Words from their sponsors: Can authors cash in on crowd-sourced funding sites?

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The National Post  |  Mark Medley  | Last Updated: Jan 9, 2013 1:34 PM ET

Ryan North ePublishing

Ryan North was driving back to Toronto about a year-and-a-half ago when he had an idea. Like many of his ideas — North is a popular writer, designer and computer programmer — it was rather odd: a choose-your-own-adventure version of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet, called To Be or Not to Be.

Like the prince of Denmark, North had a quandary of his own. He could try to find an agent and land a publishing deal, or appeal directly to potential readers. After North, whose work includes the Web series Dinosaur Comics and the short-story anthology Machine of Death, was told by one agent the book would be a tough sell, he turned to the crowd-funding website Kickstarter. The campaign to fund To Be or Not to Be launched Nov. 21; the goal was $20,000, which would cover the cost of the book and pay for black-and-white illustrations from about 30 artists. North had a month to reach his goal.

“The first day it made $100,000,” he says, sitting in the living room of his Toronto townhouse a few weeks later. “After I launched, [the agent] emailed me,” he says with a laugh. “He was like, ‘Dude, I would not have gotten you 100K. You made the right choice.’ ”

By the time the campaign ended on Dec. 21, To Be or Not to Be was the most-funded Kickstarter publishing project of all time, raising a staggering $580,905 from 15,352 backers. With the extra funding (Kickstarter takes a 5% cut) North promised his supporters not only the original book (which will now be a full-colour hardcover with 110 full-page illustrations, plus an audiobook and stage performance) but a fully illustrated prequel (called Poor Yorick, naturally) and a sequel. He also pledged to donate hundreds of copies of the book to schools and libraries across the country.

“I don’t want to have people feel like their investment was wasted,” he says. “I’ve looked at Kickstarters who have failed to deliver on their goals on time, and how angry people get.”

Publishing is the third-most popular category on the site, which has successfully raised nearly $400-million since its founding in 2009. In total, the 9,329 publishing projects that have launched on the site have successfully raised $18.4- million, and, as of writing, there are currently 330 active campaigns, ranging from an attempt to transform every psalm in the Bible into a “modern poem” to an annotated edition of Moby-Dick.

One of these campaigns is to fund Fearful Symmetries, an anthology of horror fiction to be published by Toronto small press ChiZine Publications. The campaign launched Dec. 10 with a goal of $25,000.

“I think the general tenor of things, especially in the publishing world, is just that everyone’s broke, and everyone’s struggling, and if you can throw a friend or a colleague like 10 bucks, whatever, just to help them out, then great,” says Sandra Kasturi, ChiZine’s co-publisher.

“If we can do it, great,” says the company’s other co-publisher, Brett Alexander Savory. “If we can’t, it was a good little experiment.”

As of Tuesday afternoon, they’d surpassed their goal by nearly a $1,000 — Kickstarter returns funds to donors if the goal is not met — meaning the anthology will now arrive in bookstores sometime next year.

Yet that outcome is unusual; the success rate for publishing projects on Kickstarter sits a shade over 31%, far below the site average of 43.6%. And while the $18.4-million raised is impressive, more than $31-million has been raised for far fewer (1,683) technology projects. Still, Savory and Kasturi say they are already thinking about a future Kickstarter campaign in support of their online magazine, The Chiaroscuro.

Kickstarter is hardly the only option for capitol-seeking authors. There’s Indiegogo, the crowd-funding site used by Margaret Atwood, but also publishing-specific sites such as Unbound, Authr.com and Pubslush, which all launched in 2011.

Unbound, which is based in the U.K., acts as a bridge between old and new. One of the problems of crowd-funding is quality control — these sites are filled with books that should never, ever, see the light of day — but Unbound acts as a curator: An author, or an agent, submits a proposal, and if it meets their standards, it is featured on the site. If successfully funded, Unbound produces a handsome print (and electronic) edition. Thus far, they have published about 25 books in 18 months.

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