How Many Readers Do You Need

(This is another of the Literature Network posts. It was written a few years back and introduced the idea of 1000 True Fans. That idea still seems as distant as ever – the Internet is a good place to access culture but doesn't offer easy ways to discover it. I still like the JK Rowling joke though)

How many true fans does a writer need? There’s a lot to be said for being famous for 15 people.

Every creative writing course hints: it could be you. They promise access to agents and the chance to break into the world of publishing. After years of perseverance, of writing in coffee shops and cold flats, your novel might be published and become huge. You too could be as big as JK Rowling.

The problem with this is that a lot of people put a lot of effort into making JK Rowling as successful as she is. Booksellers, marketers, merchandisers, film-makers, all labour in support of her books, to say nothing of the readers working their way through them. Even the people who don’t read her books put a lot of effort into saying they have no time to read stories about boy wizards.

Imagine what the world would be like if there were dozens of writers as successful as JK Rowling. The economy would have to be structured around them, and people would spend all their leisure time reading. The world only has room for one JK Rowling, and she’s already doing a good job of it.

There are thousands of people studying creative writing and none of them are going to be as big as JK Rowling. Few of them will even be as big as Ann Quin or BS Johnson. So a more interesting question is the smallest number of readers a writer needs.

Kevin Kelly, editor of wired magazine, gave an interesting economic answer. He suggested that artists could build a successful career with “1000 true fans“, willing to buy anything they produced. So, assuming an average UK wage of around £24,000, Kelly would suggest an artist could make a living from 2000 people paying them £12 a year, after costs.

It’s a provocative idea, but there are problems. Kelly wrote a follow-up article where he admitted there were few real-world examples of such artists, and that the demands of maintaining true fans was too onerous for many. Science-fiction author John Scalzi has also responded, outlining a number of other issues. Finding a 1,000 true fans is more difficult than it sounds – how many artists are you that committed to?

There’s something to be said for people with far less than 1,000 true fans. In 1991, the artist Momus wrote a famous essay, Pop Stars? Nein Danke riffing on Andy Warhol’s famous statement, in which Momus claimed that in the future “everyone will be famous for fifteen people“. Momus looked forward to a world where, instead of stars on the scale of Elvis or Madonna, there were tens of thousands of smaller stars, “a state of fabulous confusion, exploding into fragments“.

In Momus’s world, aided by technology, you could find the artist that’s just right for you, someone that moves you and fourteen other people, while leaving most other people cold. Such artists would have a small but dedicated audience. When journalist and activist Danny O’Brien asked ‘how many people do you need to be famous for?’, he suggested that if “One person in every town in Britain likes your dumb online comic, that’s enough to keep you in beers all year.

The Internet allows microcelebrities. Rather than reading one-size-fits-all star writers, we could pick the writer that’s perfect for us, someone who shares the exact same strange obsessions as we do. Whether this works with novels, which require a huge commitment to read, let alone write, is questionable. But I bet it would work with short stories and poetry. Somewhere in the world there are probably dozens of writers who would move me as much as my favourite novelists. The trick is to find them.

And there’s nothing wrong with being famous for fifteen people. JK Rowling was once less famous that that. Finding those 15 true fans is the first step towards millions of true fans, and is far better than none.

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