Crowdfunding in publishing is far from new.
Unbound has revolutionised the routes into publishing for both debut and established authors with major success stories such as Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note. The company's remit is succinct: “Creators pitch their ideas. Readers decide which books get written. It's that simple." And crowdfunding is that simple. It’s about trusting the reader. The publisher remains the facilitator, but readers are involved in the journey of the book far earlier, and with more power, than ever before.
Then there are publishers like Dodo Ink, which uses Kickstarter to fund "daring and difficult fiction" likely to slip through the mainstream net. Thousands more indie publishers have harnessed the boundary-jumping potential of this most famous of crowdfunding platforms, such as the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund's feminist history She Changed Comics, which earned six times its Kickstarter goal, or the new kind of magazine for girls, Kazoo, that raised over $170,000 and just published its first issue. And for every big example, there are hundreds, thousands of individuals making just enough to support their works.
Founded in 2013, Patreon has become the go-to crowdfunding platform for YouTubers and webcomic artists. It might not seem the obvious place to fund a literary magazine, but then we’re looking to build a reader community through subscriptions, instead of a per-project or one-off model. Twice a year, we'll charge patrons whatever amount they’ve pledged, and – to start with – they get our mag. Then when books come along, there will be further subscription bundles and tiers.
But that’s just a subscription model, so what makes Patreon really stand out for publishers?
For one, we won’t get paid until the product is ready to go. We do the hard work and then get some money back upon release. There’s also a community-building function – look no further than crowdfunding queen Amanda Palmer to see how to use it to form a tight-knit gang of fans. Backers get Patron-only posts, which then – in our case – filter out to email subscribers, then to followers on Twitter and Facebook a little later on. It’s never wholly exclusive, but it rewards loyalty.
Most importantly, the Patreon scheme holds us accountable. The public can instantly see how many backers we have and how much money we receive every time we decide to push the big orange button to process payments. If we’re making £10,000 per issue, people are understandably going to expect an exceptional product; if we receive £100, it shows that we have a small but enthusiastic community and that we will create a product we think they will love.
So the next gen of crowdfunding sounds utopian in theory. But how reasonable is it to expect people to part with their money for new companies or authors with no track record?
It all comes back, in a sense, to accountability. Publishers and authors are always fighting for readers to notice them, and we’re no different. In the case of 404 Ink, we’ve chosen to speak our target audience's language, opting for GIFs, sarcasm and a lot of passionate social enthusing about the incredible writing that we’ve been sent for the first issue. While we work behind the scenes to build a brand, product and community, we know we have to offer something to the public from the get go – a personality to follow, a voice that resonates so strongly that followers want to stick around for the ride.
404 Ink just closed submissions for our first issue at the end of August. Six weeks after launching, we have 16 paying backers – the majority not friends and family. It's a humble figure, but it's impressive when you consider that we have nothing to offer other than, really, a Twitter account, a purposefully sparse website, and a whole load of promises. We have no logo. We have no magazine cover. We’ve announced no writers. Yet somehow people are interested enough to open their wallets.
If we can raise money and the beginnings of a community with the seed of an idea and a Twitter account, then think of the possibilities available to a crowdfunded author or publisher with an army of avid supporters behind them, who have been shaping their identity and output from the start.
In the next few years, I have no doubt that the industry will see just how powerfully those possibilities will flourish.