Jeff Seymour - Author of Fantasy, Literary Fiction, & c.: Thoughts on Kickstarter

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Wednesday, February 26, 2014

Thoughts on Kickstarter

So let me be perfectly honest here: I'm cheating a little bit with this blog post. Shortly after my Kickstarter finished, I wrote a short essay on some lessons the process taught me about publishing, writing, and life, and how everything came together to make Soulwoven a reality. I shared it with my backers. What follows is adapted from that.

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Several Big Thoughts occurred to me while the Kickstarter was up. I’ll try to get through them all here.

The first, and probably the most powerful, is what it means to say “yes.”

I have made a habit, in life, of going where the doors are open. I did not expect to enter publishing through the doors of a midlist romance publisher. But they said “yes” to me, and there I went. I did not expect to become a freelance writer and editor, but freelance clients said “yes” to me, and there I went.

I did not expect to become an indie author, but readers said “yes” to me, and there I went.

Publishing is organized around saying no. It has to be. As an editor, I get more submissions than I could possibly publish, even if I loved every one of them. As it happens, I don’t love every one of them. So I say no to the ones I don’t love, or I pass them on to others (who will also probably say no to them) if I think they’re very good but I still don’t love them.

This is a terrible thing to do to authors. We ask people to pour their hearts and souls into learning a craft and creating art with it, and then we ask them to come and seek our approval. Then we tell them “no” again and again until they reach the minuscule cross-section of people who would love their book and people in the publishing industry with the power to publish their book.

And then we wonder why some authors are unbearably arrogant or unbearably neurotic.

At any rate, I spent the first decade or so of my writing life being told “no,” over and over and over again. In the face of that, there comes a point where you honestly stop expecting to hear yes.

The first day of my Kickstarter was incredibly emotional for me. I was reasonably certain that, over the course of a month, I could get 25 people to pledge $25 each and get the book funded.

But the number of people who came right out of the gate not just to pledge, but to pledge big, absolutely astonished me. After ten years of being told I wasn’t good enough (or sometimes that I just wasn’t a good fit), I discovered in half a day that people believed in me who I didn’t even know were paying attention to me.

That was an incredible feeling, and it has kept me going for a long, long time.

Second, the Kickstarter taught me that there really is a revolution occurring in the world of arts and music and letters, and that it’s an honor to be a part of it.

I’ve read lots of articles proclaiming that digital publishing is ushering in a new era of something or another. I’ve always taken them with a grain of salt. Every prophet of the new seems to have something to gain from ensuring that it comes to pass. So I never drank the Kool-Aid.

And then, as I started to answer questions about the Soulwoven Kickstarter, I realized something.

The best music I bought in 2013 was all independently produced.

To be sure, I bought some good albums from music labels too. But the best? The most striking? The most inspiring? The most unusual and artistic? Indie. Or at worst, started indie and got picked up by a label after.

I’m not a part of indie music fandom. I know very little about bands, or scenes, or music in general. I have next to no sense of what I should like and what I shouldn’t. I just hear songs (usually on the radio), and then go buy the album if I like them enough.

So if the best songs I was hearing on the radio, which were succeeding against all odds in the land of Clear Channel and label dominance, were indie, that meant something.

I’ve long contended that music is about five years ahead of publishing. Up to now, indie publishing has largely been the breeding ground of the most commercial of commercial fiction. Fifty Shades of Grey, etc. Not authors who claim to be making great art.

But that’s going to change, and I’m excited to watch that wave hit the shore from the inside rather than the outside.

My third and perhaps most contentious Big Thought came about because of who my backers were. I know, personally, 51 of them. And those 51 contributed the lion’s share of the book’s funding.

In my head, I have a voice that tells me my success is therefore invalid. That my book was a pity case. That it was only what personal popularity I possess that motivated anyone to back me. The voice began speaking to me before my Kickstarter even launched.

And you know what? It’s full of it.

On the day the Kickstarter went up, another voice spoke up in my head, and it said, quite clearly: Who did you think your first fans were going to be? The staff of the New York Times Book Review?

That voice knows what it’s talking about. To be an author requires a certain amount of arrogance. You have to believe that you can write something worth reading. If you want to make a living at it, you have to believe that you can do it better than almost everyone else who’s trying the same thing.

That’s enough arrogance. You don’t have to believe you’ll be so good at it that you won’t need the help of your friends and family to succeed.

A lot of success stories start with “Using money borrowed from family and friends.” I didn’t even have to borrow. I’m giving things back, and they’re experiences and objects, for the most part, that no one else will ever get to have.

My fourth, and by far my most important and far-reaching Big Thought, involves the proving of an idea I had two years ago.

In early 2012, I went to the Banff Mountain Film Festival World Tour, and I realized as I watched people fail and fail and fail trying to put up new climbing routes or face death on 8,000-meter peaks that I was jealous of them. Because they weren’t worrying about marketing or careers or star makers or success. They were doing what they thought was awesome. And success, if it came, came later.

That, to me, is what being indie is all about. More importantly, it’s what leads to good art and a sustainable career no matter how you publish.

So I decided not to worry about how I was going to succeed. I decided to just do things I thought were awesome and to trust that, if other people agreed with me, success would follow.

Now it has, and I am immensely honored to have had the support of so many wonderful people in making it happen.

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