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."
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."