Crowdfunding: the new black? Or the scourge of the earth? You decide!

Crowdfunding: the new black? Or the scourge of the earth? You decide!

Though it’s been eight months since I actually launched the crowdfunding for my book (and then wrote about how it was going), it seems to have kicked up a new firestorm of discussion over the past weekend. Much of it began on Twitter; then a few people wrote up blog posts covering it. I only discovered the discussion after it was well underway (evidently I’m difficult to track down online, and not much of a conversationalist anyways, heh), so the last few days have been spent correcting factual errors and offering catch-up insight as to why I believe so deeply in this model. I’m hoping now to sum up a few of the arguments I’ve made elsewhere, but moreso I’d like to pull back and look at some big picture issues.

For background, here are the series of posts that sum up the first discussions on Twitter, and subsequent responses:

There seem to be two sets of argument made against crowdfunding in much of the discussion I’ve seen: one, it reveals the funding seeker as a shameless self-promoter and snake-oil salesperson; two, it destroys the ethos of publishing either by allowing publishers to never have to produce advances again, or by allowing just any ol’ work to be produced without blood/sweat/tears.

What this revealed to me were first some fundamental misunderstandings of my own project, and later, some fundamental misunderstandings–or even outright denial–of the massive upheaval all of media is experiencing. To clarify some points about my own project, for those who are new to the discussion or new to my corner of the world, my professional life as a technologist has largely been spent in industries that accept the ethos of community-supported work: arts organizations, independent media, non-profit advocacy, etc. In these spheres, we’re used to receiving regular appeals for ongoing organizational support, or emergencies, or proposals for new projects. So, it certainly wasn’t a stretch for me to reach out in a similar way to the people who make up that community and believe in that tradition.

Also, some people seemed to think I was “charging” $100 for my book up front, before actually writing it. Mais non! I was using the PBS model of fundraising, where you donate $100 and feel good about yourself, and then you also get the bonus tote bag. (Tell me if you find someone that believes they purchased a totebag from PBS for a hundred bucks. Heh.) Because my community is familiar with the work I’ve done over the years, they understand that the project I was proposing (writing about a fundamental, progressive cultural shift) was ultimately beneficial to our community for their ability to thrive in the new tech era. Many decided to support that, shockingly, without needing me to hold guns to their heads. (Also worth noting is that every person I received a donation from, save one, has a personal relationship with me.)

The focus on who-gave-what-why revealed just how deeply entrenched an exclusively market-based mindset is in our culture. People in the discussion are so focused on the transactional moment–who gave to the project? how much did they give? what did they get in return?–that they are unable (or unwilling) to see both how market forces have long tainted the media process. It’s hard for many to imagine a scenario where someone cooks up an idea, a bunch of others support it, the work gets produced, and everyone lives happily ever after. There simply must be quid-pro-quo or sleight-of-hand somewhere in this process, because that’s how markets work.

As my friend Steve pointed out in his comments, there is a different economy at work–the gift economy. Using that model, people do things because they think they’re generally a good idea. (I wrote about this in my book, since the gift economy is so fundamental to how healthy social networks operate.) To some, I get the sense that they think I’ve stolen my donors’ money–what happens if my book becomes successful enough to make some money? Then I’ve doubly won! My evil plan will have worked. World domination next. No, seriously… I’ve thought about that, and I have made plans to account for it and will reach out to my awesome people if that happens. Which of course, you can say, of course you say that now, but it’s up to you to believe me or not.

Which is the whole point of the gift economy: do you trust me? Do you believe me? What kind of track record have I built up in this economy? Do I donate time and money to other projects? Do I reach out to my connections when someone else is in need? Am I known to have influence in a particular crowd, and use that influence justly? Do people consider me talented at what I do, and I able to get access to more talent from others when needed? All of those things make up my social capital, and I chose to spend my social capital on the crowdfunding of my book. It could have flopped miserably if I hadn’t been a pretty alright person in the world. People made their assessments on their belief in the value of my project and my reputation, and either gave me money, or didn’t. It’s as simple as that.

Each of us being able to make our own decisions about what we value and what we don’t, and then seeing work produced based on our values, seems to be one of the underlying themes that threatens many in the publishing and journalism industries. Book publishing in particular is seen as this time-honored tradition of creating works that go into that Big Canon in the Sky. I know I felt this when I first considered the prospect of writing a book — something else that’s different about my situation is that I was approached by a friend and colleague at the publisher, Johanna Vondeling, who had been asking for some time if I’d ever considered writing a book. Part of the reason I rejected her for at least a couple years was because I was plainly terrified of that idea of producing something to a state of perfection that it would need to be in, in my opinion, to be part of aforementioned canon.

The way this process has traditionally worked is that publishers and others with power/influence deem someone worthy enough to be part of that. Someone (actually, a group of people at the publisher) did that for me, too, but instead of taking their money, I decided to take their process instead, and work out the money on my own. One of the reasons I wanted Berrett-Koehler’s process, over being tossed a pittance–if anything at all–is their committment to producing the author’s vision of the work. So, if I were to go to a publisher who offered me an advance, how much would I have had to change the work I produced based on what the publisher wanted me to do? Too often I’ve heard from friends and colleagues who’ve written books that they were forced to make changes to make it more commercially viable… so that the publisher was guaranteed making up the advance.

That’s another big sticking point right there: one side of this debate feels that allowing “just anyone” to donate their money to my project will give them undue influence over the work that’s produced. First of all, that assumes I’d let that happen. Which, as anyone in my community knows, I sure as hell wouldn’t. Outside of that, it also assumes that works produced in the traditional model have the purest intentions and zero monetary influence. I find that hard to swallow, and there’s certainly enough evidence out there that says otherwise. A multinational company throwing money at little old me isn’t going to have a say over what I’m able to do under their umbrella? Working with Berrett-Koehler, the only restraint I experienced is that Johanna wouldn’t let me even come close to swearing, and my mom thanks her for that. (I wanted to use “BS” at one point.)

So now, it’s not just up to institutions to bless or dismiss projects outright–it can be any conglomeration of people pooling together to fund someone or something they believe in. In many circles, we consider this a part of community building, and are happy to participate when all of our values align. Others don’t see fundraising as community-building, they clearly only see money in the transactional terms I spoke of earlier. That’s a shame. But what’s an even bigger shame is that most of those disagreeing with my tactics don’t seem to believe in community-building at all–they are largely stuck in an old model of broadcast and response, of pedestals and ivory towers… ultimately, of cliques and isolation. Those people will be left behind as the rest of us work on connecting, creating, and conversing.

I’m reminded of when the Publisher’s Weekly story about my crowdfunding was first published, and a stranger on Twitter called the whole thing “tacky.” Curious as to how she ended up there, I asked her. In the following discussion, she came around to the fact that it wasn’t me or my tactic that she was frustrated with, it was the fact that authors are expected more and more to do everything for a book–write it, market it, sell it… and now fundraise for it? This is a painful part of the change process, for sure. Everyone’s roles are changing. Editor’s don’t just edit, for example; this I can tell you for sure from my experience with Johanna the Wondereditor. Anyone working in just about any aspect of media today is expected to have a far wider skill set then ever before: writing, some knowledge of HTML, bonus if you can do online video, etc., for less money than ever before. And many are suffering because of that.

Which brings me back to an earlier point: maybe market models are failing information and media altogether. I had this conversation about possible similarities of journalism and art paradigms with Andrew Golis, who works for Yahoo! News building a blog network… a key point I want to bring into this discussion:

For eons, there have been many avenues the artist can follow: commercial (Hallmark cards, pop music, etc), government-funded (NEA grants, NYSCA grants, etc), foundation funded (Yaddo retreats, what have you), family funded, collective supported, street selling (a form of commercial, for sure)… and any blend of those above is becoming more and more prominent.

Art, despite the instability that Andrew rightly calls out, hasn't disappeared, tho. Art hasn't even gotten worse, just more available. There is always cynicism about popular culture, but that's too easy of a target. There's just more of everything available to us. If you're a musician, for example, it's easier than ever to get your work heard by more people than just your friends. But not paid for by a whole bunch, probably. That's the sticker, eh? A few years ago, as Napster started ticking off the recording industry, someone said that it was clearer than ever what the musician's job is: not to sell records, but to travel around and play for people. That's what they've always done, and that's what they're returning to.

Journalism is grasping at straws for a new model to pay everyone's salaries. The old model, though, was in many ways distorted, and probably distended. Maybe it's not, however, that journalistic endeavors are going to be the new starving artists… maybe it's that news producers and art makers need to get their heads together and figure out how we're going to create not a model, but a whole new system that creates thrivable conditions for creators to get their jobs done.

I created the conditions to have a thrivable summer for producing my book. Nothing extraordinary: I paid my rent, I ate sufficiently, and I visited my parents, all while writing the first 30,000 words of a book. This makes people angry. I’m not entirely sure why; some have pointed to jealousy but I’m not sure that’s quite right. Other people do this all the time; people’s spouses work while they finish their dissertations, trust funds allow for children of rich people to have a good time, etc. It’s something about asking your friends that bothers people. Reaching out to those who already support you most is culturally problematic. Why? What is it going to take to overhaul the way we’re doing business now, in the media industries, to create cultural situations where artists, journalists and authors can thrive? Crying endlessly about the demise and shunning potential for innovation is definitely not a good place to start.

That’s what I want to leave this discussion with: more of these ideas to throw something on the wall and see what sticks. Already, hundreds (thousands?) of people are doing it on Kickstarter for their books, films, records and more. How many other ways can we think of to open up the process of creation to more people? I’m tired of the same ol’, same ol’, and I know I’m not the only one.



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