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.