This element is perhaps one that writers might think is more applicable in today’s world than it might have been decades ago. They would be right in thinking that, but I’m not just talking about crowd-sourcing from places like Patreon, Kickstarter or other crowd-funding services; that is definitely a part of this. I’m talking about the overall idea of patronage. Of willing consumers.
It was Kevin Kelly who first introduced the concept of 1,000 True Fans in a 2008 essay.
In case you aren’t familiar with this concept, Kelly stated that, to be a successful creator able to make a living off of that craft, you don’t need millions of dollars, or millions of customers, clients or fans. You just need one thousand true fans who will buy anything that you produce, sight unseen. These are the fans who would drive hundreds of miles just to see you, who would willingly lay down big dollars for the “unabridged” or “exclusive content” version of something you produce; they will buy the print book, the eBook and the audiobook version of your book. They are the die-hard or super-fans.
Kelly’s concept brilliantly gets into the math, which many people overlook, because they might have heard the concept but don’t understand the details. And I talk about that more later on in this section.
But I’m getting a bit ahead of myself. Let’s go back to the simple definition of the term patronage.
Patronage, according to the Canadian Oxford Dictionary, is “the support, promotion, or encouragement given by patrons.” And, while we’re exploring terminology, that same source defines patron as “a person who gives financial or other support to a person, cause, arts organization, work of art, etc.”
That’s a great start for us to look at those three elements of patronage, starting with that last one first.
A writer needs readers. It is a beautifully natural symbiotic relationship that might even draw comparisons to the old thought experiment: If a tree falls in the forest and there is nobody there to hear it, does it make a sound? In this case, though, it might go something like this: If a writer writes a story and there is nobody there to read it, how does the writer make a living as a writer?
That’s right, apart from the philosophical bent on this thought experiment, there’s a transactional one.
Therefore, when writing, a writer needs to keep in mind the target audience for their work. Who is this story, or this non-fiction, ideally for? It is critical that a writer consider this target audience, even if, during the writing of the work itself, the writer’s desire is to write a book that they themselves would enjoy reading. The entire goal, in keeping the target audience in mind is to fully and properly understand their expectations and seeking to meet those expectations. Who are they and why would they read this story or book? What are they hoping to get out of it? Will this writing provide them with what they are looking for? Meeting these expectations is the best way for a writer to get to a place where that right audience responds in an encouraging way.
Encouragement, of course, comes in multiple forms. The first, and most obvious one, is the actual purchase or download of the content in question. Ideally, it is followed by the reading or consumption of that content.
Of course, encouragement, at a much higher level, would include things such as leaving a positive review for that work on an online bookstore or on Goodreads, signing up for the writer’s author newsletter, or even reaching out to the writer to ask when their next book is going to be available.
All of those elements, usually combined and mixed in different ways, provide the underlying external encouragement that helps to fuel a writer’s progress.
Beyond merely reading and indicating that they are interested in reading more of a writer’s work, of continuing to be a consumer of their work, through things like leaving positive reviews, or signing up for the author’s newsletter, is the actual act of promoting a writer and their work.
It’s one thing to leave a positive review of a book. It’s another to actively want to share their enthusiasm for it.
Have you ever finished reading a book and loved it so much that you couldn’t help but want to tell every single person you encountered how much enjoyment or value you got from it? How, having read it, you felt permanently altered? Have you ever finished a book and then had to stop yourself from forcefully putting it into the hands of every single one of your friends? Have you bought extra copies of the book just to gift to other readers you know would love it?
That’s the type of reader response I’m talking about; one that leads, naturally, to the organic desire, in that reader, to want to promote you and your book or books.
For years in my early days of bookselling, I would constantly keep stock of Richard Laymon’s One Rainy Night in my store. And, when I encountered a horror fan who was okay with extreme and graphic adult content, horror, gore and violence, I would put the book into their hands and tell them that if the book wasn’t one that begged to be read in a single sitting, they should bring it back and I would gladly personally buy the copy off of them. That is because, at home, I always had an extra copy of the book on hand; with the right reader, I would loan a copy of the book, knowing full well that I was likely to never get that book back. I never did get any of the books I loaned back; nor did I ever have a customer return to do anything other than want to buy more books by Richard Laymon.
And, while that might be a bit extreme, that is the type of reader promotion that leads to that step-up level of patronage.
Within this element are such things as a writer’s street team; the folks who are so enthusiastic about your writing that they want to spread the love and share your work with others. They are like independent sales reps for you, your book and perhaps your author brand.
These are the people that you want to give extra attention, support, and care to. They are likely also the people you should be willing to give your work to for free. Before you panic and say: “But they are a true fan; they’re willing to buy it. Why would I want to give them that work for free?” Consider the fact that, if they are that true of a fan, they’ll end up helping to sell multiple copies of whatever book you gave them for free. Some of the core, true and die-hard fans will also end up purchasing the book they got for free, either just to show their love and support, or perhaps in order to gift a copy of it to someone they think will love it.
Apart from being willing to purchase, review and be enthusiastic about your writing, are the fans who are willing to invest in you long term. Support, of course, begins with the reader being willing to provide cash for the product.
But it can go further than a simple transaction per unit basis.
Sometimes readers want to invest in an author in a way that helps ensure they continue to produce the content that they value.
This is where crowd-sourcing and funding opportunities such as Kickstarter, Go-Fund-Me, or Patreon might come into play.
Earlier I mentioned, Kevin Kelly’s concept of 1,000 True Fans; and I promised I would get into the math. Because this is where the rubber hits the road.
Kelly’s concept starts with 1,000 fans each willing to spend $100 a year and for which you make 100% margin. That is to get to $100,000 earning per year. If your target income is $50,000, then that means 500 fans spending that much. Or, if the margin you earn on a product is $50, then the fan base number changes to 2,000. If the margin, or profit is $5, then that becomes 20,000 fans. I’m sure you can see, now, that to apply this for a writer changes some of the numbers. It’s not always 1,000 fans.
To use a personal example, I earn about $2.00 for every print book that my publisher Dundurn sells. At 1,000 True Fans who buy one of my books every year (I usually publish one book a year with Dundurn), I would earn $2,000. Of course, if the book was co-authored (several of my Dundurn books are written with another writer), that becomes $1,000. But I also self-publish. And if those fans all bought my $4.99 eBook, I’d earn about $3.50 off that. That would be $3,493. Add $2,000 and you have almost $5,500.
So, in the case of a writer like me doing a single traditionally published book and a single self-published book a year, I would need about 18,000 fans, each willing to purchase about $30.00 worth of my books per year at retail, which results in my approximate $5.50 per fan margin or profit.
So, yes, 1,000 true and die-hard fans are critical, but so, too, is the rate of production and the value for each item. There are multiple ways to play with these numbers.
One of them is to produce a lot more content.
Another is to sell direct. If I sold those same items with a retail value of $30.00 in a way that I kept 100% of the margin (yes, I’m doing simple math here and not bringing in the delivery mechanism or payment processing costs), I could do it with about 3,333 fans instead of 18,000.
More and more creators are taking advantage of either selling direct or using a fan-funded approach to help them earn additional revenue.
Apart from the additional margin in the creator’s pocket via these sources, there’s also an underlying fundamental emotional and personal investment that the reader, or fan, feels. They have invested in this creator. Therefore, they want to see this creator succeed. Because they are intelligent and perceptive and make excellent decisions. They wouldn’t, after all, invest in a writer who wasn’t worth that investment.
There is a musician whose songs I adore, who created a Kickstarter campaign to raise the $75,000 she needed in order to hire a producer that she wanted to work with but couldn’t afford.
Her name is Alicia Witt and her campaign name was called 15,000 Days (representative of her age when the album would be produced). Having been a fan of this independent musician’s work for several years, I jumped at the chance to show financial support to make that new record happen.
Not only did she reach her goal, and I received my lovely “die-hard fan” bonus swag and content (which included a custom-written song and even Alicia’s participation in helping me propose to my girlfriend), but I got to follow the progress she was making along the way while producing her EP and truly felt a part of it all.
Heck, I have shared, multiple times on social media my excitement for the recent release of the EP, but, despite having free digital downloads and a copy of the CD, I’ve also purchased each single release in order to further show my support (and do my little bit in helping each new release rank higher so that other potential fans might discover her music). I not only invested money into this product, but I invested time and energy into talking about and promoting Alicia and her wonderful music.
(As an aside, my connection with her has involved other unexpected and unplanned perks such as Alicia giving me permission to have her appear in a minor walk-on role in my book Fear and Longing in Los Angeles as herself, and including excerpts from songs and lyrics as the book’s hero, Michael Andrews, goes to a bar where she is playing music and ends up having a quick casual chat with her that helps him come to terms with a relationship challenge he is trying to deal with.
Other creators are using Patreon as a way for avid consumers of their content to be able to subscribe to them. Some writers are writing fiction, for example, not to be sold to an agent or publisher or not to be self-published and sold through Kindle or Kobo or other eRetailers. Instead, it is meant to be read only by their patrons, their die-hard and core fans.
Of course, regardless of how a patron supports a writer: direct purchases, support via a crowd-funding application, or purchasing their products and perhaps also being enthusiastic about promoting and supporting that author’s work, you’ll see why patronage is one of the key elements of publishing success.
This is a slightly modified version of the chapter “Patronage” from the book The 7 P’s of Publishing Success.