Thursday, April 23, 2015

On Crowdfunding and Patronage

By Dario Ciriello

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.

Bake Sales

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.)

Bottom Line

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.


  1. I go back and forth on this crowdfunding thing myself. Just yesterday I discovered that an author, whose book I had purchased a while back, was crowdfunding her third novel. The book was over-funded with days to go still, but it made me wonder two things: 1) why did she need this – didn't she earn enough from the first two books to cover the cost of the third? 2) wasn't it awkward to ask people you know to help fund the book and then turn around and ask them to buy the book if they didn't fund it?

    Self-publishing does come with its own set of challenges and the rise of crowdfunding definitely complicates things, especially when you see people getting donations to fund their parties, vacations and more. Isn't creating a book a more worthy endeavor? I guess I just feel that by your third book, you should be earning enough to not ask for money. And if you aren't earning enough, then maybe you need to figure out why not before asking people to continue to fund your projects.

    1. Sherrie, thanks for your great comments. The example you give and questions you raise are spot-on. So we have an author who's gone serial with book funding, but who's getting sponsors to the point of overfunding. Presumably she's doing something right--people must like her and her work.

      But it's impossible not to feel there's something wonky here. Ultimately, where does that money go, is the question? Producing a book is a very quantifiable expense, and yes, considerable IF you do it right, hiring professionals for cover, copyediting, etc. But if there's a funding overage...

      Ultimately it's just the author's business. It's a free country. But I'm not convinced patronage is ultimately a good thing for any but a very small minority of cases.

  2. I am so glad you wrote about this. I am in the "mixed feelings" camp, and definitely agree that this is a slippery slope. A big problem in our industry is author value and fair compensation, and while I would like to believe that publishers care, the fact that they have not corrected this (and won't unless forced to) sort of speaks louder than words. The result is more people turning to SP, and making money at it. But as you have also outlined, problems are cropping up there where book prices are being driven down as Trad publishing strives to retain market share and SP try to compete in a snowstorm of books, resulting in people becoming less inclined to pay as much for a book.

    Crowdfunding may be a financial workaround but it doesn't address the bigger problem of authors not being valued by our industry.

    1. Angela, thanks for commenting. Beyond authors not being valued by our industry is authors now not being valued *by the public*, as Amazon et al have trained them to expect books at bargain basement prices. The anthologies I regularly see crowdfunded at $10k, $12k, and more are theoretically so that the editor gets paid and the authors get a good rate...all good...and I guess one upside to crowdfunding a book or antho is that it's a form of marketing, with patrons pre-enthused and talking up the book or author. But at some level it still feels wonky.


      *ps--I own and LOVE The Emotion Thesaurus :)

  3. Dario,

    An interesting post and thought provoking.

    I haven't given much thought to crowdfunding as anything but another marketing tool. Nothing more; nothing less.

    But I've been a professional artist a lot longer than I've been an author and I have seen a similar argument in the art world. It happened several years ago and involved reproduction artwork (commonly known as "prints", which is a misnomer).

    There was a group of artists who thought the ability to produce as many or few reproductions of as many or as few images as they liked wonderful. It was the answer to all art marketing woes. It made artwork available to the masses (no more patrons needed, thank you very much) and made it possible for those artists to make a living (or more of a living) on their art. They dove in with both feet.

    There was another group that saw the skyrocketing popularity of art reproductions as a death nell to original art. Who would buy original art when all those cheap reproductions were available? They resisted the trend. They refused to join it. They talked it down in every way possible.

    In the end, did reproductions hurt the art market or help it?

    I don't know.

    What I did find was that there was a market that craved low-end artwork and would get whatever they could for as little as they could.

    There was also a market that wanted only the finest, the original paintings, drawings, and sculptures. Those people were willing to pay whatever it took to get those original pieces.

    I just had to decide which audience was my target audience.

    No, books and art are not the same. There really isn't anything similar to an original work of art in the world of books.

    But the fuss over crowdfunding does remind me a lot of the fuss over reproduction art.

    The point is that there is no easy, one-size-fits-all answer to the questions you pose. What works for you won't work for everyone. What works for me won't work for everyone. It may, in fact, work for very few others, but that doesn't make it a less than legitimate thing for me to do.

    I'm not sure there's much value in being valued by an "industry". I much prefer being valued by the client (for art) or the reader (for writing). That's a truer scale, so far as I've been able to observe over 40+ years of creating artwork for others. Are books really that much different?

    Again, thanks for the post.

    Best wishes,


    1. Carrie, thanks :) Yup, it's not a one-size-fits-all. I do think though that these questions need to be asked. There's some parallel to the situation with books and value/funding in what happened to the recording artists after the collapse of the record industry following the advent of music and pirating. And I also remember the furore over repro art you mention (it was some decades past, maybe the 70s? Interesting comparison.


  4. A wonderful thoughtful post, as always - thank you.

    I believe that, yes, charity begins at home...with that in mind, I advise the authors I work with to consider crowdfunding as a loan that can only be repaid by producing their very best writing. I have had several authors do one-time funding campaigns to cover their initial self-publishing costs. These were all people who work full time, take care of their families, and write in the corners of their lives.

    At this point, I have difficulty placing the patronage relationships of old alongside crowdfunding, as I always viewed the former as something that was tied to the prestige associated with being wealthy enough to take on an artist. There were usually deep ties to the political or religious powers of the time, which was probably considered a necessary evil. As Carrie mentions, art and books don't fit (to me) in the same basket because art is a visual and the need to display it, the validation inherent in display is more obvious and natural.

    I see crowdfunding more as just another wriggling beastie in the changing landscape of publishing. I don't think it enables anything except the unpleasant perception that money is necessary to pursue literary or artistic aspirations and endeavors.

    For me, I have no choice but to write, whether I have money or not and whether I get paid for it or not and whether anyone else reads it or not.

    Perhaps the unease you felt when approached by that author for funding had to do with the passion to write...and...the need to have one's writing be seen and consumed by others.

    My charity for authors begins at home. I cut rates to conform with thin budgets. I give free consults - forever. I provide dense services when I've only been contracted for basic copy edits. I choose to give more again and again so that the authors I work with can continue to support their passion to write.

    I stop short though when the manuscript is done and ready to publish. That signals the desire to validate the passion through others and I'll support that need like any other reader: by buying the book -- not giving you money to put your book out there.

    Thanks again, Dario for a great post.

    Best to all

    1. Hi Maria! And thanks so much for your kind words :)

      I think the comparison between patronage for books and art is a valid one. Perhaps I'm not understanding properly, but what's the difference between validation of art by displaying it and validation of writing through publication?

      I guess my use of the word "enabling" (as proved by the comment below), hit some buttons...but TBH that was in part my point, to get people thinking. How far do we let this all go? (Not that we could stop these juggernauts anyway. ;-) )

      I'm like you: I have to write and will do it anyway. I also agree on charity beginning at home, 101%. We start with our clients, those we know, those we can help. More to follow in my answer to Shirley below.

      Thanks again!


    2. Hi Dario :)

      You are understanding properly -- and this is a 'debate' one of my oldest friends and I have regularly. He's a sculptor and taught that and painting for ages at university level. Our conflict about writing and artists, and bringing their works to the public, always hinged on the reason for the display. In the end, we would devolve into talking about when money comes into play and the expectations of the creator of the works. I felt that writers who publish might be seen as doing so to gain income. He would counter that artists might only produce work to display in galleries to sell and gain income.

      Ultimately, this all has to do with contemporary times - to me anyway - and the old form of patronage, where an artist petitioned to gain entry to schooling, apprenticeships, and service under master artists before ever being considered as ready for a patron. That process of itself (to me) puts the concept of patronage out of reach for comparison to crowdfunding.

      The same day of your post I had an author approach me about using crowdfunding to help with the cost of editing and graphic artist services. I advised that I thought this might prove to be a good resource - and that they should consider using that resource in their overall marketing approach. I also suggested presenting their need in specific terms, so the contributor would have guided perception of what they were supporting.

      Once the need for money enters the mix, it seems to me that an author needs to shift gears and use whatever resources are available in current times.

      Forgive me, but when I got into your comments on teachers and the evil use of 'enabling', I did a big 'oh no!' and laughed loud and long. :)

      I'm a firm believer in giving everyone opportunities to create, but I'm also a firm believer in the will of creative talent. That will cannot be denied. Whether it takes the form of writing or the performing arts or visual arts or music, it pushes into your world and demands to be heard and seen and felt. The urge and will to communicate and express ourselves cannot be held back.

      Kids find ways to express themselves - and to me, the important thing is to ensure that they know it's okay to experiment, to be different, and to validate their originality and efforts.

      Just my two cents - and don't forget, they're talking about getting rid of pennies.... :D

    3. LOL. The pennies really need to go away. ;-)

  5. First of all, I love this site and generally agree with your treatment of everything. The tips and links are incredibly valuable.

    However, your comment about teachers performing an act of enabling when they fund their own classes seems misguided in today's climate of stripped budgets and high stakes testing. Teachers have always partially funded their classrooms but the current climate is worse than ever. With teacher evaluations dependent on student performance, teachers are in a no-win contest with corporate interests to privatize public schools and the political teacher-bashers who blame America's ills on teachers.

    Please don't blame the victims.

    Teachers, unlike corporate greed mongers and politicians, cannot stand by and watch children fail for lack of supplies and books. The kids will grow old before the funding is adequate.

    Again, however, thank you for your wonderfully informative blog. I read you daily.

    1. Hi Shirley ~

      Thanks so much for taking the time to comment. (Incidentally, I want to underscore, since you use second person throughout, that the the author of this piece--me--is a guest blogger, *not* Janice Hardy, whose blog this is :) )

      I understand very well what is going on in the schools, and how teachers are in a no-win. I think it's clear in my article that I both feel for them, and that (as I stated), I'm taking my argument to an extreme. I used the word enabling not to blame teachers but to illustrate the unintended consequences good intentions may sometimes have. If we ended up with all indie writers funded by patrons and sponsors, where will that get us, both in terms of the perceived quality of the output and the dependence which develops?

      And in the case of teachers--and I believe the comparison is valid--of course they care for children and don't want them to fail. But how much do you give? How far do cuts go until there's no more left to give? It's the same with nurses: keep giving and they'll keep taking.

      My personal wiring demands that I think my positions on these through, and I'm deeply suspicious of where good intentions eventually--and in an increasingly competitive and brutal society--land us if we don't have our eyes wide open.

      As I said, I'm on the fence about the growth of crowdfunding. Sometimes it seems very justifiable and necessary; at others (like teachers having to support kids out of their own pockets because the machine is breaking) I feel something is getting seriously out of whack.

      Good actions don't always lead to good results in the long term.

      Thanks again, and I hope you continue to enjoy Janice's fine blog :)


    2. Thank you, Dario, for your fine and thorough reply and for also pointing out your guest blogger status. I did note that but also note that the site owner has responsibility for content as well as the guest.

      Because of the wording of your comment about enabling, I had assumed that you cared about the subject of children, schools and teachers or you wouldn't have mentioned it. Your questions about just how far do we let teacher funding of classrooms go is both earnest and valid. It also appears to me (as one who spent many thousands of dollars on food and supplies for kids throughout the course of a decades-long career) to be contain an element of blame.

      Perhaps balance is you are advocating? Teachers would certainly agree with that. While we teachers go that extra mile, we also advocate for more equitable funding and vote with our feet. There too, we are blamed for self interest--protecting our jobs, I believe is the current refrain.

      I only seek to point out that it's a complex problem and overly glib answers often cause more problems than they solve. To clarify my own position, I don't think teachers should be forced to fund American education any more than nurses should be coerced into equipping hospitals.

      But while we're being activists and voting and waiting for the funding, what do you suggest we do with the real live humans in front of us?

  6. One thing this post failed to mention about crowdfunding is that the artist (author) generally offers special perks to donors based on funding level.

    In her comment above, Sherrie Petersen mentions an author who is funding her third novel. Since she didn't name the author, I couldn't look at what is being offered, but I suspect that some of the funders will get autographed copies or ARCs or similar "special" content. I can see how getting early access would be very valuable to loyal fans, and would be worth paying extra.

    There isn't a way to offer these extras on Amazon, so it makes sense to use a crowdfunding site--and "patrons" would be more likely to fund subsequent novels than a first, because by definition an author has no fans prior to publication of his/her first novel (outside of friends and family, of course).

    I'm also having trouble with the term "dependency." As an author, does it really matter whether I get all of my sales from Amazon (Kobo, Nook, iBooks, etc.) or from a crowdfunding site? Dependency makes sense in the old model where I had one wealthy patron, and I had to make sure my output was in alignment with his taste and political and religious outlook. If I lost my patron in the old model, I was likely in trouble. But with crowdfunding, the key word is "crowd." The exact makeup of the patrons may change from book to book, but as long as I keep fulfilling my end of the bargain, I will likely be able to fund further projects. And if not, then my fanbase should be good enough that I don't need a funded project to continue self publishing the "normal" way.