Tech writer Kevin Kelley popularized the idea of the “1,000 True Fans,” which pops up again and again in creative circles. (You can read his original article here.) The basic idea is that you do not need to have a blockbuster song/painting/movie/book in order to be successful, which for the sake of discussion we’ll define as making a living at your craft. Rather, Mr. Kelley argues, all you need is 1,000 True Fans, defined as:
someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.
These are the people that, as Mr. Kelley explains, will pay (something like) an entire day’s wages every year for your stuff. He uses $100 as an example, but it could be $50 or even $30. It will vary of course, but 1,000 people paying you (on average) $50-100 a year is a fair living, even after book production expenses.
I don’t have this idea printed and hanging in my office, but I’ve always liked it as a kind of thought experiment. As Mr. Kelley points out, it makes success seem achievable. (There’s plenty in the world that makes it seem impossible.) You don’t need a million people. You just need a thousand. You can get a thousand.
The problem, as some of you astute folks probably realized, is that writers don’t produce $100 of merchandise in a year. Or $50. Or even $30.
In fact, after doing a quick informal (and completely unscientific) review of a bunch of writer’s annual releases on Amazon, I’d say that the average True Fan in fiction — someone who buys everything a writer produces — is handing to the writer less than $10 a year. That’s one hour’s wages and less than what most people spend on coffee in a week.
The number of True Fans needed in publishing is more like 10,000, and that’s if you are producing a couple full-length books a year, which I am not. (So far, not even close.) That means the number for me is more like 30,000 True Fans.
Think about that. I’ve lived in towns whose entire population is less than that. Suddenly the whole “true fans” concept isn’t really making things seem any easier!
Incidentally, this is why traditional publishers pursue a mass market/broadcast model and why successful writers (both indie and traditional) place so much emphasis on their back catalog — it’s the only way you can generate enough inventory. It’s not that anyone wants to bilk their readers. It’s just that if you have someone who is interested in your stuff — a rare commodity — the value of their single purchase barely makes their attention worthwhile.
This is also why “boutique fiction” is not ever going to be a thing. The local artisanal cheese shop, or a freelance artist online, need only produce 4 products a year — or one a quarter — at $15-25 per in order to have enough product for the 1,000 True Fans (or 2,000 or 5,000 or whatever) concept to make sense.
But note, this not an argument to raise book prices. They are largely set by the market and so are out of our control anyway. Besides, the low unit cost is not the issue. Rather, it’s the time of production. Your local hipster coffee shop stays in business on a series of three-dollar transactions, but unlike writers, they can keep selling to the same customers, over and over, two or three times a day, several days a week, because their time of production is measured in minutes, not months (or years).
The 1,000 True Fans thought experiment, applied to publishing, confirms the depressing advice you hear so often: “pump out as many books as you can as fast as you can.” Publishing is a numbers game. It’s closer to broadcasting than art. Quality might be important, but it’s secondary to volume. In fact, just this past week, indie publishing mogul David Gaughran announced that his strategy would shift going forward. He said his colleagues have been giving him this advice for years, but he’s been too stubborn to take it:
Write a series.
Write in a popular genre.
Write as fast as you can.
He admitted that somewhat dishearteningly. I dishearteningly admit he may be right.