It’s no secret that authors are finding it increasingly difficult making a living via traditional means. Declining print sales mean that publishers are understandably playing it safe, sticking to established names and formulas to deliver healthy profits, where possible.
However, the rise of crowd-funded media, in the form of platforms like Kickstarter, has made its way to the literary world in the form of “Unbound”, a platform launched in 2010 aimed specifically at aspiring fiction and non-fiction writers, who can pitch ideas and then, if successful, share revenue with the platform in a 50-50 split.
Unbound has experienced a good deal of success across a wide range of genres. Recently one author who published through the platform, Paul Kingsnorth, was nominated for a Goldsmith Prize (and very nearly a nomination for the Man Booker prize too). Because of this success, there’s clearly space for more crowd-funding platforms and business models in the literary world. Let’s explore why and what they’ll potentially look like.
A common complaint is that publishers dictate taste and fashion to readers, acting as a kind of cultural gatekeeper. Regardless of its veracity, it seems likely that crowd-funding will make publishing more reactive to the whims of the consumer.
Who will crowd-funding appeal to most?
Many types of novel have and will continue to see crowd-funded publications, but there’s clear genres and areas where it will have a greater effect than others.
Genre-fiction, particularly fantasy and science-fiction franchises and series’, are big winners in this space. Such stories usually command loyal, internet-savvy fanbases who are emotionally attached to particular fictional worlds, so an established author pitching an idea within an established world, franchise or series could guarantee them some baseline level of funding. This of course applies more to established novelists within these genres, but for novelists without such a track-record, it presents options too.
For aspiring novelists, crowd-funding could come to represent a modern form of serialization. For the unfamiliar, many 19th century novelists such as Arthur Conan Doyle and Charles Dickens initially found success in “Niche” novels, which otherwise would have a tough time making it past a publisher’s editorial approval process also stand to benefit.
For example, The Wake, the aforementioned nomination for the Goldsmith Prize, was extremely unorthodox: Set directly after the Norman invasion, the prose was a deliberate affectation of Middle English. Pitching this idea to a publisher would have been much more difficult than going straight to the source. When boiling it down to its essence, crowd-funding represents a more efficient avenue for monetizing
Potential difficulties and digital solutions:
So what difficulties arise from crowd-funded business models and what are the potential solutions?
The first, most obvious issue is that of how progress is tracked. Backers of various Kickstarter projects have often complained of being short-changed by people who pitch an idea then fail to deliver regular updates. With Unbound, writers can release sample chapters and content and have a personal blog attached to their project page to keep backers up to date. Of course, there’s no sure-fire way of ensuring anyone performs their part of a contract, but there are methods of keeping backers better informed about the projects they’ve contributed to.
There’s an obvious space in the market for a more mobile-focused approach here. For example, an app that theoretically not only informs backers of what projects are receiving funding, but also delivers sample chapters via intuitive e-reading software. This mobile-focused approach could begin with these foundations as the central point and expand out from there, depending on what the author required (mobile-optimized video content for example).
The theoretical platform could even take this one step further by providing authors with a potential digital distribution framework for their novels, including branded apps.
As stated in the introduction, Unbound acts as the proverbial “proof of concept” for this idea and has been demonstrating the success of it as a concept for four years now, but it doesn’t have to be the sole player in this marketplace.
For one thing, Unbound is focused around both fiction and non-fiction, so a purely fiction-focused crowd-funding platform could perhaps provide more of a direct approach. Another fact is that the 50-50 revenue share split could potentially be off putting for established authors who may want to give crowd-funding for new projects a try.
Therefore, we see a fiction focused crowd-funding platform as something of an inevitability. As a necessity it will have to tap into the rise in e-reading by providing both a browser and app-based framework for digital versions of books, to take advantage of tablet devices and e-readers. The potential for such a model is huge, provided the design of any platform is intuitive and the underlying distribution model is kept simple.