Should we consider crowdfunding or the “subscription model” for our books?

A couple of years ago, in a lengthy essay titled ‘From Papyrus to Pixels‘ that examined the past, present and future of the book, the Economist noted:

Publishers in the 17th and 18th centuries often sold books by “subscription”, which meant that consumers would agree in advance to buy a book after seeing a prospectus. It acted as a market test. If not enough people were interested, the project could be dropped.

In the 18th century another new model arose in Britain, tailored to the needs of a literate class that wanted to read more than it wanted to buy: “circulating libraries” sold annual memberships that allowed readers to always have a book on the go. The most powerful of them, Mudie’s, was the Amazon of its day in terms of market power, says Leah Price, a professor of English at Harvard University. It would often buy up as much as half of a book’s print run for its network of borrowers; if Mr Mudie chose not to stock an author’s book, it could become an immediate dud. The circulating libraries’ business model encouraged publishers to put out books in three volumes, so three people could be reading one book at once; novelists would write to the form, fleshing out their prose to fill the “triple-decker” format.

. . .

People with an idea for a book they cannot afford to take the time to write no longer have to go to a publisher. They can offer something like old-fashioned subscriptions to prospective readers, either on generalist crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo, or through specialist firms such as … Unbound. Many will not get funded; some will succeed beyond their dreams. In February a young woman raised $380,000 through Kickstarter for “Hello Ruby”, a children’s book that teaches programming skills.

Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) and other subscription lending libraries for e-books are, obviously, directly comparable to earlier subscription lending libraries such as Mudie’s.  I was amused to compare KU’s terms of payment to Mudie’s popularization of the ‘three-decker’ novel.  In opting to pay authors for the number of pages read, rather than the number of individual titles borrowed, KU is clearly taking a leaf out of Mudie’s book (you should pardon the expression) and encouraging authors financially to write books that meet the needs of both its business model and its readers.

I was intrigued by the concept of ‘crowdfunding’ a book, and by the existence of specialist book crowdfunding services.  As an example, I looked at Unbound.  Here’s how the Web site describes the process.

First, the author pitches an idea. Unbound allows you to listen to authors’ ideas for what they’d like to write before they even start. If you like their idea, you can pledge to support it. If we hit the target number of supporters, the author can go ahead and start writing.

If you like it you can make a pledge. There are several levels of support, each with different rewards. The higher your pledge, the greater the rewards you’ll receive, from your name in the back of the book to lunch with the author.

From there, you stay up to date. As soon as you make a pledge to support an Unbound project you gain access to the author’s private area, or ‘shed’. Here you can get updates on the book’s progress.

And then you get the book. After the book is written, designed, edited and printed, we send it to you, either as an ebook or a limited edition hardback or paperback.

For the first time, you will be able to hold in your hands a book that wouldn’t have existed without you.

I noted that Unbound doesn’t tell you how much each project is trying to raise, and offers levels of pledging that seem completely unrealistic compared to the value of the book in question.  Nevertheless, it’s obviously working for some authors.  I’ve sent them a few questions, and I’ll report back if they answer them.

The question is, how viable is the ‘crowdfunding’ or ‘subscription’ model for individual authors like ourselves?  Could an indie author set up his or her own subscription model, or opt for a crowdfunding solution in order to free up the time necessary to write a high-quality book?  I suspect that for new entrants in the field, the answer is probably ‘No’.  However, once one has established a reputation and a readership, could such an option become viable?  I confess I can’t answer that question on the basis of personal experience, but I’d like to throw it open to the other Mad Genius Club authors and our visitors.  What do you think?

There’s another possible ‘subscription model’ that might work if we’ve built up a steady audience for our e-books.  Let me use my own as an example.  I charge $3.99 per e-book on Amazon.com.  If I published (say) 3 books per year, and a regular reader bought them all, he’d pay $11.97 for them.  I could offer an annual subscription (perhaps through my blog) for, say, $8 per year, payable in advance but guaranteeing a copy of every e-book I published that year to subscribers.  I’d lose money compared to selling one book at a time, but have an ‘income in advance’ that might help me through lean times ‘in between’ books.  In turn, the subscriber would get a 33% discount on those three e-books.

I have no idea whether or not such an approach would work, but it’s an interesting thought.  How much of a regular readership (of one’s blog or Web site) would one need in order to make it work?  How great a discount would have to be offered to make the subscription attractive?  Would such a subscription contravene the ‘exclusivity’ terms of service of Amazon.com or other e-book publishing services?  (Prima facie it doesn’t appear to – one’s selling a subscription, not a book – but I’m not a lawyer.)  Your thoughts, readers?

 

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37 responses to “Should we consider crowdfunding or the “subscription model” for our books?

  1. Draven

    what if you fail to deliver on the subscription terms?

    • You’d have to make sure that the subscription terms were very clear, and then honor them. For example, if the subscription is for three e-books, that has to be spelt out. However, if it’s for “all e-books published by the author in a given calendar year”, that might be one, or two, or three, or even four e-books. The reader might want more certainty about the number, of course; and if he/she wasn’t given some assurance, they might decide not to buy a subscription.

      • For that matter, what if “all e-books published by the author in a given calendar year” turns out to be zero? There may be totally legitimate and understandable health or family reasons for no production, but the subscriber is sure to feel cheated — even if the author could refund the money, which may be impossible for those very same reasons.

  2. TRX

    Then there’s David Bowie’s “Bowie Bonds” idea. Exactly how that worked still confuses me, though.

  3. Peter,
    I am someone that has purchased a few of your e-books (6) and to me there isn’t any difference between you charging 3.99 and 4.99 (or even 5.99). Once I decide I like an author I am happy to pay a little more for their books.
    I do get annoyed at some of the Traditional Publishers that are still charging 8.99 for an ebook.

  4. I subscribed to a Kickstarter for a book by an author who I very much enjoy. The book was to be exclusive for her KS subscribers. It’s been a year and a half… no book.

    I’ll buy her further works if they are published… but I won’t prefund a book again. I’m very skeptical of a lot of the other crowdfunding proposals as well. I have a problem with the accountability.

    • B. Durbin

      I think it’s really hard to use Kickstarter for intangible things. I have a friend who does photography (and has been doing shoots for quite some time) and when she does a crowdfunding drive, it’s for equipment, specified, or for hard copies of a project that’s already been photographed and shared in part.

      I’m not sure that I, as a creator, would be comfortable doing crowdfunding for intangibles. The only counter to that is that I do work well to deadlines.

    • I had a similar experience. A new author, but someone I knew from other work, pitched a pretty good premise for a book. He did a crowdsource to raise the money to support him and get the book edited and published. Contributors were to get an autographed hardcopy and a couple extra goodies. It’s been three years, and nothing. I’d have a hard time doing that kind of model with someone I either didn’t know or didn’t have a proven track record of producing.

  5. I think Patreon is an interesting concept for creators now, just as it was back in the days of patronage which allowed artists, musicians, and even writers to work and eat at the same time. I’m really dubious about Kickstarter because I’ve had a couple of sour experiences with it – I won’t prefund another thing that way, although I’ll happily buy the book once it’s actually done and for sale. But I’m happy to support a handful of folks through Patreon, although I did cancel one of my pledges today – When a big-name artist decides they are too big and too busy to bother with the community that grew up around their work, so they shut that community down, I think that’s a sign they no longer want nor need the support of that community.

    • And patereon lets you set things up in a ‘X per month’ OR ‘X per thing’. In some cases one is a better deal (someone who consistently delivers as much or more during a time period as promised for the former, or for the latter, if they never deliver you never pay.) I think I’d prefer that method to a ‘pay me now for something you get in the future’. Deadlines are not yet my friend, though I am improving.

  6. TWO-STAGE POST:
    STAGE ONE: THE UNBOUND PROGRAM.
    I checked out the UNBOUND link, and discovered things.
    Thing One: A print run = 500 hardbound copies, in general, YMMV.
    Thing Two: ALL of the money raised when the project is funded goes to producing (editing services, design, cover art, printing costs, etc) the 500 books; raising the money is the author’s job, NOT Unbound’s.
    Thing Three: Any profit generated is split 50/50 between the author and Unbound. If a foreign language edition is brought out, Unbound handles the transaction (and presumably translation) and foreign language profits are also split 50/50.
    Thing Four: Unbound is associated with Random Penguins, and that’s who does whatever distribution and marketing that gets done.
    Sounds to me as if it’s more legit than a vanity press, but hardly a way to ticket to big bucks. They DO have some essential services built-in to the model. The distribution and marketing seems constricted.
    And that’s the end of stage One.

  7. I’d love a subscription to my favorite authors. In fact I’ve asked Baen if I cna just make an annual subscription and get every month of books automatically, though apparently they have a problem doing that.

    The only issue I can see for you is whether this would violate an amazon ToS. But yeah you offer, I’ll buy it.

    • I’d asked for that years ago, too. I was told there was a problem with keeping a credit card number and running it every month, so they didn’t want to do it for security reasons.

      • My idea was pay once every N months (6, 12) and then get everything, as opposed to running the card every month. But there was, I believe, some legal issue preventing them doing that

        • I would have been happy to do that, too, but it wasn’t an option. Ah, well. I buy the bundle on months there are authors I really want, now.

        • Their problem would almost certainly be Amazon’s requirement that the price Baen sets for Amazon be equal to the lowest price that they offer anyone else. It rather sounds like the deal you-all are talking about might violate that because “get everything” would lead to a variable price-per-work, so possibly a lower price than Amazon offered.

          • Uncle Lar

            It’s my understanding that Baen cut a special deal with Amazon to allow them to sell their monthly Webscription bundles at a significant discount to the pricing of individual books. Part of that deal was that the bundle price was only good until the actual release date of the published works. After that you buy individual books at the same price they are sold on Amazon.

          • This was pre-Amazon that I asked.

            • As I remember, it was the credit card companies that limited how much ahead of the service could be charged? I think that’s what Arnold said, at least. Seems to me he was perfectly willing to give us a year at a shot, but apparently the credit card companies disagreed with that notion. Might be time to bring it up again?

  8. There would probably be an awesome market potential for a site that operated like one of those Time Life deals. People have their payment information entered, and it automatically charges when content is delivered.

    “Just send those books you don’t want back. Cancel any time.”

    Huge scam potential, but an interesting prospect if they could work the kinks out of it.

    Oh, wait… Isn’t that just Patreon? 😦

  9. I crowfunded my first novel via Kickstarter (raised about $5,000 from a hundred backers). I was lucky in that my previous work with tabletop RPGs had earned me a small following; I seriously doubt I would have been anywhere near as successful otherwise. Afterwards, I figured I was better off writing and promoting my books than spending time and energy crowdfunding.

    IMHO, the main obstacle with subscription/crowdfunding is the same as with “plain” publishing: finding an audience. If you have enough fans/followers to make those models work, you probably don’t need to do them, and would be better served concentrating on the important part – writing more books.

    With regards to Kindle Unlimited, Amazon’s subscription model has the advantage of size and accessibility going for it. A million+ subscribers, most of whom are avid readers and far more willing to give unknown writers a try, provides a great sub-market for indies. Doing it on one’s own is going to be tough. A co-op effort of writers/small publishers, on the other hand, would be interesting, but the main problem is how much to charge to ensure some minimum levels of profitability. If subscribers are getting $30-50 worth of books a month for a $10 subscription, participants are going to lose money.

  10. Uncle Lar

    Reading about this crowd sourcing thing I could not help recalling an old American folk saying about “buying a pig in a poke” which refers to the questionable wisdom of buying an item sight unseen.
    I also recall stories of some of the more famous authors of the past working long hours at regular jobs, seeing to their families’ needs, then writing by candle light late in the evening. Real writers write because they’re writers. That they can actually make a living out of it is certainly a good thing, but crowd sourcing strikes me as more of a scam promoted by a huckster than a serious way to get a book out to the public.
    Back when trad pub had a lock on things maybe I could see some value here, but now all you have to do is write the damn book and slap it up on Amazon for all the world to vote on.

    • B. Durbin

      “Real writers write because they’re writers.”

      I have written. I will write in the future. I confuse the heck out of people who know this when I tell them that I am not a writer. And I’m not, because if I had to stop writing, I’d shrug and do all the other creative endeavors that are more central to my self-identification. I’m an artist. Note that I don’t specify as to quality; I may be a better musician than artist in some areas, and I may even be a better writer than I am at art. BUT art is the thing that keeps sneaking into all corners of my life, and the thing I can’t. stop. doing.

      So yeah. Not a writer. I’ll let you know when my book comes out.

  11. It probably would not work at all for me — by the time I have enough of the book idea solid in my head, to the point I could sell it to people, it would be quicker and easier to write the damn thing than wait for the funds to roll in. For others…it seems like a solution in search of a problem. New writers need funds, but are the least likely to get it this way when nobody knows if they can deliver the goods. Established writers can do the work, but are less likely to need funds like that.

    It might be fun to not fund the whole book, but use it to let fans decide which of multiple projects get written first–sequel to Beloved Series #1, brand new series, side quest novella in Beloved Series #2, or turning Standalone Book into a series (hopefully to become Beloved). One dollar, one vote, $3 gets you a copy of whatever and some unique supporter swag. That might work.

    • mrsizer

      I love this idea. Use it as a prioritizer. However, based on my own very limited experience, sometimes projects get “stuck” and I have to task-switch for a while. It would be a bit weird to have book X lined up as the next-to-publish, but finish book Y and let it sit until book X is finally done.

  12. Right now, for me, KDP works well. If that ceases, well, time to consider other ways to sell my stuff. And hope I never need to. I’m a horrible marketer.

  13. TWO STAGE POST
    STAGE TWO: CROWD FUNDING

    Nope, not gonna do it. Stage Two wasn’t a comment, it was a blog post. So I posted it on my blog.
    http://habakkuk21.blogspot.com/2016/03/over-at-mad-genius-club-today-boyishly.html

  14. In regards to crowdfunding.

    One of the genres I like to write in is HEAVILY pirated by many of the fans in that genre, so most of the authors and the comic artists in that genre now crowdsource or use Patreon. Basically, they get their money up front, so when they get ripped off after publishing, it doesn’t hurt them financially.

    I always used to wonder why so many people in that genre were refusing to do work unless paid up front, I thought it was weird until I experienced what they experienced. And the best part about crowdfunding is that if the book isn’t going to sell, you find out before you invest all that work in producing it.

    • May one ask, what genre? Or, more or less equally, where your page of links to your product is? (Cedar/Amanda/Dave: I’m going to leave John my email addy so that this doesn’t become a case of him pimping his product on your page.)

  15. Personally, i would be leery of trying. There’s just too much that can go wrong.

    Chris

  16. scott2harrison

    Lee & Miller did something similar for a couple of books. They would put up a chapter on their website as they wrote it each week that they got a certain amount donated (I think $200). After a few weeks, they said that they had so much donated that it paid for the entire book. After finishing they did the editing and published it. ( I think that large donors got a copy of the final book).

    • Storyteller’s bowl, I think was the catchphrase being tossed around then. Fladgling and Saltation both were written using this approach (along with a strong community of fans — we set up a separate discussion group that had fun every time a new installment came out). Might ask Sharon or Steve to do a guest post over here about their experience? Let me be clear — I was one of the moderators on the discussion group, so I have fond memories of this.

  17. I’d be too worried about Life happening and throwing me off schedule, resulting in very unhappy readers/donors. I could see a tip jar button/ Patreon thing if people really wanted to toss their spare change at me (metaphorically), but not trying to crowd source things.

    I contributed to two kick-starters. One worked because it included several well-known people and the project was limited (The book Raygun Chronicles). The other failed to reach goal and they refunded everyone’s money with polite thanks for our support.

  18. My problem with crowd funding books is simple. If Jerry Pournelle crowdsourced his next book I wouldn’t join in because at his age and health it’s questionable if that book would be finished. It’s really hard to know what the physical status of the author is. I will always be happy to buy my favorite authors next novel but it’s not like crowdsourcing a game were it’s not all on one person like a book is.

  19. Alan S.

    My understanding of Baen’s deal (which someone covered above) is that they still can’t off it for discount -while- it is available from Amazon. Nor for “The same edition”.

    The two apparent loopholes are:
    -Different edition
    -Omnibus edition

    I have no idea how different it needs to be to -qualify- as a different edition. But an Omnibus should be straightforward. At least, perfectly straightforward -after- the fact. Bundle them together, discount the omnibus, put the -omnibus- on Amazon. I see this at Amazon frequently. See: D W Jackson for one example.

    I -think- it might be possible to use Amazon’s “Book Updating” feature to publish an Omnibus of three books before the second two are written, and then update as you go along. But one would want to be exceedingly clear about things like “This Omnibus is as yet -incomplete- and will only update with the second installment in March”, or whatever.