What a fantasy author’s multimillion-dollar Kickstarter means

The high water mark for Brandon Sanderson’s publishing advances likely came in 2009, when it was announced that Tor Books would front him $2.5 million for four volumes, or $625,000 per book. The recent advance from his readers of him has eclipsed that by at least a factor of 15.

Sanderson launched a Kickstarter at the beginning of March for four “secret novels,” which he has already written, to be delivered over 2023. His campaign shattered the previous Kickstarter fundraising record of $20.3 million (for a smartwatch) in little over a day. With 16 days still left to go on the campaign, over 122,000 backers had pledged more than $28 million for his new novels, in amounts that ran the gamut from $40 for quarterly ebooks to all four books delivered in hardcover, “UNSIGNED,” along with the ebooks, audiobooks, and “swag boxes” for $500. The price for getting all four hardcover books delivered to your door next year clocked in at $200, including shipping.

Sanderson is a fantasy novelist who worked at it a long time before getting a lick of success. He wrote 13 novels, mostly during the 1990s, before he managed to have one published.

“The books were written over a decade while Sanderson was working as a night clerk at a hotel — a job chosen specifically because as long as he stayed awake, his bosses didn’t mind if he wrote between midnight and 5am,” reported the Guardian in 2020. Publishers kept telling this prolific night clerk that his “epic fantasies were too long, that he should try being darker or ‘more like George RR Martin’ … His attempts to write grittier books were terrible, he says, so he became ‘kind of depressed.’”

Eventually, persistence paid off. Sanderson found his voice from him and located an audience too. He was even entrusted to finish Robert Jordan’s wheel of time series after Jordan’s death. He has not just written novels and had his publishers of him, Tor and Delacorte, distribute them to the masses. He has done all the traditional authorial promotional things, plus built up a YouTube channel with almost 350,000 subscribers. In some of those videos, he is joined by his pet macaw, Magellan. Sanderson “is incredibly well known with a passionate fan base,” writes novelist JCM Berne. Also, this isn’t Sanderson’s first crowdfunded rodeo. He ran a Kickstarter campaign in 2020 to publish an illustrated, two-volume leather-bound set of his most popular book The Way of Kings. He was trying to raise $250,000 to pull this off. By the time the campaign ended, he had collected over $6.7 million from almost 30,000 backers.

“This is huge and great news for all of us writers because finally the fiction section of Kickstarter will start getting some attention,” argued sci-fi and genre writer Gene Wesley Smith at the time. “Just like with the gaming side [of Kickstarter], it needed a huge name to come in and blow the number out of the water so that the entire category will get more attention.” And Sanderson was just the headliner that Kickstarter fiction needed.

His good showings in 2020 and the most recent campaign have made some green with envy. “How Angry Should Other Writers Be About Brandon Sanderson’s $22 Million Kickstarter?” was the title of an article in slate. The answer to that clickbaity question is: They shouldn’t. “There’s been, unsurprisingly, some grousing on social media about whether such an already commercially successful author needs that kind of money,” wrote critic Laura Miller. Also: “Others have been frustrated that it’s a straight white Mormon man benefiting from this largess.” Miller concedes, however, that “it’s hard to take issue with a guy who’s simply selling his books directly to people who really, really want to read them.”

The larger question this Kickstarter raises is about the future of publishing. What does the industry look like when big names can cash in through crowdfunding instead of relying on the current advance system and sales through brick-and-mortar and online bookstores? And a related question: If enough bestselling authors cash in directly, what happens to traditional publishing?

Currently, publishers operate on the star system. A very small number of writers and books bring in the lion’s share of the money. Those resources allow publishers to put together smaller but meaningful advances to pay writers who don’t sell nearly as many copies, or “midlist” authors. If enough stars walk, they could walk enough money out the door to make that arrangement basically unsustainable for big publishers. Is that likely to happen? Berne said that “maybe another similarly famous author could replicate this success” but he insisted “there are no implications for the little people like me.” He pointed out that golden handcuffs in the form of multibook contracts may keep many successful authors from cashing in on crowdfunding any time soon. “Almost nobody else is going to be able to fulfill their existing contracts and write a set of extra books at the same time,” Berne wrote. “Few people are as prolific as Sanderson.”

All of that may be true, but $39 million and counting could convince a few writers to be a little more prolific. In fact, that looks to be what happened with Sanderson himself. His first Kickstarter of him was not for a new story. It was for a prestige, limited edition of one of his earlier works by him. Success like that has a way of making people more productive. Sanderson essentially confirmed this effect when he wrote on the page of his latest campaign, “Over the last two years, a group of ideas wormed their way into my brain and I found I couldn’t let them go. Despite all of my other obligations, I had to write these stories.” It’s a good bet he’ll keep writing for a long time. His life of him is now the stuff of fantasy, and that could have some big effects on the whole publishing industry.

Jeremy Lott is the creator of the crowdfunded comic book Movie Men.

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