No, Brandon Sanderson didn’t break the publishing industry

Brandon Sanderson has been in the news a lot the past week. The author announced on March 1 that he’d secretly written five extra novels during the pandemic, and that he would be releasing four of them through a Kickstarter campaign. Within days, Sanderson’s crowdfunding campaign became the highest funded Kickstarter of all time. To date it has raised over $24 million to fund the release of these books in 2023; backers can also opt to receive a monthly subscription box of merchandise for an additional price. Even more impressive, at the time that the Kickstarter broke the record, very little was actually known about the books. Sanderson plans to release details about each book throughout the month, but the vast majority of the funding thus far has come while the content of the books themselves is still largely a mystery.

It’s a historic moment in publishing, one that by all appearances surprised even Sanderson and his team. They set their goal for this Kickstarter at $1 million. It surpassed that benchmark just 35 minutes after going live. The shock was palpable on the author’s livestreams. This is in essence a self-published project; Sanderson owns his own publishing house called Dragonsteel Books, which will be managing every aspect of the release of these “Secret Projects.”

Seeing Sanderson’s Kickstarter take off has led some to claim that the author has, in essence, fundamentally changed traditional publishing, or shown that it is obsolete. That authors don’t need big publishers anymore, because look, here’s this author making millions on his own!

I’m going to present you with a counterpoint today. Because as incredible as this Kickstarter phenomenon is (and it is incredible), it’s not representative of publishing issues at large. It’s not a sign that publishing is obsolete…although it’s a good reminder that writers have more options for getting their work out there today than ever before.

Brandon Sanderson is not the average author

Okay, so let’s talk about this. Did Brandon Sanderson actually break the publishing industry, showing us all the brave new frontier awaiting authors beyond the restrictive yoke of publishers?

Not really. In fact, Sanderson himself has said multiple times since all this started that he still loves working with his traditional publishers Tor and Delacorte Press, and has every intention of continuing those collaborations. But Sanderson himself is simply not representative of the average author. The fact that he was able to pull this Kickstarter off and break records in the process is the result of many years of work, not only in writing a ton of books, but also in building a highly invested community around those books.

Throughout Sanderson’s career he has taught classes, helped create podcasts like writing excuses and Intentionally Blankand of course finished Robert Jordan’s The Wheel of Time after Jordan passed away, which led to a ton of the fans of that series becoming aware of Sanderson’s own books. Before the pandemic he was spending almost a third of his time traveling to promote his work from him, which is something look and few authors can justify doing, as well as something that Sanderson himself has said he couldn’t manage to do any longer. Instead, he’s traveling less and running a successful YouTube channel to communicate directly with fans on a weekly basis. That’s a huge amount of sustained communication on quite a few different mediums, all of which have contributed to the author’s long-term visibility of him.

Moreover, Sanderson has an extremely well-established business that supports his work: Dragonsteel Books. This organization employs so many people that when Sanderson referred to it as a “small press” during the Kickstarter launch livestream, he had to pause to correct himself by saying it’s actually a mid-size press.

Science fiction author John Scalzi talked a little about this in a recent blog post about Sanderson’s Kickstarter. Scalzi and Sanderson both made their publishing debuts in 2005, Scalzi with Old Man’s War and Sanderson with Elantris. The two have been friends and colleagues these past 16 years, which means that Scalzi has seen Sanderson’s progression as an author. He emphasizes that aside from the fact that Sanderson has a dogged work ethic and has had several specific instances where luck and hard work overlapped to helped boost his career, he’s also built a merchandising backend on a scale that almost no other author has managed. Even before Dragonsteel Books started using Kickstarter, they had been creating custom leatherbound editions of Sanderson’s books since 2015. That means that when fans bought in to this newest mystery book Kickstarter, there was no question of whether or not Sanderson and his team could deliver. They’ve already proven they can, and the fans trust them.

“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,” Scalzi wrote.

This “already-built organization” part is absolutely crucial. Scalzi argues that virtually no other author working today could replicate the sheer scale of what Sanderson is doing with this Kickstarter right now, although there are a handful he believes could come close due to their experience with merchandising and fulfillment.

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 large 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).

All of this isn’t to say that it’s impossible for new authors to build up a successful business backend, but that it’s impossible to separate Sanderson’s current success with this Kickstarter since the years of work he and the rest of his company have done to establish their mid-size publishing business.

I’d actually go so far as to say that it’s almost a misnomer to call this a “Brandon Sanderson Kickstarter,” because that makes it sound like he’s running the whole thing himself. Really, it is a Dragonsteel Books Kickstarter, and Dragonsteel has been consistently growing to make itself a force in the publishing industry, with Sanderson at its head. Without the dedicated team of people Sanderson has hired, it’s doubtful we’d have seen this Kickstarter become as successful as it has. Of course, Brandon Sanderson being a household name with an insane amount of popularity is obviously an enormous factor too.

It also helps that three of these Secret Project books are set in the Cosmere, Sanderson’s own MCU-style interconnected universe. Any time a book is labeled as part of the Cosmere, fans of series like mistborn and The Stormlight Archive are going to be interested. All of these factors have contributed to the Kickstarter’s success in their own ways.

Traditional publishers are still important, but they are not the only path to success

None of this is to say that Kickstarter can’t be useful for authors, just that to hold up Sanderson’s record-breaking success as a sign that publishers aren’t necessary is preemptive at best.

In a recent panel I attended at this year’s Boskone writing convention, author Cory Doctorow recalled a great piece of publishing wisdom he’d once been given: “publishing is the art of making your books public.” Traditional publishers still excel at that, and give many authors a way to get their books out to readers while easing the burden of having to do all of the business stuff that goes along with that. Copyediting, cover design, typesetting, distribution, marketing…all these things and more go into a book release. Traditional publishers big and small help with them, to varying degrees of success.

In essence, when you sign with a traditional publisher you are getting a team of dedicated people who will work on your release. What Sanderson has done is build his own team at Dragonsteel Books. They already handle many aspects of his traditional releases of him, including some of the editorial and the artwork.

But is it possible to not rely on traditional publishers at all? Sure. Self-publishing books has never been as viable or accessible as it is today. But to do it successfully requires a lot of entrepreneurial heavy lifting, which suits some authorial personalities better than others. To use a somewhat clunky metaphor, self-publishing is one kind of shoe that fits some authors. Traditional publishing is another. Hybrid publishing, where you publish both on your own and through traditional publishers, is a third, and so on. There are a lot of shoes available to authors, who have all varieties of gnarled and uniquely shaped feet.

Okay, the metaphor is getting away from me, but you get the picture. The point is that there are a wide range of publishing tools for writers looking to get their work out there. Kickstarter is one of those tools, and just like any other, results vary. There are plenty of small presses that have been using Kickstarter regularly for years, like Uncanny and Zombies Need Brainswith great results.

But to claim that publishing is dead because one of the biggest authors in the world broke a record in a perfect storm of events that surprised even that author’s well-established team of professional collaborators is not taking into account the many factors at work here. It’s almost a discredit to the colossal amount of work that Sanderson and his team have done over the years to uniquely position themselves to be ready for the immense task of fulfillment that lies ahead of them.

The big takeaway here is that there are more options than ever to publish and share books with the world, and that no matter which ones you choose, it’s going to take a lot of work. And as much as we might wish otherwise, luck remains a factor. Sanderson’s team got lucky today, and he has done the hard work needed to capitalize on it. And that’s great. In my opinion, anytime a fantasy book author breaks into the mainstream news cycle, it’s an enormous win for the genre as a whole.

But make no mistake: traditional publishing isn’t going anywhere today. And that’s a good thing for the many authors for whom it’s the right path.

Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter runs through the end of March, which means that if you aren’t among the 100,000+ people who have backed it so far, you’ve still got time to secure your copies of his Secret Project books for 2023.

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