I’ve just been reading an interesting essay on Fingertips, a web site that specializes in music recommendation. The author, Jeremy Schlosberg, has been thinking about the way musicians such as Amanda Palmer operate in the new digital world and Kevin Kelly’s famous “1,000 True Fans” post. Although this is presented as a music issue, it is relevant to writers as well.
The basic idea of Kelly’s post was that if an artist can find 1,000 “true fans” who are willing to pay him or her $100 a year, that’s enough to live off. It is a “long tail” type idea. Schlosberg’s concern is that by focusing on finding these super-fans, musicians will isolate themselves from a wider market, and potentially find themselves trapped into having to provide the sort of art their fans want (that’s a very simplistic version – read the whole thing to get all of the issues). Obviously the same is potentially true of writers.
While I understand the concern, my gut feel is that Schlosberg is wrong. And the reason I feel that way is because I believe it is a mistake to think of these super-fans in isolation from the wider music-listening (or book-reading) audience. You can’t separate the two. Indeed, my own view is that you are only likely to be able to get 1,000 super-fans if the total audience for your work is at least 100,000 people. It goes back to the basic Internet rule that if you put up a work with a “donate” button, only 1% of the people who consume that work (read it, listen to it, use it if is software) will be prepared to pay for it.
It may well be that some writers can become like, to use Schlosberg’s example, jazz musicians, and be supported only by a small and devoted group of fans. But for most writers I’m pretty sure they’ll only get fans prepared to give them money if there’s a much larger group of fans who read them and don’t pay. The existence of these super-fans is predicated on the existence of casual fans.