Kickstarter: the Future of Self-Publishing?

We all know where books come from: a human and a muse meet, fall in love, and two months to twen­ty years lat­er, a book is born. Then, as with oth­er vari­eties of babies, the sleep­less nights start as a writer search­es for a home for the book, col­lect­ing rejec­tions like badges of hon­or, tes­ta­ments to deter­mi­na­tion.

Well, that was the old-fash­ioned way. We’ve all heard how the inter­net has lev­eled the play­ing field, allow­ing any­body to pub­lish work and find an audi­ence. How­ev­er, this eas­i­er path to pub­li­ca­tion hasn’t nec­es­sar­i­ly solved an even old­er writer’s conun­drum: How to pay for it.

That is, how to make enough mon­ey to sus­tain your­self as you write (day jobs aside). And so writ­ers must become even wil­i­er. Though you may make mon­ey from the sale of a book, how do you fund your­self before the book?

Seth Har­wood, the author of three books, is at the front of the move­ment to find alter­nate and cre­ative ways of not only reach­ing audi­ences, but pur­su­ing the writ­ing life. Since grad­u­at­ing from the Iowa Writ­ers Work­shop in 2002, Har­wood has built up a loy­al fan base—his “Palms Mamas and Palms Dad­dies” (named for one of his pro­tag­o­nists, Jack Palms)—through social media and free pod­cast­ing. Har­wood is sus­tain­ing a writ­ing life along a path that is like­ly to be more and more com­mon for writ­ers.

After offer­ing his first nov­el, Jack Wakes Up, as a free audio­book, Har­wood pub­lished it in paper­back with Break­neck Books in 2008. The Ama­zon sales, pushed by Palms Mamas and Palms Dad­dies, land­ed the book in #1 in Crime/Mystery and #45 over­all, bring­ing the atten­tion of Ran­dom House, who re-pub­lished the book one year lat­er.

Look­ing out­side main­stream avenues, Har­wood secured fund­ing for pub­li­ca­tion of his next ven­ture, Young Junius, with Tyrus Books by pre­selling signed copies through Paypal—before the books exist­ed in phys­i­cal form. And now he is one of the ear­ly adopters of using Kick­starter to pay for the ges­ta­tion and birth of not one book—but five pre­vi­ous­ly-writ­ten works in the next six months–as he puts it, “rais­ing the fixed costs of bring­ing these books to the mar­ket­place.” His Kick­starter cam­paign based around This Is Life, the sequel to Jack Wakes Up was—impressively—fully fund­ed with­in 25 hours—and with a few days still left to go, it has exceed­ed the orig­i­nal goal by over $2000.

What can a writer offer besides an auto­graphed copy of the to-be-writ­ten book, or a men­tion in the acknowl­edge­ments? For Harwood’s project, the pledges range from a dol­lar to $999, with thank-yous span­ning from the afore­men­tioned to—at the $999 end—an orig­i­nal novel­la writ­ten accord­ing to the donor’s wish­es and pub­lished as a one-off hard­cov­er.

As more and more writ­ers become cyn­i­cal about the main­stream pub­lish­ing indus­try, and the lim­its it places on writ­ers, and as the inter­net breaks down bar­ri­ers between writ­ers and read­ers, alter­nate paths of draw­ing audi­ences to the writing/publishing process may become more and more pop­u­lar. In none oth­er than the New York Times Book Review, Neal Pol­lack recent­ly declared his inten­tion to self-pub­lish his next book using Kick­starter to gen­er­ate his fixed costs and “an advance,” and last week best­seller Paulo Coel­ho dis­cussed his deci­sion to offer his nov­els for free online. (You can find free ebooks by Coel­ho here.)

Indeed, now more than ever, it seems essen­tial for authors to meet read­ers at least half-way. Har­wood con­sid­ers him­self an “author-pre­neur,” devel­op­ing new busi­ness mod­els as he pub­lish­es his books. As he sees it, inno­va­tion comes much more eas­i­ly to an author act­ing alone, than to a large pub­lish­ing com­pa­ny or big cor­po­ra­tion. He aims for the new mod­els as he sees them devel­op­ing, know­ing he’s got to go out and find read­ers him­self. As Coel­ho declares, “The ivory tow­er does not exist any­more.”

This post was con­tributed by Shaw­na Yang Ryan. Her nov­el Water Ghosts was a final­ist for the 2010 Asian Amer­i­can Lit­er­ary Award. In 2012, she will be the Dis­tin­guished Writer in Res­i­dence at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Hawai’i at Manoa.

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Comments (6)
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  • A game­plan is nec­es­sary. Though being an author lies on the cre­ative spec­trum how­ev­er, it is a fact that it is a busi­ness in the writing/publishing indus­try. And the best way to suc­ceed is to devel­op a direc­tion both for your works and career as to ensure suc­cess.

  • Kurt Roithinger says:

    the gen­e­sis of seth har­wood, e‑publishing pio­neer (in this very blog, no less):

    (and yes, i kin­da ripped him a new one in one of the posts he men­tions — glad he’s seen the light. one of us, one of us, etc. :)

  • Kurt Roithinger says:

    on a more seri­ous note (yeah, i for­got to add this to my pre­vi­ous post. sue me…:)

    i think you can kin­da break down book pub­lish­ing into writ­ing, edit­ing and pro­mot­ing. some might say that’s sim­plif­ing things a bit and there are oth­er com­po­nents , etc, etc — but in my mind, those are the the ‘big 3’.

    writ­ing and edit­ing can increas­ing­ly be done in such a faish­ion as to not 100% rely on a pub­lish­ing house. as mr. har­wood proves, there are now ways and means to sup­ple­ment the process of writ­ing and get­ting paid for it.

    edit­ing (the area i’m sor­ta most inter­est­ed in, to be hon­est) can be done by either some free­lance edi­tors who are will­ing to work for a some mon­ey or just because they are friends/relatives. edi­to­r­i­al changes via a dis­trib­uted com­mit­tee is also some­thing i’ve seen (post chap­ters on a closed wiki and get lots of instant feed­back, f.e.) — but be that as it may, a good edi­tor is a trea­sure to behold and if one can get a set­up that works for the author — fan­tas­tic. don’t let it go!

    but what we’re now see­ing are more or and more cre­ative ways to han­dle the pro­mo­tion aspect of the book pub­lish­ing busi­ness, shift­ing even more pow­er into the authors domain — which i think is a won­der­ful devel­op­ment.

    it’s not the end of book pub­lish­ing hous­es as we know them — but it pro­vides aspir­ing authors with a set of tools to address the big 3 com­po­nents and actu­al­ly make a liv­ing at writ­ing. the end result usu­al­ly means more good prod­uct put before the dis­cern­ing con­sumer. can’t com­plain about that!

  • Seth Harwood says:

    Yes! Nice to see your com­ment here! (we meet again!!) and yes, I’m one of us now, even as John Locke says.

    To Jose’s point, yes def­i­nite­ly! A game plan and also a busi­ness plan. After tak­ing some time off from pod­cast­ing last year, I was able to step back and real­ly come up with a plan for this year’s endeav­ors. I can already see these pay­ing off, even as I turn to phase two… eBooks…

    Thanks for read­ing and com­ment­ing!


  • Seth Harwood says:


    You’re dead on with this sec­ond set of com­ments. I’m with you 100%. The fact is, I’ve seen this in pub­lish­ing with my own titles. With a big pub­lish­er, of the best things I saw from them, copy-edit­ing was at the top of the list. They paid up for a good free­lancer and that per­son did a won­der­ful job. Now, on my own, I have a great free­lancer I’m work­ing with, he’s got great expe­ri­ence and works for big hous­es to, and I go to him direct. Yeah, it works out real­ly well.

    The oth­er thing we’re see­ing, of course, is that house edi­tors (pub­lish­ing hous­es, that is) are doing more of the mar­ket­ing and pro­mo­tion leg­work, which leaves the struc­tur­al edit­ing in the hands of the author and the author’s agent. Mine’s been won­der­ful. She’s a great edi­tor and her reads real­ly help me hone the work.

    So you’re right. There are jobs that still need doing, but writ­ers can hire a free­lancer (a good one) just as eas­i­ly as a pub­lish­er. Some­times even more eas­i­ly!

    That’s my 2 cents for now.



  • I talk to dozens of authors with great ideas every week, but in most cas­es the only thing they have is the idea and no mon­ey. I have told about 50 peo­ple about kick­starter in the last month. I sure hope some of the authors take the 8 steps to get their mon­ey!

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