Patreon, Tools, Tactics, and Strategy

Patreon announced a change in its fee structure this morning, which has prompted an outpouring of tweets from a number of writers I follow who have been using the platform and want to process the implications. The change is being framed as a good thing for creators, ensuring they will take home exactly 95% of every pledge, but it does so by pushing the processing fee onto the donator and this has subtle knock-on effects for the assumptions surrounding the service. Passing the fee on to the pledger means a series of $1 pledges every month actually ends up costing a buck thirty-seven or so.

Multiply that out over a year, and you’re looking at an extra $4.44 a year to kick a little change to the creators you patronise. This might not seem like a lot, but for a platform that is built itself on the concept of huge numbers of people making micro-transactions, that’s a pretty big shift.

There’s a couple of general themes and concerns running through the discussions online. First, that this is a move to drive away the small, consistent donors and make supporting creators at higher rates more appealing; the second is how the fee will be applied to people who are supporting multiple creators, which Patreon has traditionally bundled into a single change; the third is what are the other options, with a recurring theme of people setting up paypal buttons in response to the news.

I’m intrigued by Patreon, but I have no real skin in the game. I looked at the possibility of setting one up earlier this year, for a very particular fiction project, then figured there were ways to montetize what I wanted to create that better suited my circumstances.

What intrigues me about this is that I’ve seen this process before. When it comes to monetising creative work on the internet, this Sturm und Drang kicks in about most digital tools and tactics as they start to mature.

I watched it happen in the gaming industry around 2005, when the platform that made digitally publishing RPG books changed the fees it charged for the first time. Another round followed not long after, when a viable contender to the reigning heavyweight platform emerged, and they changed policies to secure their business (and encourage people to stay exclusive to their store); then again, not long after, when they sought to move the smaller presses with a handful of products out of a crowded marketplace in order to make their site appealing to the major players.

I’ve watched it repeatedly, over the last few years, as Amazon rolled out tools like KDP select, then began altering the ways in which the payments were determined.

Heck, I’ve watched it in publishing generally, where the venerable tools for getting a book out there and connecting with readers started opening up and asking people to think about what’s the best way to achieve what you want to achieve in writing. Prior to ebooks and the internet, that was barely a question.


In 2009’s BookLife, Jeff VanderMeer’s outstanding book on the strategies and survival tips for the writing life, he breaks down the basic problem between tactical and strategic thinking:

Because writers often work organically and hate doing mechanical things like detailed novel outlines, they sometimes also shy away from creating actual lists of long-term and short-term career goals. Instead, many of colleagues have daily, weekly, or monthly “to do” lists that help keep them focused but also keep them stuck thinking in tactical mode, which makes it hard to engage strategic thinking. Yes, you know what you want or need to do for the next thirty years, but what about for the year? What about for the next five years? How do your daily/weekly/monthly tasks feed into a short-term goals, and how do your short-term goals feed into your long term goals?

In really simple terms, strategy is the overall vision of what you’re trying to do and tactics are the plans you use to get there. The latter should be in service of the former, but a good strategic vision means you’ve got a level of flexibility in how you’re getting there. It’s a similar insight offered by by Neil Gaiman’s conception of goals as a distant mountain you keep moving towards, rather than a map, and one of the reasons I advocate people getting out of the habit of assuming publication is their goal.

What’s interesting about living in the age of digital disruption is the tendency for people to produce tools that make new tactics viable. There is nothing particularly new about Patreon’s core strategy – going out to you fans has always been a tactical method of monetising art, as seen by the history of patronage and the existence of professional street performers. What limited that idea, in terms of making a viable amount of money, was access to enough fans with sufficient wealth and desire to support your work. The internet has made that access possible, and the crowd-funding model that Patreon built off meant you needed a large number of people willing to donate very little, rather than a handful of people willing to donate a lot.

This same thing is true of the ebook boom, and kindle unlimited borrow payments, and any number of other digital tools. Even something as simple as “create an online author platform.”

All tools evolve: once upon a time we hammered shit in with rocks, then someone invented the hammer; after everyone used the hammer, someone invented the nail-gun. The problem with the emergence of a new tool, which opens up a previously unviable tactic, is the ease with which it becomes assumed that it’s an unchanging, long-term strategy. One’s approach to making an income becomes tailored to the toolkit they’re working with, and it feels like the rug is pulled out from underneath you the moment the tool changes.

I’m yet to come across a tool aimed at creators that hasn’t changed and evolved as it matured. They’re all owned by people and companies looking to make their organisations viable, pursuing their own long-term strategies and applying different tactics. Patreon is four years old, and the last twelve months has seen significant buy-in from creators on every level, so it’s not a surprise that they’re adjusting their focus (although, looking at their rhetoric around the change, I’m surprised by the choices they’ve made in conveying that).

Good tools are seductive. Good tools built by people who are looking to monetise work on your behalf will always present themselves like long-term strategies because, as VanderMeer notes, they’re working with creative-types who don’t excel at strategic thinking and just want to get through the next ten minutes instead of the next ten years.

Moreover, the people building the tools are very good at encouraging it: having delved on the indie side of things for the first time in a while, I’m consistently impressed by Amazon’s ability to make it look like the upload process isn’t really finished until I’ve broken down and put my books on Kindle Unlimited. Similarly, while I ultimately decided against a Patreon, I’m consistently impressed by the way they sell their services to those who have expressed an interest.

It’s hard not to get suckered in, particularly when there are early adopters who are doing great and the approach feel revolutionary. I’m pretty sure every creative has one experience with it – I learned it the hard-way in my RPG ebook publishing days, when the consequences of building my tactics around the habits of just one sales site bit me in the arse just as I got my press established – but the response is the important part.

Railing at the folks who changed the tool feels great in the short-term, and may even have results and get things reversed for a time, but even if that happens it’s never quite the same. You’ve just seen the shift in their thinking, and you find yourself fretting about what happens if it changes again. The people engaging with that tool have just seen the same.

You no longer get to make tactical decisions on autopilot, which means folks either learn to think strategically and adapt, accept that they’ll do what they’ve always done and there will probably be less, or give up because it’s just too hard to keep going.

Only one of those is a truly sustainable option, but it’s also the hardest of them if you’re not used to thinking in those terms.


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