Some folks have become interested in the problem of how artists can make money in the Age of Downloads. For example, if someone records a really popular piece of music, how do they make a living if a zillion people will be bit-torrenting it within days of its release?
John Kelsey and Bruce Schneier made an early effort at tackling this problem back in 1999 with "The Street Performer Protocol."
Last year, Kevin Kelly made a stir by extending the brainstorming to the idea of "1000 True Fans."
I'm not going to go into the detailed pros and cons of these ideas. You can pick those up by reading the aforementioned papers. Before posting comments here, please read at least Scalzi's piece and comments to make sure that you're not repeating the well-known and obvious. Many of the arguments have been reiterated ad nauseum.
"1000 True Fans" goes like this:
Fans subscribe to an artist. Instead of buying a particular existing work, they put their faith in the idea that if they liked work the artist has created in the past, they'll probably like the artist's work in the future. They each pay the artist a small monthly sum, who then makes new work available as it's created.
The benefits to the artist are obvious: they get paid up front to create new art, which is where almost all their time and energy and money goes, and they do not have to fret as much about how next month's bills will get paid or whether their creativity will be ripped off.
The benefits to the audience are not so obvious, and that's why these schemes usually fail. You've got to be selling something that customers want and giving them a reason to buy it from you on your terms. It's even tougher when you're selling people future (translation: nonexistent) art.
That's the killer. The notion is that if only X people would pay the modest sum Y dollars a month, the artist could live comfortably. But the reality is that X people simply never pay Y dollars without a very good reason. The artist needs to give them a reason to do so and to keep doing so.
Photographers trying to sell their work have creative constraints not unlike writers and composers. Our production and distribution costs aren't zero, but they are such a small fraction of the selling price that for all practical purposes the model works. The time, energy (and money) required to create a great new print is often considerable, but it takes very little of those to make additional prints, whether you're in the darkroom or on the computer. If I know ahead of time that I need to make 30 or 40 prints of the same photograph, I can turn out that many prints in a day easily. Black and white or color, wet or dry (though not dye transfer!), it doesn't matter.
I have an idea about how I can make this work for me. Not at the 1000 Fan level, but maybe at the 100 Fan level. Next column I'll describe how I'm hoping to sell work on the installment plan.
ADDENDUM: "Let me address a lot of comments by laying out a simple business analysis for people who might be considering this. On the most fundamental level, regardless of whether or not you can get people to sign up, for this to work it has to satisfy two criteria:
First, it has to make a profit.
Second, it has to make you no less than a living wage (unless you have a bunch of truly free time and you're just doing it for the pin money).
Most folks understand the first, intuitively. A lot slip up on the second.
There are two cases you'd be considering. The optimistic one is where you have enough Fans that you can live off them entirely. The realistic one is where they're paying just a portion of your living expenses, freeing up enough ime and energy for you to create work. The realistic one is a little harder to analyze, so that's what I'll talk about first:
You work the problem backwards. The first thing you need to do is figure out what your living wage is. At a very minimum, that's the amount of money you need to earn each year to cover your bills, obligations, and taxes, divided by the number of hours you want to work each year. It may be more than that: you may want to include allowances for vacations, frivolities, and a retirement fund. Whatever your druthers, be brutally honest with yourself. If you're unrealistic about these estimates because you really want the numbers to come out in your favor, all you're going to do is screw yourself.
Let's say it's $20 an hour.
Now you need to estimate about how many hours it takes you to create a new artwork. That's not just the time at the computer or in the darkroom to get the first print right, it also includes some idea of how much time you spend out photographing to get that one photograph (if that's a significant part of your time budget; if it's not, then never mind). Multiply that by $20, and that's how much you need to be earning, sooner or later, from that artwork. If you don't clear that much, the business will fail.
Let's call that $1,000. So how many subscribers is that per new work?
If your production/distribution costs (time and money) are essentially zero, as they are for digitally-delivered work (music, photographs, e-books, whatever) it's simple. How much are your Fans paying per month for the privilege of getting access to your art? $9, say? That's about $100 a year, net (it's got to take you at least a little time to administer those accounts). So, for each 10 Fans you have signed up, you can afford to create one new work.
You'll need to decide how much new work you need to make each year to keep the Fans happy, and what's the least amount of money coming in that makes you feel like it's worth your time and hassle to set the whole thing up and administer it. Those are entirely personal judgment calls. They're not really about a budget, but they do set a lower threshold on the minimum number of subscribers you'll need to consider it worthwhile to do this.
If your production/distribution costs are not $0, you need to figure out what they are per copy (for some reasonable volume of copies). That's the cost in dollars plus your living wage multiplied by the amount of time it takes you to deliver one work to one Fan. In other words, if it costs you $10 to make a finished print and mail it to a Fan, and it takes half an hour of your time to print it out, package it, and ship it, then your unit cost is $20.
Subtract what it costs to provide the Fan with whatever you're promising them from the amount of money they're paying you annually. In this example, that net-income-per-Fan would be $80. Divide that into $1000 (in our example) and you know how many Fans (about 13) you'll need to support creating and delivering one new work a year.
If you've decided to be an optimist and want the Fans to support you entirely, the math is simpler. Divide your annual Living Income by the net-income-per-Fan. That's the number you need to sign up. Good luck with that! —Ctein