How many fans does an independent artist/creator need in order to make a living? That’s the question that sparked the idea of the Thousand True Fans. As the original blog article mentioned, the basic idea is that
a creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author – in other words, anyone producing works of art – needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.
Sounds fair enough. But what’s a “true fan”? As the article describes it,
A True Fan is defined as someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.
The article goes on to crunch the numbers, showing that if each of these thousand true fans spends, on average, $100 per year on the creator’s stuff, that this adds up to $100,000 per year. If the creator is able to produce all that stuff independently, cutting costs and keeping a large cut of whatever it is they sell, then that can very reasonably add up to a living (or so the theory goes).
So how does this apply to writing? I doubt there are many readers–even true fans–who spend $100 a year on their favorite author. Maybe for the ridiculously overpriced hardcovers, but even then, most readers are so voracious that they can’t afford to spend that kind of money very often, even on their favorite authors. Also, most of us indies tend to price our books pretty low, to the point where we probably don’t publish enough books in a year to add up to $100.
Still, the basic principle of the theory still applies. Lindsay Buroker has an interesting take on it:
The gist is that you don’t have to be a mega seller. You just need X number of true fans (people who love your stuff and will buy everything you put out), and you’re assured that you can make a living at your art, so long as you to continue to produce quality material.
I believe, for an indie author, the number is probably around 10,000 rather than 1,000 (we only make a couple of dollars on a sale, after all). This is a large number, but, given that we can so easily get our work into Amazon, B&N, etc. where millions of eyeballs await, finding this many loyal readers isn’t infeasible, especially when you realize you can collect them over years, maybe even decades, so long as you’re in this for the long haul.
She crunches the numbers like this: if you publish two novels per year and price them at $5, at the standard 70% royalty you will make $60,000 per year if you sell at least 10,000 of each of them.
Lindsay Buroker has more experience with making a living on her writing than I do (she’s basically been doing it since 2012 or so, whereas I’m almost there but not quite). However, I think it’s possible to make a living with a lot fewer than 10,000 true fans, and perhaps even less than 1,000.
True fans are the key, but not because they’re the only ones who buy your books. For every true fan, there are lots of casual fans, and perhaps even more readers who buy one of your books but don’t necessarily go on to buy all the others. However, the true fans are the ones who will rant and rave about your book to all their friends and help to generate word of mouth. Thus, your true fans will help to bring in a steady stream of new readers, some of whom may become fans themselves. It’s this constant process that keeps a book selling for years and years, even after all the true fans have already bought it.
I doubt that I have more than a hundred true fans right now. I’ve met a few of them, so I know that they’re out there, but there’s only about a hundred people on my mailing list and only about a third of them click on the links in the new release emails I send out. However, I’m definitely more than halfway to making a living off of my books. It’s not just the true fans who are making that possible, but everyone between true fans and casual readers.
However, I do think that the Thousand True Fans theory is a useful way to think about things when you’re an indie author. For one thing, true fans make your income more predictable. If you know how many true fans you have, you can guesstimate how many books you’ll sell in the first couple of months after release, which helps to make your earnings more predictable. It also helps to give you a way to measure your career.
And let’s be frank–a thousand true fans is not very many. Even ten thousand is still a pretty low number when you consider how many hundreds of millions of readers there are. Perhaps the most encouraging thing about the Thousand True Fans theory is that you don’t have to be a rockstar mega-hit bestseller to make a living–you just need a modest but dedicated fan base. From there, it’s just a matter of consistently producing new stuff and connecting with the fans well enough that they know when you’ve got something out.