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“A Novel Venture” Revisited: Kickstarting a Writing Career

October 13, 2011

Quite a good long time ago, I wrote a post about one possible future publishing model that might rise up and replace (or co-exist with) the current traditional model.

I wrote about this before the real explosion in e-books that first started attracting attention sometime in November of 2010 – it’s here, all the way back in February 2010.  This was in the early days of my blog, before I had regular readers, so most of you will likely not have seen this post.

I called my idea the “Novel Venture Capital Model”, and the gist was that authors would somehow be able to tap into a network of “angel investors” or “venture capitalists” who were interested in finding and funding successful novelists.   The theory was that some authors would abandon traditional publishers because of crazy rights-grabs and depressed royalty rates – but they wouldn’t be able to fund the development, editing, cover art, printing and distribution of books themselves.  All of that costs money.  Traditionally, publishers fund all that, but the concept of this hypothetical model was to decouple the financing of book production from the physical process, allowing the authors themselves to be the business-people calling the shots.

And then, of course, the e-book revolution began.  And part of my hypothetical model actually started coming true.  Now, it wasn’t really a prediction – I included in my original post both a pro and a con for why it would succeed and why it would fail.  And I’m not interested in having been “right”.  What I am interested in is how reality is catching up to those proposals, and my own evolving thoughts on where the world of publishing is going, and what role I will be able to play in that future.

As part of that evolution, I posted the following tweet back in August of this year:

(I sent largely the same message to my Google+ and Facebook.)  I was sharing an article about the crowd-funding art project supporting site Kickstarter.  I’d heard of Kickstarter before this article, and had begun to think about it in the context of my previous post about “novel venture capitalists”.  I’d begun to think about how something like this might be integrated into my earlier idea, taking the place of the “Angel Investors“.  I wanted to share the idea in private because on one hand I thought the idea had real merit, and on the other if it went anywhere a part of me wanted to have a piece of it.  So I was hoping to start private conversations with other writers.  But I’m not exactly floating in orbits near the center of the writing and publishing worlds.  I’m way out here on the periphery, in the writing world’s Oort Cloud.

So yeah… that whole “starting a conversation” thing wasn’t going to happen.  So let me just share what my idea was, here: 

Publishing a book is expensive.  There are a lot of things that need to be done to polish a book and prepare it for the public, well after the book has been written.  There’s edits, proofreads, type-setting, cover art, possibly interior art, and so on.  Many – rather most – authors do not have the resources and funding independently to do all of this and publish a book. Even in the wake of the e-book revolution, there are still significant expense hurdles for individual authors.  I’ve done a lot of asking questions and reading up on what various digitally self-publishing authors are doing… and bringing an e-book to market can cost anywhere from five hundred to a few thousand dollars – depending on how well you want to do the job.   And that doesn’t count the cost of the hardware needed to properly check all the formatting – i.e. the e-readers themselves, which you’ll need if you want to see what your e-book will actually look like once it’s ready.

I don’t know about you but (a) if I were ever to digitally self-publish I’d want to do it right* and (b) I have a family and other obligations; I can’t just throw a few thousand at the wall and hope I can sell enough books to make my money back.  (I’ve crunched the numbers on what it would take, sales-wise, to make my money back at varying amounts of investment and varying price-points.  The break-even point varies quite a lot based on various factors… but even at a modest investment it can be a bit of a daunting number for a first-time novelist with no sales history.)

That’s why the angel investor idea seemed appealing: if an author were to go-it alone, how would they fund the production of their novel?  But the angel investor concept relied on something that seemed highly improbable: the spontaneous organization of a group of book-loving folks interested in investing in the production of novels.

That’s where Kickstarter came in: Kickstarter is aimed at creating a community of arts-interested folks who fund interesting and unique arts projects.  Rather than getting a return on their investment, the kind investors at Kickstarter get both (a) the achievement of the art project, which  has value in its own sake and (b) whatever related goodies the artist has devised to offer to his or her investors. 

As I read about Kickstarter, however, my thoughts changed again, as a few problems arose.  The thing about Kickstarter is that it’s not a truly democratic approach to crowd-funding – and this is actually part of what makes it work.  The people at Kickstarter decide which projects to allow on Kickstarter.  And they do further “gatekeeping” by way of selecting projects that they deem especially noteworthy to promote on the main page of the site.  This light-touch gatekeeping means that Kickstarter is highly successful at funding projects.  The problem, however, was that the community at Kickstarter - and the Kickstarter model, generally – is most interested in a certain kind of showy and non-traditional art.  Books, on the other hand, are not a very showy artistic format, and are very traditional.  There is not a a great overlap between the Kickstarter community and the community of those interested in books.

My theoretical solution?  A Kickstarter-inspired site – with largely similar functionality but with a narrow focus on books.  There would be clear options for authors, whether they were interested in physical production or only digital, and so on.  Experience would allow this site to have a suggested range of project costs for different options the author wanted to include in their book project: for instance different recommended ranges for cover art, or editing, or formatting services, and son, depending on what the author could do him- or herself and what they were outsourcing.  And the rewards to investors would likewise be easier to make more regular.  The site could even have a different thematic appearance based on whether you landed on a specific genre’s subpage.  And so on.

Alas… this concept does not exist.  And bringing it to be would be costlier far than just trying to self-publish a book.  So, in the mean time… there’s Kickstarter.

Imagine my amusement, then, when in the past few weeks I discovered authors are actually doing this

First, I saw that author Tobias Buckell had turned to Kickstarter to help fund the writing of a novel sequel that the traditional publishers weren’t interested in – the series has fans, but not enough sustained interest to warrant continued support from the publisher over something new.  Then Tobias posted a conversation with another author, Mary Ann Mohanraj, who is doing the same thing.

Mohanraj recently passed the successful funding benchmark on her project.  Buckell looks poised to do the same.  And, as it turns out, Kickstarter even has a whole subpage devoted to Fiction projects – though (unfortunately, I think) it does not (yet) subdivide further along genre boundaries.

It’s an interesting and as-yet mixed bag, I think.  A number of the authors doing this successfully are established names – mid-listers, if you will: besides Tobias Buckell and Mary Mohanraj I saw recently-successful projects by Tim Pratt and CE Murphy.  None are huge names, but seeing them tickled my memory bone, and I felt I had seen their books in a bookstore once or twice before.  And this makes sense: they have established fans and the following needed to pull this off, and the track-record to prove they can deliver on the promise.  At the same time, they’re not huge names, because huge name authors are going to get a lot more support from traditional publishers. 

But there are a number of authors whose names I’ve never heard of.  Writers who look never to have published before, or only to have digitally self-published before.

In other words… Kickstarter is actively and successfully being used in the way I conceived above – even with the limitations of the Kickstarter community.

That’s very interesting to me.

Creating a Kickstarter project adds complexity and additional uncertainty to the already-uncertain world of digital self-publishing.  There’s no telling whether your project will be accepted by Kickstarter, and if accepted whether you can find enough people willing to back your project.  There’s no telling whether your project will be promoted by the Kickstarter editorial staff.  But adding the Kickstarter layer brings self-publishing into the realm of financially feasible for many authors interested in taking a project directly to readers.

I, for one, remain interested and will follow this development to see what comes of it.

_________________________________________

*Readers who have seen my posts in the past few weeks about what I called the “seedy underbelly of the digital self-publishing revolution” and the related posts (here, here, here, here, here, and here) could be forgiven if they’ve come away with the impression that I’m against digital self-publication.  On the contrary, as I stated up-front in that series of posts, I think the addition of a digital self-publishing path is a good thing – albeit a very qualified good thing.  For myself, I’ve chosen the path that begins with attempting to achieve traditional publication – and success therein – first.  But I’m not so naive as to think my chances of succeeding there are a given, nor necessarily very high.  To follow my dream, I realize that I may yet have to take matters into my own hands and pursue this new path of self-publication. 

Regardless… as I’m still most of a year away from completing my current novel project, I’m not particularly worried about taking sides yet, because I have nothing yet to show for it.  Deciding what to do with my book can wait until I have a book.  And in the meantime, I’ll continue to learn from others already traveling both paths about the trials and travails and triumphs of each.

Update 10/18/2011: It looks like Tobias Buckell’s Kickstarter project crossed the finish line, with time to spare.

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