Kickstarter Tag Team Post: What’s Asking Too Much?

Okay, here’s the deal. I have thoughts on this whole Kickstarter kerfuffle yesterday, and my ranty-pants are securely fastened upon my kicking legs. Ah, but YA author Laura Lam — a wonderful author fresh from the fallout with Strange Chemistry — also had thoughts and asked if she could write up a guest post at the blog. I said hell yes, and told her I’d add my thoughts, too, at the bottom of the post. TAG TEAM MATCH. Here, then, is Laura, with her thoughts:

Very recently, YA author Stacey Jay launched a Kickstarter to fund her sequel to her first novel, Princess of Thorns. Hers is a familiar tale: due to low sales of the first, her publisher declined to pick up the sequel. But the sales were still high enough to investigate self-publishing. Yet self-publishing in YA can be a tricky beast. E-book sales are still a smaller slice of the pie than print sales, meaning without bookstore and library presence, it can be hard to gauge interest. She created a Kickstarter, detailing her goals: $3,500 for fees, cover, and editing, and around $7,000 to make it a financially viable option for her because it’d be enough to cover basic bills and give her 3 uninterrupted months to write the novel and get it to readers sooner.

Yet Kickstarter is more about the end product, some argue. Living expenses aren’t a product. Stacey Jay came under criticism, both for asking for an advance, essentially, and for the line saying if it didn’t fund she’d instead focus on re-publishing her backlist. Some thought it had a whiff of emotional blackmail about it. (I didn’t see it that way. She writes under three names and is supporting a family. I figured she was saying if it doesn’t fund, she’ll focus on things that will let her provide for her family).

Stacey Jay ended up taking down the Kickstarter, and writing a blog post saying she’s stepping back from writing as Stacey Jay for a while.

Hearty debate ensued on Twitter – was this right? Is it fair? Was it bullying? When crowdfunding, is it appropriate to ask for more than simply production costs? As hybrid publishing is becoming more common, it all ended up coming to a head here—unfortunately for Stacey Jay.

So, my feelings. I think this story especially hit home for me. I don’t know Stacey Jay, but man, I just want to give her a hug. My books Pantomime & Shadowplay came out, but my trilogy was cancelled, and then the imprint folded a few months later. I have considered Kickstarter, and done a lot of research on it over the last few months, but since some stuff is up in the air, I haven’t gone live. But if things had gone differently, I might have been Kickstarting Masquerade (book 3) right about now. And then, maybe, this could have been me? Who knows.

Perhaps, in a request like this where living expenses for three months were needed, something like Patreon or IndieGoGo would have been better than Kickstarter. However, this can be a hard call. I asked on Twitter a few times over the past year if Kickstarter or IndieGoGo would be better for raising production costs for a book. With IndieGoGo you can have flexible funding and keep what you raise instead of losing everything, so that was appealing. People overwhelmingly told me Kickstarter because it had a bigger reach, so I figured I’d use that if I needed to.

In terms of Patreon, that seems to be more of a website to support an artist from month to month, regardless of the specific project. This can work really well for ongoing things, like Peter and Emma Newman’s excellent podcast Tea and Jeopardy (here’s their Patreon page). But if I wanted a set amount for a set goal Kickstarter would probably still be what I’d go for.

I don’t think saying outright that some of your money going towards having the time to create the product is disingenuous. The most precious commodity for writers is to have time to write. Time to create a good product is just as important as having a good cover and strong edits, if not more so. I’d rather read an awesome book with a horrific cover than the other way around.

Other people thought the levels weren’t generous enough. $5 for an e-book seems to be fairly standard practice in a lot of Kickstarters. Yeah, $10 for just an e-book is a bit steep. But I do see Kindle books regularly for sale by publishers for that price. I’ve bought Kindle e-books at $10, and recently. Yeah, I’ve grumbled about it, but if I love the author and know I’ll love the book, eh. It’s the price of a movie ticket but a book lasts longer than 2 hours. I’ve also seen other Kickstarters that funded and then some having a $10 e-book levels, too.

Would I have run a Kickstarter the same way? No, I would have done some things differently, but hey, I’m a different person, so that’s not terribly surprising.

I would have given a more detailed breakdown of costs. I’d have a wide range of rewards with different options, with the hope that there’d be something for everyone. Benefits for librarians, teachers, or booksellers. For e-only bundles, they’re the highest profit margin because you don’t have to pay for postage. To sweeten the pot, maybe I’d add some exclusive extra short stories for KS backers only, or deleted scenes, or access to a forum to discuss things about the book. I think offering print copies is still important, but that means: physical formatting & costing print runs or seeing if you only need CreateSpace. Also: lots and lots of swag! Everyone loves swag, right?

That gets complicated really fast though. And it gets more expensive, and that it’d take a lot more time, taking away from other potential (paying) projects.

And time is still the kicker. Writing takes time. Having the time to write takes money. You can’t get around that. Publishers pay advances. Most of the time it’s not enough to fully support you, but $7k is still a standard advance for a lot of authors (for SJ, it was a 60% paycut from the first book). Not everyone is in a position of privilege to be able to ask only for production costs and hope that, once all the work is done and it’s out in the world, it’ll make a profit eventually. From my own experience, my self-published short stories and novellas, Vestigial Tales, haven’t made me the professional minimum of 5 cents a word yet, even though they’ve been on sale for 2-6 months. That was a hell of a lot of work. Not everyone can write for free and love and warm fuzzies. But creators are still battling this notion that we deserve to be paid for the work that we do.

And, importantly, it’s so hard to reach out for help to crowd-fund a novel, especially on a series where publishers have told you they don’t think it’s worth the money. You’re vulnerable. I don’t blame her one put for putting up her hands and going “you know what? Never mind. I’m sorry this didn’t work out.”

Kickstarter is optional. If a Kickstarter is your jam, you pay the level you choose. As long as you receive the product on time as promised, the obligation has been fulfilled. If I’m paying $10 instead of $5 and that $5 difference is going to go to letting the artist whose work I admire be able to create a better book sooner, and I know that and don’t care, then what, exactly, is the problem here?

* * *

*Chuck jetpacks in, lands on the back of a sea serpent, ululates*

Isn’t getting cranky about Kickstarters a 2011-2012 thing?

Is this time travel? Maybe it’s just nostalgia for an Internet kerfuffle from our salad days. Soon VH1 will do a series of episodes — “Internet Kerfuffles of the Last Decade,” and a hilarious panel of Z-List talents will opine about this.

So, here’s the thing.

I did a Kickstarter to fund a novel. A YA novel, actually, called Bait Dog.

I did that three years ago.

At the time, Kickstarter campaigns were not yet super-savvy and. I didn’t know what the floppy fuck I was doing, so I didn’t talk much about why I was asking for what I was asking in terms of money (which was three grand). I didn’t reference what would go toward cover art and editing and all that. I also didn’t note that uhh, yeah, some of that money would land squarely in my pocket.

It would be something roughly comparable to an advance — money up front that would pay for a pre-order. A pre-order for a novel that I had not yet written. I knew the novella had sold really well, but I wasn’t sure how much of an audience was out there clamoring for the next part. So, I thought, a Kickstarter is a good way to test those waters. I’d land a Kickstarter, see who flocked to it and who didn’t, and if it funded — well, then I knew I had the audience to write that book.

As I am wont to say about crowdfunding, in the OLDEN DAYS of HUNTING BUFFALO and HAVING ONLY ONE WAY TO PUBLISH, you worked your way to the stage and then the crowd would carry you away from it on a magical fun ride over their heads. Now? Kickstarter and the other platforms for crowdfunding determine whether or not the crowd will surf your ass to the stage, not away from it. If you have the audience? They’ll get you there. If not? You’re gonna drop on your head and crack your creative skull like an egg.

But that’s how it’s supposed to work. If I don’t fund, why make the thing at all?

A lot of Kickstarter campaigns work this way. It is situation normal.

For me, my Kickstarter was funded 100% in 10 hours.

It gave life to the book, Bait Dog, and that book then went on to a more traditional publishing deal — and, in a bit of utter shamelessness, I’ll note that the book releases in e-book and paperback at the end of this month. Further, I’ll get to write a second book as part of that deal (tentative title: Frack You) and Kickstarter backers will receive a copy of that book, too (thanks to stretch goals and the goodness of my publisher, Skyscape).

Some of that money from the Kickstarter?

It probably went to groceries.

It helped fund my life, in a literal sense.

Now, here is where you object, flailing your arms around — “Buh, buh, buh, Kickstarter is to fund projects and products, not lives.” And your point is accurate, if a little pedantic. But here’s the deal: let’s say the money is there to pay for the project only. Let’s say I want to pay an editor, a graphic designer, a dog-washer, a bodyguard to keep away my adoring fans (all three of you, two of whom are actually just cardboard cut-outs with leather masks over their drooping heads). Okay, so, the campaign is successful and I pay them.

Where does that money go? Once it reaches the intended recipients, I mean.

I’m going to take a wild guess here and say it goes toward paying their bills.

Meaning, I’m helping to fund their lives, if in a small way.

So, back to me. Me, me, me. *pirouettes*

I’m part of the equation, too, and so was Stacey Jay in her own campaign. She was acting as writer and as publisher of the work. Two genuinely essential jobs in the creation of this work. One could argue that she ventured too much information in being honest about, ohhh, needing to eat and pay those pesky bills, but truth is, the Kickstarter would have paid her to write and publish the book. Paying for those things, yes, means some of that money is going to find its way into her own personal ecosystem. Because it needs to.

What, she and her family should starve while she writes the book?

And here, you object: well, I starved when I wrote mine, why shouldn’t she?

That’s not very nice. Is it? That’s like saying, “I didn’t have the Internet when I was a kid, why should all these other kids?” Next thing we know, you’re telling us how you had to walk to school uphill both ways and cross rushing rapids and there was this evil ring you had to go drop into a volcano along the way and you were being hunted by orcs and the ghosts of corrupted kings, and then you’re shaking your cane and talking about those damn kids and why don’t they get off your lawn and stop playing video games while they’re at it.

Here you might say: well, I had to work a dayjob when I wrote my book, why shouldn’t she?

Again: super not cool. Why do you insist that things be bad for others like they were for you?

Here’s a thought: celebrate that Kickstarter is now an option.

One you, and me, and you over there, could use.

The starving artist is a real-life trope that we should never, ever encourage. Listen, being a creative person is hard enough as it is. It’s a path fraught with boundless uncertainty. And one such uncertainty is: will I be able to feed myself next month, next year, for the next ten? Can I feed my family? Can I have a family? It’s scary. It’s life without a net. Kickstarter, along with other modes of self-publishing, is a valuable way — one option — to create cool stuff.

Out of the $10k, she was asking for $7k for three months.

Roughly, $2,300 a month, or $28,000 a year.

(Not exactly The Great Gatsby.)

You might offer: This isn’t an advance and most authors don’t get advances.

Well, it functions for the author as a kind of advance and to the reader as a kind of pre-order system and… again, some authors don’t get advances and some do. She wanted to feed her family while she wrote. Not buy a Wave Runner. Hell, if she wanted to buy a Wave Runner with that money: not my business.

*takes a note: run Kickstarter campaign to buy self a Wave Runner*

You might say: but this challenges my livelihood, and it changes the system.

Meaning, what? It changes the way books are written? And marketed? It doesn’t change what’s already happening out there — it just adds a brand new option. It’s like, the door out of the room is still there — but now you have another door. And a window. And a basement. Options. Paths. Choices. Those are choices for you too. It changes nothing except gives you more ways to write, more ways to reach an audience. How is that bad?

Well, I don’t want to be marketed to all the time by these authors with Kickstarters.

Hey, I don’t either, so if an author gets noisy about it, I unfollow them. That’s true of anybody who acts like a human product and not a human — get spammy, I boot you out the airlock.

I didn’t like the way Stacey Jay ran her campaign.

So, maybe don’t put money into it? A weird, revolutionary concept, I know, but Kickstarter and other creative endeavors is one of those ways where voting with your dollar really matters.

We should be allowed to criticize her and her campaign and this process.

You can, and you are, allowed. Just as I’m allowed to sit here and tell you why I disagree. I disagree because what you’re criticizing is her option. Moreover, an option that is not precisely new — like I say, this is kinda how Kickstarters work. It’s how mine worked three years ago. You’re yelling at a woman in a boat because you’re mad at the ocean. Meaning: if you don’t like the Kickstarter option, or self-publishing, or traditional publishing, okay. Criticize the mode and the model. But sniping at those using those models is, to my mind, a little bit of dirty pool. It’d be one thing if she used the model in a way that wasn’t expected or wasn’t standard. It’d be one thing if her campaign was somehow socially bereft — racist, sexist, or shitty in some other hurtful way.

But, to me, she wanted to write a book and she got grief for it. (I dunno that I’d call it “bullying” — I think in this Internet Age, we maybe overuse that term when real bullying exists. Both in the halls of schools and across social media. Gamergate is home to a great many bullies, actual bullies.) Do I think criticism is fair? Sure. You’re free to do it, and she’s free to respond however she responds. But we’re all free to respond to that, too, and honestly, I don’t see the problem. Not contributing money toward the Kickstarter is the cleanest, simplest way to let her do her thing while simultaneously not supporting her. Just as you likely do day in and day out with 99.9% of the media that crosses in front of you.

Again, you can find Stacey Jay’s apology and retreat from Kickstarter here.

I hope none of this stops others from exploring the wide, weird variety of writing and publishing choices available to them. Lots of options that will continue to exist only when we use them.