Online crowdfunding helps self-publishers make their mark in print

Fairbanks and Kallen
Greg Fairbanks and Elyse Kallen at a meeting of the Soon-to-be-Pretentious Writers Club. (Elizabeth Elving/Medill)

By Elizabeth Elving

On Valentine’s Day the members of the Soon-To-Be-Pretentious Writers Club were scattered throughout the Harold Washington Library Center judging books by their covers. Once a month, the writers meet at the library, comb the shelves for books that appear compelling, and write original stories based on their selections. After a year of meetings, founder Greg Fairbank decided they had enough material to publish their own magazine.

“Ever since we started, I wanted to do a culminating work,” Fairbank said. “Having an end goal in mind is inspiring.”

To reach that goal he turned to Kickstarter, the crowdfunding platform that has raised over $1.5 billion for over 78,000 projects since it was launched in 2009. Kickstarter has made headlines for record setters like “The Veronica Mars Movie Project” and “The Coolest Cooler,” but has also funded over 6,000 publishing projects. Its publishing campaigns have an impressive 30 percent success rate, which reflects how the once-derided practice of self-publishing has matured in recent years.

writer's club books
Assorted library books cover the table at the meeting of the Soon-to-be-Pretentious Writers Club, alongside copies of their new original magazine. (Elizabeth Elving/Medill)

Fairbank’s Kickstarter campaign was a success, raising well over its $350 goal. The money covered the design and printing of the group’s first magazine, A Nearly Pretentious Collection #1. It was the first time that contributing member Elyse Kallen had seen her fiction in print.

“It’s just really nice to have people being supportive of something that’s fun for me,” Kallen said.  “It gives me a little bit of momentum.”

Kickstarter has become a popular option for magazine editors who want to compensate their writers, and for self-publishers making the pricey jump from online to print. Nader Ihmoud founded the organization Palestine in America in 2014, and began publishing articles about the Palestinian-American experience on his website. As his online readership grew, he decided a physical magazine was the natural next step.

“If you look around in America, there’s not many Palestinian things,” he said. “I wanted to have a hard copy of something so you’ll see it in your hand, not just on the web.”

Ihmoud’s plan is to publish a high-quality print magazine that will attract both paying readers and advertisers and use the profits to print subsequent issues. But he is a recent college graduate with student loan debt who supports himself largely by driving for Uber. He doesn’t have the capital to launch the first issue on his own.

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Ihmoud launched his Kickstarter campaign in February, hoping for donations from PIA’s online audience. If the project reaches its $5,000 goal, it will mean more than just financial support.

“If you get enough people who believe in you to help you fund it,” he said. “If you can get people to support you and back you up, you know that what you’re doing means something. It gives you another stamp of approval.”

Writers used to get that stamp of approval when (and only when) an established publisher accepted their manuscript. Now e-books and print-on-demand technology have some writers skipping that step altogether. The number of self-published books rose dramatically between 2008 and 2013, in both electronic and print formats.

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That five year period also saw the rise of crowdfunding. Indiegogo was founded in 2008, Kickstarter in 2009, and more specialized platforms followed. In 2012, the mother-and-daughter team Hellen and Amanda L. Barbara launched Pubslush, a crowdfunding and marketing site just for authors and publishers.

According to Amanda Barbara, quality was low among self-published manuscripts in the early 2010s. Authors didn’t have the knowledge or resources to produce and market their work.

“The books weren’t having edits or strong layouts or professional color design because people really couldn’t afford it,” Barbara said. “We felt we could offer something through crowdfunding that would allow authors to test the market and mitigate their financial risks and understand their audience.”

Barbara said that although crowdfunding still carries a slight stigma in the publishing world, more companies are opening up to alternative business models. This change contributes to what she called a “democratization” of publishing, where readers get to decide what’s worth their attention.

“There’s always going to be that diamond in the rough. That gem that was rejected several times,” she said. “Not every book is going to be that way, but readers do have a say”

Writer's club prompt
A writing prompt from for the meeting of the Soon-to-be-Pretentious Writer’s Club at the Chicago Public Library. (Elizabeth Elving/Medill)

Traditional publishing is a middleman between writers and readers. Crowdfunded self-publishing brings the two groups together, even when they’re oceans apart.

At the Soon-To-Be-Pretentious Writers Club’s Valentine’s Day meeting, Fairbank passed around a copy of the newly printed magazine for members to sign. The copy was to be sent as a “reward” to a backer in Spain, and the cost of postage would exceed the amount of the donor’s pledge. But Fairbank didn’t seem to mind the expense, as it meant the Kickstarter campaign had attracted international support.

“My expectations were totally blown away,” he said. “I was very amazed by the kindness of strangers.”

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Photo at Top: Greg Fairbanks and Elyse Kallen at a meeting of the Soon-to-be-Pretentious Writers Club. (Elizabeth Elving/Medill)