Spoiler: the thing is money. This blog post is about money and some ways creative people make it.
First, a picture of elderly gentlefolk to soften the blow. Jake is the border collie and Buddy is the springer spaniel. Buddy is no longer with us, but he was my dedicated companion through the eight months I spent this year petsitting at the old dog sanctuary.
EDITED TO ADD: WHOA THEN. I wrote the body of this post earlier this week, but as of 10:00 AM this morning, Patreon has gone back on rolling out the new fee structure. I am still planning to put my extra process posts in a password-protected blog for people who donate through other means to access, but it's good to know they haven't completely blown up the site for all the people who are dependent on it.
I'm going to try to make this entire blog post without talking about my own financial situation (HA HA OH MY GOD) because I'm no more excited about being dragged for my non-mainstream priorities than anyone else is. Money is shit, being an adult is hard, I'm currently doing some risky/questionable things for the sake of my own comfort and happiness. (I should have a roommate. Is the utter silence that greets me every time I open my apartment door worth the extra $4.6 bajillion extra per month it costs me? Yes. Yes it is.)
Moving right along.
(Note: the explanation I am about to give owes much to several posts by various persons on both Twitter and Tumblr. I did not put these facts together myself; I am sharing the knowledge.)
If you are at all adjacent to any young independent creatives, you've probably felt a couple of shockwaves coming off some business decisions from a tech company called Patreon. If you don't know any young creatives, you may not even know what Patreon does.
Patreon is a clever little concept that addresses one of the big quandaries of the Internet age: people expect huge quantities of content (games, podcasts, art, stories, movies) to be available to them for free. Other people want to create that content, but they also want to eat food and sleep in places from which they don't have to evict seven generations of raccoons. For a while, the go-to was PayPal donations. Your favorite blog might do a PayPal drive once or twice a year. Problems: that's irregular, unpredictable income; it takes a lot out of a creator to do a PayPal drive; people might not be able to budget a significant enough gift to feel like it was worthwhile.
Patreon stepped into this gap by allowing people to make monthly, recurring donations of tiny amounts – $1 and up. It offered a structure where people who gave money to creators (patrons!) could access rewards at different tiers, depending on how much they gave. These rewards might vary from access to extra blog posts, stories, or poems at a low level of patronage (say $3 a month) on up to personal advice or art commissions (at maybe $20 a month.)
People LOVED this service. It gave artists the wherewithal to focus more on passion projects – both things that would never make money, and things they never wanted to charge people for. It gave them a source of steady income. It gave people who depended on that creative output a way to ensure it would keep coming. It's wildly popular, and thousands of creatives use it.
Patreon made what sounds like a minor change to their fee structure last week. Previously, they took their transaction fee out of the money on the creator's side. If somebody gave you $1, you'd receive maybe $0.65 of that. On December 18th, they plan to switch to a model where they take 5% of the creator's money, but also charge 2.9% + $0.35 extra to the patron for each transaction. The creator will now take home $0.95 of that $1, but the patron will now pay $1.40 where they would have paid $1 before. They are also splitting the payments in a different way so there are far more transaction fees than previously collected.
It doesn't sound like a big deal, but here's the thing: many people who use Patreon are on incredibly tight budgets, and they are trying to spread themselves as thin as they can to help as many creators as they can. If you have $10 budgeted to help ten creators per month, suddenly you can only afford to help seven creators a month. This change hits small donors and creators who depend on small donors the hardest, but that includes some very successful users of the site. Seanan McGuire, a fantasy and horror author who was making a few thousand dollars a month on Patreon, tweeted that she's already lost $300 in patronage per month, and expects to lose more.
Patreon has completely flubbed the public response to this, insisting that they're doing this to help creators and for no other reason. Many people have pointed out that under this new model they will make significantly more profit off the users they keep. More damning yet, notes have come out from one of their dev team saying that Patreon isn't really interested in a business model that helps small-time artists, but wants to focus only on the super-successful names who make several thousand dollars a month on the site. (His exact words were that they were looking to winnow out 80% of the creators who use the site, with the exception of those for whom it had truly been “life-changing.” Apparently my dude has never met a poor person in his entire life, or he would be aware that $100 extra a month is definitely life-changing for some.)
I am feeling pretty punctured by this whole fiasco. I have been trying to get my story blog project, High Flying Poultry, back up and running. I started my own Patreon page in September and have been slowly adding posts to it, mostly process posts for my illustrations. So far I hadn't gotten any bites on the Patreon, but I figured that I'd get some good content on there and work my way up from there. It seemed like a particularly good match for my situation – I have a book out, I submit short stories to magazines regularly, I sell my artwork online – but all that is pretty sporadic income, and I could use something each month that's somewhat predictable, even if it was on the order of $50. Fifty bucks buys groceries, man.
This whole business makes me way less sure that I want to even keep trying with Patreon. I feel embarrassed and discouraging by the whole deal. Twitpeeps have noted that this feels like the Republican tax bill on a smaller scale, in the sense that people from on high are making changes that will benefit them personally and screw over people at a low level, while insisting that they are doing exactly the opposite.
From what I experienced with the people I supported and followed, Patreon was a varied, interesting, supportive community, but already three of my favorite content producers there have decided to pack up shop and move elsewhere (Seanan McGuire, Ursula Vernon, and Andrea Chandler). Other people, like blogger Jennifer Peepas, have decided to stay on, but they're aware that many of their patrons will not.
That being said, the fact that the expressed goal of this change was to clear out the little guys makes me want to keep using the site out of sheer contrariness.
What to do?
I don't think there's any one good answer, and certainly the creative people I've been listening to are coming up with all kinds of solutions. Kickstarter is pioneering a new monthly-payment system called Drip, but it's not out yet. Besides that, the Patreon debacle points up how deeply unwise it is to rely too much any one company. Kickstarter is out to make a profit too.
My Patreon account and the posts on there will stay up for now, until or if such a point comes that they put in more stringent guidelines for who is allowed to use their service (which sounds like it's coming.) That being said, all of those posts are also going up on a password-locked Wordpress blog, which I will make available to anyone who donates to me through my Ko-fi or PayPal. I plan to also set up LiberaPay, which is an open-source monthly payments app. If you like what I do on my story blog, or want to support a small-time artist, please consider clicking those links or sharing them! If not, er, welcome to the creative economy of the internet!
And last, a plug: if you haven't considered buying my first book, The Golden City, please do! It is a fun adventure with deserts, passages to other world, threads, mechanical horses, and diverse characters!