A Quick Plug for 4th Street Fantasy Convention

As I have recently posted my Redshirts tour schedule, many of you know that I will be doing a stop at the Uncle Hugo’s book store in Minneapolis on Saturday, June 23rd. But I will also be at the Fourth Street Fantasy convention that entire weekend, hanging out with fantasy fans and writers like Elizabeth Bear, Scott Lynch, Steven Brust, Emma Bull, Mary Robinette Kowal and many others. I will also be baking at least one Schadenfreude Pie. And, I am likely to bring either a ukulele or my tenor guitar with me to terrify everyone for a five mile radius join in with the communal music making which is undoubtedly going to take place.

Why not join us? It will be a whole lot of fun, and that’s not just the Schadenfreude Pie talking.

Amanda Palmer, Kickstarter, and Everything

Today’s question from the mailbag:

Any thoughts on the success of Amanda Palmer’s Kickstarter drive?

Unsurprisingly, I have several.

First, as background: Musician, creative person and delightfully weird human being Amanda Palmer put up a Kickstarter page to fund/sell her upcoming musical album, her first full-length production in a few years. She had a goal of raising $100,000 in a month; she raised that sum in something like seven hours, and three days in, she’s at (checks, it’s 10:20am as I write this line) $439,481. That’s pretty excellent.

Needless to say this has people saying this is proof Kickstarter is the solution to everything/doing everything one’s self is the solution to everything/eliminate the middleman, preferably with a shotgun/and so on. On the flip side, Palmer herself has noted detractors, including people who seem to believe Kickstarter is nothing more than high tech begging or pan handling.

So, with that as the background, my thoughts, in no particular order.

1. I think it’s fantastic for Amanda Palmer. I say that as a fan of her work, solo and as part of Dresden Dolls, as an admirer of her creative drive and willingness to put in the actual work of maintaining a career, and as someone who has a friend married to her, who she makes ridiculously ridiculously happy as far as I can tell. As a creative person, it’s both gratifying and humbling when people step up and support you — with money! Of all things! — so the fact she’s received so much support from her fans is just wonderful. The fact that Kickstarter, as an entity, has made it easier for her and other creative people to fund their projects, is also great, and one of the true benefits of the Internet age.

2. This is a decade in the making. I went back through Whatever to find the first time I made note of something Palmer did; the answer was November 2004, when I put in a link to the song “Coin Operated Boy” by her former band Dresden Dolls. That’s seven and a half years ago; the band was active for a few years before then.

Between then and now most of what I know about Palmer is her working her ass off: Making music, playing that music, going off and making more, and building both awareness and a fan base. She left her music label a few years ago and has been putting out music independently since then; she’s presumably learned a thing or two about the mechanisms of DIY art during that time — and in that time she’s trained her fans in the fine art of supporting a truly indie musician (or at the very least, a truly indie Amanda Palmer). This is hugely important.

All of which is to say that like so many overnight successes, this isn’t. It’s the result of someone working for a very long time to get themselves into a position to make the most of this particular kind of opportunity. Complementary to this:

3. Palmer has an awesome network. She’s got hundreds of thousands of fans to whom she talks every day via Twitter and other social media, most of whom are rooting for her success. She has friends and loved ones with similar or greater fan reach (even accounting for overlap), who are happy to promote her and her works. Basically, when something happens in the world of Amanda Palmer, it’s entirely possible for more than a million people to become aware of it almost immediately.

Again, this doesn’t happen overnight. Those friends and loved ones are collected through a lifetime; those fans are created through work, music and touring. Is Palmer using them to promote herself? I suppose she is, but I think it’s probably more accurate to say that those people are willingly choosing to be part of her messaging system. I’ve retweeted stuff from her before, not because I felt obliged but because I like being a participant in her success. I retweet other news from friends and people whose work I admire for much the same reason.

You can buy Twitter followers (if you’re willing to spend money stupidly), but you can’t buy a living network of people who are invested in you as a person and/or a creator. You have to earn that through work, and by being a person worth friendship.

4. Palmer doesn’t get to keep all that money. Leaving aside taxes (duh), Palmer has to pay production costs, musician fees, tour and travel expenses and all other costs incurred in the rather elaborate tiers of stuff she’s offering to supporters. A fair amount of that money will go out of the door again. Which is, of course, what happens when one is running a small business, which is precisely what Palmer is doing here.

One of my major concerns about Kickstarter projects in a general sense is that I often wonder how many of the projects actually end up in the black for their creators. This is particularly the case when it comes to writers, artists and musicians, who are famously complete shit at working through their finances anyway, but who are also, through Kickstarter tiers and through encountering production costs that were previously handled by other people, wading into financial waters they often know next to nothing about. I wonder if people understand that Kickstarter isn’t a magical ATM but a storefront, and that they are committing to running this store — production and fulfillment both — for the duration. I expect a lot of Kickstarters ultimately end up in the red because the people running them haven’t built out a business plan, and have no idea what they’re getting into.

I expect that Palmer may be one of the exceptions — precisely because she went DIY a few years ago and has had time to learn the ropes and to have some real-world, practical experience with what everything she does (and has proposed doing) costs in a financial sense. That said, I would love to know what sort of margins she’s working with here, particularly with some of her more elaborate tiers. I have reasonable confidence she’ll end this adventure of hers in the black, but I think everyone boggled by the money she’s raised might eventually be surprised how much of it she won’t get to keep.

5. Palmer has made some big commitments. For example, she’s sold 25 house parties at $5,000 a pop, which she expects to be able to fulfill in the next 12 to 18 months. So, that’s essentially 25 other tour dates for her on top of everything else she has to do. Yes, I know, $5k for showing up with a ukulele and hanging out at someone’s house for four hours doesn’t strike most people as hard work (heck, pay me $5k, I’ll totally pop by with my ukulele!). But you know what? Spending four hours being on in front of strangers — and formally performing for one of those hours — is actually work. I know because that’s what I do when I tour for my books. Palmer has other events listed which require more than just her showing up with a winsome stringed instrument, which aside from the financial considerations is more time/energy/effort/planning for her. I get tired just looking at everything she’s promised to backers.

(This is why, incidentally, people accusing her of “online panhandling” are trolling jackasses. Palmer doesn’t have a hand out for charity — she’s offering specific goods and services when you set down your coin. You know exactly what you’re getting, and what she’s committing to. Again, this is a small business, and one with a detailed menu.)

In sum: It’s awesome that Palmer’s Kickstarter has done so well — but look at what it’s entailed. It’s entailed time, effort, planning and work both backward and forward in time. That currently $439,000 isn’t a windfall for her; it’s a marker of what all that commitment to the work has earned.

If you’re one of the people looking at her Kickstarter money with stars in your eyes and awesome plans of your own in your head, ask yourself first: Have you put in the time? Earned the credibility? Scoped out the financial balance sheet? Made the commitment to fulfill every single thing you have promised?

Palmer has. If you haven’t — on any of this — be aware that your results, shall we say, may vary.

The Big Idea: Paolo Bacigalupi

Paolo Bacigalupi has made a name from himself — and garnered a shelf full of awards including the Hugo, Nebula and Printz — by taking a hard and not always comfortable look at the logical progression of today’s conditions into the future of our planet. In The Drowned Cities, the follow-on to his award-winning YA novel Ship Breaker, Bacigalupi looks again at the world we are creating today with our words and actions, and what it means for what we leave to those who come after us.


When I started writing The Drowned Cities, I hadn’t planned to write about politics. Typically I write about environmental issues such as global warming or energy scarcity or GM foods, but as I was working on the book, our increasingly divided political dialogue and government paralysis intruded.

These says, I can’t help noticing how much time we spend busting unions in Wisconsin or warring over contraception in universities, or checking people’s citizenship papers at traffic stops, while our geopolitical situation and future prospects change for the worse. As I’ve watched this dysfunction deepen, I’ve started to consider other aspects of where we might be headed.

As much as we invoke Rome and its fallen empire as a metaphor for our present American circumstance, I’m more interested in Greece, and the failures of prototype democracy. I can’t help but notice how easily demagogues and rhetoric sway our citizens these days, and how we turn on any leader foolish enough as to tell us that the shadows on the wall are false–whether that’s the dream of endless American prosperity, or the mirage of American exceptionalism, or the fairy tale that taxes will never be raised at the same time as our military will never be trimmed.

Democracy is fragile. It takes people working together in good faith to make it function. And yet, these days we celebrate people who profit from undermining it. We bathe ourselves in the rhetorical flourishes of Rush Limbaugh or Ann Coulter or Sean Hannity (and no, Keith Olbermann doesn’t float my boat much either), and it seems like you’re either a patriot or a traitor to your country. Environmentalist just want to kill jobs. Democrats are out to make America weak. The left is stupid, and the right is crazy. The Christians are trying to create a theocracy, and the socialists are hiding under every rock, just waiting to take over the government.

Division. Distrust. Contempt. Hatred.

Ironically, the demagogues who work so hard to deepen our divisions are getting rich at the same time. They hack away at their fellow citizens, and encouraging others to do the same. They devalue half our population’s humanity for the entertainment of the other half–and they make massive amounts of money. Rush Limbaugh alone makes $38 million a year from poisoning our political dialogue.

Almost all of my writing asks the simple question: If this goes on, what does the world look like? For The Drowned Cities, I asked: If everyone we disagree with is a traitor, where does that take us? If we can’t figure out how to cooperate, and if we always demonize one another, what sort of world do we hand off to our children in terms of politics and prosperity? The Drowned Cities is about the world after Rush Limbaugh and the rest of our talking heads have boarded their private jets and left the wreckage of the country behind. It about a world where we didn’t solve the big problems because we were focused on the small schisms.

In The Drowned Cities, warlord factions fight over territory, scrap, religion, and recruits. Two young children, Mahlia and Mouse, have been orphaned by the civil war and fled to the jungle outskirts. They’ve both lost their families and Mahlia has lost a hand to the war’s brutalities. Now, in the village of Banyan Town, they’ve found shelter, thanks to the protective influence of a humanitarian doctor. But even this fragile safety doesn’t last. War is coming Banyan Town. Soldier boys are in the jungles, sweeping the swamps with hunting dogs, searching for something that only Mahlia knows about. Something that the soldier boys will do anything to find, and something that Mahlia can never let them have, no matter what it costs herself, the doctor, or the town.


The Drowned Cities: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Indiebound|Powell’s

Free preview of the novel on Kindle or Nook (US Only). Follow the author on Twitter.