Saturday, 2 June 2012

What Does Life as a Community-builder look like? 1000 true fans revisited part 2

Last time I suggested it might be worth blowing the dust off Kevin Kelly's 1000 true fan theory. So, what would your life as an artist look like if you trod the 1000 true fans path? If you decided that the key was building a community with your work at its centre and doing so one person at a time, maintaining some kind of personal connection with each and never seeking to reach a level where you were unable to maintain that connection.

Well, this is where Kelly goes silent – he makes it clear his research is limited. But we have four years on him now, and I’d like to put forward some tentative suggestions. I’d also like to introduce you all to a friend and very talented performance poet. You may have met her at many of our live shows, and online at the eight cuts blog

Everyone, this is Lucy Ayrton (on the right, performing at Not the Oxford Literary Festival in 2011), and I’m introducing her because Lucy has just started a Facebook page. Here it is. Um, yes, you say, just like a gazillion others. Well, yes and no. First, I received a lovely message from Lucy after the last post, saying it had finally got her into gear to start one up. Second, she has agreed to be my guinea pig and let me follow her progress and occasionally report back here and tell you about the cool things she does. And third, and most important, she already does a lot of cool things. A lot. She is the embodiment of someone who should thrive under the 1000 true fan model, so I couldn’t have a better example – as a performance poet she does lots of things in person, connecting with people – this summer she is taking her first show, Lullabies to Make Your Children Cry, to Edinburgh, where she has spent many summers doing super stuff like poetry takeaway.

She also runs poetry workshops, and makes wonderfully folded poetry books to put in your wallet. In other words, she has already thought of lots of ways to do lovely, interesting, rewarding things to draw people to her and then keep them part of her following.

Back to generalities. The 1000 true fan approach essentially affects two things about your creative life – the things you do and the things you sell. OK, put together, that’s just about everything. Let me put it simply and then get on with some suggestions.
  1. Know what it is you want to do
  2. Do it the very best you can
  3. Know for whom you are doing it and what it is they are looking for
  4. Find as many ways as you can to find them, make them fall in love with your work, and make the love affair last by giving them what they want whilst never compromising number 2.
Here are some suggestions as to what the fourth of these, in particular, might mean. It’s not an exhaustive or by any means a universally applicable list. Building your own community is something that will carry your own “voice” as distinctively as your writing does. That’s key – after all, this is all about what is distinctive about you and your creativity, and letting that shine through. Any suggestions (and this is a mistake I think gets made a lot by people looking for – and giving – advice) are simply offering means for that shining-throughness (official technical term) and are not the point of the exercise in themselves.

Building your community

I recently interviewed the artist Trevor Bartonover at eight cuts. One of the things he said is that in the new economy markets will be local and global but not national. That’s a very astute observation, and it’s based, I think, on the fact that markets will increasingly be based around communities – just as in 1000 true fans. What this means is that we can build dedicated communities through direct contact, either online or in real life. It’s something I’ve noticed in my own life over the past few years – the two communities are building at the same time but also overlapping and feeding into one another with great results – but they are only able to do that when you are yourself both online and in person – it’s that shining-throughness again – if you’re always you then no one will have any nasty surprises when they meet you in the flesh – or when they see you trolling in a chatroom!
The other thing I would recommend is having a base, somewhere people can catch up with everything you're doing. This may be your Facebook page, a website, a tumblr, or a twitter account, but whichever it is, it needs to be somewhere from where people can find out everything you're doing, where you can link to things, whence you can send out messages that reach everyone, and that's easy to navigate - don't make people hunt high and low to find stuff out. They may want to. If they're fans they probably do. But don't make them.

Giving to your community
This is really the key to building a community – what is it that you can give to people? Another of the things Trevor and I reflected on was the dream of seeing an economy in which the currency was altruism. Imagine that for a moment – seeking not to acquire but to give, dreaming of riches where that could be measured in terms of lives you had touched for the better. That’s basically how 1000 true fans works. You give, because you want to give. Your community gives back because it wants to give to you. Transactionally it may look the same but what is going on at a deeper level is very different. But what do you give, and how? Towering colossus-like over everything else, of course, is your writing. So you write books, right?
Not really. At least, you almost certainly write books, but that’s not the alpha and omega of it. You will be looking to find any way you can to get your work to people. Which may mean blogging, it may mean giveaways, it may mean making pamphlets and leaving them in your local pubs and cafes, it may be going into the pub, asking the landlord, and reading something on a Tuesday afternoon. The key is to give regularly. For reasons I’ll go into in future posts, but are essentially to do with not wanting anyone not to be able to read what I write and the giving ethos, I think it’s a really good idea for your work to be available in some form or other for free (whilst selling some things and offering the option to donate – I will talk about the so-called freemium model in the not too distant).

It should be clear by now that writing on a fairly regular basis is essential – not everyone is suited to the 1000 true fans model. You need to be comfortable with a certain degree of public-facingness (I’m just loving these double barrelled nesses!). And you need to write regularly – though not all of it the same kind of writing. The following might all be part of what you do (I’ll devote posts to each in coming weeks)
  • Newsletters (these are a *really* good idea but should be beautiful, engaging things and you *must* know your data protection law)
  • Blogging – but make sure your blog is of interest to your fans (I write a column on social media for Words With Jam that might be helpful)
  • Gigging – be it at your local open mic, a reading at a bookstore, or setting up a group with other like-minded writers and producing your own show
  • Merch – yes, this does all sound like the music industry, but it’s just not true that as a writer you can’t do live performance and you can’t sell things that aren’t books. The rule for merch is the same as for everything – make sure people who love your books will love it, and make it reflect you in some way. Clothing is an obvious one, as is stationery, and if you have a crafty skill, why not use it? I will do a particularly long post on this but remember, you will probably sell a lot through an online store (bigcartel is the best I’ve found) but you may also sell face to face – so customised filing cabinets are probably not as practical as postcards.
  • Business cards – I’m sure we all have cards of some kind or other – but why not make this another way to give away your work – it could be a haiku on the card, or a QR code that links to a poem or story
  • Find other things your fans will love and tell them about them – this is a great thing to do with twitter. Be a source of things that people will love. Remember, it’s not about you, you, you, it’s about them, them, them

What your community can give to you

If you do it right and build the right community, that community will want to give back to you. Some can afford more than others and it’s good to ensure that no one is excluded from your work or from your community, so offering a range of ways of doing things is good.
  • Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter are great – if you want to put on an event or produce a run of your latest book, this is a way to fund everything in advance to produce something great for everyone whilst letting people pay different amounts in return for different extras
  • Allow people to donate on your website – whether it’s Paypal or google checkout, having a donate button is a way to let people who want to give back do so. I particularly like the idea of combining this with giving your work away for free in some way or other – those who want to pay can. And if you build a warm community you will be surprised how often they do
  • Tips – if you do readings, consider doing them for free (remember, though, that the venue needs to make a living too – always speak to them, work out how you can help each other) and collecting tips as well as/instead of selling merch. This needn’t be a pushy passing round of the cap – “if you enjoyed that and want to help, anything you are able to give is welcome” is enough.
  • Emails – newsletters are important, so one of the most important things people can give you is their email address – and don’t forget to treat it with due respect – spam isn’t cool
Next time we come back to 1000 true fans we'll look at some of these in more detail.


  1. Wow, there's a lot of excellent stuff to ponder here, Dan. 'Shining-throughness' can be elusive but your post has very helpful pointers. I think I'll need to re-read it as there's much to consider but I like the practical-wisdomness. I am one of the 1000 Dannites btw. :)

  2. :) I think the main thing is to be yourself and not try to be what you think you should be - you get into a second-guessingness that serves no one. What that means at a practical level will obviously vary from person to person but I think starting from scratch and thinking "what can I do?" without any preconceptions about what does or doesn't work based on what we been told is important

  3. Interesting post and full of stuff to think about. I know of an Australian author, Peter Watt, who replies to every post on his FB page personally. It's a normal page not a fan page where readers ask to be friends. His big-name author friends have thousands of fans but he plugs away writing a book a year for his publisher and keeping up with his page.

  4. I think it's really important to respond to everything - there comes a level where that's not possible, which for me is a sign I never want to reach that level

  5. This is a great post :) Thanks. I'm spending this weekend signing my children's book 'Eeek!' (about a soccer-mad runaway alien) at our local children's football club - and giving £1 to their chosen charity ('Kids for Kids' which donates football kits to children in Ghana, Rwanda,Zambia and Nigeria)

    I've never charged for my school readings either....

    It was wonderful last night to get home after a hard day at the day job (also writing!) to find an A4 envelope with 30 letters from school children in Leeds that I've never met who had read and loved my book - complete with their own drawings! Oh and their teacher said it had won hands-down in a vote after reading the first 2 chapters of 3 different books :) I like the idea of Eeek the alien T-shirts :) All the best. @kareninglis

  6. I should add that that is £1 per book on a £4.99 retail price! :)

  7. Hi Karen,
    I've loved following news of your readings and signings -there's nothing quite so rewarding as watching people respond that directly. T-shirts sound fabulous!