The long grift: Kickstarter & book publishing

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.

update, 1968 days later

Kick­starter is still awful.