Déjà Vu All Over Again: Crowdsourcing

Earlier this year I watched fellow history buff Sarah Towles run a Kickstarter campaign for her innovative digital history projects at Time Traveler Tours and Tales. As far as I can tell, she ran a model campaign, combining the precision of Bismarck and the charm of Wellington. She’s still doing a great job at making her contributors feel like part of the process. If the day ever comes when I want to run my own Kickstarter campaign, she will be my model.*

Crowdsourcing is a wonderful new model for funding projects that takes advantage of our new ability to find our people and make them part of the process. It is innovative, exciting, and looks amazingly like what authors, printmakers and publishers from the earliest days of printing through the nineteenth century knew as selling things “by subscription.”

Back in the days when publishers were glorified printers and there was no mass distribution system for books, works that didn’t already have a guaranteed market** were often sold by subscription, which meant that people paid up front for a book, which didn’t get published unless enough people ponied up. John Milton’s Paradise Lost, Samuel Johnson’s Dictionary of the English Language, and many of the novels of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries were sold by subscription. Mark Twain was a big fan of the business model. He claimed that “Anything but subscription publication is printing for private circulation.” As late as 1926, T.E. Lawrence (aka Lawrence of Arabia) offered the very expensive first edition of The Seven Pillars of Wisdom by private subscription.

Lawrence’s experience points up the hazards of the model, then and now. The Seven Pillars of Wisdom was expensive, but not expensive enough. The sales price covered only one-third of the production costs. Crowdsourcing does not absolve you from doing the math.

*And, no, that is not a hint. There is no such plan on the horizon. The mere thought makes me want to go lie down. Preferably with a large whiskey in my hand.
**i.e. almost everything

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