How Kickstarter became one of the biggest powers in publishing | Publishing
Four months after launching on Kickstarter, a children’s book that tells the stories of 100 inspiring women has raised more than $1m (£754,000), making it the biggest original publishing project in the crowdfunding site’s history. Almost 20,000 backers from 71 countries around the world have signed up to order Rebel Girls, which introduces young readers to role models from the Brontë sisters to Serena Williams.
The sums involved in the majority of Kickstarter’s publishing projects coming this autumn may be a little smaller, but the breadth and scope of the books is impressive: everything from a comic novel of smalltown Canada from a Québec humour columnist and broadcaster, to an account of looking after a rescued Staffordshire bull terrier, charting the dog’s journey from troubled crackpot to treasured companion, to a graphic novel about a Victorian girl who is the only one in her village to notice a series of sinister goings-on.
Of course, Kickstarter doesn’t get involved in the messy business of producing books – it’s a platform that puts people who want to produce books in touch with others all over the world who want to support their projects. But 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”.
Kickstarter’s publishing “lead”, Margot Atwell, wants to make it clear that the site “definitely doesn’t supplant the role of editor, publicist or publisher” and is really “just one more tool an author or publisher can use to connect with readers and spread the word about their book”. But writers all over the world are choosing this new route to publication in unprecedented numbers. The books and comics section has grown steadily since the site’s launch in 2009, and accounts for around 13% of successful projects. In 2015, pledges totalled $35.2m and already in 2016 more than $20m has been pledged for more than 1,500 projects.
This dwarfs competitors such as Crowdfunder.co.uk, which has raised £475,000 for publishing projects in the six years since the site was founded in 2010, or the bespoke publishing platform Unbound, which has published 79 titles since launching a year later. Indiegogo, who didn’t provide any data on their writing category, has raised a total of $1bn across all categories since its 2008 launch – just 40% of Kickstarter’s $2.5bn – with a 2013 estimate suggesting they trail in writing and comics by as much as 10 to one.
For Atwell, projects that tend to be successful on the site are “ideas that ignited the imaginations of a community, creators providing greater access to their creative process, and voices that are often underrepresented among the most commercial success stories”.
“Certain communities, such as the comics world, have been faster to integrate Kickstarter into their process. Using Kickstarter lets creators gain support for their project in advance, so they can make something great that they might not otherwise have been able to make. Projects to create beautiful hardcover books, especially art books, children’s books, and comics in colour, tend to be more costly to produce, which might be why we see a lot of those creators coming to Kickstarter to make their projects,” she says.
Compared to the UK market as a whole, Kickstarter is funding a far bigger percentage of fiction, children’s books and comics. According to Nielsen Bookscan, fiction accounted for 5% of new titles in the UK, with children’s books at 10% and graphic novels only 0.3%. On Kickstarter, 10.1% of successful publishing and comics projects were fiction, with children’s books at 14.2% and graphic novels representing 8.8%.
As a publishing veteran who launched her own imprint (via Kickstarter) last year, Atwell says one of the most exciting things about crowdfunding is the way it inverts publishing’s conventional publicity dynamic.
“When you’re creating a book, it’s very affirming to know that it’s something there is desire and demand for, versus the traditional publishing model of investing in an author and the production of a book, trying your darnedest to get the word out and reach readers, but not really knowing whether there is a readership.”
The writers and publishers using the site are “innovative, tech-savvy, and very willing to talk directly with their readers and fans”, she continues, with some combining crowdfunding with more traditional approaches.
“Some of the most exciting projects we’ve seen in the past year have been run by great independent publishers such as Copper Canyon’s Then Come Back, a book of lost poems by Pablo Neruda, or Milkweed Books, a project to create a new independent bookstore, which is live on the site right now,” Atwell explains. “I’ve also seen projects by hybrid authors who are published by mainstream Big Four publishers but also do projects on Kickstarter, such as Kate Milford, who has run two great projects for novellas.”
Pitch and presentation are vital, when trying to stand out from thousands of other projects. Kate-Mia White, who raised more than £2,000 to fund the third volume of her Dark Forest series, spends a few days on every pitch she makes. “I think it’s important to create an eye-catching video with a strong theme, and keep the whole page in that theme,” she says.
White never even considered traditional publication, “partly because I was producing 16-page comics and partly I feel the internet is now a better way of reaching an audience.”
For David Hill, who raised more than £3,000 to publish his memoir of living with a Staffordshire bull terrier, the “relentless” pitching didn’t come easily.
“I was advised to share the link on multiple social media accounts several times a day, and talk about it until I thought I’d talked about it too much, but then carry on talking about it anyway,” Hill says. “I found the first week or so to be quite dispiriting, but once the ball was rolling and it gained momentum, I started to feel encouraged, and finally, elated when it was successfully funded.”
When strangers are sharing their money to help with a project, the dynamic between writers and their backers can become very personal. “Most of the backers know about my struggles with anxiety, job loss, and all the sacrifices that I’ve made to give this rescue dog the life she deserves,” Hill says. “Everyone’s been so supportive, and I’ve been really humbled by that support.”
The artist-led model has seen substantial sums of money devoted to projects in areas where traditional publishing often struggles. Literary journals raised more than $200,000 on Kickstarter in 2015, while poetry received almost $300,000. Anthologies brought in almost $500,000, while art books picked up more than $4m.
“[Crowdfunding] certainly gives the writer much more creative freedom, and the ability to tell their story exactly as they originally envisaged,” Hill says. “I believe it’s really enriching the art of storytelling, and giving readers a much wider selection of stories to choose from.”
The broad range of projects that Kickstarter supports is no accident: in 2015, the business reincorporated as a public benefit corporation, a profit-making model that includes having a positive impact on the world as a legally defined goal. Atwell says this is part of the site’s mission “to support a more creative, equitable world, and to fight inequality”. And while traditional publishing struggles to address problems with diversity, crowdfunding offers an alternative route to publication for writers who are struggling to be heard.
“I believe it’s critical to our culture and our society that people from every conceivable background have the opportunity to share their stories, and find stories that resonate with them and their experience,” Atwell says. “Even more than that, I think it’s important for people to seek out stories that seem alien to them, so they build greater understanding and empathy for others. Empathy seems to be in short supply in the world today, and I really do believe in the power of literature to help increase it.”
- This article was amended on 20 September 2016 to make clear that Rebel Girls is Kickstarter’s biggest publishing project for an original work. Bibliotecha raised more than $1.4m for a new edition of the Bible in 2014.