Mass Patronage for the Arts: The Evolving Relationship Between Fans and Creators
Publishing is being remade every day, from print only to digital first; from traditionally published to self published. With the advent of coordinated fundraising sites like Kickstarter, there is a move toward mass patronage. Patronage is a system of private support of the arts that has existed for centuries. The Medicis, for example, were well known for their patronage of the arts. A wealthy person would provide funds for an artist to live on while the artist produced, not necessarily for the patron. But in a patronage system, there is always the question of equality and freedom of expression. What does the artist owe the patron?
Kickstarter works by artists posting about a project and setting different levels of donations. The pledgers agree to pay one of those different levels. If the project reaches its goal, the money is delivered to the artist. If not, the project is cancelled and the money returned to the pledgers.
The Kickstarter pledger gains two things. First they gain some kind of momento. Sometimes it is a mention in the acknowledgments and sometimes it is the product itself. In the case of Scheherazade’s Facade – Fantasy Anthology with big name contributors like Tanith Lee and Sarah Rees Brennan, the base level pledge of $5 gets you a bookmark. To get a copy of the book itself, you must pledge $10 or greater. The second is bragging rights, a sense of ownership and investment in the product. Says the owner of kickstarter:
He also points out that backing a project gives you bragging rights. “You’re not just buying the thing, you’re creating it. You’re in on the ground floor. Getting a bird’s-eye view of how it’s made is exciting.” Good point — one that explains why random, otherwise unaffiliated people are pitching tech journalists on their pet Kickstarter projects these days.
Kickstarter projects lay out the terms, but there is no contractual relationship. The money pledged is a gift and there is no recourse if the Kickstarter project does not deliver. As the terms of service states:
Kickstarter shall not be liable for your interactions with any organizations and/or individuals found on or through the Kickstarter service. This includes, but is not limited to, delivery of goods and services, and any other terms, conditions, warranties or representations associated with listings on Kickstarter. Kickstarter does not oversee the performance or punctuality of projects. Kickstarter is not responsible for any damage or loss incurred as a result of any such dealings.
The backers of a project have no control over the project itself. If it takes 3 years for the project to come to fruition that is part of the process. Should the author decide to give away the product itself, the backer has no recourse. For instance in the case of Tim Pratt, he received $11,241 to fund his next novel in the Grim Tides series. A digital book was given to each backer at the $20 or more level. Pratt then serialized the novel online for free. None of the backers appeared to have commented on this move negatively.
A fan’s generosity is a glorious thing. Cassandra Clare and her flatmates received money from their fans after Clare’s laptop was stolen. The donations were so generous that the amount exceeded the cost of the laptops and an unspecified amount was purportedly sent to charity. In 2008, Vera Nazarian of Norilana books raised over $30,000 to save her house from foreclosure. Vera ostensibly needed only a little over $11,000. A year later, however, Vera was back with news that she was metaphorically under water again. She doesn’t ask for money, but she asks for help selling her book.
Let’s be clear here. No one is forcing people to give money. No one is forcing people to be backers. We presume that everyone is of sound mind and donating funds because they are financially capable of doing so. But at what point does the backer’s money move from charitable giving to an actual investment with an expected return?
In today’s Kickstarter world, what should readers and authors expect in a small number patronage system? I asked around. One reader shared with me that she would never participate in a Kickstarter program because it was simply too close to internet panhandling. An author expressed fears about becoming beholden to the reader in terms of the direction and production of a piece. Another reader shared she had invested in a few kickstarter programs but that she received a product in return.
Sometimes people are irresponsible with the money. As an investor, you might be entitled to an accounting of how your investment is spent and you also get a portion of the profit. The profit is actually what makes investing losses okay because your investments are spread out over a number of projects and the hope is that one succeeds even if ten fail. Some portion, however, of the Kickstarter projects are mere charity. Or gifts, not investments.
When artists start asking for charitable giving from readers and fans, does the “George RR Martin is not your bitch” philosophy apply? Do the rules change?