Crowdfunding as a Democratizing and Viable Model for Authors in the 21st Century

By: Aninditha Kamaruddin for PUB 401, Simon Fraser University

The so-called digital revolution brought upon a multitude of changes, affecting individuals, institutions and industries alike. Along with these technological changes came the hope that the digital revolution will make the way we do things more collaborative, convenient, and effective. Technological determinists will wholeheartedly agree that indeed, technology has fulfilled that hope, but though that may be true in one way or another, these changes have caused great upheaval and distress, especially to those belonging in long-standing industries such as the publishing industry. The overarching feeling of distress is caused by the eventual demise of the “way things have always been,” as new models and modes of publishing— specifically in the realm of digital publishing, either replace traditional models or earns its right to become viable alternatives. There are tremendous affordances to the proliferation of digital publishing, which yields to more opportunities for authors, as the most vital figure in the publishing process, to make a living out of writing. With the advent of new digital technologies, there has been an increase in book publishing paths, the most intriguing being DIY or self-publishing. An article in the Guardian noted how “self-published authors have surged to 31% of ebook sales on Amazon.com, and are now earning more ebook royalties than writers published by the “Big five” traditional publishers” (Lea, 2014). These findings were surprising since an earlier article reported research stating professional authors’ plunging incomes “below minimum standards” (Lea, 2014). Nonetheless, these seemingly contradictory reports capture the volatility and excitement surrounding the development of new viable modes of publishing, especially in the digital realm.

Speaking of business models in the digital age, crowdfunding has become an increasingly popular one. When used strategically, the interactive quality that is the driver for this alternative form of funding, can greatly benefit creators, innovators and people with bright ideas. Publishing aficionados have taken notice and applied this novel model to provide more alternative ways to get authors and books published. The popularity of crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter, Indiegogo and Pozible have peaked the interest of platform creators to launch crowdfunding publishing sites like Inkshares, Pubslush, and Unbound (Biggs, 2015). For instance, in Kickstarter alone, $70m has been pledged in the site’s publishing category, and as a result, book-related projects increased from 735 in 2011 to 2064 in 2014 (Baussels, 2015). More and more authors and publishing presses utilize the crowdfunding model, which has helped projects like the 400th anniversary illustrated edition of Don Quixote, and an anthology of prose and songs written by fishermen and women come to fruition. The proven feasibility of this model indicates that crowdfunding can indeed be a reliable way for authors to make a living and how, as a result, the publishing industry has flourished as the publishing process becomes more democratic, encouraging creativity and interactivity.

Being an Author Today

The proliferation of self-publishing, hybrid publishing and social media has given the means for almost anyone to be an author. This just means that budding authors now have to work harder and smarter to get noticed in a saturated market of writers wanting to get published and receive remuneration for their work. It’s important to understand the current publishing landscape in which authors have to operate to illuminate why crowdfunding could be a legitimate model.

Traditionally, authors make money through the following ways: the advance, royalties off book sales, and reselling the book themselves (Hart, 2015). In the last 50 years, “the system of publishers’ advances has supported writers such as Joan Didion, Salman Rushdie, and Philp Roth” (Morisson, 2011). However, as Morrisson states, publishers have focused on the short term and “cut advances by as much as 80% in the UK” (Morisson, 2011), indicating that one of the most viable ways for an author to invest time to research and write their book with a stable income is slowly dissipating. An award winning authors have also stated that her royalty income has fallen dramatically over the last decade (Morisson, 2011).  Surveys show that in 2014, “11.5% of professional authors – those who dedicate the majority of their time to writing – earned their incomes solely from writing,” which is a steep decline from the 40% in 2005 (Flood, 2014).

Perhaps, the plethora of publishing paths unearthed realizations that “that too many middle-men (distributors, booksellers) have been living off their work” (Morisson, 2011). More than ever, authors have the option to choose from a wide array of publishing business models to cope with the problems caused by the changes in technology, the publishing industry, and ultimately, the gradual disappearance of traditional income making methods.

Crowdfunding as a viable model

Before delving into why crowdfunding has become viable, a commenter in a Guardian article has nicely outlined why a significant number of authors have chosen to crowdfund. Believing that she raised very interesting points, I decided to expand on a number of them. Traditional publishers have the expertise, experience and funds to get a book published and in the hands of the right readers. However, as a business, traditional publishing houses will only invest in the ideas that are commercially viable. Crowdfunding changes that. The people who get a say in whether a book is viable are now the readers themselves. If they are interested in the author’s idea or proposal, they can “vote with their dollars” to get it published. The authors have little to lose by starting a crowdfunding campaign. The notion of crowdfunding is simple, but takes a lot of hard work to execute. Budding authors have to realize that writing is a business, especially when seeking funding in unconventional ways.

There are an abundance of crowdsourcing platforms, but for the purposes of this paper, I will be focusing on two: Kickstarter and Pubslush. The nature of each platform is different, by way of how they operate, for example, in terms of they distribute costs and the size of their cut.  Kickstarter has become the best-known crowdfunding platform that is simple to set up and use. It is important for authors in this day and age to have solid online profile or platform, which includes, having a website, a blog, a Facebook, Twitter and Instagram page (to name a few social media pages), and an extensive email list (Bearman, 2013). On a side note, authors who have blogs with an active following can also earn additional income through affiliate marketing. One of the reasons it has become important for authors to have an online presence is so potential crowdfunders can know more about the author’s persona, which could be an additional factor that helps them decide whether or not to fund the author’s idea.

After selecting a platform, authors pitch their idea (having it in a video format also apparently helps) and craft a business plan to plot the campaign’s goal, and other projections and expenses, since campaigners “don’t see a dime from their backers unless they make their goal” (Bearman, 2013). Under this model, self-published writers can test the waters for an idea and mobilize a fan base (Friedman, 2015). It’s important to note that not everyone asks for the entire cost of producing the book; “for example, some authors ask for money for a copy editor or a cover designer (Friedman, 2015). Pubslush, deemed the Kickstarter for books, “helps authors build book campaigns by allowing them to submit their book summaries and samples of their work, followed by a promotion to readers who financially support their favorite submissions, in exchange for a reward like a first edition or digital preview” (Leimkuehler, 2013). Pubslush even goes on to offer personalized service, campaign assistance in the form of a coordinator, and interestingly, reader data and market analytics to “gauge the buzz surrounding the book release… and focus ongoing marketing in order to maximize fundraising” (Lamoreaux, 2014). Evidently, authors now have the means to publish their work and find readers for their books using the varying crowdfunding models.

Benefits of Crowdfunding

While Kickstarter is renowned as the world’s largest funding platform for creative projects, sites like Unbound or Pubslush (now PubLaunch) are paving the way to ensure authors are nurtured throughout the publishing process. It is important to acknowledge that what’s most interesting about the crowdfunding model is how self-publishing is no longer an isolating venture. There are new ways for creators to connect directly with their fans in real time, eliminating the vast distance that existed between authors and readers. As Streitfeld of the New York Times stated, “the writer was an imperial figure, an artist who dwelt on Mount Olympus. The reader was nowhere” (Streitfeld, 2014). This is no longer true.

Under this crowdfunding model, authors have to find a way to connect with their readers, and build a community around the author’s publishing venture as a way to involve them throughout the process they helped fund. Knowing this, authors can get creative in ways they can go about doing this. For example, Eric Ries ensured that the backers that raised $500,000 to publish “The Leader’s Guide,” the most-funded book project on Kickstarter, were the only ones who can read the book (Baussels, 2015).

As a result, he established a backer-only community around his book that probably made the readers more involved with the author and the message of the book. Amy Goldwasser reached the funding goal for her self-published illustrated book about black cats by involving the audience through letting them choose 48 out of the 50 cats in the book (Baussels, 2015).

The move toward greater interactivity is also embedded in PubLaunch’s upcoming venture to “connect trusted industry professionals with writers while providing crowdfunding services” (“Pubslush Closes, Colborne Communications Founds PubLaunch,” 2015). Again, this highlights the need for authors, creators and industry professionals to collaborate and support each other to nurture new talents and combine the expertise and experience of seasoned professionals outside the confines of rigid traditional publishing houses.

More power to authors (and their readers as backers)

An author used the analogy of a hulking security guard, standing outside a performance space to let a limited number of people through to describe the traditional modes of publishing. To characterize the opportunities authors have in the digital publishing realm, he says, “ the door has been left open, the guard is taking a break. You have an opportunity to sneak onto the stage and draw a crowd, but you still need to be able to perform once you get there” (Goins, 2011). This goes to show that there are boundless opportunities for authors to make a living under the crowdfunding model, but it is in no way easy. Authors can now take matters into their own hands to get published, by being more actively involved in seeking funding, connecting with their audience and marketing their book (or raise funds to hire someone to do all that). Through the aforementioned examples, those authors who reach their funding goals came up with strategies to create win-win situations for themselves and their loyal audiences, by involving them in the book creation process.

This has led many authors to rethink the way they can release their work to benefit their readers as well, and this includes thinking beyond books as mere monolithic projects. Serialization has become a perfect way to engage and keep their backers involved. For audiences, the wait for the author to finish his or her book can be frustrating, since their return on investment has yet to be tangible. For authors who’s work, by its very nature, requires more time or research, they can release their work in a series, which e-books are great for. Authors get the funds they need, and they keep their backers happy.

Parting Words

Through the examples above, I am convinced that crowdfunding can be a great, viable, way for authors to earn a living. The proliferation of digital publishing and crowdfunding platforms makes 2015 an exciting time to be an author, as there are are many alternative ways to ensure that your writing gets recognized by the right audience– be it your readers, a niche community or other industry professionals.

References

Friedman, J. (2015, October 5). 5 Observations on the Evolution of Author Business Models | Jane Friedman. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from https://janefriedman.com/author-business-models/

Lea, R. (2014, July 18). Self-publishing surging to 31% of ebook market. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/18/report-self-publishing-surging-ebook-market-amazon

Baussels, M. (2015, June 5). Kickstarting a books revolution: The literary crowdfunding boom. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015/jun/05/the-literary-crowdfunding-boom

Bearman, S. (2013). Crowdfunding for Authors: Is it right and is it right for you? Retrieved November 9, 2015, from http://writeitsideways.com/crowdfunding-for-authors-is-it-right-and-is-it-right-for-you/

Biggs, J. (2015, March 6). Publishizer Is A Crowdfunding Solution That Connects Authors With Publishers. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from http://techcrunch.com/2015/03/06/publishizer-is-a-crowdfunding-solution-that-connects-authors-with-publishers/

Flood, A. (2014, August 8). Authors’ incomes collapse to ‘abject’ levels. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2014/jul/08/authors-incomes-collapse-alcs-survey

Goins, J. (2011, November 16). Could Serialized Fiction Be the Future of eBook Publishing? Retrieved November 9, 2015, from http://goinswriter.com/ebook-series/

Hart, H. (2015, May 6). 5 Ways to Earn Money as an Author. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from http://www.trainingauthors.com/how-to-make-a-living-as-an-author/

Lamoreaux, S. (2014, December 19). Pubslush is the Kickstarter of Publishing. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from http://smallbiztrends.com/2014/12/pubslush-publishing.html

Leimkuehler, K. (2013, March 1). How Startups Are Changing the Book Publishing Industry. Retrieved November 9, 2015, from http://technori.com/2013/03/3374-how-startups-are-changing-the-book-publishing-industry/

Morrisson, E. (2011, August 10). Are books dead, and can authors survive? Retrieved November 9, 2015, from http://www.theguardian.com/books/2011/aug/22/are-books-dead-ewan-morrison

Pubslush Closes, Colborne Communications Founds PubLaunch. (2015, October 6). Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.digitalbookworld.com/2015/pubslush-closes-colborne-communications-founds-publaunch/#sthash.wlyUpZ9H.dpuf

Streitfeld, D. (2014, March 23). Web Fiction, Serialized and Social. Retrieved November 12, 2015, from http://www.nytimes.com/2014/03/24/technology/web-fiction-serialized-and-social.html?_r=1