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Start Me Up

Online crowd-funding, supported by social technologies, provides a new business model for book publishing.
December 21, 2010

The first literary agent that Meaghan O’Connell and Melissa Gira Grant approached about their idea for an anthology of sex-themed stories told them it would be very difficult to sell. The bloggers didn’t yet have well-known contributing writers, and neither woman had published or edited much. But rather than look for another, more sympathetic agent (or get frustrated and give up), they decided to create the book themselves, with funding raised through the micropatronage service Kickstarter.

Founded in April 2009 by Perry Chen, Yancey Strickler, and Charles Adler, the “crowd-funding” site helps launch projects that meet a threshold pledge goal, which is established by the people who are seeking cash. The service has raised over $20 million for everything from films to books to music to design startups. Kickstarter’s model combines investment and charity: typically, donors get some benefit in return for their gifts, such as copies of the movies or music produced, shares in a rooftop farm, or contact with artists.

For their Kickstarter home page, Grant, who has written provocatively about sex and technology for Slate and Gawker Media’s Valleywag, and O’Connell, who until recently was director of outreach for the blogging service Tumblr, created and posted a video trailer. They’d decided to title the book Coming and Crying, and the trailer featured voice-over excerpts from the stories playing over shots of writers typing on a laptop in a café or gazing pensively out the subway window while scribbling in a notebook. Within a few hours, they’d met their $3,000 funding goal, and within six weeks they’d exceeded it by $14,242.

Suddenly, the writers realized that in order to keep their promise to their 651 sponsors, they’d have to learn not only how to edit but how to design, print, market, sell, and distribute a printed book. (No e-book or other online edition of Coming and Crying was to be made available—the whole point for the blogger contributors was the exotic opportunity to see their names on a physical page.) In effect, Grant and O’Connell had become publishers.

Things Reviewed

  • Kickstarter

  • Coming and Crying

    Edited by Meaghan O'Connell and Melissa Gira Grant

Self-publishing is not new; online publishing is not that new. Even publishing by subscription has a precedent: many now-famous 19th-century books were first published in small numbers and presented to a circle of subscribers. But the way Grant and O’Connell published Coming and Crying through Kickstarter really is unprecedented. Using their social and blogging networks to spark initial interest, the authors offered people who came to their Kickstarter home page the opportunity to contribute at a variety of different levels, which in turn permitted the donors different degrees of access to the book-making process. Anyone who pledged a dollar or more got to read the authors’ semiprivate blog about the book, $15 guaranteed you a copy of the book, and donations above that level earned donors even more connection and intimacy: instant-messaging chats, private readings (in public places), and custom-written stories. Using this support, the two created a book that has sold 1,000 copies to date. Unless you’ve worked in publishing, this number probably sounds tiny, but many literary novels and “quality” nonfiction works from big publishers—the kind of book you read about in the New York Times Book Review and the New Yorker—sell only three or four times this sum.

The tale of two young women who used micropatronage to create a book that a mainstream publisher in all likelihood would never have published or would have botched seems like a feel-good success story—and it is, mostly. In addition to giving a niche audience a book that it unequivocally wanted, Grant and O’Connell sidestepped the inefficiencies and inequities of the book industry—the problems that hundreds if not thousands of writers, online and off, have lately expended novels’ worth of literary energy enumerating.

Complaining about the publishing industry is a genre unto itself, and the complaints are mostly valid. Publishing behemoths are great at cranking out best-sellers and terrible at uniting books that don’t have mass appeal with their small (but not inconsequential) audiences. The years when publishers overstocked their lists in order to fill massive chain stores with inventory are over, but even as the chains shrivel, the overstocking continues. Many millions of dollars are wasted every year printing and shipping books that are then returned, unsold, by the bookstores and eventually pulped.

Most galling of all is the sense that now more than ever, publishers are interested only in the work of authors and “authors” who have established fans—the dreaded phenomenon known as “platform-based” publishing. (The phrase is meant to suggest a politician’s platform, not a computer operating system.) Someone looking for an example of the industry’s folly needn’t search far: at your nearest Barnes & Noble, if it isn’t one of the stores that the corporation has shuttered in the last year, you might find a copy of Shannen Doherty’s new large-format, four-color inspirational life-guide/autobiography on a table near the front of the store (hot territory that publishers pay for the privilege of populating with their titles, a practice known as “co-op”).

Perversely, traditional publishing is also the only organizing body that systematically discovers new literary talent—especially the kind of talent that first manifests offline. “Gatekeeping, tastemaking, editing—that’s why people like books published by legitimate publishers,” says the venerable literary agent Ira Silverberg. Obviously, most agents—whose business is gatekeeping—tend to dislike trends that threaten to make their jobs obsolete. But Silverberg, whose list features both mainstream heavy hitters and quirky indie darlings, doesn’t oppose self-­publishing, through Kickstarter or other means, for literature that is “community-based and important only to a limited number of readers”: translations, poetry, culturally high-minded work. He finds that to be “a wonderful use of technology.” He’s just suspicious of what he calls “vanity publishing cheaply wrapped in something that pretends to be legitimate.” And as more people discover that it’s possible to turn online audiences into book readers without a publisher, Silverberg doesn’t think this trend will enrich our cultural conversation. “Mostly we’ll hear from the ‘Look what I can do!’ types—they tend to be the ones who the mainstream has no use for anyway,” he says. “I hope they enjoy their moment. It will probably be the only one they have.”

The other troubling aspect of self-­publishing through patronage is the precedent it establishes for authors to become beholden to donors. The idea of paying for the privilege of instant-messaging with O’Connell and Grant squicks me out, as does the recent post I read online about how a young writer named Emma Straub was selling shares in the publication of her first novella: for $10 you could buy a signed and numbered copy with a letterpress cover, and if you wrote to her and told her you’d bought a share, she responded, “I will send you a thank you note. It may even come with chocolate chip cookies. I’m serious.” (“What’s next, authors will send you a lock of their hair?” a friend joked.)

Literary fame, even in the microscopic or hard-to-quantify doses available on the Internet, is a powerful intoxicant. Sometimes I wonder whether young writers, especially young women, realize what they’re getting into when they establish a relationship with online donors. Having patrons can be at odds with unfettered self-expression. It might also create inappropriate expectations on the part of those patrons—although this has not been the experience of O’Connell, who feels that Kickstarter actually helped her avoid sending the wrong message to people whose gifts she accepted. “One person said to me that he wanted to support me as a writer, but it would be awkward for him to write me a $100 check, and the Kickstarter thing made it less awkward—because there was a social convention for it, basically,” she told me recently when we met for coffee to discuss Coming and Crying.

O’Connell relished the process of creating the book with Grant from scratch, even though some aspects were unexpectedly difficult. The designer they hired had never made a book before, so they pulled books from their shelves to figure out what they liked. Writers whose work didn’t make it into the anthology felt snubbed by the women’s Kickstarter blog, which described sorting through and rejecting submissions. O’Connell’s foray into the permanency of print after years of writing exclusively for the Web made her queasy: “If I wrote a blog post I could always go back and edit it … but [for the book] I felt like I had to be better than I am on my blog. The hardest part was seeing it in the book and knowing I couldn’t change anything.”

As a business, publishing hasn’t been a super-lucrative hobby for O’Connell and Grant. Still, they haven’t done so badly, and unlike many publishers, they haven’t actually lost money. Through Kickstarter, they broke even, making enough money to pay their designer, printer, copy editor, and cover photographer. After funders received copies from the initial print run, they consigned 100 copies to a local independent bookstore, at a cover price of $24, which constituted pure profit, and the remaining books were reserved for online buyers. After the 24 contributors’ royalties are paid, O’Connell says, she and Grant will each make $2 a book, with $8 earmarked for “the future endeavors of the company.”

At one point they thought those endeavors might include devoting themselves full-time to the small press they founded, but that ambition has now receded, partly because O’Connell has realized how hard she worked for relatively little money. “If we had to make a living on this, it would be less fun,” she says. “It would kind of take the magic out of it.” Her ambition is to someday publish a book on her own, and to do that she wouldn’t consider using Kickstarter. “For an anthology, coedited, it made sense to publish collaboratively,” she says. “If I was writing my own book, there’s no way in hell I’d want to go through this. I wouldn’t have the objectivity, the perspective. I would need an editor.”

Longtime blogger Emily Gould is the author of And the Heart Says Whatever (Free Press). She reviewed in the January/February 2010 issue.

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