There’s nothing like the announcement of a fat book advance to set other writers grumbling in protest, whether the jackpot winners are Michelle and Barack Obama, who landed a staggering $65 million deal for two books in 2017 or such unsavory figures as right-wing provocateur Milo Yiannopoulos, whose relatively modest $250,000 contract with Simon & Schuster caused enough uproar that the book was eventually canceled earlier the same year.
But the announcement today that fantasy novelist Brandon Sanderson’s Kickstarter campaign to fund the publication of four books had surpassed $20.8 million to become the platform’s most richly funded project to date presents an unusual challenge for critics of how publishing values books.* Conservatives could complain that an overwhelmingly liberal industry had drastically overestimated the popularity of the Obamas and progressives could complain that a company like Simon and Schuster showed terrible judgment in promoting and lining the pockets of a troll like Yiannopoulos. But in Sanderson’s case, there’s no gatekeeper to blame.
Literary writers have long bemoaned the amount of money and promotional resources publishers have poured into books by celebrities, politicians, and the authors of formulaic commercial fiction. More recently, critics of the industry have demanded that publishers invest in more titles by authors of diverse identities. Since Sanderson’s Kickstarter made headlines, there’s been, unsurprisingly, some grousing on social media about whether such an already commercially successful author needs that kind of money. “Today is a really good day to support your favorite author who hasn’t made $18M in the last few days,” tweeted the fantasy novelist Natania Barron. Others have been frustrated that it’s a straight white Mormon man benefitting from this largesse: “There is so much excellent diverse SFF out there,” tweeted the critic Alex Brown, “and y’all are intent on giving that man millions of dollars.”
But it’s hard to take issue with a guy who’s simply selling his books directly to people who really, really want to read them. Sanderson wouldn’t have such a large following, of course, without the benefit of years of publishing conventionally, with the full resources of a traditional publishing house and its distribution networks behind him. (He also wouldn’t have that following if he weren’t reliably pleasing his readers.) And that $23.3 million won’t go as far as an old-fashioned advance, since Sanderson has to print, warehouse, and ship the books himself, along with the swag boxes and special collector’s editions that many of the project’s subscribers have purchased. It is, of course, a vast pile of money, but it’s not unprecedented: Dell paid Ken Follett about the same amount for two books all the way back in 1990 while Penguin paid a reputed $50 million advance for Follet’s Century trilogy in 2008. For that, Follett didn’t have to do anything but write.
A novelist as popular as Sanderson may even be taking a slight loss on this operation, compared to what he might net if he released these books through his current publisher, Tor. But Sanderson is interested enough in the business side of book publishing to try this experiment, and at a time of paper shortages, container ship catastrophes, and other supply-side headaches, to boot. Most authors of any identity or level of literary accomplishment aren’t interested in taking on such a project. And it’s not every author whose fans are willing to pay more for swag and for books printed on fancier paper with plusher bindings. This enterprise and its success is unique to Sanderson himself, and the track record he has with his fans.
There may be a handful of authors—Neil Gaiman and George R.R. Martin spring to mind—who could pull off something similar. There are authors who sell even more books, such as James Patterson or Diana Gabaldon, but whose fan base doesn’t care much about collectibles. And it’s entirely possible there are still other writers out there unfamiliar to me with fanbases so doggedly devoted that they might well be eyeing Sanderson’s $22 million haul and thinking, “I can beat that.” But I suspect not more than a handful.
It’s one thing to challenge publishers to provide readers with a wider variety of books by a more diverse selection of authors so that everyone can find more books to appreciate. It’s another to scold readers for their enthusiastic support of an author whose work they genuinely love because there are authors and books you consider—for whatever reason—more worthy. People don’t enjoy books simply because other people tell them that they should. And if I were one of those allegedly superior authors, I’m not sure I’d want to see my own work cast in the eat-your-spinach role against Sanderson’s French fries. Writers always seem to find a way to begrudge each other’s successes, but the case against Sanderson and his fans is based on sheer fantasy.
Correction, March 7, 2022: This article originally misstated that the four books are a series. The four books are stand-alone titles.