How Much Is Your Voice Worth?

Last October I joined Patreon on a whim. 

As the pandemic dragged along in an unending parade of gloom, I reached a professional crossroads. My dream job at a startup had become less than dreamy, but I couldn’t fathom applying for other social media positions. I had achieved my life-long goal of drafting a romance novel and multiple agents were interested in representing me, but I knew that the work had only just begun. When I imagined the rounds of edits still to come, not to mention the years it might take to sell the book, my confidence reached an all-time low. 

I had a choice to make: Would I stay in a field I had grown to loathe in order to pay the bills and keep scraping together time to write on the side, or would I invest in my craft at long last? I wanted to dedicate my energy to my voice, my book, my community of readers. I wanted to leave social media behind. But I didn’t know how to make it work financially. I had a small dedicated audience, but I was nowhere near as important as the prestigious authors who made thousands of dollars on Substack. My brand was established enough that folks assumed I could pitch and sell pieces to well-paying publications, but freelancing triggered my worst anxieties about digital harassment and haggling over my worth. 

Plus if I left my job, I’d have to pay for health insurance. One medical crisis—say, a severe case of COVID for myself or my parents—would be devastating. 

Patreon always seemed infeasible to me, but I reconsidered the platform with fresh hunger for a way out of corporate life. If I went straight to my readers and asked for their support, would enough people say yes to make going independent worth it? Or would I make an ass of myself asking strangers for money in exchange for navel-gazing essays about my sex life? 

Was my voice worth anything? If yes, how much? Three dollars a month? Six dollars? Ten? How do you put a price on writing that you’d always made available to the world for free? 

I soft-launched my Patreon without a strategy or any belief that it would work. When I had to leave my job a few weeks later, I tried harder to make my Patreon a real thing. I had no idea what this platform was, what I should turn it into, or how to sell it to my readers. 

But once the haze of full-time job exhaustion lifted, I found limitless energy to write in a way that I hadn’t since college. I could write quick turnaround pop culture commentary I’d never had time for before! I dusted off an old essay about abuse and herpes and turned it into a micro-memoir. The joy of writing returned as I prioritized it without apology. My Patreon grew naturally as I focused on the work. Wonderfully, readers came along for the ride. 

And then I wasn’t a social media manager anymore. I could properly call myself a sex and culture critic without hearing an invisible asterisk. 

This April I reach six months on Patreon. I am amazed by how it has allowed me to unlock new honesty and fearlessness in my work. Writing for dedicated readers as opposed to the internet at large is a liberating change. There are no drive-by trolls. Right wing provocateurs can’t screenshot my posts and share them out of context to stir up a culture war skirmish. None of my ex-boyfriends have joined my Patreon, thank goodness. The gated nature of Patreon allows me to think harder, go deeper, and bare more of myself. I have the safety to be vulnerable. For the first time in my life, I don’t self-censor as I write.

I’ve written several difficult essays and published them exclusively on Patreon, only to build the nerve to share excerpts or full pieces publicly later on. My patrons don’t seem to mind; I think they understand that they play a crucial role in my growing confidence. Their comments remind me that I am not alone in my experiences, be they traumatic or shameful. 

Patreon creators often refer to the platform as a community, which always sounded silly and pretentious to me. On the surface Patreon looks like a one-way relationship, where an artist asks for money and shares their work in exchange. But the more energy I invest in Patreon, the more my patrons give back. I don’t mean that financially. I’ve gotten to know many of my readers; I go on their podcasts and offer feedback on their essays and swap horror stories during our monthly discussion threads. One of my patrons has become a close friend, and we swap TikToks and feminist rants on a daily basis via text.

Plus those comments! I get to read comments again! Real, authentic, good faith comments! Comments full of feedback and personal stories, moments of genuine human connection. In a time when we feel so separate from each other due to the pandemic, I have never felt closer to my readers. 

There is much more for me to learn about crowd-funding and community management. This month I will share a survey with my patrons to learn more about them: who they are, what they want, and what I can improve. Running a Patreon community means balancing marketing and retention: keeping existing patrons in the fold is just as important as reaching new members. I am not only a writer, I am also a small business owner. 

So… about that. I’m setting an ambitious goal to reach 250 patrons by the end of April. I’ve chosen a community growth goal instead of a financial goal because my priority is growing my readership, not making more money. I would rather have ten new patrons at the $3 tier than one new patron at the $40 tier. 

Currently my community has 204 members, and it’s likely I’ll lose a handful today because Patreon bills folks on the first of the month. 250 is, frankly, a batshit goal to set for myself. But after six months on Patreon I understand that I am not alone in this effort: I already have 204 self-selecting readers who believe in my voice. 

Please consider joining my Patreon community. Members get access to new essays about sexuality, mental health, feminism and pop culture. Other perks include thank you notes, sticker packs, a monthly newsletter, and updates about podcast appearances. But more than the tangible perks, my patrons are part of an ongoing conversation with me, and with each other, about what it means to be a vulnerable human being. We learn and read and watch and grow together. Everyone is welcome! Here’s the link.

Help me reach my April goal of 250 patrons by sharing my work with your friends, tweeting a link to your favorite essay of mine along with a call to join my community, or just throwing a GIF reply to one of my tweets. I think we can do this. 

Thank you for your help, your faith, and your generosity. 

All my love,

Ella

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Ella Dawson is a sex and culture critic and a digital strategist. She drinks too much Diet Coke.

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