Crowdfunding: Because Your Manuscript Sucks

Before starting this, I’d just like to say that I’m not against crowdfunding, self-publishing, or any of the interesting alternative models we’ve come up with to fund, release, and support quality fiction these days. I’m not here to dampen your enthusiasm. If you’ve weighed your options and decided that this is the best thing for you (and that you’ve got the cajones to follow through), then high fives for you. That’s awesome.

But I’d like to offer current and future authors a word of warning by way of a short tale about my own experiences as a funder and consumer of crowdfunded material. Because there’s all the difference in the world—to cannibalize Melville—between funding and being funded.

You know the drill: somebody shares a Facebook post or eagerly posts to your forum of choice about this awesome new game/movie/novel/steampunk wristwatch/parapsychological detective agency/whatever, and you get really excited. “Man, that sounds awesome!” you think. So you sign up, donate your twenty bucks, and await your fantastically amazing rewards for being a financial backer.

And that’s great. Sometimes it’s everything you hoped and then some, which is a nice feeling, knowing you helped someone produce something worthy that might not otherwise have existed in sharable form.

But how many times have you, months later, sat down with a fresh novel thus acquired, straight from whatever presses your Kickstarter or Indiegogo author paid to print it, this sweet manuscript bound beneath a mind-blowing cover hand-painted in the blood of orphans by some artist the “about” page describes as living in a subterranean grotto in Europe that you can’t pronounce, this book you just had to back because it sounded way too sexy to let it languish unpublished in someone’s desk drawer, only to realize ten pages in that your author du jour couldn’t write his way out of a paper bag? And you start to wonder what happened to all the eloquence of their pitch, the detailed concepts, character bios, and skeletal outlines they’d developed. You start thinking that maybe they wrote the book themselves but hired Hemingway’s drunken ghost to write the sample chapter for their website, because there’s no way you’re ever going to think they wrote it, not after reading the steaming pile currently soiling your hands.

Then you uncork a bottle of something alcoholic, take a long shower, and cry about your empty wallet and poor decision-making skills.

I know. I’ve done it too. In fact, one of the last several crowdfunded projects that I supported (I won’t say how, or whether this was prior to or after its printing—author friends, don’t be paranoid), I had broken out my mental red pen only 9 lines into the first page of the introductory note. I counted another two questionable punctuation and word choices by the end of the page.

It got worse from there.

The damnedest part is that the story itself is a good one, the writing considerably better than passable. This had every chance at being a legitimately good book, one easily recommendable, that might have lived a modestly successful life outside of friends-and-family charity and a polite round of sales. And okay, that chance is still there—if 50 Shades and Mary Higgins Clark have taught us anything, it’s that you don’t have to be a good writer to make a living at this. But were you to send this novel to a professional reviewer worth his salt, he’d rip it a new asshole. With his teeth. Because no matter how much the author thought it was, the manuscript just wasn’t there yet.

Not everyone is born an editor. I’ve met a lot of writers who can tell a great story or have an excellent ear for dialogue, but if you saw one of their manuscripts before an editor got to it, you’d wonder just how in the name of blue hell anyone ever published them. Then again, there are other writers who let almost nothing by them, who edit so impeccably that the publisher could just do a copy/paste job on the original material and print it. Everybody’s got a different set of skills.

So know who you are. Be honest about it. If you decide to self-publish or crowdfund a project, but you aren’t the super-editor kind of writer—or scratch that, even if you are, do the professional thing and hire a professional editor. Not just one of your friends who always wrote great essays in college. Not an author you know who’s really talented and has published stuff. Hire someone with experience, a proven track record that lets you know they do good work. Ask around. Talk to your author buddies, your writing group, any agents or publishers or editors you know.

But whatever you do, make sure you find somebody and pay them to take your book apart with extreme prejudice. Dismemberment, organ removal, trepanning, whatever it takes. Then fix it, and if you can afford to, pay them to do it again. Don’t be afraid to proofread the thing several dozen times before you give it to them, either.

Again, I don’t want to be a buzzkill. I don’t want to slow you down or make you think what you’re doing isn’t good enough. Because all this takes work, and it takes work for even the best and most prolific authors. Nobody gets it right the first time.

What I do want to save you from is making a papier mâché submarine, because we’ve got enough of them both in the crowdfunding world and out of it. We don’t need more. We’re living in the Information Age, with 2.5+ quintillion bytes of data generated every day, and (according to Bowker) the U.S. alone publishing more than a million books a year, 235,000 of those being self-published. With this much out there, we don’t need more garbage. We don’t need anything that isn’t as pristine and perfect as you can make it. Learn from the lessons of those who have gone before you, and remember that no matter how beautiful your cover, no matter how many posters or signed copies or hand-sewn plushie dolls of your characters you give away, what should matter most is the quality of the work you’re producing. If your idea is worth the effort you’re expending to put it into the world, treat it that way. If it isn’t, save the world another wasted ISBN number.

Have a heart. Those Library of Congress dudes are busy.

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