Kickstart This: Asking for Money

Written by Natalie Luhrs

I'm a lifelong geek with a passion for books and social justice.

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January 9, 2015


There’s been a lot of discussion over the last week around authors using Kickstarter and other crowd-funding platforms to fund specific projects. I have thoughts. But first, a few links:

Then there’s this post from Jenny Trout: Don’t Do This…Ever?: (an advice column for writers): “Crowd Funding” edition

Okay, normally I agree with a lot of what Jenny Trout says. Not this time, though. And you know why? Because whenever I buy anything, anything at all, part of the cost of getting that thing into my hands goes to buy groceries for someone–multiple someones. It’s not itemized, but it’s part of the cost of the item. And Trout’s ketchup factory analogy is terrible. The hypothetical factory owner? They’re not working with the goal of maybe getting paid someday in the future and, I bet, when they were siting their new ketchup factory they went and looked for places that would give them things like tax breaks and other incentives (like building infrastructure to the site) so they could spend as little of their own capital as possible. Or if it’s a brand new ketchup venture, there are always angel investors to help with money. Or venture capital–of course, going to investors that aren’t the government means you need to eventually show a return on that investment; if you can get the government to subsidize you, it’s a free ride: ask the cities that paid for new stadiums how that worked out for them.

Capital. It can be hard to raise if you don’t have the resources to begin with–and money’s not the only resource here. Time, energy, connections are all resources needed, not only in creative work, but in life in general. Some people have more resources in one area than another, so need to ask for help. There’s no shame in asking for help.

Kickstarter–and other crowd-funding platforms–are a way for people to raise capital for specific projects, but it requires them to spend energy and use their connections. They can be a way to fund niche projects that wouldn’t necessarily be commercially viable. There is a risk involved in both running and supporting such projects–but Kickstarter makes that fairly clear.

I’ve supported a lot of Kickstarters for books that did not exist when the campaign began: 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13–in some of these cases, the texts (or images) existed, but they were not yet a tangible object. Heck, I’ve even funded a couple of ongoing publishing enterprises, specifically Uncanny and the Clarkesworld Chinese science fiction translation project.

And you know what? I’m pretty sure that for a lot of these projects I’ve backed some of that money went to pay for something for the person putting together the project. Or if it didn’t pay for something for them, it paid for someone else to provide them with goods and services–and the money they received then went to other goods and services. And I am 100% okay with that.

I mean seriously: this is how our economy works. In the Kickstarter that sparked this whole conversation, the author gave a list of things she was going to use the money for–and that’s where I think she made a mistake: she was too honest.  She mentioned living expenses, specifically groceries and a mortgage–which then prompted a lot of people to essentially tell her to go get a “real” job (way to devalue her work). Personally, I was doing some head-tilting at the backer rewards and I think the timing could have been a lot better–but me looking askance at the campaign doesn’t invalidate her right to have it.

I do understand that a lot of people in romance and YA don’t want this sort of campaign to become the norm in their reading communities–I don’t think there’s a risk of this becoming the dominant funding model, I really don’t. Even in SFF, while crowd-funding is relatively common, it’s not the norm for even a significant minority of books published.

But these aren’t reasons to declare that it’s unacceptable for authors to use these platforms to try to raise money for specific projects.  I think that if the author had said, “It will take $10,000 for this book to become a reality and that includes professional editing and a gorgeous cover and backers will also get an exclusive short story set in this world” no one would have blinked.  Claim that she’s just begging for money instead of getting a real job or that readers shouldn’t have to assume a financial risk or that she’s taking advantage of children because she’s a YA author, what this comes down to is this: you didn’t like her tone. She asked for too much. She didn’t ask in exactly the right way.

So: is a one-off crowd-funding campaign a good way to build a sustainable business? Probably not. It is a good way to get a specific project off the ground, though, especially if you think that project has enough people interested in it to fund, as this author apparently did.

Tobias Buckell has a really, really great post about the first Kickstarter campaign he ran that I really recommend everyone reading.

And now, I want to talk a little bit about success when it comes to books. Does the book make money? If yes, it’s a success. If no, it’s not a success and you probably won’t get another contract from that publisher (unless you’re self-publishing). That’s it. Does that kind of sort of really suck? Yeah, it does–there are lots of wonderful books that don’t make money, lots of great series that get cancelled part way through, books that no publisher will buy because they don’t think it’s commercially viable. And there’s a lot of books that are badly written or troubling or whatever that sell by the truckload. Readers are hard to predict.

Ultimately, it’s the readers that make a book successful: they buy it or get it from their library and if they love it (or hate it!), they might tell their friends about it–and those friends may then also pick up a copy or investigate the author’s backlist. Every copy sold puts money to buy groceries in someone’s pocket–probably not the author’s until they earn out their advance–but each copy gets them closer to earning out. That’s what I mean by readers making books successful or not–there is no implication that a reader must help an author or publisher promote a book, the mere act of purchasing the book (or asking the library to purchase a book) is, in my mind, sufficient.

(Note: I am not using the name of the author whose Kickstarter prompted this discussion; there’s bad stuff going on and while I do want to discuss the larger issues here, I don’t want to send more shit her way.)

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  1. Paul (@princejvstin)

    I’ve supported a fair number of the same kickstarters that you do and did, Natalie.

    Anyone who believes that a kickstarter should just cover the physical production cost of a book or ebook doesn’t consider that the well being of the author/creator is also an issue.

    If I were ever to do a kickstarter for, say, my photography, the physical process of the book/prints would only be a part of the total amount raised. Because of the time, effort, and other expenses I would incur.

  2. About Advances

    probably not the author’s until they earn out their advance

    The author gets the money in her pocket from the advance, which, broadly speaking, is a pre-payment of the book’s anticipated royalty earnings. (The advance itself *is* a royalty payment, iow.)

    • Natalie Luhrs

      It sure is. I wasn’t as clear as i coukd have been. When I go to the store and buy a book, a small amount goes into the author’s royalty account (for lack of a better term). Only when that account ceases to have a negative amount in it does the author get a check. In the meantime, through the magic of accounting, that money can be reinvested in other books (I assume; as some books don’t earn out and surely advance-paying publishers don’t have lots of cash sitting in reserve on their books as a consequence of that; but I don’t know how publishers manage their cash flow so I could be very wrong there).

  3. Liz Mc2

    I don’t really have a position on the whole issue of Kickstarters–except that I understand why people choose to participate, and why others don’t like them. I’m interested in the rhetoric around them, though, and I think we’d be better off it were accurate about the kind of transaction this is, which a lot I have seen is not.

    For instance, a Kickstarter is not like a pre-order, or like an advance. An advance is sort of like venture capital–the publisher makes a risky investment in the author and hopes it pays off. I wasn’t clear on the point you were making about venture capital here, but a Kickstarter isn’t like venture capital, either, because it is not an investment. I won’t make a profit, which obviously is what venture capitalists hope to do; that would be an interesting model–crowd-sourced investing with a risk of loss AND chance of profit. (The one time I donated to a Kickstarter, the amount I gave was worth far more than the reward I received, and I was fine with that–that’s how I wanted to spend the money).

    A Kickstarter is a little like patronage, though without the close relationship that sometimes implied between patron and artist, or the control the patron sometimes exercised over the art. I think it’s most like, say, donating to NPR or PBS and getting a coffee mug for your $100. You are contributing to art/entertainment that you value. I have done that too.

    I don’t agree that people who don’t think readers should be asked to assume risk just don’t like her tone or the honesty of her request. I think that’s a reasoned position with which reasonable people can disagree. And I really don’t like the idea that people opposed to Kickstarters “want the artist to starve” or “don’t want to pay for people’s work.” There’s nothing illogical or immoral about preferring to support an author’s work by treating them as a self-employed person who gets paid once the work is done, especially as we don’t actually have any contract with authors in the Kickstarter scenario to ensure our contribution will get us anything at all. I’m also not sure what all the fuss was about–she was honest about where the money would go (as she should be) and if people wanted to contribute to that, fine. (Sorry, I’d been storing up my two cents and you are where I chose to dump it).

    • Natalie Luhrs

      @ Liz: Feel free to dump your two cents (or dollars) here whenever you want! I think crowdfunding is a thing that a lot of people are still feeling their way around and I absolutely support people not supporting specific crowdfunding campaigns–for whatever reason. I just saw a LOT of push back around the living expenses part of the budget; I really do think the author in question here needed to spend more time researching successful crowdfunding campaigns and refine her appeal and reward tiers before launching. That’s where I think people were objecting to her tone and feeling like she was asking for too much. As I just said to Ridley on the Twitters, tell me what I’m going to get for my money, not what you’re going to spend it on.

      @ About Advances: I feel like we’re talking past each other (or you’re just saying things way more clearly than I am) because yes: the first check after publication is actually the second royalty payment.

  4. About Advances

    @Natalie Luhrs:

    It’s a cash-flow thing. The point I’m trying to make, is that once the royalty account comes out of negative (if the book earns out), what the author gets is her *second* royalty payment/check on that title. Because it was her first royalty payment (the advance which was made before the book was printed) that caused her royalty account to have a negative balance: the author has already gotten your money for the sale of her book prior to you having had the opportunity to buy it (possibly a year or more prior).

  5. Liz Mc2

    See, I disagree. If someone is asking for my money, I absolutely want to know how they will be spending it. If I am supporting living expenses while someone does the work, I want to know that (just like when I donate to charity I want to know where the money goes). Basic transparency is important. I’m not saying I would never donate if my money is going to living expenses, but these considerations could affect my choices.

    Of course I know that when I buy a book some of my money is going to all kinds of people’s living expenses (from the author to the bookstore employee to maybe the UPS guy). But buying a book is not the same as donating to a Kickstarter. If I am directly funding a creator, I think seeing it broken down is important.


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