J.K. Rowling…Stephen King…Danielle Steel…What author hasn’t dreamed of reaching this level of mega-fame with their own work? What author hasn’t sighed as we remind ourselves how unattainable it is?
Because, of course, these names are the exception, not the rule, and rely on the conversion of many factors, including a little luck.
But I have good news for you. You can find success as an author without reaching mega-fame, and the internet has made it easier than ever. You don’t need the adoration of billions to make this possible. All you need is to build a community of true fans.
The 1000 True Fans Theory
In a post that went wildly viral, author and Wired Senior Maverick Kevin Kelly posited in 2008 that a creative doesn’t need to build a mega fandom in order to find financial success with their work. All you need is 1,000 true fans.
This theory has influenced thinking about online platforming ever since. Coming out of an age of mass media and into one of niche digital networks, it was legitimately pretty revolutionary in how it reframed the concept of success. It goes like this:
You don’t have to be a celebrity or even all that widely known to thrive on your art. All you need is 1,000 people (give or take) who love your work enough to buy everything you create. And then you need to create enough things to give yourself a livable salary off of those fans.
It’s simple. And it’s far more attainable than all of us trying to create the next Harry Potter.
How it Works for Authors
Now. there’s some caveats to this. For example, novels take much longer to create and release to your fans than many other creative endeavors, and we can’t exactly charge $40 a book to make a $40,000 salary of 1,000 people.
Consider: If you charge a slightly higher than typical 4.99 for an ebook, and 1,000 true fans buy it, you can earn just under $5,000. That’s a nice chunk of change, but it’s not going to sustain all that long. And that’s also assuming you’re selling directly to those fans, rather than through Amazon or another platform, which would take a cut; without a publisher to take an additional cut; and doesn’t even factor in your editing or design costs yet.
To get this number to something more realistic, you have a few options:
You can charge more for your work. And with a loyal fandom who don’t blink at the prospect of paying a little more to help support an author they adore, this is doable to a degree. But let’s face it, there are limits on what readers will pay for a book, and if you overstep it, your fans’ loyalty could falter.
You can create faster. Another one of the most straightforward ways to earn more from your writing is to write more. Instead of one book a year, can you write two? Can you write three?
You can add more true fans. If 1,000 true fans aren’t enough, maybe your community needs 2,000. Or 3,000. While this raises the bar for building your loyal community, it can make creating at your own pace more sustainable.
You can create differently. But how can you change what you write? Apply that writerly creativity to experimenting with new models. Can you release stories serially instead of launching the full novel at once? Can you write a short story each month just for your fans? Novellas? Series? Can you create artwork of your characters and worlds? Find what gets your true fans excited.
More likely than not, it will take a combination of these factors. Don’t be afraid to try a new thing or two. But all the same, this is a lot more attainable than topping bestseller lists and becoming Hollywood’s next author darling.
How Do You Get True Fans?
This is all well and good as a theory, but if it’s going to work, you need to have a community of true fans in place. Which is easier said than done. In short, this is accompanied by showing up, doing your hustle, and making connections. What does this look like in practice?
Here are 10 foundational steps to get you started:
- Create an author website
- Build your email list
- Grow a social media following
- Release your next book (or story)
- Write guest posts
- Attend writers conferences
- Hand out promotional materials
- Offer workshops at libraries
- Give talks at local book shops
- Join groups for writers and readers
Everyone you meet is a potential true fan. So treat them like one. And put yourself in the path where you’re most likely to meet true fans regularly.
True Fans Take Time–And They’re Worth it
Getting genuine, true fans—fans who love you and will buy anything you release—doesn’t come easily. You have to make real connections and build trust. It’s not just about doing good work. It’s about delivering that good work consistently, every single time, so that readers know your new work will be worth it. It’s also about building a sense of connection with your readers.
it’s nothing to take lightly, and it does take time. I’m certainly not there yet, though the progress toward this goal is there.
When you first start out as an author, it can feel like you’re calling out into the abyss and no one is there to listen. But when you keep showing up and making connections, online and in person, it adds up. Not every person will be a reader with whom your work resonates, but some of them will be. And those readers will start to grow into a following. 10. 50. 100. It will keep growing. And as you pay attention to them and try different things, you will learn what will get them excited.
By day, E. J. Wenstrom is a digital strategy pro with over 10 years at communications firms. By early-early morning, she’s an award-winning sci-fi and fantasy author of the Chronicles of the Third Realm War novels, starting with Mud. She believes in complicated characters, terrifying monsters, and purple hair dye.