Consumers, collectors & curators
Are newsletters the missing piece of the puzzle?
2021 has ended up being all about serialisation. Substack is all over the news, Salman Rushdie is giving it a go, a bunch of amazing comics writers and artists have been signed and there’s a vibrant community of independent and early career writers eager to jump in. As someone who has been writing serialised fiction since 2015 this is thrilling, but I’ve been worrying about sustainability.
The core concept of putting work up as an online serial is that you don’t need huge sales numbers to succeed financially. You don’t need to be JK Rowling. Instead, you aim for a smaller but highly engaged group of readers: the magical 1,000, which is more than enough to generate a reasonable income. Most writers seem to be looking at charging readers $5 per month, or $50 per year. The exact offerings differ from author to author, but conceptually everyone is playing the same game.
My concern was that while $5 per month to support your favourite writer is quite doable, $50 per month to support your favourite ten writers is not. It doesn’t scale tidily for readers who like lots of writers. Especially if you start comparing it to something like your Netflix subscription cost, which gets you access to thousands of movies and TV shows.
That very comparison, I think, is where I’m going wrong. The per-creator subscription model, whether via Substack or Patreon or any other system, is aimed at a different kind of person to the Netflix subscriber (though I’m not saying these are 100% mutually exclusive).
The way I see it, there are a few different ways people engage with entertainment and art. These aren’t mutually exclusive and people will hop between them at different points in their lives, and it’ll vary per person depending on whether they prioritise literature, music, films, comics etc.
Here’s how I’ve tried to make sense of it.
There are different types of people for different types of art and entertainment.
There are consumers: people who enjoy the content, and can be very appreciative and enthusiastic of it, and prefer to have a large amount of choice over all other aspects. These people like Netflix, Spotify and Kindle Unlimited. The more the merrier. They pay a relatively small fee for a very large library, but will only ever sample a tiny corner of that library. They are also generally happy to be influenced by algorithmic recommendations and funnelling.
Then there are collectors: those who have clearly defined tastes and seek out their preferred material. They might love Star Wars, or Marvel, or books by Isaac Asimov or JK Rowling, or films by specific directors, or every album and single and B-side ever recorded by R.E.M. They will happily pay a significant amount to get precisely what they’re after. They’ll even buy the same thing multiple times in different forms and at premium prices, if it has sentimental or aesthetic value to them. They’ll go for special editions with behind-the-scenes materials, or signed copies. Their tastes can be quite narrow, although they go very deep. If they like the movies they will also have the games and the books and the toys etc.
Finally there are the curators: they tend to have eclectic tastes - in fact, pride themselves on it - but are less interested in the mass-access libraries of modern streaming platforms. Part of the pleasure is in manually curating the material, almost as satisfying as the experiencing of it. Physical media still has a place here, with books or blu-rays or vinyl filling shelves and out on display. Even if a film curator could get all of their chosen movies on Netflix, they’d still prefer to own them. The music curator prefers to walk to the other side of the room and find the right record to put on the turntable.
For the record, I am a consumer of music. I love listening to music but am quite happy to have Google recommend it for me. I’m a collector of science fiction books and comics. I’m a curator of video games, and used to be a curator of movies before I had a child and cinema became a distant memory.
So. How is this relevant to writers and the creator economy?
The good news is that it means that independent writers are not competing with, say, Kindle Unlimited, or Netflix. A $5 subscription to my newsletter won’t necessarily be compared like-for-like with a Kindle subscription, because it’s appealing to a different kind of reader. My newsletter with its paid early access model is going to appeal to a collector: someone who is a fan of my work and wants to go deeper. Someone reading on Wattpad or Kindle Unlimited is different: they’re a consumer. They’d prefer to pay a single flat fee for wide access, but are not really interested in going as deep into a single author’s work.
As for readers who end up subscribing to multiple newsletters - currently a rare thing but likely to become more common - well, they’re the curators. They’re comfortable with spending money to curate their exact preferred library of emailed reading. They are in control, and paying a premium is part of that.
It should be noted that the newsletter/Patreon/creator economy model - the ability to pay the creator directly - is still startlingly new compared to what’s come before. It remains to be seen exactly how people will react as it becomes more common. It’s a new piece in a puzzle that we didn’t even realise was missing one.
It means that all the various access and subscription models are not in direct competition with each other, because they’re addressing different audiences with different needs. As independent creators we don’t have to just pick one. I can serialise my work on Wattpad for free to reach the younger consumers (they’re the ones who are driving interest in serialisation, after all). I can release bonus material via early access on this newsletter for the collectors. And when I compile an ebook many months from now, with its own bonus materials, the curators will also be satisfied.
A mixed approach caters for all the potential audiences, and the exciting thing is that indie creators now have the means with which to do it all.
Talking of which, my new serial Tales from the Triverse begins NEXT WEEK. This is very exciting for me, and hopefully for you as well. It will be a weekly serial with new chapters going up every Friday. The first month will be free to access so that everyone can check it out and form their opinions, after which the early access option with bonus content will cost $5 per month or $50 for the year. Subscribing also gets you an ebook of my previous novel, No Adults Allowed.
For anyone who is very patient and doesn’t care about early access or the (very cool) bonus stuff, the chapters will also be going up on Wattpad and possibly other platforms, five weeks after they debut here on the newsletter. I very deliberately do not want to go down a paywall, exclusionary route.
Here’s the blurb:
A wizard punched a hole through three universes. This is what happened next.
It is 1972, two hundred years after the Joining, and London has become the central conduit between Earth and two other dimensions: Palinor, where magic exists and dragons are real, and a time-shifted version of Earth from the year 2542. The portal cannot be closed, so the only option is to somehow make sense of the accidental triverse.
John Callihan's making strides in his first year on the Portal Crime Squad, set up to deal with inter-dimensional criminal activity. It's a small unit, underfunded and overworked, tasked with solving murders, theft and smuggling between the three worlds. It's a difficult job but it's what Callahan's always wanted to do - but he's about to get in over his head.
Tales from the Triverse is a collision of crime drama, fantasy and science fiction that is my most ambitious project so far. I'll be releasing a new chapter every week on Fridays.
If you like the comic Gotham Central, TV show The Wire, the science fiction novels of Iain M. Banks and Kim Stanley Robinson, Noelle Stevenson's comics and TV work and crazy genre mash-ups, I think you're going to like this one.
As well as the fiction going out on Fridays I’ll also be posting non-fiction in the form of writing tips every Monday. It’s a busier schedule than I’ve ever attempted before, so wish me luck.
As always, thanks for reading.
Simon K Jones