Kickstarted Markets and Writers

After a few Twitter conversations over the last few days on the subject of Kickstarted fiction magazines, I’ve refined my thinking a bit.

I’ve backed kind of a lot of Kickstarter campaigns over the years — almost 60, many of them fiction but by no means all — and have opinions on what they ought to be for. So let me set them forth up front in the interests of letting you know where I’m coming from:

First and foremost, I think a Kickstarter is for projects that could not otherwise happen without a large outlay of initial capital. I look for projects where the creator is putting in plenty of their own time, energy, and opportunity; where all that’s lacking is cash.

Second, I look for campaigns that are looking to actually *kickstart* something, not just fund one project. I’d much rather fund someone who’s looking to start a new magazine (and has a plan for using the money raised to do that) than one issue of a magazine.

Third, I don’t care that much about the rewards. I’ll scan through and see if there’s something cool on offer in roughly the range I’m thinking of kicking in anyway (or something that will directly benefit a friend of mine). Sometimes this gets me to pay a little more, but I never kick in an amount of money I’m not willing to lose. I’m taking a risk, not making a pre-order.

So, I get irritated when I see people come back to the well over and over. It means that they DO have long-term goals, but failed to plan for them. I read the “Risks” section of a campaign very carefully (I’d much rather see a long Risks section than a short one!), and the risks I look for include the question of whether they’re going to pull off their long-term goals. In particular, for fiction projects where stories have already been written, I look for a “what will we do if we don’t raise the money” statement (there or elsewhere), and I get testy if the answer is “writers who have already written something and artists who have already contributed work get nothing.”

I also look for whether the campaign takes care of the people doing the work. For a magazine or anthology, that includes the writers of course, but it also includes the editors. KICK YOURSELVES SOME DAMN MONEY, EDITORS. I say this first as a matter of principle, because I think people who do creative work ought to get paid, period, and editing is creative work. Second, because an ongoing project is far more likely to go on if it’s not just a time sink for the creators. Far too often, I think this gets ignored because the people doing these projects wear both the publisher and editor hats. Publishers pushing all their risks onto the public don’t get paid out of the raised money, no, but that doesn’t mean undervaluing the editorial work just because it’s done by the same person.

Earlier in the year I had written off the Fireside Year 3 campaign as yet another return to the well. I had contributed to three of their four previous campaigns because I like what they do, but had had enough. Although they talked about turning this into a long-term thing beyond Kickstarter, they seemed to only be paying lip service to it (and didn’t mention their long-term goals in their Risks section) and so I had decided that they weren’t serious about making this a going concern, and so I was not interested.

Two days ago, though, they laid out their thinking in more detail. And while I might grumble about using Kickstarter instead of a subscription drive, I was persuaded enough, combined with one more factor, that I decided to back the project. It’s not perfect, but I think that they’ve got a sufficient mindset and skillset to make it work, and I’m willing to put some of my own money to make it happen.

Now I want to talk about that “one more factor”, which is specific to Kickstarters involving fiction, and takes some explaining.

So, I mentioned the hats issue before when it comes to editors and publishers. The same holds true for writers. There is an important principle at play here: Yog’s Law — money flows toward the writer. New writers are, for various reasons, prey animals. There are a lot of business practices ranging from innocent to outright scams that take advantage of the too-frequent willingness of writers (especially new ones) to shell out money to advance their careers. The law is not always violated when a person who is a writer shells out cash, however: Apparent violations of this law tend to involve the writer wearing more than one hat, particularly when self-publishing. Shelling out for advertising or cover art, for example, are publisher tasks not writer tasks; when the self-publishing writer does those things, they are acting with their publisher hat on.

Now, the vast majority of writers are also readers and fans. This is a good thing for the health of our community and for the vibrancy of our fiction. We read and we write and it’s all good… except that things get ticklish when it comes to money. Readers pay money to publishers who pay money to writers. And so it is perfectly natural for people who are writers to back Kickstarters for new magazines, when acting as readers.

Problems come up when writers as writers are asked to donate money for a new market. Sometimes there are overt violations of Yog’s Law, of course, or only slightly more subtle issues (discussed admirably by the tireless folks at Writer Beware!) like preferential treatment for backers.

What’s bothering me, though, are the more innocuous rewards and stretch goals that are more obviously aimed at writers. I don’t want to link to anyone because I don’t think they’re doing anything wrong, necessarily, so forgive me for being vague. Consider the stretch goal, “Pay our contributors an additional 1 cent per word” or a backer reward along the lines of, “Our editor will critique your short story or novel excerpt.” Both of these are laudable. The former is great for contributing writers, and the latter is a way to make use of donated expertise without additional cost of printing books or bookmarks or whatever.

But I have problems with both of those, because they encourage writers to think about making an outlay of money with their writer hat on. They’re not backing as readers (which is laudable), but as writers (which is problematic). The former goal in particular encourages writers to think of themselves as potential contributors, and hints — just hints — at this campaign as an investment in their writing careers rather than purely as a benefit to them as readers.

Now, there is clearly a gray area here, since (as others have correctly pointed out) writers tend to write in the same niches in which they read, and have a vested interest in the general health of that market niche. And nothing on this earth will stop a writer from backing an anthology or magazine in which they picture themselves being published. Even if you forbid backers from submitting, they’ll just use sock puppet accounts. That’s just the way writers are.

I do think, though, that there is a line to be drawn between accepting that writers will inevitably make financial decisions with their writer hats on, and encouraging them to. And that’s what made up my mind in favor of Fireside: the goals may have been generally writer-friendly (they do pay very well), but the stretch goals and rewards — the direct results of me as a potential backer choosing to right now donate a specific amount — were all aimed at getting me to think about Fireside with my reader hat on. And that, I think, is important to the ultimate success of the project as well: if it is pitched at readers and resonates with readers enough to fund, then I think it is a little more likely to be healthy and successful down the road.

Of the campaigns that do offer rewards and stretch goals aimed at writers, I don’t think any of them (short of overt payola) are doing wrong — quite the contrary, their hearts are very much in the right places! They’re offering what they can according to their own best judgments, and I’m not going to presume to tell them what’s right or wrong for their business because there are financial realities at play here (not to mention considerable emotional investment) that may outweigh what could be considered propriety theatre. I will probably be contributing to some of them! But even so, I think from now on I’m going to be a) avoiding writer-centric rewards, b) not contributing to already-funded campaigns whose stretch goals are aimed at writers, and c) trying to aim a little additional money and attention toward the more reader-oriented campaigns.


ETA: After an enlightening discussion on Twitter, Bart Leib persuaded me that I overstated things in discussing stretch goals above. (Some people might say I was wrong, but those people are wrong, and you wouldn’t want to listen to wrong people would you??) The higher per-word goal can be shown to directly result in more submissions and a better-quality product. Depending on how it’s presented in the pitch, that would be aimed more firmly at readers than I gave it credit for.

(Edited to clarify the “additional payment” as a higher per word goal)

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