Business Musings: The Kickstarted Game Changer (Part Two)

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For decades publishing has been a stagnated industry, relying on fifty- and sixty-year-old methods to sell books. Most of the practices within the industry are also at least fifty or sixty years old. Sure, the industry has made some modifications to accommodate innovation, like the ebook, but those are minor tweaks.

Those tweaks do not take into account the actual changes in the world. What traditional book publishers could do for writers in the mid-twentieth century was vast and impressive. What traditional book publishers can do for writers now is pretty minimal, and getting more so, thanks to the damn virus.

If you’ll notice, most of the repeat New York Times bestsellers (even at the small numbers that it takes to hit the list) have been around for at least ten years. And that includes Brandon Sanderson.

Sanderson provoked this mini-series of blog posts when he launched a Kickstarter this month, and it flew past a million dollars within a day. This is important for a variety of reasons, a handful of which I explored in the previous post.

The real reason this large Kickstarter is important is that, if we writers do this right, the Kickstarter is the game changer that the industry needs.

I’ve long had the sense that the publishing industry is moving at lightspeed—away from traditional publishers. If there’s an innovation, it comes from the indie (self) publishing side.

For example, Lindsay Buroker found this a few weeks back:

The opening line of this very silly sales pitch from a promotion company is this:

Nowadays, some traditional publishers won’t even consider signing an author who has less than 10,000 email subscribers. Even indie authors see a big jump in sales after they build an email subscriber base…

Even indie authors? Even indie authors? This technique for building sales came from indie authors. They’ve refined the email marketing list long past what this particular article proposes. The things it espouses were hot in the mid-teens, and aren’t effective now.

Except, maybe, to get a traditional publishing deal, which pays increasingly less money for scooping up most of the copyright. That copyright detail will become important in the third and final installment of this miniseries.

Traditional publishing is floundering. Its overhead is top-heavy, it’s still locked in expensive production contracts, it’s also paying New York rents, which, as of January of this year, had the second highest rental prices in the nation (only San Francisco cost more).

I’m sure a round of layoffs is coming in traditional publishing which follows the last-hired-first-fired method of getting rid of people. Which means that the innovators—the young people—will disappear.

And now this.

Brandon’s Kickstarter should send waves of fear through traditional publishing for a variety of reasons.

1…The monetary size of the Kickstarter. As of this writing, the Kickstarter has earned well over 5 million dollars. It will cost money to fulfill the Kickstarter, not just for the items promised, shipping, and the salary of the staffers who will handle fulfillment (or the cost of a fulfillment service).

But for the sake of argument, let’s say that this Kickstarter finishes at 8 million dollars (which is what Dean is estimating, based on the way the Kickstarter is going in the middle here). Let’s use super huge fulfillment expenses and say that it will cost half of the earnings to produce and ship the rewards. (It will cost significantly less, but go with me here.)

That still means this Kickstarter will clear 4 million dollars.

In today’s market, no publisher can pay 4 million dollars for a book advance. Even if some publisher did manage to cough up that kind of money, Brandon wouldn’t get it all at once. He’d get it, probably in 5 (or more) installments—signing, turn-in, copy-edit, page proof, hardcover publication and paperback publication.

The most would be on signing—maybe a million right there or maybe not because again, I can’t see a publisher shelling out that kind of cash in 2020. The rest would be split in payments under $500,000, with at least 15% taken for the agent.

All in all, it would take three years to get the four million dollars for the book—if the publisher moved at lightspeed. Even then Brandon wouldn’t get the full 4 million. He would get 3.4 million, with $600,000 (minimum) going to his agent.

With this Kickstarter, he’ll get the full 4 million sometime in August. (This assumes that Kickstarter’s 5% fee is in the 4 million I set aside for expenses.)

Here’s the kicker though: This Kickstarter is for a single license—a leather-bound hardcover with beautiful interior art. Not for paperback rights or standard hardcover rights or ebook rights. Not for audio or anything that you might find in a standard traditional contract.

Just one little slice of the copyright.

In other words, the fans on Kickstarter are paying for just one version of a book many of them might have already read. There are still other licenses out there that could be monetized should an author (not Brandon) want to do this.

So if Brandon can clear 4 million on one slice of the copyright pie, think what would happen if he decided to Kickstart his next hardcover novel. Then Kickstart the paperback. And Kickstart the audio book.

Not all of them would earn 4 million, but that doesn’t matter. If he makes $500,000 on each of those Kickstarters, he would add another 1.5 million to his Kickstarter total (9.5 million) and since we’re saying it would cost half to fulfill, that’s another $750,000 up front, not counting the money that would come in from the ebook (which I haven’t listed here) or the sales to the general public.

Instead of 3.4 million over three years on a book, he’d clear 4.75 million in about a year (or less).

2….The backer size of the Kickstarter. As of this writing, over 19,000 people have backed Brandon’s Kickstarter. This is a tiny percentage of his fan base—and that’s a good thing.

Not everyone who reads books goes to Kickstarter. Not everyone who reads Brandon’s books buys them. (They’re also in libraries and other such places). I couldn’t quickly find the sales figures for Brandon’s solo books. (We can’t count the Wheel of Time books he completed for Robert Jordan.) But I do know that Brandon’s sales are in the millions of copies.

With that measure, 19,000 backers is a mere drop in the potential bucket.

Imagine if Brandon self-published all of his books, not just a handful of them. His fan base is not going to diminish. It is going to grow or at least remain the same.

He no longer needs the traditional publishing infrastructure.

And if he actually does the math, he will realize that as a self-published author he will outearn every traditional bestselling writer working today.

He even has the company that could help him do so.

When I saw that tweet from Lindsay Buroker back in June, I asked (on Twitter) why anyone, with 10,000 legit fans (not names crammed on an email list) would ever go to traditional publishing. Traditional publishing makes the writer do all the work these days, and the traditional publisher (along with the agent) takes almost all the money.

The same amount of work, no control, and almost none of the money? What is the benefit to traditional publishing again?

Things like this Kickstarter will show business-minded writers what’s possible. It will definitely show traditional publishers that there are better ways to make money as a writer.

I expect to see a handful of traditional publishers try their hands at Kickstarter now with some “special” project. I also expect that “special” project to go as well as all those film/video projects from larger studios—that is—ending up as a failure.

That’s what traditional businesses like publishing do. They try something outside their usual model, and do it badly. Then it either works at much smaller-than-expected numbers or it doesn’t work at all. They decree it a failure, say only a handful of people can do it under special circumstances, and then they will dismiss it as unimportant.

The music industry did that after Amanda Palmer’s big push in 2012. The film industry did it after Veronica Mars.

Expect a lot of negativity from traditional publisher on this Kickstarter…because they have to quash it. They don’t want writers to see this kind of success—on a small license, using only a fraction of the existing fan base.

Because here’s what publishers know, but never tell their writers: Fans don’t care who the publisher is. Fans care that the next book comes out. Fans are loyal to the story first, the writer second. The publisher never even factors into the equation.

So when writers can go directly to their fans, the writers make more money—exponentially more money.

Will every writer who tries a Kickstarter make millions on that Kickstarter? Heavens no. But writers can make thousands, tens of thousands, and even hundreds of thousands with Kickstarters done right. And if we create a community of readers on Kickstarter, the way that the Game category created a community of gamers, we all win.

The film industry failed to do that. So did the music industry.

With Brandon’s Kickstarter being the…kickstart…the category needs, writers have an opportunity to create that community on Kickstarter. If you’re interested in being part of that, take our free class titled “Kickstarter Best Practices for Writers.”

Kickstarter is but one of the many, many, many opportunities that writers have when they control all aspects of their copyright. From Patreon to sales on websites to crowdfunding to licensing, writers have opportunities when they control their own destiny.

This Kickstarter is just one reminder of that, at least for me. I hope it’s a bit of a wake-up call for the rest of you who’ve never considered crowd-funding.

And those of you who are traditionally published and say you can’t do this because of the contract you signed…read the next post. Because Brandon is mostly a traditionally published writer as well.

There’s a lot you can do, even if you signed a bad traditional publishing contract. You just have to learn business, and you need to learn copyright.

Traditional publishing as we know it will never step into the 21st century. It’ll always remained rooted in practices that were developed long before anyone who works there was born.

But that doesn’t mean writers have to remain rooted in the past. You can move into the future—at your speed and in your way. And you can do what’s best for your projects.

If you just look around, and see what kind of opportunities await.


After a lot of feedback, we’ve also decided to add a separate class on how to run a Kickstarter, including all of the details, in order. This is different from the free class, in that this one is hands-on, and will actually teach you how to run your own Kickstarter.

In addition to that, I’m revising The Freelancer’s Survival Guide. I’m updating it to make it more in line with what’s going on today. If you back me on Patreon, you’ll be able to see the revised version as each chapter appears.

And speaking of all that, this blog is reader-supported. If you feel like supporting the blog on an on-going basis, then please head to my Patreon page.

If you liked this post, and want to show your one-time appreciation, the place to do that is PayPal. If you go that route, please include your email address in the notes section, so I can say thank you.

Which I am going to say right now. Thank you!

Click to go to PayPal.

“Business Musings: The Kickstarted Game Changer Part Two,” copyright © 2020 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog copyright © Can Stock Photo / tana.

16 thoughts on “Business Musings: The Kickstarted Game Changer (Part Two)

  1. One quick note. Not every fan will follow every author into new territory. Not every fan will go to Kickstarter to keep reading stories, especially if they were buying ebooks and now the new books are only available via deluxe illustrated (expensive) hardcovers.
    I dropped an author who chose to multi-format storytelling after traditionally publishing a bunch of books. A mid-level character from the series disappeared between one book and the next, and a new supporting character was introduced in that period, because of something that happened in some comic books, and the protagonist was still dealing with those comic book events throughout the next book. I was completely lost, and had no desire to go hunt down comic books to understand what was going on. I dropped the author instead.
    I’m sure the author got a decent licensing deal to do the comic books, but if you’re trying to maintain a fanbase, formats and accessibility matter.

    1. I completely agree. Fans should always be able to get the stories they want in the format they prefer. If something big happens in a comic book, then that should become a short story as well or whatever form the story was originally in. Good point.

      I’m not advocating that anyone should switch formats here or even do limited edition Kickstarters. I’m advocating that you should open your mind to the possibilities that Kickstarter provides.

  2. “I expect to see a handful of traditional publishers try their hands at Kickstarter now with some “special” project. I also expect that “special” project to go as well as all those film/video projects from larger studios—that is—ending up as a failure”

    Yeah, thinking the same thing. The publisher will goober it up, probably create new ways in which Kickstarter can be goobered, and later we’ll hear from the trad writer how they worked themselves half to death promoting it etc., but didn’t make any money off it.

  3. I’m going to be running a Kickstarter for a anthology project, in part because of what you and Dean have written about Brandon’s recent Kickstarter success. I don’t expect to make $5 million, and I’m not asking for anywhere near what Brandon was, but I think this shows the possibilities that are out there. Michael J. Sullivan and Tim Pratt have already been using Kickstarter successfully for a few years now on their novel projects, making what amounts to thousands in advance money on books traditional publishing either isn’t interested in or can’t match that kind of money. They are great examples to follow for how to run successful novel Kickstarters.

  4. Thanks for covering the Sanderson Kickstarter and its ramifications. I can certainly see why it is a game changer. One thing I’m wondering: can a writer with a fan base that numbers perhaps 20 readers make a Kickstarter work for her? Up until now, I’d understood that you had to have a fan base to direct to the Kickstarter in order to have a chance of it funding. If that has changed…well, that would b exciting!

    1. M.C A Hogarth has ran very successful kickstarters and she is in a small niche. Not sure how large her fan base is but not super large.

  5. I wonder how Sanderson is going to publish the next manuscript he has that’s free from the strings of previous contracts? Lol. I can imagine him looking at that 4 million, and then looking at the next manuscript on his desk. That’s a lot of reasons to think about Kickstarting his next new book as well.

  6. Wow. Wow. Wow. The Brandon Kickstarter is unreal. But look at the time-invested (in years) and fans (in thousands) he has behind it. But Hmmm… definitely something to think about. I’m 100% Indie now, so nothing to lose. I’m heading over to the “Kickstarter Best Practices for Fiction” course RIGHT NOW…

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