One way of resourcing a Transition initiative that has grown in popularity in recent years is crowdfunding. One of the best crowdfunding appeals I came across recently was by author and co-founder of the Dark Mountain Project Paul Kingsnorth to crowdfund his new book The Wake. The appeal met its target and used social media very effectively to create a buzz around the book. I was interested to hear more about it, so as part of a longer interview to be published next month, I started by asking Paul whether The Wake campaign was his first experience of crowdfunding:
“No, the Dark Mountain Project which we’ve been running for 5 years now, crowdfunding is very central to what we do. The Dark Mountain Manifesto was originally funded by crowdfunding and the first 4 of our annual collections of writing were all produced by crowdfunding as well. We’ve moved to a subscriptions model now, but very central to what we do was raising small amounts of money from a lot of different people who all pre-ordered the books, which gave us the money to actually produce them because we didn’t start Dark Mountain with any cash.
What happened with The Wake is similar but slightly different. It’s been published by a fairly new publisher which is only a few years old called Unbound, which is a very interesting experiment in combining traditional publishing with crowdfunding. So the way that they work is that if the publisher likes your book or your idea for a book, they will produce a film with you and put the film up on their website along with a description of the book and an extract of it with you, and they’ve effectively then got a package that they will send out to potential readers and you have to send out to potential readers as well. If you get enough supporters pre-ordering your book so you’ve got enough to cover the cost of the initial print run then they’ll go ahead and publish your book in the standard way.
It’s a very interesting response to the decline in the publishing industry and the fact that writers find it difficult to make a living. It’s also interestingly actually a return to the time before we had a publishing industry because obviously although the internet is central to the way that they do it, the idea of funding books by subscriptions is actually something that was very popular in the 18th century. We’re really going back to a time before we had big, central publishers who were able to give writers big advances, and using the web to attract readers to a project.
I’ve enjoyed it actually. I wasn’t sure how I was going to enjoy it, having had books published by traditional publishers before, but I’ve really enjoyed engaging with the readers before the book comes out and you do have this sense that rather than just creating a book which is going to be consumed by people buying it, you’re actually creating a community around it before it even comes out which for a writer is a very nice thing to do. Writing is a very solitary exercise as you know, you sit in your room just bashing stuff out. So engaging with readers before the book comes out is quite a nice thing to do.
With your experience with Dark Mountain, is your sense that crowdfunding is something the potential of which we’re only just starting to scratch, or that it’s somehow reached the end of what’s possible for it?
It’s interesting. It’s a good question because it’s evolving. My co-founder at Dark Mountain, Dougal Hine who introduced me to crowdfunding, I hadn’t really heard of it in 2009. Back then when we crowdfunded the manifesto there weren’t that many people doing it. These days, lots of people are crowdfunding a lot of things. It’s really caught on. It’s got into the mainstream media and there’s a huge amount of it going on, which I think to some degree lessens the impact of it because if everybody’s crowdfunding all of their albums and all their books and all the rest of it, there’s only so much money to go round and only so many projects that you want, or can afford, to support yourself.
I don’t think that means it doesn’t work any more, it does for lots of people. But I think it’s probably going to continue to evolve. Unbound is a bit of an evolution of crowdfunding in that way, in that it combines traditional publishing with crowdfunding. It takes hopefully the best of both. So I think it’s going to continue to evolve, but it’s a really good tool for particular types of project to get support.
Lastly, do you just want to tell us a little bit about The Wake?
Well having said all that, this is a completely different thing for me really. This is a novel, it’s taken me four years to write. It slightly sprung from my work on Real England. It’s set in England 1000 years ago. The relationship with what we’ve just been talking about is that it’s a novel of collapse. It’s a post-apocalyptic novel but it’s set 1000 years in the past instead of 1000 years into the future. It’s set after the Norman conquest and it looks at what happens to a man’s outer and inner worlds when everything that he’s known starts to fall away, and what kind of personality reacts well to that and what kind of personality reacts badly to it.
As I say, I spent four years quite intensely researching it and I ended up actually writing it in its own language, because I discovered that it’s actually quite impossible to write about Anglo-Saxon English using Modern English. It just didn’t work. So I ended up insanely inventing a kind of middle language between Old English and Modern English which has got it a few nice comments already before it’s come out. It’s published in April by Unbound.
What the relationship is between this and a lot of what we’ve been talking about here I suppose and particularly Dark Mountain, is that what we’re having to do now is reimagine our stories. Because the key thing that we said in the Dark Mountain manifesto is that civilisations are primarily built on stories and the things that we believe about ourselves and our place in the world determine how we act towards it. And so if the world changes, your stories have to change.
When things collapse and when your assumptions collapse and when the environment around you changes radically then the stories you tell yourself about your place within it have to change as well, and if they don’t then you’re in trouble because your old stories are not going to work. The novel is really about a man whose stories don’t work any more. In that sense, although it’s not intended to be any kind of allegory, there’s an obvious connection with England and the world that we’re living through at the moment in which the stories are starting to fall apart but we don’t know what the new ones should be.
Probably the final thing I’d say about all of this is that is Dark Mountain is about anything, and if what I’ve done since I wrote that essay has been about anything, it’s primarily been about holding on to that really uncertain, doubtful place where the old stories have fallen apart but you don’t know what the new ones should be. Where the old systems have gone down but you don’t know what the new systems are going to be. We’re in really uncertain times and it’s very tempting to cling on to any kind of certainty at all, even if it’s unconvincing.
But the really honest and difficult thing to do, which we all have trouble doing, is to try and hold that uncertain place and to be flexible enough to react to what’s actually happening rather than what you’d like to be happening. It’s very difficult, especially for those of us who were brought up in a culture of certainty. It seems to me to be a really useful thing to try and train yourself to do at the moment.
A longer interview with Paul will be part of our theme next month, ‘Living with Climate Change’.