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If you haven’t been living on a desert island for the past decade or two, you know that GLBT literature has been under a lot of stress to adapt to the new media environment. Many publishers that were the bastions of queer culture in the 1970s and 80s have gone out of business. While we do have some significant additions (most notably Bold Strokes Books and Lethe Press), the list of venerable publishers who have folded is long.
What’s a queer writer to do? The big presses aren’t buying GLBTQ books (or ANY books…) the way they were in decades past, and the number of outlets to circulate a manuscript to is small. But there are probably more queer-identified readers now than ever before, many with Internet access. If readership is growing, but the traditional ways of getting fiction out of the heads of writers and into the hands of readers (and transferring money back to the writers) are dwindling, what is taking their place?
The ebook revolution has empowered many small presses (Bold Strokes, Lethe, and Circlet Press among them) to reach an audience that we couldn’t when fighting for Barnes & Noble shelf space. But ebooks are only one piece of the new media environment, an environment that makes “self-publishing” a viable option.
The two main things a traditional publisher provided that an author could not buy elsewhere were access to readers (by putting books on shelves) and access to the flow of readers’ money, the commerce. A self-published author could hire the same typesetter, proofreader, copy-editor, and cover designer as a big publisher, but couldn’t enter the bookstore arena effectively.
But the top way readers discover books is no longer by walking the aisles. Readers do more browsing on the Internet than ever before, and not just Amazon.com’s virtual shelves. They’re browsing review blogs and hanging out on book-themed social sites Goodreads and LibraryThing. Authors have as much access to those spaces and to online retailers as the publishers. This is especially true with ebooks, where there is no overhead of storing, shipping, or manufacturing.
Don’t believe it? I’ll offer myself as an example. I had a book called Daron’s Guitar Chronicles. I hesitate to call it a novel, because it was an epic in length. But it wasn’t a Tolkien-esque epic. It’s actually a tale of coming out in the 1980s, and our main character’s battle to overcome internalized homophobia wouldn’t fit into a simple, novel-length story. I sent it to various publishers knowing it was too long. Publishers as diverse as Alyson Books and Little, Brown praised it, but regretfully rejected it as too long.
I gave up on traditional publishers and started building readership by publishing it as an online serial. I use free blogging software WordPress for the site. I take donations from readers online the way a street musician accepts tips. The serial has been running for a year and a half, and recently reader donations surpassed the meager $2,500 advance that I was once offered (if I would cut the book to a third its size). You can read the serial for free at http://daron.ceciliatan.com. I run my own site, but anyone wanting to run their own online serial can get WordPress hosting for $10/month, or use one of the free services like Blogger.
The next step was to publish ebooks. I packaged the serial into book-sized chunks, formatting them for the Kindle and other devices, and selling them through easy-to-set-up accounts on Amazon.com, B&N Nookstore, and All Romance eBooks. Through Smashwords I also have access to the Apple iBoosktore, Kobo, Diesel, and several other online retailers. Three volumes are currently for sale. Royalty checks come regularly from all the retailers, something that was never true of any of the traditional publishers I’ve worked with.
I’ve even sold the audiobook rights to Audible.com. Not bad for a “book” that was rejected by publishers for being unviable in the bookstore marketplace.
But there is still the allure of the printed book. Somehow, all the Facebook “likes,” page hits, and donations don’t count until the words are on paper. Well, maybe I can make that happen, too.
Print on demand technology has finally made it possible to print small quantities. One no longer has to take out a loan only to end up with a basement full of unsold inventory. But there are still costs associated with making a book. The aforementioned proofreader, copyeditor, typesetter, and cover designer… who pays for them? If you’re self-publishing a book, is your only option to just shell out and hope for the best?
I think there’s a better way: crowdfunding. Kickstarter is an arts-funding website that allows writers, filmmakers, musicians, and other creative folks to propose projects. (Indiegogo and Peerbacker are similar sites, and there are others popping up.) The way Kickstarter works is you propose a project with a budget and reward levels for your donors (like NPR pledge gifts). If you reach the goal to fund your project, then donors are charged. If you fail to make it, they aren’t charged and are secure in knowing that you didn’t just take the partial money and fly to Tahiti.
On the Daron’s Guitar Chronicles Kickstarter I calculated to need $2,750 for manufacturing of the books for donors, the proofreader, designer, et cetera. I did not include an advance for myself, but I know plenty of writers who have. Here’s a list of some recent GLBTQ book projects I’ve seen funded in the past few months through Kickstarter and the amounts raised by each:
Goal Actual Raised Project
$7,500 $7,680 Girlfag: A Life Told in Musicals, by Janet Hardy
$1,500 $5,250 Son in Sorrow, by MeiLin Miranda
$5,000 $6,153 Scheherazade’s Facade, edited by Michael M. Jones
$8,000 $8,081 Demimonde, by Mary Anne Mohanraj
Remember, this isn’t the end of the income life for each of these projects. The resulting books and ebooks can continue to earn as they sell in the online marketplaces of Amazon and other outlets for years to come.
This model can work. The writer has to be prepared to build up their donor list, but this is not all that different from building up a readership for the project. And if you’re self-publishing you are already doing that. If you’re reading this article, you’re probably already Facebooking, blogging, and Tweeting. If you are, you’re ready to find out if those people who give you social capital by following you are ready to give you actual capital, i.e. money.
Please note: a Kickstarter pledge isn’t just a “donation.” You’re giving people the chance to pre-order the book. That’s not “begging” for money: that’s giving people something for it. Many authors use Kickstarter to engage their readership, and to literally reward them for being fans. Kickstarter rewards are often limited in quantity, making them rare collectibles. Since my book is about a rock musician, I’m offering “tour” T-shirts with the band’s logo. It’s yet another way to get creative.
And ultimately getting creative is what it’s about, both in the sense of being artistically fulfilled and with how to survive in the fast-changing environment of the new media. I believe it’s imperative that GLBTQ writers adapt to the changes. Our voices are too important to be lost in the noise of conservative bloggers and trolls out there staking a claim on the Internet. My “trunk” novel is finally seeing the light of day, and it has reached thousands of readers and fans so far. Here’s hoping that my Kickstarter gets funded so that I can reach even more.
To find out more about the Daron’s Guitar Chronicles book project, visit the Kickstarter page here (Deadline for donations is May 21).