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When Experts Are Wrong: The 1000 True Fan Theory Revisited

One of the most talked about, written about, and debated topics for writers centers on a simple question: how do authors earn a living? Over the last twenty-plus years, self-publishing and direct-to-consumer ecommerce has made it possible for anyone to create, publish, and sell their work. With this new dynamic in the publishing industry came a slew of theories and plans to help authors find success.

One of the most often quoted theories comes from Kevin Kelly. In 2008, he wrote an essay simply called 1,000 True Fans. The principle here is simple; if you have 1,000 fans who will buy everything you create and you can create $100 worth of products a year, you can earn enough income ($100,000 per year in this scenario) to sustain yourself.

The Theory Revisited

Almost three years ago, I wrote a piece for this very blog about the 1,000 True Fan theory and how authors might apply this theory to their own work. The article looks at the realistic applications of the theory (most writers don’t sell their books for $100 or create $100 worth of books a year) and how to adapt it to fit an author’s own goals.

One of the key aspects of the 1,000 True Fan theory, which Kelly speaks to more than once in his essay, is that it is a baseline that must be adapted. Here’s what Kelly said:

The number 1,000 is not absolute. Its significance is in its rough order of magnitude — three orders less than a million. The actual number has to be adjusted for each person. If you are able to only earn $50 per year per true fan, then you need 2,000.

He uses 1,000 fans and $100 per fan because $100,000 a year is enough to sustain a living and fund your next book. But the actual numbers are not set in stone. They’re just nicely round so the example is easy to understand. The fact that the exact number is kind of irrelevant has always seemed to be pretty obvious to me.

When Experts Are Wrong

Which led me to a big surprise about a month ago as I was going through my morning routine. I was at my computer, coffee fresh and hot, and my folder of newsletters ready to be perused. That’s when I found Mark Schaefer’s article: The Myth of 1000 True Fans.

My interest was piqued. I’m a big fan of Schaefer’s ‘human-first’ marketing strategies. I love reading his {grow} blog, which delivers new marketing and ecommerce content to my inbox almost every day. His work has inspired and informed my own work and his perspective on how marketers can do their jobs better has been a breath of fresh air over the years. 

And here he was basically saying Kelly’s theory is just wrong. 

“This concept seems so elegant, so achievable, so dead-simple that anyone can do it.
Except … you can’t.”

I read his piece twice that morning, then again later in the day. I was stunned. Of course, I understand that someone I admire and often agree with can and will have different views on some topics. But I couldn’t get over just how wrong Schaefer is about the True Fan theory.

Theorizing Versus Doing The Work

As I kept rereading Schaefer’s post, I looked for something that clarified or expanded on the original theory. There wasn’t anything. In fact, the conclusion he came to was:

Monetizing any product takes more than simply having 1000 true fans, even though on the surface, the math seems so simple…Having 1000 true fans or 100,000 fans doesn’t entitle you to anything. You still have to earn a customer’s loyalty, attention, trust, and money every day.

That such a skilled marketer came to this conclusion about the 1,000 True Fan theory just stuns me. 

The problem with concluding that the True Fan theory is a myth is that, to come to that conclusion, one has to assume the creator has a network of followers/fans and that will just buy your product. Schaefer tests this by releasing a book with minimal marketing and lamenting how poorly it sold. 

If a self-published author said to me; “I wrote a blog, sent an email, made a couple of social posts, and mentioned the book on my podcast a couple times. It’s only sold 100 copies.” I would congratulate them. The book sold 100 copies with the absolute minimum of effort. 

The mistake that Schaefer is clinging to (for some reason) is that True Fans are just sitting there, staring at your website, waiting for a new product to buy. That these fans are so ravenously in need of your work that they will buy it with zero promptings or effort on your part. 

That is woefully wrong and downright startling to see an experienced author and marketer suggest.

True Fans Are Not Easy Money

After sitting with Schaefer’s article for a week, I came back to it. I wanted to find something that helped me understand his stance. I went back and reread Kelly’s essay (both the original and the newer, condensed versions) looking for the moment where he declared True Fans a sure thing. Easy money. 

Spoiler alert: he doesn’t.

That’s because the ‘myth’ Schaefer describes is founded on a false premise. He believes that his large network of social followers indicates he has 1,000 true fans (“But surely if anybody has 1000 true fans it would be me, right?”). So from the start, there’s an assumption. Following someone on Twitter (where Schaefer has the largest following) does not a true fan make. 

Next, there’s the misguided hope that simply creating a piece of content (no matter how valuable or awesome it might be) and doing the absolute bare minimum to promote it will result in true fans flocking to your website. This is the part of Schaefer’s argument that loses me entirely. And it’s the part that poses a substantial risk to would-be authors.

The True Fan theory is being treated as a guide to success rather than a framework.

Frameworks Versus Guides

Schaefer is fundamentally wrong because he treats the theory as a guide to success (get 1,000 fans who spend $100 a year and you’ve made it). The True Fan theory is a framework to success (the equivalent income of 1,000 fans spending $100 a year is the standard for making it). 

The difference is that a guide gives you a specific set of instructions. It’s a map to help you get from point A to point B. Read like a guide, the True Fan theory is: 

  • 1,000 fans @ $100/fan = $100,000

But if you use the True Fan theory as a framework, you have:

  • X fans @ $Y/fan = $100,000

And we can even adapt the formula (per Kelly’s explanation of his theory) to include the one-off or occasional fan:

  • (X fans @ $Y/fan) + 2X shoppers @ $Z/fan = $100,000

In this mediocre formula I’ve created, I’m looking for twice the occasional shoppers as true fans, and I’m expecting them to spend a different amount. I’d assume in this formula that Y > Z because I want to aim for more spending from my true fans.

Even the goal ($100,000) is variable. You might only need $70,000 a year to pay your bills and cover expenses. Or you might work with a partner and your annual income needs to be greater to cover both your needs.

The Problem With Absolutes

If you approach the True Fan theory as a guideline, it’s easy to find faults. And it’s discouraging to see a veteran marketer and writer mischaracterize a theory that is useful for authors. 

Because Kelly’s True Fan theory is useful. Not because it lays out a perfect formula for success, but because it posits a realistic way of thinking about your income. When writers imagine being writers, we fantasize. We think John Grisham big. 

True fans are the path to finding success without needing to be the next Danielle Steel. True fans genuinely love your work. And the quantity of true fans you need is completely reasonable.

As Kelly said, “A thousand customers is a whole lot more feasible to aim for than a million fans.”

The True Fan theory isn’t a formula for success. It’s a framework for understanding how feasible success actually is.

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