Anatomy of a Patreon Campaign: Thoughts on Reworking Mine

wonderwomanOne of the very last goals for this month that hasn’t been crossed off the whiteboard yet is “rework Patreon campaign.” It’s a project I’ve been circling for a while, because I’m aware that if I don’t plan carefully, I am quite capable of both overextending myself and making promises I can’t deliver on. I thought I’d show the thought process as I worked through and rearranged, the rationale behind the changes, and some of what I’ve learned from working with Patreon so far.

I started the campaign two years ago because I wanted a place to push some of the stories I was writing. In that regard, it’s been reasonably successful, and looking back, I’ve published two dozen stories that way, ranging in length from flash to novelette. Some have been publicly available, like Aardvark Says Moo, Seven Clockwork Angels, and Web of Blood and Iron, while others were limited to Patreon patrons only.

One of the interesting wrinkles that has developed is the question of stories posted only for patrons. Some magazines regard them as already published; some don’t. To my mind, the smallness of the audience makes that a no, but I clearly have a horse in that race.

I speak there not just as a writer but as SFWA President. Being able to sell that story twice nudges the finances up to the point where making a living off stories might actually be viable, depending on the cost-of-living of wherever the writer resides. And it was possible to make a living off short stories, back in the 20th century, but magazine pay rates have not kept pace with inflation, to the point where (imo) it is no longer a viable option unless you’re willing to live very stringently indeed.

Looking back over the past century, that seems indicative of a trend where increasingly money has been shifted away from the creators and moved to the businesses based on the content they create. For example, at the pay rate of .01 per word that Weird Tales had in 1926; in 2017 that’s 13 cents worth of buying power. The SFWA pro rate started at 3 cents a word; if the rate from the 60s had kept up with inflation, the current pro rate would be 25 cents a word, but it’s currently six cents — and that high only because recently the board has pushed to raise it. (My math is based on this inflation calculator, which seems to back up other calculations I’ve looked at.)

At any rate, since I seem to be rambling in the wrong direction, let me swerve back to Patreon. Putting up stories has been mildly successful, but I haven’t been as good about delivering stuff to patrons as I should have been. Part of the revamp involves a mass letter to current patrons that helps catch up on that, offering the upper level ones e-books to make up for the ones I’d intended to do and send out every six months.

To start the rework, I decide I’ll begin with revamping the reward levels, based on looking at what another successful Patreon creator, M.C.A. Hogarth is doing. Maggie is a friend, and more than that, she’s a smart cookie, who’s even written a book on running successful Kickstarter campaigns. Her rewards are based on a monthly pledge, with $1 level getting some posts, $5 all posts, $10 that plus access to a monthly chat and ongoing chat channel, and one $100 user sponsoring a special piece of content for all patrons, and getting to choose what it is.

I know from experience that looking at what’s working for someone and shamelessly modeling your effort on theirs is not a bad approach, so my next step is thinking about what I can and can’t deliver on a monthly basis and looking to see what parts of Maggie’s framework I can hang those on. Here I need to be both realistic and kind to myself.

So a good place to start is — what am I already doing that I might be drawing on? Can I rearrange some efforts in a more efficient way?

What I do on a daily basis:

  • Write. Well, that’s the plan, and actually any commitment that helps me make my 2k words goal is helpful. So excerpts from what I’ve written is a no-brainer. I can still schedule these in advance for days when I’m traveling somewhere or otherwise don’t have reliable net access.
  • Teach or work on teaching. I run the Rambo Academy for Wayward Writers, both developing my own content and working with co-teachers like Ann Leckie, Rachel Swirsky, and Juliette Wade on their courses. Right now I’ve got some others in the works. So I’ve usually got a number of writing tips, prompts, and exercises, including illustrated quotes that I use for the classes.
  • Do SFWA stuff. It’d be wrong to monetize this, though, in my opinion, so I’ll keep talk about that to social media and my blog.
  • Use social media, including Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter. The nice thing about that is that I can comb back through a social media stream and come up with links to combine in a list for people.
  • Daily life stuff, including a lot of cooking, which is one of my passions. Pictures of what I’m cooking and recipes seems like a no-brainer.
  • Read a lot, about 3/4 of the time F&SF. I’m one of those folks who tend to be more about praising the stuff I like than decrying the stuff I don’t, so perhaps reading suggestions will be welcome.

What I do on a weekly or monthly basis:

  • Send out my newsletter.
  • Write blog posts.
  • Create art: some drawings, but often linoleum prints or a collage.

Maggie has a split between the $1 and $5 users, involving extra content. Let’s say I do a post for everyone, comprised of a snippet from recent writing, 2-3 times each week. That gives me a pretty substantial value (IMO) for them, plus I’ll put the two stories in there, rather than making the pledge per story. They’ll also get the coupons for Rambo Academy classes that I send out to my newsletter subscribers, which range from 25-90% off. Hmm. That seems like a good deal for the $1 patrons, so I’ll leave it at that.

Do I want to add $2 supports as well as $5? I actually think I do. How about a writing tip or prompt for each weekday as well? In adding this, I’m thinking about how much prep is involved, but here I think I can pull from my teaching, so the main work is creating the post itself.

What I can add for the $5 supporters? How about a weekly wrap-up each Sunday of what I’ve read that week, along with a recipe? I’m not sure, but let’s give it a try, I decide. One of the nice things about Patreon is that you can tinker with stuff on the fly, so I will make a note on my calendar to look and see how well this is working three months down the line. If I end up doing any of the cooking videos that I’ve been contemplating but haven’t had the time to work on yet, this might be a good place for them. I keep thinking about that one and change my mind, deciding I’ll add a different kind of video, one people have requested, and which won’t be hard to do, me reading a flash piece. I’ll stick to one a month until I know how that’s working and still plan on looking at it in three months.

Okay, $10 peeps. I love the idea of a monthly chat, and my G+ business account lets me invite up to 24 other people. I’ll include that — if it’s immensely popular I may have to scale up to the tech that Maggie’s using, but that question can get kicked down the road for now. I’ve also been using Slack lately, and already have a Rambo Academy channel that I set up but haven’t been using, so I can give folks access to that as well.

Maggie’s next jump is to that $100 level, but I know I’ll be putting out some ebooks this year, so I decide I’ll make a $25 level that lets those patrons get a copy of whatever comes out. This is dangerous, because it’s a deliverable that requires organization — I’ll need to build and maintain a list, and be good about putting e-mailing the books out into the book release campaign. I think about this and decide that since the catchup work I’m doing involves getting existing books out, I’ll be building that list anyhow. This time, I’ll keep it in Evernote, an organizational tool that I’ve been using for SFWA and which I’ve found works well for me, and plan on posting the files on Patreon rather than in e-mail. Maggie sends people physical things; I think about that and decide that it’s not something I should commit to. I know from experience that getting stuff in the mail is not one of my strengths. I decide I’ll add a couple of photos of my art each month at this level; that I know I can deliver.

All right. That leaves me with the $100 level. I decide I’ll commit to the same thing Maggie does. It seems dubious to me that anyone will actually sponsor at that level, but it’s nice to have the option available. For a little while I toy with ideas of levels above that, but it seems like a unrealistic effort that just drains time.

Maggie’s used a cute conceit for the supporters by comparing the levels to areas of a house: the lawn, the lanai, the den. Since I frequently use Chez Rambo mentions on my blog and in social media, I contemplate it. It’s a powerful metaphor, the idea that you’re being invited in, and I know that I want to create the feel of a community. At this point I’m tempted to cut down on the number of levels in order to simplify things, but I resist the urge. After much thought I come up with the following:

  • $1 Cat’s Posse
  • $2 Posse Plus
  • $5 Rambo Ranger
  • $10 Virtual Coffeehouse
  • $25 Send Me Everything
  • $100 Munificent Patron

I make a note on my follow-up list to check on doing something like getting “Cat Rambo’s Posse” badge ribbons to distribute to patrons at upcoming conventions. That’ll both make them feel appreciated and let them spread the word. I’ve seen other authors distribute badge ribbons at conventions, but I’ve never tried it myself. A quick online search lets me see that I can get them for somewhere in the range of .25-.50 each, depending on how many I order. That’s spendy enough that I decide I do want to save them for patrons rather than giving them out at large.

I’ll want to rewrite the beginning appeal and re-shoot the accompanying video. I put that item aside for when I start the actual work of re-doing the page; right now I’m still in the planning stage and figuring out both my work items and the order in which I should do them.

I look at the reward tiers as part of the revamp. I’ve said if I hit $250 a month I’ll add an extra flash piece. That seems reasonable; I’ll leave it as stands. The $500 level is an additional story recording – if I make it of that flash piece, that works all right, so I leave that alone as well. $1000 is an urban fantasy series. I decide to scrap that for now but then think hard.

What would hitting the $1k a month level on Patreon enable me to do? It’d free up sometime I use for freelancing. What if I took some of that time and did something I’ve wanted to do for a while, a monthly podcast that’s a roundtable focusing on a different topic each time? Okay, that works. I’ll swap that in. The final reward tier is $2500, at which point I’d start a magazine, because people keep asking me about that. I’m not going to hit that reward level anytime soon, but if some fluke occurs, it’ll be a ways down the line, and I’m willing to make good on that promise at that level because it’d let me pay the writers and do a pretty nice little online magazine. Again, I leave that goal alone.

A major part of the change is going to monthly rather than per post; looking at the Patreon docs, I see that I should do this at the beginning of February, since I’ve done two January paid posts. I make another note on my calendar. I also want to get this out the door, so I decide not to wait till I have the video — but also add a note to make sure it goes on this week’s todo list.

Next month I’ll provide some feedback over how successful (or not!) this approach has been.

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About Cat

Cat Rambo lives, writes, and teaches by the shores of an eagle-haunted lake in the Pacific Northwest. Her 200+ fiction publications include stories in Asimov's, Clarkesworld Magazine, and the magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. Her story, "Five Ways to Fall in Love on Planet Porcelain," from her collection Near + Far (Hydra House Books), was a 2012 Nebula nominee. Her editorship of Fantasy Magazine earned her a World Fantasy Award nomination in 2012. She is the current President of the Science Fiction and Fantasy Writers of America (SFWA). She is currently working on Exiles of Tabat, the third book of the Tabat Quartet. A new story collection, Neither Here Nor There, appears from Hydra House this fall.
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