The Technium

The Stars of 1,000 True Fans


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The notion of 1,000 True Fans was a theory I suggested a few years ago. It got a lot of web attention. The idea is that an artist, musician, filmmaker, photographer, or author might be able to make a decent living supported by just 1,000 true fans. A true fan is someone who would buy whatever you produced during the year, and would spend say at least $50 on your stuff, go to every one of your shows, or signings, purchase anything you produced. If the independent artist dealt directly with these fans, getting most of what they paid (unlike the deal under publishers, labels, studios, galleries) then the arithmetic suggested an artist could, in theory, need no more than 1,000 fans to make a $50,000 living.

That was the theory. The question was, were there any stars of 1,000 true fans? Was anyone actually doing this? My friend Jaron Lanier threw up an even more realistic challenge: were there any examples of artists surviving on direct fans who did not migrate from some kind of success with “old media” first? In other words, do we see any a true-fan supported indie artist going digital first?

Back then in 2008, I could only find three artists who might have qualified. I felt that it was still a little earlier because this process would almost by definition, take time to cultivate.

Now several years later I can point to a whole pile of creative people who are making a good living independent of traditional media mediators, who are living directly off their fans.

The biggest star these days is Amanda Hocking, who is selling 100,000 ebooks on Kindle per month, and keeping most of that money ($3-5 retail). (FYI, her books are low-brow vampire Twilight knockoffs.) As one publisher whispered online: “there is no traditional publisher in the world right now that can offer Amanda Hocking terms that are better than what she’s currently getting, right now on the Kindle store, all on her own.”

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That quote came from Eli James of Novelr, who has a fantastic report on the Hocking/ebook phenomenon. James makes it clear that there is a score of other independent authors also making a living selling their books on the Kindle. And James notes, of the list of the 25 best selling authors on the Kindle, “only six have had previous print deals with major publishers.” That is, three quarters of these stars are digital natives.

Much of this fictional work is currently being serialized on the web for free, and that will probably change as writers and audience head for the low-cost books on the Kindle. We are seeing the same with comics and graphic novels, as free web versions move to the paid iPad and tablet format. And there are many examples of games being sold directly to fans. The star of that realm is Marcus Persson who has sold more than one million copies of his $20 game Minecraft, all by word of mouth from direct fans and not dime of marketing.

But let’s go back to the math of the Kindle authors. While their cut is better than traditional publishers, it is not 100% (70% at the most), and the price is low, very low. Let’s say they average $1 profit per book — that is about the same as the royalty on a paper book. So if they are able to produce one book per year, they need not 1,000 true fans, not 10,000, but 100,000 fans. The solution for authors is to sell more than just the book. They sell the uncut version, or the notes, the shorts, an audio version, an anthology, etc. And by definition, the true fan will purchase all these, which raises their support to more than a few dollars to tens of dollars. But in the digital marketplace, prices per piece will be low, unless the supplemental goods and services are personalized or limited.

While there are now stars of true-fandom, most indie creators, on average, are not making a living off their true fans. There are still way fewer digital native artists thriving without publishers than those with some deals in New York. I have not read Amanda Hocking’s books, but I like her blog. She has been cautioning people from extracting too much significance from her success. She pointed out another writer, J. L. Bryan, who was in almost every way, her twin. She says: “By all accounts, he has done the same things I did, even writing in the same genre and pricing the books low. And he’s even a better writer than I am. So why am I selling more books than he is? I don’t know.”




Comments
  • http://adamgurri.com AdamGurri

    Fascinating stuff. A couple of years ago I wrote something similar about how webcomic artists are making their living–people who started online and were never in a paper publication prior to being a webcomic artist.

    There are a few webcomics like Penny Arcade that get millions of views a month and so are able to sell merchandise and the like to a fraction of their audience and do just fine. But then there are some, like one called Errant Story, that have much much smaller audiences but a large percentage of that audience were willing to support the artist directly through monthly donations.

    While the odds of being able to make a living as a comic artist are still slim (since the fact that it’s so much easier to put it in public means by definition that there’s massively more competition) an artist no longer has to be a huge blockbuster success in order to get by. As you say, the number of “true fans” you get is more important than the size of your overall audience.

  • http://evocative.asia/ Alex Trup

    I do believe in the 1,000 fan theory to some extent – although it really does depend on the costs of production and how much profit you can realistically derive from your fans. Literature has such a low barrier to entry in terms of cost, that it’s “relatively” easy to turn a book or three around in a year.

    I’m currently working with my partner (www.facebook.com/NaomiYohani) to record her debut album (which is Mandarin R&B/pop). It’s taken the best part of a couple of years as we are doing most of it ourselves to the highest quality we can. Also there are lots of costs associated with creating “commercially viable” music – not just the hardware, but certain music licensing costs, post production etc. I think for what we’re doing, to survive purely on fans would realistically need about 50,000-100,000 fans. The number could be considerably smaller for a musician that mostly sings over acoustic guitar tracks and therefore might have much lower costs.

    Another thing I’m looking to venture into more heavily is podcasting. There’s quite a few great podcasters that are trying to survive on a fan donation model, while others are selling archived episodes and I think they’re doing not too badly. Again though, the scale is more about the tens of thousands of fans.

  • http://www.brianshall.com/ Brian S Hall

    I’ve said for years: Information wants to be monetized!

  • BillSeitz

    Hrm, these authors are a nice argument for broadening-the-tail or something, but don’t seem like they really qualify as TrueFans players, as it doesn’t sound like many people are giving them $100/yr.

    Also, do you have any examples in genres where artifact-production costs are significantly higher than books and music (e.g. dance and theater)?

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Bill, I don’t have any examples of dance and theater; wish I did. As I explained in the original piece, different media might require different amounts of fans or fees. I wonder if there are any street dancers with true fans? I don’t see why a dance could not have true fans, in theory.

  • http://twitter.com/blueluck Steve Vig

    I’m a fan of the 1,000 True Fans model, largely because it minimizes the influence of extravagant business & advertising structures like record labels and publishing houses, while maximizing the benefit to and influence of creators, all while maximizing value to the end customer by lowering the price they pay for goods.

    One thing that bothers me about the model, however, is that I never expect to be a True Fan. My tastes just don’t run that way. Most of my favorite authors write some books that I have no interest in reading, my favorite bands record some albums I can’t stand, and my favorite artists are favorites because I love 20% of their work. Also, I’m not a memorabilia collector, so I have no desire whatsoever to own a t-shirt, poster, collectors edition, or commemorative whats-it.

    On the other hand, I have very broad tastes, and I’m willing to pay for experiences. Recent expenditures include music (an opera, Mama Mia, Rammstein, a couple DJ nights, and a couple street performers), Intercon K, restaurant week, two books, one historical site, one museum, and one print. I don’t think any of those particular artists or institutions will be getting more money from me in the near future, but others certainly will.

    I’d like to propose a parallel model to 1,000 True Fans. Perhaps it should be called 1,000 Opportunists or 1,000 Willing to Try Something Out. An example of this in action would be a musician on tour. They’re certainly going to sell more than 1,000 tickets during a tour, very likely something over 10,000 tickets. (10 week tour, 3 performances/week, 300+ tickets/show. For a typical musician, that’s a fairly short, fairly unhurried, tour of rather small venues.) If this artist can cover expenses plus clear $1/ticket, they’ve made $10,000 in a quarter year. If they can also make $5/album from one in twenty-five fans, they’ve made the $50,000 annual mark.

    A difficulty of this model is the advertising. While reaching 1,000 true fans might be as simple as an email list or RSS feed, these opportunists will need to find out who and what you are before you get their $20 one-time investment.

    So, how do you reach me, the opportunist?
    1. Through your true fans, if you have them. Start a Facebook page for each of your events and get your true fans to invite those they know locally. Make a 8.5×11 printable poster, and ask your fans to distribute them for you. Perhaps even run some kinds of promotion for fans that rewards them for promo work. (Back stage pass for the person who heads up your local promotion, perhaps.)

    2. Samples. Offer a couple free tracks, videos, or whatever you have. Venues will do a little advertising for you, but if all they get across is a name and a photo, you’re not going to attract paying customers. On the other hand, an add that leads to some samples might hook a listener.

    3. Taste tribes. Get hooked in with artists that appeal to a similar crowd. Share links, mentions, and credits.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Steve,

      You present an insightful challenge. How to reach beyond True Fans to True Opportunists? That’s a really good question.

  • bowerbird

    i’d rather have a million “lukewarm fans”
    willing to give me one dollar per year…

    -bowerbird

  • http://officialbuziness.com/ Nick Sparagis

    I think the 1000 true fans is an incomplete theory. I like Malcom Gladwells “tipping point” theory better b/c it’s more complete. I feel that the 1000 true fans was something you backed into. You can’t have a million fans before you have a thousand and you can’t have a thousand before you have one. Sound simplistically stupid, but think about it.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Yes, use whatever metaphor you find more helpful.

  • http://davidtlang.com David Lang

    Over the past 8 months, I’ve spent an inordinate amount of time working with artists and (mostly) entrepreneurs using various crowdfunding platforms. I referenced the 1,000 True Fan theory numerous times. However, for beginning entrepreneurs, I found that it was really helpful to include the 100 True Believers as a supplemental theory. I think there’s a number of other, unexplored milestones along the Artist to Audience Ratio timeline:
    http://davidtlang.com/post/3286945268/100-true-believers-an-introduction-to-the-artist-to

  • Tellman Knudson

    Hey Kevin – A potter buddy of mine turned me onto your 1000 True Fans post a few years back and I’ve been talkign about it ever since! Thanks so much for creating such insightful work. You open or interested in an interview (I have 250,00 email-fans who’d love your message).

    Thanks man.

    • Kevin_Kelly

      Sure. Email me.

      • Tellman Knudson

         I’d love to… But i don’t have your email. You should be able to see mine in your admin area. (or tell me where to find yours).