The Pitfall with Patreon

Okay, I realize that this title may be attention-grabbing enough to start people off with the wrong ideas. So I’m going to make it clear right up front: I am extremely grateful and thankful to those of you who donate to my Patreon. There have been months where I’ve only gotten by thanks to the kind and generous donations of my Patreon supporters. Writing is … a tough job. It doesn’t pay great pretty much until it does. But I am forever grateful to those of you that donate a little bit of your income each month as a thanks for the articles I post. I couldn’t do Being a Better Writer without you guys (especially as BaBW is ad and subscription free).

No, this post isn’t to have issue with that. Rather, it’s to bring up something I’ve mentioned before. An issue with Patreon that’s, well, quite prevalent. And ultimately, a death sentence if someone falls into its trap. Which I’ve seen happen more than once.

It’s not the fault of Patreon, and I don’t wish to insinuate that. I believe it has more to do with human nature, and the idea of “being owed.”

Okay, so let me just dive right into things. Patreon, if you’re unfamiliar with it, is a modern take on the “Patron of the Arts” idea. See, back in the old days of history, “Patrons” of artists would basically donate money to various artists, musicians, so that these artists would have money to live while they made their creations. You have to realize the idea of a musician selling records is entirely unique to our modern era. If a talented young musician, say a classical composer, wanted to be a classical composer, they could find a patron who would support them with money for living needs in exchange for the musician creating music. If they stopped creating, the patron would stop funding them.

Patreon is the digital equivalent of this concept. Find a webcomic you like? An artist? A modder? Any sort of creative soul you want to support? You can support this person on Patreon, donating them a sum of money each month. The idea being if that 100 people donate $5 each, that creator then makes $500. So for the cost of a half-price lunch a month, 100 people can support their favorite webcomic creator, for example.

Cool, right? I agree. It’s a modern take on the “Patron of the Arts” formula.

But not one without its weaknesses. And it’s flaws. Some of which are, without mincing words, almost deadly to a creator.

This post comes about because a few weeks ago, I lost a Patron solely due to my refusal to dive down the deadly path. They weren’t a large supporter (only $1), but they had written up an explanation for their no longer supporting me upon withdrawing that dollar. Said message ended up in my inbox. And here’s what their reason was.

I wasn’t generating enough content for them.

Okay, now lets parse this. Because doubtless some of your first reactions are similar to what my first reaction was: HOW?

Unusual Things sees a lot of content, especially from one person (me). A Being a Better Writer Article every week on Monday. A second article during the week with fair regularity. And bonus posts here and there as things come up.

But, here I was being told that I wasn’t generating enough content. And it took me a moment to realize that they hadn’t been talking about my site.

They’d been talking about my Patreon. And the trap. The “problem” that Patreon creates.

See, Patreon allows (and heavily encourages) its users to create tiered reward scales. Donate whatever you want to an artist, and help support them! Yay! But donate $5 a month, and get access to special, secret stuff that only supporters at that dollar level or higher get!

Now, up front, this doesn’t look like a bad idea at all. Those who donate more get bonus content, right? Pretty simple! They can get “behind the screen” first looks, watch otherwise private videos of recording jams for new songs, whatever the artist feels like making a bonus!

But that’s the catch: Bonus. And that’s what it’s supposed to be: Bonus. Unfortunately … for a lot of people who donate to Patreon … it stops becoming that. Because from their angle, they stop thinking of it as “donating” and start thinking of it as “paying” money every month.

In other words, they start to see it as a subscription service. You pay X dollars a month, you get access to this stuff. And you’d better get it, because you’re paying for it.

This leads to what I’ve called the “Patreon effect,” which I’ve seen kill more than a few webcomics or other creative venues. And even the ones that it doesn’t kill often end up limping along, hobbled by their own Patreon which was supposed to benefit them.

How does this happen? Well, let’s go with a webcomic example. A young artist, willing to work hard flush with creative talent, starts a webcomic. It updates three days a week, and you know what? It’s pretty good. Soon they have a strong following of fans.

But there’s a problem. This comic takes time to create, and they can’t work a full-time job and create the comic. Patreon to the rescue! Their fans are more than willing to toss some change in the jar every month, and the creator gets to ease up a bit, maybe make all their income from the comic.

All is well. But … they really do want to thank their patrons, so they set up a tier system on their account. Anyone who donates over a dollar gets to see a sketch from the comic creation every month.

Naturally, this makes all of those donating very happy. It brings in even more, in fact, as fans are willing to pay a buck a month to see this bonus sketch. And if they’ll do that …

The creator opens a few more tiers. Now there’s the $1 sketch, which is weekly. More fans surge in to get the extra art. $5 a month gets you a colored sketch. More fans surge in.

More money is pouring in, and that’s great right? So a few more tiers open up. $50 a month lets you vote on the next sketch, along with other supporters at that tier. $100 a month lets you choose a sketch. Sketches, by the way, are now daily. And the fans are rolling in.

But now a critical point has been reached. A sketch a day, plus the colored sketches, and the custom ones for the big supporters … that’s a lot of drawing. And the creator can no longer keep up with their Patreon content and the strenuous rigors of delivering three big strips a week for their comic.

But the Patreon supporters are paying, and the creator doesn’t want that to go away … So they make an announcement. The comic is now Monday-Friday. Two days a week, rather than three. That’ll give them time to keep the sketches coming, and still update the comic for free for everyone else.

There, everyone’s happy! Save maybe a few of the comic readers, but they’re getting Patreon sketches if they’re donating, so what’s the problem?

Well, it’s already started.

Patreon supporters continue to come in, and the rewards get more grandiose. Which again, cuts into actual comic time. Again, the comic is free, these Patreon Supporters are paying (not donating) for all this content so … it must come first.

The comic now updates once a week. But hey, that means the Patreon Supporter content can come faster and faster.

Do you see the problem this is creating yet? All of these bonuses were from the comic. The same comic that is now running at a third the production it once was. And from here, things start to spiral as a number of things begin to collide.

For starters, it’s a lot harder to draw in new readers with a once-a-week comic than a three-posts-a-week comic. There’s less traffic, fewer updates means fewer eyes. So newcomers start to fall off. Not nearly as many new readers get eyes on the comic.

All that content that would be attracting new readers? It’s now behind a paywall. Sometimes several. And few are the people online who will just haphazardly sign up for a subscription for something they’ve never seen or are not invested in.

And at this point, that’s what the Patreon has become: A subscription service. The “exclusive” content is more valuable to the creator than the comic it was founded on.

From here … one of a few things happens. Occasionally, you’ll see a creator scale back, realizing what’s happened and slowly trying to step down their Patreon content.

Granted, this usually means losing a large number of supporters, who now associate that exclusive content with their “subscription” as opposed to a donation to help the original comic exist.

Others will just bleed out. With more and more time spent on the supporters, less is spent on the comic. Fewer new eyes come in, and as the content well that fueled the Patreon dries up, the supporters will start to drop away as well, trapping the creator in a cycle where they’re creating content for the few that remain, hoping to keep that income coming, but unable to create much new content to bring in new supporters.

Some manage an equilibrium, popular enough that they manage to limp along with say, one comic a week, but with slips in schedule that they pray doesn’t drive away too much of their readership. You have to be big to make this work.

Some try to become “subscription only,” switching their whole comic over to Patreon on private tiers in the hopes that it’ll keep things flowing, but soon realizing that it’s not a good way to attract new eyes.

Ultimately? Patreon kills them. Not through any fault of the people who made Patreon, but through the human nature of the supporters who see it less as a donation, and more a subscription.

Like that supporter I lost a few months ago. Not because I wasn’t generating enough content, but because I wasn’t generating enough private, Patreon-only content. Their “dollar” was a “subscription,” not a donation to keep Being a Better Writer going. And since they weren’t being given enough private “subscription” content, they pulled their dollar and left.

That is the problem with Patreon. The slippery slope that I’ve seen so many other creators slide down without realizing it. “Donations” become “subscriptions” which becomes lots of content to keep those subscribers happy … and the original thing the once-donations were meant to support dies and withers on the vine. And with nothing public to draw in new eyes, eventually the Patreon account withers away as well.

Now, there are people looking to find ways around this, that have spotted the same problem. And again, it’s not a problem with Patreon, rather a problem with the outlook of the “supporters” it attracts. It’s not a subscription service, something Patreon reinforces at every opportunity. But for many people, it’s hard to see it that way when it’s a monthly transaction you sign up for.

Again, people are looking for ways around this. A popular one I’ve seen some new comic artists doing is putting hard limits on Patreon early on. Things like “You are three posts ahead of the main site, and that’s all this will ever be, the end.” Reinforcing that donation is access to bonus content, and not a subscription fee for special stuff.

Again, I think Patreon is a great idea. It’s a wonderful concept, and I’m really grateful to those who support this site by donating to it. I couldn’t have kept up with Being a Better Writer without it. Not the way I have.

But Patreon itself can be a slippery slope that chokes the life out of a creative endeavor by virtue of the supporters wanting more and more “exclusive, subscriber only content.” When it’s not a subscription service.

Sands, if I wanted to do that, I could just put up a paywall here on Unusual Things. Put Being a Better Writer behind it. Make people pay a fee to access the archives.

YUCK.

Yeah, I don’t think much of that idea. Nor do I want to do that on another site (such as Patreon). To me, it’s a donation service. The the ones who created it, it’s a donation service.

To the people donating money through it? Well … Some of them see it differently.

Ultimately, there’s no solution that I know of save for creators to be aware and stick to their guns. If you’ve been looking at Patreon, well, know what sort of pressure you’re going to be under from those that regularly donate on there.

Patreon has its problems, yes, but that doesn’t mean it’s bad. Like any tool, it can be misused. But … I do see it being misused a lot (often to the detriment of something that was successful), so when I got this exit message from a former supporter, I realized that it was worth talking about.

Don’t fall into the trap. That’s all I’m saying. Don’t let your Patreon boom to the death of your actual creation. Know your limits, and work from there.

Patreon can be a great tool. For good or ill.

Be aware of what both can be.

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