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Russell Smith: On Culture

Who needs publishers when you can pitch a book on social media? Add to ...

Writers are turning to be-your-own-business models when setting out to produce a book. Some of them are avoiding publishers by raising their own money on websites such as Kickstarter. You ask people to make pledges of their choosing; in return they get a copy of the book, and other gifts if they pledge a high amount.

The key to raising money in this way is social media: You advertise your Kickstarter page by developing extensive social networks online. Authors who are used to conventional arrangements – a publisher who does all this work for you – have been worried that the trend will pressure them all into being fundraisers and advertisers rather than luxuriously isolated thinkers.

But recently a writer/illustrator broke $1-million in pledges on Kickstarter – probably more than a publisher would have given him as an advance. (This was for Rich Burlew’s comic The Order of the Stick Reprint Drive.) Burlew was already a popular artist with a large online social network, and it’s a comic book, not a collection of Canadian short stories, but still this has got us all thinking.

Closer to home, a Kickstarter success story has also shown how a concerted use of social media can harness political opinion to create a modestly expensive hardcover art book. It’s a children’s book, called What Makes a Baby, the project of a Toronto-based sex educator and writer called Cory Silverberg.

The drawings will be by renowned Canadian illustrator Fiona Smyth. It sounds like another helpful guide for parents who want to explain to four- to eight-year-olds where babies come from, but this one has a twist. It explains baby-making in an open and neutral way that allows parents to include, in their reading of the book to their children, all the modern options: adoption, surrogates, in vitro fertilization and so on.

Silverberg writes on his Kickstarter page: “… the truth is that more and more of us are acknowledging the help we get to bring children into our lives.” The goal is to help parents describe a widely inclusive world of reproduction and a variety of family types.

This is such a good idea one wonders why there aren’t a shelf full of kids’ books on this subject already and why Silverberg didn’t just go to a big publisher and ask for a large advance. He told me in an interview that he thought major publishers would think it a fringe project and not worth their while. Also he wanted total control of the content.

Silverberg initially set a goal of $9,500. He was thinking of an initial print-run of 1,000 copies. He worked hard on the Kickstarter pitch: There is a professional video about the content and the illustrator, information about the physical specifications of the book, the name of the designer, even of the printer. He prepared this for four months before he launched it, and then went about getting people to look at it.

The results were quick and astounding: In the first week he raised more than $35,000 – more than three times his goal. So, how did he do it? One word: Facebook. Last week I saw about four links to the site posted by friends. Facebook, says Silverberg, made more sense as a publicity device than Twitter: “Facebook is for parents – it’s where we post pictures of our kids.”

There is something else at work here too, and that’s the chance for people to make an ideological statement. This book is going to be controversial, particularly in the religious parts of the United States, where it is going to be seen as dangerously permissive. By pledging money to making it, people are making a stand not just for one particular book but for the ideas in it. It’s almost like joining a political party.

Now Silverberg has more money than he asked for, he can increase the print run and drive down the cost per book – and, he says, donate more books to libraries and community groups. He is going to have to do lots of grunt work to warehouse and ship this book – something most writers don’t have time for. So it’s not a model for all of us. But it does show that a diffuse crowd usually preoccupied with jokes and food can be yoked together and directed to actually create something artistic. And that people will vote, in a way, on a new book’s content before it is finished.

 
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