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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