Readers as patrons in the digital age

San Francisco-based writer turns to the Web to solicit funding for self-published book before it's written.

Robin Sloan gives a video pitch for his book project on Kickstarter. Robin Sloan

A few months ago someone sent me a link to a short story a friend of his had written and posted online. I made the mistake of glancing at it while at work and then got so absorbed I couldn't stop reading until I was done. The story, Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store was so interesting and well written, I just wanted more.

The writer, Robin Sloan, is now working on a book and is appealing to passionate readers like me to help him get it published. He is seeking financial backers via a Web site called Kickstarter, which bills itself as a "funding platform for artists, designers, filmmakers, musicians, journalists, inventors, explorers." (A similar site is called Fundable.)

Sloan's goal is to raise $3,500 before November 1. Less than two days after launching his page on the site he already has more than $2,200 pledged from 73 supporters (including me). The money will be spent on printing. The more money that is contributed, the higher quality the publishing will be.

Since he's planning to write the book anyway, what do you get for your contribution besides a warm-and-fuzzy feeling? Three dollars gets a contributor a PDF copy of the book and the ability to follow along with behind-the-scenes updates. For $11, a physical copy of the book is thrown in. A signed copy comes with a $19 pledge, and for $29 you get your name listed in the acknowledgments. A $39 pledge brings four physical copies of the book.

Sloan's Kickstarter page provides an enticing teaser to his novella, with a written pitch and a slick video (no surprise given that his day job is as vice president of strategy at Current TV, the cable/satellite television network and Web site co-founded by Al Gore.)

The story centers on a digital and occult private investigator--a 21st century Sherlock Holmes. She's a mix of Tilda Swinton and Carmen Sandiego and her Watson is an artificial intelligence-based daemon.

"It's a story set in a spooky, high-tech, mysterious San Francisco," he said in a phone interview on Thursday.

Sloan is no stranger to self publishing. He edited a compilation of essays, New Liberal Arts, earlier this year and sells books on the Kindle. But he is more interested in using the Kickstarter site to cultivate and communicate with supporters than just get funding.

"More than the money it's that early validation that's so valuable," he said. "For any creative project, not just writing, when you are embarking on it one of the fears is 'does anybody other than me care about this?'"

"The idea is that people are casting a vote to say 'I'm interested in this. I want to see you finish this story,' but also 'I'm reserving a copy of the book,'" he added.

The interactive and viral nature of the Web enables artists to reach out to the public in a way that no other medium does. It also means that artists formerly at the mercy of record labels and publishing houses can now turn fans into patrons instead.

A prime example of this is Musician Jill Sobule. She raised $75,000 last year to get an album recorded through her site Jill's Next Record, offering compensation ranging from free admission to her shows for a $200 to a house concert for anyone who pays $5,000 and a chance to sing on the CD for $10,000.

"Corporate patronage, particularly because of the Internet and different social forces, has been thrown into disarray," said Ted Weinstein, a literary agent in San Francisco.

Mozart may have had his patron Austrian prince, but he didn't have Twitter followers or MP3s to share.

"This is cultivating your audience at every step of the creative process, which is wonderful," Weinstein said.

 

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