This week authors J. Thorn and Crys Cain discuss why they made The Author Life Community free and what they’d like to see from the change.
Crys: Welcome to The Author Life Podcast. I’m Crys Cain with my cohost, J Thorn.
J: How you doing, Crys?
Crys: I’m doing good. And I realize we’re going to have to change things up a little bit because we are moving back into batching, which we did last year during the summer of chaos. And just as with all the projects that we’re doing with the community, with our personal stuff, it’s just making more sense for us to do this again.
So we won’t always have a “how was your writing week been?” which is going to be weird. But I think with our once a month catch up we’ll probably spend a little extra time on that.
J: Yeah, it’s a good reminder that we all need to be a little flexible. As things grow and change, we have to adapt. And a process will work for you at some time and then at another time it won’t, and you just have to roll with it.
Crys: So for this first set of batching, how was your week? Or it’s been two weeks now.
J: Yeah, as we’re recording, you had Jeff on last episode. So yeah, it’s been great. I’ve been out to Phoenix and back, we made the community free which we’re gonna talk about, I started a podcast with my daughter. Yeah, a few things.
Crys: Yeah. That’s a few things. You’ve had some hyper production energy, which I think you get whenever you’re pursuing new ideas.
J: Yes. It’s a very frenetic, fast paced energy that I just hold on. I know it’s not all gonna work out, I know that there’s going to be bumps, but I just hold on and see where it takes me.
Crys: Excellent. Yeah, I’ve had a pretty slow week. My brain’s kind of gone back to one of those times where I’m like, I don’t know what I did this week. But I’ve been trying to record what I did so that when I’m like, oh, I didn’t do anything, I can look and say, okay, no, I actually did stuff.
I’ve got to finish up my co-written book and my co-writer has been dealing with health issues. She messaged me last night and said, “hey, I had enough energy to catch up on what you’ve done, and I think I’ll be able to put some stuff on tomorrow.” Which is great cause I haven’t been counting on her being able to. So I’m really hopeful that’s a sign that she’s doing better and that I won’t have to knock it all out on my own. That makes things easier for me.
But I find that I am a little extra exhausted this week, not from writing stuff, but I’m finally like getting into the full swing of my kid’s schedule. And I’ve asked basically all of my older mom friends whose kids are out of the house or almost out of the house, I’m like, at some point in your parenting career, do you feel like the most time you spend with your kids is just shuffling them from one place to another? And every single one of them has been like, yeah, absolutely.
J: Especially in the states where you have to drive everywhere, you just become a chauffeur.
Crys: For me, I have to take a bus, so it’s like extra time. It’s a winter here, AKA rainy season, and so I have been taking some Uber’s, but yeah, the bus adds extra time. But that also means like we just get to sit and talk on the bus and nobody has to focus on anything, so that’s pretty cool. But yeah, it’s this new phase of parenting and I’m exhausted.
Crys: But my Fitbit steps are up.
As you mentioned, we are taking the bold step of removing the payment option to be a member of the community. It is going to be all free. And one of the concerns we had, one of the concerns that many of the community have brought up is, does that mean we’re just going to have a million people sign up and it’s going to change and not be the same, cool, awesome, close-knit community it was? And our answer is no. And we have a few reasons for that, brought on a lot from your experience with groups. So would you mind going into what our new setup is going forward?
J: Yes. I’ve been looking forward to this episode because we made this announcement via email and slack to our community, but it’s not the same as hearing it and us talking through it. So I was a little bit nervous about having the gap of time between the announcement versus when we’re going to do this episode, because I hope people will hear from our voices and get some more context on it.
But essentially nothing’s changing except people aren’t paying us anymore, which is not a great business model. If you’re thinking about running a business, cutting out the profits, not a good idea. But we have reasons for this. I don’t even know where to start.
Crys: Why did this enter in your brain in the first place?
J: Yes. Okay. That’s a good place to start. Thank you.
We’ve been struggling to grow the community, just to be perfectly honest. Like we don’t get very many sort of organic signups. We have gotten people into the community off the backs of webinars or challenges or events, and that’s great. It’s wonderful because it validates that trust has been built and that’s what brings people in. But there’s only so much of that we can do, and there’s only so much of an audience for it.
My role in this has been really been to try and fill that funnel, to be the public face. And your role has been to build the content internally. And I’ve been feeling an increasing frustration in that I don’t feel like I’m able to reach the right people. It’s been hard. We’ve tried a lot of things. And when we stepped back and looked at what we were making by running this community and what we had to do to get people in it, like it just didn’t seem to make much sense.
And then you factor in that it’s a really hard time right now. I was just at an event and I heard from other people this is not just in the author indie publishing space, this is everywhere. People are uncertain. There’s a lot of fear. Inflation is up, the stock market’s down. There are a lot of externalities that are out of our control, where people are saying, I just don’t have an extra 40 bucks a month. I’m willing to spend right now. It’s not that they can’t, it’s just that there’s so much uncertainty, people are in a holding pattern.
We’re seeing this with the summit. People are not buying tickets. They’re thinking like, well, September is a long ways away. And it is, a lot of things can happen between now and then, but like when you’re planning an event, you can’t wait until the last minute to make commitments. That’s the environment that we’re in right now. And rather than fight against that, you and I had several conversations and we’re like, why don’t we just lean into it?
One of the areas where I feel like I’ve gotten better is making real connections with other industries that serve authors. So whether that’s the great sponsorship from Kobo on the podcast or draft2digital, Google playbooks, vellum, autocrat, they’re all sponsoring the summit, I’ve built great relationships with these people, with these companies. And what we thought is, maybe that’s the direction we go. And instead of charging members to be part of the community, we seek out really good, authentic connections and get some sponsorships the same way we do with podcasts.
And I haven’t reached out to those folks yet. If they’re listening, get ready. In all seriousness, it seems it will work better for them to. If they sponsor an event, it’s a one-off thing with a small number of people, whereas with the community, it’s an ever-growing, ongoing, evergreen kind of thing. It just seems like all of these factors came together and that’s where we are. And I want to talk about why we didn’t just lower the price, but I want to give you an opportunity to speak first if you have some thoughts on that.
Crys: Yeah, I just wanted to reflect on the journey that it’s been to get here. Because you started what we call the platinum mastermind now, which is the small group meeting every week intensely working on craft and business. And you started that in 2017 or 2018?
J: It’s the third or fourth year, I think.
Crys: And then this group, I believe started January 2020. Like the author life, as its current incarnation, it started in 2020, three months before lockdown. And I know that so many members of the original community have just found such solace in what we have, and the community we’ve built, and the connections they’ve built.
But you’re right, there’s just been so much uncertainty for the last two and a half years, that it’s been difficult for people to commit, especially as the pandemic went on longer and there’s this global exhaustion and weariness.
And there’s kind of two ways that people have gone about this. One, there’s a bunch of people who are like, I am just like breaking out of every box and trying new things and going for it. And there’s a lot of people who are like, I just don’t have the energy anymore. And I’m really excited to give people a less risk way to find the support that we’ve all enjoyed for the past two and a half years.
J: Yeah. Never once in any of our conversations did ending the community come up. This is the first time I’m mentioning it. That was not even an option. So we realize what role the community serves, and it’s about a hundred people right now who are really engaged. And again, like we said before, we’re not trying to scale this up to a 30,000 person Facebook group. It’s gonna be a free community, but it’s by application or by referral. So it’s not open, like it’s free, but it’s not open. And I think that’s an important distinction to make.
Crys: Yeah. There’s a lot of things that we wouldn’t be able to scale. Like in the past month we’ve instituted a greeting program for new members, in that our editors have all volunteered their time and energy to reach out to new people and guide them through everything that the community has to offer because it can be really confusing. And it’s really nice to have a person to talk to. And if we didn’t limit it, we wouldn’t be able to provide that kind of connection.
J: Agreed. And I want to mention too, that the other thing that it’s going to allow us to do is to empower the three-story method editors, and maybe eventually members, we haven’t gotten that far yet but definitely the editors, to create programming and services that they can sell to the community.
When it’s a free community, I don’t feel any reservation about putting products and services in front of them because they can choose to accept them or not. It’s different with a paid community, and then offering a paid service within the paid community, that’s always bothered me a little bit. And the mastermind group that I have run has been like that, but the way I’ve compensated for it was people who joined that then got free access to the basic membership, so I rectified that.
But I really liked this idea, and I see this in the web3 space in discord, where anyone can join the discord, but then there are tiered levels that you can pay into. And that to me feels like a better model. If you want to, you can, but there’s no pressure to, and you can still fully engage with the free membership.
Crys: Now we did talk, and this is one of the things you’re excited to talk about, of having a lower level, like not charging as much. And you had some pretty strong feelings about not doing that. And we talked over a whole bunch of different ways that we could do that. We talked over it with our editors, they had a bunch of ideas, and we still decided to go the free method.
So I’m going to hand it back over to you.
J: Yeah. From my perspective, it seemed to be one of the few binary decisions in life. Like to me, it felt like it’s either free or someone has to pay something. I couldn’t see any other option between those two. And my thinking was that we were going to have the same issues no matter what we charged if it was paid. Like the same issues of getting people in, of this uncertain economy and what’s happening in the world, just the complexities of the transactional nature of the relationship. It wouldn’t matter if it were a dollar a month or $40 a month, we were going to have some of those same barriers. And so I felt like we either rip the band aid off and we go free or we just stick with what we’re doing. But that wasn’t working, so that really didn’t seem to be an option either.
And this happened afterwards, so this is definitely not something anticipated, but I had a conversation with someone who I won’t name who is pretty influential, and just mentioned that their patrons have been dropping off over the past couple of months. And I think the conclusion was it’s the same reasons. A lot of uncertainty, belt tightening, financial pressures. So hearing that made me feel a little bit better because those are a dollar a month, and if people are pulling back on a dollar a month contributions to Patreon, then I don’t think it would have mattered if we would have cut our price in half or dropped it down. I think we would have faced the same issues.
And then from our side, we would have been doing the same amount of work for a fraction of the compensation, which wasn’t great to begin with. It almost seemed like, yeah, it’s either we keep going and we just grit our teeth and buckle down and see where this goes, or we just go free and go that route.
Crys: Yeah. I’m really excited about the conversations that have been happening since we like let our group know, both to the editors and then to the group at large. Because bless them, one of the first things that so many people were worried about was like, how are you guys going to get paid for your time? For managing this community and making sure it stands at the caliber it is? We explained the hope for sponsorships, but that’s just a sign of like how cool our community is, to me.
J: Yeah. Yeah. I agree. And I felt really good about it. We’re both in slack daily, and you can see the engagements, you see the interactions, the way the other members of the community are helping each other. And it’s like, this is something we have to find some way of continuing. There’s no guarantees, you know that the corporate belts are tightening as well. Hopefully, I can get some sponsors to come on board, but we’ll see.
I think you and I basically committed to six months without changing anything, what we’re doing, or changing our mindset. And then we’ll see what happens there. And as we said, a lot of things can happen in six months. But that’s the plan, we’re going to stay the course. We’re not changing anything. We’re not scaling anything back. We’re not doing anything differently, other than we’re putting an application up instead of a payment button on the landing page, that’s about it.
Crys: And I wanted to mention one other thing that’s not new, but that’s become more important as we’ve lowered the barrier for entry, is that we’ve always intended to have a cap for the community because we didn’t want it to grow beyond the personal. We didn’t want it to grow so much that it was like you’re shouting into a void of strangers anytime you posted.
J: Yeah, and we don’t know for sure what that cap is. We have a sense, but we’re going to be constantly pinging the community as we grow and say, how’s it feel now? Like how is it now? If we get to a point where people are like, okay, I’m maxed out, or the conversations are flying by too fast, at that point we’re going to close membership. And then as people leave, we’ll cycle people in.
So I think that’s a good point to raise. And like I said, we don’t know what that magic number is. We’re going to ask the community to help us with that. I think the other side of it is, and I mentioned this in one of the responses in slack, we’re not asking people to pay with money anymore, but we are asking them to pay with their engagement. We feel like this is a fair trade off.
There’s a small percentage, I’m going to say roughly 10 to 15% of people who paid for the membership and never joined the slack group. And up until this point, that’s been totally fine. We’ve said, Hey, that’s fine. You’re paying, if you don’t want to engage, you don’t have to.
We’re changing that dynamic a little bit. And I sent a message to everyone and said, Hey, if you haven’t joined slack or you haven’t been active over there in the past month or so, that’s the new deal we’re striking here. And if you don’t want to engage, it’s totally fine. We will give your seat to someone else. Like you don’t have to stay, but if it’s a free community, we want people engaged and contributing on a regular basis.
We’re not tracking posts. We’re not keeping a spreadsheet. But if you’re just not in there, if you’re not showing up a couple times a week, we want people who are. We’re going to give everyone an opportunity to engage at whatever level they’re comfortable. And if people don’t want to engage, that’s fine too. But I think it’s important to recognize that because it’s a free community now, we are upping the expectations on the members, and I think that’s going to work well for everyone.
Crys: I agree. My question for our listeners is simply: what thoughts do you have, what questions do you have about this new direction that we’re going? I’d love to hear what you think. There will be a sign-up link, correct? Or there already is?
J: There is, yes.
Crys: There is a signup link on theauthorlife.com. So if you’ve been holding back because the cost was too high for you, but you’ve been a listener like every week and this is your kind of jam, we do invite you. This is your personal invitation from us to you to go click that sign up link, fill out the application, and join our community.
J: Yeah. I’ll just add one little thing here. I have several thousand author’s on my author life list, and I’m not broadcasting this to that list, I might at some point, but I don’t want an influx of hundreds of people. That may or may not happen, so we’re being very cautious and very slow here. So you’re not going to see a big announcement, you might not see an email, but if you’re listening to the podcast and you’re not in the community, then we would definitely encourage you to go to the site and fill out the application. Go to theauthorlife.com, right above the fold click the button, it’ll say apply here, and go ahead and apply. And now’s the time.
Crys: If you would like to join this conversation in real time, we’d love for you to pop over and check out what The Author Life Community is all about.