Crowd funding

The 18th century author Alexander Pope was a poet and critic, highly rated in his day and significant for the history of English literature. Nowadays though he’s read almost exclusively by students who have him prescribed on a course. To modern taste most of his writing is verbose, turgid and reactionary (three words he would have delighted in – though probably not as applied to his work). Occasionally, though, an aphorism breaks through and you get a glimpse of why he was once thought the most brilliant of writers.

Blessed is he who expects nothing, for he shall never be disappointed.
– Pope in a letter to John Gay, October 6, 1727

One of Pope’s achievements was a verse translation from the Ancient Greek of The Iliad by Homer. What is remarkable about this effort is not that it was great literature or a particularly faithful translation. (One critic wrote: “It’s a pretty poem Mr Pope, but you must not call it Homer.”) No, what is remarkable is that Pope wrote and published the translation in six volumes over six years as a crowd funded project.

The conventional route to publishing nowadays – as it was in Pope’s time – is to convince a publishing house of the commercial value of your work, then sign a contract with them whereby they finance the publication and marketing and split the income from sales (royalties) with you. An alternative – as it’s always been – is self-publishing, whereby you fund the publication and marketing all yourself and keep all the royalties. If there are any.

Crowd funded publications are an alternative to both the above. In crowd funding, a group of sponsors chip in with money to help an author get published. (The word “crowd” suggests a larger group of people, but I’ve seen numbers as low as two sponsors mentioned.)

In Pope’s day, crowd funding meant the poet spent at least a year (between 1713 and 1715) canvassing friends and acquaintances to drum up sponsors – individuals who promised to buy volumes of the epic translation as they became available. The names of the sponsors would be listed in the book, so they would get credit for their faith in the author. Pope already had a good reputation as a writer, and no doubt the sponsors wanted to read his translation and wanted their names associated with a work he had published. They weren’t just agreeing to become sponsors out of pity for the poor man. This gave them an incentive to join in Pope’s advertising campaign and try to round up further sponsors beyond his own social circle.

What happened eventually was that Pope took his list of sponsors to a publisher and used it to negotiate a contract that gave him a guaranteed income over the six years it took to translate and publish each volume.

Be thou the first true merit to befriend,
his praise is lost who stays till all commend.
– Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Nowadays the Internet has made crowd funding much easier and a real option in many different fields. Creative work has been crowd funded, but so too business start-ups, prototype development, concert tours, open-ended research, charities and political movements. There are even – currently – four principle forms crowd funding can take: donation based funding, credit based funding, equity based funding and reward based funding. (Thanks to Wikipedia, for this breakdown.)

Thinking in terms of publishing, an author with donation based crowd funding would need to do nothing in return for the crowd’s support; with credit based funding the author would undertake to repay the crowd from royalties; with equity based funding, the members of the crowd would each expect to receive a share of the royalties for as long as royalties came in.

Pope’s scheme would be categorised as reward based funding because his crowd of sponsors received not only a printed acknowledgement in the final publication, but also a copy of the book or books they had sponsored.

Crowd funding by way of the Internet has taken off in the last few years. There are now dozens of websites – Kickstarter is probably the most well-known – that offer to help you put together a crowd funded project. Some of these sites are more serious than others and most are not specifically focused on publishing.

A British site that is focused on publishing is Unbound, which I recently came across.

In a fit of generosity (I’d just got a pay check) I decided to investigate the site from the point of view of a sponsor. I signed up, searched through the projects that were on offer, viewed some of the author videos and eventually chose three to support. I pledged money: £30 for a signed copy of a hardback work by one author (Michelle Thomas), £20 for an unsigned first edition by another (Alan Ereira) and £10 for an electronic version of a third book (by Salena Godden) “already funded”. I’m going to write more about these as I get to see them and especially the first, which seems an unusually interesting project.

But I have to sound a note of caution about this website. Perhaps because Unbound is British-based and expects most of its crowd funders to come from Britain, the mark-up on postage for the books abroad is exorbitant. I don’t understand how a fifty percent mark-up is justified, and there is no warning of this before one pledges. So though I thought I was being generous, pledging £60, I found I was actually pledging over £100.

Furthermore, I thought I was pledging – promising – to pay this money when the books were ready, but my bank account tells a different story. Unbound has taken over SEK 1100 from my account. And there’s nowhere I can see for me to ‘unpledge’. Good thing I’d just been paid.

To err is human, to forgive divine.
– Pope, An Essay on Criticism

Just at the moment I feel stung and I will be cautious about trying out other crowd funding websites – though I expect I shall continue to try them as I think crowd funding is an attractive option for the independent author.

This afternoon – the day this blog entry is published – the Gothenburg circle of Egenutgivarna will be meeting and crowd funding is our topic of conversation, so I’m hoping to have more information and websites to explore. I anticipate returning to this subject in future blog posts.

This article was written for the #Blogg52 challenge.

7 thoughts on “Crowd funding”

  1. Hm, would that be only Unbound or maybe more crowd funding pages? Sounds like an effective way to kill the good idea, Interesting to hear about both the history and how it works!

    1. I don’t know if the two problems I found are unique to Unbound, but they mean I’ll be looking much more carefully at other crowd funding sites in future. I’m now in touch with the people behind Unbound and they have thanked me for my comments – whatever that may mean! 🙂

  2. Mycket intressant blogginlägg John! Eva, det finns ett rätt stort antal mer eller mindre väletablerade webbplatser för crowdfunding nu – kickstarer och fundedbyme för att nämna några. Har bara hittat en svensk en så länge –

    Bästa hälsningar,

    1. Så bra att det kommer fler, det är en kul idé som förhoppningsvis kan bli språngbräda för många.

    2. Tack för dina länkar, Lars. Igår vid Egenutgivarnas mötet, en av medlemmarna rekommenderade Founded By Me, och jag har tagit en snabb titt. Det kanske inte är svenska, men det verkar vara populärt bland svenskar. Dock ger Kickstarta webbplatsen mig en mycket dålig känsla – det ser väldigt amatörmässigt ut.

  3. Trist att de inte gjorde det tydligt att det skulle betalas i förväg. Din historiska återblick på att jaga sponsorer var intressant. Jag måste säga att jag känner till ett av citaten från författaren. Fast jag hade ingen uppfattning alls om vem som skrivit det eller hur gammalt det var. Det är hur som ett av mina favoriter.
    Att fela är mänskligt
    Att förlåta är gudomligt
    Ha en skön midsommar

    1. Jag hade läst lite om litterära sponsorer under 1700-talet för länge sen, men visste inte om några specifika författare, så jag var glad över att hitta historien om Alexander Pope.

      Har en skön midsommar du också Pernila!

I welcome comments!