The Crowd

So I’m laying the groundwork for a short story anthology to be funded on Kickstarter.  It seems like a good project and a good way of dipping my toe into the Kickstarter pool.  It should be up and running in a few days, and we’ll see what happens.

Kickstarter is an incredibly cool idea, and while I don’t know if the idea itself is sustainable over the long run, I love the possibilities it offers.  As a board game fan, I’ve bought several great games funded through Kickstarter.  The notion of skipping corporate funding and going directly to the audience has such promise that it’s hard not to see it as the future of media.  Instead of having to convince a handful of powerful people that an idea is worth pursuing, you really only need to convince a few hundred people to give you a few bucks, offering them rewards for doing so.

The problem with Kickstarter though is that, without the corporate gatekeepers, how does a project stand out?  More importantly, how does my (or his or hers or theirs) project stand out?  Right now, there’s really no reliable substitute for the exposure you can get working with established publicity structures.  If you don’t believe me, ask yourself when was the last time a hit movie genuinely “came out of nowhere”?  And books, while not quite as slavishly devoted to instant return on investment, still are built upon getting noticed.  We might argue whether or not the Twlight Saga is great literature, but what isn’t up for debate is its near ubiquitous exposure.  That, more than any other factor, is what made it the hit it is, and that’s not meant as a criticism.  It’s just an undeniable factor.

If my anthology (working title: Robots & Slime Monsters) succeeds at all, it will do so because of the years I’ve been building an audience.  That audience is not purely of my own making, but of the behind the scenes people at my publisher who have helped me stand out on the shelves.  Even then, I’m mostly obscure.  Yet I am less obscure than many an established writer working even now.

The companion to Kickstarter will be websites devoted to expanding an audience.  I don’t know if such sites exist, and I’m not sure how they could possibly function.  If they were paid sites, the creator loses precious resources to fund them, which is kind of the opposite of what Kickstarter is all about.  Plus, once someone is making money, it’s only a short skip and a jump until the all-consuming desire for higher profits makes it less appealing to the average creator.  And with money comes preferred treatment, which is pretty much the same system we have now.

But a free publicity site isn’t a solution either.  Any site that takes anyone is bound to be too crowded to be useful.  Sad to say, a world where everyone gets equal access to publicity neutralizes much of the value of publicity.

Kickstarter gets around that by being a site designed to fund projects.  There is no better way to get people invested in something than to have them give money to it.  It’s an old cliche that when you’re good at something you should never do it for free.  And it is, I believe, largely true.  We aren’t programmed by our instincts to appreciate things we get for free.  We take those things for granted.  Just see how often we get mad at the commercials in broadcast television (which for decades paid for the free entertainment we got out of our TVs).  And satellite radio is a business model built on the principle that people will gladly pay for stuff they could get for free.  Granted, satellite radio figured out that it could offer stuff that regular radio couldn’t or wouldn’t, where it’s real value is to be found.  And it’s had some trouble in recent years competing with free radio in the long run, but that’s mostly because of a weak economy, not a bad business model as far as I can tell.

So the question of this hypothetical publicity site I imagine is how does it get people invested in a project without being a paid service and without letting everyone through the gate?  I have no idea, and I’m not sure we’d end up with anything different than we currently have, just a new media version of it.

The real future of publicity will have to be found, just as with Kickstarter, in the enthusiasm of the audience.  Optimistically, I see a possible future where advertisement dollars don’t determine what we like, but a well-informed audience that takes the time to search out what it likes.  The difficulty of this though is that the audience isn’t always that bright, if I may be honest.  Given a choice, the audience often chooses what it already likes.  This is why we have four Spider-Man movies, are still making Star Trek, Star Wars, nine hour Hobbit movies.

In my ideal tomorrow, the audience will be both informed and eager for something new.  Such an audience, empowered by an open internet, could create a world where skill and originality determine what’s hot.  Not nostalgia, focus groups, and multi-million dollar advertisement campaigns.  To be sure, such a future would have its own unique problems, but it might very well be a revolution in how we create as a society.

Meanwhile my cynical side says that the fault lies not with our media models, but with ourselves.  There will never be a way of countering millions of dollars spent on advertising, and that, for all our complaints about a system that sees us mostly as exploitable demographics, we are exactly what they expect us to be.  The current model isn’t an accident or a corruption.  It’s a system perfectly evolved to give us what we want and get our money in exchange.  And we’re just fooling ourselves to think otherwise.

Even if that’s true though it isn’t such a bad thing.  Despite the nature of our marketing driven world, we still manage to make new movies, new books, new stories.  And some of those stories even manage to garner attention and success.  So it’s not all gray clouds or silver linings.

Either way, we’re all on this ride to the future together.  I’ll hold your hand if you hold mine.  Just try not to scream too loudly.

Keelah Se’lai

Fighting the good fight, Writing the good write,

Lee

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