The internet book world has been abuzz with discussion about the ethics and logistics of crowd funding books.
Well, not books, really. They’ve been talking about crowd funding an author’s career.
When author Stacey Jay’s publisher declined to contract the next book in her YA series, she took to Kickstarter to fund the project. This isn’t uncommon, on both fronts. Many authors have crowd funded books, and many authors–and readers–have seen a series they loved discontinued by a publisher due to poor sales. It sucks for everyone, and I should know; it happened to one of my books.
Bear with me while I tell this tale.
Back when I was writing as Jennifer Armintrout, the sales of my Lightworld/Darkworld series were definitely not enough to earn out the $50,000 per book advance I’d received for them. When it came time to contract my next book, I had what my agent referred to as a “bridge” contract, a single title contract that offered a lower advance (I believe I got $35,000). The idea was that the sales of my next book would be enough to lead into my next contract.
They were not.
Although American Vampire was critically well received, it sold for absolute shit. In four years, it has not earned out. In fact, I think at last count it was somewhere in the neighborhood of $20,000 short of earning back the advance. Unsurprisingly, Harlequin wasn’t interested in another book in that series. Meanwhile, readers kept asking me if American Vampire was a series, that they wanted another book, and would there be any more books in my Blood Ties series. At this point in my career, I was writing as Abigail Barnette and making about fifty bucks a month. That’s quite the income drop from $50,000 per book, in case you were wondering. Nothing I sent out was selling. I proposed a spin-off novel about a popular character in my Blood Ties series, offering to write it without an advance for Harlequin’s Carina line of e-books, and was turned down.
In short, my career had taken a nosedive.
Things are obviously going better now, but had Kickstarter been a viable option back then, I might have undertaken a campaign on my own to self-publish a novel or two. When the state is paying for your heat, you can’t afford to self-publish. I would have asked for money for editing, for cover art, for professional design, probably even for advertising. I would have done it in a heartbeat.
So, what is it that rankles me about the Stacey Jay controversy? Well, several things, and hardly any of them have to do with Jay herself.
Foremost, I’m really uncomfortable with the stance her defenders have taken. Many have claimed that what Jay did with her Kickstarter was simply obtaining an advance in a non-traditional way. But it just…isn’t. An advance is money a publisher gives you before the title is put on sale. The idea is that the book will “earn out,” and the publisher will make that money back. It’s a risk they take, and as Jane Litte pointed out on twitter:
Unless the author is going to repay those who donate to a kickstarter, then it’s not an advance. The donaters are not business patners.
— DearAuthor (@dearauthor) January 7, 2015
On the other side of the issue, people defended Jay by suggesting that those who questioned her campaign simply didn’t value an artist’s time or money:
Re that Kickstarter Stacey Jay thing… y’know, writing is work, and you should get paid for work. Seems pretty simple. — Adam Christopher (@ghostfinder) January 7, 2015
But it isn’t that simple. Writing isn’t “work.” It’s a business. If I own a ketchup factory, that’s running a business. If I work at a ketchup factory, that’s work. The owner of the ketchup factory assumes a financial risk in putting their product out there. They have to produce the product and pay the workers. The workers get paid for the work they do, the raw ingredients get paid for, and at the end of the day, if the business owner has money left over, that’s profit. This isn’t a business model that should be alien to anyone.
But supporters of Jay don’t see it that way. They see complaints from readers, bloggers, and other authors as an attack on Jay and a denial of the need for compensation:
So, assholes who shouted down Stacey Jay, when you buy a book the traditional way, MANY ppl will be using that money for whatever they want.
— Melanie Clark (@melwriting) January 7, 2015
Did people object to Stacey Jay putting living expenses in her KS? That’s what I hear. Is that because authors…er, shouldn’t have them?
— Mike Jung (@Mike_Jung) January 7, 2015
No one cares what Stacey Jay spends royalties or advances on. No one expects writers to starve. I’ve seen readers called “entitled,” as though they’re demanding free product. No one has, to the best of my knowledge, asked Stacey Jay to write a book without being paid. What people have been objecting to is that a writer is asking readers to provide them with profits before the product has been delivered. That is not the responsibility of the consumer. I cannot ask customers who bought my ketchup in the past to fund my factory so that I can continue making product I can profit from.
As for Stacey Jay, she has posted a public apology and declared that she won’t be writing YA anymore. And again, there are authors, bloggers, and readers who are furious, insinuating that Jay has been forced out of the YA community or that disagreeing with her business model is akin to a personal attack, but that’s disingenuous. Jay decided to take down the Kickstarter and announce her retirement from YA. And you know what? If she feels that’s a sound business decision, I won’t argue with her. I have two series that at the moment I don’t have immediate plans to finish, because I won’t make as large a profit from them as I will working on other projects (don’t worry, they’re not either of my current series). It sucks for readers, in the same way that it sucked to see GCB cancelled, or like how every time I find a moisturizer I like, they fucking discontinue it. If publishing is a business, then business decisions are being made. If they’re personal or emotional, that’s not the fault of the consumers. The consumers are voicing objection to a business model, not saying that they want free ketchup, or to intentionally bankrupt ketchup companies world-wide. No one, not one person, has asked Stacey Jay to write for free. She has simply rejected the idea of writing on spec.
Stacey Jay is a talented writer. Read her Night’s Rose, written as Annalise Evans, and you’ll see another example of the true unfairness in publishing; she should be more well-known than she is (or was, I guess, since this is spreading like wildfire). But that’s not how it works out, a lot of the time. More people buy Heinz than exquisite gourmet ketchup (that’s a thing, right? “The fanciest dijon ketchups?” BNL would never lie to me). And no writer is guaranteed to be paid for their projects before they complete them; it’s really nice, but it’s not owed. And these days, it’s almost become the golden ticket (if Willy Wonka were about ketchup instead of chocolate. I’m not rewriting the whole damn post to make that metaphor work).
Readers asking not to bear the cost of a work’s production in advance aren’t asking for anything for free. They were just surprised and insulted to be asked to pay for the production of the supply before the demand was fulfilled. They were further insulted by the excessively dramatic predictions of authors starving with their children in the streets, made by writers who had the gall to say the objectors were the ones acting entitled. That behavior isn’t making a case for authors, and it certainly isn’t helping to support Stacey Jay.
No matter how much we love our books, writing isn’t a job. It’s a career. You’re running a business. And nobody is responsible for making the ketchup but you.