By Celine Diaz
Publishing has always been considered “risky business.”
Most books never become bestsellers, so each traditionally published book poses a fair amount of financial risk to publishing houses. Authors, too, risk slaving away for years or months trying to perfect works that may never land prominent spots on bookstore shelves. In both cases, authors and publishers are left wondering the big, money-saving question: “What do readers actually want?”
With the rise of digital technology, we might finally have an answer to such publishing woes: crowdfunding.
What is crowdfunding?
Typically facilitated by online platforms such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo, crowdfunding involves collecting money from “ordinary people” (who are called “backers”) to help fund numerous projects in exchange for additional perks.
In the case of publishing, this means all sorts of wonderful things for authors who, perhaps for the first time, can feasibly publish without going through a traditional publisher:
- Crowdfunding provides upfront funding for a book before it is even published, reducing financial risk significantly.
- Crowdfunding ensures that the book is, in fact, what readers actually want, and that there will be an audience for it (after all, no one would “back” a book that they were not interested in).
- Crowdfunding does wonders for marketing the book prior to its publication, heightening anticipation and tapping into word-of-mouth online marketing capabilities through social media, blogging, etc.
- Crowdfunding allows authors to profit more from sales in comparison to the meagre royalties offered by traditional publishing houses.
- Finally, crowdfunding provides more freedom for authors and readers to explore topics that traditional publishing “gatekeepers” have refused to let in.
But could crowdfunding actually work?
Before dismissing crowdfunding as absolutely “bogus,” consider the case of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, which raised a whopping $1 million in crowdfunds compared to its original goal of $40,000. The book, written by Elena Favelli and Francesca Cavallo, is now the most funded children’s book in the entire history of Kickstarter (no surprise there).
The hardcover picture book features a collection of stories about inspiring women throughout history. It offers a tiered model for perks given to backers in exchange for their funding. These perks include a copy of the book, coloring books, homeschooling kits with lesson plans, posters, tattoo packs, audiobooks, and—perhaps most interesting—the chance to have the name of a daughter, niece, or friend printed in the book as one of the “girls who are going to change the world.”
Yet I suspect that the appeal behind Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls goes beyond material perks and into the social realm. Those who fund and purchase Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls are not simply consuming products individualistically, but are part of a larger social movement that supports building up young girls by exposing them to female role models.
Which brings me to my next point:
Crowdfunding exemplifies a key characteristic of the digital networking world, which is, as Nakamura puts it, “social.”
Media are socially realized structures of communication, and when it comes to connecting people across space and time, nothing accelerates this communication process faster than digital media. Put simply, the internet does wonders for facilitating networks and providing numerous capabilities for people to be “social” and develop communities.
As in the case of Goodreads, a social networking site where readers can rate and share books publicly with others on virtual “bookshelves,” crowdfunding similarly creates communities of people who are interested in publishing particular kinds of books of shared value to them.
People present themselves to the world in terms of the books they read. Crowdfunding immediately puts the “backer” in alignment with the book’s contents and values. In short, those who “back” crowdfunded projects are part of a larger community; they gain social capital. Reading becomes less of a solitary, private activity and more of a social “declaration,” which is accelerated through social media and other kinds of online networking practices.
Digital media also makes the process of collaboration easier, challenging the traditional notion of a single author or illustrator behind every piece of work. In the case of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls, each picture was illustrated by different female artists from across the globe.
So what makes Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls so “rebellious?”
It represents a significant shift in power relations—both in content and production.
“We realized that 95% of the books and TV shows we grew up with lacked girls in prominent positions. We did some research and discovered that this didn’t change much over the past 20 years,” stated authors Favelli and Cavallo. “We are filling a vacuum. We are responding to a clear need … We could see how much female stereotypes were still around.”
Content-wise, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is a subtle cry against the stereotypically submissive roles that women are often portrayed in by traditional media, such as the “passive housewife” or the “oversexualized creature” that exists for the pleasure of men. In contrast, this book introduces young girls to inspiring female role models who are admired for their contributions, not the extent of their submissiveness.
Crowdfunding offers an intriguing opportunity for a diversity of voices to make it into the publishing world, which is especially empowering for minority groups (women, people of color, members of the queer community, etc.), whose voices are largely ignored by traditional publishing houses.
Similar to xerography, which challenged print culture’s monopoly on knowledge by giving subcultures, minority languages, and micro-communities a chance to spread their messages, crowdfunding carries the potential for diversity and democratization—a stark contrast to the standardization and consolidation of traditional publishing.
With crowdfunding, power relations have clearly shifted.
Authors can bypass “gatekeepers” of traditional publishing to connect directly with readers. More significantly, readers play a key role in cultural production, a process in which they were previously excluded.
No longer are readers simply passive consumers of cultural products that were developed from the top-down. Now they play an active role in determining which types of content get published, since they, after all, provide the financial means for doing so. This time around, publishing takes a “ground-up” approach, carrying the potential to subvert pre-existing hierarchies, such as the “author as authority” (since authors are entirely dependent on readers for the existence of their books).
Just as readers inscribe themselves directly onto books by writing on the marginalia, “backers” of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls inscribe themselves figuratively and literally into the book—their values embedded in its contents in the form of financial support, and their names printed on its very pages as one of the “perks” of funding. No longer are readers simply stating, “I read the book, and therefore I support the effort to introduce better role models for young girls.” Rather, they can claim support by having funded it. They have participated in something bigger than themselves—a collective movement to bring the book and its message into being.
Looks like ‘old’ and ‘new’ media can coexist after all.
Finally, the production of Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is a good example of why digital (‘new’) media does not necessarily mean the obsolescence of traditional (‘old’) media. In this case, both forms coexist and even serve to support one another.
Although the crowdfunding and marketing efforts took place primarily online, Goodnight Stories for Rebel Girls is still hardcover print book. It seems that readers have not grown tired of the codex form yet, but now prefer purchasing books online with platforms such as Amazon (which has partnered with Kickstarter to sell successfully crowdfunded projects).
Other companies have assumed a hybrid model, making them a cross between a crowdfunding platform and a traditional publisher. Companies like Unbound facilitate crowdfunding on their platform, presenting potential book ideas to their established readership. Unbound then operates like a traditional publisher for books that manage to achieve their funding goals, taking over distribution and marketing efforts. Authors are given higher royalty rates than they would have gotten with a traditional publisher, and they are also welcome to submit their work without a literary agent.
As eloquently summarized by Michelle Gaudet, traditional publishers could learn a few things from the crowdfunding phenomenon: “Readers want to be more involved in the media creation process; authors want to have more say in what is ‘worthy’ of publication; and the validity of publishing ‘gatekeepers’ is now coming into question.”
Will crowdfunding work for every aspiring author? No. Authors who already have an established fan base or strong social media presence are more likely to succeed with crowdfunding than unknown, newly emerging authors.
However, the capacity for crowdfunding to democratize publishing, to give voice to the previously ‘voiceless,’ and to put more power in the hands of the readers, is extremely intriguing and worth further exploration.