Wednesday, 17 February 2010

I Have Always Relied on the Strangeness of Crowds


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?

6 comments:

Deanna Zandt said...

Quickly before I run off into the rest of my day-- just wanted to say that this is a great post, and I agree with many of your points! Thanks for clarifying for your gang that my case was specialized on many fronts. I do think crowdfunding can work outside of those parameters, of course, but should be only considered another tool in the toolbox--definitely not a magic bullet.

Crosbie Fitch said...

You're still harking back to the 'golden age' when authors sold their novels to printers, and printers handled the dirty business of making money by selling paper copies to cover the cost of the novel.

If a novel can now be easily and freely distributed and copied as PDF files across the Internet, then obviously the role of the printer is obsolete (aside from a few who don't have an eBook reader).

When the printer is obsolete, then author and readers are going to have to confront the fact that they've been disintermediated. They now have to talk to each other directly - as much as they might fear that prospect, it has to be done.

Only the readers want the novel, and only the author can write it. The readers are the ones with the money, and the author is the one who wants it (unless funded via an inheritance or part-time job).

To preserve the printer as intermediary is as sentimentally ridiculous as putting coal back down an exhausted mine to preserve miners' careers.

If digital copies cost nothing and everyone can make their own, then there's no market for digital copies.

So, plainly, the author has to sell his novel to his readers. He would be foolish to simply give it to them (unless a promotional loss leader). Just as his readers would be foolish to simply donate money to the author in the hope of him completing a novel one day. There has to be an exchange. "Your novel for our money" vs "Your money for my novel, and you can print your own copies at Lulu".

So, the future for the author is not a begging bowl, nor is it a traditional publisher, and if the publisher can't sell copies, nor can the author. The author has to sell their writing, their novel, to those who want to read it, their true customers.

This is how it used to work and this is how it has to work again. Fortunately, one needn't seek a wealthy patron or two, but a multitude of enthusiastic readers spread across the Internet. Instead of the author getting 1% from 1,000,000 copies at $10, they get 100% from 1,000 micropatrons at $100. In other words, the author ends up with $100,000 either way. It's just that the printer of digital copies doesn't get their $9,900,000 cut. So you'll find it's the printer, not the author, who's going to be denigrating this idea - probably paying bloggers handsomely to do so.

Will said...

Deanna, Thanks for stopping by. As I said in the post, I can see the potential in a number of different models. If something is working for someone it's churlish to oppose their success, and that's certainly not my intent. The question is: who is paying for what? And really I think the healthiest author-fan relationship is one on the basis of unit sales rather than rolling maintenance of a "service" a la PBS. Of course your supporters are supporting a service in the form of your community and your advocacy, which most authors aren't in the business of providing.

I think "gang" is a strong way of describing a loose network across three continents of people who share interests but disagree hotly about many things. Maybe "crowd" is better.

Crosbie, I get the feeling that you haven't read my post very carefully, since I praise a number of different, new ways of funding writing, and am making arguments that take the fact that times have changed as a given. My concern is that we don't bin the good aspects of the older way of doing things.

Firstly, print does have a future; printed books are desirable objects, not just data, and one can easily own an ebook reader and enjoy print books. Nevertheless, it's evident that digital will eventually become the main stream.

Secondly, publishers don't just print things. Most publishers don't even print things, they pay printers to do that. Publishers handle editing, distribution, marketing, typesetting. They also shoulder the risk of the venture, which crowdfunding passes to the micropatrons, and their name counts for something - they are (or should be) trusted institutions with lists that can be relied upon, a guarantee of a certain level of quality. Corporate infiltration and the race to the bottom have damaged this ideal, but in an internet age based increasingly on trust, that kind of institutional trust will be valuable, so they can restore their former glory. Of course the changes in the expense of producing (e-)books hopefully means that they will end up being cheaper to the buyer and more lucrative to the author.

Digital copies don't cost nothing, they can just be obtained for nothing if you don't mind ignoring the author's express wishes. You don't have to tip in restaurants, either, if you want to live your life like that. As I said in the post, I feel that "donating" to an author should be on the basis of a commodity exchange - give £5, get an ebook, give £10, get a print book. You might feel that that ebook is a valueless token, and you might put the print book in the bin because you only do digital, but it's still a better form of investment and reward than covering an author's living costs for a fixed period of time. Sale of units is a reward for the writing, not for the writer. Think of it as a form of crowdfunding if that helps. But who are these 1000 people who are going to chip in regularly with $100? Not much micro about that. Unless you have wealthy friends, I think that's unrealistic for unpublished authors.

Your suggestion that the people who disagree with you are getting backhanders from printers is entertainingly paranoid. Stay classy!

Will said...

PS Crosbie, your "Contingency Market" system sounds VERY like the crowdpledging system I described, so I think we agree on a lot more than you believe.

Deanna Zandt said...

oops, sorry-- quick clarification, "gang" came out of my rural-US-background... meant it in the "gang of folks gettin' together" community way, not with the mob connotations it was perhaps received. ;-)

Crosbie Fitch said...

Will, take it as read that I'm interested in two things: firstly, enabling writers to get paid 100%, rather than 1%, of what their readers would pay them, and secondly, to do so without sacrificing their readers' liberty to share all the copies they want.

The writer gets paid handsomely. The reader gets the writing they've paid for. The printer can sell printed copies for whatever price the market will bear. The publisher goes bankrupt.

Only one of those players in the new market for intellectual work is unhappy. Unfortunately, they're far more wealthy than either of the others, and have friends in high places...