Creative Control in the Age of Kickstarter

How much creative control do we cede when other people’s money is involved?

Before I get to Kickstarter, let me throw in a historical anecdote. Galilee Galileo was not only the Father of Modern Science, he also earned a decent income from book sales. He was driven enough by profit maximization to eschew writing his books in Latin–as other scientists of his day did so they could read each others’ works–in favor of Italian, his native tongue and one known by far more people in his home market. Galileo also had a patron, however, having been given a lifetime appointment as the Holy See’s mathematician by Pope Paul V.

Can you tell I'm reading a biography on Galileo? It's not as compelling as Dava Sobel's first book, Longitude (the book that first inspired me to pursue creative nonfiction) but it's still a good read.
Can you tell I’m reading a biography on Galileo? It’s not as compelling as Dava Sobel’s first book, Longitude (the book that first inspired me to pursue creative nonfiction), but it’s still a good read.

Galileo’s trouble started when an old friend and mutual admirer, Cardinal Bellarmine, became the next pope, Urban VIII. Fear of Paul and the Inquisition had prevented Galileo from publishing a book on Copernicus’ theory of heliocentrism, a system so obviously true to Galileo based on his astronomical calculations. Urban was a scientifically curious man who found many of Galileo’s arguments compelling, but also was maintaining the ruling of the Council of Trent that the Bible confirmed the Earth was the center of the universe. Galileo was smart enough to get permission from Urban and the Inquisition to write his book, and did as Urban asked, writing a book presenting  both theories. Thus Galileo published a book of fictional characters debating the nature of the heavens called Dialogue Concerning the Two Chief World Systems. Unfortunately for him, Galileo’s bias showed through, and the defender of an Earth-centric universe was portrayed as a mindless simpleton (the character was actually called “Simplicio”). Soon the Pope’s mathematician was tried for heresy by the Inquisition and convicted.

I share this anecdote to remind us that 1) it is not a new thing to seek to profit from creative works, and 2) it is not a new thing for others to feel a sense of control over that work if there is any monetary nexus to its production.

So let’s turn to Kickstarter. If you had used Kickstarter to fund a self-published book, would you blink at accepting a $2 billion publication offer after you self-published? I suspect not. The owners of a virtual reality headset startup didn’t blink when Facebook offered that amount to purchase their company, Oculus VR. But the startup was a darling of techies everywhere; it existed in no small part thanks to the $2.4 million it had raised in amounts of $10 and $20 on Kickstarter. None of those Kickstarter donors will see any of Mark Zuckerberg’s $2 billion.

Not surprisingly, the sale caused a bit of ajada among some of those investors. I don’t believe it was only a sense of having missed out on someone else’s gravy train; Kickstarter investors are informed they’re not an “investor” the way a purchaser of equity is. But I suspect many felt left behind, like a parent might feel when their child heads off to college without a single thank-you for that fat tuition check that is enabling the trip.

Let me provide a short excerpt from a news article on the Oculus VR sale:

So why then do people donate to a company that has the potential to strike it rich and to give little, or nothing, in return?

Many want to feel like they are part of creating something new and exciting, says Paul Levinson, a professor of communications and media studies at Fordham University in New York. Most of that is imagined. Funders have little say over how a company is run. That harsh reality can create a feeling of betrayal.

“They’re psychologically robbed of the illusion of being part of a company,” says Levinson.

A few months ago I wrote a Goodreads review for a memoir that the author had self-published thanks to money raised in a Kickstarter campaign. My recollection is that she had already completed her book, and the campaign was to raise money to cover publication costs. I could see someone feeling ripped off if the book went on to become a bestseller, but there’s no reason we should feel a sense of creative connection to a work we fund when it’s already completed. But Oculus VR began receiving Kickstarter funds before a finished product had been created.

I have written on this blog about how some artists use Kickstarter to fund the creation of artistic works, not just the publication. It seems to me that one faces a danger not on the scale of Galileo but comparable. What if the work you produce is not what your funder had expected? The creative process follows many twists and turns. Even serious planners like me who map out story structures with whiteboards and maps still follow the muse where she leads me; I could no more tell you at the start of a book what the final book would look like than I could have told you nineteen years ago what my college-student daughter would look like today. (FYI, she does thank me for that tuition money.)

There are many creative processes that are heavily collaborative; the readers of this blog are more often involved in solitary efforts; writing, painting, photography. Solitude creates a sense of autonomy, of ownership. Galileo wasn’t sharing pages of his manuscript with Pope Urban (although for his well being he probably should have). So it behooves us to recall that when we invite in others into our creative process, their very presence may give them a sense of “ownership,” perhaps in the literal sense but maybe just in a romantic sense. If they were important enough to invite in, we must be sensitive to their perspective, even as we stay true to our creative vision.

24 thoughts on “Creative Control in the Age of Kickstarter

  1. Great post. I’ve read countless articles about Kickstarter overwhelm, where people are not prepared for the timelines nor for the large number of people that can end up funding their projects. All the art they have to make, for example, as part of the “repayment” for investment can take years, so it becomes less about the project they hoped to fund and more about production of the goodies offered at each level of investment. So many projects can be well past their intended timelines. I’m not actually sure if there is any consequence for this? Thanks for the food for thought!


    1. Yes, Carrie, I’ve heard of the time that can be required in providing for funders. I suppose part of it is crafting your pitch to minimize time (or more easily aggregate response), and of course they’re paying you, so that includes presumably buying some of your time. And as far as consequence goes, I think it’s buyer beware for donors on Kickstarter.


  2. Thanks for a thought-provoking piece, Patrick! And fo the reminder that the technology may have changed, but the human interactions are pretty much the same. I’ve linked it to the Writers’ Rumpus FB page.


    1. Thank you for the link Marianne! I suppose the key to a Kickstarter campaign is both recognizing the expectations of those funding you, while simultaneously working to “manage” those expectations to a reasonable level.


  3. Another great post, Patrick. Yeah, we think we’ve got it so bad because of the “age we live in”. Come to find out, it’s just about being a creative, an artist, a musician, a writer, a scientist, a human being.
    It probably won’t make you money, but I’ll definitely be sharing your wealth of words on my social networks. 🙂


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  6. Food for thought. I was not aware of Kickstarter but I can see how it adds a whole new dimension to the creative process. Nothing is ever free and that applies to investment money for the creative process as well.


    1. Yup, no free lunch. I like that the Internet offers services like Kickstarter. I’ve read that it is proving more successful for people already with platforms–established actors attracting seed money for movies they want to produce, for example–but I’m sure there are success stories involving “regular” people like us.


  7. completelyinthedark

    Enjoyed reading this, Patrick because I recently had a “boots on the ground” experience with it. Last summer and early autumn I set up a Kickstarter campaign with six other contributors on a multimedia project centered around an old writing project of mine.

    All contributors were in for a cut on the final amount, which I (wrongly) assumed would be a motivator for them. However for the funders on the street, they had no assurances that “the vision” I had for the writing project would be worth their “investment.” I see that now.

    I think in the future I’ll focus more on what I (personally) am able to produce. But I do love collaborating. Writing is best done alone, and later with the aid of an editor. 🙂

    Cheers, Mike


    1. Fascinating, Michael. Thanks for allowing us to see behind the curtain. And as both a professional writer and editor, I fully endorse your thesis. Writing can be a solitary pursuit, but getting to publishing is best when collaborative.


  8. This is a great post Patrick. ‘Everything has a price’ comes to mind as I read this.
    My business is Interior Design and I am an Artist within, so often over the years our business could have been hijacked by well-meaning and generous larger companies. It has been a direct effort on our behalf to be skeptical of free-flowing financial control by others. We feel somewhat beholden to a regular cash flow provider and so have declined many a large contract in the knowledge that control of our process, remains with us.
    Having support for any business venture is an important ingredient in future success, but freedom of decision making, direction setting and creative scope are much more valuable.B


    1. Oh, the complications money brings!

      On my cross-country road trip I interviewed Sabra Field, a very accomplished printmaker in Vermont. She does some prints fully based on her own creative vision, and sells them in NYC galleries. But she also accepts commissions. She’s learned to tolerate that process, as ultimately you need to satisfy the customer, which could take you in directions you’d rather not go. She was selected to design Vermont’s bicentennial stamp, but when I praised her for it, she bristled a bit, recalling her frustration with the person the state government selected to work with her on it. But she pointed out Rembrandt produced great art on commission, so that’s good company!


  9. Yep, agree, everything has a price. Even working as a volunteer in an art group to promote other artists never felt exactly collaborative, but was hugely dictated by who in the group was the biggest bully! Sorry, colour me jaded. I know Kickstart helps some people, and when you are young, you often need help and it is gratefully received. I guess as we mature, we really want to make and abide by our own rules. Good, thought provoking post, Patrick!


    1. Interesting your perspective on young vs. more seasoned. I hadn’t thought of that. I do think a lot of the people who both seek funds and donate on Kickstarter are young; it is perhaps a reflection of both their embrace of digital services and also their greater sense of “connection” they are capable of feeling in a social media environment.


  10. Excellent post Patrick. We we’re not aware of this Kickstarter. In every age there are those who believe in & support the arts. Not just financially. By giving their business for readings & shows. Allowing Authors to exhibit their books, painters their work. We’ve been trying to bring about awareness locally by shining a light on just how much of the arts are being cut out of our schools. Whereas the athletics department seems to be striving!! It’s common in small towns. And unfortunate for those artistic young minds who don’t have access to the training, supplies & time needed to sharpen their gifts. Excellent post & sharing now.


  11. Another thought-provoking post, Patrick. I’ve supported a few Kickstarter projects (the most recent being ‘Storium,’ an online group-storytelling game. It already looks utterly amazing and exceeded its target yesterday, so that looks like being a goer. Yaay!) While some of them do offer benefits and perks depending on how much you pledge – and that’s always nice – I’m just as happy to support a project for no rewards if I think it’s something that needs and deserves to be created, regardless of whether I’D personally need or want it. Encourage the geniuses of this world, and more of them might then emerge blinking into the light 🙂

    I think some people get a bit narked when a Kickstarter project goes mega and corporate because there’s still this ideology that the people who apply are the underdogs who just can’t get a break any other way, and there’s a lot of empathy for that. And this can certainly be true; those people probably COULDN’T get any of those mega-corps to fund their project to fruition when they were just faceless nobodies.

    But the fact that those mega-corps who ignored them then suddenly leap up and try to make deals with them once all the hard work’s been done is hardly the fault of the project members. The Australians have a phrase for this kind of success backlash – ‘tall poppy syndrome’ (i.e once people start perceiving someone as becoming ‘too big’ they need to be cut down.) I’d prefer to reserve my cynicism for the big companies who only notice the little geniuses of the world when they hit gold, and fall over themselves to buy a piece of it before anyone else can.


    1. First of all, Wendy, I love your way with words. Narked! Tall poppy syndrome! Also, I think it’s interesting that you are happy not to receive a reward. I give occasionally to charities, and I get a bit “narked” when as a result they send me a calendar or mailing labels (who sends letters anymore?). I’d rather they spend that money on their charitable works. The reward I get is helping a good cause.

      I will confess to be a bit narked when I hear some celebrity or accomplished professional has used Kickstarter. It seems on some level they’re taking money from those who need it more. But I suspect my perspective is wrong. My guess is that fans of that actor or author give because they’re excited to have that connection, and the dollars they spend would not have been given to an unknown Kickstarter artist.


      1. Oh god yes, the money wastage that goes on in some charities is obscene.

        I supported one particular charity with a £5 a month regular donation, and I got a phone call one Saturday morning from a woman representing that charity, where she spent a good ten minutes trying to persuade me to up it to £10 a month. I couldn’t afford to do that at the time and told her so, but she was very persistent (“Oh come on, lots of people THINK they can’t afford it, but really, it’s often a simple matter of just going without a weekly magazine that makes the difference!”) but I held out – as I pointed out to her, if I really could afford it, I’d already have done it. “Oh alright then” she said. “Thank you for your time, I’ll let you go. Oh, by the way – I’m legally obliged to tell you that I am getting paid to call you this morning…”

        I was NOT happy! They were PAYING people to phone up those who were already regularly donating to badger them into donating more? I could understand if I was giving a huge amount, like a couple of hundred a month – but for £5 a month (the ‘standard’ amount that most people give to these charities)…. really? Her HOURLY pay rate would’ve been more than that. How many charitable donations were just wiped out as a consequence?

        Or maybe I’m just turning into a grumpy old lady who doesn’t like cold callers… 😉


        1. Wow! I don’t think I’ve ever had someone say that to me before, but sometimes I can gather they’re being paid. For example, any time I go to the Kennedy Center in DC for a performance (which is rare, I prefer theater in smaller venues, and the DC metro area has a fair number of small equity and community theaters that stage good shows), I know I’ll get several calls from the Kennedy Center asking for me to become a member. I assume those are paid staff. But I’d be ticked if it were a true philanthropic cause.


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