The Problem With 1,000 True Fans
Former Wired Editor and current Web thinker Kevin Kelly recently caused the creative sectors of the Web to spazz out a bit with his article “1,000 True Fans,” in which he posits that what a creative person needs to do in order to have a fiscally comfortable life is not try for millions of fans but rather cultivate a thousand or so “true fans” — people who will spend about a day’s worth of income ($100 is the example sum Kelly gives) a year to obtain your stuff. One thousand people spending $100 equals $100,000 for the artist, Kelly suggests, which is a tidy sum for an artistic type, many of whom spend years as ramen connoisseurs as they pursue their craft.
The reason the “1,000 True Fan” formulation sets folks on fire is pretty obvious: It seems like it’s a reasonably realistic goal. All but the most deluded of artistic types realize that massive, earth-shaking fame (and the riches that come with it) is extraordinarily rare to achieve, and that along with talent one needs a heaping helping of luck to get there. But 1,000 people — well, that seems doable on work alone. Plus now creative folks have lower cost and opportunity barriers for production and distribution, the Internet makes it easy to reach infinitely more folks, and so on and so forth. 1,000 people is a high school worth of people. It seems reasonable that you could be famous to a high school’s worth of people, especially when those thousand people are spread out among the 300 million people in the US/1 billion people in the world who have Internet access.
Speaking as someone who is arguably at a 1KTF level of notoriety, I certainly think it’s possible to gather a cabal of personal fandom to you and then ride them to a comfortably middle-class living. That said, it’s not what I do, and I don’t think it’s as easy a task as some folks seem to be hoping it will be, either in the acquisition of or the maintenance of that trusty band of true believers. Nor do I think the reward will be what one expects.
Why not? Well, I’m glad you asked.
1. Gathering a thousand true fans is harder than it looks. Let’s say for the sake of argument that I am indeed at the 1KTF level of fame, where I could get a thousand people to shell out $100 each, once a year. How did I reach this level?
* I built a daily audience of 30k -40k on this site — an audience that accreted here over the course of a decade (i.e., not quickly);
* I became a strong-selling author (“Strong selling” = six figure total units sold in 2007) in a literary genre well-known for its fandom.
Which is to say that before I could lay an arguable claim to having 1,000 “true fans,” I needed to create an overall audience of at least tens of thousands of readers/fans. The conversion rate of reader/casual fan for me would seem to be in the single digit percentages at best. While other fandom-accruing artists may be more efficient in their conversion rate than I am, at the end of the day I think you need to have already generated a large audience in order to sift out the true fans therein. In other words: You already need to be at least a little bit famous.
And of course, there’s the rub, since becoming even just a little bit famous takes some doing — in my case, my own meager ration of fame took ten years of blathering here and then another few years concurrently selling novels. Now, perhaps it’s possible to do it another way — to sort of handcraft a “true fan” audience without first engaging a larger, less-committed audience — but off the top of my head I can’t think of an artist who’s really done it that way. Kevin Kelly sort of suggests it’s not that hard: why, all you have to do is add just one fan a day! But it’s not adding a fan, it’s adding someone every day who is willing to give you $100. Which is a different thing altogether. Look: I’m not adding that sort of fan every day, and I’ve got a ten-year head start on you.
2. The available universe of “true fans” is not the entire US (or the entire Internet), but the subset of those who are willing/able to spend a significant sum of money on a single creative person. Ask yourself: Who among all the artists you enjoy/admire have you spent more than $100 on in the last year? I have a lot of people whose work I admire, and that I will happily buy. But in the last several years, the only time I’ve shelled out more than $100 for someone’s creative output in a single year was when I drove a couple hundred miles and spotted a friend a ticket to come see the Crowded House show with me. Because it was their first time touring in a dozen years. I’m not spending $100 on Crowded House again any time soon. I also spent $100 on a Bob Eggleton sketch a little more than a year ago, but that was because the sketch was based on my wife, not because I’m a Bob Eggleton superfan (although, to be clear, I think he’s great). And really, that’s it — and in both cases there were unusual circumstances.
(Oh, wait. I did spend a metric shitload of money on a Donato Giancola original painting about three years ago — but that was because it was the cover artwork for my very first published novel. Again, extraordinary circumstances.)
There are people who will pay $100 or more for stuff — I know because people have bought lettered editions of books of mine that go for $250. I thank them from the bottom of my heart and hope they live long and fruitful lives. Bless them all their days. But it’s not for nothing that really expensive lettered editions of my books come in very small quantities. That’s because the universe of people willing to shell out that sum for my work is genuinely constrained.
Lots and lots of people will spend $20 a year to be someone’s fan. A much smaller number will spend $100. An interesting question is whether there are enough of those people to go around. Which brings up another point:
3. Artists are likely competing for “true fans”. Let’s posit that someone is willing to spend $100 a year on their favorite artist. How many of them are going to be willing to spend that sum on two different artists? On three? The further out you go on that, the smaller the numbers are likely to get.
And what this means is that artists will likely compete for these “true fans.” As a science fiction writer, I share the same pool of “true fans” as, oh, let’s say, Charles Stross and Neal Stephenson. Is someone going to be enough of a “true fan” to give us each $100 a year? Knowing the general financial disposition of SF fandom, I sort of doubt it. If any of us gets $100, it’ll likely be one of us, and those others will be lucky to get a common book sale. Personally, I’d prefer we each get a book sale and then the fan has $40 left over for two more hardcovers from other writers, but then, I’m not particularly mercenary (and I’m a fan of both Charlie and Stephenson).
Additional point to make here: Charlie and Neal Stephenson and I are all much more likely to be choices for a “true fan” commitment than someone just starting out, because we all have track records that indicate some notable level of success: Award nominations, sales, etc. Once the “true fans” run the gauntlet of the artists they already know they like, there are likely substantially fewer to spread their largess amongst the previously untried.
4 . “True Fans” may not stay true fans. Just because you’ve managed to convince someone to shell out $100 to you in one year, doesn’t mean they’ll do it again next year. Your output might slip and they could decide to put their money somewhere else. Something you create might not appeal to them, and they choose not to renew their “true fandom.” Their incomes might drop. Maybe they have kids. Maybe they start playing more XBox. Who knows. The point is, if you consider “True Fans” in a business sense, you’ll have to expect a substantial amount of drop-off from year to year, and you’ll have acquire more “true fans” to make up for those you lost. You have fun with that.
Finally, a financial note:
5. Just because a “true fan” spends $100 on you doesn’t mean you get $100. Remember those really excellent folks who spent $250 to buy a lettered limited edition of one of my books? Well, most of that money goes somewhere else other than my pocket — mostly to the publisher, who, to be fair, did have to pay to produce the book (I’m okay with this, incidentally). The kid who spends $100 on a concert and a t-shirt is giving most of her money to people other than the band she came to see, even when the band gets a cut of t-shirt sales. And so on. Short of 1,000 fans actually sending the artist $100 free and clear (and over and above whatever output of the artist they may purchase), the chances of an artist grossing $100,000 off of 1000 fans is pretty slim.
Now, having said that, there are lots of examples of artists saying to fans “help fund my next project,” and then having fans pitch in a certain amount — basically, acting as commissioning agents for a work. I could see 1,000 fans pitching in $100 for something like that and then the artist using that money to create the work (provided, per point one, you have a large enough audience that you can sift through them to get these folks). But this isn’t what Kevin Kelly’s talking about when he’s talking about that $100,000; he’s clearly at least initially talking about that hundred grand as income: “If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks,” says the article.
But this formulation doesn’t square. Even if an artist cuts out the middleman and sells everything direct, there’s still going to be a huge difference between net and gross. Let’s say that I write a book and publish it through Lulu.com. Lulu charges a certain amount for each book printed (the Zoe’s Tale copies I made for myself there were $16 or so) and then charges for handling fulfillment (i.e., shipping and handling). Let’s say I sell each copy for $20, minus postal charges. I’ll only get $4 of the $20 the fan has paid for the work. I could possibly print them cheaper by not doing a publish on demand option, but I’d still have to pay a printer, pay for shipping materials, and (if I don’t have a lot of space in the basement for dozens of cartons of books) pay for storage.
I’m using books as examples, but this problem crops up however an artist provides tangible goods or when there is some sort of production and/or distribution cost. No matter how you slice it, you’re not getting $100,000 from your “true fans” unless they’re giving you money with no expectation of recompense — which is not a great way to guarantee continued support.
Again: it’s not impossible to get 1,000 “true fans.” It can be done. The problem is that Kevin Kelly, in his enthusiasm, wants to make it seem that getting 1,000 people to give you $100 is no great trick. What I am telling you is that it actually is — it’s a pretty damn neat trick, in point of fact. Even if you manage it, the financial reward is not likely to be anything close to what you had hoped for, nor will it likely be as permanent as Kelly seems to imply.
In other words: “1,000 true fans” is no real short cut to making a living off of your creative work. If you think it is, you’re likely to be disappointed. And well short of 1,000 true fans.