Patronage and Crowdfunding: Not So Distant Cousins

Many books today, particularly fringe art and comic books, are published through support gathered through crowdfunding websites like Kickstarter, gofundme, and Indigogo. While crowdfunding appears to be a modern phenomenon, it has roots in the 18th and 19th century. This essay will explore those roots and will emphasize that, despite appearances, crowdfunding campaigns are steeped in a history of support and patronage that spans back to a much earlier era and brings with it the age-old debate of merit vs. nepotism and, in some ways, limits the author’s freedom of expression.

Current crowdfunding encourages creators to share their project ideas with the public in order to generate funds for the projects before they are created. By raising funds before committing to the project, creators can get a good idea of the size of their audience and will also have the financial support they need to complete it. A good portion of crowdfunding projects are in the realm of publishing, and, as Avvai Ketheeswaran mentions in her essay, there is an entire section of Kickstarter dedicated to publishing.1 In her article Kickstarting a books revolution, Marta Bausells sites that Kickstarter has raised $70m in pledges to publishing projects.2 Kickstarter’s campaign for Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls— 100 Tales to Dream Big raised $675,614,3 while its sequel raised $866,193.4

  However, this fundraising is not achieved in a vacuum, as the creators of these works not only must create the projects but must ‘get out into the world, get people talking about it, sharing it’.5 Ketheeswaran writes, “it can be extremely challenging for new authors without a pre-existing fanbase to reach their target goal” even in companies that specialize in crowdfunding endeavors.6 This fan element of crowdfunding is very reminiscent of the system in the eighteenth century, where backers would mitigate risk by providing for the upfront costs of a project but the support hinged on the author’s popularity and their loyalty to their patrons.

In the eighteenth century, patronage was a very large financial factor in all of the arts, including literature. In his article Types of Eighteenth-Century Literary Patronage, Paul J. Korshin explains how literary patronage complicated the publishing world of the eighteenth-century. He writes that patronage took on many forms; the more classic ideas of direct patronage but also, “the support of a publisher, the interest of a subscription-buying public, or the approbation of an audience”.7 The patron system rose to prominence in the 1700s, when the Enlightenment period was in full bloom but when funding was still limited to the elite. Book publishing was not an established industry yet, and Korshin states that authors didn’t enter into a relationship with book publishers until the mid-eighteenth century.8 Before this point, projects were either funded by the Crown, the church, or by rich patrons.9 Korshin states “few writers had been wealthy unless they were born that way, inherited wealth, somehow acquired a lucrative place in the government, or obtained substantial patronage” and thus few could fund their literary endeavors.10  

Having a wealthy patron meant backing and safety for one’s artistic endeavors, but it also meant the artist’s creative licenses were limited by the will of the artist’s patron.11 It also meant the author was tied to the patron’s wishes as long as they wanted their work to stay in circulation. This is similar to the restrictions that Ketheeswaran mentions in crowdfunding through the Unbound crowdfunding publisher, where contributors are allowed a voice in creative choices that would usually be left to the publisher, agent, and author.12 Although the crowdfunding example is not as extreme, it limits the author’s expression in favor of financial gain.

Although it may be a bit controversial, it can also be said that crowdfunding, much like patronage, does not necessarily test the strength of the artist’s work. Rather, it tests their marketing skills and ability to entice their supporter’s curiosity through perks and a strong sales pitch. Ketheeswaran writes, in many cases, crowdfunding is more about the author platform than the book being published.13 Because of this, it is difficult to tell if a book will measure up to what is presented by the crowdfunding page. This disparity is part of the reason that crowdfunding does not hold the prestige of traditional publishing, for whatever it’s worth. This is very similar to the stigma that Korshin argues surrounded patronage. Korshin writes that, historically, “the support of a patron has frequently been interpreted pejoratively, as an unfair external influence responsible, in whole or in part, for the success of a person whose merit is slight”.14 In a very biting critique on patronage, Edmond Rostand exemplifies this dislike of untalented and scheming artists in his play Cyrano de Bergerac, 

“What would you have me do?

Seek for the patronage of some great man,

 And like a creeping vine on a tall tree

Crawl upward, where I cannot stand alone?

No thank you! […] 

Be a buffoon

In the vile hope of teasing out a smile

On some cold face? No thank you! […]

I am too proud to be a parasite […]”15

This small passage gives one a fairly good idea of the contempt in which Rostand, born in 1868, held patronage. Rostand’s beliefs might be mirrored by those who dismiss crowdfunding for publishing projects, where only a small percentage of books achieve full funding and go on to become financial successes, usually due at least in part to author popularity and online engagement. It would be interesting to see what Rostand would think of the crowdfunding movement, which seems to blend the world of patronage with that of literary creativity and stretches the bounds of ‘gate-kept’ publishing through publishing houses. 

Of course, in the modern face of crowdfunding there isn’t as much of a fear that an unhappy patron will ruin an author’s career, but unhappy customers are unlikely to support further projects, thus limiting author’s creative output. The internet is also a problem here, as projects that do not meet backer’s expectations might receive bad press online. Another difference between crowdfunding and eighteenth-century literary patronage is the number of people contributing to a literary endeavor. In the eighteenth-century patron system, one patron usually supported an artist. This later grew into the subscription-buying public, with a wider but still limited outreach due to the schism of wealth in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Finally crowdfunding emerged, where a global audience from all kinds of financial and social backgrounds can be reached at the click of a button and can donate as much (or as little) as they want to support the work. However, some crowdfunding perks harken back to the original patron scheme where those who donate the most money have the most say in the production of the publication. This can have negative effects, as it both limits the author’s creative freedom and it also marginalizes those who cannot afford to donate big sums of wealth to a project. In the patronage system, creators would be backed entirely by the elite, meaning that nearly all of the population was marginalized in the creative process. It was clear who held the power in the relationship, with patrons holding creators on a leash tied to their coin purse.

Crowdfunding is seen as a fairly modern addition to the publishing world. In some ways it is, because of the massive audience it can gain through the internet. However, the roots of crowdfunding are in patronage, with all of its negative connotations. For crowdfunding to truly work as a tool for marginalized communities creators must be aware of these connotations and work to combat them. 

 1 Ketheeswaran, Avvai. “Unbound: A Crowdfunding Publisher.” PUB800. October 02, 2018. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2018/10/unbound-a- crowdfunding-publisher/.

2 Bausells, Marta. “Kickstarting a Books Revolution: The Literary Crowdfunding Boom.” The Guardian. June 05, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/ books/2015/jun/05/the-literary-crowdfunding-boom.

3 “Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls – 100 Tales to Dream BIG.” Kickstarter. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/timbuktu/good-night-stories-for-rebel-girls-100-tales-to-dr?ref=discovery.

4 “Kickstarter Gold: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2.” Kickstarter. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/timbuktu/kickstarter-gold-good-night-stories- for-rebel-girl?ref=discovery.

5 McEvilly, Brendan. “Crowdfunding.” Books Ireland, no. 368 (2016): 20-21. http:// www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/booksireland.368.20. p. 20

6 Ketheeswaran, “Unbound”

7 Korshin, Paul J. “Types of Eighteenth-Century Literary Patronage.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 7, no. 4 (1974): 453-73. doi:10.2307/3031599. p. 454

8 Ibid. p.456

9 Ibid. p.456

10 Ibid. p.456

11 Ibid. p.455

12 Ketheeswaran, “Unbound”

13 Ibid.

14 Korshin,“Types” p. 453

15 Rostand, Edmond. “A Quote from Cyrano De Bergerac.” Goodreads. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/703731-what-would-you-have-me-do-seek-for- the-patronage.

 

Bibliography

Bausells, Marta. “Kickstarting a Books Revolution: The Literary Crowdfunding Boom.” The Guardian. June 05, 2015. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.theguardian.com/ books/2015/jun/05/the-literary-crowdfunding-boom.

“Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls – 100 Tales to Dream BIG.” Kickstarter. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/timbuktu/good-night-stories-for-rebel- girls-100-tales-to-dr?ref=discovery.

Ketheeswaran, Avvai. “Unbound: A Crowdfunding Publisher.” PUB800. October 02, 2018. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub800/2018/10/unbound-a- crowdfunding-publisher/.

“Kickstarter Gold: Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls 2.” Kickstarter. Accessed October 20, 2018. https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/timbuktu/kickstarter-gold-good-night-stories- for-rebel-girl?ref=discovery.

Korshin, Paul J. “Types of Eighteenth-Century Literary Patronage.” Eighteenth-Century Studies 7, no. 4 (1974): 453-73. doi:10.2307/3031599.

McEvilly, Brendan. “Crowdfunding.” Books Ireland, no. 368 (2016): 20-21. http:// www.jstor.org.proxy.lib.sfu.ca/stable/booksireland.368.20.

Rostand, Edmond. “A Quote from Cyrano De Bergerac.” Goodreads. Accessed October 21, 2018. https://www.goodreads.com/quotes/703731-what-would-you-have-me-do-seek-for- the-patronage.

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