1000 True Fans: what can publishers learn?

2021-03-19

3 min read

1000 True Fans is a business model based on an essay initially published by Kevin Kelly in 2008. In his post Kelly proposes that to be successful (or at least make a living) in the creative industries you don’t need an audience of millions. All you need is 1000 true fans.

person performing heart hand gesture

Photo by Anthony DELANOIX on Unsplash

Your fans should be super fans

These fans will drive miles to see your concerts; buy your book in hardback and in paperback and crowd fund your projects early.

You must control the relationship with your fans

There should be no intermediaries such as a record label, publisher or studio. For the purposes of this article these intermediaries would be book wholesalers and retailers.

You should generate $100 of value from each fan per year

This works out at $100,000 of revenue which, Kelly suggests, is a good living for most people.

The 1000 true fans model is based on the assumption that it is always better to get more value from your existing fans than trying to reach new ones.

Online retailers like Amazon have long known that the combined sales of their most obscure products often reach and sometimes exceed those of their bestsellers - this is called the long tail. This suggests that smaller publishers don’t need a book at the top of the bestseller list (represented by the Head below) but can sit somewhere at the beginning of this long tail and still make money.

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It seems like big publishers are trying to do the opposite. In the way they commission and market books publishers like to cast as wide a net as possible. They are continually trying to reach new audiences and sometimes don't seem to care much for nurturing the reading communities they already serve. Only a small number of the books a publisher puts out will be expected to make money so marketing budgets are concentrated on big titles leaving smaller and niche authors to do the work themselves. This becomes a self fulfilling prophecy as publishers keep chasing buy in from retail chains and offering huge discounts to Amazon.

Smaller publishers are often priced out of traditional retail channels but through this model they have an opportunity to establish a direct relationship with their readers (fans). Indie presses could approach publishing a book in the same way a YouTuber makes videos or bands release music on Soundcloud. Kelly notes that the small circle of true fans will be surrounded by concentric circles of lesser fans. Publishers can convert this group with incentives like pre-order goodies, loyalty extras or simply by replying to and acknowledging readers. Kickstarter is a great way for publishers to recruit fans and reduces the upfront risk of publishing a book.

There is no getting around the fact that pursuing 1000 true fans is a lot of work. The 1000 number is predicated on supporting a single creator so if you have a team you will need correspondingly more fans. You will need a strong brand and to consistently produce good content. But it is a lot more fun to produce books for readers who really love them. It plays to the strengths of indie presses allowing them to thrive alongside the big 5 publishers.