to see and expect it to sell, it'll take eons to sell (the world is full of paintings with little "$100-" stickers on them. They're in restaurants, truck stops....) You need to find channels willing to distribute your art and ways to present it enticingly. That's where all those degrees (classes...) come in. It's not that you need all the degrees, only that you need at least one degree to teach you how to learn so you can learn what you need to know to solve this problem (it's just another worldbuilding problem, after all).

I like @TerranAmbassador's answer, I just wish he'd/she'd fleshed it out

The classic solution is to be hired by somebody to help build their world. Video game designers are at the top of the list, but so, too, are authors and movie production companies (and the subsidiary companies they depend on). This is the classic 9-5 paid job where someone brings you and idea and you're expected to flesh out that idea. It's what a graphic illustrator is compared to full-on-canvas painter.2

But we live in a world that has amazing grass-roots solutions. As TerranAmbassador suggests, you can make money indirectly by advertising to people who visit your website, youtube channel, blog, etc. to enjoy your creativity. Unfortunately, this usually requires building a considerable world for people to enjoy, and presenting that world in a way they will enjoy, before they'll show up in numbers great enough for you to quit your day job. In that regard, it's not a whole lot different from writing a book. You're going to make (for a book) \$0.35-\$1.25 per copy depending on the size and nature of the book and your contract with a publisher or distributor. To quit your day job you need to sell 35,000 - 60,000 copies.

Now we're back to those degrees. Because unless you're already rich, you need to know...

  • Sales
  • Marketing
  • Social Networking

Etc.

I don't want to get you down about this. I've met people who looked at this mountain, took a deep breath, and pushed forward hard. And made millions. Why can't I do it? Because my interests are too diverse to allow that kind of focus — said another way, I'm unwilling to pay the price.

If you're looking for an easy solution, it's unlikely anyone can help you.

But if you're willing to pay the price, I think an entire new arm of questions for this Stack can help you. There aren't just a lot of engineers here, there are marketers, authors, publishers, businessfolk... I think there's a lot of talent on this Stack that can help build and develop a career in Worldbuilding.

Which leaves as a final question, do you have what it takes?

OK, one last thought...

From my experience as an engineer I can tell you that people do NOT pay for creativity. They pay for solutions. Creative solutions get the best pay. But the "creative" part is a distinct second place. From that perspective, you could monetize fully fleshed out chunks of a world.

For example, a creature. Full art rendering, complete description. Pros, cons, attack values, defensive abilities, contribution to the ecology, the works. And then you start pitching the creature to the film and game industries. The role-playing industry, etc.

Or you create mini-worlds (aka "game modules") for role-playing games and license them through the various RPG companies. That's still a pretty big industry, and that's likely the easiest entry into the world of professional worldbuilding.

Just remember, people generally don't pay for cool ideas. They pay for working solutions. A cool working solution gets a premium.


1Not all Globetrotters have college degrees, but most do. They had to. They're successful because of enormous talent, hard work, and better-than-average thinking. College degrees teach you how to do that third item and help tremendously with the second.

2And you should expect the envy/contempt behavior. As in the oil painters have enormous contempt for graphic illustrators while envying their cash flow, and the graphic illustrators have enormous contempt for the oil painter's failure to monetize their talent but all the envy in the world that they're painting on canvas.... It's a stereotype, but I've seen the perhaps unconscious behavior all too often.

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    $\begingroup$ There's tons of quotes and proverbes about it, having an idea is easy and lots of people have a lot of them all the time. What really matters is bringing them to fruition. As JBH says, unless you decide to work yourself, I don't think you'll find anyone to just buy raw ideas. $\endgroup$
    – Echox
    Jul 27 at 9:34
  • $\begingroup$ Having watched the clip, I believe he said “manual labor”, not “menial labor”. $\endgroup$
    – user137369
    Jul 27 at 22:07
  • $\begingroup$ @user137369 :-) You're right! Thanks for the catch! $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 22:24
  • $\begingroup$ Can you add your footnote indicators into the body of the text? I read your 'Cool story grandpa' part and still didn't get the point you were making, the footnote makes it much clearer but there is a lot of text between it and that section. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 9:38
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    $\begingroup$ @RyanfaeScotland I moved it up so that it's dealt with sooner, but I'm not comfortable adding it to the text. It's an aside that, while clarifying, doesn't actually add to the answer. $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 17:57
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Modern "storytellers" in the industry only care about what sells these days. Sadly, worldbuilding isn't one of them, especially when you're working for someone who wants the job done in their own specific way and you have to adjust your input to match their agenda, irrelevant of quality.

To cut a long story short, barely anybody these days actively seeks out consultants for quality but rather demands experienced yes-men in the right places and with the right connections to pull as many strings and push anything they throw on their plate. That's just the way the world is, it's not corruption it's lobbying.

If you genuinely love worldbuilding, your best bet is to set out on your own to attempt creating a world that suits your imagination and your reasoning... and hope the bigshots notice you and the thought of using your franchise as a vessel for profit crosses their mind.

Personal note: I've been working on my novels for 15 years now, I published my first book 6 years ago and my 2nd book should be published by the end of this year, I consulted multiple publishers and distributers with my concepts and pretty much everybody shot me down because I'm either too young, too inexperienced or too "unknown" and that actually gets me labeled as a high-risk investment. Had I not decided to turn to self-publishing I probably would have burned all of my work ages ago and tossed my fantasy world to oblivion. I don't expect to profit from my work during my lifetime and I don't expect anyone else to do so after I'm gone, my main goal is to leave a legacy behind me and perhaps something I will be remembered by or maybe even mentioned in the passing every once in a while.

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    $\begingroup$ I don't expect to profit from my work during my lifetime and I don't expect anyone else to do so after I'm gone, my main goal is to leave a legacy behind me. I upvoted. I ran a micropublisher for 10 years and the most common problem with any author was the fact that I had a business to run and the average author was an artist who, as you said, is more interested in their legacy than the success of the business (that, or they were absolutely sure they were the next J.K. Rowling...). I could write pages explaining the reality of publishing, but you boiled it down nicely. $\endgroup$ Jul 26 at 22:27
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    $\begingroup$ Can you share a link to your work? I love reading fantasy and I'm always open for new universes to explore $\endgroup$
    – mrsmn
    Jul 28 at 15:24
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    $\begingroup$ @mrsmn www.atharon.com $\endgroup$ Jul 28 at 18:09
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As I see it, you've got a few options. You can monetize your worldbuilding indirectly by, say, making a game or a writing a book set in your world and selling that. One artist that I know of, Abiogenesis, is putting together an illustrated encyclopedia/visual guide about their world.

You could also directly monetize it by, say, starting a blog or a wiki and starting a Patreon page to go with it.

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    $\begingroup$ Patreon type solutions are underappreciated. Build a name and community for yourself in a setting where people with similar interests are present, then start creating and putting stuff out there, and keep pointing people to your Patreon. Optionally make some of your creations patron-only, at least when they're first published. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 16:15
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Considering the question is how to make money using worldbuilding, not whether it is possible, or whether books are the right medium, here are some suggestions:

  • Start self-published and free, to create a community.
  • Don't exclude any format, not everything needs to be a 1000 page book right from the get-go; you can start with mini-series unless you already have a lot of material.
  • From the beginning, have a strong social media presence; i.e., a YouTube channel or something like that. Show whatever you are doing there, in real-time.
  • Branch out to diverse media; maybe create a tabletop wargaming version of your world, or a boardgame, or a pen&paper RPG. Maybe try to get into these areas yourself, or do collaborations with other creators.
  • Generally, have the best presentation as you can. If you check out some hobbyist creators on the verge to being almost "pro", you can witness that the technology is really available to everybody with a passion and a relatively small investment (cameras, microphones, but also in the self-publishing space regarding books, e-books etc.).
  • Check out Patreon for some direct peer-to-peer funding.
  • At the beginning, you'll need to keep your day-job, but eventually, if your worldbuilding finds an audience, you might just make the switch completely.

As you can catch from the other answers, classically published books are probably the most frustrating area, but there definitely are other routes.

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Considering that the key here is "part-time", you could become some kind of...

Meta World-Building authority

You might have yourself a hard time becoming a "world builder" for others, but you could become someone other world-builders look for when in need. You could:

  1. Create a YouTube channel. Make analysis about successful and failed worlds on famous franchises. Describe the rights and wrongs they did. There are some channels already doing something like this ("Terrible Writing Advice" comes to mind), but they usually are focused on more general topics.
  2. Write books about world building. Give advice to novices and experts, write "rules" about what to do and what not, what to look for and what to try to avoid when building a world. You could create books focused on diferent types of media.

This would help you to make yourself known, and maybe, eventually, let your own work be more appreciated. It's not going to be easy, of course, and at first you can expect a lot of people not take you seriously. That's why I would recommend focusing on begginers first; people looking for some kind of advice on how to start on their own.

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  • $\begingroup$ Not very often do I wish to upvote an answer twice. $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 20:32
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I don’t have a better answer than others to this question. But, I’d like to share some observations I’ve built up over almost 30 years of world building for myself and for others.

Price

A self-employed friend who freelanced under his own shingle gave me the advice that your hourly rate should be no less than double what you require to survive. So, if your expenses are 40 thousand USD a year; you should be planning hopefully 2,000 hours of billable work at 40 USD per hour.

This rule-of-thumb is reinforced by housing contractors, who generally spitball a job (including parts + labor + warranty) at double the cost of parts and materials.

I tried myself for about five years underselling this rule to “compete on price”. What happened to me is this: there was never enough money to grow.

Marketing and Sales

I’ve worked with a lot of companies, and all of the successful ones I’ve seen have no less than one-third of the staff committed to sales. Most of the really healthy ones are around two-thirds sales and one-third product or service.

Marketing is about researching who might buy from you and figuring out ways of getting to them. This can include standing up completely unrelated activities (like blogs, or video streams, or free giveaways) and letting it be known where your for-a-fee world building offerings can be found (take Google’s search engine to sell advertising for an example; but there are countless more)

You could, for example, rent out a stall at the nearest farm market or go to county festivals selling your world building services on the spot. It might work better in places with higher population density where you get in front of more faces. Isaac Asimov wrote a lot of free or cheap stories to get people interested in the worlds he built.

Sales is actually closing the deal.

(See where doubling your cost goes?)

Simplicity

Because a pittance of your time goes to your product, successful product or service (ex: world building) starts are usually as simple as possible. Netflix started as a service that mailed you CDs.

Financing

Alternatively, you can get a high-production-value idea in front of an audience by doing a lot of first-class work at a loss. But, to do this, you have to find someone willing to pay the bills. It can be a full time job finding people to fund you.

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  • $\begingroup$ On the where does the doubling of cost come from: to do work for others, you aren't doing what you want to do so in theory, you have to pay someone your salary to do what you wanted to do. Most of us suck it up and pocket the difference and the what you want to do gets done later (or never). $\endgroup$ Jul 27 at 19:16
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There are some good answers here. The hardest part about monetizing it would be getting the word out to people that your product even existed.

If you're world-building specifically for a role playing game, then you're going to have to become an online authority for that game, or team up with someone who is.

Now consider something like "Greyhawk". You'd build out your base world. Maps of the known areas, major players, and so forth. Several compelling adventures.

By leveraging your partner's community, you could begin selling the base kit.

For your Patreons, then:

You could also create custom adventures and related world-building bits per their specifications.

Or more extreme, design entire map areas to specification.

You could write fiction in that world, to their specification. Imagine a serial where the week's gaming session is made into a chapter of a book.

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What is your market?

Here are a few:

  • World building software: Earth Sciences Put in parameters, and it generates a detailed map, runs at least a simple climate model to give you the seasons, the norms, the extremes. Target: writers and would be writers. This software can do your physical world -- continents and weather, given the brightness of the sun, inclination of the planet, rotational stability. Sell a basic version of this program then do consulting with special programming for adding a sun, rogue neutron stars, ringworlds etc.

  • World building software: Economy. This is one that often is badly done in SF. Either the economy is a copy of our own, or it's vague. E.g. The population numbers, and the effort required by dragons never fit on Pern. 3000. In Startrek replicators are nearly universal and appear to be based on molecular assembly much as trasporters are.. Why all the concern about gold pressed latinum. Why can't ships be mass produced by BIG replicators.

  • Writers in general who don't know about this stack exchange. Put an ad in writers digest offering help working the kinks out of their world.

  • Script consultant. Would that Hollywood actually used such more often. Check the science. Make the numbers consistent. (This always drove me crazy on startrek. Many shows have a "bible" of how things work behind the scenes, what relationships are forbidden. SF and Fantasy shows haves ones with some of the lingo, and if good, the limitations on the technology. While this is a very needed process, marketing to this sector would be a bitch.

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  • $\begingroup$ "Hollywood actually used such more often" - they do actually. But yeah quality of scify is worthy of horror films quite often. You spend so much money, produced good visuals, good acting, funny story, but <have no words>. Good example is Lost in Space, it good it wasn't hiding anything from the start knocking out the part of my brain, and after that watched it whole, quite good, but still could be better even in its own framework. One of fundamental problems authors are lacking those days, realy the root of the problem. WB tries to help in that regard, but yeah, ... $\endgroup$
    – MolbOrg
    Jul 28 at 19:16
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Worldbuilding books exist

I thought it might be useful to note that there are commercially successful books that are almost entirely exercises in worldbuilding. So there is some market for it and a few authors have made money doing it. It's probably not that big of a market, and it seems to be mostly geared towards kids and young adults, but here are some examples.

A book I loved as a kid was Spacecraft: 2000-2100 AD by Stewart Cowley. I was able to find it through SciFi SE. The book is a basically a bunch of beautiful paintings of fictional spacecraft with specifications, details and history about the use of each and, for military spacecraft, their exploits. There's no plot to speak of, just some references to a war between Earth and its ally (Alpha Centauri) against their enemy (Proxima Centauri). Apparently there was a whole line of these books.

A lot of other books with mostly worldbuilding content are related to existing universes, such as fictional reference books for the Star Wars universe. Obviously, the author's creativity is a bit constrained since they have to be consistent with existing canon, but I'm sure they get to invent a lot of the details. Given that there is an already existing fanbase for these fictional universes, my guess is that this is where the money is if you want to worldbuild for a living (what little money there may be). I'm not sure its easy to get into these types of gigs. It looks like the author of that Star Wars (Haden Blackman) example started out by writing worldbuilding books in his own universe.

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First of all, what is a "professional worldbuilder"?

OK, so you want to make money by world building. Not by story telling, just by world building, which is nothing but one of the preliminaries of developing a story.

What exactly is it that you do?

  • Do story tellers come to you and order a bespoke world?

    For example, suppose Mr. Anthony Hope comes to you and orders a small, landlocked, Central European country, ruled by a hereditary monarch etc. Will you design and flesh it out for him, complete with the genealogy of the main families going back four generations. layout of the capital and principal towns, economic base, culture including quaint proverbs and quotable poetry, and so on?

    Well, if this is what you do then you are in luck; you are a personal assistant (maybe specializing in doing preliminary research) to a writer, possibly a freelance virtual assitant, or maybe a creative consultant.

  • Do you build worlds on stock and sell them to anybody who is interested?

    How many complete worlds do you have, and of what kind? How many of the Ruritanian kind, how many of the Conan Cimmerian kind, how many of the Barsoom kind, how many of the H. Potter kind? Do you also have reconstructed ancient worlds, or fleshed out future worlds of the Star Trek kind?

    Well then, in this case all you have to do is put up a catalogue on the Web and decide how you are going to charge for your worlds -- do you want a one time fee, do you wan royalties?

    You may also want to offer a free sample of your work, so that people can see how thorough is your work. You may also want to provide a detailed quantitative description of what you are selling -- what does a world contain? A map, and at what scale? How may names? How many genealogies? How may city and town layouts? How detailed in the economic base? Do you also include lore?

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The simple answer to this is that you find some people who are both interested in producing a quality product where the world is going to be more than a one-off, and talented at all the "non-worldbuilding" portions of the task, but not good enough at the world continuity to do that bit on your own.

Then you collaborate with them and split the profits.

It's actually a fairly common arrangement. For example, in the movie business you'll find such people credited with variations on the word "continuity". They may or may not actually be good at it, but there's usually at least somebody trying to make sure there aren't too many glaring errors in the story's backdrop.

Just keep in mind that most stories are effectively one-offs. Nobody's going to pay you much to create a whole, detailed, self-consistent world for a story that's not going to showcase it. So you'll be hunting around looking for people who want to write epics and need the background designed well enough that nobody mocks them for inconsistency by the end of it.

Also note that it's going to be rather like acting or singing or other creative pursuits. The top 5% make good money. The top 15% can support themselves at it. Everyone else gets to have it as a hobby that hopefully doesn't cost too much.

If you're talented at more than just the worldbuilding part, your best bet is likely to start out creating the whole story, either by yourself or with a small group of collaborators, and then once you get something popular consider licensing use of the world to other authors on condition that you have final approval of the world additions and mechanics. This is basically what's done with various popular franchises and can work rather well if you can manage to become popular enough.

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Other answers expand on worldbuilding as literature, as fiction. Worldbuilding is "[...] using science, geography and culture to construct imaginary worlds and settings".

Because you ask for "something minimally related to worldbuilding", perhaps you'd like to consider work interpreting worldbuilding as "[...] using science, geography and culture on real and imaginary settings to construct a world as a result".

That is, analysis, futurology, product development, and so on.

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  • Make shorts on youtube/tik tok

You can act them out, draw them or simply read them. Youtube recently made short videos monetizable, so if you can release a 45 seconds short story a week, that can be 20 extra bucks at the end of the month with an average channel, this just from the adds. With sponsors you could make 300 or more per sponsored video.

  • Make adventure/exploration minigames on the play store, make them free to play with bonuses for watching adds.

Today making a game from 0 is possible without any computer knowledge, just watch some tutorials and use free assets.

-Make a podcast where you read random stories in your imaginary worlds.

You can either do them live on twitch and get donations and subscriptions or sell them individually or to other youtube channels.

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