Thursday, 31 May 2012

Why Self-publishing Advice Often Uses the Wrong Assumptions - 1000 true fans revisited (part one)

Originally posted on my all-purpose blog here. Reposted as I will be putting part two here and this site is where the article belongs. Do go and join the discussion there as well as here.

A couple of years ago, in the earliest nanoseconds of the big Kindle bang as Brian Cox might say, you could barely come across a post about self-publishing that didn’t refer to Kevin Kelly’s seminal article “1000 truefans.” These days, mentions are as scarce as a self-published book in Waterstones.

The idea behind 1000 true fans, and earlier versions of the theory (which Kelly outlines at, is that it is possible for an artist to make a living wage by building and then looking after a small, dedicated following (in this case 1000, but he is not dogmatic) of people all of whom are willing to pay a relatively small amount for your work on a regular basis.

It’s easy to understand why so little is said about 1000 true fans (as well, I’ll admit, as a lack of case studies of those using the model to earn a living). Post-Kindle (I wonder when we will start saying BK and PK, for all it makes me want to sit down with a whopper and do some freerunning to burn it off), advice to self-publishing writers focuses fairly exclusively on maximising revenue from ebooks (in practice, this usually means talking about Kindle).

In this piece, I want to suggest three key points that most advice in the PK era focuses on, all of which is antithetical to the 1000 true fans model, and then next time I want to reclaim the model, looking at what working by it might look like for writers, and arguing that not only might there be some mileage in the economic aspect of the theory, but that this is a very good way for us as artists to do our art.

  1. How-to advice focuses on volume – on how to sell more books. Where this is moderated in some way it is in terms of the relationship between volume and price and how that feds into maximised royalties. There is little place for discussion of how to achieve a fixed or maximum number of sales
  2. Advice focuses on how to use charts and algorithms to create exposure for books, effectively looking to hit a sweet spot where sales become self-generating, whereas the 1000 true fans model looks at selling only at a very specific, and fully defined, customer base
  3. When how-to advice looks at craft, at standards and doing things better, the focus is on objective criteria – professional editing, formatting, proofreading and cover design, for example – all of which are aimed to please a notional idea of a customer. With 1000 true fans, on the other hand, the artist aims to meet subjective criteria or, rather, a single subjective criterion – pleasing their fans. And not some abstract concept of a fan, but their actual fans.
The thing about each of those dichotomies is that we are so used to a particular mindset we don’t even think of them as dichotomies, as choices – in each case we struggle to see the former as anything but the only option. In brief:

  1. Surely we all want to maximise sales, after all we want to make a living (how many times did you read that before you saw it was a glaring non sequitur?)
  2. Surely the point of marketing is to maximise the return on your effort, and this means learning to use the most efficient sales generators (well this may be a non sequitur also, and it may be wrong about the purpose of marketing, but what it most definitely is, is mistaken about the most efficient sales generators because its still hung up on measuring volume and not percentage of target audience reached
  3. But this is incontrovertible, surely? To rise above the slush we have to present our work professionally. Readers notice. Readers matter. Yes they do matter – your actual readers, the ones who will love your work so much they will buy anything else you write. So give them what they love – maybe that *is* well-punctuated and neatly justified text with no typos. I’d wager it’s not though – stop forming some imaginary ideal of a reader (didn’t that go out when Aristotle slam-dunked Plato?) and look at what your readers want (and also not someone else’s readers, people who would think the only great thing about your book was the punctuation).
Next time I’ll take a look at what a writer’s life might look like if they took the 1000 true fans route, and explore a world of crowdfunding, gigs and merchandise, newsletters and a life without Amazon.


  1. You've nailed this down quite nicely.

    My belief is that the problem is a breakdown in model/channel agreement.

    Most of the advice offered to authors (as you've pointed out) has to do with numbers, specifically BIG numbers. That's a mass market idea -- as is advertising.

    Social media -- which is where independent authors and publishers have leverage -- relies on niche or micro marketing.

    The difference between the two (broadcast, one-way vs conversational, two-way) gets ignored by the "follow me, like me, link me" crowd. This isn't a problem for most of us because almost all social media is "pull" not "push." That means that if I don't like your messages, I just shut them off. I don't follow, I don't link, I don't like...In short, you don't exist.

    The downside of this is that people who engage in this behavior usually tend to be the people who mistake network for platform and believe that everybody who retweets, likes, and links actually has an audience that cares about the works. They don't see a lot of uptake but they *believe* they're doing it correctly because they have the numbers to back them up.

    Well, almost have the numbers, because the number that keeps lagging behind, the number that keeps coming up short after all is said and done and the likes are liked and the tweets retweeted is "sales."

    And they can't figure out what went wrong.

  2. Yes, there's a big difference between those we bump along against in our daily social media lives and "true fans". Thinking about my own behaviour, I have a lot of friends doing great things with literature, music and art, and I retweet and share their links whenever I can if I think other people I know will like what they do but that's very different from the feeling about an author/musician/artist that you just have to have the next thing they produce because you love their work so much. I know people do get disappointed because they think the numbers don't convert, but that's the wrong reason to be doing things - we connect with people because we find them interesting, find what they do interesting, enjoy spending time with them - we shouldn't put figures on that, just do it because it's worthwhile. And in the meanwhile, almost as a separate thing keep putting work out their for people who truly love our art. Both come from us, both are reflections of who we really are, but they're different sides of us and disappointment comes when we don't realise that (it's common sense, though if we zoom out a little - I don't want people to buy my book because I post interesting links on twitter, I want people to buy my book because they love it)