Crowdfunding Novels: Connecting Authors and Audiences

Crowdfunded models offer a new and growing method of publishing for authors looking for a third option that does not rely on a traditional publisher and does not involve the risk of (and carries less stigma than) simply self-publishing. Online crowdfunding campaigns are nothing new–for example, YouTube and podcast creators often use Patreon accounts where followers who enjoy their content can donate small amounts per month in exchange for bonus content, to help ensure continued content, or simply as a tip. However, this has been slow to catch on in the book world, especially with longer-form writing such as novels, and publishing a novel through alternative means that do not involve a gatekeeper to ensure quality content carries more stigma than does self-publishing visual and auditory media.  

Several platforms are changing this. Authors can crowdfund books in ways that range from bare-bones (using Kickstarter or Indiegogo to host their own campaigns, with no outside company contributing to publication, and then self-publishing), to platforms that function essentially like a vanity press (where pledges and preorders take the place of a cheque from the author paying for publication), to partnerships with publishers who also aid in promotion and distribution after the project has been successfully crowdfunded.

At its best, crowdfunding allows an audience to have direct contact with the creator without a corporate third party acting as a barrier, and to be involved to whatever capacity the author or platform allows in the book’s creation. It allows authors who would rather bypass traditional publishing, with its emphasis on a small number of blockbuster novels, to focus on communicating with a smaller but dedicated audience. This idea is not a new one, as through history, most famously in the Renaissance, artists have relied on patrons (usually people with financial, political, or religious power) to support them rather than releasing their work through a third party and relying on income from sales. Later, in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries, subscription models where novels were published piece by piece in periodicals were common; while not strictly crowdfunding, this did mean that the author was producing ongoing work for an active list of subscribers. Communication technology today allows creators to combine these two methods–rather than one rich patron, artists are supported by a community of people who believe in the value of their work.

Unbound, one of the most successful crowdfunding platforms, allows authors to pitch their ideas first to the site’s editors and then to readers, who pledge support to the projects that appeal to them. I enough money is raised, the author will finish the project, after which Unbound completes the book’s design, editing, and production.  Because of their partnership with Penguin Random House, Unbound is able to distribute books in stores throughout the UK. Authors then receive 50% of the royalties from book sales. Unlike many crowdfunding platforms, Unbound still acts as a gatekeeper for authors’ submissions, but without the support of the Unbound community, a project will not succeed. Dan Kieran, co-founder and CEO of Unbound, says that Unbound’s “users love to be involved in the process and have critical taste. They are not passive consumers–they’re micro-patrons” and that once an author has an established base backing them, “it’s an easy market to tap into.” The platforms Publaunch, which is still in beta mode, and Inkshares, which has so far completed 61 projects, accomplish essentially the same thing as Unbound, though without the initial editorial screening–any book that reaches its funding threshold will be published–and without any partnerships with traditional publishers.

Gillian Rudd of the University of Liverpool writes that Unbound and similar platforms can act as alternatives to “the hegemony of the literary prize panel and traditional publishing houses.” She also sees Unbound’s requirement for a project to be approved by editors prior to the Unbound community as a feature that could lead to the same homogenization she criticises the industry for, but ultimately is hopeful that crowdfunding platforms can shake up the publishing world. She believes they have potential to provide original alternatives to novels from traditional publishers–which are often chosen based solely on their bestseller potential rather than originality or quality–or to more “highbrow” literary prize lists such as the Booker Prize, which she feels has become repetitive and monotonous in recent years with few diverse voices. Rather than deciding to publish a book based on its perceived sellability, crowdfunding requires an audience to confirm a book as sellable prior to production, and since hosting a funding campaign is less risky than paying for a print run, it allows more room for diversity and experimentation. As Ethan Mollick writes, “the unique value of crowdfunding is not money, it’s community”–he sees  platforms that result in collaboration as helpful beyond simply their funding results, as they require movement away from an “expert-based process” and toward a model where diversity is an important facet of innovation. Having a climate where more people can pitch an idea and potentially be heard results in more ideas, as well as ideas continuing to build upon each other and not stagnating in isolation.

In many ways this model benefits both readers and authors, but drawbacks exist as well and crowdfunding is far from a magical or easy solution. Especially when using crowdfunding sites such as Kickstarter, with no book-specific platform and third party to oversee the process, lack of contractual obligations and less structure than in traditional publishing mean that many crowdfunding projects never get off the ground. They can dwindle away from lack of interest or the author’s lack of diligence even after followers have donated their money. Even for projects that are completed, because readers can’t flip through the book before contributing money or read reviews from previous readers, they have less assurance that they will enjoy what they pay for.

From the author’s perspective, crowdfunding can be complicated too. Depending on the platform they choose, they may have to take over many of the jobs that publishers would traditionally take care of and either pay to outsource labour such as design and marketing to professionals or put in that work themselves. As well, there is some risk involved in hosting a crowdfunding campaign, if not in monetary cost (since there is no corporation to take care of any unforeseen expenses), then in time and cost to the author’s reputation if the campaign fails. Some authors, such as Josh Fruhlinger, have found that crowdfunding results in unexpected pressure during the creative process and that the high expectations of those who contributed money can be daunting.

Overall, the increase of crowdfunding publishing platforms highlights the ability of–in this case, the need for–print and digital media to exist side by side and to complement each other, rather than detract from each other. In order to successfully crowdfund a book, an author nearly always requires a pre-existing audience who enjoys their work and is willing to support them, a major reason why crowdfunding has been successful with content that is usually released in smaller, periodic bites such as podcasts or Youtube videos. Rather than detracting from print and polarizing the two media, online platforms offer more options for authors who are disillusioned with traditional publishing and the difficulty (and amount of luck necessary) in securing a book deal–and the more experience and success they have had creating an online community and connecting with potential readers digitally, the more likely their print work is to succeed.

Dan Kieran of Unbound believes that Unbound reaches “a very specific part of the author’s audience.” This results in a model that does not necessarily encroach on traditional publishing’s domain, but provides a new framework that traditional publishers are becoming interested in as well. If so, we could continue to see the lines between traditional corporate publishing and self-publishing relying on self-promotion blur in the future (for instance, with platforms like Swoonreads, which does not crowdfund but allows readers to provide input about which projects Macmillan should publish). In the meantime, as traditional publishers continue to pour their effort into a few hopeful bestsellers and creators continue to interact with a variety of media and platforms rather than simply print, crowdfunding books offers a new method for authors to connect their material to audiences, especially if they are willing to put time and energy into establishing a faithful audience and marketing themselves and their work.

3 Comments

  1. The rise in popularity of crowdfunding and similar crowdfunding models particularly around novel publishing is indeed exciting. As a consumer and potential reader it’s attractive to have input as to whether something is produced and potentially affect what and how it is produced. That kind of influence is a very unique experience where backers literally put their money where their mouths are.
    You make a distinction of crowdfunded models as offering an alternative option from traditional publishing and self-publishing, however I consider crowdfunding to be a weird mix of the two and not entirely distinct. Self-Publishing involves producing something independently from established publishing houses and at your own expense. Crowdfunding is done independently, yes, there is input from potential readers but in the end it is you producing it without any publishing house guiding you. Technically you don’t cover the expenses yourself, but it’s kind of like asking for an extreme pre-order or an advance from the publisher but instead it’s from future readers.
    You also mention, and I agree with you, that longer-form writings published through alternative means without gatekeeping to ensure quality product has more stigma associated with it that self-publishing of visual and auditory media. However I am puzzled by this- why? Why is self-published writing held up to higher standards than visual or auditory self-published works? There is nothing inherently (Hannah’s favourite word probably) better or worse between them. Yes the creative process of writing is different than visual or audio production but I think we hold it up to a higher caliber for some reason. Is it specifically long-from writing or all writing? Maybe its because long-form, as it’s name suggests, is long. It, generally, takes longer to produce, to write. If it’s that long and that much work and time has been put into it, does that make it better and therefore the idea that anyone can do it without our trusted gatekeepers harder to get over? I don’t have an answer-all reason but its worth thinking about. I could care less whether some kid made a cool video in his basement from home or whether it came from a major media producer or corporation. Both can be amazing and are worthy but people forever hesitant towards self-published authors as they are often seen as ‘not good enough’ to have been published in the traditional way when in fact many prefer the self-published route or the format or direction of their works demand an alternative to the traditional mediums.
    Back to crowdfunding, you explain the model very well and I would say that I have a better understanding of the whole process thanks to your summary. The main distinction between the various crowdfund-type websites is the initial editorial screen. Unbound by providing some gatekeeping of content I think is the future of these types of sites. This helps not only with some of the stigma but also helps filter out the more promising projects that are more likely to be funded and therefore successfully published. I’m curious as to sales of these books that are crowdfunded, especially for those from Unbound that are eventually distributed into traditional stores. Many times those who backed the book or project get a copy as a ‘reward’, so who is left that will buy the book? This model plays to the niche market and I would imagine that these books wouldn’t have lasting sales in the traditional market. It would be interesting in the future to examine sales tracks of those self-published works and see how successful they really are.
    Personally I prefer ‘SwoonReads’ approach. Where there is still trusted gatekeepers sorting, but the community of readers helps them decide what to publish next. Things like voting for you favourite cover design may seem trivial but is a fun and easy way for the average consumer who doesn’t want to commit their money to something that they may not end up liking before it even exists.
    While crowdfunding model and similar ones offer a new sense of experimentation and freedom, as we learned that one medium doesn’t have to kill the other to come into existence, this method will continue alongside of traditional publishing. I think that those traditional means will always be way above and beyond but these alternative options offer a valued service that caters to many people’s customizable and specificity central preferences in what they want to consume.

  2. This is an excellent essay: clear, interesting, well-organized, well-researched, and with a clearly articulated argument. Given space, I would have been interesting in seeing you work through the question Olivia presents, of which we’re so much more suspicious of self-published books than we are of self-published videos, photography, etc. I’d also be interested in more research about what kinds of projects get funded on different kinds of platforms, and what those successful projects might tell us about the user bases and politics of those different platforms. Those are questions beyond the scope of this short essay, but worth thinking on.
    A brief editorial side note: In paragraph four, “the hegemony of the literary prize panel and traditional publishing houses” appears to have been dropped in accidentally. It might be worth the quick edit to fix up an otherwise extremely polished essay.

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