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I’ve been fascinated for a while by the promise of crowdfunding campaigns to help democratize the world of writing and publishing. For example, many enterprising authors and editors have used Kickstarter to pre-sell their books, reducing the financial risk of self-publishing and possibly attracting a wider audience in the process. Thus, authors whose work might be too quirky for “traditional” publishers have the chance to make their own case to the global readership.

This might be a mere subspecies of the general category of self-publishing, except for one thing: the audience members are not just consumers of the final product, but in a real sense make that product possible in the first place. That changes the dynamic considerably, and it also suggests further possibilities.

If you are an author, you generally have three broad strategies to follow:

  1. Write your own unique masterpiece without regard to whether it will sell. Desperately try to attract the attention of publishers (or, if self-publishing, readers) after the fact.
  2. Formulaically copy whatever hot trend people are buying (sparkly vampires, werewolves, dystopian-cute young-adult, et cetera) and pitch it to a niche publisher (or if self-publishing, niche audience) after the fact.
  3. Weave together existing popular tropes, possibly across genres, to make something familiar yet new. Pitch it to an appreciative niche audience (or if you are lucky, a publisher), after the fact.

(Why do I say “after the fact”? Funny you should ask…)

On the other hand, if you are a reader, you generally have one basic strategy, with two variants:

  • Find an author who has already written something you like, and buy it.
  • Find an author who has already written something you like, and pre-order the next thing.

(Why do I say “already”? Funny you should ask…)

Readers are basically helpless to the whim of the authors; they can only buy what has already been written. Yet many authors are desperate to write things that readers will buy, without necessarily knowing what those will be or how to find out.

On a related point, for authors to be successful in the self-publishing business, they have to be sufficiently competent writers, and be exceptional marketers. If you hate marketing, your only alternative is to try and get a book deal with traditional publishers; and even then, much of the onus of marketing your book is on you. (Admittedly, you do avoid the technical work of laying out and printing the book, or paying someone else to do it.)

I think there is another possibility that crowdfunding has afforded us. Consider the following scenario:

Alice likes the idea of, say, werewolf romance novels in space, but can’t find any to read and does not want to write them herself. She does, however, want to bring “Werewolves in Space” into existence. So she launches a Kickstarter project to fund, not the publication of an already written book, but a Request for Proposal (or a writing contest, if you prefer) for a third-party author to write such a book to her specifications.

One can already pay writers directly to write books to order, on sites like Guru.com or Freelancer; but since in that case a single individual is paying the whole cost, such books are typically written cheaply and are of poor quality. Here, with a Kickstarter, Alice can find other werewolf-in-space fans who like her idea, and are willing to contribute their own money until the total prize is worthwhile for good authors to consider. If Alice manages to raise, say, $10,000, that might catch the attention of skilled author Bob Bodiceripper, who could then submit a proposal. If accepted, he would then write the exact book that Alice and her fellow werewolf fans wanted, but could never find.

Everybody wins. Fans can order the books they want to read, authors can write to known specifications, more books are written and paid for, and more authors get read. And this would not displace the existing channels for writing and selling books either; it would represent a true broadening of the market.

Yes, many fans might pay for embarrassing dreck. But they do that anyway, and letting readers directly influence the types of books that get written may well open the door to new and exciting possibilities that no one can imagine today.