In April, BuzzFeed’s Alex Kantrowitz published an article titled “Paid Email Newsletters Are Proving Themselves As A Meaningful Revenue Generator For Writers.” The piece profiles several writers who have leveraged platforms like Patreon, Substack, and Revue to generate substantial incomes. The newsletter platform Substack, for instance, allows writers to charge subscribers in exchange for premium newsletters, and about a dozen of its writers average over $160,000 a year from this model. The membership platform Patreon supports at least a few journalists that “make more than $100,000 per month,” according to the piece.
The underlying insight of the article is that many of these journalists and writers achieved this editorial independence via a relatively small number of paying subscribers. Whereas legacy media publishers like The New York Times and Washington Post tout digital subscription numbers in the millions, the journalists featured in the BuzzFeed article reached their comfortable salaries with just a few thousand subscribers. “If you charge $10 a month or $5 a month, or $50 a year — if you can get 1,000 or 2,000 people to pay for that, you’ve suddenly got enough to go as an individual,” Substack cofounder Chris Best told Kantrowitz.
The quote echoes the theory of the “1,000 true fans.” In 2008, former Wired editor Kevin Kelly posited that, because of the efficient distribution mechanisms made possible by the internet, a content creator or artist could make a decent living with only 1,000 super fans who each paid $100 a year to access the creator’s content. In the pre-internet age, musicians, writers, and artists needed to have tens of thousands — if not millions — of fans before they could pull down a sizable income. That’s because distribution middlemen, like book publishers and record labels, took the majority of revenue generated by CD and book sales, leaving the artists themselves with much smaller royalties.
But with the help of platforms like Kickstarter, Patreon, and Kindle, content creators can now establish direct relationships with their fans and cut out most of the middlemen. Because of this, a creator who develops this relationship with just 1,000 fans who pay an average $100 a year can take down $100,000 — a healthy middle class income. “This new technology permits creators to maintain relationships, so that the customer can become a fan, and so that the creator keeps the total amount of payment, which reduces the number of fans needed,” Kelly wrote.
Indeed, the reason the “1,000 true fans” theory generated so much attention is because of how seemingly attainable that number is. You don’t need to become a Justin Bieber to make a living as a content creator. You just need to amass enough of a fanbase to fill a very small arena.
Since 2008, the “1,000 true fans” theory is often cited whenever a creator bypasses traditional media and sells content directly to customers. It was referenced when artist Amanda Palmer ditched her record label and launched a Patreon account. It was cited when the writer Ben Thompson quit his job to run his tech blog Stratechery full time. Hell, it was even mentioned in the aforementioned BuzzFeed article about successful newsletters. “What Patreon and membership represent is the original concept of 1,000 true fans,” Patreon’s senior vice president of product Wyatt Jenkins told Kantrowitz.
But while the goal of generating 1,000 super fans may seem achievable, it’s actually tremendously difficult, and the articles that tout the “1,000 true fans” theory as the reason for a particular content creator’s success suffer from a certain level of confirmation bias. In other words, we often only hear about the few writers, podcasters, and YouTubers who have succeeded at generating subscribers, whereas many thousands more have failed without much notice.
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To understand why it’s so difficult, one needs to consider the typical conversion cycle that leads to a casual reader transforming into a paying subscriber. A person doesn’t just land on an article, podcast, or YouTube video and then convert into a subscriber after consuming that content for the first time. It typically takes multiple touch points before that person even becomes aware of who you are as a content creator. Data compiled by News UK found that the average consumer had to come into contact with one of its media properties at least seven times before subscribing.
Hitting the same person seven times in a short period of time is incredibly difficult; hitting 1,000 people seven times each is even more so. Data collected by Press+, a paywall service provider, found that only 3 to 4 percent of monthly newspaper visitors hit that newspaper’s site often enough to trigger the metered paywall (the meters weren’t necessarily set at seven stories). In other words, if a site was visited by 100,000 unique people a month, only 3,000 of those people would visit often enough to launch a paywall message. And those are just the ones who see the message — a much smaller fraction of those readers actually subscribe.
What does this mean in a practical sense? That in order to generate 1,000 true fans, you would need your content to reach many multiples of that number. Recent research conducted by The Wall Street Journal concluded that, at most, 4 percent of a newspaper’s monthly audience will eventually subscribe, and that’s at the high end. The Wall Street Journal also found that many newspapers convert less than 1 percent of their monthly audience into subscribers.
A skeptic might point out at this point that all the data I’ve cited thus far applies to larger media companies. Perhaps the trends are more favorable for individual content creators? Not really. If you look at all the platforms cited in the aforementioned BuzzFeed article, you’ll find that conversion rates are almost uniformly low.
Let’s start with Patreon as an example. Evan Puschak is one of its most successful creators, generating $3,375 every time he uploads a new video to YouTube. With his weekly upload schedule, that means he’s making up to $170,000 a year on the platform. But Puschak has 2.5 million subscribers to his YouTube channel, which means he’s only managed to convert .08 percent of his audience into paying members.
On newsletter platform Substack, Judd Legum is often touted as one of its most successful writers; he was quickly able to generate a full-time income after he quit his job as editor-in-chief of Think Progress. But prior to launching his newsletter, Legum had built his Twitter account up to over 300,000 followers. Only a tiny percentage of individual writers have that kind of audience.
Even in cases in which a writer has successfully built out a paying subscription base, it’s typically only after several years of regularly producing online content. I recently interviewed Robert Cottrell, whose newsletter The Browser has grown to 10,000 paying subscribers on Substack. He pointed out to me that, by the time he launched a paid subscription tier, The Browser had already been publishing every day for five years, and at that point it was attracting 200,000 monthly visitors. It took five additional years after launching the paywall to grow to 10,000 paying subscribers.
With more and more content creators testing out the viability of membership business models, we’re seeing what happens when they confront the harsh economics outlined above. The musician Brian Hazard, for instance, recently published a blog post about his experience monetizing his content through Patreon.
To many, Hazard might have seemed like the perfect candidate for the “1,000 true fans” theory. He’s been regularly producing music since the 1990s, has about 20,000 streams a month on Spotify, and had grown his email list to over 12,000 subscribers. But when he launched his Patreon account, he found that very few of those fans were willing to pay up. To date, only about 173 people contribute a total $573 a month to his Patreon. “I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t expected more,” Hazard wrote. “I can name 50 people who bought everything I released over the past 15 years, that haven’t signed on.” As it turned out, the vast majority of his fans were perfectly fine waiting for his music to appear for free online or on a bundled music service like Spotify.
Was Kevin Kelly correct in his assertion that the internet opened up new avenues for direct distribution? Of course. But what I think he underestimated was how difficult it would be for creators to drive revenue in an ecosystem where they’re not only competing with plenty of free content, but also every other creator who’s trying to lock in their own 1,000 true fans. While it’d be nice to live in a world where talented writers, filmmakers, and musicians could simply bypass the publishing gatekeepers and create content on their own terms, the scale needed to achieve such editorial independence is out of reach for most creators.