The Cult of the Author in the New Economy

The writers at [Wired][w] are regularly wrong — the “long boom” anyone? — but they are usually thought-provoking in the process. At the very least, folks like Kevin Kelly and Chris Anderson are prolific, practically living embodiments of what is sometimes called Google’s approach to doing business: “Have a lot of ideas; fail often.”

Chris Anderson is, of course, most famous — if one ignores his current infamy for suggesting that everything should be free — for describing [the long tail][tlt], which suggests, as per the diagram below, that there is a reasonable income to be made in the “long tail” of sales that occurs over time. The high “head” on the left of the graph is where hits live. Anderson’s argument is that there is more money in the long tail and that retailers like, Netflix, and iTunes have already discovered this and can, thanks to lowering costs by having an internet storefront and centralized, and efficient, inventory systems (or digital inventory in the case of iTunes) take advantage of the overall scene.

The Long Tail

Chris Anderson’s “Long Tail”

This is, as Kevin Kelly points out, extremely good news for two groups: the retailers who occupy these markets and the consumers who shop in them who now have access to considerably more, and considerably more varied, commodities.

Everyone wins, right?

Well, certainly the mainstream media/content producers continue to win as they stay focused on producing the hits that occupy the head. They spend a lot in order to make a lot. They have an infrastructure for doing so. There may be some settling, and some shrinkage Anderson seems to suggest at times in his argument, but at least in this moment in time there seems little reason to believe that such industries won’t continue to play significant roles in the market place.

But what about individual/independent producers? Do they get to win, too?

While the public may be interested in, and be profiting from, the greater variety of materials available to them, it would seem that the advantage lies with the content aggregators like Amazon and Netflix and iTunes who can successfully ride the long tail, as it were, by selling an obscure novel here, renting an odd film there, or making available a one-hit wonder from two decades ago. That kind of aggregation might make economic sense for the aggregator, but does it work for the aggregated?

Kelly thinks there is a way to make a living in the long tail, and it consists in cultivating and maintain [1000 true fans][kk]. Kelly’s description of a *true fan* is:

> someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce. They will drive 200 miles to see you sing. They will buy the super deluxe re-issued hi-res box set of your stuff even though they have the low-res version. They have a Google Alert set for your name. They bookmark the eBay page where your out-of-print editions show up. They come to your openings. They have you sign their copies. They buy the t-shirt, and the mug, and the hat. They can’t wait till you issue your next work. They are true fans.

His economic argument for 1000 true fans runs like this:

> Assume conservatively that your True Fans will each spend one day’s wages per year in support of what you do. That “one-day-wage” is an average, because of course your truest fans will spend a lot more than that. Let’s peg that per diem each True Fan spends at $100 per year. If you have 1,000 fans that sums up to $100,000 per year, which minus some modest expenses, is a living for most folks.

It’s an interesting idea. Kelly suggests that some things a content creator is going to have to learn to give away — in the case of musicians it may very well be the music itself — in order to establish a relationship with an audience and sell them other things, e.g., concert tickets, tee shirts, autographed copies of special collections and/or collectibles. The goal is to cultivate within any given audience the true fans who will reside at the center of concentric rings:

True Fans


Kelly admits that there will be movement into and out of the circles: creators will “connect” with audience members differentially — with different individuals for different reasons at different moments within their lives. But, he argues, the only way to make that connection, to establish the relationship that will become your economic lifeline that will enable you to continue creating content, is to be open to the relationship, and to recognize its importance, in the first place. Kelly’s argument is quite clear:

> The key challenge is that you have to maintain direct contact with your 1,000 True Fans. They are giving you their support directly. Maybe they come to your house concerts, or they are buying your DVDs from your website, or they order your prints from Pictopia. As much as possible you retain the full amount of their support. You also benefit from the direct feedback and love.

## The Cult of the Author ##

*Stay tuned for an update in the next few days…*