Very Quick Thoughts on Brandon Sanderson’s Mega Kickstarter
Context: Brandon Sanderson, who has been a #1 New York Times bestseller as co-writer of the Wheel of Time series and his own Stormlight Archives novels, announced a Kickstarter in which he offered four previously unannounced novels as well as a “Year of Sanderson” swag boxes, all to be delivered in 2023. Announced today, the Kickstarter has already gotten $13 million in pledges, and it’s perfectly reasonable to suggest that by the end of the pledge cycle, it may end up between $20M and $25M in pledges.
This has naturally sent the SF/F publishing world into a bit of a tizzy, with people wondering What It All Means for publishing, and who else in SF/F, or fiction generally, who could do something similar.
Naturally, I have some thoughts on this! Here they are, in no particular order.
1. Kudos to Brandon — it’s nice to see his work over the years has led to this. But I think it’s very important to stress the phrase “over the years” here. Brandon published his first books the same year I did (we were in the same Campbell/Astounding Award class together), and since then he’s both been writing assiduously and developing a merchandising and fulfillment backend of the sort that almost no other writer has done. His writing and work ethic got him the nod to finish the Wheel of Time series, and when that was completed he was able to carry much of that vast fandom into his already existing fandom, and into his own work. He’s done other Kickstarters and has developed a reputation for delivering on what he’s promised; he and his crew have done the legwork in creating specialty items and getting them to fans.
In short: Almost uniquely among modern SF/F authors, Sanderson is positioned not only to have an audience large enough for a vastly successful Kickstarter, but he’s also positioned to follow through on those Kickstarter promises with an already-built organization. The numbers this Kickstarter is generating are large, but in the larger context of his career, his ambition and his work, not ultimately that surprising.
2. Could any other currently working SF/F writer do this? I’m skeptical. Certainly there are other writers as popular as Brandon, but it’s the backend bit here that I think is easy to overlook as being critical. People are pledging to Brandon’s Kickstarter not only because they’re fans of his work, but also because they have confidence that a) he’s not going to do a Kickstarter fail and run off with their cash, b) that the quality of the books and swag boxes will be as advertised; he’s not going to half-ass it.
Look, running a Kickstarter is hard; I have any number of friends who have done them and all of them will tell you the effort it takes is immense, and what you get in return, after everything is said and done, isn’t always worth it. Lots of people who have funded Kickstarters will tell you similarly; what they’ve gotten is not always worth the money spent. In this case, however, Brandon & company’s previous experience in merch and fulfillment, on Kickstarter and off of it, works in their favor, in a way that someone doing a Kickstarter/fulfillment for the first time can’t realistically hope to match — even writers who have similar fan bases.
The SF/F writers I think could do similarly are people who, like Brandon, have at least some merchandising/fulfillment experience to go along with their writing. Neil Gaiman is one; Pat Rothfuss and George RR Martin are two others (don’t start in here about their publishing frequency; it’s already tiring). Among newer writers, VE Schwab and NK Jemisin are two I think have the goodwill for a very successful Kickstarter, even without a great amount of experience in distribution. After that, things get iffy. There are others who could essentially publish themselves out of petty cash (Stephen King, JK Rowling, James Patterson), but I’m not sure why they would want to bother; their merchandising/distribution set-ups are already well-built out (GRRM is likely and realistically in this category as well).
3. Could I do a Kickstarter like this? In at least one of the discussions online, someone suggested I might be able to pull it off. And my answer is: Probably not, or at the very least not nearly as well as Brandon. One, his fanbase is both larger and more fervent. Mine is fine — I know how much I sell, and it’s lovely — but Brandon’s is more. Good for him. Two, again, there’s the merchandising/distribution backend to consider. I don’t have one (yet), and even if I get one it’s likely to be built differently than Brandon’s is. Maybe at some point in the future, say if Old Man’s War finally gets made as a movie and is a smash, and I start more actively merchandising my work, then I could pull something like this off. But now? Nope!
And that’s fine with me, by the way. Again: Brandon’s done the backend work already; I haven’t. I’m not going pretend our positions are equal here. To repeat, what we’re seeing here is the result of years of planning that Brandon’s done but other writers, even ones of similar popularity, have not. It matters.
4. I’m seeing some people using Brandon’s Kickstarter as evidence that writers don’t need publishers any more, and my thought on that is whoa, Nelly, let’s slow down for a minute here. Brandon’s position is very nearly sui generis, for reasons I’ve already explained. He has essentially been running a publishing/merchandising/fulfillment company for years, while working with existing publishers to build (oy, here comes that word) his brand. Using Brandon Sanderson as evidence of anything other than that he makes a very fine and successful Brandon Sanderson is ignoring a lot of the work he did and eliding over the factors that got him to this point.
Can writers be successful without publishers? Sure, and some have been! But it’s an immense amount of work, that some people aren’t competent to do and others don’t care to do. I’ve mentioned before that I love working with my various publishers because they let me do the things I’m good at (writing, some marketing) while they handle literally every other thing, from copyediting to distribution, that I have no ambition to bother with. A writer like me is likely to be more successful with a publisher than without one. Publishers do bring things to the party, as it were, to make the party better.
Also remember — and Brandon is himself a good example of this — it doesn’t have to be either/or. A successful writer can do some things with a publisher first, and other things on their own first (provided they’ve done enough to establish a backend capability). The takeaway from Brandon’s Kickstarter success here is not that publishing is doomed, but that writers, particularly already-successful ones, have more options available to them than ever before, especially if they have already done the work to execute on those options.
5. And this is really the thing I think needs to be brought home here. Brandon’s done the work. He’s spent years doing the work, inside traditional publishing and out of it. Along the way, he’s caught some pretty big breaks (see that Wheel of Time thing), but many of those breaks have also been about the previous work. If you do the work, and have some luck (okay, a lot of luck), you’ll have more options to get your work to people.
But it doesn’t come out of nowhere. It took Brandon 16 years (not counting all the work he did before he got professionally published) to get where he is now, reaping the benefits of this whopping Kickstarter. Could someone else do it? Maybe, in time. But right now, it’s Brandon who put in the time, and effort. Good for him. If you want the same, get working.