In 2008 Kevin Kelly wrote about the value of a creator having 1,000 true fans (you can read the updated version of the essay here). The idea is that you don’t need to be an influencer with a million followers to make a living from your work. All you need are 1,000 true fans each spending $100 a year on your products or services, for you to make $100,000 a year.
But does the concept hold true for authors? Are books, a low cost item, enough or do you have to add on more premium products? And how does an author create true fans… and keep them? Join Orna and Joanna to find out.
- What do we mean by 1,000 true fans?
- Why is this more important than ever?
- How can authors make money by attracting true fans?
The Advanced Self-Publishing salon is brought to you by Specialist Sponsor Ingram Spark. IngramSpark is the award-winning indie publishing platform that offers authors like you a way to publish your book and share it with over 39,000 bookstores and libraries worldwide.
Find more author advice, tips and tools at our self-publishing advice center, https://selfpublishingadvice.org. And, if you haven’t already, we invite you to join our organization and become a self-publishing ally. You can do that at http://allianceindependentauthors.org.
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About the Hosts
Joanna Penn is a New York Times and USA Today bestselling thriller author, as well as writing non-fiction for authors. She is also a professional speaker and entrepreneur, voted as one of The Guardian UK Top 100 creative professionals 2013. She spent 13 years as a business IT consultant in large corporations across the globe before becoming a full-time author-entrepreneur in September 2011. For more information about Joanna, visit her website: http://thecreativepenn.com
Orna Ross launched the Alliance of Independent Authors at the London Book Fair in 2012. Her work for ALLi has seen her named as one of The Bookseller’s “100 top people in publishing”. She also publishes poetry, fiction and nonfiction, and is greatly excited by the democratising, empowering potential of author-publishing. For more information about Orna, visit her website: http://www.ornaross.com
Read the Transcripts: 1,000 True Fans
Joanna Penn: Hello, everyone. Welcome to the Alliance of Independent Authors’ Advanced Self-publishing Salon with me, Joanna Penn and Orna Ross. Hi, Orna.
Orna Ross: Hi, Joanna, and hello everyone. Welcome back to AskALLi, I’m delighted you are here.
Joanna Penn: Yes, and I’m surprised, I almost forgot we had a month off. I was like, surely, we only spoke recently. It seems like it’s been not very long at all, it’s this weird time warp of the still-pandemic times, right?
Orna Ross: Yeah, things seem simultaneously very fast and very slow, I don’t know how. Things seem ages ago and also yesterday, I don’t know what’s going on.
Joanna Penn: So, people listening, if you’re feeling the same way, don’t worry. You’re not mad, we’re all feeling this very weird life.
So anyway, as ever, we are going to have a topic today. We’re talking about how authors can make an income from a thousand true fans. But, before we get into that, as ever, we are authors too, we don’t just talk about it, and also, we like to get an update. So, Orna, why don’t you start by giving us an update from ALLi?
Orna Ross: Yeah. So, a big thing that happened in ALLi in the last little while is a, sort of, expansion of our global connections. So, we have taken on Mark, the wonderful Mark Williams, to do a column every Saturday on marketing your books globally. So, he’s been setting the context for the first number of weeks, the different territories, and the different platforms, and what each of them do, and then we’re going to move in to doing, you know, what I think is the real challenge, how do we market our books in the, we all know that we have these fantastic, markets available to us i.e. we can get our books distributed there, but of course that’s just half the job.
How do we do the other half of the job? So, we’re going to be working together with the wonderful Mark and find some answers on that. And also working with, and doing some reach out, to partner author organizations around the world, because we kind of think that that is the link that’s going to help us. And, Michael La Ronn has joined the team, I think I mentioned this, the last time it was just in progress, the last time we spoke. So, Michael is now officially a member of the ALLi team. He is going to be working on our ambassador program and our organization partnership with other creative industry bodies, as well as literary organizations, author organizations around the world, because I think that’s the key.
We need people who are on the ground, who can actually help us and connect us with authors in different territories. So, lots of work with that. That’s going to be an ongoing project, our going global project, that’s sort of our thing now for this year, 2021. We also published our self-publishing glossary, that’s now out and available. So, members just hop into the member zone if you want to know all the terms that an indie author needs to know, they’re all defined there. And the platforms helped us, Amazon broke down its definitions of all the different things that it does and so on. So, if that’s your kind of thing, it’s there.
It’s also going to be in the back of our guides soon, together with the Glindex, and finally, our member magazine is out. I just wanted to mention this one because it is a ‘making the most of your membership’ special. So, we’re more than a Facebook group, people. So, there are lots of other benefits there, and we’d really like you to log into the member zone, see what’s there and get stuck in. And so, hoping that this special issue will help. Our cover boy is Ethan Ellenberg, who’s our new dedicated literary agent who is actually doing great guns in helping ALLi members to license their rights selectively around the world as well. So, yeah, that’s what we’ve been up to. It has been two months.
Joanna Penn: It has, and I would definitely urge everyone to get the 150 Self-Publishing Questions that Michael and you put together, because that, I mean, it’s so funny, and I think I mentioned this last time, this Wide for the Win Facebook group that I’ve been in and, you know, I’ve been doing this long enough, I have been so surprised at some of the things I’ve been learning over the last few weeks from Michael and the book. I also interviewed him for my podcast and also on the Wide for the Win. I’m like, how come I didn’t know that? I thought I pretty much knew most things, and this is the reality of the world we live in now.
And also, Mark’s column. By the way, everyone, just to say, I stopped blogging about almost a year ago now because of the ALLi blog, mainly because I cannot be that good. It is a brilliant, no seriously, you remember I talked to you about it last year and basically said there is no need for me to write the things that I used to write because now the ALLi blog really is, for me, the number one place, and I tweet it all the time and share it.
And the member resources, the eBooks that people can buy if they’re not a member, are fantastic. And it was funny cause you tweeted, or you put on something, the picture from 2012. Was it yesterday? Or maybe it was someone from the group, but the launch of ALLi at London Book Fair 2012.
Orna Ross: Oh, yes. Yeah, yeah, yeah. It turned up on my, you know, Facebook memories. Yeah.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and it was so funny because I was like, oh my goodness, how things have changed! Like, even that glossary is interesting because you and I have been, kind of, “arguing” about the meaning of certain words for years. So, it’s kind of hilarious that you’ve like, you’ve set in stone. Like this is the glossary.
Orna Ross: Yep, nobody can argue! No, it’s not like that at all, but it is actually one set of definitions that you can use, and you won’t go too far wrong. But yeah, we do talk about, in 150-Questions, as well, and in the Glossary, we do talk about the fact that there aren’t, for some things, there are no right and wrong answers and for some things there are and knowing the differences is good.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, for sure. But it’s so interesting that we can all keep learning and so, I don’t want people to think, oh, well, you know, I know that, therefore, I don’t need to look at this stuff because, as I said, I’m still learning. Things change so fast; you can’t possibly stay up to date with every single area. So, please do take advantage of all of those things. Okay, let’s talk about our personal stuff.
Orna Ross: What have you been up to?
Joanna Penn: What have I been up to? So, it was funny because I was looking at the notes from last time and I was like, oh, I hadn’t launched my last book. So, Map of the Impossible came out, the third book in my Map Walker trilogy and what’s interesting, just, you know, for lessons learned for everyone, I started writing that first book when I moved to Bath. So, 2016, I started writing the first book and it became a trilogy. I didn’t know it was a trilogy, it just turned into one and I’ve learnt so much from this experience. But having the third book done means that I can almost now turn it into a package of IP, intellectual property, and now I can start marketing it. I almost feel like I’ve barely done any marketing on the books because, until it was a trilogy, it wasn’t finished. And I know this is a proper trilogy where there is a character arc across three books, rather than a periodic series.
So, that’s been really interesting, and I hadn’t done the audiobooks, because I hadn’t nailed what I wanted in my head had until the three books were finished, and I’m glad I didn’t because I went back and kind of re-edited book one to, kind of, smooth over some things, not to change anything major, but just to, you know, fix some of the words, language glossary, across the series in a made up world. And then, I have been working with FindawayVoices, I found a brilliant narrator whose voice I really love, it’s quite similar to my own, I’d always had in my head that I would narrate it, but I just don’t have the bandwidth to do that. So…
Orna Ross: What about your voice double, someday, you’re not going to wait for that?
Joanna Penn: Well, that is something that I’ve put out on my show in the last few months. Mark LaFave and I did a voice double conversation, which was hilarious. What was hilarious was the response to it, a whole load of people said, oh, it sounds just like a robot, it’s terrible. A whole load of people said, whoa, that’s really scary, I sound just like me. Other people thought Mark sounded just like him. It was so interesting how people’s ears and they’re listening, not ability, but the level of listening differs by person. But it was fascinating. But some of the, I don’t know what the PC thing is, blind people who listened or sight challenged people, who do listen a lot said that it was fine, compared to a lot of the stuff they listened to, it was fine. So, that was interesting. I don’t want to go on too much, but I am now halfway through writing the first draft of my next Arkane thriller, Tree of Life. So, I feel like I’ve moved on way further than where I was two months ago, and partly that’s because of, not lockdown, but we’re still in kind of semi, well, we’re in a pandemic still, and I haven’t really been anywhere or done anything except work and walk. Working and walking has basically been my life. So, it has been interesting to get pretty productive during the last a couple of months.
Orna Ross: Yeah, it’s the real advantage, I think, for people who do the kind of thing that we do, compared to others in this time.
Great. Well, I have had a summer of just reconfiguring and getting rid of cold subscribers, tidying up my list, auto responders, changing how I do absolutely everything. I almost feel like I’m starting again. It’s been such a radical change on everything, from social media, and rather than kind of go on about it, I think I’ll talk about it, because a lot of it ties into the topic that we’re going to be talking about today, which is, the thousand true fans, because I’m very much basing what I do around that concept, because that’s what I find and most rewarding, I suppose, is the way to say it. Yeah.
Joanna Penn: Okay, but you’ve basically been doing a lot of admin tasks and it’s good to contrast these things, because obviously I did a lot of that earlier, probably April/May or March/April, I was doing a lot of that. And then I was like, right, I’m done. I did re-covering, You can see, on that side of me, those are some of my new covers, and I did a lot of that earlier on, and then I just got back to the writing. Whereas, you’re still in admin mode, and then you’re going to get back to the writing.
Orna Ross: I just finished re-covering a poetry book, putting it out there this month to see, does it work? You know, does it make a difference? If it does, I’ll do the others. And using the functionality of ConvertKit for the first time, actually really segmenting the lists and that required a whole load of stuff to be done, but it feels really good.
It feels very tidy and it’s more than admin because it needed me to look at my social media plan, you know, how I, kind of, attracted these fans, you know, or these readers that you hope will eventually become fans? So, yeah, it’s been a lot of work, but it feels very good now. Almost there.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, good. And I think what we’re going to do, probably next year, is both of us feedback on some of the changes we’ve done, and the result of that. We don’t particularly want to talk to you in detail about it now, before we’ve seen some results and can share that with everyone. So, should we get into our topic?
Orna Ross: Let’s do it.
Joanna Penn: Okay. So, we are talking about a thousand true fans and how that helps us, I guess, as indie authors and how that relates to making living. So, let’s start with, what did Kevin Kelly mean by this? So, a thousand true fans is a, kind of, online blog post/essay that Kevin Kelly, who’s a technologist, started Wired magazine, great author, all round lovely guy, to be honest, and he wrote this way back. I think it was 2006, I want to say now, oh, 2008. 2008, he wrote this first essay and he’s updated it since, because things have changed a bit since 2008, but I certainly remember it coming out, because that’s when I started blogging, and it has become more and more true.
So, we’re going to link to the full article, we’re not going to read it all out. Now, I’m just going to read some quotes from it and we’re going to talk about it. So, we’re going to start. So, he says, “a true fan is defined as a fan that will buy anything you produce. If you have roughly a thousand true fans like this, also known as super fans, you can make a living. If you are content to make a living, but not a fortune.”
And then a bit of a break. And then,
“Of course, not every fan will be super. While the support of a thousand true fans may be sufficient for a living, for every single true fan, you might have two or three regular fans. Think of concentric circles with true fans at the center and a wider circle of regular fans around them.”
So, Orna, what are your thoughts on this idea of the true fans and these concentric circles?
Orna Ross: Yeah, I love this image of concentric circles for this. So, he starts with the thousand true fans, and kind of works his way out, and I have this thing called Accesss Marketing, which starts on the outside and works its way back in.
So, you know, around the truest, the superfans, let’s call them the regular fans, around those will be people who have maybe heard about you or your work, but haven’t actually tasted it at all, and then around that, there are those who haven’t heard of you yet, and you’ve kind of got to reach and pull them in.
So, while you might have a, you know, and this is the first thing to say about the strategy; I love it, I think it’s deep, I think it’s meaningful, I think it’s real. I think it is something you can build on. It’s not a flash in the pan. And the main thing to say is that it’s not a short-term strategy. It’s a long-term strategy.
And while a thousand is kind of the key number, because his idea was, if a thousand fans spent a hundred dollars a year on-
Joanna Penn: Year.
Orna Ross: Yes, thank you. It’s maths. I’m running out, you know, it’s the simplest sum in the world.
Joanna Penn: A hundred times a thousand – a hundred thousand.
Orna Ross: Got it, thank you for your help. So, that’s the idea. That’s kind of a living, once you take your expenses and your taxes and your stuff out of it. And now, that is a numbers game because that thousand super fans won’t always be there forever and a day. You’re always playing with bigger numbers to get that core number; I think that’s an important point to mention. People do move out and move in, we do it ourselves. You meet a book when you need it, and you like an author for a while, and then maybe you move on and you’re no longer super supporting them. So, you’ve always got this thing going on. In practice, how it works is, you’ve got the people who are there, and they are your number one. Satisfying them, keeping them happy. But at the same time, you’ve got this wider group of people and you’re still trying to attract more people in to come and connect with you, engage with you, so you can subscribe them to your email list and then you can satisfy them, make them really happy with what you’re giving them, then you sell to them and that’s the process.
So, it’s not going out cold trying to sell books. It’s all about attracting people through social media, probably, or whatever way you choose to do that.
But concentric circles, I think, is a great image to keep in mind.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and in fact, I’d go further than that with authors in particular, in that I think it’s more like the overlapping concentric circles.
So, for example, I have two very clear brands, Joanna Penn and J.F. Penn, and I definitely have people under my Joanna Penn brand who are amazing and do buy everything; all my books, all my courses, all my audiobooks and are my Patrons, and they listen to the podcast and hello, if you’re listening, and that that’s incredible.
And I don’t think I have many people like that under J.F. Penn, because I have so many series. And so, what I would say for author brands is the idea of lots of different concentric circles, where you will have little pockets of true fans.
So, for example, I was thinking, well, who am I a true fan of? So, Kristine Kathryn Rusch. I’m a true fan of Kris Rusch, but for her nonfiction, as Kris Rusch. I’ve read a couple of her novels, but she writes under all these different names and all these different genres and I’ve read some of them, but I certainly don’t. Whereas, with her nonfiction, I buy all her nonfiction, I’m a patron, I fly to America to see her speak and all of this. So, I’m like a superfan of that one particular part of Kris’s brand, and so I want people to think, and this might be how we can scale the idea of a thousand true fans, right. Because my Map Walker trilogy has some fans who’ll buy all three books. Now, it doesn’t cost you $100 to buy all three books. And then some people love my Brooke and Daniel, the crime thrillers, and they’ll be fans of that, and other people love Arkane, and so this is what I want people thinking, how do we do this as authors? Well, you probably have to think micro brands, certainly fiction/nonfiction.
I mean, Orna, I’ve read most of your books, but not all your poetry. Like, you don’t sit down and read all the poetry, right? But what do you think about that in terms of thinking of it in terms of lots of different concentric circles, and probably one person will not go into every single box?
Orna Ross: Definitely, I mean, that’s a lot of what I have been engaged in doing over the past while is that, you know, I was putting everything out in a kind of a sludge so that people would come to, for example, my Facebook page, and they would see a bit of everything and consequently wander away because they didn’t know what to do.
So, in terms of setting up the circles, I have four clear concentric circles. One is poetry, one is fiction, one is creative business planning and one is ALLi. And there is a little crossover, is what I would say, but not a lot. More between the literary work, actually, the novels and the poetry, surprisingly, than anything else. So, yeah, definitely the concentric circles I think, is something that I would say most of the people that I see who are making a living from this methodology, are people who have more than one string to their bow. I don’t think it’s possible to get a fan to spend a hundred dollars on books unless you were producing, I mean, how many would, you can do the sums for us, how many would you need to be producing each year?
Joanna Penn: Oh, I did it at like, if you make $4 per eBook profit. So, if you sell an eBook in US Dollars for $4.99, you can make $4, that’s without advertising, obviously, you would need 25 books for that one customer to spend a hundred dollars. And that is every single year. Now, even the fastest authors are not putting out 25 books per year. So, yeah, every year. So, the only people who can do that are those who’ve turned this into a business and are working with other authors or publishing other people. So, they are actually publishers and that’s okay because we don’t have to do it like that. I mean, obviously, for example, you know, in terms of formats I know that, so I always do this the wrong way around. So, How to Write Nonfiction, people might buy that as a print book and then also as an audiobook and then they might buy the workbook and they might buy the course, in which case, yeah, they’ve spent some money there. But that doesn’t work for a fiction trilogy, for example. I mean, you can get the box set of ten, no nine Arkane novels for $19.99. So, that’s still not a hundred dollars and that’s like more than half my back list.
Orna Ross: And I think it’s important to say that we are in a time where books are becoming cheaper and cheaper as well. We’ve got Spotify now coming into the subscription market and, you know, subscription generally becoming quite popular in books. And, you know, there’s a general sense that books are going to become cheaper and cheaper, and already have, to some degree. So, I think as well as your concentric circles, authors need to think about a premium product.
I don’t think this model works if all you’re selling is books, you need to have something else. And I really honestly feel that every author should have a premium product anyway, because, why not? Books really don’t have a lot of profit involved and if you’re all set up to sell and to do all that we do, why not just do that extra bit of thinking, put something together that works in that way. And we’ll talk a bit more about that in a while.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, we’re going to come back to that. But just in terms of reading a little bit more, “so a thousand true fans is an alternative path to success, other than stardom. Instead of trying to reach the narrow and unlikely peaks of platinum bestseller hits, blockbusters, and celebrity status, you can aim for direct connection with a thousand true fans and be surrounded by not faddish infatuation, but by genuine and true appreciation. It’s a much saner destiny to hope for.”
And I think this is so key. I still remember being at Thriller Fest and Lee Child saying, you cannot have my career. I wrote it down and circled it. You cannot have my career. So many people come into the author life thinking that that’s the career path, that the JK Rowling, or the Stephen King or Jack Reacher, Lee Child thing, that that’s the only way. But that hasn’t been the way, and in fact, there’s studies done, like if you became an author in the eighties or nineties, and you got those big pay packets, some of those authors are still making money. Although, most of them are not making those pay packets anymore, because books aren’t selling that many copies anymore because of the fragmentation of the market. But what Kevin said back then, and what I definitely feel now is, it’s not about the blockbuster, we’re not living in the mass market. We are living in the long tail, we have to find our niche in our little fragmented section of the world, and that’s a good thing. And that’s a happy thing. I don’t want to be famous. I want to be wealthy, I am pretty wealthy, you know, I realize that and I’m very grateful for my situation, but I do not want to be famous.
Orna Ross: Yeah, and I mean, I think a lot of authors do. I think some do, certainly. I think we can count on it that some do. And I think though, the point that you made is the important one, you know, we grow up loving the writers that we read and they’re famous, they’re famous to us because we’ve read them and we’ve probably seen them on a chat show or heard them interviewed on the radio, or whatever. And that then becomes the dream because that’s what we see and what we hear, but actually what held trade publishing up, just like it holds indie publishing up now is what used to be called the mid-list, and that’s what’s disappeared completely in trade publishing. It’s really polarized now to the stars who are doing really, really well, and they’re carrying everybody, and down at the other end there’s the debut author who doesn’t have a record, who is being put out for, you know, 20 of them or so, being put out for the first time each season.
Mike Shatzkin recently commented on the fact that publishers are investing so little now in new books, and most of their profit is coming from putting existing backlist books into audio and other formats. When that stops, we’re going to see the real situation in trade publishing, which is, you know, those new books are not being invested in. There is no mid-list now, you don’t make enough money for the publisher, to say there is none is an exaggeration, but, you know, compared to what used to be there, the mid-list was the kind of the long tail and making the money from the backlist is fine for a while, but if that investment isn’t going on in new work, we can see it’s going to really show in another few years.
So, the point being here that we need to rethink what our definition of success is. If what we want to do is to keep on writing, and to keep on working at this and make enough money to kind of put ourselves out for the next day, and enjoy the life of the author, then it’s incredibly nurturing and incredibly useful for our writing, as well, to have that direct engagement with the super fans, and the regular fans, and the readers. It really is. It feels amazing. I think it’s far more rewarding than what looks on the outside like glamour; fame, book tours are not fun.
Joanna Penn: Me too, whatever.
Orna Ross: Yeah, really, they’re not fun, the first one might be fun, but after that it’s not, it’s grueling stuff and you’re just dying to get back home. This is a much more sustaining model, I think.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and I think the mindset shift has to happen. Like, for example, if you want to sell direct, which of course we’ve been banging on about for years. If you sell books direct, like I do every single day, no one will ever know about it, except you and the person who just bought from you, because there is no ranking, there is no algorithm. There is nothing except you and the person who bought it and the money in your bank account 10 minutes later, which is very satisfying. But you have to change, the mindset shift is so big and it’s all to do with these thousand true fans. So, why is this more important than ever?
Kevin says, “the intermediates, the commercial producers i.e. the publishers), and that’s my brackets, are all under equipped and ill-suited to connect with these thousand true fans. They are institutionally unable to find and deliver niche audiences and consumers. That means the long tail is wide open to you, the creator.”
So, Orna, is that true that publishers are just ill suited to connect with these thousand true fans?
Orna Ross: Yeah, definitely, because trade publishers are a B2B business. Their customer is the wholesaler or the bookstore, it isn’t the reader. So, that leaves this space wide open, and you can see authors are taking it, you know, on YouTube, Patreon, crowdfunding, you know, these are the places where you find indie authors, and these are the places where you find this sort of relationship.
It’s the indie authors who are driving this because that space is the space that’s open. Going through the bookstore is a completely different model. And I think that’s the other thing, it’s not just a mindset shift that we have to engage in. If when we think about this kind of model, it is actually a completely different business model with a completely different set of rules, a completely different way of setting up your business, completely different processes, completely different expectations from your customer.
And even thinking of readers as customers, for some authors, is a difficult thing to do, and it actually stops them in their tracks, to some degree and I think when you actually have the experience, though, when you have that direct connection, and you feel what it is like to directly connect with a reader who really values what you do.
I mean, I remember when it was the other way, when you would put out a book and you would only ever meet readers at literary book signings and book readings, and that was a fleeting moment with loads of people standing in a line waiting to come at you. I mean, it’s so much more meaningful a connection and so much more nurturing, and it develops you much more as a writer to have this ongoing connection with a number of people who get what you do.
It really helps you to stay there, I think, and to keep on producing and to know what to do next. I’m exploring this in detail now on my Facebook page, I have just started to actually treat it as my fiction notebook and I’m putting out just bits of dialogue, bits of scenes and stuff, but inviting people to sign up on the page to actually feed into what’s going to happen. So, every two weeks or so, send them a couple of chapters.
I was so tired of doing nonfiction, I had to get back to doing fiction in some way. So, I was just doing a little snippet a day, and then the email list is specifically just about that novel and just saying here’s a chapter or two, what do you think should happen next?
So, just exploring, you know, this connection that is possible. I mean, we just couldn’t do things like this before, so yeah. I’ll report back on this in a little while.
Joanna Penn: Fantastic. Okay. So, how can we attract a thousand true fans and make money this way? So, this has a few things. So, we’ve talked a little bit about it, but you know, you have to create enough each year that you can earn on average a hundred-dollar profit from each true fan.
And we’ve talked about that and how you probably need some premium products and of course, ALLi has the business model, the 10 different things, I think, on the list, and we’ve done a show about that. So, we’re not going to go into all the different options but go look that up.
Is it under Self-publishing 3.0?
Orna Ross: No, if you just Google, ’10 business models for authors’ you’ll get it. It’s easy to find. And it is in the Self-publishing 3.0 booklet, as well. And it’s in my book as well.
Joanna Penn: Yeah. Yeah. We’ve talked about that before. And then you must have a direct relationship with your fans. They must pay you directly. Technology permits creators to maintain relationships so that the customer can become a fan and the creator keeps the total amount of payment, which reduces the number of fans needed.
So, this ties into both what I was saying about using, I use Payhip to sell direct, I’m using Teachable to sell my courses and, you know, yes, technically there’s always going to be a cost of doing business. So, there’s a cost of, you know, Stripe or PayPal or your bank account or the platform that we use, all of them have a fee. So, you have to, that’s why he says profit above all of these fees, obviously then, if you get people on your email list as we, again, we bang on about this stuff all the time, but having a website and an email list, and Orna mentioned, they’re trying to get people over to the email list so that then you can talk to them directly.
Like, at the beginning of the pandemic, I emailed my list and sold a thousand dollars’ worth of books in an afternoon, and that money was in my account because I had an email list, and because I could sell direct. If I’d have driven all of that traffic to Amazon or Apple or Kobo or a Draft2Digital, or any of those other retailers, as wonderful as they are, it would have taken 60 days for the money to get to my bank account.
So, that’s really what he’s saying, and also the other thing is if you do sell direct, if you do have people on your email list, you have some of their data. Now, of course, GDPR and respecting people’s data, and we obviously let people unsubscribe, no worries. But, if you sell on all of those other platforms, you never see who those people are.
And, of course, we’re not saying don’t sell on those platforms, we’re just saying have a combination, so that you have some power over managing your money. Anything else there, Orna on the, I guess, the attraction and what we need there?
Orna Ross: Yeah, I think the important thing to realize is the opportunity there.
Again, because people are getting very tired of corporate business and people also, you know, are shopping more online, but they’re looking for at this time of trouble, we have seen it over and again in the kinds of books that are being read at the moment, they’re looking at for that direct connection with authors, and with a real live human being who actually does care. You know, so all the trends that are moving in that direction towards, you know, more indie shops, more handmade stuff, all of these things that are on the rise in the marketplace at the moment, feeds into, really well into all of this. So, you’re tapping into a current unfolding trend, but also the way of the future.
And as we also get more artificial intelligence coming on and all of these other technical tools, which are fantastic, we can use them, of course, nobody’s saying you don’t use them, but what you also use is the fact that you are a real life human being using them.
So, giving your potential fans and your actual fans, more and more reasons all the time to, you know, ways to get to know you, reasons to like you, reasons to trust you.
Once you build up that connection, you don’t have to do hard sell. And this is, I think, it takes away the fear that a lot of authors have around selling, because it’s the relationship that you work on. You just work on doing what you do, being you, not just being you, but being very good at what you do also, uniquely and remarkably good, so that you excite and delight your fans. So that, when they see you popping into their email boxes or wherever, however, you are connecting with them, they should be excited. They should really look forward to getting that email. They should not want to unsubscribe or not open the email. So, that is the challenge, and I think this is one of the reasons why people maybe don’t take advantage of the possibilities around this model is that it’s very stark, you know, you’re right up against it. There’s no fooling yourself here. If people are turning away, you’re going to see it, and you’re going to have to engage with that and you’re going to have to work out why and what you could do better, and all of that. It’s work. I think that’s one of the most important things to say about it, but it’s very meaningful and very rewarding work.
Joanna Penn: And we saw a really good example of this over the summer with Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter, and Kickstarter and crowdfunding is one of the 10 business models, and you’ve obviously done one Orna, but yours did not raise nearly $7 million for a special edition hardback. I have your special edition hardback, which you did a few years ago. But Brandon Sanderson, yeah. So, he did a leather-bound, double edition. So, two books in a box, so an actual box set, as opposed to an eBook box set. 10-year anniversary edition of The Way of Kings, which was his first novel.
Now, what’s interesting about this one. So, he did raise almost $7 million for this on a Kickstarter. Also, this is a book that he licensed to traditional publishing but, Dean Wesley Smith has been commenting on this a lot, Brandon basically, when he signed his contracts, kept the rights for special edition, either hard backs or just special edition books. He kept those rights and he works with this particular company; they’re not print on demand; they do a really high-quality print run. It’s beautiful, and he’s commissioned loads of artists and there’s all this extra stuff, and I think he’s written all these extra stories.
It’s a great example. Maybe we can link to it in the show notes because it’s a fantastic example of an author who knows his audience. And look, you also have to watch the video because he’s just a great geeky, fantasy author. He’s not pretending to be anything. He’s not, he loves fantasy. He writes fantasy. He reads fantasy. He loves swords and sorcery, and what’s brilliant is this money. So, this nearly $7 million, he’s obviously going to make a fair whack. The printers are going to make a fair whack. And then all of these professionals that he’s commissioned are also going to make money.
And this is just a wonderful self-sustaining artistic community model, and his fans are happy. I just can’t see downside for this kind of thing, and I’m actually taking one of Dean’s courses, Dean and Chris’s courses on using Kickstarter, because I am so afraid of it. I’m really afraid of it, and this course is on how to kind of just do it. So, at some point I will, but, I mean, having done it yourself, Orna, a few years back with your Yeats book, The Secret Rose, what are your thoughts on that?
Orna Ross: It was a fantastic experience. I mean, I aimed for $7,000 and it went a bit over that.
I was thrilled with it, that gave me the money to actually put together a gold embossed hardback. Very simple, nothing terribly ornate. I did it with Clay’s, a printer here in London. And, yeah, as you say, everybody was happy. It allowed me to do a special run of 500, I have very few left.
What happened is I used to get tired of the packaging and sending the nice card, kind of thing. I never wanted to send it as a chore. So, when I would get tired of it, I would stop advertising it. But then I would kind of say, oh yeah, I must do another few. And it’s such a lovely engagement with people who are complete Yeats nuts like I am, you know, you have to be a real superfan of his, to want this book.
But I have met so many Yeatsians all over the world, had such incredible conversations. I’ve actually met a couple of people when they were in London, and so the whole experience was just fantastic, and everybody seemed to be really happy with that. Yeah.
Joanna Penn: Yeah, and I think it ties into the true fans, because your true fans are going to want it, like Brandon Sanderson’s true fans jumped on it. That was probably the first couple of million, were his thousand true fans, and then it moved out in these concentric circles into other things.
It probably is a whole load of collectors who were going for special editions that they could sell later on. Because he’s a big-name author now, you know, and then there were other people who probably jumped. I mean, I even thought, I don’t even read his stuff, I even thought about signing up just to support the whole thing. I didn’t, because I’m not a fan of his stuff, but in the end, it was like the hype around it made it bigger.
So, that concentric circle moved out, moved out. But the point is, you know, as you did, you doubled down on being a remarkable you and it’s like, this is my remarkable product. Was it £40? I seem to remember something like that, to buy the hardback. And, you know, you did an event and there were lots of things around it that made it something for true fans.
And I think that’s something we all need to consider as we think about going forward.
I mean, for example, we’re going to get a Frankenstein, finally, a Frankenstein museum in Bath, which I’m very excited about, because everyone thinks Bath is about Jane Austen and bonnets. Well, it’s not. Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein here and I’m like, can this be Bath, please? Can it be dark Frankenstein? If that happens, I will probably do some live events in Bath, like I’ve talked to you about maybe doing some writing stuff that some of my true fans will definitely be interested in, and that I wouldn’t do it very often, and it’s not as scalable as an eBook, but it could also, you know, make more money and make the true fans happier.
So, I guess, that’s what we’re trying to encourage people in this episode, is to sort of think about where are those people, how do they intersect with your current work? How can you attract them more? How can you perhaps create things that will delight them and make them happy to pay a bit more money to support you and get value?
Orna Ross: And I think there’s a big confidence issue here. I think you don’t know before you do it, whether it’s going to work or not, and it’s okay to fail. It’s actually okay to try something and then learn from that. And you will, you know, probably not on your first thing, just hit it straight away, but the thinking about it and the feedback that you get, if you keep going with it, I think when you do begin to get that kind of fan response, people love it. That’s why Brandon’s thing just kept growing and growing, because when you see fandom and you see that connection, it’s a lovely thing, and you want to be part of it, you know? So, you will draw in other people just by putting yourself out there in that way.
So, it’s really having the confidence to step out and do it. Honestly, when I was doing the Yeats thing, I really didn’t have a clue whether there would be people who would be as bonkers about him as I am, and it was very, very, very niche, you know, and it was even for Yeats fans. It was tiny because it was his fiction, which is very, you know, not known at all. But it worked, and I was lucky with that in some ways, but it also was because there were people who were fans of other things that I had done over the years who kind of came with me on it, on that journey, and then were really happy that they did. So, yeah, it’s kind of grab your confidence, be scared, but do it anyway, because it will, at minimum, you’ll learn a lot about your own attraction, what it is that you have to offer, your own value for readers.
Joanna Penn: So, I guess that really is the, closing out his article, he actually says, and you’ve said this as well, “The truth is that cultivating a thousand true fans is time consuming, sometimes nerve wracking and not for everyone. Done well, and why not do it well, it can become another full-time job. At best it will be a consuming and challenging part-time task that requires ongoing skills.”
And so, this is the Advanced Show and thanks for, some people in the comments they were saying they’re new to indie, welcome to the journey and obviously Orna and I in this show talk about the advanced level, which is often after you’ve been doing this 5 years, 10 years, 15 years, more. So, fair enough, we’ve been doing it awhile. So, don’t worry if you’re just starting out. We’re not suggesting you jump into this sort of day one, and this is not an overnight thing, but I think Kevin also says something like, if you grow one fan per day, it will take, you know, three years, three and a half years to have that thousand. And a lot of people won’t wait even three years at this point, but hey, what else do you want to be doing with your life? Really?
But then he also says, “the mathematics of a thousand true fans is not a binary choice. You don’t have to go this route to the exclusion of another. Many creators will use direct relationships with super fans in addition to mainstream intermediaries. I have been published by several big time, New York publishers. I have self-published. I have used Kickstarter to publish to my true fans. I chose each format depending on the content and my aim, but in every case, cultivating my true fans enriches the route I choose.”
So, Orna, this kind of ties into your idea of selective licensing.
Orna Ross: Yes, absolutely. I think the more ways we can get our stuff out there, the better and this idea, you know, this polarizing of I’m self-published or I’m trade-published is nonsense. You know, very few people are sitting there saying, okay, which route am I going to take? The successful self-publishing route, or the successful trade-publishing route. It doesn’t happen like that. You actually, I think now, start to publish books, build that up and in time you attract rights buyers, and you selectively license aspects of your offering to them. You also use as many of the…it’s as easy to be on a few hundred, almost as easy, to be on a few hundred platforms as it is to be on one. Almost, I mean, there is a little bit more work, but not a huge amount more work, depending on how you choose to do it using aggregators and the amazing tools that we have available to us. So, being on as many platforms as possible, having your work in as many formats as possible, getting it out into as many countries as possible, and using every skill that we have and slowly building up over time, because some of this stuff, once it’s done, it’s done forever and you don’t really need to go back in there. Some of it will need constant updating and some of it will fall away, because it just won’t be right for you.
But it’s only by trying these things that you get to know them. So, I think a really useful thing is to kind of have an experiment per quarter, where you actually explore something new and see, does it work and what effect does it have, safe and secure in the knowledge that is all coming from you, and that it’s all going to contribute in some way if you do it. If you do it properly and you do it well, it’s going to attract attention from readers in some way and add to your concentric circles as you go forward.
Joanna Penn: Yeah. So, I think that pretty much sums it up for today. So, hopefully that’s given you some ideas about your thousand true fans and whether you’ve got them already or whether you’re just starting out, and hopefully we can all learn to serve those thousand true fans more. I think that’s where that feeling has to come from. It’s not just, oh, I need to sell to these people. It’s how do I serve the people in those circles the best way, and like surprise and delight them, and do great books. The basis of everything.
Okay. So, Orna, anything you want to tell people about in the coming month?
Orna Ross: Nothing that I can think of, off the top of my head,
Joanna Penn: Is there anything for Frankfurt?
Orna Ross: Frankfurt? Well, we have SelfPubCon in October, but I think we’ll have a session between now and then, so I’ll fill people in on that next time out. It’s the 17th of October. So, we’re beginning to put our speakers out and so on. I’m not going to Frankfurt this year. They’re doing a bit of a mix, I think, of online and physical. So, it’ll be interesting to see how that experiment goes for them. What about, you still staying home, still pumping it out?
Joanna Penn: Well, I’m finishing Tree of Life, which is my next Arkane book, but it’s interesting because one of the things I have done is, all of my books are really based on travels, a lot of them are international travels, particularly my Arkane books, but I’ve kind of pivoted. So, my next one is going to be around the bones of Thomas Becket, which is a Catholic Saint here in the UK, and I’ll be walking the Becket Way, which is from Southwark in London to Canterbury. I’m going to write two books out of that, a novel and also a travel guide to an ancient Pilgrimage. So, this is totally different for me, kind of taking it more into my books and travel podcast, and trying to branch out into nonfiction under my fiction author name, and trying to use nonfiction to promote my fiction, and all of that.
So, that’s something I’m really thinking about and how I can travel, still travel, but not like fly off to America, whatever, which we may well not be doing for a while. So, that’s fine, but I guess we’ll be back next month, and I guess we’ll figure out the topic later.
Orna Ross: I don’t we have set a topic yet. We need to, I’m just back from holiday, so everything’s a little bit. Yeah, but we will, we’ll be here talking about something utterly fascinating, hopefully, and look forward to seeing you all then. So, thanks for listening.
Joanna Penn: Happy writing.
Orna Ross: Happy publishing.