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Is Crowdfunding the Future of Niche Books?


By nature and profession, I try to hitch my star to the Next Reliable Big Thing. I’m a freelance writer, blessed by so many terrific and supportive editors at this publication (where I have an extensive, but part-time role), Macworld magazine, and many others. But as a freelancer, my job is to find stories that don’t fit the beat of staffer writers, and to which I can bring something new.

That is what lit my fire about Wi-Fi, which I first started using in 2000. Apple offered to send me a review unit of an AirPort Base Station and some cards to use with gear I had. I dismissed it initially, because I’d seen previous infrared and wireless networking that simply didn’t work. But I agreed to check out the gear and was floored. It worked more or less as expected. That led to me writing a New York Times section cover story on public Wi-Fi hotspots the next year, and 10 years of writing the Wi-Fi Networking News blog, which I stopped updating last summer (and wrote about that, too).

The next big thing for me right now is crowdfunding, in which one creates a proposal and attempts to garner support from many people who act as donors, and provide rewards that may vary from intangible (a thank-you email) to eminently practical (an iPhone tripod adapter or a Bluetooth-connected electronic-paper watch). Kickstarter is the best known and highest-grossing platform (a site that manages pledges and campaigns), but there are many others in the United States and worldwide, many of which specialize in particular forms of

The reason I’m so excited about it has many roots. Primarily, it’s because it removes the problem of intermediation of funding, if you’re successful in convincing people to pay for what you’re about to do. Creative types, whether visual artists, filmmakers, or product designers, may always be able to self-finance projects to the limits of savings, personal wealth, or credit cards. Or may go after patrons for the arts, angel or venture-capital investors, or even banks.

But all of these require someone that stands between you and your potential audience. Crowdfunding doesn’t make the problem of funding disappear, but it does let you talk directly to people who already know what you do and like it, and let them make a contribution to you doing something like that again, but something over which you have total control.

And with crowdfunding, which is often called micropatronage by the wonky, the pledges made to fulfill a project are a kind of vote of confidence. If you’re wondering whether people want the fruits of your labors, seeing them agree to give money before you’ve made it gives you the answer.

That’s another root to be my excitement. In the book industry, crowdfunding has the potential to replace some of the uncertainty about whether one should devote the time to a topic before that time is devoted. For certain kinds of books, we at the Take Control series know the risk to take. We know we need titles about Mountain Lion, because our existing readers are going to need such titles. Over each successive Mac OS X release, we’ve adjusted which books get updated, and sometimes merge information from someone into others. (My Sharing Files book, for instance, was axed after Leopard because Apple had improved file sharing and reduced complexity to the point that there simply wasn’t a need for it any more among users who had figured
out what they needed to know with previous OS X releases.)

But the decisions we make about producing many books are speculative. This is true for the technology book world, in which it’s easier to see the popularity of discrete topics like the Ruby on Rails programming language or Photoshop CS5, or in the world of general topic non-fiction, such as a new biography or a book explaining a scientific topic to laypeople.

We put up capital at risk, including at Take Control the opportunity cost for our labor, and hope that the power of marketing and relationship building produces the right level of interest and return. That backfires all the time, although we feel we have a good finger on the pulse of our readership. (That’s a separate issue from being able to reach, say, all potential Macintosh owners who should buy a copy of a new Mountain Lion book, and only convincing some of them to do so.)

One could argue that the traditional model of selling books can be described as reverse crowdfunding. With a crowdfunded book, people pledge for various rewards (perhaps just the book, or perhaps consulting from the author), and are charged when a dollar goal is met or a particular date is reached in the fundraising period. Backers then wait for the book to appear.

When books are put on sale, it is the opposite. The money is raised first (sometimes in the form of a contribution of labor, as on the author’s part, if he or she has no hard costs, only opportunity costs), and then a crowd decides whether or not to part with cash to repay that initial outlay. If not enough people buy the book to cover the costs, including contributed labor (not to mention even profit above a certain return on time), there’s no way to reverse that arrow of time and reclaim the work.

That’s why I’m so intrigued about turning the spotlight onto crowdfunding for technology books. We have a focused audience in you, the reader, and have polled in the past for books you have wanted us to write. Kickstarter exists as a platform to manage all the details of collecting pledges and managing the outcome. (It partners with Amazon for payments, and Amazon has hundred of millions of people with existing accounts, which reduces the friction for the payment process.)

In my personal case, I have been thinking about writing a book on crowdfunding for several months, because the interest level among people I know is so high, and yet the details of how to create, fund, and fulfill a project are not easily obtained. I built a proposal, something similar to what I might take to a publisher and pitch in order to get an advance to write the book, and launched it on Kickstarter as Crowdfunding: A Guide to What Works and Why. In a few days, I’m approaching a tenth of what the project needs to fund.

I picked a hard topic, and am having trouble finding my audience, because the group of folks who may want to launch a crowdfunding project in the next year could number in the hundreds of thousands, but they are a varied and dispersed group. The readers who know my name, and who read me here or follow me on Twitter aren’t a perfect intersection with the folks who I think need the book.

That’s why I wonder if a more focused technology book .

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