The Art of the Self-Publisher in the Age of Mass Production: Crowdfunding and Scarcity

31 May 2021

Roberto Calasso wrote about “singular books” (i libri unici) when recounting conversations he had with Roberto Bazlen in his 2013 L’impronta dell’editore.1 Two co-conspirators of what would blossom into the respected Italian publishing house Adelphi Edizioni, a young Calasso and an aging Bazlen dreamed to publish unique, singular books.

Singular books are books in which “it is clear that something has happened to the author and has been put into writing,” Calasso writes reflecting on the conversations with Bazlen.2 He believes good publishers need to publish books they are proud of, and any good book rests on an author having a notable experience. Echoing this sentiment, the designer and writer Craig Mod said that great books are ones in which the authors are “experts of their own experience.”3

In some sense, every book is the product of an author’s experience. But I think what Calasso means is that singular books are ones that give the reader something remarkable, something extraordinary, or, for lack of a better term, something singular. They are books that stand out from the mass market in content and form. This idea skirts dangerously close to the edge of literary elitism no doubt, but Calasso has never stood down from his call to publish books that transcend the mundane.

Of course there is a hazard in publishing “good” books of such great singularity that if and when they do not sell as well as the publisher hopes, the author declares proudly that the “public just doesn’t understand!” But we must remember that while the avant-garde has often been the bourgeoise, the former rarely begets the latter. Even Calasso admits as much: “a good publishing house is unlikely to be of any particular interest in economic terms.”4

Yet, in an age defined by its mass — mass vaccinations, mass markets, mass media, mass production, mass consumption, mass transit, mass culture — perhaps the extraordinary is the very thing readers (and authors) need.

If anything can be harnessed by authors, artists, and creators in this massive age, it is mass communication and its power to independently and directly connect them with consumers. Kevin Kelly’s notion of “1,000 true fans” — that creators can make a living from the support of just 1,000 dedicated supporters — has become a touchstone for success among indie creators in the age of mass consumption.5

Or perhaps it has become a sword-in-the-stone, an elusive mark of power that ensures greatness only if wielded correctly, for independent creators know how difficult it is to get 1,000 followers on Instagram to say nothing of 1,000 “true fans.” But the idea’s power lies in its accessibility; securing 1,000 dedicated supporters seems much more achievable and realistic than the undefined goal of becoming Instafamous or, worse, just “making it.”

Kelly’s model has been put to the test in the last decade by a new breed of self-publishers and independent authors like Craig Mod, Jan Chipchase, and even Kevin Kelly himself, who have leveraged their audiences to self-publish singular books on crowdfunding platforms like Kickstarter.

A new breed of self-publishers

Chief ideologue among the new breed of self-publishers is the Japan-based writer and designer Craig Mod, who has successfully crowdfunded three titles — Art Space Tokyo, Koya Bound, and Kissa by Kissa — and generated no less than $250,000 in sales between them. Not a bad figure for around 4,000 copies sold, combined. Sly Mod also created his own crowdfunding software to rival Kickstarter, which he calls “Craigstarter” and has made freely available on Github, in part to avoid the additional fees imposed by the crowdfunding giant.6

Mod is not alone in his success. His friends Jan Chipchase and Kevin Kelly crowdfunded their own campaigns to similar fanfare. Chipchase’s massive The Field Study Handbook campaign succeeded with some $336,000 in sales. And Kelly’s recent Vanishing Asia, even more massive and successful, generated over $600,000 in sales.

Sure, these are unicorns. But joining Mod, Chipchase, and Kelly are hundreds of other new self-publishers who use crowdfunding services like Kickstarter to launch their own singular books. Most don’t generate sales as high as Mod, Chipchase, and Kelly, but they often succeed in their campaigns to bring their singular books to life.

I’d like to think that these books are singular in more ways than one. Though the Biblioteca Adelphi books published by Calasso are elegantly designed, they are mass produced for mass consumption. And unlike most modern self-publishers who rely on print-on-demand technologies to produce paperback books that rival quality of trade paperbacks, the books created by those like Mod, Chipchase, and Kelly often have limited print runs and are made by artisan printers in countries not known for cheap manufacturing like Japan and Iceland. In other words, they’re creating fine press books and objects d’art.

Limited edition books as objects d’art

In a world of mass production and consumption, manufacturers don’t think much about scarcity. But for independent creators and self-publishers, scarcity can be the secret ingredient.

In his famous essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, Walter Benjamin lamented the rise of mass production for its assault on the physical object d’art and our subjective experience with it. For Benjamin, reproduced images devalue a work of art’s “aura.”7 In other words, Benjamin claims that the ubiquitous reproduction destroys the original work of art’s value and authenticity.

Of course, some would counter that the very ubiquity of reproductions increases the original work of art’s aesthetic value, to say nothing of its cash value and its cultural cachet. But some of these new self-publishers are producing limited edition print runs and foregoing the potential ubiquity made available by print-on-demand technology. They look at books as objects d’art with aesthetic value, not solely as utilitarian things that contain knowledge helpful or beneficial to the reader.

Case in point, the artist George D. Cochrane recently made news with his successfully crowdfunded Divine Comedy.8 Copies of the Divine Comedy are literally a dime a dozen; a copy can be purchased for around a penny, orders of magnitude less than it costs to ship it to you. But Cochrane’s richly illustrated edition sped past its $14,000 goal and generated some $360,000 in sales.

Cochrane’s case is particularly interesting because, though he is a talented artist, the book’s design and its architectural typography based on the artist’s lettering make it all but unreadable. Perhaps that’s okay, as maybe this isn’t a book that is meant to be read — it is one that is meant to be kept, admired, and collected. It is “a rare gift for collectors, scholars and enthusiasts, and an heirloom to pass on to future generations,” says the campaign.9

A collectable’s value lies in its disuse and inutility: trading cards kept instead of traded; comics sealed and in “unread” condition; teaspoons and royal wedding porcelain on display in the cupboard unused; uncirculated stamps and currency; vintage toys sealed in their original packaging. And the new self-publisher who can tap into the psychology of scarcity and collectability might see dividends even if their book isn’t particularly “useful” or legible.

The space for digital copies

You’d be mistaken if the new self-publishers didn’t offer digital copies alongside the physical object.

In Mod’s Koya Bound Kickstarter campaign, around 14% of his nearly 600 backers supported the digital-only version of the book at $15. The rest opted for a physical book. Similarly, in his earlier Kickstarter campaign for Art Space Tokyo, some 10% of the 265 supporters opted for the digital-only version at $25. More recently, however, with two print editions of Mod’s Kissa by Kissa approaching nearly $200,000 in sales in a few weeks, not one dollar was made from selling a PDF or digital copy… a digital version wasn’t even on offer.

Limited-edition or scarce books needn’t be limited to physical objects. In a twist, Kevin Kelly offered a “Limited edition PDF” in his Vanishing Asia campaign valued at $1,000 and limited to 20 copies. It is unclear exactly how Kelly’s “limited edition” PDF is indeed limited, but the concept of scarcity on digital products has been gaining momentum of late especially with the rise of non-fungible tokens.

A non-fungible token (NFT) is a type of digital property, a one-of-a-kind asset that, despite being stored on the blockchain, can take the form of certificates of authenticity or ownership for digital or physical objects. They are the digital equivalent of scarcity and help enforce it.

And NFTs are big business. In March, Christie’s made news for being the first to auction a “digital-only” work of art. The JPG came in the form of an NFT and sold for over $69 million dollars.10 Sotheby’s also sold an NFT of a mind-bending collection of digital art for some $16 million.11 And it seems that everyday more and more creators are joining the NFT craze.

Are NFTs the future for artists, authors, and creators? Will we see this new breed of self-publisher utilize NTFs to impose “scarcity” on digital goods? Will authors leverage NFTs for digital “first editions?” The jury is still out. But for the moment, it seems the physical object reigns, and the new self-publisher in the age of mass production might do well by thinking about them.

Lessons learned

What lessons can we learn from this new breed of self-publishers? The first is that Kelly’s idea of 1,000 true fans can work. With an established author platform and audience, the power of 1,000 true fans can be leveraged to bring a singular book into the world while also turning a handsome profit.

The second is that form and materials matter. The new breed of self-publishers, in paying close attention to both content and form, strive to produce an extraordinary book and say “there is no other book like this.” In what might be the ultimate marriage of mind and body, they also want to produce an extraordinary book in terms of its design. Enter fine art books. The Barcelona-based artist Marina Esmeraldo wrote in her Kickstarted art book campaign, “we think of the book as a work in itself, seeking to break with the notion that ‘content’ and ‘container’ are separate things. Following the same logic, instead of designing the ‘cover’ of a container, we want the book itself, as a whole, to be an art piece.” Self publishers who pay attention to a book’s form, “container,” and materials might see the work elevated. Everyone likes a good book. But a good book that is also beautiful is loved.

Perhaps another lesson is that the market rewards scarcity. To say “there is no other book like this” is to also say that this book is physically scarce. And self-publishers can pull the sword from the stone when they leverage 1,000 true fans who buy into an extraordinary book (both in terms of content and form) that has a limited print run.

I doubt the new self-publishers would turn down a lucrative mass-market paperback book deal if presented with one. For the time being, however, these micro publishers are doing just fine without it.