One thousand true fans

The sweet smell of success.

Recently I was reminded of a blog post Kevin Kelly wrote in 2008 about success in the arts. It made a big impression on me when I first encountered it. Wondering if it was still available, I searched and found it instantly: It’s titled “1,000 True Fans”.

It’s a remarkably prescient piece of writing. Although it was never intended to be an inspirational motivator (“Write your bestseller NOW!” or of that ilk), it actually works much like one because it clearly demonstrates how reachable success in the arts can be. Every creator in any medium should study it.

Consider the reason the traditional publishing route remains so seductive to writers. Success appears to be meeting a clear end goal: Acceptance by a major publisher with a seven-figure contract. For bonus points, secure a movie or streaming deal. That sounds an awful lot like “success” by any modern definition. Achievement unlocked!

Independent publishing, on the other hand, doesn’t have such a well-defined end point. When are you a “success” in self-publishing? When you sell a hundred books? A thousand? A million?

(Note that the definition of success I spell out for traditional publishing doesn’t mention anything about per-copy sales; publisher acceptance is the validation. I find that goalpost-shifting to be interesting.)

Kevin Kelly’s “1,000 True Fans” cuts through the above crap, but not with hand-wavey exhortations to be true to one’s self or fist-shaking over how capitalism has beggared the arts. He offers hard and round numbers as a metric:

To be a successful creator you don’t need millions. You don’t need millions of dollars or millions of customers, millions of clients or millions of fans. To make a living as a craftsperson, photographer, musician, designer, author, animator, app maker, entrepreneur, or inventor you need only thousands of true fans.

A true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce.

One thousand sounds like a big number at first, but it’s a graspable number, a count within reach of mere mortals. This is one reason I really like his observation. One thousand is a concrete, realistic, and reachable objective.

The kicker is the last line: A fan that will buy anything you produce. That’s the hard part, because it involves shifting someone’s mind. (If nothing else, the screaming madness that is Twitter should go down as proof how hard it is to change people’s minds.) It’s not enough to find a thousand people to buy your book—they must be so impressed, they want to buy your next book, even before you’ve written it.

Kelly supports his thousand-true-fans claim with a couple of requirements and some back-of-the-envelope arithmetic:

  1. You need to earn $100 per year from each true fan.

  2. Your true fans must pay you directly.

If both cases are true, you’ll earn $100,000 per year, which should be enough to pursue your art full-time. If you’re willing to earn less, you can even trim some of those numbers back: Only 750 true fans, for example, or 1,000 true fans paying you $50 per year.

Share Always Be Publishing

It seems to me that Kelly, in 2008, was predicting the self-publishing model. Yes, Amazon remains a middleman (you’re not being paid directly by your readers), but Amazon’s 70% royalty rate for Kindle Select is damn close to the 100% royalty rate direct payment entails. And remember, publishers are not the only middleman in the traditional publishing model. There’s the bookstore, the shipping company, the distributors, your agent…

Look: If you can crank out one book every two months, and if you can earn $5 a copy, that’s $30 per year right there. Publish a book a month and you’ve doubled it to $60. Throw in a Patreon account for your true fans to contribute to, and add the revenue from your non-true fans who buy a book or two from you to see what the hub-bub is about. Do all that, and you might edge over the $100/year average.

A book a month sounds like a lot of writing, though. (Of course, if you want to write full-time, what kind of output do you think that means?) This is why I tell people who want to make a living writing fiction to produce romance novels. They can be written quickly, sell briskly, can be priced high, and are easy to package and market.

Building and maintaining a 1,000-true-fan base sounds like a job unto itself. The seduction of the traditional publishing route is that it cuts out all this hustling. A publishing contract brings with it editors, marketers, publicity, a sales force, and so on. The publisher does the hustling. You, the writer, cash their checks, lean back, and think about your next book.

Here’s the problem, though. I’ve read about and met writers who inked traditional publishing contracts and never made a living writing books. They teach or they work a desk job. Some retired early from a high-paying career (and could realistically do whatever they want). Many have spouses or partners who bring home big money, or they come from wealthy families. A dirty open secret in the writing community is that most part-time or full-time writers have other means of support, often a significant amount of support.

More discouraging is that many of these writers had books published, went through one or two printings, and watched the title fade into the background. Some of them even admitted a sense of failure they had to deal with after the bloom of publication faded. Many attempted to publish a second book, and some even managed to do so, but again, they couldn’t quit their jobs. Getting published was a one-off in their life, not a once-locked door being flung wide open for them to step through.

Yes, there are writers who make a full-time living writing books—writing a lot of books, it turns out. They almost are always genre writers. John Updike is the only literary novelist I can name off the top of my head who truly made a career off his writing alone. Even Updike leaned heavily on income from writing book reviews, though. (Plus, hey—he wrote for the New Yorker. It’s a good gig if you can swing it.)

These counterexamples only prove Kelly’s point. “1,000 True Fans” reframes the question of success from a single large victory to a string of small victories over the long haul. Success as a writer isn’t about signing a contract, being interviewed by a major newspaper, or seeing your book in a bookstore. Success is about making a connection with readers that is so thorough, they’ll become your #1 fan. If you can connect with a thousand people—a small, manageable number!—you’ll find sustainable success.

Kevin Kelly expanded and updated the essay since he first published it. It’s a long read, but worth it. Pour yourself a coffee and check it out.

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