Discussing money and fandom always makes me queasy because I come that part of media fan fiction fandom which prizes the fact that there is a certain purity to do what we do and believes that making money off our activities is wrong for a variety of reasons. Another part of the reason that fandom doesn’t discuss money is that there is the strong belief that what we are doing is probably wrong. Fansites, fan fiction, fan vidding, fan art all have possible copyright issues. If some one is making money, it is best to keep that quiet lest the creators decide to go after you and others around you. As a consequence, money very rarely gets discussed, the financial back end for most sites is largely unknown and the details that are believed to be true are frequently way off base.
But if you get a site big enough, if you run something with high bandwidth consumption or you some how make it in the top 50,000 sites, your site is going to start costing you money if you’re doing your own hosting. Serious money. (And a serious time commitment. A potentially huge time commitment which can also potentially cost you lots and lots of money.) The question than comes down to how do you fund your fansite?
There are a number of options. They include donations, paying yourself out of your own pockets, paid accounts, advertising, merchandise sales, being bought out (or moving to a free service), incorporating and some other creative solutions.
One of the most popular of these is user based donations. If your site costs $10, $15, even $500 a month and you have a dedicated and loyal user base, that money can flow. The downside to this is that you can become really beholden to users who think because they kicked back $20 of the $250 you needed this month that you owe them. Users can also go through a certain degree of fatigue if they see a request for money all the time. The other downside to this is if you lack a real community and don’t have that dedicated user base, you may never be able to ask for donations in a way that will support your site. Still, this option is popular because it doesn’t involve intrusive advertisements and it doesn’t offend the sensibilities of those who believe in the purity of fandom, where we shouldn’t make money off our activities.
Probably the most popular option for most fansites is paying out of pocket. The part I like best about this option is that, as the maintainer, you’re really beholden only to yourself. If you want to say “Screw you!” to your visitors, you can. You don’t have to answer to advertisers either. For smaller fansites, the cost is probably between $2.50 a month to $150 a month. Many people can absorb that cost with out any problems. It is the ideal for many who believe that fandom shouldn’t be about profiting off other people’s intellectual property or off other people’s work because you’re basically going into debt because of your love of the community and that which you’re a member of the fandom. If you’re a fan who wants to support other fans, there are a number of fan friendly, fan run hosting options including Squidge and SlashCity. The problem is this really isn’t feasible if you’re planning a large, large site, need a lot of custom programming or you have huge amounts of traffic. Most people just can’t absorb $1,000 to $2,000 a month for hosting.
Paid accounts are another option. They can be a wonderful source of potential income, especially if you can make them subscriptions. The problem here is that, if you’re not a programmer, you’re either going to learn or you’re going to have to hire a developer to build features to allow you to offer such accounts. That can cost time, may make your host less secure if you’re programming with very little idea of what you’re doing. and cost money to hire a programmer. It can also potentially really offend your user base who might not see the necessity of offering a paid version of the site. If you have a big enough audience and a loyal fan base, if you can program or get a cheap developer, this option is probably a really good one for larger fansites. (Unless you’re a wiki in which case, there isn’t much you can offer in the way of paid accounts.)
Advertising is probably the second or third most popular options for funding your fansite. The popular sansite choices for advertising brokers seem to basically include AdBrite and GoogleAds. If your site gets enough traffic, you can generally make enough money to cover your hosting costs. I’m not partial to GoogleAds though because they require you may $100 before you can get your check. In a one year period where Fan History had the ads on the site, we never reached that $100 threshold and never got paid. Ouch. The other problem with GoogleAds is that they don’t allow adult content. If you’re a site like AdultFanFiction.Net, you’re pretty much screwed when it comes to GoogleAds and a number of similar ads. A third problem I’ve encounter is that some of those contextual ads are a pain in the ass. Fan History had a lot of ads for fans, the kind that blow air around as opposed to the type that love something. This problem means fewer chances for click through to earn money. Still yet another problem is that some services, like GoogleAds, make it hard to control who advertises on your site. No, I don’t want some one advertising vibrators and viagra on Fan History. Thanks. But unless I catch the url and report it to block it, that ad may keep appearing. At the moment, Fan History is using ProjectWonderful for ads. It makes a number of those complaints go away. Besides the ad issues themselves, some users may be really turned off by ads and think that you’re making a lot of money. I’ve seen a number of kerfluffles and stupidity regarding that issue. If you haven’t done ads before and you’re going to do them, be open and honest with your users to mitigate any PR damage your site may face. If you are making more than you need to operate, figure out some way to kick some back to the users in give aways or contests. And then, if you’re asked, tell your users that all the extra money is going into a savings account for the site to help cover costs in the long run. Say this to cover your ass. Fan sites run by fans take a lot of flack for making money compared to fansites run by corporations and that way, you cover your ass. Getting back to ads, this option may or may not work for you. It just comes down to how well your ads work for you and the amount of traffic you’re getting. Don’t be totally dependent on it as a solution until you know how well it works.
Still yet another option if you need to pay for your site is to get free hosting. There are a couple of sites and services which will pay the hosting costs and host you in exchange for something. Wikia is one example. Got a fandom wiki? Consider moving your wiki to their server. If you’ve got a big one with a lot of traffic and a dedicated community, then you can probably sell it to them. This has happened before with one wiki earning at least five figures. If you’ve got a fansite, other hosting options include the Devoted Fan Network which hosts your site based on their overall site design and where Devoted Fan Network puts ads on your site to recoup their costs for hosting. You may also try selling your site or seeing if you can get some one to pick up sponsorship of your site in exchange for exclusive rights to advertise. That was the case for Battlestar Galatica Wiki where FanLib appears to have picked up the tab for their hosting in exchange for ads on their wiki. This option may work for a lot of people but it generally means a certain level of losing control over your site in order to do it. Of course, you can still go with the old fandom classics like FreeWebs, Bravenet, blogspot, LiveJournal, Geocities, and Tripod. If you’re a control freak, it may be a bad, bad idea. If you’re not such a control freak and money is a big concern, it may be an option for you.
There area few more options for funding your fansite that I haven’t discussed. The real issues when it comes down to funding your fansite are your comfort level and control issues, how much you’re willing to spend, how your audience will react and finding a partner or company you can work with. There is no one size fits all solution for fansites.