A Specialist Market?

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.

9 thoughts on “A Specialist Market?

  1. I don’t think you can do the math that way. People with a million casual fans are much more likely to have 1,000 die-hards. But think about religious cults: all you need for a cult following is the cult.

  2. Kathryn:

    I’d see a religious cult as something similar to Schlosberg’s jazz musicians. You can do it. But most artists are much more like mainstream religions where there are a lot of people who pay lip service to the faith, and a much smaller number who attend services regularly and pay to support the organization.

  3. Cheryl, that’s only one model of mainstream religion. In Germany, for example, all people pay church taxes, which are levied along with income tax, unless you actively opt out. Some people do, but many who rarely attend church still wish to maintain the institutions.

    What does this mean for writers? No idea, except that maybe we need to think way beyond the donate-button model.

  4. Lee:

    Official government-approved writers? I can see it now. Dubya would have had us all paying taxes to support Orson Scott Card.

  5. Actually, as someone paying taxes in Berlin, that’s not true. Church tax is an opt-in model. Perhaps Lee is confused because that opt-in can be done by your parents and it remains the choice until one actively removes oneself from the Church tax rolls. That’s a different support: it’s voluntary, just like a “give alms” button.

    I’ve been thinking about this because of Brust’s Miss Manners question and I really have no problem paying for access to literature, stories, downloads. I am annoyed by a donate button which is really a give alms button and I think Mr Brust should just change his button’s name and then no one would have any problem. That is, I would donate money to keep up his site, and I might give alms to support what seem to be his life choices. But I sent Scalzi money for his story download, donate to others for their site upkeep and donate money to charities.

  6. Actually, G, I’m not likely to be confused, since my husband is a German theologian, and we live in Germany. However, you’re right that, traditionally, a person’s religion is chosen by their parents, here as most everywhere. Despite the East German legacy, ca. two-thirds of all children are still entered on church rolls – Protestant, Catholic, Jewish, and some smaller groups. Church tax is not collected via the state for Muslims, mostly because there isn’t an umbrella organisation to apply for this.

    Naturally, anyone moving to Germany will have to ‘opt in’ in the sense of declaring a religious affiliation, if they so desire. Otherwise, it is still considered an opt-out model.

  7. Cheryl, yes, government-sanctioned writing is not quite the solution, is it, though there are certainly state foundations which give some support to artists.

  8. Lee, I must disagree. Paying church tax has nothing to do with belonging to a religion in Germany. I belong to a religion and am not enrolled on the lists of the German state to pay such tax. That was my choice. Nor are my children, who I raise within said religion, enrolled on the books of the state . Perhaps because I have deep seated feeling about the German state having record of my religion. But I think it is quite clear that this model is an opt-in and the majority of individuals I know have neither opted-in nor have they opted in for their children. Not semantics, but actuality, and I think a very important difference in the manner of giving choice. For instance, I think that organ donation should be changed to an opt out model, rather than its current opt in model (in the US). I also think 401k enrollment should be changed to opt-out. I don’t think supporting individual artists should be an opt out model.

  9. Hi, G. Email me privately if you wish to continue this discussion about the workings of the German church tax system – and whether it should be changed – since this is really not the place. (You can find my email address under ‘About’ at my website. If you need further clarification, I can easily put you in touch with people in Berlin who can answer any questions.)

    I’m not suggesting that support of individual artists should necessarily be an opt-out model, only that Cheryl’s comparison wasn’t entirely apt, or at least incomplete, and that other models do exist – hopefully will continue to arise.

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