Monday, April 21, 2014

The Quest for Ten Thousand Fans

by Gamal Hennessy

When I first started publishing my own work, I dreamed of the day when my name would be a household word and everyone from talk shows to dinner tables would sit down to talk about my stories, characters and creative talents.

Then I woke up.

I came to understand that the act of selling millions of copies, or even hundreds of thousands copies, is a rare occurrence that only a handful of writers experience. That revelation didn’t discourage me from writing, but it did force me to find more realistic goals for my sales targets. That’s when I stumbled on the idea of one thousand true fans. I tried to use this idea as a barometer for a while, but I found that this concept had it’s own flaws and issues. So I modified the idea a bit to something many independent publishers can use as a sales and marketing tool.

The One Thousand True Fans Idea
The basic concept behind the One Thousand True Fans idea is that an independent artist can sustain their professional career even if they only cater to a select number of fans. If each fan is willing to spend one day’s pay per year to get everything the artist produces, the artist can live off that income and continue to create. There might be other casual fans that buy some of the artist’s material, but it’s the true fan that keeps the proverbial lights on.

One thousand fans is a number specific to musicians. The assumption is that if one thousand people buy her music and her merchandise and go to her concerts then she’s doing pretty good. Different types of artists require a different number of fans to make the concept work. A sculptor who sells big commercial pieces might only need 10 fans. A writer needs many more. The underlying message behind this idea is that niche artists can thrive in the current media marketplace once they find their audience. (See Creating Your Own Niche)

I agree with the sentiment behind One Thousand True Fans, but the inherent flaws in the theory have been the subject of debate for years. The idea that each fan will give up a days pay in a post recession world is too optimistic to be viable. Even if they were, the act of identifying each fan is challenging, if not impossible. Finally, producing enough content for the fans to part with a day’s pay might be too much for an artist who has to work a day job, manage a social/ family life and follow their passion. That’s why I decide to massage the idea a bit and come up with something more applicable to independent publishing.

The Ten Thousand Fans Idea
This idea uses One Thousand True Fans as a springboard and then addresses the issues of fan value in dollars, content production and to an extent, fan identification. The basic formula looks like this:

Number of Books Per Year x Fan Value x Number of Fans = Gross Revenue

  • Content Production: If a writer completes 10,000 words a month (or about 350 words per day) that equates to 120,000 words or two novels. With that much content, the writer could release two novels per year. (See What is Your Publishing Plan?)
  • Fan Value: If each novel is priced at $4.99 each and you release the books on Amazon, then the revenue for each book is $3.50 after you factor in the 70% royalty payment. If you release two books a year, then the value of each fan is about $7. A writer who produces more books or sells at a higher price has a higher fan value, but this example isn’t meant to be overly optimistic. (See How Long is a Novel and How Much Should it Cost?)
  • Gross Revenue: If a true fan is defined as someone who will buy everything you produce and you release two novels in a year, then the gross revenue is the number of books you release per year (content) times the value of each fan, times the total number of fans. In this example, $7 times 10,000 is $70,000. This is a respectable income, especially if you don’t quit your day job (Do You Really Need to Quit Your Day Job?). Keep in mind that this is your gross revenue. It doesn’t take into account how much you spent to produce and market the book. (See Profit and Loss Statements for Independent Publishers)

So How Do You Get Ten Thousand Fans?
Of course the biggest question in any marketing discussion is how do you get a fan and retain them over several years? Discoverability is a big buzz word in independent publishing and there are a lot of theories out there. At this stage of my career, I don’t know the best way to collect and hold fans. I might only have a dozen true fans to my credit now, and I cherish each and every one of you.

While I can’t be sure what works, I have lowered the importance of some common metrics:
  • Social Media: Facebook, Twitter, etc. might be a vehicle for getting in front of potential fans, but a Twitter follower or a FB like does not equal a true fan, especially when you consider the stranglehold FB employs to encourage you to buy ads and the constant stream that is Twitter. You only have to compare the sales of your book to your number of likes to see that this is true. Actual interaction with readers is more indicative of fans, but even that will be skewed by a host of factors that you can’t control.
  • Mailing list: A mailing list is a better indicator of fans, especially if everyone on your list has opted in, but I think the industry average open rate (defined as the % of people who actually open an email sent to them) is only about 10%. The click through rate (the number of people who get an email, open it and click on the link) might only be as high as 3%. The magic number of people who open, click and ultimately buy the product I think is 25% of the click through rate. That means if you want 10,000 true fans from an raw unfiltered email list based on these numbers, you might need a mailing list of more than 13 million, which is cost prohibitive on several levels.

It is early in the game for my publishing company, but I’m working with the concept that over time my fan base will increase based on three factors:
  • Multiple Releases: Discoverability is kind of like the lottery; the more books a writer has in the market, the more chances a reader has to find them. Not only do I plan to have two novels released every year for several years, I also break up each novel into cheaper sample parts to give readers a low cost entry point and increase my catalog size quickly (See The Case for Episodic Novels)
  • Niche Writing: Instead of writing in genres that I feel are saturated by a lot of independent writers or dominated by big names, I have decided to write in a space that is fairly open at this point. By working in a smaller pond, I have a better chance of becoming a bigger fish (See Genre Conventions, Cliches and Evolution)
  • Added Value: By writing and sharing ideas outside my books, I’m trying to enter the consciousness of a potential reader base. The hope is that if I help other writers with the business, craft and lifestyle they are struggling with in their own writing, they might be more inclined to share my work with their fans. Then maybe, those fans will recognize my name when it pops up on Amazon and a potential fan will be born. This is more an attempt to engage Tastemakers and Champions rather than fans, but it is all part of the larger strategy (See Champions, Fans and Tastemakers)

In the end, the goal of getting ten thousand fans has it’s own flaws and challenges, but it is more realistic for me than both One Thousand True Fans model or the “Everyone should read my book” concept.

So what are your sales goals based on? Share your ideas below and let me know.

Have fun.

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