THE LESSONS OF CROWD FUNDING AND FIGHTING THROUGH THE NOISE OF THE INTERNET
Any value to this article comes out of direct experience of trying to fund a book project on Kickstarter for Light of The White Bear but also echoing the battle being fought in the US now and across the world against Digitisation and the likes of Google effectively stealing work and putting it up for free. It is of course a changed landscape since the arrival of the web, that has altered so much socially and commercially and been a particular threat not just to writers but artists of all kinds, from musicians to photographers and visual artists too. The problem is we all seem to be implicated in that ‘culture for free‘ mentality, the white noise of the Internet too. Which is why I was so shocked at one acquaintance delighting in the ease and accessibility of his Kindle, which on the positive side had increased his own reading, yet being so casual about having downloaded 4,000 books for free. Perhaps you don’t wake up to a thing until you are directly effected yourself, like all those anti Piracy campaigns in Cinemas, back with the dinosaurs, but it is a very serious challenge to any kind of real culture, surely always something shared, and to the individual artist too. It echoes doubts about whether Facebook and the rest really connect us at a deeply human level, or more often give us a chance to put up only a mirror to the most successful or prettiest versions of ourselves, while we hide other truths in the shadows. So can you get over that 15 minutes of fame or Marshall McLuhan “medium is the message” truth and actually use the thing itself to change the medium?
Firstly there is the problem of writers and artists simply surviving, which in fact was always a very tough business. Do artists really have any more right than any one else though? I suppose that might depend on the artist, or whether you think poets are, as Shelley said, ‘the unacknowledged legislators of the world‘. Or if it is troubling that the likes of Van Gogh spent his life on the edge of poverty, wonder and madness, broken by the system, only to find his work one day worth tens of millions and hanging on the walls of slick Merchant banks. History and especially the history of the art market is too full of such ironies to dwell on it too long. Less than 5% of authors reach any kind of position where they can really live off their work alone, yet even back in the 16th Century, when the very idea of authorial copyright began to emerge with the new printing technology, booksellers, poets and writers made their way with kinds of private patronage, a bit like Kickstarter. One was a Southwark boatman called John Taylor, the self styled ‘water poet‘, whose verse is pretty much doggerel, rowing the river Thames in the wake of the likes of Kit Marlowe and Will Shakespeare, on Bankside. But who raised shillings and pence to take his work into print and at least it is one of the great historical sources. He also spent too much time, in the highly personal and often bitchy world of ‘letters’, pursuing those who promised backing and never coughed up! Shakespeare found his real and powerful patrons and his playhouse at The Globe and was wise enough to stay behind the scenes and stay true to his genius. Although Shakespeare certainly had a head for money and business. The fact is nowadays though, with super Capitalism and such vast and increasing inequality, the very idea of the patron is pretty much frowned on, so what steps into the breach, dear friends?
The only equivalent of that Printing Press revolution though, that so engaged in the battles of the Reformation too, is right now, over four hundred years later, with the arrival of the Internet, Twitter, Facebook, WordPress, Kickstarter and the rest. Such a challenge to Governments with the likes of Wiki leaks and to tyrannies too, in examples in the Middle East. Perhaps it is reassuring that time goes back and fourth but how do you balance that laudable desire to give the world something for free, in those racing to put up the code of the Human genome before big business, especially in America, could exercise its ‘right’ to make money and patent, or Dr Salk, who gave out the Polio vaccine and said you had no more right to patent it than patent sunlight, with a writer’s desire both to find readers and to make a living too? Or indeed a painter’s, an actor’s or a singer’s? Just to note that my novel Firebringer, that has reviews that might make it one of those ‘Penguin classics’ is now out of hard copy print in the UK. I think partly because I refused to play the game, took back my e-book rights for all my novels, but partly because in the shifting sands of editors seeking promotion, leaving publishing houses, very few seem to stand up for anything nowadays.
So to Kickstarter, which here was partly a positive and partly negative exercise. Negative because it was an exhausting month and failed to hit the target of £6,000 to publish Light of The White Bear properly. It is not a large target, for someone who commented it is so easy to ‘self publish‘ these days or raised an eyebrow that any author should be so arrogant as to actually draw some funds to live on while editing! Perhaps instinct and experience rail against that because art is one removed from business, in the sense of trying to quantify what spirit or vision are actually ‘worth’. As to ‘self publishing’ it was done under the label of Phoenix Ark Press and it is not at all easy to ‘self publish’. The vast majority of ebooks or POD books disappear without a trace, leaving the litter out there on the internet too and if many are satisfied with finding a readership of say a hundred, good for them indeed, but for people used to being well published and having a powerful voice it can be soul destroying. Perhaps that’s something about ambition too, because every book or work of art has to earn its own readers. It is why Phoenix Ark attempted to build a community though, to be an unusual publisher, which is something that actually wrestles with the real work of writing and storytelling.
The positive came most strongly from younger readers, which is perhaps about something else entirely, namely remembering again that the most essential connection is writer to reader. Then the spirit of some people, often complete strangers, that stands in such contrast to those who once called themselves friends, or indeed have a great deal of money. I was simply amazed how people with very little could be so much more generous than those with far more, in fact and in spirit, but perhaps that is a life lesson about the salt of the earth, or how the years shut you off. It is never exactly fun not achieving a thing and yet, to be fair, I asked that question myself, namely if one ‘patron’ had come in to raise the 35% hit to 100% in the 11th hour, was that what I was really looking for? I wouldn’t have looked a gift horse in the mouth, I think, and it would not have let down fans either, but the real answer is no. What I am looking for is both practical backing, money, but real spirit too, energy, communication and essentially achieving something unique by reaching and I hope inspiring many people. Because that will itself ensure some kind of immediate readership again, as well as making one project happen, but perhaps kindling some kind of fire and passion out there too.
That is why when a new project launches next week, Dragon in The Post, on both St George’s Day and Shakespeare’s birthday, April 23rd, a film also appeals once again to the idea of building a grass roots publisher, in one sense ‘your publisher‘, to try and break through those disconnected boxes, that I think the internet has so much created everywhere. We think we are communicating with ‘the world‘, when very often we aren’t at all, we are talking sadly to ourselves. Which is precisely why Platforms are the new battle ground, commanding them, and why I found it so depressing when I first started exploring publishing that an Amazon executive could write to me gloating over the fact that Amazon, where I do publish ebooks, had just pushed the US bookstore chain Borders into Chapter 11 bankruptcy. Capitalism may or may not be better than many systems, but if it is one that only ‘takes no prisoners‘ in the race for money, we will all end up by being impoverished. Just as one new backer commented yesterday that it is a new kind of fascism if we are controlled by cynical and soulless executives, just interested in their pay cheques and jobs, and artists are not paid. It is about more than being paid though, it is about really being heard!
If it works, both as a project and a wider ‘business’ model, it is about attempting to call to writers, artists and illustrators too and give back to them as well, either supporting their Kickstarting or bringing them in, and I hope I can stay true to the spirit in which it was founded! It has failed so far in any grandiose sense, yet has I think built something of quality and with a voice. Is it possible though, or are the always skeptical voices right to scoff or hide in the wings and say for instance that Kickstarter is ‘yesterday’s news‘. It shows how surface we can be, how fad driven, but if Kickstarter raised a billion in pledges by the start of this year, or even The Globe theatre has now turned to Kickstarter to fund their traveling Hamlet, in every country in the world, it is not yesterday’s news, it is in fact the growing pattern of funding and involvement for the future and certainly not just in the world of artists or writers. The Globe project is unique in that a major institution is turning to Kickstarter, with a rather fine film of traveling players singing ‘a begging we will go‘ but then Phoenix Ark Press has long been begging to be heard over quite unique work on Edmund Shakespeare, Bankside and Southwark and also approached the Globe about it, much to find the usual institutional response. Then the sadness of it is reflected in a friend emailing a link to a new book rising high in the Huffington Post charts on the top ten things you never knew about Shakespeare, starting with the fact that he even had a brother called Edmund. I was never approached about it and you cannot sue for copyright infringement on fact, but I seriously wonder where it came from. We’ll see, because in fact there are several mistakes here which need to be corrected, simply for the purpose of real scholarship. I have always noted that my first knowledge of where Edmund was staying in 1607 actually came from Professor Allan Nelson at Berkeley and a talk about the Token Books at Southwark Cathedral and to his students at The Globe.
Kickstarter though, beyond the gloss of success stories like Neil Young hitting his target and far more in a day, and good for him, is just a well designed and supported website. Just as a Kindle or Nook are really nothing more remarkable than screens, as we start to see the content again, beyond the snazzy, over important technology. A very good model too, because it does not allow you to draw any funds unless the whole target is reached and so energy and quality to leach away. But nor does it block the idea of trying again and so potentially growing and growing that fan and backer base. Which is why it was so positive to get such useful feed back and the spirit that said ‘try again‘, to create I hope a kind of fellowship, that could make many journeys either on Kickstarter, at Phoenix Ark press or elsewhere. Although having tried for five years alone with Phoenix in a hugely personal and painful publishing battle too and having lost almost everything doing so, except a pen and a piece of paper (well, a keyboard!), there are only so many times you can try the same thing without being labelled sad or nuts.
Kickstarter is different though, because it gives specific project targets, that you should have in any business anyway, but allowing a medium to try and kickstart something much bigger and more visionary. Although what that is really about is the people involved, both me and you, and the integrity of the work we can or can’t produce together. I hope you will see that, when you see the new project up on line, which has also been designed specifically drawing on the talent and creations of fans. There are over 130 dedicated followers at Phoenix, who see articles published instantly, but many, many more visitors, so do come and visit. But consider doing more than ‘Liking‘, nice as that is. I have over 400 followers at Goodreads too and now over 500 friends on Facebook, though I must go through that and define what I actually mean by friendship. I will never pay, for instance, like David Cameron or cynical business, for ‘likes‘, as I keep getting emails encouraging me to, with the temptation of somehow suddenly going ‘viral’. Just as I resisted allowing WordPress to jump my site with their own advertising.
This project I hope shares a fire about one book, but many possibilities and ideas, about the chance of a future, and also returns to that idea of people who back it becoming Friends of Phoenix Ark press, with rewards, news and discounts too here. But I hope it’s a journey, an adventure, that can bring many real things, not just digitalised words, made out of HTML number coding, crackling pointlessly through the electric ether.
David Clement-Davies April 2014
The picture is a public domain Wikepedia image of the original Globe by Hollar, although the whole map of Bankside needs to reassessed and can be with work about Edmund Shakespeare, The Vine tavern and it’s links to St Margaret’s Church and The Brotherhood of Our Lady of Assumption. That work Phoenix Ark certainly retains moral copyright in.