One of the most talked about, written about, and debated topics for writers centers on a simple question: how do authors earn a living? One oft-quoted theory comes from Kevin Kelly. In 2008, he wrote an essay outlining his 1,000 true fan theory. The principle is simple; if you have 1,000 true fans who will buy everything you create and you can create $100 worth of products a year, you can earn enough creator income ($100,000 per year in this scenario) to sustain yourself.
One of the key aspects of the 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 he 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.
True Fan Theory Framework
The true fan theory is a framework for success. It is not a guide or step-by-step set of instructions to map you from point A to point B. As we’ve all explored different ways to be sustainable as creators, many have interpreted the true fan theory as a direct guide. Something like this:
- 1,000 fans @ $100/fan = $100,000
It’s important to recognize that the theory is meant to be read as a framework. Something you can use to understand your needs and workload, but that is ultimately malleable. As a framework, it looks like this:
- X fans @ $Y/fan = $100,000
And we can even adapt the formula to include the one-off or occasional fan:
- (X fans @ $Y/fan) + (2X shoppers @ $Z/shopper) = $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.
Why The True Fan Theory Is Valuable
Let’s break down Kelly’s theory and see how it can apply to self-published authors.
As Kelly points out, his count of 1,000 true fans is arbitrary. He’s just making a point, which is the core of what we’re talking about today—breaking down your expectations allows you to set real and achievable goals.
To use the true fan theory, you need to determine how much you want to make on your writing each year. Kelly’s 1,000 true fan example results in $100,000 a year if all the criteria are met perfectly.
Honestly, $100,000 is ambitious. Let’s say you just want to get the ball rolling. You don’t need to aim for selling $100 worth of products to 1,000 people initially. But if you set a realistic goal and work toward it, you can earn good money—maybe even enough to quit that day job and write full time!
Applying The True Fan Theory
Let’s outline a few hypothetical examples to better break down and understand how to make money as an author.
You want to earn $10,000 a year selling books.
- Earning per sale = $8.00
- Individuals on your mailing list and following you on social platforms = 500
- If each follower buys a book, you’re at $4,000.
- This means you need to aim for an additional 700 purchases in the year.
- Around 58 sales a month/ 2 sales a day
Bottom Line – if you have a fair number of followers and some contacts on your email list, it is completely achievable to earn $10,000 in a year with 2 or 3 sales a day.
You want to earn $5,000 a year selling books.
- Earning per sale = $8.00
- Individuals on your mailing list and following you on social platforms = 300
- If each follower buys a book, you’re at $2,400.
- This leaves you needing an additional 300+ purchases.
- Around 25 sales a month/less than 1 sale a day
Bottom Line – earning $5,000 in a year, with only a modest social following, demands selling less than a single book a day. That’s a very achievable goal!
Don’t forget that you’ll constantly be adding new true fans too! When you connect with new fans who are excited about your work, you can likely earn some backlist sales to these new followers. As a book creator, you might have more than 1,000 true fans who spend less than $100 a year, but because your fanbase is larger, you can make up the difference with those backlist sales.
You Still Have To Market Your Book
Earning a living as a writer is not easy. It will never be easy.
Kelly’s true fan theory lays out a foundation all creators can use to monetize their work. When it comes to selling that amazing thing you’ve created, you have to think about it like any other consumer item.
What the true fan theory does not do—and where I’ve seen criticism leveled at Kelly—is create a marketing plan. Simply having followers on social media or your email list does not guarantee sales. You need to plan marketing campaigns for your social media platforms. You need to develop influencer marketing campaigns in tandem with peers.
Influencer marketing is a great way to earn new true fans: word of mouth and recommendations resonate with consumers.
If you want a content creator job, you have to market your products or services actively. Otherwise, you’ll never have true fans. The most you can hope for are followers, who might like what you create but aren’t interested in actively supporting you and your work.
Finding Your True Fans
True fans are followers who will always buy your work. Getting a core group of these true fans is likely to be your biggest challenge as a self-published author. But also, the most valuable.
So how do you do it?
Attend a local writing group. Or start one. Build a small group of fellow writers. Build a relationship with the local bookstore.
Develop these relationships early. Don’t wait until you’ve published your book to start connecting with your local reading and writing community.
Connect with the local library. Volunteer. Get to know the regular readers. And be transparent. Make sure the staff knows you are an author working on publishing. There is a very good chance they’ll feature local authors and you might be able to get a copy on their shelves.
Expand Your Online Presence
Once you’ve begun building in-person connections, look to expand that online. Blogging, frequenting online writing or reading groups, and social media are the primary ways to establish yourself on the web.
Try to find groups focused on your genre, as these will be your most likely readers. Then talk to them about books. You’ll meet new readers to market your book too and you’ll be in the same spaces social media influencers frequent, giving you an opportunity to develop influencer campaigns.
You’ll want a website to direct new and old readers (and fans) to, which is also the perfect place to maintain your blog. This provides fresh content to encourage return visitors and gives you a medium to publish teasers or excerpts.
Nurture Your Fans
You’ve got to balance creating content and engaging with your fans (who want what you’re creating). How well you nurture your fans directly impacts your creator earning potential. These followers are also your primary source of income!
That means you need to engage with them regularly. Post on social platforms, respond to their posts or questions, publish new blog content, and send emails on a set schedule. Simply creating a piece of content (no matter how valuable or awesome it might be) will not send your fans flocking to your website.
You have to market your book to your fans. Tell your fans about it, tell them while they should buy it, and give them teasers or something to further entice them.
Turning Followers Into True Fans
You might be reading this thinking sounds great… but how do I know who followed me because of a funny meme and who is a true fan? Short answer: you don’t.
The true fan theory is a framework for figuring out how much content you need to create, how much you need to sell it for, and how many fans you need to make a purchase—all with the final goal of being a self-sustaining content creator.
Use data to see who is a true fan—look for followers who have bought everything you’ve created or who consistently opt-in to crowdfunding campaigns. Find the social fans who comment or post on your pages. These are true fans and you should make a concerted effort to market specifically to them.
True fans are the path to finding success without needing to be the next Danielle Steel. They are people who 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.
Paul is the Content Marketing Manager at Lulu. When he's not entrenched in the publishing and print-on-demand world, he likes to hike the scenic North Carolina landscape, read, sample the fanciest micro-brewed beer, and collect fountain pens. Paul is a dog person but considers himself cat tolerant.