Monday, 28 May 2012

Why "How To Self-publish" guides systematically give you the wrong advice: Revisiting 1000 true fans

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. Intriguing - this calls to me in a way the usual advice doesn't. I'm looking forward to the next installment, ideas I can use and not feel crappy about!

  2. Intruiging Mister Holloway... Let's see where this goes.

    My own personal view on much dvice is it concentrates on 'sales' i.e. people downloading your book, regardless of whether it was for free and more importantly whether they *ever* read it. With the glut of free books post-Kindle Select (PKS..?) it would be interesting to know how many actually get read.

  3. PKS - wonderful, an ever-expanding glut of acronyms! (rolls off teh tongue remarkably like TK Maxx)

    Sessha - I hope so - I was looking back at some of the things I wrote here and elsewhere in 2009 and the discussions that were going on and it struck me how much had changed in the way people talk in just that small amount of time

  4. i'm sure you're right, Dan. I just find it hard to get my head round the stats, the blogs that tell me to push for reviews, not push for reviews, to tweet, to not tweet as it takes us so much time, to blog every day, to blog three times a week ...

    So (unwisely, if I were pushing for sales over all else) I shall carry on with my writing, potter about the networking things from time to time, and maybe go awol from time to time. (What a rubbish indie writer I really am!)

  5. Yes, that's a major part of my point - we've become obsessed with all the wrong things and forgotten what matters - I think your approach is wonderful, and respectful of the people who enjoy what you do and of your writing.

    1. Thank you Dan, I shall reframe my approach as 'respectful' - and carry on being the way I am without sinking in the networking quagmire.

    2. I should say respectful in the best possible way - with its full dollop of naughtiness and cheekiness and all the other wonderful characteristics that made "Over the..." such a delight in the first place

  6. AF Harold and Mab Jones would probably be good people to talk to about this sort of thing

  7. I think perormance poets in general are very good at this way of doing things, and those two particularly so - just in the past couple of weeks I've had peopel say in conversation "I just love..." about both of them.

  8. *sigh*
    I am just going to go and think about this; my brain is at melting point right now and I didnt take that in after 2 readings.
    I don't know how many true fans I have but I dearly love the ones I do have.
    But write what is right(for me), not for the mythical reader, is my only option.

  9. "fan" is probably a misleading term because it has all sorts of corporate-y overtones, which is what I'm trying to get people away from, towards passion asnd integrity, which are definitely things you have

    1. Exactly. Passion and integrity. Because if we lose that in our frenzy to sell ourselves, our work becomes joyless and self-defeating.

      I believe it's possible to be proactive and even aggressive about marketing without being consumed by it, and key to that is being a good reader who enthusiastically supports other authors. I work hard to make that part of my "brand" (if we must call it that), because if the only books I can intelligently and passionately talk about are my own, then -- sheesh, that's just boring as hell to me, so I can only imagine how sickening it would be for the people around me.

      It's like the old parable (I've heard various versions from various religions) about a man being escorted first to Hell, then to Heaven for a look at what it's really like. In Hell, he sees a group of people gathered around a great banquet, but they are miserable and starving because tied to their hands are spoons with handles so long, they can't put the food in their mouths. In Heaven, the man sees the same banquet table, the same impossibly long spoons. But the people are joyful and healthy. They're feeding each other.

      Paraphrasing Ghandi: We must work to create the culture we want to live in.

    2. We must indeed :) There are too many people who bemoan how things are, and snipe at people or groups or establishments but don't do anything - not necessarily to change things but to take the first steps towards what they want to see - better to keep trying and failing than to sit on the sidelines and say we don't like how things are

  10. Social Media, Twitter, blogs...where is there time for Real Life?

    Don't get me wrong - I'm not arguing for or against the 1000 True Fans theory. I'm arguing that the pressure is towards spending 18 hours a day online 'building a platform' - which doesn't leave time for Real Life - leads to burn out.

    An emotionally burned out writer doesn't play well with others.

    Balance in all things - so one doesn't lose one's joy in Real Life - is needed in order to have the creativity to - well - create.