Kickstarter Looks at the Future of Publishing

May 15th, 2019

Everybody knows Kickstarter. Not everyone knows that Kickstarter is a major player in publishing, both for book-like objects and for journalismIn its 10 years of existence 46,000+ bookish publishing projects have seen campaign launches on Kickstarter. Nearly 15,000 succeeded, most of them raising between $1,000 and $9,999, for a grand total of $140 million. It’s a lot of money, but putting that in some perspective: last year Simon & Schuster had worldwide sales of $825 million. Other metrics matter more. As reported in a 2016 Guardian article:

If you put the 1,973 publishing pitches that were successfully funded in 2015 together with the 994 successful comic and graphic novel projects, then last year’s tally of 2,967 literary projects puts the crowdfunding site up among publishing’s “Big Four”: Penguin Random House, Harper Collins, Hachette and Simon and Schuster. The latter, which is the smallest of the Big Four according to Publishers Weekly, publishes “over 2,000 titles annually”. [Note: in the U.S. the reference would be to publishing’s “Big Five”, including Macmillan.]

Last Saturday this “public-benefit corporation” honored its 10-year anniversary with the launch of a first-time publishing conference, The Next Page: Creating the Future of Publishing. It was a fine event, featuring four strong panels, covering technology, inclusive publishing, economics and community. You can watch the full conference on YouTube (starts at 00:58.21). The panel on community was particularly lively (starting at 07:11:20), though the quality of commentary was consistently strong throughout.

Margot Atwell directs Kickstarter’s publishing community, bringing an experienced and independent vision to the task. Her Publishing 2025: a Vision, is well worth a read, with insights into several of the conference themes and “five predictions about what successful publishers will look like in 2025.” Then subscribe to her On the Books newsletter here.

Atwell doesn’t mince words. In her introductory remarks at Next Page she made it plain:

As publishers, we should invest time and energy in platforms that let us build relationships with and understanding of our readers, and deprioritize platforms that lock down data or make us pay to reach our own audiences. That includes Amazon.

Diversity was a major theme of the conference, and the source of two fine quotes:

Atwell (@MargotAtwell): “Everyone wants to see themselves as the hero of a great story.”

Sarah Guan (@Sarah_Guan): “When I read stories about me and I look in the mirror I look less like a vampire.”

There’s a lot to be written about the still-developing impact of crowdfunding on writing and publishing. Kickstarter is not the only player, and its all-or-nothing funding model is not the only valid approach. Still it’s the one I favor: if you tell me you need $10,000 to write your book, I’m not going to offer $5,000 for just the first half.

The all-or-nothing approach can be intimidating: two out of three projects don’t get funded. But I learned something important at the conference: it’s acceptable to miss your goal. “See it as a market research project,” Atwell said, “rather than a succeed or fail.” Refocus your project, hone your message, and return for funding another day. This strikes me as a powerful tool for creator/publishers.

I’ll return to crowdfunding in a future post, and try to get a handle on the kinds of projects that make it, as well as the resources supporting aspiring crowdfundies.