Wednesday, March 12, 2008

The Trufan Hypothesis

I've mentioned before that I used to write technical articles for several magazines, as well as commercial work for some technical publishers (internal reports, textbook chapters, study guides that sort of thing); but I quit because after the dot bomb, the rates fell through the floor.

Basically, it wasn't worth the time and effort to write for the magazines any more, at $0.10 or $0.12 a word; whereas at $0.35 and up it was a useful sideline.

I don't think I've mentioned on the blog, that I've also written some fiction; but I've never dedicated much effort to it, because I didn't like the math. So, though I have occasionally written bits and pieces that "needed" to come out; I've never set down and made any effort to write fiction on a commercial or professional basis.

I know, if you're a "real" writer, you just HAVE to write; and I SHOULD feel that way about my fiction... but honestly, I scratch that itch through the blog.

I just don't have the motivation to put up with the rejection, the bullshit, the irritation etc... to make my fiction successful; and that's presuming it's even good enough to be successful in the open market. Of course, I think it IS (or could be if I put the effort in) good enough, but I'm biased.

Recently, former Wired magazine editor Kevin Kelly, wrote a piece on his own blog; that aimed to shake up the way people think about the numbers needed to be a successful producer of creative content (author, writer, singer, whatever).

In his piece, "1,000 true fans", Kelly suggests rather than the conventional assumption that to be successful, you need to build a fan base of 100,000 people; perhaps what you really need is "1,000 true fans" who are willing to spend $100 on your output every year. From that solid and steady base, you can derive a reasonable income from your creative output.

This of course has caused a huge uproar in the b-list and semi-pro genre writing community (and not a little furor in the almost-A list - or rather the a-list of the SF/F genre. I was referred to it by Scalzi). In part, because most creators don't make much money off their output; but more so, because most people can see themselves as able to build a 1000 strong "truefan" fan base, rather than the conventional 100,000 fan assumption.

I see this from both sides. I'm both a consumer of creative output (and certainly a true fan of some creators), and a writer who has decided that pursuing commercialization of my output isn't worth my time and efforts.

Now, first, addressing the basis of the trufan concept; is that a viable assumption just from a raw numbers perspective?

I suppose that's really a two part question: Is it realistic, and if realistic, is it viable.

... Well... I personally certainly spend more than $100 each per year on the output of several different creators, in music, books, and movies; but I expect that their actual percentage of return from my expenditures is quite low.

From what I understand about the industries in question, I would guess each individual creator gets far less than 20% of the gross in fact; and perhaps as little as 5% (depending on the particular medium).

Of course, I’m also an “unusual” individual, in the sense that I earn in the top 7% of income in the us (not bad for a free lunch kid eh?) ; and that I am a much more avid consumer of creative output than most.

The total potential marketplace of individuals who have the income necessary to be a viable trufan under this proposal is therefore relatively small. I'd estimate no more than 10% of the American population has both the disposable income, and the leisure time required.

But hey, relatively small compared to 300 million is still pretty good. Lets say the potential pool is 30 million.

Of that, let's say 10% are interested in your genre, or about 3 million potential fans. Of that, then you need to actually attract the fans; and if you're lucky enough to get 10% of your genre fans, as specifically fans of your work... well you're doing a lot better than most.

But hey, that's still 300,000 potential fans.

Now, you need to convert your fanbase, to PAYING fanbase; and this is where things become interesting. Conversion rates in this business are generally pretty bad.

Let's get down to realworld cases; and talk about two authors, one fiction, one non; who currently actively work to monetize their fanbase.

Jerry Pournelle is one of the greatest hard SF writers of all time; who also produces output regularly on his own web site. Leo Laporte is a tech/geek/news writer, and radio and television presenter. Both of them offer a fan subscription service at $2-$4 a month.

Both Jerry and Leo (two people whose output couldn’t be more different, and still relate to a similar “geek” audience) estimate 2-4% of their regular fan base, contribute $2-$4 a month. That’s a pretty broad range of fame, and a pretty broad range of fan base; yet they both see approximately the same conversion percentage (though of course Pournelles absolute numbers are higher).

In this case, I don’t think it would just be the trufan, who donates that $2 - $4 a month (that in fact the trufans are a much smaller subset of those who donate); though, I would expect that any trufan who was capable of spending $100 per annum on a creators output would certainly be among the subscribers. It’s just a wild guess (but it's one shared with other folks in the business) that somewhere between 1/2 and 1/4 of the subscriber base would be the trufans described above.

So, going back to our absolute number of 300,000 potential fans, lets presume a 4% conversion rate into fans who are actually willing to pay us anything; and it works out to 12,000 potential paying fans.

That's not bad.

Say 1/4 of those are willing to pay us $100 a year; hell, that's $300,000.

So maybe that 1000 fan at $100 model is achievable.

But even if it's achievable, is it viable?

As I said above, $100 per fan for 1000 fans through normal distribution channels, is going to produce a reasonable gross revenue; but the net realized for the creator is going to be hugely smaller than that.

Given the vagaries of the various creative businesses, net margins on retail revenue runs anywhere from around 20% for the highest paid authors, to under 1% for most actors, directors etc... with average writers, artists, and recording artists somewhere on the low side of 5% to 10%.

Suddenly, $100,000, or even the maximum potential listed above of $300,000 instead becomes anywhere from $1000 to at most $60,000 annually.

...and that's for someone who's wildly successful.

Remember where I said that the numbers just made it not worth it to me? Those were the numbers I was talking about.

I know (at least over the internet) a lot of professional writers (enough to be confident that my experience is statistically relevant) ; and of those who exclusively live off their writing, only a couple of them make over $100,000 a year.

In fact, only a couple of them make much more than $30,000 a year; and these are people who live in Boston, New York, Chicago, and San Francisco, where $30k a year puts you around the poverty line.

So I have to say, I think the Trufan hypothesis is certainly realistic, but non-viable.

I think a more viable option is the subscription model as praticed by both Laporte and Pournelle (and not incidentally a fair number of other successful authors, writers, and other creators who work online a lot).

No, it’s not $100 from each fan; but because it’s a direct revenue stream, the creator probably sees a hell of a lot more out of it ($25-$50 a year per fan) than they would if those same fans were purchasing $100 of their output through normal retail distribution channels.

Not only that, but by making the contribution a very small, but recurring cost, it both lowers the barrier for fans who wish to contribute (thus expanding the potential paying fanbase), and provides relatively predictable revenue.

So don’t give me 1000 truefans who buy everything I put into a store to the tune of $100 a year (well... DO give me those and I'll be thrilled, but don't JUST give me those). Give me 3000 fans who will subscribe to my website, and my podcast, for $2 a month. I think it's both easier to achieve, and that I'd get more out of it.