Defying the Traditional Model: Crowdfunding in Sci-Fi and fantasy
While the publishing industry has seen a number of changes over the past few years, the impact of crowdfunding on the sci-fi and fantasy genres is potentially game-changing.While the publishing industry has seen a number of changes over the past few years, very few have had as much impact or are as potentially game changing as crowdfunding. In fact, crowdfunding has exploded in popularity as authors and publishers alike take advantage of this business model.
Magazines, anthologies, novels, and other projects have found backing through crowdfunding, and a week doesn’t go by when another project isn’t announced. As the industry copes with a volatile economic climate, the evolution of e-books, and the emergence of new publishing models (such as Amazon’s—the e-taileris now both publisher and direct distributor), crowdfunding allows creators to circumvent traditional publishers and take their products right to consumers.
Crowdfunding is relatively a simple process. Creators use a site such as Kickstarter or Indiegogo to coordinate their campaigns. They produce pitches, explain their projects, and ask for certain amounts of funds. The campaigns run for a set amount of time, usually 30 or 60 days. In Kickstarter’s case, the funds are only collected after the campaign ends. If the goal isn’t met, no money changes hands. Indiegogo works a little differently: pledges are collected as they’re made. But whether it’s the all or nothing of Kickstarter or the potentially partial success of Indiegogo, crowdfunding is an opportunity for the potential audience to finance a promising project.
Crowdfunding has numerous benefits. First, it creates public awareness of the project, with word-of-mouth publicity spreading through social media, news sites, blogs, and so on. Long before the project comes out, the information has gone viral. It also gauges a level of interest in the project: 200 backers for a novel, for instance, represent 200 guaranteed sales up-front, indicating a level of demand. And, of course, crowdfunding means that the creator gets the money before anything else happens. And when that funding covers printing, artwork, editing, and shipping and handling, as well as even paying contributors to the project... well, everyone wins.When the Marla Mason urban fantasy series by Tim Pratt was canceled in 2008, fans were left demanding more; the fourth book had ended on “something of a cliffhanger,” he says. After running the next book in the form of a serial for which readers donated what they deemed appropriate, Pratt decided to fund the sixth book via Kickstarter, then newly popular. “The advantages were obvious: I basically got an advance instead of just hoping people would donate, and I could easily gauge interest in the series instead of just publishing and hoping people still cared. It removed the possibility of me wasting time writing a book nobody wanted to read.” He brought in $11,000. The next book, Bride of Death, brought in $18,000, “putting it pretty much in the range of what Random House used to pay me for the books.”
To tell a story that didn’t fit into her Walker Papers books, C.E. Murphy sought to crowdfund a spin-off novella. “No Dominion was a project my readers were dearly interested in but my publishers were not: it focused on Gary Muldoon, the series’ 74-year-old cab-driving sidekick character. Readers had been asking me for Gary’s story ever since the first Walker Papers novel was published, but his age, gender, and sidekick status made him too much of a long shot for my publishers to be interested in pursuing as a traditional publication.” The result surprised even her. “It turned out to be a tremendously successful venture that grossed more than any traditional publisher had ever offered me as an advance and ended up delivering about 100,000 words (roughly a 400-page printed book) to the backers instead of the originally anticipated 30 to 40,000 words.”
Murphy’s story is common among authors who choose this route, and she sums up the appeal perfectly: “For a professional novelist, it’s an entirely different method of procuring what is effectively an advance: money up front that allows me to pay the rent while I write the book. Traditionally I get that money from a publisher who is betting on me; with crowdfunding, my direct audience is betting on me. Crowdfunding is a new patronage system, where instead of one wealthy patron supporting an artist, dozens or hundreds or thousands of people with ordinary incomes are banding together to provide that support. It provides a freedom that five years ago I wouldn’t have been able to exercise; five years ago, I wouldn’t have written No Dominion, because I literally wouldn’t have been able to afford the time.”
Note, of course, that this model works best for authors with an established fan base, a strong social media presence, and a proven history. Pratt, Murphy, and Laura Anne Gilman, author of the Cosa Nostradamus fantasy series—these authors can run crowdfunding campaigns to produce continuations or spin-offs of popular series, or test the waters for new ideas, simply because their audience knows they’ll deliver. For untested, unknown authors, the bar for success can be much higher, as is the failure rate.
Crowdfunding has also been applied to magazines, although with mixed results. John Joseph Adams launched Nightmare magazine with the help of Kickstarter, using the model to “see if there was a sufficient level of interest to support a horror/dark fantasy magazine. Kickstarter allowed me to gauge the market before committing to launching the magazine.”
In 2013, Pratt resurrected Flytrap, a zine from the early 2000s. “We got over $5,000, did an issue, paid our writers and artists well, and we’re immensely proud of the result.” However, an attempt to make this into an annual publication “failed spectacularly.” While Pratt has theories about why it failed, he can’t say for certain. “There were some other prominent magazine/anthology Kickstarters around the same time, including a very successful one that overlapped ours, so there may have been some short-fiction crowdfunding fatigue,” he says.
Mike Allen, editor of Mythic Delirium, used Kickstarter to take his SF/F poetry magazine from print to electronic format, giving it new life. As he notes, “I’ve seen a fair amount of fretting online about how supporting a publication such as a magazine via Kickstarter alone isn’t viable, because, of course, if your campaign fails to reach goal, you get no money and your magazine is dead. But I think what folks fail to realize is that these days, there is no reliable model for keeping a subscription base healthy.” Some magazines survive by running crowdfunding campaigns year-by-year, others issue by issue, and the industry is still figuring out what works and what doesn’t.
And then there are the anthologies. Once upon a time, publishers footed the bill for these projects, paying advances to the editor who in turn paid the authors. But, as publishers have become less willing to gamble on projects that rarely make back what they cost, editors have taken to crowdfunding to bring their projects to life. Julia Rios and Alisa Krasnostein used a site called Pozible to fund Kaleidoscope, a YA anthology focused on diversity in urban fantasy. “As a small, independent press, we couldn’t afford to produce Kaleidoscope on our own—crowdfunding enabled us to pay pro rates, which we can’t always do on our own, as well as to pay the many other people involved in production some contribution towards their time. Crowdfunding also involves a lot of promotion, which contributes to raising the profile of the project ahead of its release,” Krasnostein says. “It offers something really important as an alternative model for smaller publishing outlets. Crowdfunding is enabling niche projects to become viable by providing the cash flow up front, something that can otherwise be limiting for smaller operations.”
Ellen Datlow, arguably one of the most accomplished anthologists in the field today, partnered with ChiZine Publications to produce the horror anthology Fearful Symmetries after a successful Kickstarter campaign. For her, the decision came about because publishers are reluctant to back nonthemed anthologies, which don’t sell as well as the themed variety. “I’ve noticed that most anthologies funded through Kickstarter are edited and published by the same person. I had no interest in doing this as I’m not a publisher. I love what ChiZine Publications produces—both the content and look of the books—so I approached them with the idea of funding an anthology through Kickstarter. They were game and so we went ahead with the project.”
As Mike Allen says about funding Clockwork Phoenix 4 via Kickstarter, “I wanted to produce a fourth volume, writers and readers told me they were hoping to see one, but every publisher I pitched the idea to turned me down. Clockwork Phoenix simply wasn’t commercial enough.” In this case, he satisfied a small but visible demand for a product traditional publishers had not been willing to support.
Sometimes it’s a niche product that appeals to a limited audience; sometimes it’s the sort of project that requires a nontraditional approach. Silence in the Library Publishing decided to release a sci-fi anthology featuring female authors. Athena’s Daughters was “a project conceived, developed, and driven by women.” They raised over $44,000, five times their $8,500 goal and enough to spawn several other projects. Lightspeed magazine crowdfunded a similar venture with the “Women Destroy Science Fiction” special issue. As editor John Joseph Adams says, “We megafunded, reaching more than 1,000% of our original goal of $5,000, so it worked out super well! The campaign got all kinds of attention the issue likely wouldn’t have otherwise and generated a huge amount of excitement.”
Some see crowdfunding as the way of the future. Adams says, “I think that it’s a wonderful new tool to allow new projects to develop and flourish that would not have had the opportunity to do otherwise. I’m actually kind of surprised traditional publishers haven’t gotten in on the action yet.”
Datlow, however, disagrees to an extent. “I don’t feel it is a business model—not for an ongoing business. The idea behind Kickstarter is in its name. It’s meant to kick-start something—that means it’s a one-off to help a business get started. So you can do a model of a magazine/webzine or prototype for a gadget, theatrical production, etc., but I personally feel that for an ongoing project, once you get it going you have to create your own business model for the future and not rely on donations over time.”
C.E. Murphy remains realistic about the potential pitfalls. “I’m doing all the work. I’m writing the books, I’m finding the cover artists, the editors, the layout people, and generally project managing on top of writing....And—unless you’re very good at self-promotion—it is difficult to gain an audience through independent publishing alone, which is why, once upon a time, I was a vehement decrier of self-publishing. But that was five to ten years ago; the system has changed since then, and I think it’s going to change more. At this juncture, I genuinely think the entire crowdfunding and independent publishing scene is good for the publishing industry. I’d like to think it’s creating a more robust system that allows both writers and traditional publishing some room to breathe and learn a little more about what readers want.”
So while it may not be the perfect or all-encompassing solution, one thing is clear: crowdfunding has become a viable publishing alternative for those willing and able to put forth the effort and take a gamble on appealing to their audience ahead of time. The floodgates have opened, and we’re likely to see many more authors, editors, and publishers choosing this method to fund projects that otherwise would not be feasible under the traditional or current systems.