Time for a Kickstarter kerfuffle.... or, a day ending in Y

Today I'm piggybacking on what Chuck Wendig and Laura Lam have to say about the latest Kickstarter kerfuffle. Feel free to go read them first; I'll wait.

I almost wasn't going to write about it, because Wendig and Lam really hit all the high points. It certainly sounds like YA author Stacey Jay was unfairly targeted by trolls, as she was being scrupulously honest about what resources were needed to get her third book out. And nobody wants to admit what resources are really needed: to wit, paying the damn author. That always seems to come last.

However, I wanted to add one thing to the discussion, and keep in mind I've run exactly one Kickstarter in my life and it was a success beyond my wildest imagination even though I had absolutely no idea what I was doing, made about 87 mistakes and if I ever do one again, I will know a hell of a lot better. I will know that you should have sane reward levels, include the cost of postage in your estimation of how much the rewards will cost you, that you should do a video or otherwise prepare for your Kickstarter, that stretch goals are a thing, that you should not set release dates one month after your KS when the damn thing isn't written yet, and so on.

There is some discussion about whether 'tis better to try Indiegogo or other lesser-known services that allow you to keep whatever you raise, rather than Kickstarter, where you must meet your goal in order to receive your funds. I can chime in on that.

From those I know who've used both, raising only partial funds can be worse than a failed campaign. With a failed Kickstarter, all you've lost is pride and dignity. We're writers. We're used to that.

But if you need $2,000 to make your project fly, and you only raise $1,200, you are now obligated to do the project anyway. Unless your project is magically scalable, somehow you must come up with the remaining funds. You can't ethically skimp on the rewards for the backers, so either you skimp on the quality of the product or you find an alternate source of revenue for the shortfall.

Skimping on product quality is bad, and sometimes it's not even possible. You don't run a campaign for the bells and whistles; you run it for the bare minimum you need to fly. Overages can pay for bells and whistles. If you put out a substandard product, your reputation suffers and you may not get repeat backers.

As for coming up with the remaining funds, that's likely to be a nonstarter. After all, if you had money in the Caymans, you'd have used that before crowdfunding at all, right? Right?

I have known authors who, like Ms. Jay, included living expenses for the time needed to complete a project in their Kickstarter descriptions. I have a feeling this falls under the category of "too much honesty." I think it's perfectly legitimate: you're paying the editor, designer, artist and printer for their time, talent and effort as well as the raw materials. As the one actually doing the creating, your time also needs to be compensated. As Ms. Jay points out, she cannot write a novel in three months if she's also working a day job. That's honesty.

It's also bad marketing. Crowdfunding really isn't supposed to fund your life so you can create. I've seen Kickstarters phrased that way, and generally it's a term that makes people run away. This is something that I didn't realize at first and that perhaps people don't get about the brave new world of crowdfunding: they're not funding you out of the kindness of their hearts. Your family may kick in some for that reason, and perhaps good friends.

But the vast majority of backers see crowdfunding as an investment. They will be paid dividends in the form of the reward you give them, and in seeing your work grow and gain notice. Think of them as low-rent Medicis: patrons of the arts, but expecting a return on the investment. "Fund my life so I can create" doesn't sell the Medicis on your project. It's not unethical or even untrue; it's just a bad way to phrase it. "We need X amount so this project can happen" is true, and more likely to gain you the backing you need.

On the other hand, I once saw a Kickstarter for a poem. A British poet wanted to write a poem, and said right up front that the money would pay her bills while she wrote it. The reward was a copy of the poem. She got something like eight times what she requested. I hope it was a really good poem. And don't get me started on the Potato Salad Guy, because that was just annoying.

I'm rather sorry that Ms. Jay opted to cancel her Kickstarter, if for no other reason than I get paid by Ye Olde Jobbe tomorrow and I could kick a little money her way. I'm not much of a Medici, but I try. I don't really think she did anything wrong, and I think her business analysis of the book's future was solid. And she makes a really good point here:

The only thing I don't apologize for is believing a writer's work has value and should be paid for. Pirating is wrong. So is expecting a writer to write for free because it is their "art." Art is not devalued when it is paid for, it is lifted up and respected and I believe we're all better as a people when that happens.

Kickstarter saw more than $500 million pledged in 2014 alone. More than 2 million backers were first-timers. There were 2,600 publishing projects, and $125 million for technology innovation. Kickstarter's numbers got a boost from the Reading Rainbow project, and I'm eternally grateful that it raised more money than the potato salad.

That isn't niche. It isn't a fad. It's something else, something we haven't really figured out how to define. I don't know if it's the future of art - if we're all going to be artist-entrepreneurs going directly to the public for the backing we need instead of traditional and time-honored structures within the industry. Anyone who claims to know where publishing is going in the next ten years is selling something.

But I'm betting some of you have a few ideas.