Business Musings: Brandon’s Kickstarter
The conversation started about 10 hours after Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter went live. That’s when the press noticed that a writer made millions in the space of a few hours—without the help of any major publishing house.
Brandon’s own fans are doing this. I’m writing this post about 3 days after the Kickstarter went live. Sometime in the last 24 hours, this Kickstarter campaign became the largest campaign ever held on Kickstarter.
It only took two days to see the panic in the company town newspaper (The New York Times):
But self-publishing on the scale Sanderson is proposing is an enormously complicated proposition. Fundamentally, most authors want to write books, not run a publishing house.
Books require editors, designers and lawyers. Someone has to register the ISBN number and file for copyright. Someone else has to proofread the manuscript, then proofread it again. Printing thousands of copies of physical books, then storing and distributing them, is expensive and onerous.
It’s as if the past 12 years hadn’t happened at all. As if there weren’t hundreds of freelance copy editors and designers. As if registering for an ISBN is hard. As if hiring a lawyer is even harder. (And really, who wants a lawyer who works for the tiny salaries paid by a publishing company? That lawyer is clearly not ambitious or maybe even a great lawyer.)
But, you see, Brandon has a company (how lucky for him!) and that’ll enable him to do this. Sigh.
It’s long enough for the press to pick up the story, but not long enough for them to understand it. Most of them never will, just like they haven’t understood publishing for decades. (If ever.)
It’s also long enough for the stupid to have started. On Twitter, Brandon had an entire thread and it was filled with stupid.
I was going to have a Kickstarter this week, but he sucked all the air out of the room.
What? It would be a great time to run a publishing Kickstarter campaign. Readers are crawling all over Kickstarter right now.
He’s only getting this money because he’s a privileged white guy.
Um, anyone can do a Kickstarter. And while there is a great argument to be made about white privilege and traditional publishing (y’know, that thing promoted by that company paper, The New York Times), platforms like Kickstarter and the various ebook companies don’t care what anyone looks like. BIPOC have the same access that Brandon does.
Why is he so successful here?
Because Brandon has tended his fannish garden. In other words, he cultivated his fans. He has a lot of them. He has worked with them, promoting items to them and giving them free stuff for more than a decade.
Much more important than that, though, is this: his readers love his work.
You might not love Brandon’s work but think about it this way:
Take Brandon’s name off this and insert the name of your very favorite writer, the one whose books you buy no questions asked.
Then imagine that writer just told you that he’s written four books that you can get in special editions or early or in totally cool ways and not through the usual publishing channels.
You’d run, not walk, to plunk down your $40 and get four novels in 2023. Be honest. You would. (Or your teenage self would, if you’re too cool to have a favorite these days.)
Brandon has that kind of fanbase. But here’s what the press and the jealous people on Twitter are missing.
Brandon beat the record on Kickstarter in three days. (He has most of a month left to go, as I write this.) Within three days, his Kickstarter was $21.8 million. At that point, only 90,020 people had backed the Kickstarter.
Yes, I said “only.”
Because his novels have sold 20 million copies, according to that company paper, The New York Times. Of course, the Times isn’t telling us how many copies each individual novel has sold, but let’s say that Brandon has a million readers who never miss a book.
That means that only 9% of his regular readers have ponied up the money on Kickstarter.
Only 9% in three days.
Before I go too deep into the analysis of this, let me add something about Kickstarter: It’s not the normal place that people buy books. This 9% is a bit adventurous. A lot of readers are worried about buying a book there, not because they don’t trust Brandon, but because they worry about learning the new ecosystem. Most people have never participated in crowd-funding projects.
By next week or the week after, regular readers will come to Kickstarter to get their copies of the book. They’ll jump over the tiny hoops that it takes to learn the platform, and they’ll be happy with the result…because Brandon and his team know how to run a Kickstarter.
Think about this, though.
So, Brandon wrote these four surprise novels. He’ll publish them, and the people who backed the Kickstarter will get copies and other swag.
Then the books will go on sale at the usual channels. And because they’re indie published, Brandon will make 70% of the gross rather than 19% (if his deal from his regular publisher was spectacular, which it probably isn’t). He’ll be raking in money on indie published books.
Hey, New York Times! He can afford the staff at Dragonsteel Entertainment.
Why have I pointed out that only 9% showed up in three days? Because I want you people to understand how much money there is in publishing. In entertainment.
Writers are accustomed to thinking that writing is something they do for the love of it—and that’s true. If you don’t love writing, then why the hell are you doing it?
But writers believe that because they’re doing it for the love, they need a “real” job to make money. Never thinking about the realities of the entertainment industry.
Traditional publishers license novels from writers for $5000 and then pay $250,000 or more to publish the thing (using the inefficient method that the Times described above). If trad publishers thought there was no money in publishing, they wouldn’t invest hundreds of thousands per title.
There is money in publishing. A lot of it. It just doesn’t flow to the writers. Because, frankly, writers are stupid. As the Times said in that article, “… most authors want to write books, not run a publishing house” as if those were the only two choices.
Writers can’t be business minded, because that would destroy the entire traditional publishing industry.
The story in the press will be that Brandon is a unicorn and no one else will be able to do this.
Now, on some level, that’s true. Brandon is a unicorn, but not for the reasons that the press believes. They think he is because he has the capability and the fanbase to raise this money. They think that makes him unique.
But let me tell you why Brandon is a unicorn. Because he’s a traditionally published bestselling writer who has the business knowledge to experiment with a Kickstarter. He did it right; he did a Kickstarter last year as practice (and raised $4 million or so on limited editions of backlist books). He learned how to fulfill, how to do a Kickstarter properly, how to make sure that each one of the fans who back this project will walk away happy.
He’s a unicorn because he’s willing to step out of the traditional publishing bubble.
But honestly, he’s a small unicorn. Imagine if Nora Roberts did this. Or Stephen King. Or James Patterson (who actually had to form a publishing company of competent people inside his traditional publishing company to handle his projects). Those three alone could easily have a Kickstarter that would dwarf Brandon’s.
Yep. Dean, Loren Coleman and I have been hoping something like this would happen for quite a while. Three years ago, Dean and Loren decided to make Kickstarter a go-to place for book projects. Loren wrote a book called Crowdfunding Your Fiction, which is essentially the Bible of crowdfunding. (Loren has run million-dollar Kickstarters and smaller ones. Dean and I have run Kickstarters at the medium level for years now.)
The whole point of doing this was to expand the fiction category and bring a lot of writers in, which brings in readers. That has happened. But what the category needed was a blow-out project.
Brandon Sanderson did that.
Suddenly tens of thousands (probably hundreds of thousands) of readers will now know how to use Kickstarter.
Does that mean that they’ll back your Kickstarter? Sure, a small percentage of them will. But you’re not going to get a million on your Kickstarter without doing the kind of work that Brandon has done.
What has he done?
- He has written books that people love to read. That’s the core of this business and he has done it. People love his work.
- He has maintained his fanbase. In fact, he has done the work to grow it. He did it the old-fashioned way, by attending conventions and glad-handing, as well as the new-fangled way, by maintaining mailing lists and offering goods and swag for his dedicated readers.
So when Brandon sent a call to his fans to view this Kickstarter, they came and liked what they saw.
I have no idea how many fans have decided to wait until the books are published before getting their copies. I’m sure there’s a good percentage of those too.
What I want you all to think about, though, are the possibilities here.
As of 2017, the U.S. Media and Entertainment Industry was a $703 billion (yes, with a “b”) industry. That includes movies, TV, games and a bunch of other stuff. Publishing in the U.S.—traditional publishing, which is all that these kinds of surveys count—is a $25 billion (yes, with a “b”) industry.
The publishing industry is…I was going to say “top-heavy” but that offends me. It’s manufacturing and distribution heavy.
Writers, the storytellers, who are the foundation of the industry, get paid roughly 10% or less for their product. I’m not going to do the analysis here because I have a book to finish, and besides, I’ve done it before. But the reason writers get so little is their bad book deals, which means that they get almost nothing from deep-discounted books, and peanuts for their front list titles. (No writer gets more than 20% of the royalties, which traditional book companies fudge in a way that makes Hollywood accounting look transparent.) So, yes, at the moment, I’m pulling 10% out of my ass, but that 10% is generous.
Traditional publishers use the money from the books they publish to pay for their buildings, to pay for their staff, to pay for manufacturing and distribution of the books, and yes, sometimes, to pay for marketing (but they do less and less of that).
Once upon a time, writers absolutely needed those services. It was as cost-heavy as the New York Times, mired in the past, seems to think it is now. There were warehousing costs and the cost of using a web press and the cost of physically driving the books to a distributor and the cost of distributing those books all over the country.
But there are other ways to do those things now. And that’s just the physical books. Not the ebooks, audiobooks, and everything else that a reader can get by punching a button on their computer.
Brandon was right in his post: something fundamental has changed.
The point is that the change happened ten years ago. Many of us realized it then and have been working in the indie (self) publishing field ever since.
But the big guys—the bestsellers—stayed with traditional, even as traditional cut their money and stopped marketing their works and told them to accept the loss of revenue. (John Grisham has been complaining about that for years.)
In the early years of indie (self) publishing, traditional publishers subsumed the bestselling self-published writers, by promising all kinds of things from legitimacy (whatever that is) to actual promotion (most of which did not happen).
I only followed a few of the writers who went from self-publishing to traditional. As far as I can tell, Amanda Hocking, the early big sensation, is still with traditional publishing. John Scalzi, who self-published before the Kindle, is still with his traditional publisher.
But others, like Serena Bowen, fled traditional as soon as the initial contract was up. Most have remained silent as to why, but it’s pretty clear. The promises weren’t kept. The writers lost control not just of the product, but of the writing itself.
It’s not a pretty situation.
I have no idea what these surprise books are of Brandon’s, but he did say these four books are quirky and stretched him as a writer, and allowed him to complete a different form of storytelling.
As a person who spent decades in traditional publishing, I can tell you how traditional publishing editors/publishers would have reacted to that. As a midlist writer, I would have been discouraged from even trying those books. Brandon is a bestseller that they didn’t want to piss off. They might have humored him, but the lack of enthusiasm would have been palpable.
I don’t know if he tried to branch out in the past. (It wouldn’t surprise me.) I do know he’s savvy, and understands how publishing (traditional and indie) works, so he would know that indie is much better for the quirky project.
This much better clearly took him by surprise.
I wrote a few months ago that the split between indie publishing and traditional publishing became obvious in 2021. It looks like the financial split between them will be on display in 2022.
For ten years, we needed something like this to shake up the industry. When the bestselling indies went to traditional and lost their revenue, and traditional screwed up the larger sales, the news never covered the writers returning to self-publishing. It was as if they had disappeared.
Brandon’s successful Kickstarter for 4 unnamed books is impossible to ignore. I will be watching the coverage in the traditional press as they try to hide their terror of this.
This is a game-changer.
Now, let’s talk about you and me and Kickstarter for a moment. Brandon is bringing thousands of people to Kickstarter. Most of those people will only order from his Kickstarters. But many other fantasy readers in particular will start poking around Kickstarter and will purchase books through other Kickstarters.
This is what happened in the Gaming category, which is the category that now has the second highest Kickstarter ever, after once holding first place. It became clear, after that blowout Kickstarter, that there was a receptive audience for most gaming products.
Now, there will be a receptive audience for most fantasy fiction products. Will those of us who do a fantasy novel Kickstarter have Brandon’s level of success?
No. Not even close. Most of us have not cultivated our fans the way he has.
But those fans are readers. They will look at other products. There’s no way to know at the moment whether or not one percent of these readers will get other fantasy books on Kickstarter or ten percent will.
Time will tell.
If the past is any indication, however, these big Kickstarters increase the people who watch the category and, to use the cliched phrase, they will become the rising tide that will lift all boats.
That’s the small picture.
The larger one? Smart traditionally published bestsellers should be looking closely at this. Smart unpublished writers should use this as a wake-up call.
Traditional publishing will never pay its writers tens of millions for unnamed projects. Traditional publishing can barely afford the million-dollar advances these days.
And please, remember, the Kickstarter numbers are only the beginning of the earnings on these books. These books will live for decades. Brandon will earn money on them for decades—without licensing any of the copyright to some gigantic corporate entity that does not have his best interest at heart.
Also, remember that this Kickstarter is advertising. It’s introducing millions of readers to Brandon Sanderson. These new readers are asking Who is this guy and why is he getting so much money? What are these new readers going to do? Why, they’re going to buy a backlist book and try to read it before the Kickstarter ends.
His published book sales are going to increase dramatically. So the tens of millions he’s earning on the Kickstarter does not count the other ways this Kickstarter is benefitting him financially. Nor is it counting the promotion value that he’s getting from projects that he felt inspired to write.
There’s a lot more to unpack—from some of the innovations he’s doing to the impact on the fantasy and science fiction field. But for the moment, I’m stopping here.
If you’re one of the sour grapes people, perhaps you should ask yourself why you’re being so very negative. Are you jealous? Or scared?
The rest of you should watch what happens next. This is a very big deal. For all of us.
As I mentioned above, we have a free ongoing class that helps writers with Kickstarter best practices. Of course that class will be updated to reflect Brandon’s Kickstarter. If you’re thinking of a Kickstarter, sign up for the class and give yourself the chance to do it right.
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“Business Musings: Brandon’s Kickstarter,” copyright © 2022 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch. Image at the top of the blog from Brandon Sanderson’s website.