Crowdfunding the creatives: should writers ask for money before they write?

Paul Raven @ 19-02-2010

The entry of former Pirate Bay co-founder Peter Sunde into the micropayments scene with the beta-launch of his new Flattr service has people discussing donation-based funding models for creatives once again. Micropayments have been mooted plenty of times before now, but no one has ever made them work well enough to catch on – PayPal could have gone that way, for instance, but there wasn’t a big enough margin for them in those minuscule payments, so we’ll have to hope that Flattr (or something similar) can fill the gap at the nickels-and-dimes end of the market. Even if it never becomes a prime revenue stream for anyone, I’d like the ability to be able to donate money to my favourite bands in that sort of manner, for instance, without having to send it through the grasping hands of the record label middlemen.

But the need for new ways to support creative workers is becoming increasingly apparent – as is the set of jobs included under that catch-all, with Deanna Zandt suggesting that one way for journalism to survive is to start considering the journalist as another sort of artist, at least as far as looking for income streams is concerned [via Stowe Boyd]:

How can journalistic endeavors, desperately needed to maintain our terribly just and free society and all that, be supported? Since information/news is no longer a scarce commodity, it just doesn’t fit into a market-based model anymore, in my head. Advertising is only going to carry it so far, as we’re seeing. And besides, do we really want news to be only of commercial value? Do I only want to read news in places where advertisers want to see their ads?

[…]

If you’re a musician, for example, it’s easier than ever to get your work heard by more people than just your friends. But not paid for by a whole bunch, probably. That’s the sticker, eh? A few years ago, as Napster started ticking off the recording industry, someone said that it was clearer than ever what the musician’s job is: not to sell records, but to travel around and play for people. That’s what they’ve always done, and that’s what they’re returning to.

Journalism is grasping at straws for a new model to pay everyone’s salaries. The old model, though, was in many ways distorted, and probably distended. Maybe it’s not, however, that journalistic endeavors are going to be the new starving artists— maybe it’s that news producers and art makers need to get their heads together and figure out how we’re going to create not a model, but a whole new system that creates thrivable conditions for creators to get their jobs done.

Zandt is preaching what she practices here, having crowdsourced the advance for her imminent book on social networks (as discussed by Michelle Pauli of The Guardian):

Using the wisdom of the crowd to research a book is nothing new. Clay Shirky based a whole tome around the concept. But using the wealth of the crowd to fund your book? For no return? That’s a new one.

It’s the unusual approach taken by Deanna Zandt, an American “media technologist and consultant to key progressive media organisations”. Last summer she issued a plea on her blog for donations to support her while she spent three months writing a book about social networking as a tool for social change and action, looking specifically at communities she says have too often been marginalised as social networks have developed: “women, people of color, queer folk, and more”.

Zandt has a publisher for this book, Berret Koehler, but they do not provide authors with advances to write their books. For some (unexplained, especially as the book is due to be published in June 2010) reason the book is “incredibly fast-tracked” and so she needed
“to stop working as a consultant for the next three months and do nothing but write the book. Thus, I need investors. I need you to help me raise $15,000 to cover my expenses, travel, and research. Please toss some money into a ‘Feed Deanna’ pot!”

A lot of people have taken issue with Zandt’s approach, mostly focussing on the perceived lack of return that her crowdfunders receive for their donations; for my money, I think the problem is with Zandt’s particular implementation of the idea (which is easily read as saying “send me money and I might do some work”, though that’s a massive oversimplification) rather than the idea of crowdfunding itself (which offers a whole raft of implementations and models, many of which I expect haven’t even been thought of yet). For some people, perhaps just knowing they’ve supported the creation of something is enough; that’s how patronage of the arts used to work, I believe, though I have no idea how prevalent the “anonymous benefactor” used to be.

Pauli’s piece goes on to point to a post by Futurismic‘s very own Tim Maly, which gathers up some of the discussion around the Zandt story before setting out his own opinion:

My feeling is if you find a way to get paid for your work full-time: TAKE IT, TAKE IT, TAKE IT.

[…]

Here’s the thing about money: it’s fungible. If I give you $25 and you buy a $25 steak, we can’t say for sure that I bought you a steak. The only thing we can say is that I gave you $25 more than you would have had otherwise. If you give me $200,000 to make a video game, all you can say for sure is that at the end of the day a game got made to your satisfaction (or not) and I got $200,000. Maybe the money came from you, maybe some of your money funded another project. Maybe money from another project funded yours. Maybe we took out a loan, hoping that future income would cover the costs of current work.

Here’s the thing about writing: when you are a writer, you become a studio of one. You have a monthly burn rate and some sort of source(s) of cashflow. For your work to be sustainable, cash-flow needs to meet or exceed your income. That’s it.

Another factor to consider with crowdfunding, especially for journalism, is that it can end up supporting work that wouldn’t be produced under the old “pitch it, sell it, write it, get paid” system. Case in point: Paige Williams’ article on legendary off-the-gridder Dolly Freed, which she pitched and pitched until she was blue in the face, before turning to what she calls “Radiohead journalism” (as a hat-tip to the experimental business model around the In Rainbows album of 2007*) as a way to get the money to cover the expense of writing the piece.

A common (and valid) counteragument against this sort of funding is that it currently has the fashionable appeal of novelty, plus the support of social media entrepreneurs who can afford to waft a few hundred bucks toward a project that chimes with their own philosophies of creative endeavour and visions of the future of business. I’ve got dozens of ideas for journalistic pieces sat in my notebooks and text files, but I doubt I’d have the same success as Williams – no one knows who I am, and my journalism is (being generous) raw and untrained. Crowdfunding looks plausible for those who already have their foot in the door, but how would a hypothetical wannabe reporter like myself nudge the door open far enough to achieve the same results?

Perhaps the answer is to start small, keep your goals realistically ambitious at first, build up your reputation and contacts and fanbase, get the snowball rolling. That’s how it’s always worked for non-mainstream bands, after all, and the other route for musicians – get “discovered”, get signed by a major, be groomed into megastardom – is looking more shaky and hollow by the week (thanks in no small part to Simon Cowell and their ilk, who may have managed to squeeze some last spurts out of cash from a dying business model, but have done so at the cost of finally exposing the mechanics of that business model for the manipulative sham it’s always been).

A small but die-hard clade of fans is enough to keep an artist in business nowadays (provided their tastes don’t run to Hollywood mansions and Gaultier bling, and assuming they’ve built up a strong level of engagement with said fanbase), so is it completely implausible that the same could work for writers, be they novelists or journalists? Indeed, it’s the rabid fandom of (often young, often female) early supporters that has traditionally catapulted musicians into the public awareness, and we shouldn’t discount the power of that sort of fandom in our networked world, be it for books (Twilight, anyone?), music or movie stars:

In an essay entitled “1,000 True Fans” Kevin Kelly, one of the founders of Wired magazine, defines a true fan as “someone who will purchase anything and everything you produce.” Kelly’s theory is that all any artist needs to survive in the “long tail” environment of the web is a core of one thousand true fans who will spend one hundred dollars on the artist’s products each year. That’s about one concert ticket and a couple of CDs, which by my calculations would put a fangirl at least one notch above a “true fan” in the hierarchy of fanhood. And that is precisely why the earth shakes when girls decide that something is likable. Greater than just buying power, true fanhood is about participation, and the web presents a multitude of fangirl opportunities both to consume and produce idol information. Of course all this includes a willingness to follow a band, artist, or celebrity until they are no longer working in the industry – well, maybe even a little after that too.

Of course, writers aren’t usually very rock’n’roll (except the late and much-missed Doctor Thompson, perhaps); writer fandom is predominantly based around the writing rather than the writer, at least at first, and writing is (sadly) harder to market than a personality or a pretty face. But everyone has to start from zero at some point, and I’m confident that the market for good writing, fictional or otherwsie, isn’t going to go away – it’s going to migrate to new places and change its shape, but as a species we’re too obsessed with stories to let it wither and die off. And as a final positive note, research indicates that internet habitues are willing to pay for quality content online, albeit with a few important caveats:

The survey, which included more than 27,000 customers globally, found that consumers are (naturally) more inclined to keep already free things free. Still, things that people pay for offline—such as movies, music, and games—were the same things that people were most willing to pay for (or consider paying for) online.

[…]

This doesn’t mean the money will come without conditions, though; more than three-quarters of those surveyed said they expect online content to be free if they already subscribe to a newspaper or magazine offline, and 71 percent said that the online content would have to be be “considerably better” than what’s currently free before they’ll get out their wallets.

At least some users seem to be realistic about what to expect if they don’t pay for it: almost 4 in 10 (34 percent) said they thought the quality of online content would suffer if companies could not charge for it. (Another 36 percent had no opinion on the matter.) Forty-seven percent of respondents said they would accept more advertising in order to subsidize free content.

It’s a brave new world out there, and I suspect that even if crowdfunding doesn’t become the norm, it’ll still be an important part of the creative ecosystem in a decade’s time… and if you PayPal me some cash, I’ll start researching and writing a book about its progress right away. 😉

[ * – Good grief, In Rainbows was released nearly two and a half years ago… where does the time go? ]

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5 Responses to “Crowdfunding the creatives: should writers ask for money before they write?”

  1. Patrick H says:

    I think what’s being talked about is devolving the marketing role to the artist. I think that works well for a number of creators, but there are others who need someone that believes in them to do it for them – a patron, an agent a publisher etc.

    I’ve freelanced at various time in my chequered career, but as much as I initially enjoy working in pyjamas and drinking black Russians all day, it’s my feeling that you end up with two jobs instead of one: the job you’re doing, and the job of selling and marketing your skills. Some people thrive on that, but I ain’t one of them. (On the other hand after five years behind a desk I inevitably self-destruct, so I dunno if I’m quite suited to the other model either.)

  2. Cheryl says:

    Patrick, aren’t authors having those tasks pushed more and more to them by their publishers anyhow? My friends with book contracts seem to be doing a lot of complaining in that direction.

  3. Patrick H says:

    Oh to have those sorts of problems! I have a friend whose first novel was recently published (hm, let’s out her as Amy Sackville, author of The Still Point) and she told me that she spent a day with the publicity people at her publisher going over he life to see if there was anything that’d make a good feature for the Guardian Family section or even the magazine, if particularly juicy. (Alas, she is disappointingly well-adjusted and her family history drearily content and stable.)

    I think that hand in hand with the growth of broadcast technology (since the printing press, in fact) there has been a gradual evolution in the theory and practise of marketing. Writers with high profiles always do better than those that don’t (eg, “public intellectuals”) and publishers/agents etc have become acutely aware of this. Hence, the rabid appetite for authors who already havea high profile, ie celebreddeeeees.

    I think this is somewhat different from the DIY ethic inherent in crowd-sourcing. The author is providing some content and raw material for another creative professional (marketeer) to work their voodoo on. In The Future there may evolve some kind of symbiosis between the more nuerotic type of artist and freelance publicity generators.

  4. david geertz says:

    This was a great article and perhaps I can help by making a suggestion. I’m the founder of a crowdfunding platform that is currently in BETA at http://www.biracy.com, that is a science fiction film project. We have spent years looking at how to optimize, monetize and assist creative people in how to engage with an audience and make a living. We are going to be looking for writers of both fiction and non fiction to use our platform very shortly. We are based in Vancouver, Canada but are open to creative people all over the world. If you’re interested in knowing more about how we work please get in touch.

    I’d also be interested in speaking with some futurists about our science fiction screenplay contest that we are having. We’re looking for judges, and could use the assistance of some forward thinkers.

    thanks

  5. Jan Oda says:

    Interesting article. I’m seeing this more from the fiction angle then the non-fiction and journalism, but I do believe that crowdfunded creativity is going to play a bigger part in the writing business in the future.

    And it is happening already, for example, Catherynne Valente recently published her book The Girl who Circumnavigated Fairyland online, one chapter at a time, each chapter only published whe she had reached a certain amount of donations.
    http://www.catherynnemvalente.com/fairyland/

    MCM is publishing all his books online for free, some under the Serial+ system (one update a week, if you want to read it faster, you can buy the whole ebook for $5), but most simply depending on donations, or print and ebook sales.

    http://1889.ca/

    Personally I think the pay before I write system would only work if there is a big enough amount of content freely available as a tastemaker.