With the advent of sites like Etsy, a new comic con every weekend with dealers' rooms to occupy, or even the ability to slap a monetizing ad service to your podcasts and videos, there’s an ever-increasing supply of ways of using your fandom to make a tiny side profit, if not your entire income. I first moved into the realm of the professional fan via writing, for sites just like this one. It was a pretty natural fit. I’ve been writing since I was a kid, and I already spent hours ruminating over my opinions on the TV shows and movies I watched — so why not combine them and make some money? Now my fandom gigs also include some on-screen work as well, including commentary shows, hosting gigs, and playing tabletop role-playing games for an audience.
The question that comes up when considering monetizing your fandom hobbies is not “Can I do it?” but rather “Should I do it?” And the answer to that question is a resounding “It’s complicated.” As someone who has turned her own geek leanings into something resembling a career (if you squint at it on a good day), I reflected on my experiences. I also spoke to some other folks who have done the same to find out what it changed in their lives and how it impacted the ways they interact with their various fandoms.
Doctor Who has been one of the most significant pieces of media in my life, so naturally it's something I've frequently wanted to write about. Because I’ve covered Doctor Who as a writer, my entire engagement with the show has changed. I’ve moderated panels about it at fan conventions, I’ve written for comedy videos recapping the entire series, I’ve co-hosted two podcasts about it, been invited on as a guest for many more, and I even play as the Doctor on an actual-play RPG show. Up until last year, all these types of things felt like enhancements to my fandom, allowing me to interact with the show a lot more, and even giving me access to spaces where I’ve been able to meet, and in some rare cases even befriend, writers, actors, and other crew who have worked on or close to the show.
Then I got a job as a critic. During Series 11, Jodie Whittaker’s first season, I was hired to write recap reviews of Doctor Who. Previously, my professional interactions with the show were extensions of the feelings I'd already had about it, conversations and pieces based on opinions I'd already formed after regular viewings of the show. Now my initial consumption of each new episode was in the form of a screener. Every Sunday in the fall of 2018, I had to watch, analyze, write, and then post an episode's review online within only a handful of hours of getting access to see it. This dramatically changed my experience with the season. It meant that my initial reaction to each new story was one of critical analysis, thinking about it with my professional writer's brain and not my fangirl’s brain. It wasn’t until months later when the season was released on Blu-ray, that I was able to enjoy it as a pure fan.
Kelly Anneken, who hosts podcasts recapping a variety of shows like The Handmaid’s Tale and Downton Abbey, had a similar discovery. “I do find that recapping makes me more critical of the media I engage with, so overall I have a hard time just purely enjoying almost anything,” Anneken told me, also noting that the interaction with other fans has felt different as well. “The biggest thing that's changed is that rather than just acting as a participant in my fandoms, I became a de facto leader. This can occasionally be frustrating when fans assume that I have an inside track on the content I recap,” Anneken said, adding, “Usually not.”
Echoing that last sentiment is Lynne M. Thomas, whose work includes podcasting about Doctor Who for the Verity podcast, as well as serving as editor of the multiple Hugo Award-winning Uncanny Magazine. “I think that it did fundamentally change my relationship with the fandom. I enjoy things, but I do so with the awareness that I may be asked to have a public opinion about it, and that my public opinions may influence the opinions of other fans far more than they might have before I became known,” Thomas told me. “It took me a long time to get used to the notion of other fans being fans of my work. I'm still not quite comfortable with it, but I do my best to make sure that I follow the examples of my best experiences when I was fannish about someone else's work because I don't want to ruin their experience with me.”
One of the largest drawbacks to turning one’s hobbies into a job is that you can quickly replace stress-relieving activities with twisted doppelgangers that actually cause you more anxiety. Anica Cihila ran into this with streaming video games on Twitch. “While I do still enjoy streaming when I can do it, it's very much had a negative impact on my enjoyment of gaming in general. Now, if I want to buy a game for, say, my Switch, I get this sense of you shouldn't buy that since you're not set up to stream from that console." Dash Kwiatowski, who serves as Dungeon Master for the Dungeons & Dragons actual-play podcast Lost in the Multiverse, felt much the same way about their monetization of gaming. “It doesn’t change my ability to appreciate playing the game, but it has definitely made me much more unwilling to be DM in casual games since I spend so much energy and effort into DMing for my show.”
The thing that everyone I spoke to really hammered home was the importance of still setting aside time to enjoy hobbies just for fun. “I do have to sometimes remind myself, every time I get the urge to make a new podcast or something, that it’s also okay for me to just enjoy media without succumbing to the urge of making content about it," Kwiatowski told me, "I think that’s important for my continued enjoyment of the things I love.” Anneken learned a similar lesson, “Lately I've been taking steps to lay down some boundaries on what I will or won't engage with on Twitter (Outlander? Yes. The Deadwood movie and Schitt's Creek? No.). I'm trying to reclaim space for myself to just enjoy stuff and discover new things without feeling like I need to capitalize on it.”
While the realities of turning your hobbies into a job might sound bleak based on these responses, it can be very rewarding. Like Kwiatowski, I’ve also turned tabletop roleplaying into a profession, and it’s a decision I’ve had zero regrets about. One of the biggest drawbacks of trying to play D&D is the hassle of trying to make a home game fit in the calendar. Everyone's lives are busy, maybe because we've all monetized our hobbies, and it can be really tough to get a group to the table regularly. By making it a professional thing, I’m able to prioritize it in my life and my schedule in a way that I wasn’t able to before, and I went from struggling to get even a monthly game in, to playing at minimum once a week. In the last year, I’ve also been able to perform games at events like TwitchCon, D&D Live, and GenCon, something I never thought I’d get to do with RPGs when I was a kid playing them in my friend’s basement.
Similarly, Marisa Hauptman has been extremely happy with her decision to take on a permanent position in customer service with the Wizard World fan expo brand, a job that involves flying out to the company’s various cons and events to help attending fans in person. “I think my work has made that connection to fandom even stronger. I feel like one of the reasons I was chosen for the customer service position with Wizard World is not only my general ability to work well with people, but also specifically because I am also a fan myself and "speak the same language" as the people I'm helping,” Hauptman told me. “As a fangirl, getting the chance to work for a fan convention and travel around meeting other fans, I'm basically living my best life.”
So should you monetize your fandom? There’s no one size fits all answer for that, unfortunately, but my gut instinct on it is to ask yourself what it is that you want to get out of it. The allure of getting paid to visit conventions might be exciting but are you willing to rush from panel to panel to write up your experiences, or sit behind a booth selling your merchandise while watching others wander the floor freely to do so? These are the things to be prepared for. Myself with RPGs, the whole point was to engage with it on a more regular, obligatory basis, so those changes were exactly what I wanted, but while I'd likely continue to review Doctor Who if asked, I do feel like I missed out on connecting with Series 11 as a fan. If the hope is to create a passive stream of income while you continue to enjoy it on a strict hobby level, chances are that you’re going to find yourself burned out and resentful of the time you have to spend on the thing you once loved. The reality is when you turn something into a job, you’re going to look at it one day and realize that's exactly what it is to you now.
The views and opinions expressed in this article are the author's, and do not necessarily reflect those of SYFY WIRE, SYFY, or NBC Universal.