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.