There is no “1,000 True Fans” in Publishing

Tech writer Kevin Kelley popularized the idea of the “1,000 True Fans,” which pops up again and again in creative circles. (You can read his original article here.) The basic idea is that you do not need to have a blockbuster song/painting/movie/book in order to be successful, which for the sake of discussion we’ll define as making a living at your craft. Rather, Mr. Kelley argues, all you need is 1,000 True Fans, 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 come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

These are the people that, as Mr. Kelley explains, will pay (something like) an entire day’s wages every year for your stuff. He uses $100 as an example, but it could be $50 or even $30. It will vary of course, but 1,000 people paying you (on average) $50-100 a year is a fair living, even after book production expenses.

I don’t have this idea printed and hanging in my office, but I’ve always liked it as a kind of thought experiment. As Mr. Kelley points out, it makes success seem achievable. (There’s plenty in the world that makes it seem impossible.) You don’t need a million people. You just need a thousand. You can get a thousand.


The problem, as some of you astute folks probably realized, is that writers don’t produce $100 of merchandise in a year. Or $50. Or even $30.

In fact, after doing a quick informal (and completely unscientific) review of a bunch of writer’s annual releases on Amazon, I’d say that the average True Fan in fiction — someone who buys everything a writer produces — is handing to the writer less than $10 a year. That’s one hour’s wages and less than what most people spend on coffee in a week.

The number of True Fans needed in publishing is more like 10,000, and that’s if you are producing a couple full-length books a year, which I am not. (So far, not even close.) That means the number for me is more like 30,000 True Fans.

Think about that. I’ve lived in towns whose entire population is less than that. Suddenly the whole “true fans” concept isn’t really making things seem any easier!

Incidentally, this is why traditional publishers pursue a mass market/broadcast model and why successful writers (both indie and traditional) place so much emphasis on their back catalog — it’s the only way you can generate enough inventory. It’s not that anyone wants to bilk their readers. It’s just that if you have someone who is interested in your stuff — a rare commodity — the value of their single purchase barely makes their attention worthwhile.

This is also why “boutique fiction” is not ever going to be a thing. The local artisanal cheese shop, or a freelance artist online, need only produce 4 products a year — or one a quarter — at $15-25 per in order to have enough product for the 1,000 True Fans (or 2,000 or 5,000 or whatever) concept to make sense.

But note, this not an argument to raise book prices. They are largely set by the market and so are out of our control anyway. Besides, the low unit cost is not the issue. Rather, it’s the time of production. Your local hipster coffee shop stays in business on a series of three-dollar transactions, but unlike writers, they can keep selling to the same customers, over and over, two or three times a day, several days a week, because their time of production is measured in minutes, not months (or years).

The 1,000 True Fans thought experiment, applied to publishing, confirms the depressing advice you hear so often: “pump out as many books as you can as fast as you can.” Publishing is a numbers game. It’s closer to broadcasting than art. Quality might be important, but it’s secondary to volume. In fact, just this past week, indie publishing mogul David Gaughran announced that his strategy would shift going forward. He said his colleagues have been giving him this advice for years, but he’s been too stubborn to take it:

Write a series.

Write in a popular genre.

Write as fast as you can.

He admitted that somewhat dishearteningly. I dishearteningly admit he may be right.

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2 thoughts on “There is no “1,000 True Fans” in Publishing

  1. I think about this concept a little differently. The “1,000 true fans” thing isn’t as limiting as you are portraying it. It doesn’t mean that you only need 1,000 people buying your products. You need more than that. It means that if you have a core of 1,000 people which love your stuff, which make noise every time you release something, which will review it on some website, which will tell their friends [etc.] then you are set. And I think that still holds true.

    As for the speed thing, I think there is little point in complaining that people who can produce work faster have an advantage. It was always thus, and in every field too. I’m a slow writer. I used to be very slow, but I worked on my speed and I think anyone can work on it too. If it’s going to give you an advantage, why not do it? Increasing your speed doesn’t have to affect the quality of your output (I think there is little correlation between speed and quality). There is no downside I can see.

    As for my strategy shift, here’s the thing: part of me thought I would be compromising artistically by writing a series instead of another standalone, but I was totally wrong. The challenge of plotting out and writing a long-running series was (and still is) endlessly fascinating – a totally new challenge for me. By complete accident, the first book in that series has turned out to be the most serious/emotionally layered thing that I’ve written.

    So you never know what’s behind the door until you open it. And you might surprise yourself.


    1. David, after much hand wringing, I began porting my blog over to WordPress this week. At the very least, your comment here confirms that wasn’t stupid.

      I understand that with the thousand fans comes a long tail of less-than-fanatical readers, but it still seems to me that the low unit price coupled with lengthy production time is an issue. It’s consistent with the common emphasis on speed and back catalog.

      That’s great you have not noticed any shift in quality. I’m encouraged. Unfortunately, I have–but that’s not to say it’s insurmountable! The point here was not to wallow in self-pity so much as appreciate the scope of the task. I suspect my biggest shortfall is that I’ve spent so much of the last two years building my catalog and not reaching out to others in the industry. I need to rectify that.

      Thanks for the encouragement. You made my day!


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