Despite the financial challenges of their vocation, writers have long found accessible, inventive ways to get work into the world. Among the benefit readings and bake sales, a new fund-raising option allows writers to tap into the fertile social networking landscape to find individuals who may be willing to donate the cost of a cupcake to give a project a boost. More and more writers, artists, and innovators are using "crowdfunding" Web sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo as platforms for small press initiatives, literary magazines, and book projects in order to fund and publicize their endeavors on a worldwide scale. Promotion on one of these sites not only attracts potential donors, but also allows writers and editors to gauge, in real time, how much commercial appeal and interest their ventures hold.
Journalist Lee Carlson successfully funded the design and publication of Passage to Nirvana, his memoir about surviving a traumatic brain injury, using Kickstarter. First Carlson pitched his book idea by setting a fund-raising goal and a timeline, detailing his project plan, and making a video trailer. Once his proposal was accepted (Kickstarter vets projects before they're promoted on the site) and his project page was posted, he went on to promote it using e-mail and Facebook. Carlson raised more than double his goal of six thousand dollars, securing support from 109 backers, and was able to self-publish his book in hardcover, paperback, and e-book editions this past summer. Supporters who donated fifteen dollars or more received copies of the book in various formats, depending on their level of giving.
Kickstarter employs an all-or-nothing funding method, stating that "a project must reach or exceed its funding goal or no money changes hands." Projects can be pitched and posted for free, but a 5 percent fee is collected from the fund if it is successful. IndieGoGo takes a slightly different approach, immediately disbursing any money donated to the project creators—minus a 9 percent fee—while promising a 5 percent cash bonus on every dollar donated if a goal is met. IndieGoGo also allows users to post projects without first having to submit a proposal for approval.
"I like that IndieGoGo doles out money to its users in chunks," says Mike White, who at the time of this writing had raised more than half his goal and was able to pay for promotional material for his book project, a collection of essays from Cashiers du Cinemart, the magazine he published for fifteen years. White credits his success in part to his ability to reach five thousand people via e-mail using a simple "share" link from his project page to Gmail (Twitter, Facebook, and other networking venues are also easily reached).
Arts organizations as well as individuals are utilizing the sites to fund and promote unique ventures. San Francisco's WritersCorps recently secured a spot on Kickstarter for its anthology City of Stairways: A Poet's Field Guide to San Francisco, which features works by young writing students. "We apply for a lot of grants and will continue to do so," says Melissa Hung, the acting program manager, "but for a very specific, tangible project like this book, we [wanted to] go to our potential audience directly."
There's a community-building aspect to the sites too—for creators and donors alike it can be heartening to witness how many diverse projects are gaining momentum through small steps. "I love how honest Kickstarter is," says novelist Justin Sirois, whose nascent Understanding Campaign is using crowdfunding to support the launch of a Web site on which Arabic- and English-speaking writers can collaborate. "You watch a video and get a real feel for the projects—you become emotionally attached to them in a way." Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and IndieGoGo have the potential to make use of that connection, harnessing the collective energy of writers, editors, and patrons to bring attention to deserving work.
Alex Dimitrov is the founder of Wilde Boys, a queer poetry salon in New York City. He is also coordinator of the Poets Forum and awards at the Academy of American Poets.