Crowdfunding ‘n’ friendraising: notes from the trenches of book project support

Crowdfunding ‘n’ friendraising: notes from the trenches of book project support

Nothin' in the middle of the road...

There's nothin' in the middle of the road except...

(Ed. note, 2/19/10: Coming from The Guardian? Be sure to read the post on the brouhaha.)

As it turns out, my chutzpah in asking my colleagues and friends to help support me while writing my book this summer was a pretty good thing: to date, I’ve raised about $6500 through small and large donors, and even gotten $100/month in pizza from the fabulous Two Boots Pizza here in NYC. This led to Publisher’s Weekly doing an article about the crowdfunding part of the project today (thanks, Wendy Werris!), and has inspired me to jot down a few thoughts about how it’s been fundraising for my own book.

This was my first time doing any kind of fundraising on this scale, for one of my own projects. I’d done some arts development work back when I worked for Bowery Poetry/Bowery Arts & Science, and I’d helped out with some grant work at when they were between development directors. In 2004, I worked myself into a hole of red ink, campaigning with the ABBA (Anybody But Bush Again) platform, and when I wanted to go to Ohio to do Election Protection, I was so broke I couldn’t, as my pop says, pay attention. I sent an email out to all my friends, asking them to pledge money to my trip, as if it were a walk-a-thon. That was my first experience friend-raising: I raised enough money to make to Ohio and back; even more amazingly, two friends jumped in, inspired by the email, and came with me.

Fundraising is such a weird thing. On the one hand, we all understand the implications of living on the market merry-go-’round. We’re set up in a culture that values projects by how much money they need or how much they’ll make. Part of the reason, after talking it through with Johanna at B-K, that I ended up agreeing with their take on no-advances is that it’s a bit like betting on a horse from their POV. Not to say that there aren’t books that don’t need large advances: there most certainly are. But when it comes to really how the market works, the larger advance, the more onus there is on the author to do something spectacular. And I mean that in the “spectacle” sense, not necessarily just the “good” sense.

Regardless, rent needs to get paid (thanks, Hightower & Phillip), and both Izzy Louise and I have to eat. Basic principles that required me to put a price tag on something that I feel passionate about. Weeeeeird and uncomfortable. On top my own expenses, I also want to be in a position to pay people who are pouring themselves into the project with me (hello, Christine! Hi-five!). I had originally intended only to approach foundations and large funders, looking for small grants along the way. But a couple of talks with Steve Katz and Don Hazen changed my mind.

As Steve put it — and I can’t remember if these were his exact words, but this was the idea — it’d be pretty interesting to put my money where my mouth was. I’m specifically writing about the power of social media to shift perceptions and cultural values, and I’m constantly discussing new models for media and journalism with my peers. Could I leverage my social capital for this kind of good will? Also, how many people would I piss off in the process? Steve convinced me that the pros would outweigh the cons, and so far, I believe this to be true.

A note about the people that I did piss off: There may be more of you than I know about, more than just the two people (both musicians) that wrote a reply to my fundraising email. The main complaint was that asking for money up front would hurt the artistic integrity of the final product, and that sacrificing for the sake of purity of form/product is perhaps the most important part of the creative process. I see where this point-of-view comes from, and in some cases, I’d imagine it to be true. (I.e., I don’t know that I’d crowdfund an advance for my first graphic novel or poetry book, or at least not on the scale that I’m crowdfunding now.)

However, I disagree that sacrifice is the only way to produce good work, and I feel like this is a perverse theme in Western culture that hurts artists and creative folk more than it helps them. Suffering does not, contrary to popular belief, produce sustainable, good creativity. Joy does. Does joy come from money? No. But knowing that there is space to create and momentary relief from the hustle of capitalism can help create the conditions for joy.

It’s a common theme in progressive activism, too– the more you martyr yourself, the tinier your NYC hovel is, the more roommates you have to complain about, the more badges of honor you get. Is it any wonder that so many young people ditch movement work for something more sustainable to their lives? I know people who brag about the fact that they haven’t had a vacation in six years. They are brilliant people, and that mode of living simply cannot endure. They will burn out, and while I’ve come close, I am choosing not to be a bitter burnout before I’m 40.

Anyhoo. So, there’s some more of the background story about how this all came to be. Now, a few lessons that I’ve learned that I wanted to share with others who are thinking about doing something similar:

  • As it turns out ChipIn doesn’t let you add offline donations or anything else to your number, so consider that when setting your goal. After I post this, I’m going to adjust my total goal to reflect the offline donations I’ve gotten.
  • Another resource to consider is Kickstarter. The catch there is that if you don’t raise all the money by the date you set, you don’t get any of it (no donations are charged until the project time limit is complete). I chose not to do this for two reasons: I seriously didn’t know if my ego could handle it if it didn’t work, and I also was going to need the funds before the project was complete. (My first draft is due 9/1. No pressure.)
  • Things I would have changed about the email I sent out:
    • The word “investors,” used once. A couple people latched on to this, that I was going to offer something in return for donations in an investment sense. I’m not. I meant “invest” in the sense of “invest in your child’s future by supporting public education” or “invest in independent media by donating to this organization.” People who donate over $100 do get a copy of the book, sort of PBS-fundraising style.
    • I would have been clearer about where the money is going, that there’s a whole little project happening here. I don’t want people to think it’s all going to booze ‘n’ parties, heh. As I mentioned, I’m trying to pay others who are helping me, and do need some dough for random stuff like a digital recorder (I bought a mic for my iPod in the end).
  • Just in case it’s not been clear up to now, I don’t think that this model should replace advances given to authors altogether. As I alluded to above, there are books that have way bigger overheads than just me ‘n’ the dog ‘n’ the helping hands. Those books, if not advances from publishers, will need serious help from larger institutions. Crowdfunding should be another tool available to authors, not the sole one.
  • I also don’t want to play like anybody can raise $5000 or whatever it is they need at the drop of a hat. I recognize that through my work in media, and the type of person that I am, I’ve carefully cultivated an ever-increasing network of fabulous, supportive people. What hasn’t changed about fundraising is that it’s still about relationships; the people that work with me know that: (a) I’m there for them whenever humanly possible, and (b) the project I’m working on will benefit our community at large.

This fundraising project has been absolutely, overwhelmingly emotional, in a way that I didn’t expect. The people that have come out of the woodwork to support this effort have given me a lot of courage to plow on with the project, and have given me a tremendous amount of concrete evidence supporting in the ol’ “do what you love and the money will follow” saying.

Comments, advice, theories, dissections welcome.