Crowdfunding Enters Adolescence

earth_eclipses_sun_APOD_200A year ago I was winding up my first crowdfunding campaign, for a YA novel that Book View Cafe published as Living in Threes.¬†I undertook the experiment at the suggestion of others who had gone before me, researched and studied what was known at the time, and succeeded in getting the project funded with room to spare. This year I’m at it again, this time with a space opera which I’ve titled Forgotten Suns.

Crowdfunding has been around on the internet for quite a few years. It started as, basically, people sitting down on a street corner, limbering up a pitch, and passing the hat for donations. That model still exists. Quite a few blogs, small and large, have a Donate button somewhere. Book View Cafe has one on this very blog.

Along about the time the economy clanked into the crapper, enterprising sorts had a thought. Why not centralize and organize crowdfunding? Set up a website and a donate button, invite project creators to set up shop, and collect a percentage of the proceeds. And so were born Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Peerbackers, and many more. Kickstarter is probably the best known of the lot, though Indiegogo gets a fair amount of buzz as well.

Kickstarter’s business model is pretty simple. The site offers a setup, a template, and a set of rules for the workings of its thousands of projects.

Rule one is, whatever funding goal the creator sets, that goal must be met, or the project doesn’t happen. It’s all or nothing. If the goal isn’t met, any backers who’ve signed on are not charged for their pledges, and the creator gets nothing.

But if the goal is met, it needn’t stop there. It can go as high as the backers are willing to take it–into the hundreds of thousands or even millions. Mostly, that’s games and visual media, notably the Veronica Mars movie project, which set records in its first few hours, or the Fate Core gaming system, which started with a $3000 goal and funded at over $400,000. Yes, that’s six figures. No decimal point.

Publishing doesn’t tend to attract quite so numerous or so well-heeled an audience, but considering where most authors’ advances are these days, a campaign that brings in mid-five figures, 90% of which goes to the author (with 5% to Kickstarter and the rest to Amazon Payments which administers the funding), is directly competitive with what publishers are offering. But instead of a third-party broker/seller packaging the author’s work and distributing it to the reader, the author takes the project to readers directly.

Great idea, and readers come on board in hundreds or thousands. The drawback for authors is that, unless they have an established fan base, or access to one through other venues (blogging, fan fiction and fandom, celebrity status of some sort, etc.), it can be difficult to attract enough backers to fund the project. Even a very small campaign, in three figures, usually intended to cover the costs of turning the ms. into an ebook, needs backers willing and able to throw enough money in the hat to meet the funding goal.

Last year there was much discussion of this disconnect, and arguments trended toward, “But if all the celebrities and the popular kids get on the bandwagon, won’t donors suffer from lack of cash and/or funding fatigue? Will there be anything left for the little guys?”

This year, as crowdfunding has evolved and become more familiar to larger pools of both creators and backers, the answer more and more seems to be, “Well, actually, no. And yes.” No to donor fatigue. Yes to funds available for newer or less popular projects.

It’s become a self-supporting system. Creators back each other. Backers share information about projects they’re backing, assisted by the platforms, which offer “Discover New Projects” options, and “Editors’ Picks,” and “Fan Favorites,” and so on. Many people involved in the process keep a little spare cash on hand every month to toss in the hat of an interesting or deserving project. It doesn’t need to be much: even a dollar gets a backer into the loop for updates on the project, and for five or ten dollars a backer can effectively preorder a book or get a shooting script or see the art for an illustrated project.

With Kickstarter it can get really interesting, because it’s become a tradition if a project is funded early for creators to offer what’s called stretch bonuses–additional rewards for backers if the project hits a set of additional goals. In publishing projects that can be more written material related to the project, swag such as bookmarks and t-shirts, art, or a backer favorite, a glimpse under the hood: access to different drafts of the project, worldbuilding notes, editorial materials, and so on.

Backers love being part of the process. As I write this, a new backer has just come on board my spaceship for a substantial sum, with the reward of being written into the novel–and that’s the seventh backer who has chosen this reward. Last year’s project racked up $1200 in a day for the chance to watch me worldbuild a brand-new story. This year, I’m offering excerpts from¬† new story for each of three stretch goals, with the third being the completed story. Right at this moment, it looks as if we just may make it.

It’s also clear that this project’s total will come in quite a bit over last year’s–which also seems to be a thing. Creators have to be careful not to saturate their market, and have to time their projects with care, but those who do this tend to improve their totals with each campaign.

It’s an interesting world out there. For authors with projects that have been judged unsalable by conventional publishers, it’s often a godsend–and even more so, I think, for their fans.

This week we have April Steenburgh’s anthology, Fight Like a Girl, in the home stretch. Bradley Beaulieu is funding the third volume of a fantasy trilogy, which his publisher declined to publish. And Long Hidden: Speculative Fiction from the Margins of History just funded spectacularly well. So much so that it’s adding authors and stories, and bringing a collection into the world that would not have existed without crowdfunding and social media.

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Crowdfunding Enters Adolescence — 4 Comments

  1. Is the crowdfunding audience, do you think, more or less conservative than publishing acquisitions editors?

    • I would say quite a bit less. They’ll take cross-genre projects, projects related to published works that didn’t sell as well as the money people wanted, shorter works, quirky works, anthologies (which as a rule don’t sell particularly well in the open market)…

      With crowdfunding, a couple of hundred dedicated or curious fans can make a project successful. In publishing, especially among the major publishers, the minimum number is several thousand–but first of all the work has to catch the interest of the tiny handful of distributors’ buyers who will order the book based on computer models and prior sales. It’s a tough gauntlet to run, and heavily weighted toward works with broad appeal. No room there for niche works or works that don’t fit the categories.

  2. Bradley Beaulieu is funding the third volume of a fantasy trilogy, which his publisher declined to publish.

    Technically, the way I understand it, not true…but they wanted to delay it interminably. Which might be the same thing. Of course given the news about said publisher…

    Anyway, I think established authors with track records can do very well by kickstarter (and self publishing in general) as long as standards are maintained. Its a high wire act, a couple of bad projects and people will not vote with their money

    • Thanks for clarification/correction re. the Beaulieu project.

      Good point about quality control, too. Fulfillment is key. The project has to do what it promises, in a timely way. That’s why a track record helps so much. If an author has published elsewhere, or successfully completed a project previously, it’s a good sign for the project at hand.