Do 1000 True Fans Make You A Living?

Lately I’ve been seeing talk about this idea that being able to make a living as an independent writer, artist, musician or insert your creative craft here _____ hinges on achieving a magical number of “true fans.” The number that crops up most often is 1000. Kevin Kelly talks about this idea pretty extensively in a Technium post here and Copyblogger’s Brian Clark also takes a swing at the idea here. The basic notion behind the hypothesis is that a true fan will buy the vast majority of what you produce directly, as well as any related merchandise, to the tune of some guesstimated figure. If you do as Kelly does and put that figure at $100 per year/per true fan, you get annual gross earnings of $100,000. In other words, you can make a living without achieving some kind superstardom.

The true fan hypothesis can be equated to ideas like micro-patronage that drive websites like Kickstarter, IndieGoGo, and BandCamp. The runaway success of a handful of projects and the surprisingly high number of projects that at least hit minimum funding goals on these sites seems to support this idea. Yet, as Kelly details in much less frequently discussed posts here and here, there seems to be a distinct lack of real world evidence to support the 1000 true fans idea, which jives with my intuition about the hypothesis.

One of the problems I see with this idea relates a problem I discussed with the idea of essentially purchasing exposure on blogs with guest posts and giveaways here. The problem, of course, is time. True fans are fans that you interact with regularly in person, by email or via social media. Granted, you don’t interact with every fan every day, but you’re going to have to devote a lot of time to interacting with a lot of fans; a problem musician Robert Rich discusses. Time is probably the single most valuable resource creative types possess, aside from the actual skill set they use in creating. Time is also finite and not fungible.

All of this brings to mind Seth Godin’s book, We Are All Weird. In it Godin discusses how marketers have to adapt to the slow collapse of mass marketing as a strategy and he predicts future success will depend on marketing to niches. His contention seems to be that eventually, all businesses will be looking for their true fans as their primary source of income. Yet, as someone who reads and writes a fair bit about marketing, I’m inclined to think that even if Godin’s prediction pans out, the niches he discusses are not niches composed of 1000 people. I think he probably means niches composed of 100,000 or 1,000,000 people. Compared to a 6 billion-plus global population, those are tiny niches. For the purposes of marketing, though, you can’t use a true fan strategy to capture a market share that size.

Even for an individual creator looking to secure a livable annual income, I don’t think the true fan strategy can be your only or even your main strategy. I think you should make it a point to develop true fan relationships, but you should develop them with what marketers call influencers. For creative types, these are bloggers, reviewers, Facebook personalities or Twitter personalities that hold sway with the niche market you’re trying to capture. For the rank and file fans you hope to develop, those who can be more or less counted on to pick up a copy of your new book or album most of the time, you still need some level of more traditional marketing. It should be much smaller scale to reflect the smaller size of your intended market, but, in my opinion, you cannot be replaced those marketing techniques by securing 1000 true fans.

Please leave a comment and tell me what you think about the 1000 true fans approach.

Relationships versus Transactions

Image courtesy of Craftyjoe/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Image courtesy of Craftyjoe/ FreeDigitalPhotos.net

Not too long ago, I wrote a blog post for another site where I set out some strategies for indie authors to improve their odds of securing reviews for their books. (You can read the post here.) One of suggestions I made was to develop relationships with reviewers. This suggestion was met with a comment that suggested authors should essentially buy space on review sites by providing books to give away, doing guest posts and so on. I should say that I am confident that this approach works, at least some of the time, but it sits wrong in my gut. I just wasn’t entirely sure why until I read Michael Port’s book, Book Yourself Solid.

While the book is aimed at service providers, Port’s entire strategy for getting booked solid is built on the foundation of developing relationships with potential clients, with other service providers, and even with your existing clients. He essentially argues that much of business relies too heavily on the idea of transactions, which are fundamentally one-time events. Relationships, on the other hand, are more likely to result in an ongoing exchange that both parties find valuable. Buying exposure on a book review site seems to me to focus too much on the transaction between reviewer and author, while dismissing the value of a relationship between reviewer and author.

I would be a little put off by someone who wanted me to write a guest post who hadn’t at least read one of my books or spent some time reading my blog first. To make a guest post a cost of entry to even consider reviewing your book strikes me as deeply counterintuitive. In the first place, if I’m effectively paying for exposure with giveaway copies or a guest post, then it only follows that the reviewer has a vested interest in giving me at least a middling, if not great, review, regardless of my skill as a writer. While this may serve me as an exposure seeker and, in the short term, the reviewer/blogger who gets a week off from content generation, it dilutes the credibility of the reviewer.

What if I wrote a bad book? What if I wrote a horrifyingly bad book? If the reviewer scores it well, people will be disappointed or angry or disgusted with the deception. If the reviewer gives it a legitimate review and says it’s awful, then I have no incentive to ever provide this person with a review copy or guest blog again. After all, why would I pay for bad exposure?

Then there are the logistical problems with the transactional model. Let’s say I submit my book to 50 reviewers and 25 accept, on the condition that I provide a guest post. Let’s say that I excel at writing quality blog posts and can write one in an hour. That still means I need to spend 25 hours writing guest posts. That may be a manageable number, but what if 50 or 100 or 150 reviewers accept on that same basis. I’ve basically gone from being a novelist to a full time guest blogger for the foreseeable future, without considering any other marketing actions at all.

The transactional approach is limited by basic time constraints and self-corrupting in its expectation setting. While it may serve a function in getting the marketing ball rolling, I don’t see how it can work as a sustained marketing effort for an indie author.