Did you ever have a super-indie friend when you were younger? The kind who would have a party catered by his friend who owned a microbrewery and his other mate who was a DJ, and there wouldn’t be room to park your bike next to the warehouse and when you went inside your friend would kiss you on both cheeks and give you a beer in a jar with the label on because it was not only environmentally-friendly but also re-appropriating some mass-market iconography, and you’d find yourself drawn into a conversation about Berlin even though no-one had ever been, and then your friend would ask you what you thought of his art and you’d say it’s fantastic and he’d say ‘really?’ and you’d say ‘of course!’ and then you’d notice the warehouse was decked out with his photography and they all had price tags on them and you’d walk away £200 lighter carrying three black-and-white photos of lamp-posts?
Well, that friend can pack away his tiny kegs and price tag stickers, because the internet has spawned a new way to be totally indie and totally cashed up at the same time. Kickstarter.
For those of you who don’t know, Kickstarter is a website where artists, authors, games developers etc. pitch a project direct to their audience and ask that audience for funding. There are brackets of donations, and each bracket has an associated pay-off. So if you pledge like £5 you get a copy of the book, and if you pledge £500 you get a limited edition fresco of the author’s house or something. If they reach a certain level of funding, the project goes ahead. If they don’t, it doesn’t.
Now, the question on everyone’s lips (the one that accompanies any new digital development): will it kill publishing houses?
Not every reader is serious enough to want to pay £100 for a book they know barely anything about – hell, not every reader is serious enough to pay £5 for a book they have heard is amazing. Connecting readers and books isn’t as simple as a promotional video and the offer of a signed photo at the end of it.
But publishers can learn from the Kickstarter. One of the most important things it can teach us is how readers perceive value. We all know that adding value for readers is going to be key to survival in the coming years. Kickstarter showcases the best and worst of what you can add to a project to make it worth more in the minds of the audience, and the implication is we’re going to have to be a bit more creative than just bundling print and digital and patting each other on the back.
Another thing: knowing your market, regardless of size, is Super Important. Publishers know this. Self-publishers often miss it. Kickstarter is populated by authors who have a clear idea of their project and their target audience, and know what they’re worth to that audience. They’re not plopping out 30 ePub files with cheap price tags to see what floats. They’re actively dismantling the boundaries between themselves and their market, and they’re doing so very successfully.
I know I have the tendency to sound very sarcastic about things, but I think Kickstarter occupies an incredibly important niche. Publishing houses can’t publish every book ever written. That doesn’t mean those books don’t deserve to be read and those authors don’t deserve to be paid. The fact that those super-indie artists and authors have found a more sustainable way to make money means we’re able to access a more diverse market. And we can do so without compromising the value of that author’s endeavour.