The Big Kick

By Serdar Yegulalp on 2022-03-03 16:00:00-05:00 No comments

Most of you reading this know by now that Brandon Sanderson spent the last two years secretly writing four new books, and launched a Kickstarter to raise money for their production. Something like eighteen million bucks poured in over the first couple of days. Good for him, and I mean that sincerely, even if I don't care for his work. But all this says far less about the future of publishing than people like to believe.

The whole reason Sanderson was able to corral that much cash into his coffers is because he's a known quantity who already has a giant captive audience for his work. Kickstarter exploits (in the non-pejorative sense of the term) network effects where they exist. Someone with an existing fanbase will have a far easier time making a KS achieve critical mass than, say, yours truly with his fandom of six.

How all this is supposed to threaten conventional publishing is unclear, because one of the things conventional publishing is still good at is taking people who have no fanbase at all and getting them out in front of people who might want to know about them. "Horizontal" fandom, where I post on Twitter and cross my fingers and hope the message gets amplified, is still extremely weak tea compared to conventional marketing muscle. Or, rather, it takes an order of magnitude longer to build the same degree of scale with horizontal fandom.

On the other hand, horizontal fandom is likely to be more genuinely devoted — more interested in the material for what it is than just because it was there as part of whatever else has been pushed in front of them. That's the stance I've kept for a while, anyway, but I have a hard time disputing the idea that the tens of thousands of people who KS'ed Sanderson's tetraology aren't seriously invested in his work. (I'd be curious to know how many of them are folks introduced to him through peers, rather than conventional marketing.)

I guess my larger point is that anyone who thinks KS and Patreon and other such horizontal systems are a threat to conventional publishing, or that they represent a way for people to jump the line, are not accounting for how those things are simply more efficient ways to make use of an existing set of attention. They do not magically create attention, except maybe in some edge cases. One has to create the attention first, and that's typically done by way of marketing (expensive), horizontal peerage (slow, inefficient), or making viral use of an existing conceit/trend/meme (a crapshoot).

I've dabbled in the idea of using KS or Patreon to help fund what I do here, but I always come up empty. The single biggest reason why being I don't have the kind of peerage (yet) that would justify it. One counter-argument I've offered myself is, maybe something like Patreon would help create that sort of peerage. The other problem I run into is how to make a Patreon subscription for what I do worth the money — maybe by offering free copies of any new work to people who have been subscribers for more than X months, enough to offset the cost, etc. That's about as good as I could come up with, since many of the other perks that get offered with Patreons for other independent creators (direct access to the creator, etc.) only seem justified at scale I don't actually have.

If I sound like I'm pre-emptively slagging any efforts I might make in this arena, it's only because I keep running into the same problem: these things work best as amplifiers of existing scale, rather than as creators of scale to begin with. It seems no more an amplifier of scale for what I'm doing to create a Patreon than it is to just engage on Twitter with other creators and talk to people and do goofy stuff in semi-public. None of this is intended as a slap at other people who have decided to use those services as a support system; it's just me reflecting on why I'm not sure the investment of time and effort into it from my end will amount to much. At least, not right now.

The other thing that comes to me, a minor but significant point, is how uneasy I am about trusting myself to platforms that aren't mine. I already do this with Amazon and KDP, and I dislike it, but I've accepted with grudging resignation that it's the gorilla in the room. (That and KS's apparent drift towards, shall we say, unconventional funding mechanisms makes my bowels churn.) And again, I may end up settling on one dominant player or another in the crowdfunding space to do that, but right now it just feels like more work than would be worthwhile for my ends.

I will admit, the mere act of setting all this down for others to read has forced me to think about my assumptions. I do want an audience for my work, but I don't want an audience that is only interested in what I do because it's part of some crowd to hang out in. I'd like to grow my audience, but the act of setting up a subscription model always seems to bring with it expectations on the parts of those donating/subscribing that are hard to dispel. People want to feel they're getting something for their money, even if they don't say as much, and maybe the most honest way for me to do that is to just sell the books. Again: at least, for now.

Tags: Brandon Sanderson Kickstarter do-it-yourself fandom publishing self-publishing