Stacey Jay, Kickstarter and the Value of Female Creators

Last week, YA author Stacey Jay put up a Kickstarter to fund the sequel to her novel, Princess of Thorns. The book hadn't done well enough for her publisher to be interested in releasing any more, but it had done well enough for her to think that self-publishing would be worthwhile, and she decided to make a Kickstarter both to fund the project (she's a full time writer) and to test the waters to see if enough people actually wanted a sequel. Cue the internet backlash. Most of the anger seemed to focus on the fact that Jay included living expenses in her Kickstarter, with people suggesting that readers shouldn't be expected to pay her mortgage and bills. The backlash got bad enough that Jay cancelled the Kickstarter, and then closed all social media accounts, but this did pretty much nothing to stop things. Jay was eventually doxed and threatened via email, after which she reopened her social media accounts and posted her own furious response to events on her blog.

All this over a Kickstarter. There are many, many artistic Kickstarters out there. Those that enough people support get funded, and the projects happen. Those that people don't support don't get funded. It's a very straightforward system. And yet Stacey Jay was driven off the internet by her audacity to even ask people to consider supporting her project. Simply putting the suggestion of a future novel out there was worthy of vitriol and doxing.

And why? I'm sure most people on the internet have heard of the Veronica Mars kickstarter, where a movie was at least partly funded through the crowdfunding site, to the tune of 5 million dollars. The project with the most backers before that was the point-and-click video game, Broken Age, and that's just one of many video games made through Kickstarter. Zach Braff crowdfunded a movie on Kickstarter. A crowdfunded novel featured on the longlist for the Man Booker prize for the first time this year. Crowdfunding creative projects is not new.

So, what made this one different? People said that Kickstarter isn't designed to pay the salaries of the people working on the project. But I'm pretty certain that Rob Thomas and Kristin Bell did not work on the Veronica Mars movie for free. I doubt that programmers on crowdfunded video games decided to go without paychecks for the months the games took them to make.

Well, people argued, most authors have day jobs. Stacey Jay shouldn't demand to be a full-time writer. Which is ridiculous on multiple levels. It's ridiculous to expect that a writer must have a day job, as though writing should never be treated as a career. It's ridiculous to demand that an author give out a book as a perk in a Kickstarter without taking any money for herself for the work. And it's ridiculous to treat someone as a pariah for daring to ask for the money to live in return for a product people want.

Then people argued that $10 was too much to ask for an ebook. It may or may not be -- there are certainly $10 ebooks on Amazon -- but the point of a Kickstarter has never been to receive the value of what you put in. It's about backers valuing the idea of a project being made in the first place. Otherwise, I'm going to have words with Rob Thomas about how my movie digital download and Veronica Mars t-shirt totally didn't have a market retail value of $35. They probably mass printed those tshirts for less than $5 each, for goodness sake!

Next, Stacey Jay was accused of holding the book hostage from fans, by saying that she wouldn't write it unless it got funded. Again, because she should work for free, even if that means not having money to live, and should never suggest that a book needs to be able to make her money to be worthwhile. And finally, she was accused of tricking potential backers -- there was, after all, no guarantee that she would actually write the book. Shouldn't she wait for it to be done to get it funded? Just as, I suppose, there was no guarantee that the Veronica Mars movie would be made, or that many crowdfunded video games would be playable. Yet those creators didn't get attacked for asking for money before the project was done.

But, in a way, I think all of those criticisms were genuine, inspired by two major issues: the undervaluing of creative work, especially female creative work, and the unsettling audacity of a female creator asking for support.

The first part is clear in every negative reaction. Stacey Jay shouldn't expect to make enough money to live on from her book. She shouldn't need a guarantee of funding in order to write. It should be a side project, a hobby, on top of her dayjob. Sure, she's been paid for writing before, and she has a successful career under another penname that she'd be putting on hold to work on this project, but writing is not about providing money to eat. It's about passion. And even dedicated readers and other authors made these claims.

In related news, I was mildly horrified this weekend to see that Carrie Hope Fletcher, current Eponine in the West End's production of Les Mis, was asked by a teenage fan if she got paid to be in Les Miserables. The idea of creative work being all about a passion, about it being too fun to be a job, is so pervasive that an incredibly successful West End star can be asked if she does eight performances a week all year round for free. And if the idea has spread to West End performers, it must count double for mid-list young adult authors wanting to crowd-fund a sequel to their book.

Which brings us to the second part of things. Sure, people can make money at creative projects. But it should be treated as an accidental, undeserved sort of thing. "Oh, I wrote a book, and then they liked it and gave me money!" Actually asking for money to live on is crossing a line. It's breaking the illusion that it's All About The Art, that creating is a job too. And although male creators are excused when they break this illusion -- they are, after all, hard working people who need to support themselves and their families -- female creators are not.

Consider Anita Sarkeesian, probably the most well-known victim of the internet mobs, who started receiving vitriolic hate, death threats and even a game built around beating her up, after she used Kickstart to ask for funding for her Youtube series, Tropes vs Women in Video Games, in 2012. The same principle of "don't like it, don't fund it" applied, but Sarkeesian is threatened and harassed to this day, after asking for just $6000 to fund the series. She received over $150,000, and then had her use of that money analysed and torn apart. Did she need that much money? Did she spend every penny on production, rather than on things for herself, like video games she just wanted to play or food to eat? She was creating a series of many 30 minute long analytical videos that backers clearly wanted, but she was not to be financially rewarded for this hard work in any way. Otherwise she was scamming people out of their money. That would be dishonest.

The message, it seems, is that while filming equipment and studio time, or editors and cover designers, are worth paying for, the time a woman spends on her own creative project has no value. It is a scam for her to be paid, because her time should be free.

And so, when asking readers to fund a sequel to her book, Stacey Jay accidentally broke an unspoken rule about female creators that triggered the internet mob. Successful female writers who don't directly ask people for financial support are routinely torn apart as undeserving of their success. Imagine the audacity of one actually asking for support. Of expecting to be paid for your work, rather than just for the external costs of producing the work. Of thinking that your time has value and that people who want a book written should be willing to pay for it.

Sure, Rob Thomas can do it for Veronica Mars. The rich and famous like Zach Braff can do it. Male video game developers can do it, and ask for hundreds of thousands in the process. Heck, even male authors can do it. But a female YA author hoping for $10,000 to write a sequel that people have asked her for? Now that really is crossing a line.