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?