There’s a meme circulating in the publishing realm called the “1000 True Fans.” It goes like this: An author can make a living if he cultivates 1000 True Fans. True Fans are defined as the people who like an author’s work so much that they’ll buy just about anything that an author releases, as soon as they can get their hands on it. They’re the ones who buy the hardcover of an author’s new work as soon as it comes out. They buy ancillary products like T-shirts and coffee mugs. They write 5-star Amazon product reviews for all of an author’s works.
The True Fan as a named concept may be a relatively new development, but True Fans aren’t new. They’ve been around for a long time. People just didn’t have an official term for them.
In my humble opinion, the Gold Standard for True Fans belongs to a famous pulp writer from the 1920’s and 30’s. He was a prolific writer who published in virtually every pulp magazine available during the time period. He wrote fantasy, western, horror, adventure, and medieval adventures in a variety of venues. He was even a contributor on the periphery of H. P. Lovecraft’s Chthulu mythos. He created timeless stories of iconic heroes.
His stories are still in print today, despite his early death in 1936 at the age of 30. But ask yourself this question: Why are his stories around? Why haven’t they faded into obscurity like most of the works of other writers from that time period?
The answer: his fans.
When this author died, his fans were so devoted to his works that they banded together to promote his fiction. They created a fanzine called Amra, after a nickname that the author’s most famous character had earned in one of his best stories (the first one that I ever read by this author, as a matter of fact). A succession of executors for the author’s estate made the author’s papers and notes available to fans, who wrote numerous articles about them in Amra. Some of the fans even created a timeline for the adventures of the author’s most famous character, a highly useful reference since most of the stories had been written out-of-order.
Some of the fans who wrote articles for Amra were industry professionals, like well-known fantasy writers L. Sprague de Camp and Lin Carter, and lesser-known writers like Swedish fan Bjorn Nyberg. Amra ran for more than 30 years because fans were so interested in the author’s works. While a few of writer’s works were sporadically published in the 40’s and 50’s, he remained an obscure writer until the 60’s.
In 1966, L. Sprague de Camp made a deal with Lancer Books to publish a series of books featuring the author’s most famous character, with all of the stories placed in order according to the timeline that the fans had created. Where there were gaps in the timeline, authors like Lin Carter and L. Sprague de Camp stepped in to produce the missing pieces. The result was a highly successful 12-volume series of paperbacks. Sales were later dramatically enhanced when the books were released with flamboyant covers by Frank Frazetta, one of the top cover artists of all time for SF/Fantasy books.
Since then, just about all of the author’s works have been reprinted, often multiple times. There have been at least 5 movies made from the author’s works, including 3 about his most famous character. There have been 3 TV series made about the author’s most famous creation (one live action and two animated series). And games, and comics, and more.
All of this has occurred because of the fans who kept the memories of this author’s works alive, and even convinced a publisher to take a chance on them.
That author was Robert E. Howard. His most famous character was Conan. Other iconic characters include Kull, a tortured king from a time before Conan; Cormac mac Art, a Viking adventurer; Soloman Kane, a Puritan hunter of supernatural evil; Bran Mak Morn, the king of the Picts who fought against Romans in pre-Christian Britain; and Red Sonja, a female soldier from one of Howard’s best non-sorcerous, medieval stories (later translated into Conan’s universe by the Conan comic adaptations of Roy Thomas). And, for those who are curious, the first story I ever read of Howard’s was the famous Conan story, “The Queen of the Black Coast,” which was also the story in which Conan earned the nickname Amra.
Robert E. Howard is the Gold Standard when it comes to True Fans. They kept his works alive when it would have been so easy for them to slip into the forgotten obscurity of the pulp era. They brought Conan and Howard’s other heroes to new generations of readers. They helped Howard almost single-handedly create the fantasy sub-genre of sword-and-sorcery.
We writers should all hope to someday have fans of this caliber.