Last month at this time I launched a new experiment, a Patreon. What’s Patreon? Think of it like a subscription service to an artist. Some artists just post a Patreon that let us support something they’re already publicly doing, like videos on a YouTube channel. You sign up for a certain amount a month and you get the pleasure of knowing you’re helping them usher something cool into the world. I really like The Nerdwriter‘s videos, and he uses that model:
Other Patreons use more of a ‘subscriber’ model where you get access to content otherwise not available, which is what I’m doing.
Now that I’m a month into using one, here are some things I think have jumped out at me.
1) Conversion rates for paid art are low
I launched my Patreon by first pinging my newsletter of almost 1,000 people who have indicated they’re interested in hearing about upcoming fiction of mine. That created an initial surge of 17 patrons, with maybe some more coming in on the second day when I announced the link to twitter.
I have over 9,500 followers on twitter, which is where the bulk of the growing has happened since. The Patreon is currently at 94 subscribers.
Conversion rates for art are super low because money is a finite resource and it’s one thing to have people following you, but another to make the ask. For example, here’s an article about a band with 1,000,000 Spotify streams that shows their royalties as $4,955. They made $0.004891 per stream.
Sometimes you see frustrated artists online point out that they sell thousands of books/CDs/projects, when they have tens of thousands of followers. But that’s actually a super high conversion rate. And thinking that people following us online are the prime consumers is often a blind that doesn’t represent reality.
When I set out to launch the Patreon I had no idea what the conversion rate would be. I knew that my lowest Kickstarter, another form of crowdfunding, had 170 backers, and my best had 270. When I did a poll on twitter 6 months ago over 250 people indicated an interest in a Patreon, so I had some hope that between 150-250 would eventually end up on the Patreon. But how long would it take for word to filter out, or for people to jump on, I didn’t know. Kickstarter has a definite time limit, and Patreon doesn’t. The urgency isn’t as strong usually.
2) Asking for a monthly amount is a bigger ask than a one time project
Speaking of Kickstarter, my most successful Kickstarter was a $12,500 ($1,000 came in after the Kickstarter closed), 192 backer, total for my novel The Apocalypse Ocean. That’s kind of similar to thinking of a $1,000 a month Patreon, were I to do one novel a year and one Kickstarter a year.
But for the Patreon I launched we have half the number of backers so far. It’s a tougher ask to ask someone of their hard-earned money to commit to a subscription as opposed to a one time payment for a project. Which makes total sense.
That being said, at $550 a month for short fiction the Patreon is pretty close to matching the income of doing a single short story collection via Kickstarter (my last Kickstarter was a $7,000 Kickstarter for Xenowealth: A Collection). It’s wild that 100 subscribers are in for getting a short story a month.
However, writing is a wildly variable income stream. I’ve been super, super lucky to make over half my needed income from writing every year for the last ten years. But I can never predict when checks will arrive, when deals will strike, or royalties pay out. Royalties are paid out every six months. Contracts can take six months to fourteen months to pay out. I could strike a million dollar book deal tomorrow, and still run out of money in nine months if it takes twelve for the contract to get negotiated and a check to be cut. While Patreon is a harder ask, getting a monthly check for art is worth strapping velcro to myself and jumping against a felt wall for. Having predictable income is something of a brass ring.
3) I needed to not worry about failure
Rejection is hard. Jim Hines just wrote about the fact that even at this stage in his career he still gets rejections. I still do. But that rejection is private, between the editor, my agent and me. I have almost a thousand to date in my career.
But a crowdfunding project is very, very public. The first time I did a Kickstarter a few people reached out to me, worrying about whether I’d hit the amount I set. Failure in public, if the Kickstarter didn’t fund, would be a tough hit.
Setting up a Patreon is something similar. You’re going to reveal to the world how much support and interest there is out there for what you’re doing. Then there are your own expectations. You look at other Patreons, you wondered where you’ll fit within the rankings.
Then there are your own internal expectations to manage. I’ll be honest and open here, I was hoping to get to $1,000 in the first month because my big goal is the $1,500 before the year’s end (when I run out of savings) that I want to replace the freelance income that vaporized in January. I looked at Kickstarters and polls and thought $1,000 was attainable. While I’m sure people may compare my Patreon to others, or make judgements, I tend not to care what people think but am harder on myself trying to get to goals I set up for myself. I’ve learned to not worry about others but pay attention to my road. But missing my own expectations was still a pain.
But getting to 55% of a goal is strong progress. I’m over halfway to my own internal goal. I’m starting something new to me, so I’m learning a lot. I’m an egg again, and that means there’s work to be done ahead. Just because I was doing well at the novel career game doesn’t mean I automatically am given a platter on this crowdfunding thing.
4) Profile matters
Since I got knocked back on the health front in 2008 I feel like I’ve been playing catch up, or just struggling to stay afloat with my career. It may not look like that from the outside, but from 2009-2012 I had limited energy. I had to split that between writing, freelancing for money, and being a father. To get the writing done, I pulled back from being a part of the general community. I twitter, but not as frequently as others. I even took a four month sabbatical from social media to finish the last novel. I don’t interact as much as I would like. I certainly backed way off the daily blogging that had become a huge traffic item for me.
When I’m in survival mode I tend to go quiet and focus on the work in front of me.
As a result of that, it is a hard sell to come out of the cold and announce that you’re twittering again, blogging, and trying to engage and ‘oh yeah, there’s a new Crowdfunding project.’ I’ve also fallen away from the habit of being open, partially because my problems are problems some people would like to have (oh, you make half your family’s income writing novels and the other half freelancing, but want to shift that ratio more toward writing, boo hoo. Your novels haven’t sold quite as much as you’d like: boo hoo. etc). I’m easing back in, but as I said, I’ve been in survival mode now for almost seven years and focused just on the writing and less on the public sphere that I used to dwell in.
(As a complete aside, part of that reason is a conversation I had with Jay Lake, where we talked about how being open about sicknesses had caused us to lose projects. In my case it was a high value three book possibility that an editor told me I was being considered for but some of my conversation on the blog about having a heart defect meant I was passed over. Since then I’ve been utterly gutted about the idea of losing projects and harming my family due to that and my old instinct to share has been dulled, I’m trying to get it back, though.)
I’ve given some speeches on how I think there’s a three-legged stool to make a crowdfunding campaign work. That is a leg of having a strong social media presence and profile. A leg of haven proven that you can deliver on the project and have delivered in the past. And lastly, a leg of a project that is compelling in and of itself.
I knew I was going in one-legged. What I mainly had was proof that I could deliver (I write). I knew that the inherent project idea “I’m going to write a story a month” was old, as others were already doing it. And I knew that my profile was a bit weak of late.
5) I needed to offer something to $1 backers
One of the ways I think I failed at the start was not offering more to $1 and $2 backers. I looked at a lot of Patreons, and a lot of them offer the stories for $1 a month. Other Patreons don’t offer anything at $1.
I decided to offer a once a week ‘5 Things Monday’ blog post for $1. For $2, behind the scenes of what I’m working on. Then, the meat of the sandwich was the $5, story once a month level. But sign ups for the $1 a month level of the Patreon were pretty anemic compared to others doing the ‘everyone gets a story.’
I adjusted the Patreon so that $1 backers knew they would get all the stories as a collection at the end of the year as long as it was over $750 a month. So the basic value proposition for a $1 backer is that for $12 you get a short story collection, once a year at the end of the year. For a $2 backer, they get a story every quarter, and then the collection at the end of the year.
6) I am in it for the long haul
The mental model I’ve had for projects like this is one month of frantic activity, and then fulfilling it down the road a bit. There was a binary result, either I reached the amount needed for the Kickstarter to fund, or I didn’t.
With the Patreon, after the first ten days of patrons jumping on board, the Patreon remained essentially flat. For the next two weeks it remained flat, with even a slight dip in the middle. Not gonna lie, if you refer back to the ‘don’t be afraid to fail in public’ point, this was a moment where I started to wonder if I had, in fact, failed in public:
One of the things about the Patreon is that, while the extra money is nice, I’ve been careful not to set up too much extra so that I don’t end up working far, far harder for the money there than if I was freelancing. I can’t afford for the Patreon to take all my writing time away and then end up not working on novels. This has to be a thing that helps my career, not slows it down. I’m making an initial investment, hoping that it will get to $1,000 to $1,500 or more so that I can work more, and harder, on novels. If it remained stuck at $500 I’d have to shut it down and walk away.
And my ego could take the hit. After being in and out of the ER in 2009 and having tasting some near death experience I know for a fact that there are worse things than screwing up in public, or failing. I can fall flat on my face here. But, I was starting to wonder if I needed to shut it down and open negotiations with a couple leads for more freelance work.
However, after that slow period, growth started up again and we’re getting close to 100 patrons on the project. So I’m realizing this isn’t a one month and I see where things are. I’ve seen some Patreons hit the amounts people need in a month, but that isn’t going to be my path.
Judging by the growth I’ve seen in mine, it looks like it’ll take 12-24 months to see if I can get to the point I’m aiming for. Whether I’ll run out of money before then, or if it will grow enough that the money lasts long enough, I have no idea. This experiment is going to take at least nine months to play out for me, when the lines cross.
But that means taking a nine month view. I said in the beginning when I first launched the Patreon it felt like jumping off a cliff, doing something new. I’m still committed to falling for another nine months and not focusing so hard on the week.
Because if the growth of the last week continues out that long, I might look back at this and be ever so grateful to myself for taking this big, public risk.
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