Patreon is a modern-day patronage system that’s so useful, you’d think Michelangelo had invented it himself. But can it work for independent authors?
In 2013, Jack Conte of the indie music duo Pomplamoose started Patreon, a new entry into the crowdfunding platform space that adds a twist borrowed from centuries past. Rather than set up a campaign for a single project — like a record album or a music tour — artists ask their fanbases (who already love the artist and his/her work) to participate in a new level of engagement – that of a patron.
Fans agree to pay a recurring (typically monthly) micro-sum of their choosing (from options offered) in return for different packages of engagement perks ranging from early access to content (pre-public release) to discounts on show tickets to exclusive, unreleased content. Patreon has a number of newer features and integrations with other programs that allow users to monetize content and do many other things that help automate administering benefits, grow their fan bases, and promote their work.
Quoting from one of my former publishing company’s own titles, The New Rockstar Philosophy, in its chapter on “The Nano Rockstar,” authors Matt Voyno and Roshan Hoover describe the idea this way for musicians in particular: “With a die-hard fan base of very few, it’s possible, using a subscription model, to earn a comfortable living and continue to make your music.”
But the concept doesn’t just work for musicians — anyone who creates something that can be shared on a regular basis can take advantage of this model: authors, dancers, bloggers, painters, photographers, cartoonists and illustrators, to name only a few.
How it works
As an author (or artist of whatever stripe), you ask for patrons to pledge recurring payments and agree, in return, to earn that patronage by sharing your newest content before others see it, give exclusive access to unreleased material, release videos to your patrons related to your work, or any number of other related benefits. Patrons have the satisfaction of knowing one of their favorite creators continues to work, or is able to work more, in part because of their monthly support.
What does it cost?
Patreon has three tiers of plans (Lite, Pro, and Premium), which charge between 5-12% of the income you generate on the platform. It can be a bit higher than other kinds of crowdfunding platforms, but the system is set up specifically to support the subscription model for creators, unlike traditional all-purpose crowdfunding platforms.
If you’re an indie author trying to figure out if the membership or subscription-based model is for you, here’s a handy guide by blogger Orna Ross.
Creative cash flow
The more fans who sign up willing to pay small increments ($1, $5, etc.) per month to you, the more you create a sustainable monthly cash flow that allows you to pay bills and do your art. Say you’re a writer who needs to pen a novel this year and your cash flow needs are $3,000/month. You’ll need 1,500 patrons at $2/month, or 3,000 patrons at $1/month, or some combination that gets you to that total. Of course, if you have items of greater value that you can regularly provide your patrons, you can ask for larger monthly sums and get to your monthly goal with fewer patrons. You just have to be able to live up to your end of the deal and provide content that matches the value of the patronage.
But does it work?
In its first year, Patreon distributed over $1 million to its artists, with some of the most popular ones making more than $100,000. In May of 2013, Michael Wolf (Forbes) wrote: “[Patreon’s] marketplace currently includes 50,000 patrons and 15,000 creators, with one-third of creators also falling in the patron bucket – giving financial support to other artists on the platform.”
Those numbers have exploded in the six years since. Today there are 138,566 creators on Patreon who are being supported by more than five million individual pledges by more than three million patrons representing nearly $13 million per month in payouts.
Pretty impressive numbers, but like all forms of crowdfunding, it isn’t as easy as “build it and they will come.” You still have to cultivate a crowd who appreciates your work before you can ask them to pony up their credit card number for monthly payments.
As a content development coach, I like the accountability and consequences this kind of model automates for the creator. In Patreon’s model, your patrons’ credit card charges can be triggered by your content posting, so if you don’t create anything new to post this month, they don’t get charged and you don’t get paid. In other versions of the model, you can choose to be paid a certain amount monthly for update reports on development of work, but you’d better ensure those updates happen and samples of the work get shared or your patrons may lose the faith and find other artists to support.
And speaking of accountability, after nearly a decade of coaching my author clients on crowdfunding, I’m finally doing my own campaigns, starting with my own Patreon account.
Patreon has been the kingpin of the creator membership-based business model until just recently, when word started to spread that major content aggregator platforms like Facebook and YouTube were starting to develop similar features. There is a great analysis TechCrunch‘s Eric Peckham that tells all about what these giants have been doing.
So, while Patreon is the most comprehensive creator-focused membership-based crowdfunding option now, it might not be the only game in town for much longer. Are you ready to test the waters?
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