An Angelyne billboard in Los Angeles; Angelyne is a model/actor more famous for her self-promoting billboards than for her modelling or acting. Image taken from the Flickr Stream of Thomas Hawk and used under a Creative Commons licence.
Simon started it, by asking Peter on Twitter what he thought of a writer's attempt to "crowdfund" a book - soliciting small donations from a large number of people in order to cover her living expenses while she turned out the deathless prose. I contributed a few off-the-cuff remarks, as did Tims Maly and Maughan. Tim Maly has done a superb job of gathering together the key points here - or at least the key points as they stood on 14 February, because since then the entire business has continued to bubble and spread like the instant pudding in Woody Allen's Sleeper. Tim followed up his heroic bit of Twarchiving with a more detailed post summarising his position, opening a new front of discussion in the comments; Peter (D Smith, nonfiction book critic for the Guardian) a post of his own; Michelle Pauli on the Guardian's books blog also joined in, bringing a vastly larger audience with her and opening a third front in her own comment section; and, perhaps inevitably, the author in question has struck back (in the comments on the second Quiet Babylon post and the Guardian piece). Meanwhile, it's still being discussed on Twitter.
Since everyone else is talking about it, I'm keen to clarify my own position (for my own benefit as much as anyone's), but I'll try to keep it brief. It's a difficult subject though, combining the emotive and subjective fields of art and money, and every time I type a general point, a host of exceptions pop up like Oompaloompas with icepicks and gouge holes in it.
I don't have any antipathy towards Zandt herself, or her venture - the real question is the value of crowdfunding as a general model for publishing. And I think it makes a very bad model. Writing and fundraising require very, very different sets of skills, and in some cases those skills are mutually exclusive. Writing is a solitary business; writers should not have to build communities around themselves in order to support their writing.
The community that Zandt has built is just one of the reasons she's a special case - she also has a deal already, a tight deadline, and the kind of profession that allows one to take three months off. These factors are not common and mean that crowdfunding might work for her while not working for other people.
More important than that is the fact that raising money from book sales (rather than crowdfunding) works. Risk is acceptably distributed between the parties involved, and a fixed contribution, the price of the book, gets you a fixed return: the book. The return-on-investment in the Zandt model is lousy; you only get a "free" book if you give more than $100. There are far better models than that - I like Robin Sloan's Kickstarter, for instance, which offers a sliding scale of contribution and reward. I like it this way - I think it is healthier for writers to think of themselves as producing works for sale, rather than having an artistic hobby and a lifestyle that has to be supported. Selling books supports the writing as well as the writer; crowdfunding just supports the writer. I strongly believe that writers do deserve to be paid for their work - the idea that paid artistic output is obsolete because true artists would continue to work even if they had no expectation of reward is an insulting and repellent aspect of the internet's (mostly otherwise admirable) open-source culture.
To take a step back, what do I mean about crowdfunding supporting the writer but not the writing? So many of the great books have been written by trainwrecks: drunks, junkies, wifebeaters, wifeshooters, boors, holders of insane and disgusting views, mooches, liars, cheats, sloths, reprobates, the list goes on and on. The history of literature is littered with patrons getting dicked around by writers - and vice versa. I wouldn't want to fund Malcolm Lowry's lifestyle, but I'll happily buy a copy of Under the Volcano. The work is what matters, but this funding based on no upfront writing - not so much as a list of chapter headings or an elevator pitch - naturally attaches attention to the author. Look at the unpleasant way that attention has adhered to Zandt's lifestyle, appearance and manner. The work is worth something; that's what we should remember in an age when a distressing number of people seem to believe that books should be free (or next to free) and writers should fund themselves through unrelated work or tipjars and T-shirt sales. Book presales - "buying a copy" before the thing is written - is a model I could imagine, but I would still prefer that the publishing copy handled that risk in the form of an advance. That, I think, is what publishing companies are or should be for.*
All that said, here's a strange thing. I don't have any trouble with an actual charitable appeal by an author - for instance, if a writer said they're going through a financial blackspot and need £5000 to keep their house, I would chip in (if I liked the author). Because that's charity. Replacing the income from book sales with systematic charity in the form of crowdfunding is the beggarisation of literature.
* Here's an idea for redistributing the risk in publishing - crowdpledging. How about a publisher says "get 1000 people to say they'll buy a copy of your proposed book, and we'll give you a contract?" Could that be made to work?