Kickstarter and Profit

Once upon a time, I wrote a short story. It was a lovely short story, one of the finest pieces I'd ever written, but alas, I couldn't find a market to sell it to. Then one day, a shiny new toy came out that I desired but could not afford. An idea sprang into my head: I will ransom the story to the public! If I could raise $250 to buy the shiny toy on Kickstarter, I would publish the story on my blog under Creative Commons as a gift to the world.

This Kickstarter was very successful; I got the object of my desire, and my husband got one too.

None of this should be news to you if you've been around here for a while. You lived through it with me! But I recently shared this experience on an online forum and was very taken aback when I was told that the project was unethical. Not what Kickstarter is for, probably a violation of their ban on "fund my life" projects, and in general a terrible thing to have done.

I disagree with this line of thinking, of course. Worse, I think there's a terrible, poisonous idea lurking in its heart: that artists don't deserve compensation, and that artistic work is without value.

The Debate

There are several more specific arguments regarding why the Shiva's Mother Kickstarter was unethical; the first is that the story was already written. Another seems to amount to an insufficient purity of heart; my motive in offering the Kickstarter was personal gain. One is: Kickstarter money should be spent solely on things that are required for the execution of the project, like editing or cover design for publishing, or music and graphics for a game. 

Let's focus on that last one first, because that's the key to this whole discussion. If I require outside services, like, say, an illustrator, it's OK to pay them with Kickstarter money, right? Absolutely. There's no argument there. And then that illustrator, having earned their wage, can spend it on anything they damn well please. I'm compensating that artist for time and craft, and their personal finances are their business. They're under no obligation to spend that money only on colored pencils and licenses for Adobe products, and if you suggested as much, they'd laugh in your face.

If I need several kinds of services -- even a whole team of game developers -- then it's fair to expect every single one of those people will be earning a wage in compensation for their time and skill. You might even say they're making... a personal profit.

Does that work suddenly lose its value if the person running the Kickstarter does it? If I have the skills and chops to design my own cover or run my own website, is it OK to pay myself for those services rendered? And indeed, is it not right to budget a wage for the time you spent in conceiving and excuting your own artistic project? According to the people calling me unethical and deceitful, the answer is no: that's not what Kickstarter is for.

So my question is... why would it be OK for everyone except the core artist driving the project to earn a wage? Must all artistic works rest on a core of volunteer labor out of love? I say absolutely not, no way, nohow, good lord no. 

It all comes back to that pernicious art vs. commerce tension that riddles our society, the idea that the work an artist does, all of the time and craft and passion they pour into it, is morally purer if there is no profit motive. That is isn't right for an artist to make or think about money. And yet you cannot eat art, you cannot live in it, it does not keep you warm in the winter nor does it put shoes on your feet. It is a hard fact that an artist must earn money to live. And if an artist does well enough to afford shiny toys on top of that: more power to you, comrade.

The time you spend in writing is still work that has value in the world. It is fair and just to at least try to earn something approaching a wage for it.

So was the story already written? Yes; call it owed wages for labor done before the Kickstarter ran. Was it a "fund my life" project? No; I executed and delivered an artistic work, just the way I said I would. Was my heart insufficiently pure because I went into it wanting an electronic device? No; how I spend my wages earned is my own business, not yours.

And should I have only spent the money on something necessary to the execution of the project?

...You know what? I did. Because without my own labor, there wouldn't have been any project at all.

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The Economics of Lucy Smokeheart: Part 2

A couple of weeks ago, I did some math and showed my work on how much time I expect to spend executing the project, and what my expected payoff will be. The upshot: Writing and designing Lucy Smokeheart will optimistically make me the delightful sum of $6.52 per hour. Probably much less; possibly as little as half that, depending on how fast the writing goes.

As of yesterday afternoon, Lucy has funded and all that fat cash will be mine! But what happens if I hit my first stretch goal, $7500 for cover illustrations? Well! Let's have a little more fun with arithmetic, shall we?

The objective of the stretch goal is to allow me to commission Heather Williamee, my delightful illustrator, to help me with covers for all twelve installments of the story. Possibly also a few more odds and ends that I am choosing to be secretive about at this time. I expect illustrations are going to cost me about $1500, given the hourly rate Heather has charged me and the number of illustrations I'm hoping to commission.

But -- o-ho! That still leaves me with an extra $1000 in my pocket! ...Uh, sort of. I'm still losing Kickstarter fees and self-employment taxes off the whole extra $2500, remember, which knocks it down to $2125 out of the gate. Minus the illustrator fees, that additional $2500 for the stretch goal only really ends up as $625 lining my pockets.

So my total earned income for Lucy Smokeheart in the event that we fund to $7500 and no further will be $4005, spread over the same 518 hours of writing, design, and production work.

That brings my hourly wage up to... wait for it... $7.73 an hour. We've hurdled the minimum wage bar! ...But I could still do a better getting a part-time job at Target, if money was the main objective here. 

Not that I'm against money, mind. Heavens, no. That extra $625 would come in handy, and I'd really love to be able to create superior cover art. So will it happen? Ten more days to wait and see!

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Veronica Mars and Me

I had a conversation with Twitter not long after the Veronica Mars Kickstarter launched, in which I observed that my funding for The Daring Adventures of Captain Lucy Smokeheart would probably dry up for a few days. That's because the pool of people willing to fund me and the pool of people who freaking LOVE Veronica Mars are pretty close to being the same exact thing. These people having only so much money and enthusiasm to go around, I reasoned, would result in my not particularly getting backers for a couple of days.

Now, it's not clear what actually happens in the Kickstarter ecosystem when a big project like Veronica Mars shows up and makes everyone excited. Kickstarter is on record saying that a big project results in more money overall going to smaller projects (like Lucy Smokeheart.) They're probably right -- they know their internal metrics better than I do -- but I speculate that it only really helps other projects in the same category in the short run. When you fund Veronica Mars, the "you might also like" suggestions are a bunch of other film projects. I expect other film projects right now are experiencing a delightful uptick in funding.

Publishing projects like mine, maybe not so much.

Yesterday was tied for my second-worst funding day on record; I got a single $25 backer. My only worse day was March 4, in which I got only $20. (This is still admittedly better than no-backer days!) So it's clear that the thousands of people pouring into Veronica Mars aren't benefiting me any.

But it's also not clear that Veronica has hurt me any. Yesterday was a bad day for funding, to be sure, but it was also an off day for me in terms of promotion -- I spent most of the day out of the office and more or less off social media. And I've learned there's a pretty clear relationship between Tweeting about your project and reminding people you're out there, and those people actually clicking over to give you money. Fancy that!

So the bad day is almost certainly my fault, not Veronica's.

And in fact I did get a significant bump in funding a few hours after the Veronica Mars project launched -- though that was almost certainly a response to my prediction that I wasn't going to see much funding for a while, as a supportive group of friends went out of their way to promote Lucy Smokeheart right then. The more noise you can make, the more money you get. It's like science all up in here!

So my conclusion is that Veronica Mars hasn't sucked all of the air out of the room, so to speak. I am competing with her for dollars -- but only in the sense that I was already competing with the whole of the entertainment industrial complex to begin with. And if I can't compete with the entertainment industrial complex enough to get a couple hundred people excited enough to give me money now, that's my sign that maybe the thing I'm talking about isn't something that people actually want in the first place. Better to know that now, and not after I've spent a year writing.

Oh, and of course I funded Veronica Mars, and you should too. That thing is going to be amazing. And if you have a few dollars left after that, maybe fund Lucy Smokeheart, too?

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30 Days of Piracy

In support of Lucy Smokeheart, I've been releasing a video every day in which I do a piratey thing or unleash some pirate true facts. We're up to Day 11 now, and I've learned something. It's a lot of work! Good grief, I'm spending hours a week on staging and make-up and recording and editing!

Why, you may ask, am I bothering with such a thing? It's a cunning cover story, basically. To get a Kickstarter funded you have to do a lot of reminding people that it exists. But daily Tweets and Facebook posts "Remember! I still want ALL OF YOUR MONEYS!" are sleazy, spammy, and not the energy I want present in my community or my social interactions.

With my 30 Days videos, though, I'm putting a little bit of free content out there into the world and hoping they put a smile on someone's face. Giving and not just asking. It's a subtle distinction, but a meaningful one. As the Wendig would say, "Be a fountan, not a drain."

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In Which I Fail At Something Important To Me

So. Sooooooo. SO! I have this Kickstarter running.

When I set it up, I wanted to find a way to say "we are going to try to go about this in a way that is not sexist and racist." Because I am Like That. But, you know, just saying it outright can sound sort of dry and humorless, rather than jaunty and piratey. So I referenced a bunch of awful tropes I planned on devotedly not using, and said I wasn't going to do those things: the damsel in distress, the noble savage, the magical negro.

I screwed up real bad, you guys.

I'm used to talking to people who think about these things all the freakin' time, and who know that when I say I'm not using magical negroes, what I mean is "I am not planning on throwing in people of color with no inner life or motivation who exist only to dispense wisdom to white people."

Buuuuut it turns out that not everyone is familiar with this terminology, and if you don't know what that means, it sounds really, realllllly bad.

I've already edited the Kickstarter to try to be more clear and less clever. I'm hoping someone can tell me whether I've fixed it enough or not. Any feedback on this front would be very welcome indeed.

And meanwhile, gosh, I'm so sorry. I talk all the time about the ethics of context, and I should have thought a little more about context here when I was writing my Kickstarter copy. I hope nobody was hurt by my words, and if you were... my deepest apologies. I screwed up horribly. I didn't mean to, and I'll try not to do it again.

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