How I crowdfunded a book and fell in love again with physical things

By James Robinson , written on July 21, 2014

From The News Desk

In the middle of November last year I became one of the masses of successful crowdfunders, a small quirk of a lot of the reporting on crowdfunding I’ve done this year.

Before I joined Pando in January I was a freelance journalist. One of my many jobs was writing a blog, Voyages in America, for a major New Zealand website (confession: I am not a natural born American) detailing the highs and lows of my move to America in 2010. It did well (by New Zealand terms, I guess), running over 350 blog posts and across two and a half years. Fifty thousand people read each month. Sadly, the blog was cut for budgetary reasons last October, but I took it as an opportunity to try and leverage the support I’d felt into a book.

Watching the counter on Kickstarter tick over the $15,000 mark 29 days into a 30 day campaign was a surreal experience. These last few weeks, sending my book out to supporters (only 50 or so days late! – take that Healbe) and negotiating sales terms with bookstores has been satisfying beyond words.

But in the grand scheme of things, the true lesson of it all to me -- a guy who spends his days writing online -- has been a deep, first hand appreciation of how incredibly tiresome and insanely rewarding it is to make a real, physical thing.

With cash in hand by the end of November last year, I sat down to begin write over Thanksgiving break. My first thought, having banked a large amount of money thanks to Kickstarter, was that it's bit a weird that no one from the company reaches out  to you in such a situation to make sure you know what you’re doing. The pressure of that money and the faith people have shown in you never leaves. I can only wonder how that expectation might convince someone with less scruples to run for the hills...

I had a notion of how I would turn 350,000 hastily blogged words into a somewhat cogent narrative. I wanted to write 25,000 new words to go alongside 50 to 60 thousand old ones chosen from this stack of old material. I gave myself three months. This wasn’t a daunting task from a writing perspective. It would be a more a feat of editing than anything else.

As I went back through two and a half years of my own work online, a clear lesson stared back at me: A book has definition. There is a start and an end. It is a document set in time. You can hold it.

The Internet, on the other hand is a river of content. I had blogged three times a week for almost two and a half years. Boiling down 350,000 words into the best 60,000 wasn’t as difficult as I’d imagined. There’s a Lorne Michaels quote referenced in Tina Fey’s ‘Bossypants’ about making Saturday Night Live: “The show doesn’t go on because it’s ready; it goes on because it’s 11:30.” I thought about this a lot in my prior life as a thrice-weekly blogger. These weren’t words I’d stewed over until they were perfect, it was work that had been published because it was due. As I went back through, a decent chunk could be written off as filler, a large of amount was a retread of something I’d already done and a lot of these posts struck me in hindsight to be not quite as clever as I’d imagined.

I dismissed about two thirds of the content in a day. The gulf between, “it’s Monday, what should I publish?” and “what do I want to be held to and associated with in this book that will serve as a proud professional document” made the job a lot easier than I’d figured.

As I began editing the book in mid-February, parsing it back from a cumbersome 87,000 words to a much tighter 72,000, I’d begun full-time employment at Pando. I quickly got a sense of how delivery timetables in crowdfunding become a catalog of best intentions. I’d pencilled in the end of May as my shipping date. A couple of weeks for editing, a couple of weeks for design, a couple of weeks for printing.


Yeah… Not so much.

I chose my designer for two reasons: i) he’s a very dear old friend; and ii) he is talented. But he’d never done a book before. As naive as this might sound, I learned fast that laying out words on a book page isn’t quite like choosing that perfect Wordpress template.

Over manic, late night, Oakland-to-Auckland Skype sessions my designer Jon and I would tear apart our bookshelves breaking down examples of what goes into making a page look good. Each tweak of font size, margin, the gap between lines, the spacing of the headers, would have unintended run on effects. Something would become perfect, but something else would get thrown out of whack. Between both of our full schedules, each change took days to get right.

Soon it was early May. We were almost finished with the design, but the book still needed to get a final manuscript edit. I was now tied up in negotiations with printers, working out a whole new set of considerations. Paper stock? Grain? Tone? Laminated cover? Offset or digital? My head hurt.

(60 pound. Cougar. Natural white. Nope. Digital, because the economics of offset printing don’t really work with just 1,000 books.)

I knew in my heart we weren’t going to make it. It felt like a big deal to accept being late. The funny thing was, none of my backers cared in the least. People were so used to vague schedules with crowdfunding that a few weeks long delay felt like early delivery to most.

On the first Saturday of June I drove down to my printer in Sunnyvale and picked up a digital proof. I stupidly packed myself off to Nashville for Pando’s Southland thinking that the book might be waiting for me when I got home. But there was another month to go, in no small part due to a series of price disputes with my printer. The grey of my name on the cover was washed out against the cover color and required two extra proofs to get right. A paper supplier went bankrupt.

Just as I was about to go crazy, I kind of fell in love. I was swamped in details. But these were the things that had to be considered to make something that you wanted to hold in your hand, that people would want to look at.

Bits and atoms are messy and difficult. As a hardware reporter, even just making a book, I got a priceless feel for the patience needed to make everything perfect.

Even this past weekend, stuck at home, packaging up hundreds of books to send out – individually, across the world, many of them personally signed – it was a firsthand taste of the mind numbing joy and utter mysery involved in moving real things about.

One thousand books arrived in my house ten days ago. The official on-sale date is August 1, but it can be bought here already. (Check it out.)

Giving the book out to people these last few days, seeing them smile for a few seconds, respond positively, and then put it away, all the while knowing how much agony and patience and attention and unwillingness to compromise on standards went into making it all happen, is about as good as anything has felt for me professionally.

There’s much effort involved in making something look effortless. There's a lot of beauty in every detail.

How this has affected my own views of other people's crowdfunding is complicated. The pointy end of the production cycle of my book taught me that there's always going to be so many things happen that you can't account for. Any sane person would choose being a little bit late over shipping a crappy product.

It's made me more sympathetic as an observer, but also harsher. Getting the chance to make something awesome thanks to the generosity of regular people is a privilege. Taking that for granted is unforgivable. It is the soul of the entire institution.

[illustration by Brad Jonas for Pando]