1000 True Fans: Making Money Off Your Blook

Johnathan CoultonJohnathan Coulton is a B musician who makes enough money to get by. He is not yet the Timberlake millionare, nor is he a commercialized pop idol. You’ll probably never hear of him in mainstream media, in fact – no MTV showcases, certainly no Channel V music videos. And yet he has plenty to do, and his fans are a dedicated, semi-international bunch. He does tours. His CDs find their way into the hands of those willing to listen. And, most importantly, he replies to your email.

Coulton is one of the few musicians who have found a way to make a living online. I first discovered him in late 2007, and I’ve been a firm subscriber to his feed ever since (with good cause – he does a weekly song, often with fan input). I was rummaging through my online bookmarks when I found the NYT article that introduced me to him, and it got me thinking about how his model could be applied to blooking.

1000 True Fans

Before we apply anything to anything (and get into a big shmooze fest), let’s take a look at what other people have been saying about the business model Coulton – and others like him – have been implementing. Wired founding editor Kevin Kelly has named this concept ‘1000 True Fans’, and it says this:

A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.

1000 True Fans is an extension of The Long Tail, and is only logical because the Long Tail heaps benefits on chiefly two parties: individuals and content aggregators (eg: you and Amazon). Creators still don’t really benefit: if their product is bought it may do well in the long run, but only for the store that sells it. You aren’t going to make a lot of money with flops, unless you have a) a lot of them, or b) a few hits.

So 1000 True Fans leverages the Long Tail in such a way that even B artists get enough coverage and enough sales to survive. How do they do it? What is the nitty gritty of their daily lives? The NYT article gives us some insights.

Coulton earns what he calls ‘a decent middle class living’ – $3000 to $5000 a month, and he does it through CDs and digital downloads of his music on both iTunes and his own site. He gets about 3000 visitors a day, his songs are downloaded 500,000 times, and his fan base is so dedicated he’s got people doing illustrations for his weekly songs, for absolutely nothing. He sells his CDs this via contract with a virtual fulfillment house called CD Baby, which processes the credit card payment for each sale and ships it out, taking a $4 slice (much less than an actual label – this sounds a lot like Lulu and Blurb for musicians, doesn’t it?). He also makes money by offering his songs for free (the Radiohead pay-what-you-want model) with payment through donations. And it works – the Radiohead model just seems made for the Internet. Other musicians are even more ingenious: Canadian folk-pop singer Jane Siberry’s site shows the average price for songs, thus creating a subtle minimum standard for her fans and earning her more per track than if she sold through iTunes.

Applying 1000 True Fans To Writers

It doesn’t take a genius to see the parallels between the writing and the music spheres. The NYT article throws a quick reference to us writers:

Will the Internet change the type of person who becomes a musician or writer? It’s possible to see these online trends as Darwinian pressures that will inevitably produce a new breed — call it an Artist 2.0 — and mark the end of the artist as a sensitive, bohemian soul who shuns the spotlight. In “The Catcher in the Rye,” J. D. Salinger wrote about how reading a good book makes you want to call up the author and chat with him, which neatly predicted the modern online urge; but Salinger, a committed recluse, wouldn’t last a minute in this confessional new world.

What Coulton can do, writers can do also. Our CD Baby is Lulu, or Blurb – self publishing services that take a slice out of every sale. We can make a dollar or two through ads on our blogs and T-shirt sales, or we can be slightly more creative and do a subscription service like Fray. Our stories are open to all – we just have to remember that, like the web comic world, people want to buy what they’ve read for free online. And, most importantly, we can engage with our readers – have a chat, be a friend, like what Salinger proposes.

The only thing that remains is writing something brilliant … and finding that 1000 true fans.

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Category: Making Money · Writing Web Fiction
  • http://jpsmythe.com/fact James Smythe

    Eli, I sort of agree, but there’s problems – aren’t there always? See, Coulton is, at best, a niche artist, despite his recent ‘Portal’-related fame. And said fame has boosted his sales etc. As writers, self-publishing on Lulu – and you know my thoughts on that, as blunt as they are – there is no publicity, and you are definitely a niche artist. And the further shame remains: if something is, as you say, “brilliant” it will reach an audience, and that audience will truly be larger than whatever Lulu can actually offer – see the amount of novels born from Lulu accounts that then disappear and end up at supposed ‘real’ publishers.

    What you have with Coulton – and my current favourite, Abraham of the band Bay Teeth (http://52teeth.wordpress.com) – is a situation wherein they are changing what they do because of the fans, because they are recording 5 minutes at a time, and that input can be invaluable. Want to open up your writing/editing to those 100) fans? Heck, opening it up to 10 fans, 10 individual editors with individual tastes and opinions would be implausible to manage, let alone 1000. I suppose you would treat your fans, instead, to glimpses of your process, of future writing, inviting comments but not actually offering any away in the progress. And, if you’re writing a song a week, that’s an album every few months, and that’s more money. As an author, can you really knock out 4 novels a year, sans editor, and claim any actual quality control? I know I couldn’t, and I don’t think I know of any author who could. At best they would offer a book a year, and 1000 people at $8 a pop – well, that isn’t enough to feed the cat, really.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    Welcome back, James. =)

    It’s interesting that you talk about commenting and the writing process, because like you I don’t believe in opening up your writing to just about every Internet tom, dick and harry that comes your way. I’ve a post drafted on this topic, (it’s 3 weeks old and gathering dust), and I believe that writing is still very much a lonely job. It can’t be done with doors open all the time.

    That being said, why not? Why can’t an ongoing blook have 1000 True Fans, despite not being big on feedback? I think this is entirely possible: as long as the author understands the nature of online commenting and understands that ‘a chat with the author’ does not equal ‘I’m a fan can you change this please?’ So you’re right in the sense that writing is different from music, but I suppose this difference also lends itself to the importance of feedback.

    And the further shame remains: if something is, as you say, “brilliant” it will reach an audience, and that audience will truly be larger than whatever Lulu can actually offer – see the amount of novels born from Lulu accounts that then disappear and end up at supposed ‘real’ publishers.

    Now that’s a good one. Never thought about it from that POV, but rest assured I’ll be thinking about that point for a long, long time.

  • http://washparkprophet.blogspot.com ohwilleke

    The economics of online fiction in a donation model are pretty close to the economics of an opera company, or a symphony, or a community theater, or NPR, or a church. They are structured as non-profits to facilitate price discrimination without fear that those paying more will have their contributions siphoned off to some other purpose.

    Read your next performing arts or fine arts presentation program and you’ll get a sense of how it is structured. All operate on some version of the 80-20 rule — 20% of your fans provide 80% of the revenue. If you have 1000 true fans, and are making $52,000 a year; 200 of those fans are contributing an average of $210 a year, and 800 of those fans are contributing an average of $13 a year. Even within those groupings, a pretty small inner circle of fans end up being the patrons of the effort, while the vast majority make only a minimum or token contribution. If every fan is contributing the same amount, you need far more than 1000 true fans to be viable. but if a good share of them are acting like art patrons and philanthropists, you don’t.

    Many webcomic artists throw in the perks of the traditional non-profit structure by doing “commissions” on a paid basis for fans flush enough to afford them.

    The low variable cost of internet production means it makes sense to bring the threshold for paying donors much lower than live performance groups do where the cost of even the cheap seats have to cover real world costs associated with getting a space big enough to have that many seats.

    The payoff to the big contributors is that what they want to have produced wouldn’t happen without their outside contribution. The are the Medici’s writ small. They are paying to make quality work that currently doesn’t have mass appeal possible. Since the big contributors pay the piper, they also drive the creative agenda. Work that attracts big contributions thrives; work that appeals to the lowest common denominator is likely to flounder unless it can receive backing from a conventional publisher.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    That is a wonderful addition to my post, ohwilleke . I think I’ve found a term for this kind of model both of us are talking about – the ‘gift economy’.

    At any rate, thank you for your observations. They opened my eyes to other forms of this model’s implementation.

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