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.
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.