Crowdfunding’s been around for a while in its modern form, and even Victorian novels were sometimes funded by pre-orders, but publishers who use crowdfunding to support their new books are having a surge in popularity (or publicity) at the moment. Dead Ink and Unbound each had a few books on the Guardian’s Not the Booker Prize longlist earlier this summer, for instance, and I know that 3 of Cups Press are funding their first anthology at the moment via Kickstarter. It feels like half the people I follow on Twitter have crowdfunded novels or short story collections either already out or in the pipeline.
Naturally enough, I went to pledge for one of these books this week on Unbound and got a shock at the prices. First off, note that while the author isn’t someone I’ve met, we have a few mutual friends/acquaintances (in real life, not just online) so I’m naturally inclined to do him a good turn. Secondly, having read the blurb it’s a novel I’d choose to borrow if I ran across it in the library, so from purely selfish reasons (getting hold of a book I want to read) I want it to get published. Unfortunately it looks like the cheapest option is £10 for an ebook (which I didn’t want), £15 plus postage for the paperback, with (as far as I could see) no option to chip in a smaller amount as a simple donation. It stopped me from pledging, and I bet it stops others as well. There needs to be a lower threshold.
Now, before we go any further I’ll do my usual disclaimer about supporting the right of authors, proofreaders, editors and all the rest to reasonable remuneration for their time and effort. However, that £15 seems a bit steep compared to £7.99 or £8.99 for a full-price paperback, and we all know that in reality via Waterstones 3 for 2 offers, Amazon’s undercutting or supermarket bestsellers, many paperbacks aren’t even purchased at full price. Even if someone’s used to buying full-price new books, you’ve still got to give them an incentive to buy yours rather than the new one from the big name, the prizewinner, or their favourite author. So what’s the incentive to pay double here? Well, apart from the warm glow at supporting an independent publisher or encouraging an author, you get your name in the book. For higher pledges of course you get extras, special editions, original artwork, meet the author, that kind of thing, which seems fair enough. I’m not bothered about getting my name in a book though, I’d rather have the opportunity to buy the paperback at normal paperback sort of prices. Or just donate a small amount, get nothing but the warm glow in return, and maybe buy the book later once it’s out and I’ve got more spare cash.
Once I’d thought about it a bit I wondered if this is another instance of the long-running ‘privileged backgrounds in publishing’ saga (see also my recent posts about the cost of writing competitions). Both Dead Ink and 3 of Cups Press happen to have slightly lower prices than Unbound for their ebooks and paperbacks, but crucially they both have donation options. If you can only spare a quid this week, you still get to feel like you contributed towards a publication that means something to you, even if you don’t get a copy of the book out of it. I was once chatting to a student environmentalist (accentless, bit snobby, apparently from a well-off background) who couldn’t understand why everyone didn’t switch to eco-friendly brands as the prices were so similar and clearly it was the right thing to do – I remember trying to explain to this bemused lad that for many people the choice is not between Andrex and Nouvelle or Fairy Liquid and Ecover, it’s between the value brand and the eco version, and their budgets simply might not stretch that far even if they thought it was a good idea. As I confessed to Sam at Lounge Books on Twitter this morning, most of my reading material comes from the library, charity shops, or I get review copies. Before the reviewing it was mainly libraries and charity shops, and most of my family and friends are the same – for us £15 isn’t just usurping two novels we’d buy in the shops, it’s more like five on the expensive side from Oxfam or 30 from the charity shop near my parents. Crowdfunding publishers might be asking for a bigger investment from us than they think.