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? ]


My fandom

Paul Raven @ 13-09-2009

My Fandom - Does Not Equal

Does Not Equal is a webcomic by Sarah Ennalscheck out the pre-Futurismic archives, and the strips that have been published here previously.

[ Be sure to check out the Does Not Equal Cafepress store for webcomic merchandise featuring Canadians with geometrically-shaped heads! ]


Culture wars: Authors, social media and the tribes of entitlement

Paul Raven @ 29-06-2009

We all know that the web and social media are useful things for authors, enabling them to keep in touch with each other and their fans and – when used inventively – add some buzz and cachet to a newly published book.

But – as with all things – there’s a dark side, and recent events have gotten me wondering whether the unprecedented level of access we have to the creators of our favourite cultural currency isn’t breeding a sense of entitlement above and beyond the appropriate. The trigger was this photo on Warren Ellis’ blog, showing a note written to comics maven Brian Michael Bendis from a disgruntled fan who’d not found him signing books when he expected him to be:

A "fan" note to Brian Bendis

Creepy and threatening – you can see why Ellis isn’t keen on doing convention appearances and signings (though woe betide the fan who hassled a cane-wielding Ellis in need of another Red Bull and nicotine fix).

Now, this sort of behaviour is hardly new, and as pointed out in the comments thread the root of the word “fan” is “fanatic”. But authors especially seem newly exposed by social media, because they’ve always been one of the less public types of artist – writers historically do not “perform” in public in the same way as musicians, for example, and would have been protected from a lot of the weirder communications from the outside world by having their publisher as an intermediary.

But not so much these days – look at the recent wave of bitching from George R R Martin’s fans when they discovered the next instalment of his current series would be delayed. You’d think that die-hard fans would be the first to sympathise with a creator’s need for a life beyond their work, but there’s a vocal minority who are anything but. As Scalzi points out, such people are fools – but the web has made them fools with metaphorical megaphones and your home address.

A related phenomenon seems to be arising on review and discussion blogs, something that Larry of OF Blog of the Fallen has labelled “The New Tribalism” – a situation where groups of fans with closely related passions fall into a kind of groupthink. This has its upsides – it’s that sense of tribe that motivates many fans in the first place, and there’s nothing wrong with discussing art you love with others who appreciate the same material – but there are downsides too, which manifest themselves as vocal disapproval of voices from outside the tribe (or occasionally within) who dare to criticise the tribe’s focus of interest.

This isn’t new either – as any member of any subculture anywhere will surely agree – but again the mobility and power of the phenomenon is amplified by the web. Debate around cultural opinions is a good thing, but mob psychology and the web’s potential for anonymity seems to be an open invitation to be taken to task for daring to have a different opinion to someone else.

Some of my concerns are professional in nature: I advise my clients about the the benefits of a strong web presence, and it’s almost shaming to have to confess that there’s this negative aspect to it. That said, I still hold that it’s worth the risks – why let a few bad apples spoil the barrel for everyone? Writers like Ellis and Scalzi have developed good tactics for dealing with trolling and tribalism; the primary component seems to be developing a thicker skin, though a strong sense of personal space and practiced rhetorical chops seem to be pretty useful as well.

But there’s a more Futurismic edge to it all as well, because it feels safe to assume that web-based creator-consumer relations are likely to become more prevalent as time goes by. As such, it’s not impossible to image a fandom with similar clout to the fabled Anonymous: what might said flashmob do in response to criticism of their totem? As the barriers between physical and informational realities become increasingly permeable, comment-thread flamewars and denial-of-service attacks would be just the start. Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End features warring fandoms battling it out in augmented reality, with the action spilling out into damage to property and people; the more I think about it, the more plausible it becomes.

After all, we’re prone to going to war over ideologies; given the decline of interest in religion and politics among the younger and more net-native generations, it’s easy to see cultural affiliations taking their place. These culture-mobs could easily be great forces for fun and creativity, but the potential for the opposite to occur can’t be brushed aside. How might Brighton have looked had the mods and the rockers had mobile phones with web access to coordinate with?


The economics of fiction

Paul Raven @ 19-03-2009

No, nothing to do with bailouts or closed banks; this video is seven minutes of discussion between two economists, Tyler Cowen and Robin Hanson, on the economic value of fiction:

If you’re not too familiar with the language of economic academia (it’s a little opaque, to say the least), Bill Benzon’s summary of their points might be helpful:

It’s about signaling (a term of art in economics). Your preferences in fiction, and the way you articulate those preferences, signal your attitudes, values, and ideas to others. Fiction is a way of “getting people in touch with each other.”

The point is also raised that fiction can in some cases have intrinsic cognitive value as well, but the central idea – that your taste in fiction is an external signal about the sort of person you are – is an interesting one, especially for fans of genre fiction like ourselves. The obvious (and over-simple) response would be a kind of “fans are Slans” argument… but that would be to fail at being properly objective about the whole thing, to ignore the need for a proper examination of what makes genre fiction different to ‘straight’ fiction (which I suspect is, in many respects, a much smaller difference than it may seem from this side of the fence).

But what is it about science fiction that has made it such a socially cohesive artform by comparison to, say, romance novels? Is this simply a function of its minority status in the larger field of literature, or is it something to do with the riffs it tends to repeat, and the way those riffs resonate with readers? Or is it a separate (but related) part of the mindset that science fiction just happens to appeal to?


Harry Potter fandom – the new folklore?

Paul Raven @ 29-01-2009

OK, try getting your head around this one. According to a PhD student in Folklore, the fandom that kids construct around franchises like the Harry Potter series is a global phenomenon which is not (contrary to what many harassed parents might believe) principally driven by official merchandise.

To which your response may well be “so what?” But think about it a little more – if the internet is destined to produce a global culture based more closely on the ritual and oral model ( as some nay-sayers would have us believe) this theory deep-sixes the corollary that said culture will be entirely corporate in nature.

“They weren’t obsessed with having official merchandise,” Small explained. “They were using their imagination and folk traditions combined with popular culture to express who they are.”

Young Harry Potter fans use acting, art and creative writing to express themselves and who they are, and these activities, too, are often a combination of pop culture and folk traditions, Small said.

Granted, this is one small research paper in a maelstrom of branded plastic crapola, but it has a ring of truth to it. Thinking back to my own childhood, sure, I had some Star Wars figures, and I re-enacted plenty of scenes from the films. But when I needed more extras, I drafted in whatever was handy, or made something to suit.

And in a future world where the barriers to creation are lower (think of Second Life, for example, where anyone with the patience and a broadband connection can be an architect), the concept of highly active and productive fandoms becomes a lot more plausible – fandom as genuine motile subculture, no less.

Vernor Vinge’s Rainbows End featured warring factions of fandom; can anyone think of any other novels that tread into this territory? [via Techdirt]


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