Crowdfunding or panhandling? The new arts funding.

beggingThis is going to be one of those posts where I ramble on without any real direction and hope I discover a point along the way. “How is that different to any of your other posts?” you ask. Well, screw you. You’re the one reading. In truth it’s because I have a lot of thoughts on this subject, and I’m keen to discuss it, but no really firm opinion yet. And I’m not the kind of person who would usually be described as lacking in opinion. Let’s start with a description of the concept.

Crowdfunding is something that’s not really new, but something that’s gained massive traction in the internet age. Essentially it works like this: Someone comes up with an idea that needs funding. They ask “the people” if they would support said idea by pledging cash. If enough cash is pledged to pay for the idea, the people are charged and the idea goes ahead. If not enough moolah is pledged, no one is charged and the idea sinks like a lead turd, never to be spoken of again.

It’s not unlike general arts funding, except everyday folk are approached for the cash. And the internet makes it especially easy with sites like Kickstarter and Pozible streamlining the whole process. People pledging money tend to get something out of it too. They can chip in a small amount just for the warm feelings of contributing to something worthwhile, or they can pledge more and get something tangible if the idea goes ahead. For example, if it’s an event being crowdfunded a pledge of a certain amount could include a ticket to the event. A higher pledge might include a VIP pass. Higher still and you get a VIP pass and a t-shirt. And so on. There are all kinds of incentives. And it’s becoming de rigeur for arts funding. Which is, on the one hand, great – it helps to get arts things funded. On the other hand, it’s fucked – arts things should be government funded anyway, but the sad reality is that they’re not. And they get funded less and less all the time. But I’m going to avoid a political tirade here and just talk about the concept of crowdfunding.

My first direct experience of it was with a Kickstarter project where film-maker Christopher Salmon was asking for funds to make a short film of Neil Gaiman’s short story, The Price. For a fully-realised animated feature he needed $150,000 of funding. Neil Gaiman himself endorsed the idea (which is how I heard about it via Twitter) and the thing went viral. The funding has hit $161,774 and the short film is being made. I kicked in and my contribution will result in me receiving a DVD of the film when it’s made. The Price is one of my favourite Gaiman shorts, so I’m dead chuffed about that.

I’m now directly involved in another crowdfunded project. The Emerging Writers Festival wants to run a digital publishing event up in Brisbane and they asked me to be involved with one of the panels. I was happy to oblige, but the whole thing can only go ahead if it gets funding from the people, as the government are so tight they eat coal and shit diamonds. The project has hit its goal. Sweet – I’m going to Brisbane. Here it is.

These are examples of great ideas becoming real because the people behind the ideas asked the public if they would be interested, and the public responded by making it happen. Kinda awesome, no?

But it’s gone beyond that. I’ve noticed several “name” authors using Kickstarter or something similar to finance a new novel. They’re completely skipping the publisher and using ebook and Print On Demand technology, essentially self-publishing so they don’t need a publisher. But, and this is important, they’re recognising the need for professionals in editing, proofing, layout, cover design and so on. All of which costs money. Plus, they want to be paid for their efforts. I know! Authors expecting to be paid! Are they mad? Yes – mad as a hessian sack full of Hatters in Wonderland. But then again, we all know writers are mad. We wouldn’t be writers if we weren’t stark raving bonkers. So these authors have asked the fans to kick in if they want to see the book.

This is truly the most democratic path to publishing you can imagine, as only those people who want to read the book will contribute. Therefore, if the total requested is raised, the book will happen. (If only trad publishers had anything like that assurance when putting out a new book.)

However, and here’s the real rub, those authors need a fan base in the first place. I’m quite okay with self-publishing and indie publishing, as regular readers here well know. I’ve had a varied path to publication myself and have dabbled like a mischievous sorcerer in a variety of methods. Any path that leads where you’re going is the right path.

paypalYet I know that some newbies in the writing game – and other areas of the arts for that matter – see crowdfunding as a way to get a start without having to work so hard. The trouble is, someone with no real following, without any proven track record or an existing fan base, will have a hell of a job getting any cash at all through a crowdfunded project. Like those self-publishers really nailing the market, especially with ebooks, who are actually trading on their past publishing success, only established artists are likely to get any crowdfunded money. The Amanda Hockings of this world are most certainly the exceptions not the rules, as I discussed at length here. People trying to start out will still be struggling along like tiny minnows against the flooding tide of existing artists.

Of course, you’re always going to get those who buck the trends and emerge out of obscurity like a lucky butterfly made of cash, but they’re going to be very rare. I guess it’s fair in some ways – we all need to work hard to get successful. I think there’s something fundamentally damaging about success that comes too easily. Then again, I work like a son-of-a-bitch and success is a slow burn for me. So maybe I’m just bitter. But people expecting a handout without proving themselves are unlikely to get one, and that’s where this is different from panhandling. After all, it’s far easier to ignore a beggar on the internet who wants you to fund their desire to write than it is to ignore someone on the street who’s really doing it tough and simply trying to eat. The truly destitute in society need our compassion and assistance. Would-be writers crying out online, pleading with people to pay their rent and grocery bills while they try to make a go of writing, do not. They need to do something to earn our attention, then maybe we’d be more inclined to throw a few shekels their way and see if they can climb a rung or two of the ladder.

It sounds harsh and I don’t want to be accused of ignoring the struggle of emerging talent, or stepping on people trying to get a start in this game. Thor knows, I’ve struggled hard enough myself, and still do. But I’ve mentioned it before, determination and hard bloody work are as important as talent in this game. If you can wrangle a few bucks out of people without proving yourself first, more power to you. I wish anyone trying it the best of luck. But don’t get shitty when you post a Kickstarter saying you want five grand to try to finish your first novel and get pretty much sweet fuck all. We’d all have loved five grand to finish our first novels, but none of us got it and we went ahead and did the work anyway. Of course, a few people do get actual arts grants for this stuff but, like the established writers making a go of crowdfunding their next books, those arts grant recipients had some history to prove themselves worthy of receiving said grant.

So I guess my opinion really is this – I see the whole new trend in crowdfunding to be an extremely exciting thing. Let the voice of the people be heard. It’s a great way to finance things which might otherwise slip under the radar and never happen. But I don’t think it’s a way for unknown names – in any field of endeavour – to suddenly circumvent that harsh crucible of slaving away at their art like a motherfucker while also scraping a living, engaging personal relationships and generally being a human person. Which is a shame, but I guess these things aren’t easy for a reason. I compare it often to my life as a martial artist, and like I often tell my students, “Kung Fu is seriously hard work. After all, if it was easy, everyone would do it.”

I’m certainly interested in your comments on the subject, so do chime in below.

And maybe I’ll see you in Brisbane!

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23 thoughts on “Crowdfunding or panhandling? The new arts funding.

  1. Thank you for this thorough rundown. I think you’re absolutely right – there is something exhilarating and empowering about supporting and running a crowdfunding campaign.

    I’ve had the pleasure of utilizing RocketHub.com – an international platform with a supportive team. I’ve also supported projects on IndieGo.

    So momentum is definitely building.

  2. I hate to be boring but… I agree with you.

    I read something by Cory Doctorow where he said he was surprised at the number of projects on Kickstarter where someone had no experience in the thing they wanted to do. eg someone wants to start a magazine but has had no experience in any aspect of magazine production.

    I could also see it used by small publishers (who have a track record) so they can actually gauge the interest in an anthology, for example, before going ahead with it.

    It seems like many small presses in Australia are lucky to break even on anthos. And yet they’re such an important part of the publishing scene for newbie writers such as myself.

    Hey, it would be good to catch up for a beer while you’re in Brissie.

    Cheers,
    Gary

  3. As a new writer, I would feel very awkward asking for funding to write a novel. Essentially, to write a book costs nothing except time, patience, fortitude and bloody-mindedness. Costs come in the production of the work (editing, cover art design etc) but I think that is the primary responsibility of the writer/author.
    Can an author ask for funs to cover those out-sourced area like editing and design, have acknowledgements in the book, on a website, free copy, bonus material for the DVD? Still feel uncomfortable about asking money.
    Perhaps it’s another route to create fiction beyond the mainstream in mediums still being explored?
    No real idea, just free falling ideas.
    Adam B @revhappiness

  4. Stephen – it’s definitely starting to mainstream as a method.

    Gary – people who agree with me are never boring. I’ll be all over the EWF, so look me up and we’ll drink.

    Adam – Exactly. Put in the hours before expecting the payouts.

  5. Wow, Alan. Interesting concept. Glad I strolled by your blog. It’s given me lots to think about.

    Have fun at the Emerging Writers Festival.

  6. Hi Alan,
    I found your site by listening to Joann Penn’s podcast. I really enjoyed your interview with her by the by.

    On this particular topic though, and this is partially in response to Adam Byatt’s comment as well, I am one of the new authors hoping that Kickstarter’s crowdfunding will help realize my dream of publication.

    I’ve blogged about it a few times, but what it comes down to for me is this: I was scared as all hell to try it. I had done a lot of research before deciding to give it a shot, and one of my findings like yours: it seems most successful fiction books funded via Kickstarter were done by authors with an established following already.

    So what’s a new writer to do?

    For me, I said ah hell, what’s the worst that people can do, say no? It’d be the same effect as me not asking in the first place.

  7. Totally agree with the pre-requisite of putting some effort in first, but it sounds to me like it’s going to be pretty self regulating. I think people will naturally support worthwhile projects like EWF, but unknown authors looking to fund their first book will always be disappointed.

    If someone wants to try to create and sell a polished turd by asking for money to pay for the food that creates said turd, let them ask. They just shouldn’t get upset when no one opts to pay money for it. Unless, of course, it’s a new Damien Hirst exhibition.

  8. Shawn – “I said ah hell, what’s the worst that people can do, say no?”

    I think that’s the best attitude to take if you’re going to try it. Though I still think your time would be better spent following traditional publishing routes and trying to get a bit of a reputation built to play from. But I wish you all the best with it!

    Graham – I think you’re right, it’s where my perspective seems to have settled. That’s the beauty of public opinion being used for things like this. It tends to settle the debate regardless of what we all think.

    I see crowdfunding becoming ever more apparent in the arts, but I don’t think it’s ever going to be a the great springboard of anyone’s career.

  9. I’ve been thinking a bit about your post and specifically the idea that you have to put in the work first rather than ask for a handout. Something about this concept irks me. I generally agree with your whole post, and my own post has seen me move away from crowd-funding as an option to find time, but I still think if writers could find a way to fund time, then all power to them, it’s just probably not from other people who don’t have that much cash the spare.

    Adam said, “Essentially, to write a book costs nothing except time, patience, fortitude and bloody-mindedness.” But time does cost money. I’m willing to put in the work, the long hours, and the effort, but there are only so many hours in a day, and some of it needs to be spent earning a living to pay rent and live. For emerging writers, I think finding the time to dedicate yourself to working is one of the hardest parts.

    I don’t think someone asking for funding necessarily means they’re not willing to put in the hard work. How we get that funding? That’s a whole other question that I’m not sure I can answer.

  10. Ben – Of course, everyone with a mind to follow artistic endeavours would love to be funded. Since time immemorial that’s been the issue, which is why there have been patrons of the arts and so on. But every artist has also had to struggle against poverty and obscurity because they simply can’t ignore their drive to create, but they don’t make any money! I’m not saying it’s right, but it’s the way things are.

    I would love to get paid more for my work. I would love to get paid even a fraction of what it’s worth simply in man hours at basic wage! Sadly, it doesn’t work like that. But I do firmly believe that determination and hard work will pay off.

    With that perspective in mind, I draw attention to this post:

    http://www.alanbaxteronline.com/2011/08/09/formula-success-life.html

    And this one:

    http://whatever.scalzi.com/2010/09/16/writing-find-the-time-or-dont/

    The second link is harsh, but it’s bang on the money.

  11. I’m not talking about riches or even just a basic wage, but just enough to live. This stuff has been bugging me for ages, and now that I’m unemployed, I’m not making proper use of it. I’m looking for part-time work now. I’m working on making good use of my time and making writing a priority, but I don’t think it’s just inevitable that writers will get nothing and have to work elsewhere until they get somewhere, but at the moment, the state of arts funding in general is kind of depressing.

  12. As I mentioned in the article, there are grants available, but usually only to people who have already proven they have what it takes to do something. After all, pretty much everyone you meet says, “Man, I’d love to write a book, but I just don’t have time.”

    That’s the least of it.

    Living tight, working part-time and so on is a good way to work. I deliberately changed to a career that gave me lots of writing time in order to make it happen. It’s more than wanting it – you have to make it happen. Just like Scalzi says in that link above.

  13. Alan wrote: After all, pretty much everyone you meet says, “Man, I’d love to write a book, but I just don’t have time.”

    They sure do. Then there’s a whole lot of people who write and hold a full-time job and never complain. There’s a whole lot of people who undertake NaNoWriMo each year and find that “I don’t have time” is an excuse. There’s very few people truly can’t spare 1/2 hour a day, and 1/2 hour a day of slow work (20wpm), 4 days per week = 125k words per year.

    Back on topic, IMHO the work needs to come before the funding, at least for the first major work. But if one of my favorite authors put up a Kickstarter project with nothing more than a title, I’d join it.

    On a related note, I think all authors should have a PayPal address.

  14. Absoutely agree with Dan – “Don’t have the time” is always an excuse. It comes down to actively choosing to do something and making that a priority over other stuff you fill your time with.

    I wanted to be a better guitar player – purely personal, no professional intent. At first I had to discipline myself to doing 15 minutes at least 4 times a week. I just chose not to turn on the TV or the XBOX or the computer or do one of the other myriad time wasters that seemed so important and pretty soon a 15 minute session would become 2 hours and now I can’t count the time I’ve invested in the last year. This obviously does not come close to the level of commitment and sacrifice some people would need to make, but if you want to do it, it can be done.

    A better example – a close friend of mine used to do furniture restoration and then life, wife and kids came along and he was stuck in a crappy admin job that he hated. In the last year he has quit his job and re-trained in the art. A full on residential year long course and I can say, without bias, he is now an amazing craftsman. With two grown kids (17 & 21) and two at pre-school age and little or no other source of income I cannot begin to get my head round how they have managed to scrape by this last year. It nearly broke them at times, but they did it.

    “Don’t have time” is not the issue, the question is “How much are you willing to sacrifice to do what you love?”.

  15. Dan – “I think all authors should have a PayPal address.”

    This is absolutely essential now. Especially for writers like myself, far away in Australia, PayPal is often the only payment option. If you do insist on foreign cheques, you pay a high fee to bank them in your own country.

    Graham – excellent comment and bang on the money.

    “Don’t have time” is not the issue, the question is “How much are you willing to sacrifice to do what you love?”

  16. “arts things should be government funded anyway”

    I don’t really agree with the way you’ve used ‘should’. Arts things *should* be funded by whoever thinks the arts is worthwhile. You can define ‘worthwhile’ any way you want: money, prestige, fun.

    This doesn’t preclude government—after all, govt arts agencies now see the value of arts in monetary ROI (think tourism for festivals etc)—but why not commercial enterprises? Why not people on the street? The audience/readership *should* pay; the government just needs to have a supportive environment in which arts can flourish.

    A lot of that has to do with venue accessibility, cost of living, availability of assistance and even some legal issues (censorship, commercialisation laws etc) rather than a lack of money. Renew Newcastle is one such example of not very much money going very, very far with the help of the blood, sweat and tears of the artists and designers and some council enablers.

    Funding is only one part of the solution. If there were a non-financial way to keep a writer fed and sheltered while s/he wrote his/her novel then I would consider that too. We could be semi-impoverished together.

  17. Adeline – fair comment. And lot of retreats, like Varuna, supply just that. An environment for a writer to work.

    But I do think governments *should* financially support the arts more. They do to some degree, but arts funding is continually being cut.

  18. I used Kickstarter to fund my first “truly” self-published book. I had vanity published previously as a way to get my feet wet and learn the ropes. As the funding went along, I made sure to post updates about my process: finding the gifts, designing the cover and interior layout, etc. This was to establish credibility that I did know what I was doing, because I had done my research during the seven years between my vanity and self-publishing experiences.

    I agree that people who think using Kickstarter as a “get rich quick” scheme are heading for a rude awakening. My Kickstarter campaign was the most difficult part of the production process of my last book. I was using it as a way to build up my author brand even more than I had already, to set up my imprint, and to pay my newly found editor. I was determined to succeed, and I did, but only with four weeks of almost constantly talking about my project.

    I consider myself lucky for having reached my funding goal of $1500, but it was a lot of grunt work. Since my goal is to have my writing be self-sustaining financially, it was a step in the right direction.

  19. I think it was worth the effort because I learned so much in such a short amount of time. For instance, I didn’t have the author brand I thought I did, so it took almost until the last day to get the funding. I also learned that I needed to create a buzz about it BEFORE I made the project go live; press releases, hyping it up locally, etc. I learned an author will not make money doing their own shipping and handling; ebook is the way to go for the first round.

    I’ve played around with the idea of doing another Kickstarter for my next book… but the memory of the constant terror that I wouldn’t make it… I’ll admit, it’s making me think twice. I would do many things differently. It’s a great gauge for whether people are interested in my book, though.

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