The week of February 28, 2016
Patreon illustration by J. Longo

What I learned from my failed Patreon campaign

By Noah Berlatsky

I thought I had what it takes for a successful Patreon campaign.

I wanted to fund a weekly column of arts criticism, and I was cautiously optimistic about my prospects. Unlike Kickstarter, which raises one-time funding for individual projects, Patreon provides for pledges on a recurring basis—either monthly or per artist. It’s popular among people who release new work periodically, such as YouTube performers and webcomic artists. Video game journalist Cara Ellison used the platform to fund her longform game journalism; Zach Weinersmith funds his webcomic, Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal. Randi Harper (who I support) develops anti-harassment software. People, in short, use Patreon to generate funds for a wide range of creative projects. Why couldn’t I do the same?

Patreon seemed like a good fit for me: I’m a moderately successful writer, with a bunch of mainstream venues on my résumé, including the Atlantic, the New Republic, the Guardian, and, obviously, the Kernel. At the same time, I’d love to get a chance to write about some things that aren’t tied to a news cycle; I like writing Beyoncé and Marvel movie thinkpieces, but it would be nice to write other things too. I’ve been waiting years to write about Angel Heart and The Exorcist and James Baldwin’s ideas about evil. I have a long essay no one is ever going to want on why someone needs to make a film version of the Beverly Jenkins slavery romance novel Indigo. I’d like to rank every Jimmy Stewart movie ever. There are many projects I can’t sell, because they’re too weird, or too niche, or at the wrong time, or too random. Patreon seemed like a way for me to carve out time in my schedule to do them.

I thought I’d have a decent chance of getting at least some backing. I have around 4,000 Twitter followers, which isn’t earthshaking but seems sufficient to get the word out. My own little comics and criticism website, the Hooded Utilitarian, had more than 1.5 million unique hits last year, which is a lot for a specialty site, even if most of it came from a single viral post by a friend of mine. I’m not exactly Internet-famous, but I have an audience. People read my writing; they visit my site; they follow me on Twitter. Surely some of those readers would be interested in paying me to write exciting essays about comics and feminism and rape/revenge films, right?

The answer to that question, as it turns out, is not so much. I’d hoped to raise $200 per weekly column of arts criticism focusing on works that a mainstream site wouldn’t cover—like Marge Piercy’s He, She and It. It was an extremely ambitious goal, but I figured if I came in at half that, or even a quarter, I’d be doing OK. But a couple months in, the campaign has stalled out completely. Some friends and a few fans have very generously contributed, but overall, it would be kind to call the response tepid. I scaled back to promising a biweekly column, but even so I’ve only got pledges of about $25, well under 10 percent of my initial goal. The whole thing has been humbling, bordering on outright humiliating. I’ve had to face the painful truth that I’m not as beloved or interesting as I thought.

The whole thing has been humbling, bordering on outright humiliating.

So, what went wrong? Why didn’t my (moderate) mainstream success translate into (any) Patreon power?

I think there are a number of reasons. But the chief one, perhaps, is that Patreon isn’t exactly designed to support folks with a mainstream résumé. When you’re churning out articles daily for paying sites (which I am, more or less), readers don’t feel like they need to spend their own money to get even more of your work. No matter how much of a Noah Berlatsky fan you are, there’s got to be a limit to the amount of Noah Berlatsky content you need in your life. Yes, I wanted to write things through Patreon that I might not have been able to sell elsewhere. But that’s probably too vague a remit to convince people they should pay specifically to get more content by a mainstream writer, when oodles of mainstream content by that writer, and many others, is only a click away.

In contrast, people with successful Patreons are doing work that would otherwise be difficult or impossible to fund. Phil Sandifer, for example, has gotten close to $300 a week from his Patreon for his blog Eruditorum Press

Sandifer produces “left-wing cultural criticism focusing on geek media,” he told me—which in itself doesn’t sound that far afield from sites like io9, Wired, or Boing Boing. He’s got less than a third of the Twitter followers I do, which you’d think would weaken his Patreon campaign. But, as he says, he’s “been building an audience patiently,” writing blog posts three times a week for years. He’d gotten up to 4,000 to 5,000 pageviews a day before he started his campaign—two to four times what my little blog gets.

What makes Sandifer’s work special is the crazed intensity of his focus and the ambition of his projects. He recently finished a project analyzing every single Doctor Who episode from 1963 on, all the way through the Matt Smith era—more than 800 altogether (plus many of the novels and audios). “I approached Doctor Who as a continually open window to the way in which British popular culture grappled with the idea of the marginal and the avant-garde,” he said, “Which I think Britain has a peculiar relationship to, for reasons ranging from a wealth of folklore about portals to faerie and other liminal spaces to the values of the BBC, which have historically treated the need to serve the entire country as a mandate to explore the margins.” His current endeavor is an exhaustive history of British comics focusing on the careers of, and antipathy between, writers and (self-proclaimed) magicians Alan Moore and Grant Morrison. The project includes extensive archival research, nailing down timelines and intricate details of long-past disputes which haven’t been chronicled in such detail elsewhere.

He’s built an audience for his obsessive deep dive sci-fi and comics fandom: He told me the collected book versions of his Doctor Who posts sell briskly on Amazon, and as of this writing he has 134 patrons. But as fascinating as his work is, it’s of limited appeal to generalist publications looking to reach the largest possible audience. “You’re not going to get very far with, ‘Hey mainstream site, I don’t suppose you want to buy a history of British comics that uses the lens of occult warfare, is going to be over a million words long, and deliberately leaves off in mid-paragraph at the end of every installment,'” he said. (Why did he cut things off in mid-paragraph? Partly, he said, as a “wry commentary on the serialized and always-cliffhanging nature of most comic book narratives.” And partially because he felt like it.) That’s why Patreon works for him.

Tara Burns’s project (which I support) is even less fit for mainstream venues. Burns is a sex-work researcher, activist, and journalist. She’s currently trying to analyze prostitution and trafficking charging documents in order to nail down exactly how trafficking and prostitution laws are enforced, in practice, in every state in the U.S. “For example,” she told me, “I found one jurisdiction where almost every prostitution charge was the result of a sex worker reporting that they had been the victim of a violent crime, and I found another jurisdiction where police seem to work well with local sex workers to address predators.”

This is a valuable undertaking. There’s a great deal of controversy about how prostitution laws should be changed, but relatively little data about how the laws currently function on a day-to-day basis.

The project, though, isn’t one that translates well to bite-sized articles for a mainstream readership. “The main other option I considered was to just do the research and then write articles about what I found,” Burns said. “If I did that I would lose a lot of control of the finished pieces and the scope would be narrowed. I want to create numbers that can inform policy with a lot of detail, not short interesting articles on the Internet.” Translating that detail into pithy articles—or even in-vogue longform journalism—would require time and effort that would take away from the work itself, and she’d be dependent on the slow trickle of pay. For a long, involved project, Patreon provides a predictable income that freelancing typically can’t.

“I want to create numbers that can inform policy with a lot of detail, not short interesting articles on the Internet.”

Burns says she never could have imagined her Patreon drive would be so successful: She now has four highly motivated contributors giving more than $20 for each day she works on the project. “I think it’s honestly just information that people have been wanting for years now, so I’m stepping into a data void where there’s a real demand for these numbers.”

These two campaigns couldn’t be more different, but Sandifer and Burns share a sense of passion and mission. When you back them, you feel not only that you’re supporting something vital and outside the mainstream, but someone pursuing their calling—whether it’s to meticulously document the relationship between Doctor Who and the Anglo self-image, or to demonstrate the incoherence of American anti-trafficking laws.

That’s why a mainstream résumé (and a mainstream audience) doesn’t necessarily translate into a successful Patreon campaign. Writing for a mainstream audience is about trying to give everyone what they want; Patreon is about encouraging some smaller subset of people to see the worth of this one, important, special thing you can do. I’ve gotten OK at doing the first; I need to work on the second. In the meantime, I’m glad that the Internet, which makes my superhero film think pieces possible, has figured out a way for at least some other folks to do something different.

Illustration via J. Longo