This is something I’ve wanted to talk about for a long time and since a bunch of people have been asking lately, I thought it would be worth tackling now.
A few years ago, Patreon showed up on the scene and offered an easy and convenient way for patrons of the arts to support the artists/creators they love, making it possible in many cases for those creators to continue creating, and also forming a direct connection between artists and their fans. In retrospect, it doesn’t seem like a huge innovation but what it did was prove a concept and a business model–people want to and will pay monthly subscriptions to support the people/things they love, either out of the goodness of their hearts or for some exclusive access.
As I watched friends and peers flock to Patreon (often very successfully) to add an additional revenue stream to their business, I flirted with the idea of setting up my own account. In fact, I set it up several times, editing reward tiers and wording until it was just right. But I never pulled the trigger on it because something always felt a bit off to me.
Why Didn’t I Use Patreon?
I actually really like Patreon. They seem like genuinely good people trying to do a good thing, and the service is a great idea. There are lots of good reasons to use Patreon. Here are some of the reasons I didn’t:
- Dependence on a Platform: Like it or not, Patreon is at the mercy of its many investors and will likely be forced to make moves that users don’t want/didn’t ask for in the race to become more and more profitable. I don’t want to be in a situation where I have to jump ship and try to migrate my audience to a new home if things go sour.
- Likely Disruption: Patreon isn’t exactly doing anything terribly complicated here. They process credit card transactions and provide you with a blog (I know that’s an over-simplification but it’s essentially true). Literally anyone else can do that and I think it’s only a matter of time before another giant social media platform (or a scrappy new one) does it better and cheaper.
- Bad Reading Experience: This one is specific to comic artists, but if I’m going to put a bunch of exclusive comics up on my platform I’d like the reading experience to be decent. Easy navigation of panels/episodes. If my comics are being hosted there then it’s a publishing platform, so it should work elegantly in that capacity or it’s not worth it for me.
- Fees: As of this writing, Patreon takes 8% of your subscription revenue (for the regular plan–the super basic plan is 5%) and another 5% for the processing of cards. I don’t really have any complaints about this, but who knows how this might change in the future. Why not avoid it altogether?
- Everything in One Place: Ultimately, I just wanted EVERYTHING I do to be under one roof. All of my comics, my portfolio, my blog posts, videos, etc. I want people to find everything I do on one site. I was already spread thin with social media and adding a Patreon page to that mess seemed like further complication. So I built karlkerschl.com. Everything is here. Want to contact me? It’s here. Read my comics? Here. Buy my books? Here. Become a patron? ALSO HERE.
How I Set It Up
This is the meat and potatoes of this article. How do you do it? Is it easy? Expensive? There are a dozen ways you could set up a crowdfunding system but this is the way that I made it work for my purposes. As I said earlier, Patreon is essentially a blogging platform that processes recurring payments for monthly subscriptions. So the first thing you need is…
You need a website! I’m using WordPress hosted on a dedicated server. I like WordPress because it’s super customizable, free to use, and so popular that there are thousands of plugins available to extend its functionality. If you’re a web developer you can really dive in there and customize the heck out of it. If you have zero programming experience, you can just run it as is and load it up with plugins. I fall somewhere in the middle.
HOSTING: Depends on your host. I pay ~$100/year for dedicated hosting
Themes are just faces for your website. You can make it look like whatever you want and it’s barely relevant to this article except that in my case it’s important that visitors to the site be able to read the comics. A standard blog is going to show you chronological blog posts, from newest to oldest, and I need my comic posts to be read in order, be sorted by chapter, etc.
I actually use a plugin for this rather than a theme: Comic Easel by Philip M. Hofer (Frumph). It’s an older plugin that was created as a more functional replacement for the popular ComicPress theme (probably the most prevalent webcomic theme in the early 2000s).
I’d also recommend checking out the Toocheke theme, which is more modern and allows for better navigation on mobile devices (vertical scrolling, panel by panel modularity). I haven’t used it myself but if I was building a new site from scratch I’d definitely consider it.
COST: Free in most cases but you can pay for higher quality themes.
Now you’ve got a website. Great! Here’s where you make it actually function like Patreon. It’s a very simple combination of a few key plugins, which I’ll detail here:
You need to actually be able to sell subscriptions to your readers, right? So you need a storefront. It doesn’t have to be a robust store full of stuff–you could literally just have ONE item (your monthly subscription). Think of it just as a way to process orders. WooCommerce is the most used online shop in the world and it works very well. While the base shop is free, it can be extended with all sorts of paid upgrades. We only need two.
This plugin is an extension to WooCommerce that (surprise!) allows customers to subscribe to things on your website. You can set it up for monthly subscriptions, weekly subscriptions, annual, etc. You can offer subscriptions just for specific products. Set trial periods, discounts, etc. You (or your users) can pause and cancel subscriptions. You can adjust all kinds of details in how you set it up, but there’s a ton of functionality there and it works very well. It’s also made by the same people who make WooCommerce so it’s perfectly integrated.
WooCommerce Memberships works in tandem with Subscriptions and allows you to create different membership tiers and packages, which you can then use to gate specific content. For example, I created a Monthly Subscriber Membership. When I make a new blog post or post a comic page or whatever, I can now make that content available only to the people in that Membership group. I can offer discounts to people exclusively in that group. I offer a store-wide discount for all Monthly Subscribers as one of the perks of monthly membership and this extension allows me to do that.
Hey, congratulations! You’ve now set up a website of your own that basically does what Patreon does (at least in terms of base functionality). But you need to actually process those payments. There are different ways to do this but I went with PayPal as the default way to pay. They take credit cards, can do simple one-click payments, and they offered a relatively easy-to-implement recurring payment option.
You can also use other payment gateways like Stripe or Square. Each of them has their own gateway plugin that works with WooCommerce, so use whatever you like. Heck, use them all at once! It’s up to you.
Cost: I think Paypal charges a pretty standard 3.5% for card transactions or something like that. Not sure about the others.
Well, not quite. I mean, yes, you’re done in terms of having a site where people can start a subscription to your content and you can keep that content exclusive. But the real headache in running your own Patreon-style service is in the area of communication. This is something that Patreon does well and is worth paying for: they make it easy to notify all of your patrons when there’s a new post or piece of exclusive content. To replicate that key bit of functionality, you need to use…
The Mailing List
Hopefully you’re already using a mailing list to keep your fans/readers/listeners updated about what you’re doing. If you’re not, start using one. It’s still the best, most direct way to get peoples’ attention; way better than social media.
When I started this DIY Patreon project I used Mailchimp. I still do for a lot of things. But it presented a problem: how to keep my Mailchimp audience synchronized with the list of patrons from my website. People subscribe and unsubscribe all the time, and it’s a pain to manually track the active/inactive subscribers across different platforms. My WordPress list is always current and perfect, but Mailchimp doesn’t know when someone starts a new subscription or cancels an existing one, so what do you do?
I used a plugin called Mailchimp User Sync, which worked pretty well until it didn’t. The official Mailchimp WordPress plugin tried to add this functionality at an extra cost, but I tried it and it didn’t work the way I needed it to either, so I ditched it.
You could try Zapier, which interconnects different platforms and automates tasks (I use this for a couple of things) but it also required the use of some extra paid plugin on the WordPress end and Zapier in its free-to-use tier is pretty limited.
Now I’m using MailPoet. It’s a newsletter plugin for WordPress that not only allows you to build a mailing list straight from the comfort of your website, it provides the same great email-composing functionality that you might find in a platform like Mailchimp, AND it synchronizes with your WordPress user list! AND (and this is a big one for me) it already has access to all the media on your blog, so you’re not re-uploading images and thumbnails, etc to yet another platform!! Everything I was looking for in one convenient plugin.
You can filter your mails into different segments based on different criteria (store customers, paying subscribers, etc), automate welcome emails, and more. It’ll send mail from its own trusted servers (so you don’t need to use your own), and it’s FREE up to 1000 subscribers, which I think is on par with most other mailing list services. Problem solved!
Cost: Free (up to 1000 subscribers)
Now You Really ARE Done.
There are a million ways you can set up your page and your subscription service and all of that is totally up to you and your tastes, but now you have the bare bones means with which to do it. As you can see, not much is actually required. For ~$500/year + credit card transaction fees you can do pretty much whatever Patreon does from the comfort of your own website without having to worry about platforms and fees changing. You control everything. Maybe that’s too costly for you, and I get that. Paying Patreon’s percentages might be totally worth it for what you require, but I’m happy to invest a bit into this venture to have total control over my business and my future.
I hope that this has all been clear to you and I hope that more artists read this and are inspired to try it. Direct communication with your readers is an amazing thing and now that I’ve gotten a taste for it and have set this site up to be what I always envisioned I can’t imagine giving it up. It will still change–I’ll add new things, try new things, etc. But the foundation is there.
If you do give it a go, best of luck to you. I’m leaving the comments section open here for anyone who has questions. I’m not an expert but I’ll do my best to help you out where I can.
Do it yourself! Cut out the middlemen! Have fun!
Just a Note: I’m not sponsored in any way by any of these companies or products. This is just what I ended up using based on research and trial and error, so this is in no way a paid endorsement for anything.