Crowdfunding for Fiction

A new source of funding, but will it last?

I have been following this new phenomenon as it relates to fiction writers, and have often wondered where it would lead. On the surface, it looks like a pretty cool thing – a funding source that never existed before, a replacement to the publisher’s advance, this time, paid forward by readers. But then I tried to look at the pros and cons (I’m cautious by nature) and this is what I came up with:

Pros

a)Money paid up front to recognize the writer’s effort.

b)A vote of confidence by readers on the success of the book.

c)Advance publicity for the writer and her work

d)The opportunity to create new followers from the crowdfunding space.

e)A yardstick to measure the book’s potential before going through the expense of publishing it.

Cons

a)Publicly perceived failure if the sum of funds targeted is not raised.

b)An expectation of performance by readers that can put undue pressure on the writer.

c)Intrusion by readers through discussion forums (some call it collaboration) on the writer’s idea and delivery, thus cramping his style or forcing him to make tough choices.

d)Withdrawal by traditional funding sources (i.e. publishers, grants organizations etc.) when they know that this public funding source is now a mainstream event and should be a writer’s first port of call for financial assistance.

e)Withdrawal by crowdfunders when the space gets “crowded” and choices have to be made, or when diminishing returns accrue.

Crowdfunding, or any other patronage model for that matter, had to happen, as traditional sources began to dry up. But as it relates to fiction, where we have created a culture of “content is free” I am finding it hard to understand why consumers will pay it forward to fund a book, and pay far more than the price of a copy (which they were reluctant to buy in the first instance due to the “free” thing we cultivated) when they do not know its outcome. When the faddishness dies out, will crowdfunding for fiction dry up? Or has crowdfunding opened readers’ eyes to the plight of writers who spend lives of quiet desperation on their creations that have then to go through myriad channels of gate keeping and rejection before a lucky few spill out through the front doors of traditional channels? Are crowdfunders fighting the battle on behalf of writers?

Whatever the outcome, this new development in the world of writers is a welcome one and I shall follow it closely, perhaps even dip my foot in the waters when it comes the time for the release of my next book.

 

There will be no professional writers in future: banner or epitaph?

“There will be no more professional writers in future” – read the headline of the arts section of one of our national newspapers last week, waking me up to my own dire predictions of the last few months, reminding me that I am not the only one having these nightmares. Change is coming, no matter how much we bury our heads in our ink and hope that it goes away.

The article went on to throw out some scary phrases—feudal economics of the 21st century (with Amazon and Huffington playing landlord to us poor hacks who are being relegated to serfs), 10 cents per 1000 reader clicks, and more than one million authors on Amazon’s online Kindle store— bringing us back to that scary headline: There will be no more professional writers….

Let’s go on the assumption that literature will still exist in our future, however retrograde that future becomes. That said, just like with any green•field business that initially attracts more supply than demand, a crash and consolidation must come in this electronic age of literature. The questions remain as to when will it come, who will go out and who will stay in, who will get fatter, and who will be marginalized when the dust settles. Here’s my pick:

Authors: We still need these guys to write content, original content (so help us, God!). So I guess they will be kept alive, even by force•feeding. Slimmer pickings at the base of the steep pyramid known as the “Hierarchy of Authors” will drive wannabes to pursue other interests like fishing. Some will eke out serf•like existences even if to merely avoid psychotherapy, while others will live like lottery winners and drink to ease their guilt about compensation that far exceeds effort—and seek out shrinks. There is no socialism here. Writing schools will decline, replaced by fishing schools, perhaps.

Publishers: These guys are in the cross hairs of the impending fall. Some parts of their business are valuable, like editing, formatting, marketing, branding, access to awards and distributors etc. Others, less so, like lengthening the publishing pipeline that was under their watch, elongating it from about six months to the current 2•3 years; slush pile management is another red card (bad job done here, guys – your response rates suck!); and manning the gate for curated content (many of their picks have been flops). Perhaps they will change their names to Content Facilitator and outsource the slush pile. Or move away from the royalty model towards fee•based, unbundled menu pricing for their various services that are still deemed valuable; the recent moves by mainstream publishers to purchase self•publishing arms is an indication of this.

Agents: They may fall on either side of the fence. Their current remuneration model will be unsustainable. On the one hand they could become Author Assistants (paid by the author – watch out, the fees may be a bit measly). They could easily add Publicist, PR and Author Manager to their job description, if not there already. Or they could go over to the other side and be talent scouts for the new Content Facilitators, paid to hunt for good content now that the slush pile has been eliminated. Or they could band together to become Content Facilitators themselves and cut out the man above.

Distributors: The monopoly that exists with Amazon and its buddies must give way to smaller independents that also have access to that universal distribution highway, the Internet. The smaller guys just have to find ways to carve out little side roads with distinct signage (branding) that flow content and revenue their way and off the Amazon•Huffington highway. Just as Amazon has become the general store for books, why not several niche stores specializing in certain genres, with wider selections within these genres?

Software Developers: Let’s not forget the guys who started the revolution by bringing the technicalities of publishing down to the user level. It could only be a matter of time before kindle and e•pub formats become add•ons to Microsoft Office and other desktop bundles.

Readers: Will have to pay for good content again (the accent being on “good”) or the serfs who are farming that content will die out. They will also be the power holders in this industry. “Going viral” will belong to them and will determine the livelihood of all the other players in this literary drama.

Endorsers: A breed of super reader. The endorser is a reader among readers who commands an audience and who cannot be bought. I will exclude newspaper reviewers and well known TV show hosts who predictably have their “picks” go on to become bestsellers; by “picking for pay,” they will have exposed their hand for serving the wrong master. The new Endorser will live on the adulation and followership of readers only. A new literary savant who survives on ego food.

And as for that newspaper headline, I have to agree that the old model of professional writer is under threat, but a new model is emerging, and as long as a civilization needs those among it to reflect, dissect, interpret, and record its evolution, writers of some shape or form must exist.

A Brave New World indeed, and I am applying for citizenship to play several of the above roles in it. What about you?

To protect or to give it away?

The copyright debate is underway in Canada and writers have mobilized heavyweights like the leaders of the opposition parties (who have all had the time to write books, it appears) to defend us from our wily prime minister, who has still to write one and who likes to sell everything we own to the highest bidder.

On the other hand,we have award•winning writers like Terry Fallis and Corey Doctorow who gave away their books for free on the Internet and later trade published them to great global sales. The Internet is just a promotional channel for these bolder, more enlightened authors who believe that anonymity is a worse sin than lost royalties, and in so publishing their work for free on the Net, earn more royalties than most writers who jealously guard their copyrights.

What does one do? To protect, or to give it away, that is indeed the question? Scanning the various copyright discussion boards, a few points seem to emerge that most stakeholders agree upon: (1) Writers should be fairly compensated for their work, ideally by those receiving value from this work (2) Publishers should be fairly compensated for their risks and for any marketing and distribution effort they employ that bring tangible results (3) Quality control should be maintained on what gets published in the world, for there is too much junk floating out there (4) Readers should pay for value. (5) There is no copyright on ideas or mashups of creative thinking (6) The Internet is a great marketing medium, and writers can become famous in this space but not necessarily wealthy unless they publish in paper form (7) Readers do not like reading books off the Internet on a PC (over time, Kindle and other devices may help approximate or surpass the printed book’s functionality but we are far away from mass adoption of these devices today) (8) Copyright usually outlives the writer’s life and the book’s shelf life – so why does the protection period have to last for so long?

Whatever model we have employed in the past, be it the patronage model (i.e. the writer is adopted by a rich patron), the royalty model, the self•publishing model, the give•it•away•for•free•on•the•Internet model, they all fall short of addressing the points above that we all agree upon. It’s like buying a car these days—it comes loaded with pros and cons disguised as features.

One thing is clear – if we are to produce high quality art, a total focus to the medium is required by the artist, and having to split that focus by earning a living elsewhere is only going to come at the expense of creating good art. Perhaps the argument needs to shift away from copyright to the wellbeing and the creative nurturing of the artist. How will we nurture the artist and give him a place to produce work that stretches our imagination and shapes the culture he comes from? Once we have cracked that code, copyright will be less relevant – for copyright will belong to society, who will in turn honour, respect and take care of its artists. I think of the Buddhist monk with his bowl for alms going door to door, certain that he will receive enough to fill his stomach, so that he in turn can focus on spiritual service to his flock of devotees.