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Adventures in Crowdfunding 24 January 2013

Posted by Camille Gooderham Campbell in News & Announcements, Publishing Industry.
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It’s like watching a kettle, waiting for it to come to a boil.

If you haven’t yet heard of crowdfunding, it’s essentially a means of raising funds for a creative or inventive project from consumers prior to creation. There are a number of websites making this not only possible but relatively easy, at least in terms of functionality (popular crowdfunding sites include Kickstarter and IndieGoGo, among others) — you set up a page for your project, create donation levels with rewards for your backers, and launch your campaign.

And then you wait. Promote it — but don’t be a spammer — make sure the word is out — without annoying anyone — what’s the balance?

This is Every Day Publishing’s first venture into crowdfunding: Raygun Chronicles, an ambitious anthology of space opera stories. Editor Bryan Thomas Schmidt is operating the Kickstarter campaign, and he’s managed to secure participation from some amazing pro-level authors. But crowdfunding is the only way for us to organize the kind of capital needed to acquire the work of authors at that level — a massive step up from the shoestring-it-and-hope-for-royalties model where most small publishers start out.

Raygun Chronicles cover image

I’ll lay it on the table here: I really want to make this book. I want this chance to work with cover artist Paul Pedersen (the greyscale image above is his concept sketch for the cover). I want to be the publisher of record for new stories by recognizable names. I want to take the step up from shoestring micro-publisher and truly go pro. And without crowdfunding, it would take years and years to inch our way upward, always scraping the next book’s advance out of the last book’s royalties. So this process is exciting, and nerve-wracking, and frustrating. I keep checking the campaign page, watching the number of backers and dollars raised creep up… and like a kettle coming to the boil, it feels like every minute goes on forever.

Of course, I’ve heard the argument that “real” publishers shouldn’t attempt crowdfunding: “If you don’t have the money, you shouldn’t do the project.” And given the fact that just about anyone with access to an internet connection and a basic smidgen of computer sense can set up a smart-looking website and claim to be a publisher, I understand why readers might want to see some capital investment before putting their faith in such a claim, so it’s easy to see why crowdfunding might look like an end-around to bypass personal investment. Consider this, though: if a publisher is already out-of-pocket as far as reasonably possible, is it so wrong to want to pursue a bigger project? If no one frowns on a business getting a loan in order to grow, why should crowdfunding be criticized?

Big publishing has for years been telling small publishers and self-publishers to stay out of their playground, so I’m not sure that “real” and “shouldn’t” are words worth listening to in this industry, and having money isn’t the only measure of competence. For those who want assurance that a publisher is “real”, may I respectfully suggest looking at the number and quality of books currently in print? There’s also transparency to consider — who’s behind the imprint or house — and what sort of track record the players may have in the industry. If anything, being able to raise funds via Kickstarter or IndieGoGo demonstrates a certain amount of market reach and connection, which in my opinion ought to instill more confidence than independently deep pockets.

The other advantage to crowdfunding in publishing is that it tests the market, particularly for an experimental or niche project. If there’s genuine interest from the reading community, enough to push the crowdfunding campaign through, that’s hard evidence that readers want the book to exist. Case in point: Raygun Chronicles is a space opera anthology. (Had you even heard of space opera before today? Even if you enjoy sci-fi? Pulpy, adventure sci-fi? Star Wars? That’s space opera.) Even if we could, somehow, come up with the capital to do this project in some other way, a misjudgement of the market could sink not just the book but our whole enterprise; we’re too small to afford that kind of loss. I believe, of course, that readers will/do want this book, and fortunately the early signs are suggesting that we’re right, but a business-drowning risk is not a reasonable move even when gut and heart are saying yes. Fortunately, crowdfunding allows us to propose the project to potential readers, and if enough of them (you?) are willing to essentially pre-purchase the book, we know we can deliver.

The challenge, of course, is providing satisfactory rewards at prices that permit fulfillment. Apparently, many projects are either crippled into failure by weak rewards at too-high pledge levels, or damaged after a successful campaign because the rewards cost more to deliver than the pledge levels counted on. Our strategy balances hopefully attractive premium rewards at the higher levels with economically-priced good value at the lower end of the scale, to try to appeal to as wide an array of potential backers as possible without risking a shortfall after the fact. Honestly, my favourite of our reward packages is the Corvus level (they’re all named after constellations!) because it’s economically the best deal — US $5 for the e-book, which will almost certainly have a higher sale price after release, and your name in the list of supporters, and a web badge to show our appreciation — but I also like the Scorpius level because it includes four hours of my publishing services (e-book formatting, pre-press formatting for print, proofreading, cover design, whatever the backer needs…). And then, different people have different preferences; if I were allowed to back it myself (which is against the rules, for obvious reasons), I’d go with the Cassiopeia level because I like nice hardcovers and I want the t-shirt!

All things considered, crowdfunding seems to be a good fit for small publishers, not as a business model or an ongoing source of funds, but to stretch out from the regular order of business into ambitious or unusual projects. I don’t want to become dependent on crowdfunding; I just see it — this time — as a way to do something special and get a leg up to the next tier of my ambitions. Will you help me?

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