True Fans and Indie Publishing

Thanks to Twitter, today I stumbled on a 2008 post about True Fans — an example of the long tail of the Internet in action. The short version of the post is that artists don’t need to hit best-sellerdom to make a living — they just need 1,000 True Fans who will snap up their new work as soon as it comes out — every time.

It’s an interesting concept, and one that makes some intuitive sense to me. It’s no secret that I’m a huge fan of Jesse Stern’s work. I’ll watch his post-NCIS projects because his NCIS work made me a True Fan. Joss Whedon’s fans are the most vivid example of this in the TV world — many writers and others who worked on Whedon’s projects have carried fans on to their subsequent works. Likewise, if I find an author I like, I often go buy more of their work. That’s one reason I’m a huge fan of book series. I can think of a dozen authors that I like enough to buy new work by them just because they wrote it. It’s the basic reason networking is so key in business of any sort.

So let’s transfer this over to the indie publishing world. Robert Bidinotto, who made indie headlines when Hunter became a huge success back in the late fall, has talked about Malcolm Gladwell’s Tipping Point theory as it relates to publishing. I’ve read Gladwell’s book, and it’s a great guide to how word-of-mouth takes something to that stratospheric success level. But before you can get to the Tipping Point, you need to have a certain amount of visibility. You need that base of True Fans.

When I look at the reviews of Thrown Out on Amazon, I recognize several names. Why? Not because they’re friends, although I would consider several of them friends. But most of them are people who I know because they started reading my fanfiction at some point and that’s how we connected. We got to be friends, but that was evolution, not the origination. And I have many friends who I first got to know because I read and liked their work, whether it was original or fanfic. It’s human nature to want more of things we like.

Earlier this week, I posted fanfiction in a fandom I hadn’t written in before. A couple of interesting things happened. I got an influx of reviews on my NCIS work from people who had never reviewed before. They read my NCIS:LA story, liked it, and went looking for more. Conversely, I got reviews on my LA fic from regular readers of my NCIS stories, many of them mentioning this was the first time they’d read this type of story.

The first example is how we build new True Fans. We find people who haven’t been exposed to our work and entice them to read it. They read it, they like it and they go looking for more. It’s why backlist is so critical to indie success. The more we have available, the more likely it is new readers can quickly convert to True Fans.

The second example is how True Fans help us thrive as writers. That fan base means we don’t start from scratch with each new project. I might have 100 True Fans now. But each new project gives me a chance to build more True Fans. And that’s where Gladwell’s Tipping Point comes in. The more True Fans an artist has who share the work they admire with friends, the more word of mouth you build.

Social media makes this even more key because a few people who have their own True Fan bases can amplify a message. When new NCIS crew members get on Twitter, Pauley Perrette and cast members spread the word, which gets them thousands of followers in just a few days. When writers I follow — James Scott Bell, Terri Giuliano Long, Porter Anderson, Elizabeth Craig, Anne R. Allen, and more — recommend a writing post, I know it’s going to be good and I a) read it and b) share it. And when those writers share my posts, I get a lot more traffic than normal.

Interacting with existing fans helps convert them to True Fans. The more True Fans, the more chances you have of finding new fans. And the more new fans, the more likely you are to hit that Tipping Point. But you can’t skip steps. A lot of people focus on building numbers of fans, but if we all focused on our True Fans, I suspect we would find the number of total fans would increase on its own as those True Fans share their excitement.

Who are you a True Fan of? If you’re an artist of any sort, how do you connect to your True Fans?