On Gratitude and Leveling the Playing Field
A group of people gather on an assortment of chairs in a living room. A cellist tunes her instrument, then plays. We are enrapt.
A different night, two different musicians stand in the same living room to play mandolin and guitar, and sing. We are delighted.
Artistic portraits of mythical giants, science fiction saints and adventurers, and fabulously rendered divination cards grace my walls.
Books line my shelves, and the pixelated pages of my tablet.
Thinkers think. Researchers research. Activists do their best to help others survive and sometimes even thrive.
How has all this art and effort and activism come to be? Public patronage. House concerts, books, art, research, and even emergency medical kits and hotel rooms have all been funded one dollar at a time, by groups of people who want to build a more beautiful, magical, and varied world.
We’ve tired of gatekeepers deciding what is good or whose art or stories are acceptable. We’ve tired of billionaires calling the shots.
We see it every day. Or worse, there is evidence in what is not even there.
How much music do we not hear?
How many movies never got made?
How many television shows are cancelled?
How many books by Black, and brown, immigrant and Indigenous, neurodiverse, trans, or queer people are never published?
Sure. A few make it through the gatekeepers. A few are published or recorded or filmed. That’s called tokenism. But the top of the tier is small, and looks pretty much the same. As long as that remains true, only a select, anointed few, will make it through the gates. And fewer still will ever make enough to buy groceries, let alone pay the rent.
Crowd funding has its own downfalls, for sure. It takes time. Effort. Energy. Focus. The ability to study and assimilate information. The ability to make connections outside a tiny sphere of friends.
But as a person who was traditionally published, I can tell you a not-so-secret: the gatekeepers won’t take care of you the way they promise. Creators must learn that stuff anyway, and then put it into practice, while retaining almost no creative control. In most cases, you no longer even own the rights to what you produced.
The gatekeepers take it all.
So, for me, despite the very real drawbacks of crowdfunding arts and culture, there’s more equity possible. And for me, that kindles hope.
Several years back, after having three non-fiction books traditionally published, I dove headfirst back into writing fiction. I chose to follow in the pathways of my musician and some writer friends and publish independently. I already had experience of my own with publishing and distributing albums and figured I could learn and adapt this to the written word.
There were stories I wanted to tell that I didn’t want heading past the gatekeepers who—if they wanted my stories at all—would edit them into a different form, package them, pay me very little, and then hoard the copyrights as the books languished because after three months, books are old. Relegated to the unwashed “backlist.”
Besides, I’d seen how Kickstarter worked for my friends, and the artists and musicians I supported there. I’d seen how Patreon worked for myself and for the thinkers, researchers, musicians, writers and activists I support there in my own small way. Heck, there are people I support monthly just because I appreciate their presence on social media. They’re putting something out into the world and I want them to know it has value to me.
Sometimes we communicate value by voicing our thanks, and other times, by tossing a dollar into a monthly, or occasional, tip jar.
In a world where mega-corporations get larger and more bloated, I appreciate the nimble anarchy of giving money directly to the people whose vision I want to see in the world.
None of these outlets are perfect, but they’re better than being beholden to companies that don’t have our best interests in mind.
I’ll admit that sometimes it’s weird making money in public. Folks see the Kickstarter numbers rising and get excited, which is wonderful. But they don’t see how much it costs to produce and distribute books, let alone get paid for my time.
Also, crowdfunding is a way of learning in public. Supporters see missteps, pivots, or mistakes. This can make me cringe, but it also offers a valuable lesson: most people go out of their way to be generous and kind.
That’s not always the case, though.
Early on in my personal micro-funding process, some people attacked my decision to start a Patreon account. Their criticisms were myriad: I was begging people for money. Taking advantage of my community. I wasn’t the aspirational success I purported to be.
While I knew that these people’s words were wrong, they still stung.
But I’d already seen the power of crowdfunding, supported a lot of people on Patreon, and wanted to try it for myself, so I went ahead. It’s been a fantastic experience, on both sides of the crowdfunding fence. Sure, there are blips and hiccups, but that’s all part of the ride.
Fast forward to several years later, and I tried out Substack, which hosts my weekly newsletter. Some people pay for it, others don’t. Then I tried Kickstarter. Holy wow! I’d backed several campaigns over the years but didn’t comprehend how powerful it was from a creator’s perspective.
First off, these campaigns reached a brand-new group of readers who’d never heard of me before. Second, folks who did know me and my work got excited! Scores of people who had never shared a book release from me before began sharing my Kickstarter campaigns.
That’s when it hit me: crowdfunding is fun. It’s an event. A bit of a carnival ride. Backing and sharing a campaign enables us all become part of the magic of creating something wonderful and new. By pledging our $5, $50, or $500, we all have a small stake in helping bring art, and music, and stories to life.
I knew this but hadn’t fully felt the impact of its potential before.
By next year, I intend to work on getting direct sales up on my website as a further act to become more independent from the billionaires who run commerce. And I want to start buying more directly from other authors’ websites, too, the way I do with musicians, artists, and writers via Bandcamp, Gumroad, Big Cartel, Etsy, Patreon and Kickstarter. I want to support independent performers become even more independent wherever possible.
I like this current world, where it is possible for small creators to get the word out that they have new art in the world, and pay the phone bill, too.
How about you?
Speaking of crowdfunding, this essay went out early to all my wonderful Patreon supporters! Another reason for my gratitude.
Also, my new Kickstarter campaign launches Tuesday March 14. I'm thrilled to be offering gorgeous exclusive omnibus editions of a fan-favorite series: The Witches of Portland.
I'd appreciate you taking a look!