Welcome to the brave new world of crowdsourced authorship

As many of you know, I have published two computer trade books over the course of my career. One was with Marshall Rose (who I am indebted for teaching me how to write book-length manuscripts and is one of the best collaborators that I have ever worked with) and one solo. Neither did well for different reasons that were beyond my control, including the last book coming out a week after 9/11. Oh well.

But while both books were done with traditional Big Time Publishers, I probably won’t go that route again if I had another book in me. Over the past decade or so, self-publishing has become the model of choice for many authors. The economics are compelling: rather than get a dollar royalty from sales of a $25 book as a traditional publisher generally works, you get to spend a dollar to produce your book and get the rest in profit. Or so the rough numbers go.

Then came ebooks, and prices started going down, way down: a typical ebook now sells for a couple of bucks at best. The old saying about not making much money but making it up in volume come to mind.

But the publishing market is pivoting (as they say in startup speak) yet again, and this time it is combining with the crowdfunding market and morphing into something else entirely. The idea is that you promote your book idea on one of the crowd sites and get a few hundred of your friends and potential readers to pay up front for you to finish your project and get their very own copy, complete with tote bag or some other premium prize. The money they “donate” goes towards hopefully you finishing a beautiful book, raising awareness and buzz, and setting the scene for a big author splash. Or so the idea goes.

Seth Godin has written about this topic over the past year on a site that he runs in cooperation with Amazon. And he has also penned his wish list for what Kickstarter specifically should do to make it easier for authors.

dbl2But as I haven’t had the opportunity to go this route, I did the next best thing, asking a young, first-time author of an upcoming book and a project on Kickstarter that I was one of the backers. His name is Tony Brasunas and his book, set to launch on 12/12, is Double Happiness. While he might not have another book in him right now, he found the whole process to be worthwhile. “I spent several months preparing for the launch of my Kickstarter project, including doing things such as filming the video, thinking through the rewards structure, preparing the images and writing the copy for the project page.” None of these things were actual book writing, and if you look over it you as a new author (or even an old hand such as myself) might not have the necessary skills or inclination or even time to pull this off.

Brasunas raised more than he went to the well for, which is great, and a quarter of it will end up being used to fulfill his rewards for his 175 project backers. But what I found interesting talking to him is how he thinks about the process. Realize that his book is “a chapter of my life story, something that I have been working on for a decade, and I wasn’t sure that anyone would be interested. It was a wonderful surprise that I got as many backers as I did.”

His project “involved people that could be potentially interested in it. That feels like a collective and that collaboration was appealing to me. By doing this through a social platform, it added a nice piece to the whole project for me.” Again, you may just want to sit in a garret and write, so your reaction could differ. But he also found something out about his backers and his friends: “I would have guessed that people who were closest to me would have given more, while others who I haven’t talked to in years gave unexpectedly larger contributions.” That is intriguing. You would think that donations would directly relate to the distance to your immediate social network. He found that if knew three factors he could fairly accurately predict what someone was going to donate: “First, what they feel about your project, second their access to money, and finally their belief about money and whether it is abundant in their lives.”

Brasunas is using print on demand with CreateSpace and Lightning Source. Again, you’ll have to learn about these technologies and whether or not you have the skills to pull it all together.

But maybe not. There are new crowd sites that are geared towards book authors called Pubslush and Unbound. Both are trying to enter this space and connect the dots that Godin and my young friend had to do manually. There are sure to be dozens of these crowd-book platforms before long, such is the nature of this market segment. Pubslush charges less of a commission, has different funding restrictions, and directly connect to an author’s Amazon page. So far 40 books have been published. Unbound, which is based in the UK, has been around longer and has its own system and published about 60 books.

How this will all sort out I have no idea. But at least it is nice to have choices.

One thought on “Welcome to the brave new world of crowdsourced authorship

  1. This is a great topic, David. Traditional book publishers have never been under so much pressure, and I think their model is going to need to change radically in the face of this competition.

    I just self-published my first book after producing four others with traditional publishers. I didn’t use the crowd funding model, but I did get a sense for what’s involved in managing your own project. It’s a lot of work. Writing the book was actually relatively easy compared to the pain of formatting, proofing, choosing cover art and creating an index. I farmed out some of those tasks but formatted the entire volume myself in Microsoft Word (not recommended) and prepare the index just to see what the experience would be like. It wasn’t fun.

    That’s just the beginning, of course. Then you have full responsibility for marketing and promotion. The good news is that the margins are much better than with traditional publishers. The bad news is that you’re entirely on your own and every hour spent on promotion carries an opportunity cost of other business that you can’t attend to.
    The innovation of the crowd funding model is in giving you some return before you go through all that hassle. Plus it gives you a good idea of whether there’s a market for your book before you actually begin writing.

    Traditional publishers need to remake their timelines and the royalty structures. My first book sold about 20,000 copies and yet returned to me less than $2/copy on an $18 cover price. That’s insane. Traditional publishers also typically need six to nine months to take a book from manuscript to publication. That’s also insane. Createspace sent me first copies in less than a week.

    The ideal publishing house for me would be one that was strong on marketing and promotion but let me take care of writing and production. As this industry fragments, I’m sure we’ll see specialty houses like that emerge.

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