I buy a lot of books. I start all of them. I finish far fewer. Why? Most of them aren’t very good. But the cost of finding the winners is enduring the losers. At worst, I’ve put money in the pocket of my local bookstore, and the author. That’s never a bad thing.
I’ve experimented with a pay-what-you-wish model on Practical Typography. It’s worked well enough. But I’ve also wondered how readers might do more to vote with their wallets. After all, my goal as a reader—read good books, avoid bad ones—parallels that of publishers, who want to publish more books people that will buy, and fewer that they won’t.
Perhaps a publisher could combine a Kickstarter-style model with professional editing & promotional knowhow. For instance: publisher selects certain proposals & manuscripts, puts them out to readers (e.g., with a sample chapter) and says “if this book reaches X prepaid orders, we’ll produce it.” And a year or so later, a nice book shows up.
“But that is, in fact, how Kickstarter works.” I’m not convinced. And this is why I don’t fund book projects on Kickstarter (though I’m asked constantly to do so).
Part of me wonders if this is inconsistent with my role as a happy buyer of bad books. But my real problem with Kickstarter is that it has no coherent values.
Kickstarter backers assume all risk, and Kickstarter only gets paid when a project is funded. So Kickstarter itself has no incentive to distinguish between sincere and insincere projects. On the contrary, by keeping the entry fee at $0, Kickstarter encourages people to start projects speculatively, just to see if they can get funded. If Kickstarter charged a nominal fee (say $50) to start a project, it wouldn’t inhibit any serious projects. But it would deter indiscriminate idiocy. (Colleges charge application fees for a similar reason.)
Kickstarter ends up in a weird twilight area between investment and donation. So what is it? I think of it as entertainment, like gambling. As a project backer, you fund projects, accepting that a) you might not have to pay, because the project won’t meet its goal and b) if you do pay, you might not get anything in return. The pleasure is largely in the betting and in the “winning,” i.e., helping a project get funded.
Is this really so bad? After all, at least some worthy projects are getting funded that ordinarily wouldn’t. True. But the odds of a project getting funded have little to do with its merits, and more about who hustles the hardest for backers. Kickstarter could easily put in controls to refine the project flow. But they never have, which indicates that whatever their happy talk, they don’t fundamentally give a shit.
Meanwhile, the local bookstore is full of real, finished books. In every case, the author and publisher felt strongly enough about the project to accept the risk of, you know, actually making the book. That’s evidence of a serious commitment. Kickstarter is evidence of nothing.
Kickstarter is still awful.