The Business Rusch: Getting Rid of the Middle Man
Full confession: I stole this title from an Entertainment Weekly article that I’ll be referencing later in this blog post. This title fits what I’m going to do so much better than something dull like “Crowdsourcing” or something profane like “!x!?! the Suits.”
I’d been planning to write about crowdsourcing projects for a while, but I hadn’t had a good handle on the topic. Then, this week, I got these things in my e-mail on the same day:
A royalty statement from one of my current publishers.
A survey sponsored by a major arts organization.
Four Kickstarter notifications from the projects I’m backing.
At the same time, I discovered via Twitter that SF Signal does a monthly list of the crowdsourcing projects it knows about, providing links for sf fans to support sf projects. SF Signal admits it doesn’t cover everything and encourages readers to let the website know the projects it missed.
Sunday, I went to see Argo at the historic movie theater in our little town. The theater is in the last 40+ hours of its own Kickstarter project (which I will explain below). Plus, Argo has as its fake movie center an sf movie. I learned on Twitter (again!) that the sf movie subplot was mostly abandoned in Argo, but was in fact based on an existing project for Roger Zelazny’s ground-breaking Lord of Light novel. That movie never got made, but in what is becoming true crowd-sourcing tradition, a documentary about that movie, the scandal behind it, and the whole real life Argo subplot reached its Kickstarter goal earlier this month.
Also, in November, Dean and I have been ramping up Fiction River, our anthology series, which we initially funded on Kickstarter. We’ve chosen guest editors, set the genres/topics for the first six volumes, sent invitations to some (but not even close to all!) of our favorite writers, and received some stories already.
Crowdsourcing seems to be the theme of the month.
As some of you know, I’ve also been spending November promoting a Kickstarter project for some friends of ours. They own the local movie theater, and it must get a digital film projector (which costs upwards of $60,000) or close completely. The theater has been struggling with the change to digital for a while; it has been unable to get certain first-run films in 35 mm format, so the theater has had trouble competing with the local six-plex for some time now. (All of this in a town of 7,000.)
The theater—the Bijou—has fought back with art films, indie films, and oldies—like this weekend’s upcoming showing of one of my favorite movies, The Philadelphia Story. The theater has also maintained its position as the center of our small community. For example, when Bob’s Beach Books held a massive book signing this summer, authors spoke about writing and publishing in the Bijou rather than in the bookstore.
I wasn’t really paying much attention to this crisis the theater was going through until I started letting people who follow me on social media know about the Bijou’s Kickstarter project.
Then, a not-so-small fact came to light courtesy of journalist (and sf writer) Michael Armstrong in Homer, Alaska, who had covered a similar crisis for Homer’s theater. Apparently, the major movie studios helped fund the major theater chains’ switch from 35mm film to digital film. I don’t pretend to understand how all the funding works. What I do understand is that it’s easier for a chain movie theater to jump through the hoops the studios set up than it is for a small town theater like the Bijou.
An industry blogger and owner of two small movie theaters, Michael Hurley of Maine, estimates that as many as 1,000 movie theaters will disappear because of this forced conversion. He writes,
The brain trust in Hollywood seem committed to playing a game of diminishing exhibition returns and appears ready to write off huge swaths of the ticket-buying public. You can bet that the same people who spent $150 million to make “Mars Needs Moms” have crunched the numbers and believe they can live with a lot fewer theaters in this world.
The attitude caught me. Not Hurley’s, but that of the major studios. Maybe they can live without fewer theaters in the world, but the people in Homer, Alaska, and Belfast, Maine, and Lincoln City, Oregon, can’t. In the past, we wouldn’t have been able to save our little theaters. There simply isn’t enough money in towns this small to fund a $50,000-100,000 conversion on a movie theater that might eek out a $20,000 profit in a year.
Think of the disaster we all would have faced.
And it’s not just movie theaters. I’ve been writing about all the writers who vanished because their projects weren’t “big” enough to interest a major publishing company. Or the projects were “risky” because they weren’t like anything else. If the publisher couldn’t publish the book as “The New Twilight!” then the writer was told to write something else. And when that something else didn’t pan out, well, some writers just gave up.
The Entertainment Weekly article that I mentioned above wasn’t about movie theaters or writers. It was about comedians, filmmakers, gamers, and musicians who used a variety of crowdsourcing methods to fund projects that the suits in each industry felt weren’t viable.
From people only those in the know had heard of to familiar names like Steven Van Zandt, Jon Stewart and Bill O’Reilly, and Louis C.K., many artists have successfully used some form of crowdsourcing to get a project off the ground this past year.
What does this all mean? Well, it’s yet another way for the ambitious artist to get her work before the public. Of course, there are tricks to doing a successful Kickstarter project. I’ve seen more projects fail than succeed, mostly because the people who planned the project didn’t research how Kickstarter works, or fail to understand the business that they’re involved in.
For example, I watched one project fail miserably when the person who put it together asked for ten times the amount of money than similar projects had received. That same person had pitched the project traditionally, and had gotten offended when all of the major publishing companies told him that he was asking too much money for his project.
Had he but researched how such projects went together, he would have known how unreasonable his request was.
Other Kickstarters that I’ve seen fail had really dull pitches, an excruciating video, or bad rewards for donors (or nonexistent rewards! Here, the person seems to say, give me money because I’m faaaah-bulous) .
And the knock against Kickstarter is that only people with an already existing fan base succeed. That’s true up to a point: if you have a fan base, you’re better off than the folks who are starting from scratch. But I just watched the Bijou raise funds from all over the world, not because of the theater’s fan base, but because small theaters in general have a fan base. Everyone loves the movies; that’s one of the premises in Argo, and it’s true.
Am I saying everyone should crowdsource their projects? Hell, no. I just went through a Kickstarter project for Fiction River, and it’s stressful. Keith Altomare of the Bijou claimed he didn’t sleep in the weeks it took the project to get the minimal funding for the theater.
I’m not going to do a Kickstarter project on everything I write. Not everything is Kickstarter worthy. Plus, I used to work in listener sponsored radio, and I spent years doing on-air fundraising. You wear out your welcome very fast if you continually go to the same people for money. I actually shut off one public radio station when it fundraises because it does so badly. I wish they’d realize they’re in the 21st century, and learn the new methods. Sadly, I should be the most sympathetic audience member they have instead of someone who shut the station off. After all, I used to do that job. I know how hard it is.
Not every crowdsourced project is done on Kickstarter. There are as many ways to crowdsource as there are to create. This blog is crowdsourced. As long as you folks continue to donate, I’ll continue to write the nonfiction blog.
I know of a number of novelists who are serializing their books online, with a donate button at the end of every chapter, and are happily surprised to see that their donations are increasing as the books go along. What this means, folks, isn’t that all books should be serialized, but that the writers who are doing this successfully are also writing good books. (Also, I would recommend that you finish a book before serializing it on your blog, just in case something in your life goes awry or you have to go back and add a gun in chapter one so that you can shoot that gun in chapter fifteen.)
I’ve mentioned before how I appreciate the loss of the middle man. But this week truly showed me on a deep level what kind of world we’d live in if crowdsourcing hadn’t gone mainstream. And I mentioned all of the reasons at the start of this blog.
First, that royalty statement. It is missing both some information and some promised money—money the publisher has owed me (and known it has owed me) since early last year. The publisher had promised I’d get this money in October. I won’t. If I’m lucky, I’ll get it in April. Or I’ll have to fight for it.
As Dean said as he shook his head over yet another royalty fight facing me, the third this year, “It’s a wonder anyone survives in traditional publishing any more.”
I certainly wouldn’t be earning a living at it—a reasonable, above-poverty rate living—any more. In the last few years, I earned about one-quarter of what I used to earn in my bad years. The advances have gone from survivable to insulting. And now publishers are fudging on royalties owed. It’s disgraceful and hard.
Second, that survey from the arts organization. The arts organization has been around for at least fifty years. It has given awards to writers whose names you would recognize, writers who have made a living at their careers for their entire lives as well as New York Times bestsellers. (This detail will be important to something I mention below.)
The arts organization also gives grants to recipients it deems worthy. Back when the organization first came to my attention, the grants were bridges that got the writer to full-time freelance status. I don’t know how the grants are being billed now.
I do know that the survey was myopic in the extreme. I took it and got stuck on the second question: How do you earn your living? The survey gave me a bunch of choices, from student to full-time minimum wage work to career outside of the arts to professor.
However, it did not list self-employed, or business owner, or on your writing.
That’s right. The arts organization once designed to help writers become self-sufficient no longer recognizes that writers could be self-sufficient. Or small business owners. Or self-employed.
It was appalling, and yes, the comments section of the survey got a long, pointed letter from me. Because most of the writers this organization recognizes do make a living at their writing—even if that living isn’t as good as it was ten years ago.
But the next four e-mails were all from Kickstarter projects run by full-time freelancers. From anthology projects to magazine startups to calendars, these projects caught my eye, generally through friends or social media. Sometimes I’d back for the smallest amount, and sometimes I’d fork out hundreds of dollars.
I missed funding the documentary about the Zelazny sf project by a few hours, but I plan to see the film when it’s out. Sometimes I participate in a crowdsourced project because I like the people involved, but mostly I do so because I think the project is worthy—something I want in my library, I want to see, or I want to hang on my wall.
None of these projects would have gotten funding through some arts organization, nor would they have made it through the byzantine system set up by the studios/publishers—ah, hell, let’s just call them suits.
And if the project had made it past the suits, then the artist who proposed the project probably wouldn’t have made any money on it. Or the artist wouldn’t have seen any money for years after the project got released.
Recently a friend started contract negotiations with a medium-sized publisher that I’ve worked for. The contract the friend forwarded me was shockingly bad, worse than any I’d seen in the last year, grabbing every right, including rights to all of my friend’s future projects. The contract only paid for the first project. The rights to the other projects could have been tied up for decades without payment because this once-honorable publisher got greedy.
Fortunately, my friend is smart and has been negotiating the contract to something that passes for favorable to him. He still has one major deal-breaker to go, and since I’ve negotiated with this company myself, I have a hunch they’re not going to budge. He’ll have to determine if he’s going to walk away. I know I did, and I don’t regret it.
Here’s the thing: He has a fan base. He could put the same proposal that got his editor’s attention on Kickstarter or Indie-gogo, asked for a few thousand dollars from his fans, and he would probably make more money three months later than he would make in a year from the publishing company. And that doesn’t count all the other earnings on the project after it is through its Kickstarter phase.
It’s time for writers to explore all of their options. And many of those options should not include middle men. The suits don’t care about midlist writers or indie films or small movie theaters. They care about whatever bottom line they see, and they don’t care how they reach that bottom line.
But the readers, film goers, music fans, and the rest of us out here in the real world do care. Only 702 people funded the documentary called Science Fiction Land, based on the true story behind Argo. Only 424 people have backed the Bijou Theater so far (although you can make it 425, if you pledge a few dollars before Friday). Only 314 people backed Fiction River, our anthology project.
None of those numbers are big enough to impress any suits. The middle men would laugh at both the amount of money raised and the number of fans who backed the projects.
But here’s the thing: more than 702 people will see Science Fiction Land. Thousands of people will attend the Bijou in the next few years, watching digital movies in its historic theater. And Fiction River has only just started to build its subscriber base. We plan to be around for years.
Kickstarter is, as the name suggests, a kick-start, a beginning. It is what arts organizations were in a darker time, a bridge to a more successful dream.
Other crowdsourcing projects, like serialized novels or blogs that ask the readers to set their own price for the information they’ve received, follow a different model. They’re like the newspaper you used to buy on the way to work. You never subscribed because it was too expensive to do so or because sometimes you got the paper for free on the subway or someone had left a copy on a table in the diner. You paid only when you really wanted the paper, but you knew it would always be there.
In the past thirty years, the idea of something always being there has gone away. Popular TV shows got canceled because they weren’t popular enough. That still happens, yes, but some shows have gone on to have web episodes. Some start as webisodes and never make it to the big screen—whatever that screen may be.
Book series got interrupted in the middle (and can now be finished. Yay!). Musicians stopped getting record deals and had to play in clubs (and now you can find their independently produced work all over the web).
As I mentioned last week, I’m just thrilled at how wide open the world is, how many opportunities artists of all stripes have now.
What the artist needs now, is courage. The artist must take risks and sometimes the artist will fail. The key is to figure out what the past mistakes were, improve, and try again.
The difference now is that we’re in it for the long haul. Yes, the middle men aren’t necessary (although sometimes they can be useful). But the people who expect to get rich overnight through things like Kickstarter or other forms of crowdsourcing generally will fail.
Those who use these tools as tools to build that bridge to a big project or to a long career or to years of maintaining a business generally will succeed. Not because their first outing was successful; it probably wasn’t. But because they have a vision. They care more about the project than the money.
The middle men care more about the money than the project. That’s why they make crazy short-term choices like shutting down successful (if small) local theaters because the theaters don’t earn “enough.” Those short-term decisions often bite back hard, but you know what? Usually by then, the middle men who made those decisions are gone, and other middle men have arrived just in time to clean up the mess.
As an artist in today’s society, you are responsible for your own successes and failures. Do your best to capitalize on the former and survive the latter. You won’t always make the right choices, but now, at least, you have choices. And that’s a very, very good thing.
As I mentioned above, you folks fund this blog. It needs to earn enough money for me to continue writing it every week instead of the fiction, which is my bread and butter.
You folks also provide me with great links, fantastic comments, and marvelous e-mails. I thank you for all of your support.
I couldn’t do this without you.
“The Business Rusch: “Getting Rid of the Middle Man,” copyright © 2012 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch.