Why Do (Some) Authors Crowdfund To Publish Their Books

When I first started as an indie author, I wasn’t in it to make money (But that’s a whole other thing.)  However, I kept seeing already published indie authors advertising their crowdfunding campaigns or Patreon to raise money for the books they were planning to publish.  And as I was uneducated in this matter, I thought they were being a bit greedy.  People were already giving them money for their books, now they want money for books they haven’t even published?  Yet, there is a method to what seemed (at the time) to be madness. 

Publishing, especially independent publishing, is biased toward those with the financial resources to compete with traditional publishers.  Behind the scenes of a traditionally published book, there is a lot of financial investment besides just the printing of the book. 

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First, there are beta readers.  If an author doesn’t have people who are supportive of their writing and willing to read the early drafts and suggest revisions, they will need to find beta readers.  For those with the money, they can subscribe to a service that connects authors to professional beta readers.  Those without the money might be able to connect with potential beta readers through the writing community on various social media outlets.

Next, there are editors.  Not just one editor, but sometimes multiple editors for multiple types of editing.  And a manuscript may need to receive each type of editing multiple times depending on how the previous edit affected it.  These can vary in price from “reasonable” to “whaat(?)” to “I’m-gonna-be-sick” for the aspiring author.  If an author is lucky, they might have an editor friend they don’t have to pay or they have the kind of financial resources to pay for really good reasonably-priced editors.

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Luckily, reputable literary agents do not charge upfront fees and instead take a percentage from the sale of rights for an author’s book (part of what the publisher pays the author).  Independently published authors don’t generally need a literary agent because they are publishing independently.  And here is where the potential expenses of an indie author start to differ from those who are traditionally published.

Traditional publishers pay authors an advance for books they chose to publish.  An advance is a pre-payment of the money the publisher expects to make off the book once it starts selling.  Then the publisher formats the book, gets cover art, get professional reviews, and pays for all the advertising that is necessary to get great sales and make back what they paid the author. 

After an independent author has gotten their beta readers and their edits done and they have a completed polished final draft, they then need to decide how they are going to publish.  There are a lot of companies out there for “helping” independent publishers get published.  Many of them charge to aggregate a manuscript into the various formats used by the popular e-readers and then distribute the various versions to the respective companies that deliver books of those formats like Amazon for Kindle, Barnes & Nobel for Nook, Apple for iPad, etc.  Some of these aggregators charge an upfront fee for the cost of formatting and distribution (ranging anywhere from a few dollars per book to hundreds of dollars per book).  The most affordable companies for indie authors usually do not have an upfront fee and instead charge a percentage of every book sold.

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The same options exist for physical copies of books.  Print on demand is where there is no upfront cost to the author, but distribution is limited to people who order a copy of a book.  Print on demand usually has a wait time of a few weeks as the books must be ordered/purchased by customers before they are printed.  If an Independent author wants their book on the shelves of local independent bookstores, they might need to order cases of books print on demand and distribute the books themselves to bookstores.  Sometimes stores will choose to order print on demand books themselves but sometimes an author chooses to front copies of books to stores in the hopes that the store will choose to order more if those copies sell.

Before a book can be published, independent authors need to have a book cover.  Sure, anyone with some basic computer skills can put together a .jpeg or a .PNG file.  Lots of authors do and have themselves some homemade covers.  However, unless an author is also an artist and owns the programs necessary for creating a great cover, they may not end up with the greatest homemade book cover.  Unfortunately, a lot of people do judge books by their covers.  It’s pretty easy to pay an artist to make you a book cover or to purchase a premade one from the galleries of cover artists’ websites.

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As far as I’ve been able to find, every physical copy of their book that an independent author has (for book signings, advanced reader copies for reviewers, submitted for award consideration, free copies to stores, copies for friends, copies for family, copies just to own for themselves, or giveaways) is paid for out of pocket by the author.  This gets expensive.  It is an expense which an author can choose to avoid, but it reduces the advertising ability of an independent author significantly.  Without a physical book to sell and advertise with independent authors can lose out on an entire sales stream.

Audiobooks have similar distribution companies like the ones which aggregate e-books and the distributor will take a portion of each sale as well as the store which sells the audiobook to listeners.  Independent authors with the equipment and technical know-how can record their own audiobooks.  For those who don’t have the equipment and don’t want to learn how to record, or just don’t have the vocal skills for it, they can hire a vocal artist to record their book to audio format.  It is expensive.  You are looking at hundreds of dollars per hour of finished product.  Some companies offer the option for a reduced upfront production fee in exchange for the narrator receiving a significant portion of the profits.

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I’ve already mentioned that some book reviewers want physical copies of the books they review.  But many will accept digital copies also.  Book reviews are considered an important part of book advertising.  A lot of people do peruse reviews before purchasing a book and an industry has grown up around book reviews and virtual book tours.  Getting blog reviews, podcast reviews, BookTube reviews and bookstagram posts from reviewers can be free if indie authors look hard enough and are willing to put in the work and hours to contact them individually and provide copies of their book to dozens of people.  Some new independent authors end up hiring an advertising agency/publicist to contact reviewers for them.  Some of these companies are great and will provide an independent author with the publicity and advertising momentum needed for a profitable book launch.  But some of these companies focus on finding as many bloggers/BookTubers/podcasters who are new and willing to do reviews for free as possible.  This does not create a great launch since there may not be many people actually reading/watching/listening to those who have been solicited.  Some independent authors purchase virtual book tours through a virtual book tour company.  Some independent reviewers charge for reviews(like me) and some actively solicit independent authors to pay them for reviews (not like me).

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Another expense for independent authors is literary awards.  My books have never been submitted for award consideration.  Why?  I can’t damned afford it.  And humbug on anyone who says that independent authors who don’t have a budget for advertising shouldn’t be publishing.  Nearly every single book award contest has an entry fee.  I say nearly only because there might be an award contest out there that doesn’t require an entry fee, but so far I haven’t found it.  Some award contests will accept ebook versions of a book, some will require a finished bound physical copy of a book for Each Of The Judges.  And an author is not likely to get that book back.  This is especially true with some library award contests since all the physical books entered in the contests are then donated to the library after the judging is over.  That is particularly amazing since you are guaranteed to get your book into at least one library system by participating in those book contests.  Traditional publishers foot the bill for the books they publish to be considered for awards, often before the books are even put into widescale print so that they can add those award seals to the covers of the books.

Again, I have to emphasize as, with all other independently published book expenses, the price can be pretty cheap, or it can be hundreds of dollars per book to submit for awards. Some contests charge for each category an author wants a book to be considered for. So if an author’s book is a Young Adult Science Fiction Mystery, they can pay to be considered for one category, or pay two fees to be considered in two of those categories, or they can pay three separate fees to be considered for all three categories.  When a reader stumbles across an amazing book and wonders why it didn’t beat out some other book published the same year for an award, it’s probably because it wasn’t entered.  Personally, I didn’t think that my books would win anything (they are fun to read but probably not award-worthy), so I didn’t bother with the financial juggling needed for me to pay to enter my first few books for award consideration.

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Book signings are another expense for the independently published author.  I’ve heard different accounts about how much a traditionally published author has to cover their own travel expense for books signing tours, but an independently published author has to pay one hundred percent.  An independent author also has to contact the locations that they will be signing at, set up the signing, make sure they have access to a table (hopefully they don’t need to make arrangements to bring their own).  Then they need to make the travel arrangements and pay for them out of pocket.  If an independent author wants to sign books in different cities in different parts of the country (or different countries if they are super ambitious) to spread the word about their books, then the author will need to book hotels, flights, transportation to and from events/airports/hotels, dinner reservations and the like.  Worse yet, independent authors won’t have a juicy advanced publishing check to cover those expenses and others (like maybe wanting some nicer clothes for public appearances instead of the paint-stained jeans and T-shirts I live in).  In a post quarantine world where COVID-19 is still a danger, facemasks, gloves, and hand sanitizers, and any other essential personal protective equipment are also considerations.

Traditionally published authors also sometimes do interviews during their book tours to promote their books.  Television talk shows, radio shows, BookTube/YouTube, podcasts, as well as written interviews in popular print and online publications.  Some of these can be done via phone or online (if the author has enough technical ability), but if for some reason the independent author needed to travel and that travel wasn’t covered by someone else the author may need to pay for it out of pocket.

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While some independently published authors may be fluently multilingual, I most certainly am not.  Independently published authors who are not multilingual and want their books translated into multiple languages because they have fans in foreign countries (I have a pretty loyal following in China and Germany), will need to have their book translated by a professional translator.  Yet another out of the pocket large expense.  There are companies that allow authors to pitch their books to certified translators and then the translator can choose to translate the book or not.  In these instances, the translator and the company get a cut of the profits. 

Then there’s the author platform.  An author website, social media platforms, fan engagement; all of these required some technical skill and quite a bit of time. Or a healthy social medial manager budget.

Lastly, there is the expense of just plain old regular advertising.  Book trailers, magazine ads, newspaper ads, billboards, radio ads, and internet ads are just the most obvious ways of advertising a book.  Then there are all the paraphernalia like posters, bookmarks, pens, and the like.  These are definitely not necessary.  But they can be an effective part of promoting books.  If an independent author is not able to create their own advertising, then they’d need to hire someone to create ads, posters, bookmarks, books trailers, and all that other stuff that goes along with advertising. 

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Every single one of these steps in the publication and marketing process can cost a significant amount of money.  Traditional publishing houses cover a large chunk of the expenses for their books once they have decided to publish and promote them.  Some independent authors can afford many of the same steps that traditional publishers take to promote and advertise books.  Most independent authors cannot, and there is a huge rift among independent authors of the haves and the have nots.  Those with money who gave up on agents and traditional publishing and those without money who independently published because they couldn’t afford an editor so an agent wouldn’t take them on or were not confident enough to pitch a manuscript that wasn’t professionally edited.

Those are just two ends of the spectrum.  Between them are a whole range of reasons, incomes, and budgets that can be applied to independent publishing.  For an independent author who does their research and a lot of hard work and preparation, most of the steps involved in publishing can be done with no upfront costs to the author.  As was the case with me.  I already owned a computer, owned the word processing program I used to write my book, and was able to create my (admittedly simple) book covers myself.  I had one beta reader who is a family member and I self-edited (over and over and over again and at least I had fewer typos and mistakes in my finished book than the egregious ones I’ve found in some traditionally published books).  Even a lot of the advertising can be gotten for free. 

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However, independent authors who have some cash to spend and can afford professional editors, professional cover art, professional advertisements, travel expenses to book tours, virtual book tours, and online advertising.  These authors get a jump start on book sales and if they have enough money, they can pay someone to create audiobooks for them.  It’s a little bit unfair, because the more connections an independent author has, the cheaper a profitable and successful book launch can be.

These are the reasons why readers might be seeing crowdfunding campaigns for independent books.  For those indie authors who do not have the resources, skills, or social connections, independently publishing can be hit or miss.  Without advertising, publishing is just putting a book out there and hoping people buy it.  Without a cover that generates interest, even the best advertising can be a moot point. Without decent editing, a great story is a frustrating read.  But with funding, the independent publishing process is a little bit more seamless.  Sometimes even if an independent author has their own funds, they might prefer to crowdfund to support their book being published.  Why?  Because even if everything is done right, sometimes a book just flops and doesn’t earn back that which is invested in it so it’s better to make sure the people who want to read it enough to pay for it know about it from the beginning.  And crowdfunding is a form of advertising in and of itself.

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