I recently taught a Patreon and Other Forms of Crowdfunding workshop for Clarion West, focusing on running an effective Patreon, and thought I’d provide some of the notes from that.
When I first started on Patreon, I remember one elderly SF writer calling it “hipster panhandling,” and I dunno… I’ve been pretty happy that I’ve stuck with it, and I know I’m giving my patrons a solid value in return for their support. It has been interesting to see some attitudes shift towards crowdfunding in general, particularly with the rise of self-publishing as a valid career approach, and nowadays it seems like Kickstarter is driving many anthology projects.
Some background for those that might want it: Crowdfunding is a way of funding (perhaps a one-time project, perhaps a long-running or ongoing entity) that depends on small contributions from many people. It can be a one-time donation or an ongoing one, like a subscription. Examples of cowdfunding platforms include Patreon, Kofi, GoFundMe, IndieGoGo, Kickstarter, and Onlyfans. Patreon can be subscription or per-creation; I’ve chosen to go the subscription route.
I have been running my Patreon for a number of years now and have hooked it into my school. Along with other benefits, supporters get discounts on classes and, at higher levels, free classes. I try to post on at least a weekly basis, and to include snippets of what I’m working on. In March, I’m bringing back the story discussion group and adding one to look specifically at books on writing craft. Those events are recorded on Zoom, and the story group has been a lot of fun, particularly when we’ve had the authors in to talk about the stories as part of the discussion. I’ve tried all sorts of things over the years: weekly AMAs, recipes, serial fiction (still need to finish that one up!), etcetera, and my patrons have been patient with the various convulsions over that time.
Currently Patreon provides me somewhere between $1400-1500 per month, depending on monthly fluctuations (I am on the Premium plan, rather than the free version, which means Patreon takes less.) Some of that incoming money then flows out to pay guest teachers, depending on which classes people sign up for. Here’s the list of what’s coming up, and you can see it’s 50% guest teachers, 50% my own classes. But it ends up being a nice chunk of money that helps stabilize an income that can be pretty erratic otherwise, and which comes primarily from writing and teaching.
That money doesn’t magically fall out of the sky, though. (Alas!) It’s not a question of someone happening to read one of my stories and thinking “I loved that” and searching me out on the Internet to find out if I’ve got a tip jar on my website. That would be lovely, certainly. But it takes a level of fame and exposure I, and most writers, lack.
Plus that’s not really how tipping works, people dumping money in random containers without much reason. You have to give people something in exchange for that, even if it’s a fleeting experience. It doesn’t have to be carefully composed and polished — sometimes a random picture of a pet being cute will turn out to be one of the most popular things you’ve ever done. Authenticity is one of the best things you can give. I often provide snippets of what I’m working on, or take a look at something that I want to think about, like examining a paragraph of description to see how it works.
The most important thing that I can tell you is that Patreon or other crowd-funding efforts require work. That’s something that you have to factor in when you want to start one up. You need to figure out how to provide value for your patrons in a way that works for you. For me, hooking it into my online school was a terrific fit.
Patreon provides the tools I need, although I will continue to gripe about not being able to find old posts easily. More than anything else, I make use of the Discord server that Patreon provides me. They handle getting patrons on there, but one time out of twenty or so, I end up having to troubleshoot. The Discord server also hosts a number of students, friends, other Rambo Academy Faculty, etc, and is the place where a lot of activity gets coordinated. We’ve finally achieved enough of a critical mass that it’s a lively and entertaining community, with channels devoted not just to writing stuff, but community exchange like pet pictures and such. While on the road right now I haven’t been able to access the server and I have been sorely missing checking in.
There are a number of extra benefits like that when creating a Patreon campaign. I focused on growing that community when the pandemic started, and it’s one of the things that kept me sane and productive in the last couple of years. It’s been a great thing seeing so many students and mentees publishing in recent years, and it feels important to be making a contribution to the F&SF community not just in terms of “here’s my content, enjoy” but helping drive events and gatherings.
I think of Patreon as a side-gig, one of the freelancing projects that make up my work flow. Like any side-gig, you want to not let it derail you from the most important stuff, nor do you want to get overly dependent on it. One of the best things you can do as a writer is cultivate those small springs where you can, doing things like sending out reprints, getting speaking engagements, etc. Patreon can become a pretty good source of revenue, but it takes time, thought, and effort.
I recently did the Patreon Creator survey and that made me aware I’m not promoting mine quite as heartily as I should be, and that I’m not using every aspect. For one, I will confess that I do not look at the exit surveys when someone decides to stop, even though I really should. That’s because I had someone say something hurtful enough in one few years back that I made the conscious choice to just assume everyone’s doing it for financial reasons and just not worry about it anymore.
And that’s another thing about Patreon that I need to underscore – it can be a source of incredible encouragement, but it can also be a place — most particularly when you start out — where you feel like you’re howling into the void without anyone answering back. That one step forward, two steps back feeling can really start to come into play if you get a few people dropping off at a bad time. Build in some armor for yourself, however you need to, and remember this is your campaign. You get to do it the way that works for you, and it’s okay to experiment.
Overall, writing is a sporadic and inconsistent financial existence. One month you’ve got a hefty advance check and then the next it’s just a handful of things like that 2.23 royalty from Smashwords. A Patreon or other crowdfunded campaign can be incredibly helpful in evening some of that out — but it’s not a magic fix that will do it effortlessly.