I imagine my undergraduate professors would tell me that anything we make, including a book, is a social product. Perhaps they would tell me that society is itself a product of our capitalist economic paradigms, and that everything society creates is thus transitively economic in nature. Indeed, publishers are made up of people, sell books to people, and answer to shareholders who demand profits. The book is thus both an inherently social and inherently economic product. It is also a social and economic engine — one that drives individual reading, organizations formed around reading like book clubs, the retail book industry, and even other forms of media and industry, from film to Furbies.
What, then, does it mean, to say that crowdfunded publishing is about making books social products? It means that they come from the bottom up and not the top down. In the traditional publishing process, executives decide what they think people will want to read — or perhaps more precisely, what they think people will want to buy. By contrast, in crowdfunded publishing, that decision belongs to the individual reader or consumer. A great example is Daniel Wallace’s recent launch of The Cat’s Pajamas, a children’s book, on Inkshares. Mr. Wallace authored Big Fish, a bestselling novel turned into a movie by Tim Burton, but was turned down by his publisher when he pitched them The Cat’s Pajamas (which he also illustrated). Perhaps they felt it would confuse his brand as an author. Thus far, Pajamas has been warmly received, both by individuals and by bookstores, which have begun to order it in bulk.
Simply, crowdfunding books is about readers making decisions about what they want to read and playing an active role in the production side of the literary world we all inhabit.
Crowdfunded publishing has positive ramifications for both readers and writers. For one, early engagement by readers has the ability to viscerally energize publishing. Not only can it help finance smaller works, it primes the market by creating a crowd of literary evangelists — people talking to each other about interesting writers and campaigns. And the surge of elation in helping bring a work to market is deeper than just dopamine — it’s a meaningful form of literary micro-patronage the joy of which ought not be reserved for acquisitions editors. Imagine a bookshelf lined with books you helped bring into this world. For another, crowdfunding has the ability to pay authors more — 70% of net receipts at Inkshares, for example — because there is no bloated publisher soaking up 75% of profits to subsidize its own existence. It means being on the midlist won’t place an author in the poorhouse.
Many in the ancien regime will, incorrectly, decry the mass literary enfranchisement engendered by crowdfunded publishing as the death-knell of quality. Their argument is one of filtering and cultured tastemaking — that we need them. Filtering and tastemaking are important, but traditional publishers don’t have a legitimate monopoly of these activities. For one, crowdfunding filters content because people vote with money, a scarce resource — we back ideas we vet and care about. Second, it is big publishers that have presided over the genrefication of literature — they want work that can be prepackaged into Romance or Young Adult and unimaginatively pitched as such to distributors and retailers. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it makes their claim to literary urbaneness ring hollow.
Third — at least at Inkshares — those writers successfully funded by the crowd are paired with top editors and designers. Mr. Wallace is working with Kim Keller, a top children’s book editor formerly of Houghton Mifflin and Ten Speed Press (Ms. Keller, like many others, was unceremoniously let go from Ten Speed when Random House acquired and dismantled it). And Carol Goldenberg, perhaps the most fêted children’s book designer in America, is crafting the layout and physical architecture of The Cat’s Pajamas. Big publishers are right that great editors and designers are critical — but they’re wrong that they are the only ones that can engineer this interaction.
Importantly, how do we take this incipient, if promising, mode of literary production and grow it? We do this by migrating the culture of literary content production upstream, to the crowdfunding stage. Think about all the great stuff that happens when a book is published: reviewers and librarians pour over it; bookstores and libraries purchase in bulk; authors dialogue with their readers and readers with one another. All of these things can happen — and are happening — at the crowdfunding stage.
As Richard Nash so eloquently put it, “book culture is not print fetishism,” but rather “the swirl and gurgle of idea and style in the expression of stories and concepts — the conversation, polemic, narrative force that goes on within and between texts, within and between people as they write, revise, and respond to those texts.” It is this very literary culture, this conversation, this swirl and gurgle, that we must bring to crowdfunded publishing. Those crowdfunded books will be true and dynamic social products, reflections of us that are both more engaging for readers and more remunerative for authors.