Subscriptions as a sustainable income model

The other day as I was eating breakfast and going through my feeds I clicked on a link that Baldur Bjarnason had in a round up links post entitled “The creator economy can’t rely on Patreon.” and read through it. It wasn’t that I didn’t know it was hard to make a sustainable living off of subscriptions, but I didn’t realize it was quite as hard as Westenberg lays out.

Relying solely on organic user payments rarely provides reliable and adequate income. Creators soon discover building a subscriber base is far easier said than done. Though some succeed due to viral content or niche popularity, creators are more often stranded in the discouraging and disappointing gap between audience reach and monetisable support.

Above this Westenberg points out that roughly 5% of any subscriber list is paying. So in order to have reliable income you need to have a lot of subscribers. I’d seen vague references to this before, but this piece lays it out better than any other I’ve read. And the author goes on:

The transactional ask inherent in requesting money damages community trust and goodwill. Turning fans into individual revenue streams backfires, breaking the genuine parasocial relationships creators build with their audiences. The shift from viewing fans as community members to income sources changes social dynamics in ways many find unpalatable.

So much this. Once you are hustling and asking for money, it changes everything and can suck the joy out of it for the creator and for the audience member. I’ve also seen, with writers I used to follow, that as their community and list grew their writing changed. Once you are in an echo chamber of people who love what you do, how do you change and grow and hang on to those same people? Will they come along for the ride as that happens or will you change what you create in order to satisfy them? I fear that the latter is what happens more often than not.

[As a complete aside, it’s interesting to note that Westenberg is using the patron model with her writing, which is probably why they’re clear eyed about how it’s not a workable model.]

But as I kept reading my RSS feeds that morning, Bjarnason wrote a piece tagging on to Westenberg that resonated equally with how I view supporting the things that I enjoy. Bjarnason goes deeper into why subscriptions are so hard to keep going and to make money off of, mostly the large platforms are benefitting a few big names few and the smaller folks aren’t getting much out of the aggregator at all.

Again, a subscription is the hardest media artefact to sell, by a huge margin. You could go through an aggregator who is taking care of the work involved with finding those subscribers, but those platforms are dominated by the big names. They are geared to the already popular, not new entrants into the field. The UIs of these services don’t surface smaller titles because there isn’t any money in it. Smaller names on aggregators get peanuts. Even many of the big names get peanuts.

But in my own consumption, since that is what makes the world go round, I’m much more prone to buy a book, an art print or piece, or the digital files to the music I want to listen to. I find that a way to diversify what I’m consuming, rather than a subscription to the same person’s work. I’d add that often times I don’t really need more content to consume; there is a lot out there already (you should see my book list) and the benefits that come with subscriptions are always more, more of whatever the creator is doing and that usually isn’t appealing to me.

As Bjarnason says at the end of their piece:

But that money may be better spent buying individual books from a dozen different writers instead—one a month instead of one subscription for a year. You’ll get a wider variety of writing, a plurality of ideas, and you’ll be giving twelve artists or writers a leg up instead of just one.

That’s my goal and often I feel twinges of guilt as so many people I follow in the knitting and sewing world are starting up subscription based things to supplement their income. But I can’t support everything and I remind myself of that often.

Side note: If you aren't following Baldur Bjarnason on RSS I highly recommend it. His links and thoughts on both the tech world and the wider world are thought provoking. This may be the first time I've blogged about things he's linked to or written about, but it isn't the first time I've continued to think about them long after I've read them.