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:
- The Death of the Artist—And the Birth of the Creative Entrepreneur
- Starving Artists and Entitled Bullies: The Economics of Book Blogging
- Kickstarter publishing projects raised $22m in 2014 Huh. Imagine that.
- Kickstarter Tag Team Post: What’s Asking Too Much?
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.)