It seems unlikely that anyone will ever read my epic fantasy trilogy about the adventures of Angor Ironfist. There are four reasons for that. First, it is unreadable. Second, it is unfinished. Third, it was written on a now-obsolete BBC Microcomputer, in a now-obsolete word processor called Wordwise Plus and saved on a now-obsolete 5¼in floppy disk. Finally, I threw that floppy disk away years ago. If it exists at all, it is buried deep in an unknown landfill.
And yet, what if that unfinished novel is worth tens of millions of dollars? News from Kickstarter has prompted me to consider renting an excavator and digging for buried treasure — like that poor guy in Wales who threw away a hard drive with the code needed to access what’s now several hundred million dollars of bitcoin and who is promising to split any proceeds with Newport City Council if it will only let him try to dig it out of the municipal dump.
What is this news from Kickstarter? Why, Brandon Sanderson news, of course. Sanderson, a popular and prolific author of fantasy and science fiction, usually with conventional publishers, turned to the fundraising website with four new novels and the apparently ambitious goal of raising $1mn in just 30 days. The million dollars rolled in in just over 30 minutes, and more than $15mn in the first 24 hours. Sanderson’s Kickstarter campaign is comfortably the most popular in the website’s history, beating out a fancy watch, a fancy picnic cooler and a board game.
Sanderson’s takings are a thousand times more than many authors might expect as an advance. However, Sanderson cannot simply pocket that money. He has to pay for the books to be edited, designed, typeset, printed and distributed. Since he reportedly employs 30 people, he effectively owns a small publishing company, albeit one whose sole purpose is to publish books by Brandon Sanderson.
Still, it’s an impressive feat, and several author friends of mine have been muttering about turning to Kickstarter to launch their next title. I am not tempted yet, partly because I am all too aware of the existence of Kickstarter’s whispering memento mori, “Kickended”.
I’ve written about Kickended before, a project in which the artist Silvio Lorusso scraped Kickstarter for examples of projects that raised precisely zero dollars. The project is worthwhile not as mockery but as context. For every success on Kickstarter, there is an ignominious failure. (To be precise, for every successful project on Kickstarter, there is a project that raises no more than 20 per cent of its funding goals.)
Sometimes the reasons for the failure are evident, at least with hindsight. But Kickstarter can be fickle. It might have seemed obvious that when someone tried to raise CA$10,000 to make an antipasto salad on the site, they would get no takers at all. But a gentleman allegedly named Zack Danger Brown had just raised $55,492 to make a potato salad, so why not?
That’s life, you might think. Sometimes a silly project takes off, and usually it doesn’t. But that’s not the way our understanding of the world is formed. I am confident that this is the first article anyone has ever written about the zero-dollar antipasto salad campaign, but I can find a thousand articles about the $55,492 potato salad, including in The New Yorker, the BBC, The Guardian, The Washington Post and even the Financial Times.
This widespread coverage makes a difference to our intuitions about the world. Numerous studies have shown that exposure to an idea makes that idea seem more plausible. One, by Pennycook, Cannon and Rand, showed people various news headlines — some true, some false, but all spotted in the wild. If people had seen a fake news headline once, they were more likely to believe it when shown it again a week later.
This “illusory truth” effect appears to emerge because people find it easier to process information they’ve seen once before, and then subconsciously take that fluency as a sign of truth. Another recent study has a title that speaks for itself: “Success stories cause false beliefs about success.”
Even though we know deep down that neither Sanderson’s multimillion dollar novels nor Brown’s $55,492 potato salad are examples of how things typically go on Kickstarter, these stories loom large.
Nor is this fact peculiar to Kickstarter. Think of a tennis player or a footballer. Who did you think of? Serena Williams? Cristiano Ronaldo? Most sportspeople you can summon to mind are brilliant, successful and very well paid for their skills. But the vast majority of sportspeople are none of those things. You just cannot name many of them.
The same is true for authors, actors, and entrepreneurs. We are surrounded by struggles, half-failures, reverses and modest accomplishments. Yet we are also surrounded by unrepresentative tales of spectacular triumphs. I wish Sanderson well, but I don’t plan to go mining for floppy disks any time soon.
Written for and first published in the Financial Times on 25 March 2022.