Fandom as a business

October 27th, 2008 by Laura Leave a reply »

I spend at least two to eight hours a day working on Fan History. On a busy day, I could spend twelve hours day. About a third (1) of that time is spent talking about effective ways to market the site, how to improve the content, policy decisions and revisions that need to be made, how features we implement will be received by certain communities, discussing the risk/reward of these various strategies. My favorite places to have these conversations include twitter where I have access to some great people who follow me who can offer a business and wiki perspective, and via phone, AIM, e-mail or another messenger where I can have one on one conversations with users, with fandom and business people. I also love to have these conversations on my LiveJournal as a result of posting about my insecurities regarding what I’m doing, explaining the process of what I’m doing and soliciting alpha and beta feedback on features and policy we’re launching on a semi-public platform. (2)

I was having one of these conversations (3) recently on LiveJournal about a bot we’re planning on launching soon. One of the issues that came up was that, in making the decision to create this bot and launch this bot, we are going to ruffle some feathers because it goes against the norm in parts of LiveJournal related fandom communities. We decided to go ahead with it anyway because, as a business decision, it made sense. Risk/Reward was weighted. We discussed different, for want of a better term, market segments (groups and cliques? subfandoms? fannish subcultures?) inside of fandom, and their potential reactions to this bot. We also review previous decisions that were comparable, response to that and determined that overall, if we take this step and that step, our response rate should be ninety percent favorable. The ten percent unfavorable are not part of our potential audience, have a negative view of Fan History anyway, were largely informed of the means of protecting themselves in the previous discussions about Fan History. We can afford that as such articles increase our participation on the wiki, help users overcome a barrier for entry by not forcing them to create articles from scratch and get a lot of quantitative and qualitative information which will help us to better understand fandom. That’s how we made our decision. It was a business one.

That sparked further conversation which asked the question: Should fandom be treated as a business? Should business models be used as ways to assist in the decision making process as it pertains to sites, projects and people where the decision is based on a fandom?

There is a good argument for most fans that the answer should be no. Fandom is a hobby. Fans engage other fans and the source material for pleasure. The goals of most fans don’t necessitate a business approach.

But for certain subsets of people involved in fandom, fandom is a business and decisions need to be made based on that model. These people include fans who invest a fair amount of time and money on their sites, convention dealers, convention organizers, fans who have incorporated or report earnings from fandom on their taxes, anyone running a fansite with over 50,000 unique visitors a month, fan artists who sell their work, costumers, startups operating in fanspaces, freelance writers who also are fans, professional bloggers covering entertainment and fandom issues, professional writers and the list goes on and on. There are just a huge number of people who need to treat fandom as a business. These are people who cannot afford make decisions based on their perceptions of how “fandom” will respond, what fannish norms are and act as if they are operating on the same level as the casual fans who have much less of an investment legally and financially in fandom.

Why can’t they afford to do that? Because for a lot of fans who are in fandom for pure enjoyment, they have a general goal of not making waves, of finding ways to participate that don’t create additional strife for themselves, where they can express their love of canon, of finding a ways to enjoy the source more, of connecting with like minded people. Those are great goals for fandom. But if you’re on that other level, your goals are different. They include such things as covering the cost of materials, hosting, travel expenses. They include trying to make money, to profit off or maximize your profit. The goal might include trying to increase traffic, increase media exposure, increase interest in your project. The goal might be to create the biggest information resource, to create the best information resource, to use that information to get a job. These aren’t necessarily compatible goals.

If you’re a fan, you might shut your mouth and avoid controversy at all costs. If you don’t, your enjoyment of fandom might decrease. If you’ve got a financial or business stake in fandom, you might not have that luxury. You might need to wade in to that controversy or find a way to use it to your benefit. It can increase your traffic and your visibility which can help your bottom line. (4) By alienating a certain group, you might gain acceptance by a larger group who will enjoy what you’re doing who might not otherwise have been exposed to you had they not heard about it from the people who disliked the business. From a risk/reward perspective, it makes sense.

If you’re a fan, the rules might be that you might be constrained by personal relationships. You don’t want to offend your friends, alienate people who could help you be happy in fandom. These rules on a micro level mean you can’t say and do certain things. If you’re a business, the rules are different as you’re generally operating on and being judged on a macro level. On the micro level of fans, it is generally viewed as unacceptable to copy some one’s work and to archive it on your personal web space. On a business level, this behavior is generally much more acceptable and tolerated. Google makes copies and derivative copies of most people’s content. Fans don’t react negatively because this is being done by a corporation and the overall good is viewed as worth the loss of control of their content means that they can have copies of their work available should something happen to their own copy. It also makes their and other people’s content much more readily acceptable. The business aspect depersonalizes this and makes it acceptable. Thus, if you’re a fan with a financial stake in fandom, you need to depersonalize these activities and treat your fansite and activities like a business because of the dual standards in fandom. By acting like and treating your fansite like a business, your activities are judged by a different set of standards which more generally are friendly towards probable business models. If you treat it like fandom, you can’t get away with that.

If you are an artist who makes their living off of fan art, it behooves you to treat fandom like a business. Some parts of fandom have real problems with fans profiting off their fan created works. If you immerse yourself in that culture, you are going to have a problem of trying to make money off a community that is intrinsically hostile to what you’re doing. How can you then make a living off your art? If you’re treating fandom your fan art like a business, you find conventions that allow you to sell or auction your work. You find auction sites that allow you to sell this type of content. You create a site which talks about your art experience, has a gallery of some of your work, talks about your inspiration, might have a blog and talks about where you can buy your art. You create art that you think you can sell. You do this by researching what fan art does sell, finding out what fandoms are popular, possibly doing a few free pieces for big name fans so that you can help build an audience, leaving comments in reply to people discussing your work and avoiding places that are hostile to this business plan. You’re open and honest about what you’re doing. You learn enough of the legal defenses so that if some one calls your art illegal that will lead to a crack down on fans who aren’t trying to make money off their work, you can defend yourself. You can still act like a fan and if your art becomes established enough for its quality, you can play the fandom game more on a personal level with out it hurting your bottom line as your audience will be more focused on the product than you as a person. If you do the opposite, if you play fandom games first and then try to become a professional fan artist, people are going to have to get over all your fandom baggage as part of the purchasing decision process… which means tat when you play in fandom, you’ve got to weigh how you behave in that context of losing potential sales. What is the risk/reward for making fandom wank? Make Failure to these tasks will hurt your bottom line.

If you’re a fan who is spending upwards of a thousand dollars a year on your fansite, in creating art, in making costumes, organizing a convention, publishing fanzines, you have the added issue that you will probably have to treat fandom as a business unless you have some other means of income or are independently wealthy. From my point of view, Fan History costs me a fair amount of money to maintain. I have web hosting costs. I have development costs. I have advertising costs. I have legal and incorporation fees. I have taxes. I have networking costs. I’m fortunate in that my job provides me just enough money to cover these costs and my basic living costs that I can afford to spend all this time on Fan History. I’m also lucky because my job is fandom related to the extent that many of the things I do professional connect back to what I do for Fan History as a business. Because I love what I do, I am willing to make the sacrifices I need to in order to see things through. If I didn’t have my job, I would likely be unable to maintain Fan History. Many others who treat fandom as a business have similar issues. Fandom is their job. It is their career. For people in those positions, it is difficult to treat fandom as a hobby, as a source of personal enjoyment. When making decisions, we’re talking about people who aren’t making decisions about what makes them happy but about their personal livelihood. If you have a problem with a person in fandom, good advice might be to retreat and avoid them. If you’re in fandom as a business and you have a problem with a person in fandom, a business decision might be made differently. Why? If you were giving advice to some one about a co-worker or boss who were annoying, always putting you down, who were slandering you, whose activities at work were threatening your ability to do your job, you probably wouldn’t tell them to just ignore their boss and do whatever they feel like because doing so could result in them getting fired. Fandom as a business livelihood is the same. You make decisions differently.

The reality of making decisions in fandom based on business models can feel really cynical if you’re a fan who bases your decisions based on what heightens your fannish enjoyment. If you’re making business decisions in fandom, the whole process can be really frustrating as your actions might not be judged as business decisions but rather as actions in fandom evaluated from the perspective of what facilitates an individual in fandom’s personal goals. How do you handle these two things perspectives existing together? I don’t know… but the easiest way to start is to remember both perspectives exist and for fans to work with people who are changing their perspective.

1. About 1/10 of my time is being involved with Fan History and FanworksFinder as a user. The remaining time is spent implementing various policy decisions, tutoring people how to do them, doing work for pay that relates back to the activities I do on Fan History, publicizing the site, dealing with admin issues, searching for money or trying to keep abreast with fandom news.

2. If you’re interested in what I and what Fan History LLC are doing, then feel free to follow me on twitter or friend me on LiveJournal.

3. This is a locked conversation on LiveJournal. In order to view it, I need to have friended you in order to view it.

4. Which isn’t to say that this is just the purview of people with business interests in fandom. Plenty of fans enjoy controversy and plenty of fans have a stake in creating controversy in order to further their own standing in the community. The purpose in doing those activities is just different and should be acknowledged as such. FanLib benefited from controversy because it increased their potential audience. Some fans benefited from creating the controversy because it helped solidify group cohesion and reasserted their status as important people in the fan community.

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