Kickstarter Kerfuffle, Part Two: Thoughts And Clarifications

[EDIT: 12:03PM — some folks have brought up that other voices have made good points on the subject, particularly the voices of, frankly, women smarter than I am. I do attempt to boost other voices when possible, so here are some I found valuable on the topic: Marni Bates wrote a great post about Stacey Jay, Kickstarter and Veronica Mars. She really nails it. Also: Justina Ireland: Suffering For (And With) Our Art. And for a differing perspective (one I don’t quite agree with but I like Jenny Trout’s blog a lot in general): Jenny Trout on crowdfunding.]

[Edited, too, to add Natalie Luhrs’ take — Kickstart This: Asking For Money.]

* * *

Catchup reading homework: Stacey Jay’s latest post, which she (rightly so) gets mad and discusses the transparency surrounding her Kickstarter (and also the fact that, ohh, someone sent her aerial photos of house as a response, which is not fucking okay). Also, the tag-team post between Laura Lam and I here: Kickstarter: What’s Asking Too Much?

(Also, as a disclaimer, I received some commentary that me interjecting myself in this discussion was sexist — the justification being, because this was an issue between Stacey Jay and Other Women, it was a women’s issue. I’m a white guy who is, honestly, pretty lucky to be a white guy because we can get away with like, actual murder, and I recognize that my privilege is blinding. So, if you feel that I’m being somehow misogynist in my criticism or in the very act of talking about this topic, feel free to talk to me about it. I’m having a hard time seeing it, as I think this is an issue of art and commerce and audience, but “having a hard time seeing it” is sometimes the very sad and awful nature of privilege. Happy to discuss!)

In the days following Stacey Jay’s Kickstarter, I continue to see criticism of the model and of the authors who use or have used it, and so I thought: well, let’s go through some of these criticisms. This is a good discussion to have, because it gets to the heart of the question of how we make art and how that art reaches audiences. Right? The model has changed over the many moons and epochs and up until fairly recently, you had one primary path and it was a well-trodden, muddy one — you went to a publisher, and they gave you some kind of advance big or small (or sometimes non-existent), and then you wrote a book for them and then it landed on shelves and — well, you know this, already. Because this is recent history. Dinosaurs didn’t do this. This wasn’t a problem of Cro-Magnon man figuring out how to publish his cave paintings of that romance novel between Caveman Thog and that one saucy antelope. This shit just happened.

Then the Internet came along and it disrupted everything.

It is so disruptive it continues, in fact, to disrupt itself. Like a snake eating and barfing its own tail.

And suddenly writers and artists and, in fact, People Who Make All Kinds Of Shit had options and opportunities that simply didn’t exist before. The priests of the old religion went scrambling, trying to figure out when the commonfolk created a pipeline to talk directly to God instead of going through a passel of divine intermediaries.

That’s not to say traditional publishing is bad or dying or any of that — just that it was not a perfect system and it remains imperfect and for Creative Types, it’s nice to have a new way to shake hands with the audience and slip some art in their eyeholes.

You know all this already.

Point is, one of the options that has arisen is crowdfunding Cool Shit. Cool Shit that sometimes includes books — novels, novellas, art books, short stories, serial stories, etc.

Kickstarter launched in 2009.

It has successfully funded almost 1500 novels in that time.

(The amount not funded? ~3-4 times that.)

About 50 of those successfully funded were young adult projects.

Some Kickstarter novels have done very well.

I’ve been involved in several Kickstarter campaigns: one for my own original book, Bait Dog. One for a novel line created specifically for Evil Hat Productions. And also for a few anthologies and literary magazines (like Fireside).

So, let’s tackle some of the criticism I’m seeing going around.

It puts all the risk on the reader.

Maybe not all the risk (the author still has to write and publish a book), but it certainly moves some of that financial burden to the audience side, yes. Some people are understandably not interested in shouldering any of that burden, and they shouldn’t be expected to contribute to Kickstarters if they feel such discomfort. On the other side, if one’s fans and audience are interested in having that relationship and are comfortable shouldering some of that risk, then crowdfunding is a very nice way to capitalize on that relationship for both sides. Because it is a two-sided equation — this isn’t just an author getting rich, rolling around in caviar (ew), and then fucking off to the Caribbean. This is the author doing work and giving the audience something the audience specifically asked for. Riskier, yes, but also a direct exchange.

It’s not an investment.

That’s true, it’s not. And there are admittedly a lot of analogies that get thrown around as to how this works, and I’ll tackle some of those (with the explicit understanding that all analogies fail and crowdfunding is its own unique thing). But no, the audience gets nothing financial out of it.

They may get rewards — swag, a short story, a Tuckerization, a jar of bees, or whatever.

You might argue that there is some kind of investment going on, and that is to say, emotional and creative investment. That means you put in money and in the process get an emotional and creative stake in the creation of something. Something that, very likely, wouldn’t have existed before. Crowdfunding allows projects that wouldn’t have existed to exist. It applies early proof-of-concept. When I put Bait Dog out there as a KS campaign I didn’t know if I had enough audience to support the writing of the book — meaning, taking the time to write that book would have taken me away from other work. Crowdfunding sent a very clear signal that I did have the audience to support that book. And, the book and character only exist because of Kickstarter.

It’s a donation / it’s a gift.

It’s definitely not a gift. A gift is like, “Here’s a pony.” And then I take the pony and you don’t expect anything in return and then I eat the pony because I’m a monster.

(You shouldn’t have given me a pony.)

So, is it a donation? Ennh. Well, I can see the logic — like, if NPR/PBS goes on a pledge drive, they’re saying, “Hey, we can’t really keep existing unless we raise funds from you.” And they call them pledges but they also call them donations. You give money. You get a fucking tote bag. And what’s happening with Kickstarter is similar — authors are saying, “This book won’t exist except for you funding it.” And the interjections of money are called pledges.

And you sometimes get tote bags.

I have a little discomfort in that NPR tends to fund itself in perpetuity this way, where as Kickstarter is ostensibly (though some bigger campaigns have skirted this) meant to fund individual projects — so, you’re not throwing money to support an overall existence but rather, the creation of a given thing. Just the same: donation isn’t the worst definition for what’s happening here, though the connotation is a bit wonky and too much like charity.

(Hint: this isn’t charity.)

It’s not an advance.

It’s not. Though, a lot of the criticism over this term in this context seems to be overly pedantic in that what they mean is, “It’s not a traditional publishing advance by which a big publisher fronts a bunch of money and gets a return on that investment and then the big publisher becomes a giant robot and fights the Amazon Kaiju in the streets of Chicago and –”

Well, you get the point.

No, strictly speaking, it is not an advance.

But you do have to allow us to say, “It’s like an advance,” because it kinda is.

The audience advances money. The author is expected to produce the thing that was a part of the original deal — meaning, the Kickstarted Tale of Debauchery and Woe or whatever the floppy fuck it is. The advance is the publisher saying, “I’m paying you to write this book or to stake my claim on a book already written.” And here, the audience is saying, “I’m paying you to write this book or to stake my claim on a book already written” (Some folks do after all run Kickstarters for novels that are already written.)

So, it’s not an advance.

But it can feel like one and act like one in some ways.

You shouldn’t use it to fund your life.

Strictly speaking, that’s correct. Kickstarter in particular frowns upon and usually forbids funding-of-life projects — meaning, “I want to be paid to learn to play the violin, so pay me.” That’s a different service, like Patreon or GoFundMe.

Kickstarting a novel isn’t that, though.

You pay into the novel and get the reward level pledged.

That specifically funds the creation of a specific thing.

Now, here’s where it gets sticky, and here’s probably where some authors (like myself, admittedly) are going to get their codpieces in a contortion about the whole thing — you don’t want to pay for living expenses for the writer. (A quote from the Dear Author post on the subject: “As to why other people are talking about living expenses, it could be because living expenses are something we all have to pay regardless of our avocations or jobs whereas the hard expenses are something that are above and beyond living expenses. The truth is in every fundraising organization, the hardest thing to get anyone to donate money for is a general fund that pays salaries. People will give money for libraries, monuments, science labs, but they do not like to donate for salaries. Readers work hard and often work at low paying, thankless jobs. To see a person ask for donations to live when that person is able-bodied and can hold a job, then it becomes less obvious why they need donations for living expenses.” That post actually screencaps this blog but does not name it, so there you go.)

Here is a reality: when you buy one of my books, you’re paying for my living expenses. That’s true if it’s at Amazon, on B&N, from Payhip direct, or in a Kickstarter. Sometimes this money directly hops into my bank accounts, sometimes it goes through various pipes and tubes and filtering processes where it’s winnowed down.

I worked for a library and I’ve worked for a non-profit and in each, the first place the money goes is to keeping the lights on and to paying staff. That money is not always golden money, but it’s not bare minimum stuff, either — yes, the organization takes cuts and makes sacrifices when necessary, but the money goes toward those things first. So: if you’re involved in giving money to an author however directly or obliquely, assume it’s going first toward keeping the lights on and paying staff (meaning: the staff of one, which is us). (Also, “The Staff of One” sounds like something in a D&D game. Or a sci-fi porn movie? Never mind.) These things are, quite literally, living expenses. Being alive is a prerequisite to writing books.

I mean, I’m sure some zombies do it, but it’s all CHAPTER ONE: BUHHH BRAINS ONCE UPON A TIME BRAINS ROPES OF VISCERA CHAPTER TWO EAT YOUR FACE BUHHHHH.

Also, it’s a bold assumption that an author is able-bodied and can hold a job. Also a bold assumption that they are able to even get a job, as that can be kind of tricky.

Oh, and also a bold assumption that writing isn’t a job in the first place.

(Spoiler alert: it is! It’s actually my job! My whole job!)

As to readers working hard at thankless, low-paying jobs: sure, that can be true. And I wouldn’t ever expect or ask such a reader to contribute to a Kickstarter campaign. Hell, I wouldn’t expect or ask a wealthy reader to contribute, either. Kickstarter is voluntary. No one should feel shame at not contributing. It’s okay to wait or not to pay at all. No guns held to heads.

But some readers want to contribute. They are offering enthusiastic consent and want to be a part of that relationship. Some readers — as I have done as a Giver of Money — dig the idea that a creative project exists in part because of their will to see it made. Sometimes a project is Too Weird To Live. It’s too uncertain — a strange format, an odd topic, a difficult subject. And Kickstarter can be a place where those voices can find a megaphone. Where those projects can be conjured as if by some divine summoning.

Now, back to the funding-of-life thing:

If you see an art studio on Kickstarter, it’s assumed they’re going to use that money to keep the lights and heat on in the building. If you buy a book from a publisher, that publisher will use that money for lights and heat and to pay staff and writers who will also use that money for — YEP YOU GUESSED IT — light and heat.

Living expenses are part of the deal even when not explicitly stated.

A writer should have to shoulder all the cost as a small business would.

Well, no, not really.

First: should is dubious and depends on literally nothing except the old saw of, “That’s how things used to be done.” The disruption that’s been ongoing in all industries and sectors has made hashbrowns out of the way things used to be done.

Second: why should a writer have to do that, exactly? Because others have done it? Mm — *sips* — this Kool-Aid tastes like sour grapes. As I said before, wanting things to be bad for other people because they were bad for you doesn’t make much sense. We should strive to see things be made better. We should want new doors opened — doors that were closed to us in the past. So we can collectively explore whatever waits beyond. (Though in publishing, a pro-tip: it’s probably a grue.)

Third: small business do not uniformly have to shoulder all the costs. They get investors (which is not an option for many writers). Or — they go to Kickstarter! Kickstarter isn’t just for novels and in fact it’s barely been used for those. But for games? Tech? Coffee roasters, craft brewers, thingies, whatsits, widgets, dongles, dildos, and more? Yes! It’s all there. In a town about 45 minutes south there sits a frozen yogurt place that exists only because of Kickstarter. I gave a little money and got frozen yogurt and now they exist.

IT’S BASICALLY MAGIC.

Why do we want things to keep working the same horrible way they’ve always worked?!

It’s an insult to readers.

It’s not. It’s not!

It’s an opportunity for both author and reader.

It is never an insult to ask to be paid for your work.

And I don’t think readers feel insulted, either.

It’s not sustainable / it’ll change everything / a rush to money, etc.

This has been going on for many years now and we’ve seen, as noted, around 1500 successful novels. On Amazon, there now exist — what? Three million e-books? Kickstarter isn’t taking over or it would’ve colonized us by now like drug-resistant staph bacteria. KICKSTART THE HIVE MIND BZZ BZZ BZZ. Ahem. It won’t change everything. It won’t ruin everything. People aren’t rushing to it because for the most part they’ve realized that to run a successful Kickstarter you need some things already in place.

But it is one option for some authors.

That’s a good thing. We like options.

Readers like options, too! How is this bad for those readers who are interested?

Some books exist because of Kickstarter and other crowdfunding efforts.

How fucking rad is that?

This is not anti-author / authors hate bloggers / authors hate readers, etc. Also, we should be allowed to criticize Kickstarter and crowdfunding and those authors who use those services.

I’ve seen the rhetoric kicked up on both sides of this debate, and from where I’m sitting, this isn’t a blogger issue. Or a reader issue. Authors love bloggers and love readers, sure as we love booksellers and librarians and publishing people and anybody who shares the warm, fuzzy virus known as ragingly contagious book-love.

If we seem prickly about the subject: apologies. But let me try to get at the heart of it a little bit: crowdfunding is an option on the table. One lots of authors have used. It’s a new way for books to exist and so, when you criticize them — sometimes in ways that seem to misunderstand how it even works, and sometimes in ways that suggests you’re uncomfortable with us paying living expenses — we’re probably going to see our hackles raise a little. Nobody was explicitly calling for authors to not be paid or asking for books for free or any of that. But at the heart of this discussion is an ancient question of how do we get paid to make art — ? How does the writer survive? We should be encouraging a world where fewer authors have to take the dreaded day-job and where their writing alone can support them. That’s an amazing world, and I’d rather see that money go toward creative people than toward, I dunno, oil companies or anybody else. And Kickstarter is one way forward for that.

Kickstarter is not perfect. Of course criticism of the process is valid. And some campaigns do it poorly (and usually perform poorly as a result). This is all a vital discussion about how art is made and how it reaches audiences. We just want to make sure that the criticism isn’t geared toward closing this door. Because it’s open now, and we want it open. Not because we’re Big Exploity-Faced Mine Bosses who want to give pick-axes to our readers and have them do the work while we sit back on toilets made of hundred-dollar bills, but because this is a super-cool thing for us. To interface directly with readers, to be able to say, “If you want this, my 1000 true fans, I will make this.” And they say yes. And a book is born! In a manger! Okay maybe not in a manger!

There was much rejoicing.

(On the Stacey Jay Kickstarter, I stand by the idea that some folks made it personal. In other words, not criticizing just the nature of crowdfunding but choosing to yell at her — and as soon as you start bringing up her groceries or, worse, where she lives as if that’s a justification for anything, you start making it less about crowdfunding and more about that individual person. As I said before, it’s like being mad at the ocean but yelling at one woman in a boat. A commenter on my last post demanded proof that anyone had gotten personal and in the same comment literally said: “Chuck, I really think you’re doing that think mend [sic] do when a girl cries and you rush in to save her. Where is she to speak for herself? If you can’t defend yourself then you don’t deserve to be an author. Put on your big girl panties and deal with it-don’t run away and quit. And I’ll take this time to remind everyone that Stacey Jay was a professional actress. Drama is literally what she is good at.” Which is the very definition of personal. Oh and SHE WAS DOXXED.)

(I mean, what the fuck.)

(God, people can be shitty.)

Anyway, so, there you go.

My thoughts on Kickstarter and why it’s a vital resource for some authors.

Discuss.