So. Let’s talk about Patreon.
I’ve been doing this for a while now. And by “this,” I mean scrambling across creative projects like a tapdancing spider, looking for The One that will resonate with enough people to make self-employment profitable. In late 2013-early 2014, two things happened which allowed me to make creative projects my full-time job. The first of these was publishing Maker Space, the second Rachel Peng book; sales of Maker Space were similar to those for Digital Divide, and proved that investing my time and energy in prose could pay out.
And there was Patreon.
I had a few friends using it, but I was unwilling to commit to the platform. You have to understand–I had seen this kind of thing before. Micropayments, subscription services? Good for attracting the occasional small donation. As I wrote at the time:
The handful of hours it would take for me to read up on Patreon’s history, learn how to use its services, integrate it into my site, and push it on the readership? These would certainly pay off if Patreon attained Kickstarter levels of brand awareness among the community. If not? I’ve thrown those handful of hours away.
Time and energy are as precious as money to a freelancer, mostly because we turn time and energy into money. To me, Patreon seemed too good to be true. Then Jon Rosenberg told me I was a poop if I didn’t start one, and I hate to prove Jon right or be a poop, so I started poking around on the site and then I suddenly had a live campaign.
It was great. It was amazing. It was a supplemental source of income for me and many other creative professionals for three years–for some of us, it made enough money to become an actual living wage!
And, yeah, it turns out it was too good to be true. Last week, creators were told there would be changes to the fee structure:
As I’m not that bright in general, and Especially Not Bright when it comes to math, my first response was that this was a minor change which would drive some Supporters away due to a (very reasonable) reluctance to pay an additional service fee. Then, smart people on Twitter went to town and broke it down for the rest of us using very small words, and you could see everybody slowly realize in real time what this actually meant in terms of changes to the existing fee structure. It was bad.
It was especially bad for Supporters who pledge to multiple creators at $1-$5 increments. If a Supporter pledged $1.00, then 2.9% + $0.35 per pledge would mean that pledge is bumped up to approximately $1.38.
Follow-up clarification from Patreon about this new fee structure made a bad situation worse: Supporters would be charged separately per instance, which had repercussions if a creator used output instead of time (e.g.: was paid per comic, instead of once a month). Each pledge would also be processed separately, meaning that service fees on the credit card company’s side might be applied. (Here’s a little more about the specifics.)
Creators were furious! As I wrote in my public post on Patreon:
Small-dollar pledges are highly valued by creators. We know that sometimes a dollar is all you can spend to support someone who’s making projects which bring you a little bit of joy. Or, spreading single-dollar pledges around a hundred different creators each month is how you choose to show your support. We appreciate every single dollar: a dollar out of your pocket is a dollar which goes to pay our bills. I am happy to continue paying Patreon’s service charge myself to ensure that this transaction is as fair and as straightforward for my supporters as possible.
Naturally, Supporters were also furious. They began canceling pledges and leaving Patreon in huge numbers. Twitter is full of screenshots of creators’ “Exit Surveys,” where a Supporter can leave a comment about why they’ve decided to end a pledge. It’s supposed to help us improve our services and content, but right now it’s just a chronicle of an angry exodus.
It gets worse. Patreon had a clarification of the business model in which they said the quiet thing loud—those small-dollar Supporters? Patreon’s business model for corporate growth did not want them! (Which is odd because the minimum pledge you could make was $1 and that was a criterion set by Patreon itself but I digress…) Instead, an article about Patreon’s growth model cited a spokesperson as saying, “We’d rather have our GMV be made up of fewer, but truly life-changed creators rather than a lot of creators making a few dollars.” Additional commentary from that article (previous link) clarifies this statement:
This is because while active FSCs do bring on significantly more Patrons (the fans who support them), they also bring on more Creators. The bigger their success, the greater the aspirational value it carries.
For creators, this perspective and what it implies is devastating. It’s just…We just can’t.
We’re exhausted and disillusioned and a little bit ashamed that we put our trust in a company which pledged itself as putting creators first. Speaking for myself? I should have known better. I lost sight of how Patreon is a company brokering funds and keeping a percentage for itself. It’s not my friend, ally, or even my business partner. It’s a financial broker, end of story.
In saying that, I’m going to keep using Patreon. It’s a platform which allows me to provide bonus content to interested people, and that’s convenient. But it’s also now nothing more than a financial broker like any other, to be treated with suspicion and used because it’s a means to an end. It’s squandered its goodwill with me. I was RIDE OR DIE! for Patreon until three days ago, and would have recommended it to new users above all of its competitors. Now? If you want bonus content? Hey, I’ve got a Patreon.
I’ll soon also have a presence on multiple additional platforms which are similar to Patreon in purpose. These take time and energy to set up properly, and I’m always low on these, but I’m going to make it as easy as possible for former Patreon Supporters to transition to whatever platform is most convenient for them. I’ll post a list of these by the 18th, which is when these service charges are supposed to go into effect. There are rumors that the massive public blowback means this won’t happen, but I’m not counting on this. Fool me once…
Thanks for reading.
(As we’ve fallen through the rabbithole back in time to 2013, I’ll end this by saying I do have Paypal.)
ETA: Since this post is getting some traffic, do you like to read science fiction? You do? Well! The Rachel Peng books are police procedurals about the first cyborg liaison to the Washington D.C. police department, and Stoneskin is about sentient deep space kidnapping children and getting them really good jobs in the shipping industry. Links are available here.