Kickstarting a book

I know it isn’t a completely new phenomenon, but a couple of writers I follow put up Kickstarter projects for books they would like to write.

I’ve read a couple of Tobias Buckell‘s books and a few of his short stories. I really enjoyed Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin in his Xenowealth series. I still haven’t read Sly Mongoose because I’ve been waiting for a mass market paperback version to match the M.M.P.B. editions I have of the first two books in the series. As it looks like Tor isn’t actually going to put out that edition, I may break down and buy a hardcover. Mr. Buckell created his Kickstarter project to fund publishing The Apocalypse Ocean, what might be the fourth Xenowealth book. I pledged $25 to that effort.

The other author I’m tracking that I’m following who is using Kickstarter is Mary Anne Mohanraj. I haven’t actually read anything she’s written, though I have a copies of a number of her short stories in several books that I picked up at WisCon. My reading them has been a victim of having way too much good reading material to get through. I backed her project Demi-Monde for $15. Although I haven’t read her writing yet, I’m eagerly looking forward to the book and may increase my pledge. I’ve heard her speak as WisCon’s guest of honor, as panel moderator, and as a panelist herself. Demi-Monde is to be science fiction erotica, a novel in linked stories. What intrigued me (in addition to hearing her speak), is how Ms. Mohanraj described the project. It’s science fiction, but she plans on not having the text look away when things get hot and heavy. (At least I recall her writing something like that, but I can’t find where she did.) That’s kind of what I’m looking for, not being an erotica reader normally.

Bicycle kickstand
Kickstand by Stephanie Megan used under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND license.

I’ve also been trying to figure out how crowd-funding a book changes my expectations for what I get.

In traditional publishing, a publisher pays the author an advance on sales. Overall, the author is paid a percentage of book sales (from which the advance is subtracted). The publisher is putting some money behind it, so they have an incentive to pay even more money to get it edited well and printed nicely. And although it doesn’t directly impact the quality of the book, they have an incentive to market it well as well. They want to make enough money to cover their expenses. If they don’t put out a quality book and market it well, few people buy the book, and they eat the costs while losing money.

In indie or self-publishing, the publisher takes no risk. The author pays the publisher for their expertise in printing, editing, distributing, etc. Instead of the publisher having an incentive to put out a good book, it’s the author that has the incentive because he/she has the financial risk. Way more often than not, this model fails to produce something of quality simply because the authors think they are much writers than they really are, particularly without a good editor. Nevertheless, some good books do emerge from the self-publishing world.

With crowd-funding, the publisher isn’t taking a risk, and neither is the author. Instead, it’s a semi-anonymous conglomeration of people who are taking the risk. They have no input in the book’s creation. So who has the incentive to put out a good book, and what’s the mechanism for that happening?

One incentive at least is the author’s reputation. I don’t mean their general reputation as a writer. If the author fails to deliver a quality book, they are unlikely to ever get crowd-funded again. Crowd-funding will probably only work for authors that already have a track record and at least a small fan base. It won’t work well for entrants to the market of writing. Who is going to give money to an unknown person to write an unknown book, at least when they don’t have any way to ensure how the book turns out (like a traditional publisher does)?

One of the rewards offered by Mr. Buckell might point the way to a mechanism to influencing the book: for a pledge of $250, a person can:

Read the book as it is being written, delivered in weekly installments in a special read-along list serv. Trade comments and notes with the author and other readers as the book comes to life.

Those backers will have some a measure of input into the book. Granted, it’s not a lot of influence, but it’s enough that if a few of those readers raise an alarm the author is likely to listen. An author likely wouldn’t want to give editor-ship to the highest bidder, but some guarantees of editing built into the project might help. For instance, commit to spending $X of the funding to paying a specific well-known editor. Mr. Buckell does something like this, with a guarantee of specific kinds of artwork by Pablo Defendini if overall funding levels his specific levels.

Why do I think about this? I have a little experience with crowd-funding a literary project of a different sort. Last fall, local independent book store Pilot Books wanted to start filming their author readings. They’d been filming a few of them with a crappy camera. The owner thought if they had better quality video, they could put out a periodic CD of these performances. They regularly had readings by smart and different writers. They got a lot of them on board with the project. Many promised personal calls with readings of their works, for instance. That’s the reward I selected when I donated to the project. The Stranger’s books editor promoted it. The project made its goal plus some.

So what happened? I got my promised reading of a short story over the phone, though I can’t recall the writer who called me. I know the book store’s owner purchased the camera. I saw it and she used it to film a reading by Nisi Shawl last December. But Pilot Books never put a CD of any of their readings filmed by the new camera, and to my knowledge no videos were put online. In May, Pilot Books’ owner closed the store. I don’t begrudge her keeping the camera, as she probably lost a fair amount of money running the store. However, none of us ever saw the promised output from the camera.

Is this any different than any other arts related project funding on Kickstarter? Probably not. But now I’m going to see how it will play out in my little corner of the world. As of this writing, Ms. Mohanraj’s Demi-Monde is about 25% funded at 75% of the way through its time frame. Mr. Buckell’s The Apocalypse Ocean is about 55% funded at half-way before its deadline. Funding on Kickstarter, like bids on eBay, tends to happen toward the end of projects.

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