Part of the Indie Authors Series
A couple of months ago I received an email from an indie author asking if I’d help sponsor him and his writing career. I was taken aback: I barely know this fellow, and though his writing is good it’s not my cup of tea; nor has he produced a great deal of it. On the other hand, his life circumstances—through no fault of his own—are so difficult that it’s impossible not to feel for him.
This writer, like many other artists and creators, had signed up with a new service called Patreon. A crowdfunding site using the same basic model as Kickstarter and Indiegogo, Patreon’s mission is to facilitate ongoing support rather than one-time startup funding for creative individuals.
The way it works is that you commit to a monthly sum—as little as a dollar or as much as you like—to help fund and support the artist of your choice: you become a patron. Patreon takes a small cut (5% plus any credit card fees), and the artist gets the rest. In return the patron typically gets rewards in the form of freebies, access to unreleased work, invitations to events, etc., as well as the satisfaction of knowing they’re supporting the arts.
Back in the USSR
Patronage of the arts is anything but new. It started in classical antiquity and reached its height in the Renaissance. It’s existed in Europe, Japan, Southeast Asia, and North America, and only began to decline in the nineteenth century when the rise of capitalism brought with it a shift to public funding of the arts.
It’s also worth mentioning that patronage has been used—by kings, popes, and nobles—to further political goals and ambitions. In the Soviet Union and elsewhere, the realist art movement known as Socialist Realism blossomed as a state-sponsored style, giving rise to painting and sculpture directly intended as a propaganda tool to influence the masses and underscore the message of the state.
Today, the growth of the internet and decline in public funding for the arts has provided the perfect environment for services aimed at crowdfunding creative individuals. This is arguably a good and necessary thing.
So why am I—a struggling writer myself who’d like nothing more than some good patrons—a little troubled by this?
For several years now, I’ve been seeing authors fund books through Kickstarter and Indiegogo. Fair enough: a book is a huge investment of time and effort—but J.K. Rowling managed to make it happen despite some quite difficult life circumstances, didn’t she?
More recently, I’ve see a number of well-known SFF editors crowdfunding anthologies, to the point where it’s become a bandwagon. I’ve published three anthologies myself, and had intended a fourth. Would I crowdfund one of my own? I’ve considered it, and confess to very mixed feelings.
What bothers me about all this is the very same thing that bothers me about many other good causes and ideas: I think it’s a slippery slope.
Take education. With each cut in school funding, others have to take up the slack. What began with parents holding bake sales and auctions has now come to the point where teachers—who are hardly overpaid to begin with—often buy supplies and materials out of their own thin pockets so that the students have pencils and art supplies. This is all laudable, right, and generous…but we should ask ourselves if it isn’t also a form of enabling—in this case letting school boards and local government off the hook for not meeting their responsibilities, and, ultimately, letting ourselves as voters and taxpayers off the hook for not demanding better.
One could argue that the arts are different. Although the readers of this post will, like me, see the arts as essential to the health of any civilization, there are those who argue that they’re luxuries, and therefore should be privately rather than publicly funded. In hard economic times, this argument becomes especially attractive to even the most civilized society.
Call me a pessimist, but I think the indie writer today faces a peculiar and unusual set of challenges with regard to the way they support themselves and to the perceived value of their work. There’s a tremendous dichotomy here, a schizophrenic split in values, a pull of polar opposites.
On the one hand, we have the idea of patronage, founded on the solid notion that art is valuable, necessary, and very worth supporting. As public funding for the arts shrinks, those who can afford—anything—should step up to the plate.
On the other hand, we have a book retailing environment—led by Amazon, though others are complicit—which has relentlessly driven down book prices and led a sizable majority of readers to look askance at any cover price of more than $3 or $4, especially for indie books, and which, at its worst, essentially treats books as bulk goods, barely distinguishable from one another. (Note that this is not the case with other arts and craft products, where all kinds of factors beyond price come into play. Look around Etsy if you don’t believe me.)
So are writers producing valuable assets or mere yard goods? Should we just give up trying to make a living and accept that others will fund us through patronage? Because it seems to me that’s the logical end point of all this. With solid enough patronage, we can just give books away.
Except that people don’t value things that are free. Worse, where’s the motivation to strive, to improve, to produce exceptional work, to be the best, if you’re supported by patronage?
Let me be clear that I’m not a fan of capitalism and the red-in-tooth-and-claw Darwinian struggle, not at all. And I’m aware that I’m taking this discussion to extremes, and that it needn’t be either-or: I get that. But I do believe we have to question whether we really want to roll over and buy into the notion that we can’t make it on the worth of our writing alone, that we’ll accept whatever value giant retailers place on our work, and that it’s up to others to support us. This is tricky territory.
In the end, I chose not to support the author who’d approached me, but not because he didn’t deserve it: no, my decision was based purely on the fact that I hardly knew him and that his work wasn’t for me.
Perhaps, like charity, patronage begins at home.
What do you think? Is crowdfunding an unalloyed good or can it lead to dependence and enabling? Have you had any experience with crowdfunding?
Dario Ciriello is a professional author and freelance editor, and the founder of Panverse Publishing. His nonfiction book, Aegean Dream, the bittersweet memoir of a year spent on the small Greek island of Skópelos (the real "Mamma Mia!" island), was a UK travel bestseller in 2012 and has recently been published in Poland. His first novel, Sutherland's Rules, a crime caper/thriller, was published in 2013. Free Verse and Other Stories, a collection of Dario's short Science Fiction work, was released in June 2014. He is currently working on his second novel, another thriller. Dario has also edited and copyedited over a dozen novels, as well as three critically-acclaimed novella anthologies. He lives with his wife in the Los Angeles Area.