Rethinking 1000 True Fans

1000 True Fans is the idea that any creator on the Internet – be it writer, or artist, or musician, need only 1000 true (or obsessed) fans to make a living. When I first covered it back in 2008 I assumed that this rule would translate as easily to the realm of online literature the same way it had worked for Johnathan Coulton (music) and Jason Kottke (blogs) and Randall Munroe (webcomics), and for at least a dozen other people fortunate enough to have garnered sizable Internet followings around whatever it is that they create.

Late last year, however, some nine months after I first wrote that 1000 True Fans post, Alexandra Erin posted in her blog to say that she was in danger of shutting down. At that moment in time Erin had been making a living from her online fiction for about a year, living off donations and ad revenue from the four serials under her name and having a rather good time of it (for the most part). Her situation was dire. The purpose of that blogpost was to request contributions from her readership, and if you’d go take a look you’d realize that her fanbase responded – and responded beautifully. Together, they donated $5000 or so within the first 24 hours (Erin only required $3000 to get out of trouble); a few days later, she announced that the eventual amount was somewhere in the range of $6000-$7000. 

In one way, at least, this particular episode tells us that the 1000 True Fans hypothesis is correct: make an outright request to your fanbase, and if the fanbase is large enough they’re likely to fulfill that request for you. But look slightly beyond that and we’ll find that there’s a problem with the way the 1000 True Fans theory is applied to blooking. Put simply, there are less established ways to make money from online fiction as compared to blogging, or webcomics, or music.

The Problem With Fiction

The most obvious problem you’ll face as a blooker when you attempt to make money from your fiction writing is that of product. It takes far longer to write a novel than it does to produce a song, or to write a blog post, or even to publish a collection of webcomics. And even if you do, say, write two novels per year, and by some chance you manage to publish them on your website after an impeccable editing process, you still have to live with the fact that books – and in this context self-published books – do not command the same money-to-effort ratio that other types of web-powered media (e.g.: music, for instance) commands. Consider: a self-published book costs about $16.00. An mp3 from Coulton costs $1. At his prime Coulton churned out a song a week, so let’s say for the sake of argument that an mp3 takes him a week to finish. What have we, money-to-effort wise? If we take the number of hours needed to create that book/song, and we divide it by the price of purchase, we’ll find that a self-published book makes you $0.0037 per hour, while a song makes you $0.0060 per hour. Not a big difference, but remember that a song a week results in a lot more product than two books a year. Writing books and banking on book sales surely isn’t the way forward, not unless you’ve got an audience numbering in the thousands.

So the second source of income in your online operation that we have to talk about is that of site revenue – and that includes ads and themed t-shirts and other cutesy stuff like pillows and mugs that people sell through 3rd party websites. And there we have another problem – ads aren’t particularly effective, not in a fiction-based project, and even the small gains you make from selling ad space through programs like Project Wonderful would arguably be offset by the sheer uglyness those ads would bring to your blook (more on this later). Merchandise, on the other hand, does make sense, but I’ve yet to see any web writer take advantage of this by first creating a visual identity for his or her work, and then extending that established visual identity to pillows, mugs, t-shirts, and so on.

The Real Currency Of The Web

But perhaps we’ve been approaching the 1000 True Fans hypothesis all wrong. Perhaps it isn’t so much of getting those 1000 fans for money as it is getting those 1000 true fans in the first place. For the truth here is that the real currency of the Internet is human attention. No matter who you are, or what you do – if you’re on the Internet your first job would be to earn in the one currency that matters, before even thinking about converting that into real-world money. And the paradox is that you often don’t know how these conversions would take place. As Coulton says it:

But somewhere along the way the bottom line started improving, and I became less obsessed with tracking every little thing. Now I sort of think of the whole engine as a special genetically engineered cow who eats music and poops money – I have no idea what’s going on in its gut, and I have the luxury of not really caring that much about the particulars.

The real reason the cash-making cows (for want of a better name for this kind of business model) work is that you don’t really know how you’re going to earn your money in the near future. Productivity guru Merlin Mann remembers releasing a video on a presentation he made in Google called Inbox Zero, and he remembers releasing the whole thing for free instead of charging for it. The video got watched a gazillion times on Youtube, and not long after corporations began contacting him to do the same thing in their in-house workshops, with pay, of course. That simple act of releasing the video for free earned Mann human attention, which in turn converted to lots of real world money over the next few years, but in a way he didn’t expect. Coulton sums it up like this:

… extrapolate (…) across my entire catalog, across all the things sold that make up my income, across the past and present and future, across all the internet radio stations and file sharing networks and Facebook pages and Twitter posts and the whole wild and wooly internet – you will never know HOW it works, but I can tell you that for me it does. The state of the industry makes a lot more sense when you think of it this way, all these new business models rising and falling, internet radio choking on insanely high performance royalties, Radiohead and NIN giving stuff away and making a killing. This is the thing about the new landscape that drives everyone crazy: you can’t see inside the cow; you can only build one, feed it music, and wait for it to poop.

The real lesson you need to take away from the 1000 True Fans hypothesis isn’t that finding 1000 True Fans would guarantee you the ability to quit your day jobs and make a living writing online fiction. The real lesson in it is that human attention is the only measurement of wealth that matters on the Internet, and once you have it – once you’ve got a significant amount of it and you don’t do things to compromise it (like, say, ugly ads) – you’ve got to keep your mind open about how you’re going to convert that currency into real-world dollars and cents. And that open mindedness is the scary bit about the cash-cow business model – for how do you prepare for something that you don’t know? The answer is – you don’t. You find your fans, you write hard, and then you hope for the best.

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Category: Making Money · Writing Web Fiction
  • Chris or Lethe

    I’ve been putting out content on the Internet for about four years. In the last year, it has been constant.

    Some people are disposed to a single channel of expression, ie a single blog, a single site; I happen to be disposed to many, multiple channels. I work in a very impractical manner and I know it. I produce so many different kinds of content, poetry blog, blog blog, essay blog, novel blog, graphic novel (with a partner), podcast, and yes, even video blog, that I really struggle to build a single base of say 10 fans around my work.

    However, all of my sites and blogs are interlinked and most of them funnel back to the Literary Arts Webzine you see at the top of this page, off to the right. That’s me. Escape into Life.

    Traffic is hard to come by if you are creating artistic content. Good luck. Unless you’re f’n brilliant, bizarre and fresh, or happen to tap into a little known subculture, then it’s very difficult.

    On the other hand, writing about other people’s work, talking about other people’s stuff, can bring you traffic and attention. This is a lesson I’m learning. I’m not going to stop creating my own content, and people do like my work, I get lots of compliments, but it doesn’t attract them in droves, I’ll tell you that.

    I have a Literary Arts Webzine, more of a website, that I mentioned before. Originally, I wanted to promote my own work on the site, my online novels and the graphic novel based on my Las Vegas novel. But now I think I’m going to change the focus of the site. My work will still appear on it, but not prominently. I’m going to put the spotlight on other people.

    The community I’m targeting is “illustrative artists”. The Web has brought me into close contact with what I love, visual art. And I use original visual art in all of my writing, fiction and essay (with links to the artist of course). But now I’m going to take it one step further.

    I plan to dedicate a good part of the site to “Illustrative Art”. I’m going to write reviews of the work of amazing illustrative artists on the Web and create a hub for this community.

    Now this is the way to attract attention. My work will be there. But I want to widen the community.

    The problem with the Internet is there are 80% of people who create content and want others to look at it and admire it. There are 20% of people who read it and only 10% who comment on it. This leaves the 80% squirming for attention and traffic. Let alone FANS!

    Granted, the categories overlap, but the general trend is mass amateurism and mass narcissism, of which, I am no exception.

    So if you asked how to get a 1000 fans, I’ll tell you “easy”. Bring attention to other people. By bringing attention to other people you will bring attention to yourself and your own work (ask Chris Poirer).

    I cannot tell you how many illustrative artists were excited to hear I was writing a review about their work. Even the famous ones want to be noticed. Because even the famous illustrators are still illustrators, which is a side note to the article in a magazine or journal.

    So by admiring and critiquing great illustrative art on the Web, I will be doing a service to my own site, to the artists themselves, and to people who like illustrative art.

    Find a niche, and capitalize on it. Bring attention to others. That’s how you build a fan base. Focusing on yourself so much and your work has tendency to atrophy one’s creativity. Looking at others’ work expands your creativity and appreciation.

  • Eli James

    Chris, I’ll disagree on one point and say that talking about other people isn’t the ‘best‘ way to get the word out about your work. Sure, it’s useful, especially since the Internet is a social place today, but by and large what’ll keep people coming back is the content you’re producing. If it’s good stuff, well-written/thoughtful/it strikes a chord … then you’ll get an audience, one that’ll grow over time.

    I’ve been thinking about what you said to me the other day on how I managed to grow Novelr’s audience. Thinking back on it, I realize now that about 80% of my time was spent producing good stuff on this site, as opposed to going out to other places and asking them to come along and check Novelr out. I produced a body of work, then on occasional excursions to other people’s blogs I left little comments, each linking back to Novelr. I supposed I trusted in Novelr’s ability to pull interested readers in … and over time I suppose this strategy did pay off. But this is very much a softsell, and there are plenty of other people out there who are better marketers than I am …

  • Gavin

    So far, I’ve seen two approaches to building an audience online. One is advertising, and that comes down to how creative your ads are and, more, how much money you have for ads.

    Second, is social networking. Commenting on blogs, visiting other people’s sites and forums, and leaving breadcrumbs back to yourself.

    I built a small but extremely literate audience on No Man an Island by networking, and it made me a better writer and led to my (now peripheral) involvement with the Web Fiction Guide. But I’ve hit a plateau — both with how much energy I have for networking (it’s exhausting!) and with the size of my audience.

    I think patience and tenacity are key here.

  • Chris or Lethe

    Time is the factor. You may be putting out what you call “good work” for years without building a fan base. However, if you focus some of your attention on the community, you’ll accomplish the social networking part of the equation that Gavin points out. Just putting out good work doesn’t necessarily build the fanbase. Trust me, you’ll be playing you’re violin in a void if you haven’t stopped to appreciate others’ work.

    And Eli, your case doesn’t exactly correlate here. I don’t consider Novelr “artistic content.” The information you provide here, the knowledge base, is useful niche discussion. People can really use that. But most original fiction, people can take it or leave it, especially if it aint any good.

  • Eli James

    Seems like a chicken and an egg thing, doesn’t it? If you sell but don’t work on quality there’s no stickiness to your site; if you work but don’t sell you’re going to (like you said) play a violin in a void.

    I still stick by the latter, though – I think almost everything I do is run by the quote ‘quality, no matter how well hidden, will eventually find consumers’ … though for the life of me I can’t remember who said that, and where. That’s not to say what I’m doing here is perfect … I wake up sometimes and wonder if I’m doing enough

  • Chris or Lethe

    Melville, Thoreau, Van Gogh, we could go on and on . . . these greats has few, if any fans . . . Sometimes it takes people awhile, especially cultures at large, to recognize quality and originality. As far as public tastes go, they’re pretty unrefined.

    Whitman was a huge self-promoter; his work was celebrated both during his life and after.

    Maybe it has to do with historical moment, ie forces beyond anyone’s control.

  • Eli James

    Damn you’re right. Didn’t think about artistic content in that manner. Hrmm …

    Well I suppose we can make an argument for the Internet, in that on the web, at least, you can connect with people who won’t otherwise find and enjoy your work. But I’ll admit I’m very inexperienced in the world of art, so I’ve no say in how you’re going to accomplish this. To tell you the truth, I’d never even thought about online galleries until you brought Van Gough up!

  • Chris or Lethe

    Talent goes unrecognized all the time, unfortunately. But with the Internet, there is more possibility (as you said). But this greater pool also means more talent to compete with (for attention).

  • Jan Oda

    This topic is something I’ve been thinking on for a while now. First of all I feel that online authors are fishing in a pond that is still too small. People read on the internet all the time, but there still is a lot of waryness towards online fiction. If we can’t get a bigger crowd enjoying online fiction there will never be 1000 true fans for all of us.

    I do believe that social networking is an important part of reaching your audience. The struggle we’re facing now however is that the social network we’re using are mostly people who are already reading fiction online. The true challenge lies more in converting those that aren’t. And that is where social media seems to be failing. That is, the convertion-rate through social media seems too low.

    I’ve been trying to promote web-fiction through various ways, like Stumble-upon, twitter and recently Squidoo. I’ve put a considerable amount of time in it, because I strongly believe that it will benefit me as an author when I finally publish online. However, results have been dissappointing. Only a few of the authors I discovered on Stumble-upon got additional thumbs up, most were just clicked through.

    The results on Squidoo have been meager, however, it might not been up long enough to throughly understand what it might do. Twitter just seems to flighty, and as your comparison with the mp3’s, online fiction will never be viral enough for twitter I believe.

    For a starting author I believe Entrecard could be a worthwhile time investment, but that is something I will test when I finally publish myself.

    I’d also like to add that a big problem why so few people get converted (I’m starting to hate the term by now), is that 95% of authors drive away possible readers by their design. A lot of the website’s are just ugly, lots of them are okay designwise, but aren’t catchy enough to convince people who haven’t read fiction online to actually try it.
    99% of authors link to their main page, which most of the time isn’t the right strategy. If you are publishing online you should understand what works and doesn’t on the internet, and you should make your design so it works for you in convincing your audience.

    Throwing your content online without thinking just won’t do.

  • JZ

    One thing that I’ve been thinking of doing lately is visiting comics websites and leaving comments when I run across things I find interesting.

    Given what I’m writing, it might get me readers that are outside the current online fiction community.

    The only thing is, while I do keep up with superhero comics to a degree, the last series I was a real fan of is Sandman, and that ended years ago. The sort of thing that interests me in comics is either 1) serious, self-contained stories or 2) stuff that deconstructs the genre in one way or another.

    Unfortunately, the comic companies are way into multiple book spanning events that I really have no interest in, something that means that I’m unlikely to have an opinion worth posting on very many current comic sites.

  • Eli James

    @Jim: I’ve given up on following modern (Western) comics. Multiple timelines, universes, characters that die one issue and are brought back to life in the next year by some over-excited author using a cliched trapped-in-time-cloned-was-killed plot device … it’s horrible, really. I much prefer manga – where characters die and stay dead – or one shot serials like Watchmen. Everything else is just rubbish.

    (God, I just realize my rant has absolutely nothing to do with 1000 true fans … err, right)

  • Nat JM

    Great article and I agree that the Internet currency isn’t money but it is human attention.

    As both a musician and a writer, I am well aware of the difference between the products, ie MP3s and online fiction.

    Myself, I read 100 times more fiction offline than online, but I am eagerly awaiting the release of Kindle in the UK, as I think it will change the way I read fiction.

    What do you, American writers (and readers), think? Kindle has been around for a while over in the USA and do you think it has changed the way people read fiction?

  • Eli James

    I live in Malaysia, Nat. Am still waiting for the Kindle over here. Till then there’s always Stanza for the iPhone/iPod Touch, I suppose.

  • chris

    It has not changed the way people read fiction yet. But I don’t think people are reading as much fiction these days. I hate to say it, but fiction sales are pretty low in the US.

    Whether the Kindle can revitalize that, I don’t know. I think it has a chance in the distant future–when the interface between Internet, book, and other media are seamless and mobile.

  • http:/// Mayowa

    Great post Eli.

    This appears to be the same monetization problem that many tech startups face. Facebook and Twitter (until recently), Four Square etc. all these companies had a difficult time figuring out how to get cash out of their cows.

    It seems to me that an essential problem with writing/publishing blogs as cows is that they mostly attract fellow writers and bloggers. Music sites attract fans as well as musicians and hence the pot (to use poker metaphor) is much larger.

  • chris

    It’s funny that I’m still receiving comment notifications on this post . . . it just goes to show how excellent Eli’s blog is . . . and I haven’t talked to him in awhile . . . I do hope we cross online paths sometime soon . . .

    the reason why I’m responding to the last comment that was made on this post is because I’m sitting in exactly the same position with an online arts journal I started about a year ago called Escape into Life. We get a lot of traffic, almost a half million visitors per month, but most of the traffic “bounces” because it comes from Stumble Upon . . . anyways, I’m actively trying to make a living on this website . . . I invested a huge amount of money into it, and I’m going to be investing more as we develop an e commerce section of the site.

    We publish essays, art reviews, poetry, and lots of art. Building a community was essential to getting attention and traffic and to that extent I’ve been successful. The next big step is to get premium advertisers, this is a bit trickier. I’m not rushing to throw ads up on my site, but based on the traffic we get, I can earn a decent salary. The other thing I plan to do is sell art. Obviously writers only have their books to sell. On an arts site you can sell art. But I’m a little skeptical about how much I can possibly earn on commissions from this. In an extremely lucky scenario, the site could be wildly popular and many people will buy art. But this is a stretch, although of course it remains a possibility.

    I would say as far as writer’s are concerned, premium sponsors are their best bet. If a writer builds a large community around their blog with a significant amount of publicity, major publishing houses and other companies will buy advertising. This can only be the future for writers, even writers who have not published books, but who have “conquered” a significant territory of the web. Anyways, those are my thoughts, reflecting on this moment I’m in as an online publisher. <—-check it out, that's what I do, pretty much day and night, we have over 25 writers

  • http:/// Mayowa


    I’m glad you kept track of the comments. I just found Novelr today and I’m very impressed so far.

    I feel your pain on the monetization issue. There seem to be only a few end games when it comes to monetization for creatives, advertising and subscriptions. If a hugely popular creative site (lots of human attention by definition) can’t generate enough revenue by converting enough of it’s visitors into buyers, the human attention isn’t worth much (moneywise) except through the endgames above.

    While we figure this stuff out, consumers are getting more and more used to free content and less inclined to convert.

    I do think your site (which looks great btw) benefits in the same way as music sites benefit above in that both creators and consumers can find things that attract them there. Methinks the key to this whole biz is to be flexible enough to adapt to and utilize any number of models (revenue streams) and not some big bang model that’ll work the majority of the time.

    Good luck.

  • chris

    Yep, it’s all about flexibility and responding to “flow” or demand on the web. I created a journal that is fairly flexible in terms of content. As an “arts” site we can produce content of broad interest. It’s hard to say if that helps or hinders, ie whether a niche target audience is better or worse than a broader one. My best guess is that my site attracts younger people for the images and older people for the articles. As far as selling art, I’m not sure who’s going to end up the buyers. Hey, thanks for checking out the site, and feel free to contact me via Twitter . . . my personal writing blog is called the Blog of Innocence, and twiter is @blogofinnocence . . . Escape into Life has its own Twitter.

  • Alice Hive

    I don’t think that Coulton is a good example for your comparison. He’s clearly an exception. I just recently heard from a fellow musician who works about 80 – 100 hours on a song. That’s more like one song in 3 weeks. Or how many musicians do you know who release an album every three months?
    Also, don’t forget that as a musician you might have to invest many thousands of dollars into recording equipment and (virtual) instruments.