The Problem(s) with Patreon

Many years ago, when I was still part of SFWA, I had a long conversation with the Patreon reps about their platform. I’d been using Patreon for a several years already, and they wanted my take on it. That conversation led me to a video call/interview with the engineers—I think I did two of those? In which they questioned me about use cases and I had a chance to explain what I felt was their greatest challenge. As is typical of me, the tactical stuff had to wait on the philosophical stuff, because I believe you can’t really figure out what you’re doing until you get the big picture in order.

What I told them: ‘you guys are great, but you really have to decide whether you are a payment management system or a content delivery system. Right now you’re trying to do both, badly, and the compromises are killing you.’

Fast forward several more years (I think I’ve been on Patreon for seven now) and if anything they’ve doubled down on their confusion. I’m not the only one who thinks the results are untenable; they invited me years ago to their private sandbox for interaction between creators and the engineering team, and the posts there echo my concerns and frustrations. They’re still doing so after opening that sandbox up to all creators (and replaced almost all the engineer interaction with a marketing/customer communication liaison, who filters our issues before putting them in front of the coding team).

If this is painting a picture to you of a company wildly out of touch with the needs of its users, then yeah. That.

If anything, the philosophical issue of ‘what are we, a way to distribute content or a way to manage payments for artists’ has been compounded by a second, enormous philosophical issue: ‘who is our customer.’ (See my picture above!) You would think this would be straightforward: patrons pay creators, and Patreon skims a commission off the top of that transaction (#1). That means the person cutting the check for Patreon is the creator. They are handing some of their money to the company. But Patreon continually messes this up and treats the patron as the customer: “They are paying Patreon, right?? So that means they’re the ones we should listen to!” They think the relationship looks like #2 there.

But guess what? The person most in touch with what they need to give their audience the experience they expect is… go figure… the artist! Not the people trying to make money off the artists!

If you haven’t got your foundation in order, anything you build on the results is going to fall apart. The many ways Patreon is failing creators are manifest to us… and to patrons as well. Do any of these sound familiar?

  • Why doesn’t the search work better? No, the search within the artist patreon, not on the whole site.
  • Why does the page load so slowly? And I didn’t ask for infinite scroll. I wish the stupid infinite scroll would turn off. Why does the infinite scroll not even remember sometimes what the last thing I looked at was??
  • What if I want to catch up on previous entries? Why is it so hard to look back?
  • Why are these entries poorly tagged?
  • Why can I only see one image unless I go to the dog-slow Patreon site?
  • Why doesn’t Patreon leave me logged in? Why do I have to re-login to the site every time I go to it? Why doesn’t it remember which page I was trying to go to once I do login??
  • Why is the comment section SO USELESS

Trust me, these frustrations aren’t minor and you’re not alone. Creators have entire lists of them that get aired and re-aired on the sandbox while the Patreon team designs new layouts for your creator page “to make it easier to attract new patrons.” (Several people always say, “What, so we can immediately lose them because of how much the patron experience sucks?”)

I could forgive some of those languishing projects (anyone remember the Community tab?), but not the fragile backend that breaks every time you change something—or Patreon does. If you are a relatively new patron and you’ve been confused by how many broken links there are, that would be because Patreon made it impossible for us to reassign old posts to new tiers when we shifted them. Or when they shifted them, as they did when they made the ‘you can pay in your local currency’ switch. (Yes, that change broke the permissions system. Without warning.) To fix these continual breaks, I would have to go back and manually reset the permissions on every single post I’ve ever made. All thousand plus of them. Because Patreon has never given us the tool we’ve been asking for to do bulk management of posts. It’s like they’re still in start-up land mentality: “oh, no one has more than a few months of data/posts!” But Patreon’s been around for seven years! Most of us have hundreds, if not thousands of posts!

Believe it or not, there’s not even a mass delete function. And you are surely not surprised that there’s no archive function either, so you can’t download your posts for back-up.

This is without the undercurrent that makes it evident Patreon is not interested in small time creators. They keep making changes (or trying to make changes) that would substantively hurt the 90% of their customer base that isn’t raking in thousands of dollars a month, like shifting the commission structure to punish microtransactions, or putting together and pushing merchandise plans that you’d have to be rolling in money to afford. They very clearly consult frequently with those big dollar creators… but as usual, those creators are the exception, and catering to their needs (while obviously a better financial decision for their company) will rarely help their less lucrative accounts which, you begin to think, they’d rather not have at all.

Do I blame them for focusing on their bottom line? No. (Well, maybe a little, but only because they say they care about all their creators when it’s obvious they don’t. I won’t blame you for trying to maximize your earnings, but I will blame you for lying to make yourself sound good while doing it.) But if Patreon’s gotta do what it’s gotta do, and more power to it, I still have to evaluate whether it’s going to serve me… and right now, it’s clear that as a content management system, Patreon isn’t working. There’s no way for me to manage the number of posts I have, and no graceful way for you all to navigate them. They didn’t even let you tag the posts with more than five tags until recently, when they did a stealth update that allowed it (I would never have known had I not fat-fingered my way onto a sixth tag recently). You can’t find the good stuff, like the short story downloads, without having to swim through dozens of short news posts and other ephemera. And this is a problem that will only get worse with time.

Do I have a plan? I wish. The reason so many people are using Patreon is because there aren’t better options. But I don’t trust Patreon to stick around as a useful platform (why are they so concerned with those upper echelon earners? What do their financials look like?). My safest bet is probably to do all my own hosting and to use Patreon solely as a payment manager, and possibly use it in conjunction with other options (like Paypal subscriptions) to diversify the tip jar income stream in case Patreon collapses, or throws me off the platform, or something else blows up. But my thinking, starting with the foundations (very important) is something like this:

  • Do not sell bonus content. You didn’t do this with Livejournal, and it was healthier for you mentally/spiritually and for the community.
  • Use the Patreon as a tip jar, and as a gateway for Discord access.
  • Continue using Discord as your paid service.

What this looks like, in terms of getting people fun bonus content, is something I’m still trying to figure out. But for now I’ve thrown together a page on my website for some of the missing stuff, and I’ll be putting more things there as I find them. Yes, that page is unlocked (though it’s not linked anywhere). If it gets out to strangers, then I guess they can download some short stories. I’m not going to police that page use; I’ve gotten pretty far trusting my readers to be honorable people and so far you all have never given me reason to regret that, so I will go on as I have.

I expect that these decisions will lose me some people and that’s okay. Not all methods work for all people, and I don’t blame anyone for moving on, or downgrading their tips, if what they expected was exclusive access to bonus content. And maybe I’m a little nervous about that, because Patreon is no longer an insignificant part of my income. But I have got to arrange this so it’s sustainable for all of us, and with Patreon continually breaking things and giving me no way to manage any of it, this method is not working.

I will pause at this point and mention that if you haven’t tried the Discord and you’re at the level where you have access, that it’s worth trying. It’s an extremely positive community, and unlike a lot of creator/patreon Discords, I’m actually there daily, chatting about what I’m doing/working on, sharing excerpts or brainstorming aloud. And that’s just the parts about me; the people there are fantastic, and we do weekly events, and talk about everything from what we’re cooking to what we’re working on. It’s a very supportive and friendly environment, and Discord makes it easy to access (there’s a web client, a desktop client, and a phone client). I recommend it!

So that’s where I am with my thinking. As I said, I’m not sure how it’s going to look once I figure things out, and you are welcome to chime in with your suggestions, comments, or questions, as always. This is a more discombobulated post than I usually write, but trying to fix/figure this out has seriously upset the inside of my brain and it’s mostly confetti in here. Ugly, sad confetti. *halfsmile*

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