Stacey Jay and the Politics of the Crowdfunded Author

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Publishing is in a crumbling state right now, and depressingly, that statement can be made about most areas in our cultural sector, and indeed the economy itself. While politicians claim we in the UK and USA are out of the recession that smothered our lives for years, wages continue to fall. This struggle has engulfed publishing, with self-published authors hit by Amazon’s royalties cut and tumbling profits thanks to schemes like the site’s Unlimited programme, and many authors living on the breadline. Richard Flanagan recently confessed that if he hadn’t won the Man Booker Prize last year, he would have had to return to mining. Unless you’re a huge name like Stephen King or John Green, the days of making your living as a full time author seem in danger of extinction.

Like many authors and creatives, Stacey Jay turned to Kickstarter to help plug the gap. Crowdfunding has met its fair share of critics but sites like it and Patreon (where you pledge a monthly amount to become a patron rather than a one off payment) have helped to democratise the creative industry and cut out the middle man, allowing writers, artists, indie publishers and so on to bypass the traditional routes to give their work directly to the eager fans. Some people are doing very well with this system, such as games reviewer Jim Sterling, whose own Patreon is close to passing $10,000 a month. Of course, most Patreon users don’t get anywhere near that amount, but a couple of hundred dollars a month can help to keep the lights on.

Jay’s recently cancelled Kickstarter was ostensibly to create a sequel to her recently released YA novel, Princess of Thorns. After admitting that sales of her book had been less than stellar (she later told Bibliodaze on Twitter – her online presence has since been deleted – that the book only sold 13 copies in its first week in stores), she had hoped to take the book straight to the fans, and asked for $10,500. While the amount itself was high, and certainly higher than several similar successful Kickstarters (such as Chelsea Campbell’s The Trials of Renegade X, set at $2,000), what raised the most concerns with potential backers and onlookers was the division of the funds. While $3,000 would be set aside for publishing costs, the rest would be used for general living expenses over the 3 months Jay said it would take her to write the book. Funding the person rather than the product is discouraged on Kickstarter, although is often a necessity these days with crowdfunding. We all have less money to go round, and the idea of funding a full time writer’s daily life while other writers work a full time job on top of writing raised more than a few eyebrows.

Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing system, meaning you have to raise 100% of your target in the allotted period in order to get the money. While this method can encourage a speedier fundraising, that urgency doesn’t instantly equal success. IndieGogo has more flexible options which may have suited Jay better, although we have no idea if she’ll return to Twitter or another crowdfunded campaign after this.

More writers will inevitably turn to the crowdfunding model in the future, probably because they’ll have to. Publishing is a mess right now and it’s particularly vicious towards mid-list writers. There’s less money to spend on publicity in an increasingly crowded market and unless you’re an established big name with an upcoming movie adaptation, you’re going to suffer. Royalties are falling too, along with an audience of readers gradually becoming accustomed to paying no more than $3 for a full length book. Everyone has had to adapt, be it through penning erotica under a pseudonym or publishing serials or using Patreon. For the most part, fans are willing to donate to the creatives they love. The ability to be artistic and create should not be predicated on the basis of how much you earn. It shouldn’t be a privilege to make art. Timothy Spall recently lamented that soon the world of acting in Britain may be nothing but the wealthy, and I fear writing may be going down that same route.

Before embarking on the crowdfunding route, make sure you pick the right platform to do so. Kickstarter is ideal for that one project you can’t get publishing support for but has a loyal cult audience willing to help get it out in the open. IndieGogo can provide a more gradual and less intense form of fundraising, perfect for charities and general living costs. Patreon allows you to create a direct relationship with your fans, one that gives you daily support while your patrons reap the benefits.  Lay out your plans carefully and make sure every penny is accounted for. Don’t just ask for a few grand without ensuring your future patrons that the money will be appropriately spent. Clarity of your goal is key, as is transparency. You have to offer something in return beyond the ultimate product, so make sure your pitch stands out and your rewards are worthwhile. As much as we cling to the romantic ideal of writing being a pure form of art, it’s a business and we are all trying to make our brands stick.

I hope Stacey Jay finds a secure and financially viable plan to allow her to keep writing. Publishers are not offering the support right now and even readers are often wary to do so. Adaptation is vital but it can also be incredibly difficult. This business that is writing should retain some of that priceless passion.

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