The crowdfunding model of publishing as used most successfully in recent times by Unbound and Kickstarter has a long and distinguished history. Formerly known as ‘subscription’ publishing and in its heyday during the 17th and 18th Century, the likes of William Blake, Jane Austen, Doctor Johnson, Mark Twain, William Morris, Charles Dickens, Edgar Allen Poe, Edward Thomas, and many, many others of notable calibre have used this method. This is ironic, as the common misconception is that such initiatives are akin the vanity publishing and are a telling sign of poor quality writing, of a substandard writer who was not able to get published by ‘traditional’ (i.e. mainstream) means. This misconception is fuelled in part by another – the populist news items that shout about the million pound advances of seemingly prepubescent ‘debut’ authors, or the billions of JK Rowling. Thus, the general public assume if you are an author you, a. automatically get published (‘When is your book coming out?’); b. make money (‘How well is it selling?’); and c. don’t do anything except write and promote your book now and again at lovely literary events (‘Ah, what a life you must have!’). The reality is that most authors, if they are lucky/talented enough to get published by a decent publisher (i.e. one who pays royalties fairly and on time) earn on average £11,000 or less a year in income; that most authors have to supplement this (erratic) income with other activities which may or may not have a relation to writing, such as teaching, editing, illustrating, copy-writing, translation, guiding, curating, caring, shop assistant, etc, etc; and that publisher is experiencing both a ‘boom’ (according to recent reports in the media) and challenging times, resulting in a cynical or desperate focusing on blatantly commercial titles (celebrity biographies, gimmick books, light reads, TV and film tie-ins, etc), a winnowing out of the midlist, a homogenization of demographic in both authors and readers (dictated by the unwritten rules of class, race, politics and so forth). In short, a ‘race to the bottom’, which is prejudiced against stylistic daring, fringe subjects or characters, bold experimentation, and overall quality. In the apparently liberal world of publishing the rules of Neoliberalism apply to all but the most conscious, innovative presses, who are usually smaller independent ones who haven’t been absorbed by the Borg of a multinational (yet), who are not accountable to shareholders and who don’t allow their finance department to make the final call on what is commissioned. The economics of publishing cannot be avoided, even on a micro-scale, but the best publishers publish what they believe in, taking risks to get into print novels that are truly ‘novel’, marginalised or disenfranchised voices that would not otherwise be heard, bold new work that enlarge our sense of the world, our understanding of the human condition, our place in the universe*.
The crowdfunding model, while not the only or even the ‘ideal’ form of publishing, allows for that risk, by placing the onus on potential readers believing in the work sufficiently to put their money where their mouth is and pledge to support it (in Unbound’s case). When the funding target is reached, the publication process kicks in and the book (eventually) sees print. The patrons get to see their name listed among the supporters of the project, and may also receive rewards (such as signed copies, original artwork, VIP invites to launches, special dinners with the author, talks, workshops and more). But ultimately, the warm glow and kudos of helping a creative endeavour see the light of day – perhaps something of beauty, of wisdom, of real lasting value. And the good will flows on – to other projects. Creative communities are forged this way, and everyone wins: the publisher, author, readers.
Great art happens when people take risks. Crowdfunding/subscription seizes the power back from the gatekeepers – agents, editors, accountants – while, in the best instances, retaining quality. Nothing beats a well-produced book that is the outcome of a concerted team effort by talented professionals. The difference between such artefacts and those that are self-published or vanity published are often vastly significant. There is room for all in the broad church of publishing perhaps (although sharks who exploit vulnerable new authors need to be met with the opprobrium they deserve). But the best community-minded presses provide a sustainable, good quality option – one that requires effort, no doubt, but the rewards are immeasurable. Collectively they maintain the biodiversity of voices that are the litmus test of a healthy and resilient democracy.
27 July 2018
*An example of such work can be found through small press Dostoyevsky Wannabe:
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