Why I won’t be launching my fantasy novels on Kickstarter

It seems unlikely that anyone will ever read my epic fantasy trilogy about the adventures of Angor Ironfist. There are four reasons for this. First, it’s unreadable. Second, it is unfinished. Third, it was written on a now-obsolete BBC microcomputer, in a now-obsolete word processor called Wordwise Plus, and stored on a now-obsolete 5¼-inch floppy disk. After all, I threw away that disk years ago. If it exists at all, it’s buried deep in an undisclosed dump.

And yet, what if this unfinished novel is worth tens of millions of dollars? Kickstarter news got me thinking about renting an excavator and digging for buried treasure – that sort of thing poor chap in Wales who threw away a hard drive containing the code needed to access hundreds of millions of dollars worth of bitcoin and who promises to share any proceeds with Newport City Council if he can only try to get them out of the city dump to dig up.

What is this Kickstarter news? Why, Brandon Sanderson news, Of course. Sanderson, a popular and prolific fantasy and science fiction writer who usually works with conventional publishers, approached the fundraising site with four new novels and what appeared to be an ambitious goal of raising $1 million in just 30 days.

The million dollars rolled in in just over 30 minutes and more than $15 million in the first 24 hours. At $30 million and counting, Sanderson’s still unfinished Kickstarter campaign is by far the most popular in the site’s history, beating out a fancy clock, fancy picnic cooler, and board game.

Needless to say, $30 million is a lot of money; it is a thousand times more than many authors expect in advance. However, Sanderson can’t just pocket that money. He has to pay for the books to be edited, designed, typeset, printed and distributed. Reportedly employing 30 people, he effectively owns a small publishing company, albeit one whose sole purpose is to publish Brandon Sanderson books.

Still, it’s an impressive feat, and several author friends of mine have muttered about turning to Kickstarter to get their next title published. I’m not tempted yet, partly because I’m all too aware of Kickstarter’s whispers remember deathKick ended“.

I’ve written before about Kickended, a project that saw artist Silvio Lorusso scouring Kickstarter for examples of projects raising exactly zero dollars. The project is worth not as mockery, but as context. For every success on Kickstarter, there is a nefarious failure. (In fact, for every successful project on Kickstarter, there is a project that increases no more than 20 percent its funding goals.)

Sometimes the reasons for failure are obvious, at least in hindsight. But Kickstarter can be volatile. It may have been obvious that someone trying to raise CA$10,000 to make an antipasto salad on the site would find no takers at all. But supposedly called a gentleman Zack Danger Brown had just raised $55,492 to make a potato salad, so why not?

That’s life, you might think. Sometimes a dumb project takes off, and usually it doesn’t. But that is not how our understanding of the world is formed. I’m confident this is the first article ever written about the zero-dollar antipasti salad campaign, but I can find a thousand articles about the $55,492 potato salad, including the New Yorker, the BBC, the Guardian and the Washington Post and even the Financial Times.

This widespread reporting is changing our intuitions about the world. Numerous studies have shown that confronting an idea makes it seem more plausible. One of Pennycook, Cannon and Rand, showed people various headlines – some true, some false, but all spotted in the wild. Once people saw a fake news headline, they were more likely to believe it when it was shown again a week later.

This “illusory truth” effect seems to occur because people find it easier to process information they’ve seen before and then unconsciously take that familiarity as a sign of truth. Another recent study has a title that speaks for itself: “Success Stories Cause False Beliefs About Success.”

While we know deep down that neither Sanderson’s $30 million novels nor Brown’s $55,492 potato salad are examples of how things typically go on Kickstarter, those stories matter a lot.

This fact is not peculiar to Kickstarter either. Think of a tennis player or a soccer player. Who were you thinking of? Serena Williams? Cristiano Ronaldo? Most athletes you can imagine are brilliant, successful, and very well paid for their skills. But the vast majority of athletes are none of that. Can’t name many of them. The same applies to authors, actors and entrepreneurs.

We are surrounded by struggles, half-failures, setbacks and modest achievements. But we are also surrounded by unspectacular stories of spectacular triumphs. I wish Sanderson the best, but I don’t plan on looking for floppy disks any time soon.

Tim Harford’s new book isHow to summarize the world

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