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.

 

Social Networking – a must-have or a time waster?

A couple of years ago, a reputable speaker at a literary conference told me that if I did not build a social networking platform I would be of no use to publishers in the future. In other words, I had to bring the audience to me, which in the past I had thought the publisher did. I guess he had outsourced this job – to me! Having no one else in the distribution chain to pass the buck down to, I complied, and got into heavy social networking.

Let’s see, I registered my own domain name as www.shanejoseph.com and built my own website with e•commerce capability, populating it with new content weekly (I’m not a Yahoo or Google who can update content hourly – at least, not yet!). I blogged and twittered, and joined lots of online forums where writers and readers gathered. I syndicated my blogs, became a reviewer on Goodreads and copied my book reviews over to Amazon whenever I was mindful of the p’s and q’s in my content. I Facebook’d and Linked•In’d and even started giving talks on the value of building an online platform – heck it was fashionable, why not cash in? However, I recall, so were beads and bell•bottoms and drainpipes and sideburns and “give peace a chance” love•ins, once upon a time. Very soon, I was spending several hours a week on my growing platform. I was famous but still poor.

I even thought of opening my website to advertisers and giving away all my books as free e•book downloads. Heck, I could deliver free copies to my huge platform of readers – numbering in their thousands at this point – and claim to be a best•seller, or at least, “the most widely circulated.” I’d obviously incur the wrath of my fellow writers who were trying to make a living out of this vocation; I would be banned from the writer’s union, and would never be guaranteed that any of those free copies would ever be read (people don’t even read paid•for copies anymore as they function better as doorstops, coffee placemats, bookshelf adornments, and claims to literacy rather than as vehicles of enlightenment). I might even end up turning the existing, broken book publishing model on its head. Or I might be ignored as a crackpot and dismissed with, “His writing must suck, because good things are not free, and free things are not good.”

If getting people to read your books is the end•game, then operating an online platform is essential but insufficient. You need to put the book in the reader’s hand and say “read it,” and they in turn need to put the book in other readers’ hands and say, “This is a damned good book – read it!” The online platform creates awareness and builds mystique, but there is a much longer journey from that point on the continuum to turning curious browsers into readers and endorsers.

I am not dismissing the online platform. It seems a necessary burden in these times. But I need to balance this effort with focussing on my writing and making it the best ever. I want an unprovoked reader to read my book, put it up on his social networking site and say, “Hey, listen up! Read this book, it’s so cool!” Now, that endorsement would indeed be a desirable end•result, “a consummation devoutly to be wish’d!”

Waiting for the e-book bomb to drop

When I go out to read as a guest to writer’s groups these days, no one is really interested in hearing me read my work. Instead, everyone is interested at hearing of my adventures as a writer struggling to break into the big time. They want to know about my travails in the old self•publishing days, of the myriad rejection slips, of the near misses with publishers, of speed dating with agents, of trade publishing experiences, distribution woes, online marketing, where I get my ideas, how many ideas are left, social networking, blogging, radio and TV interviews, shameless self•promotion and…and… the liberating messiah they all hope it will be: the e•book.

Will the e•book finally become the mp3 of publishing, enabling writer•to•reader transactions off the former’s website, cutting out middlemen (publishers, publicists, distributors, retailers etc)? Could we build sufficient loyalty in our online readership platforms, feed them downloads of books and short stories in any e•book format, for a donation, and thereby recruit benefactors with financial contributions far in excess of what a provincial or federal arts council can provide us in subsidy, now that royalties from publishers are dwindling faster than ever? Will we finally be one•on•one with the readers whom we wrote these stories for in the first place? Politicians face their audiences when making public speeches, performing musicians do the same at concerts, stage actors too when they step out of the wings. But writers are like movie actors: they go through a multitude of arbitrary filters, before their work is exposed to their final arbiters. Would e•books solve that problem? When would the inflection point come when e•books outnumber traditional books? When am I going to launch an e•book?

These are the questions I get asked. And frankly, I wish I knew!

What I do know is that, with the pursuit of blockbuster•only titles by the traditional industry, that segment is going to shed even more writers, not assume new ones. The fringe is therefore open to the masses of writers coming on board, many with the notion of “I think I have a book in me,” and the e•book will be their entry point. How will one be noticed in this sea of wannabe ink? Would it mimic POD self•publishing that came out a decade ago? Would e•books be no different from the turbulent seas writers have traditionally cruised in over the centuries, in their makeshift rafts with tattered flags hoisted, in the hope of getting picked up by a glittering cruise ship—SS Publisher—full of thousands of readers?

Something tells me that we have played this record before.

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.

A Year of Blogging Dangerously

I began this blog last June and at the time had wondered what the heck I was going to write in it. Why was I aiming to pollute the world with more prose than publishers could already find outlets for? And who the heck would care if I wrote, played golf or just shut up?

However, during this past year, I managed to write an average of one article per week on topics that ranged from writing to politics to life to exercise to economics to publishing to civil wars, pandemics, and global financial meltdowns. I wrote to express myself and did not care a hoot if anyone read it or not. And yet, several of my blogograms were picked up in print magazines and e•zines. I never made any money but they further extended my reach among readers. I started syndicating my blog and got networked into the global blogoshere and even Google now picks up my blog before it picks up me, on occasion. I actually had responses from readers and a few have linked my blog as a permanent RSS feed because they wish to hear “the Word of Shane” on a regular basis.

Did I sell more books as a result? This was the reason I was asked to blog in the first place. I am not sure. And I don’t think so. How can you ever be sure unless you autograph your book, dedicate it by writing the purchaser’s name on it, place it squarely in his hand, thank him and walk him the checkout, or relieve him of his money and shove it in your pocket (just so that he does not re•shelve the book in the store, or abandon his shopping cart while browsing online)? And even then, there is no guarantee that he will read it when he takes it home!

This was the year that I became opinionated—as me, and not through my fictional characters. This was the year I got to ponder about affairs of the world and think before I spoke (or wrote), because once written, the online printed word sentences you to instant recognition or infamy.

If I never write another book—and I don’t have to for awhile, as I have a new novel coming out later this year and four others already baked and waiting for the publisher—I think I will continue to write up this blog. In fact, I would urge those folks who think that they all have a novel in them, to try the blog first. And after a year at it, if they still think that that novel hasn’t come out in some shape or form through the blog, then they should go right ahead and write the novel and not merely think about writing it.

So, will I blog on for another year? Sure. As long as the world and the events in it are important to me, I will continue to observe, opine, expound and excoriate. And if some reader gets it, nods her head in agreement, internalizes and acts upon it—that would be my reward. And I don’t have to worry about publishers, editors, publicists, book stores and the huge publishing infrastructure to connect me with readers. My readers know where to find me – right here at http://shanejoseph.com/blog