Few unpublished novelists or memoirists are able to convince a publisher to consider their work until it is complete. But it can be daunting to spend months or years bringing a book to completion with no assurance it will ever be published. Established authors can at times secure advances based on book proposals and a few sample chapters. Is there a way, I have been wondering, to provide that for would-be novelists or memoirists who lack a publishing contract?
I found myself thinking about Kickstarter. I know a number of musicians who have made use of this service, raising money before recording tracks. Could it work for aspiring authors?
An evangelist of the digital self-start era, Seth Godin, is a believer. He has a book coming out in January titled The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? that challenges readers to consider their works art. That certainly echoes the messaging of The Artist’s Road. Now Mr. Godin, a best-selling author, doesn’t need the help of donations to land a book contract. But while writing this book under contract, he chose to launch a Kickstarter campaign for it, and has raised nearly $300,000. Those giving receive nice give-backs, from a digital preview copy for $4 up to having your artistic story given at least one paragraph in his book for $1,150 (he limited that to five individuals and sold it out).
“This project on Kickstarter is my way to organize the tribe,” Mr. Godin wrote, “to send a signal to risk-averse publishers and booksellers (who have limited shelf space and limited paper). We can let them know loud and clear that this is a book that’s going to get talked about. Kickstarter coordinates and it amplifies.”
He’s right. But he’s a bit of an outlier example. Had an unpublished author pitched the exact same book with the exact same message, I’m comfortable speculating it would not have generated six-figure donations.
I decided to focus my research on novelists and memoirists who had met their donation goals. I wanted to see what their plans were for the money, and where they were in the process of writing. My somewhat limited examination of successful campaigns suggested Kickstarter does not actually kick the start of a project, but the finish.
I found a twice-published author who was unable to sell his third novel, began an MFA program, decided to return his attention to the book, and has now corralled $12,000 to polish it up before sending it to publishers. But I wanted someone unpublished.
I then found a talented visual artist who had fallen short of selling her first prose novel commercially, so she turned to Kickstarter and raised $26,478 to self-publish the book, well past her $8,000 goal. A fantastic story, yes? But she also is an example of the challenges of self-publishing. She blogged recently that she had to abandon NaNoWriMo because of the time it was taking her to mail copies of her novel to those who had pledged her donations.
Both of those novelists had already completed their books. But then I found a memoirist who reached his goal while saying he was still writing his story, a book about his three-year bicycle journey around the world. As someone writing a travel memoir myself, I was intrigued. But then I learned his trip was the subject of a BBC documentary. I wanted someone whose story had not yet been told.
That led me to another travel memoir, based around a trip to Mount Rainier that weaves in an inner journey as well. This individual successfully met his $3,000 goal, which he is using to cover self-publishing costs of an already complete manuscript.
Kickstarter is framed by many as a way for and artist to bypass the middleman. That is true, and also obvious. Kickstarter has also been framed as an inevitable future, one in which middlemen will go extinct, and artists and consumers will bask in digital interconnection. That future does not seem assured.
I suspect I couldn’t find a successful Kickstarter campaign in which a would-be author received money to write his or her book for the same reason that a publisher won’t extend that individual a contract; when putting up money, you want a sense of what you are getting in return. Pledges come with rewards, usually in the form of advanced or signed copies. If a book hasn’t even been written yet, how would a donor know that pledge would ever be fulfilled? And let’s not forget how long the donor would have to wait to receive that reward, even if the author managed to complete the work?
Kickstarter, to me, seems a good complement to someone’s self-publishing plan. Beyond providing investment capital, it builds an audience and generates interest in the work. Mr. Godin said he wanted his Kickstarter campaign to tell publishers to take this approach seriously; it’s possible someone looking to self-publish could generate such interest on Kickstarter that a publisher would be persuaded to take them on. I hope that has happened.
But Kickstarter seems unlikely to be a tool to ease the financial pain of writing a book on spec, at least if your name isn’t Seth Godin.
What are your thoughts on Kickstarter? Have you donated before? Have you sought funding on it? Are you curious to try? And would you give to someone who was looking to write a book, as opposed to preparing an existing manuscript for publication?
ADDENDUM (12/5/12): How does Porter Anderson do it? The Energizer Bunny stays on top of trends in publishing like no one else I know. He was kind enough to include an analysis of this post in his latest Ether post on Publishing Perspectives. Lots of good stuff in there, as always. But he drew my attention to two other recent posts about Kickstarter I hadn’t seen. One is a New Republic piece by Noreen Malone titled “The False Promise of Kickstarter,” and the other is a follow-up piece by Suw Charman-Anderson in Forbes titled “Kickstarter: Dream Maker or Promise Breaker?” If you’re thinking of either making use of Kickstarter or donating to those using it, you should read these. Among the insights I discovered is 1) a University of Pennsylvania study that found only about 1/4 of projects are delivered to donors on time and 2) you’re in a buyer-beware situation if you give money and the project doesn’t launch.