Small Presses: to Crowdfund or Not to Crowdfund?

Earlier this month the Toronto-based publisher Chizine Publications released an unthemed, original horror anthology titled Fearful Symmetries. The anthology was crowdfunded, despite Chizine being a traditional publisher. I remember enthusiastically plugging the Kickstarter campaign to a friend – the anthology had a terrific roster of writers, an excellent and renowned editor, and it had Chizine, a small press I admire, behind it. His response was less than enthusiastic: at first he was surprised, then frustrated that a traditional publisher like Chizine would turn to crowdfunding for one of their projects. My friend’s reaction shouldn’t be all that surprising; crowdfunding has, until recently, primarily been a venue in which self-published and hybrid authors have achieved success, all the while avoiding traditional publishing companies. It seems that when traditional publishers move into what’s often seen as indie territory, tempers flare.

Recently, I read a post by Christopher Butcher where he brings up some of the same issues my friend had with a traditional publisher using crowdfunding: that it shows a “lack of confidence” in the material they publish, otherwise they would publish it as they normally do; that a publisher’s job is to print and promote, and if they can’t do that then they aren’t a publisher; that once the crowdfunding campaign is over and the orders filled, the publisher won’t have a real incentive to continue selling the book; and, that the often low pre-order levels with the crowdfunding campaign won’t make much of a financial difference for the company.

I couldn’t disagree more, especially in the case of niche publishing and small presses. Certain projects are riskier than others and for a small press taking a risk on a project can prove costly, sometimes even crippling. In the case of Fearful Symmetries, an unthemed anthology is already difficult to sell to a publisher, largely because so few sell well, regardless of quality. The desire to pay professional rates to all the contributors, although admirable, would also be a serious deterrent for a small press to undertake such a project. Through crowdfunding the publisher, and the editor, is able to work with a larger budget, which in turn makes it possible to attract higher profile authors, a must for anthologies. This immediately increases the chances for the book to be successful.

The early influx of cash, even prior to publication, is also a huge boon for a small press. Cashflow is always a problem for smaller publishers; the absence of a larger parent company’s financial support, and the smaller printing schedule, means available cash is much harder to come by. A risky project ties up valuable funds, without a great potential for recouping the investment; if funds are already scarce, that can prove difficult, if not devastating, to a small press. A successful crowdfunding campaign, which includes pre-orders, provides a publisher with immediate cash; this major advantage over regular pre-orders seeing as the publisher has not invested funds into the book at this point. Normally, pre-orders take place once a book has already entered the publication cycle (editing, design, layout, etc), whereas in the case of a crowdfunded campaign the publisher’s funds are not yet tied to the product. If the book ultimately sells few copies, the production costs have nonetheless been covered, thus the company does not suffer too much.

This reduction in risk doesn’t mean the publisher won’t be less inclined to sell more than the pre-ordered number of books though. The idea that publishers using crowdfunded campaign won’t do any marketing is erroneous; the campaign is itself a terrific marketing tool, albeit a non-traditional one. For the crowdfunding campaign to succeed the publisher must market it to the same extent it would a regular book; the Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign simply becomes another angle from which to approach the marketing strategy. Once the book is published, it appears in retail stores as it would if the book had not been crowdfunded. Furthermore, the best crowdfunded publishing campaigns make effective use of a publisher’s backlist. Some titles are signed, thus offered at reward prices much higher than their regular retail price. Other books, sometimes less popular or in large quantities, are offered at discounted prices or in bundles. This way, the publisher is able to promote their backlist, cycle through old inventory, and offer unique rewards that may be cost-efficient. So, rather than discourage marketing, crowdfunding campaigns encourage savvy small presses to constantly work off their existing backlist, all the while undertaking projects they might not otherwise risk. I understand self-published writers and indie communities might not take too kindly to a publisher utilizing “their” funding methods, but in the end it just seems logical to me. There are frequently calls for greater diversity in publishing, and crowdfunding basically makes it possible for smaller presses to undertake riskier projects that contribute positively to that diversity.

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Hybrid Authors: the Devils You Know

Every now and again I run across posts like this. Typically, they prescribe self-publishing through crowdfunding as the logical approach because “what have you got to lose”? The only caveat is that the author needs to play the role of agent, publishing house and campaign manager. All those skills feature into the sale of books, but also in the initial crowdfunding campaign, which is the basis for getting the book published.

For an author, the advantages of crowdfunding a self-published title are, in theory, significant. For one, the funds raised by the crowdfunding campaign can replace a traditional publisher’s advance. Advances are crucial to writers; even if the book doesn’t earn out, at least the writer received a (hopefully) large sum prior to the publication of the book, which grants them the financial freedom to pursue other writing projects. The crowdfunding campaign also provides the necessary funds to produce a quality product by hiring qualified individuals to assist in the book’s production, whether in editorial, copy-editing, production, or even marketing. One of the biggest challenges, though, remains running the crowdfunding campaign on which the book’s future may lie. The truth is, many crowfunding campaigns fail. The idea behind the book can be great, the writing can be good, all the elements can be in place for success, but the campaign still fails. Part of that is, I think, related to familiarity: as with traditional books, readers can be reluctant to pick up a book by a new author, largely because the author hasn’t proven his or herself yet.

Hybrid authors are interesting in this respect. Michael J. Sullivan, an author who has published with traditional publishers like Orbit and has self-published other books, suggests that authors already published by traditional publishers who then turn their attention, at least in part, to self-publishing tend to be more successful than straight self-published authors because they have that all important “stamp of approval” from the publishers. That idea of prior validation is often neglected in discussions of crowdfunding. Mid-list writers in particular have utilized the hybrid model quite successfully; a writer’s ability to turn directly to their audience, once they have it, for support can be very lucrative because the audience is already invested in the writer.

The idea that the reader can actively contribute in helping a project by a writer they admire come to life without external publishing forces, and with their personal help, can also be quite powerful in generating increased audience loyalty. That can also be the case with a new writer, but the risk is technically greater there because the reader/backer has less to go on. If the writer has already successfully self-published a prior book, and the reader has enjoyed it, then chances are better the reader will support the new project. If this is the author’s very first book, then the risk is much higher for the reader. That idea, then, that crowdfunding for the first book becomes more challenging.

Another point that Sullivan, and others, brings up is that crowdfunding as a whole is positive as “it will help balance what has traditionally been an industry where a select few wield immense power over the lives of many.” Although I agree that crowdfunding does help get other, riskier or less commercial books published, I still think that the system in general has a similar structure to traditional publishing: a select few (in this case the media-hype savvy authors) do wield immense power over others. Highly successful crowdfunding campaigns tend to become self-generating: once a certain level of hype and success is reached, new backers flock to the project because it’s already popular. In this way certain crowdfunding campaigns become immense, dwarfing over all the other projects underway at that time. More often than not, these projects are by authors who already have a large, established fan base. Once their campaign gains critical mass, it can become very difficult for lesser, promising projects to gain any attention in the wake of those massive competing campaigns. Thus, it’s true that a select few “gatekeepers” don’t necessarily determine what gets published, but the system still makes it so that a few behemoth campaigns can prevent numerous other worthy projects from ever coming into existence simply being in proximity to them.

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Norilana Goes Boom: a Small Press and an Indiegogo Campaign

In a previous post I discussed some of the advantages that crowdfunding platforms can provide to small or niche publishers. Now, some of my favourite books were published by small presses, and they’re usually the ones that most readers would consider too strange, too eclectic for mainstream audiences. It shouldn’t come as a surprise, then, when I say that I love small presses; I think they’re vital to the health of the industry because they can publish riskier, less commercial fiction that falls outside the interests or sale patterns of big publishing houses. Small presses aren’t without their problems, of course. One area fraught with potential problems is the nebulous division between the publisher/owner and the press itself, especially when the publisher publishes their own work. In some cases this model works fine; in others it creates a major conflict of interest. Back in March there arose a situation that exemplified this perfectly: Vera Nazarian / Norila Books’ crowdfunding campaign.

The summary of the situation was this: Nazarian, the publisher of Norilana Books, started an Indiegogo campaign in order to raise funds to pay the royalties she owed to her authors. Royalties that had gone unpaid for multiple years. Nazarian’s reasons for withholding the payments were multiple: health issues, death in the family, a costly move, eventual bankruptcy, etc. Many, myself included, sympathized with her situation, all the while decrying her terrible, repeated business situations, the most egregious of which was not having a separate business checking account for her press. I was interested in the issue because a) I’d previously purchased anthologies from Norilana, and b) because it was a peculiar use of crowdfunding in regards to publishing. The campaign was not well received: for the most part writers and readers wrote blog posts severely criticizing the campaign. In many cases the most lively discussions took place in the comments section, where Nazarian sought to defend herself and her campaign, and readers and writers debated the issue.

One of the more interesting discussions was: why should anyone support the campaign? If Nazarian owed royalties to writers, and if the community cared, why shouldn’t they just send funds directly to the writers in order to support them? Why go through a crowdfunding system that would take a cut of those raised funds, and through Nazarian who had shown herself to be an untrustworthy manager of funds in the eyes of many? Is this a valid use of a crowdfunding campaign?

One point I hadn’t seen raised, but that particularly interested me, was the reward structure of the campaign. One of the strongest features of crowdfunded publishing is the reward system: backers choose a reward tier and donate the specified amount of cash for that tier, giving them access to that reward. It’s a great system that lets backers support projects that interest them, all the while giving them a direct material incentive. In the case of most crowdfunded publishing projects, the reward is the finished book, or a previous book by that publisher or author, or a combination of the two with additional potential rewards. In the case of Norilana’s campaign, all the rewards were directly related to Vera Nezarian’s own writing career. The basic structure of the campaign made it impossible for Nezarian to include books from her authors because doing so would incur additional royalties to be paid. Instead, she offered her own books as rewards, including the possibility of being tuckerized – made a character – in future work.

Consider the implications of the reward system: Nezarian owed her authors royalties, and in order to obtain those funds she “sold” her own work as compensation. In a way, the entire campaign, had it gone through, would have resulted in a wide promotional campaign for all of Nazarian’s work. At first glance that may seem a stretch – technically she wouldn’t be making money off her books – but when we consider that many self-published authors give away books for free online for a limited time in order to generate lasting interest in their work, the campaign becomes even more problematic.

In the end Nezarian’s campaign was abandoned, but it’s simple existence led to some interesting questions. Publishers go out of business all the time, and when they do authors frequently lose out on the royalties owed to them, unless the press is purchased by another publisher. Is crowdfunded royalty recouping campaigns something we’ll see more of as time goes on? If so, how can a publisher effectively utilize those crowdfunding platforms when the reward system undermines their effort? Even if the publisher doesn’t publish their own work, it wouldn’t be possible to offer the books they’ve published as rewards without leading to further royalty payments, and if the publisher does offer other material (say that of a writer who volunteers their work for free), why should that other contributing author not receive proper payment for their own work?

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