I worry a lot. It's in my nature, and my doctors tell me that if I can't stop worrying so much, I'll have hypertension and high blood pressure. In fact, I'm already on my way there, and it's one of the main reasons I felt so lousy while I tried to recover from sinus surgery.
More than anything else, I worry about my ability to support and provide for my family. This isn't just about paying bills and putting food on my children; it's about health insurance and college tuition and retirement saving. You know, all those things that grown-ups have to worry about.
Two stories came across Bloglines this morning that were encouraging to me, and seem to support my belief that I can continue the life of indie publisher and occasional actor for at least another few years. In fact, after looking at these two stories, I have a great deal of hope that the way I've been doing things since I first published Dancing Barefoot is the right way to do it -- and will become the predominant way creative people make a living in the future.
Story number one tells us that Nine Inch Nails earned at least 750,000 in two days with the Creative Commons release of their new album Ghosts I-IV.
Mike Linksvayer, the CTO of Creative Commons, runs the numbers of Nine Inch Nails's Creative Commons download experiment and discovers that it only took the band two days to exceed the typical net from a massive-selling traditional CD release. The band sold $750,000 worth of "limited edition deluxe sets," plus an unknowable further sum from sales of the regular CDs and merch.
I was thrilled to grab the first CD -- legally -- off bittorrent, and I was doubly thrilled to see the best download speeds I think I've ever gotten in a .torrent file. Not even new Linux releases were as widely-seeded as Ghosts I was. I liked what I heard so much, I bought the two-disc set, which included an instant download of the entire album.
Clearly, I'm not going to make 750K at one time, ever, but NIN's and Radiohead's success in directly engaging their fans and audience via the Internet both validates the way I've chosen to sell and market my books, and gives me hope that there is, indeed, a viable future for creative people who choose to reach their fans directly, without doing things "the old way."
The second link addresses that directly, and is especially relevant to me, personally. It comes from Kevin Kelly, and is titled 1000 True Fans.
Other than aim for a blockbuster hit, what can an artist do to escape the long tail?
One solution is to find 1,000 True Fans. While some artists have discovered this path without calling it that, I think it is worth trying to formalize. The gist of 1,000 True Fans can be stated simply:
A creator, such as an artist, musician, photographer, craftsperson, performer, animator, designer, videomaker, or author - in other words, anyone producing works of art - needs to acquire only 1,000 True Fans to make a living.
A True Fan is 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 have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can't wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.
To raise your sales out of the flatline of the long tail you need to connect with your True Fans directly. Another way to state this is, you need to convert a thousand Lesser Fans into a thousand True Fans.
Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day's wages per year in support of what you do. That "one-day-wage" is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that. Let's peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.
First off, I'm not crazy about the term "true fan," because that seems to imply that unless you're willing to spend $100 a year on someone, you're not a True Fan. I'd prefer "diehard fan" or "core customer" or something like that, probably because I consider myself to be a True Fan of several different artists, and I don't know if I'd spend $100 a year on a bunch of merchandise. I think it makes sense to compare these people to season ticket holders, if that makes any sense. Well, it does to me: I love the Kings and the Dodgers. I can't afford to be a season ticket holder any more, but I don't think that makes me any less of a True Fan. Maybe I'm overthinking this. Let's move on.
But about Kevin Kelly's number: $100,000 a year from my work? That's more than "modest" for me. I'd love to earn $100,000 a year from my work. I'm not entirely sure if I can pull it off, though, because at the moment, I'm not putting out $100 worth of new stuff each year, and I don't think I've hit the 1000 True Fan threshold, yet. 300, for sure (and for the win!) but I think my number is probably closer to 400 or 500, considering what I publish, how frequently I publish, and various economic factors. I'm not sure if I can double that number before the end of 2008, but Kevin Kelly is absolutely on to something here (Jonathan Coulton agrees with him, and JoCo is doing with music what I hope to do with words) and I've got a goal to aim for now: double that number, and increase the amount of stuff I'm putting out there every year so it's worth at least $100 a person.
I don't know if I can do it, but I'm going to do my best to make it happen.