Brandon Sanderson Talks About His Record-Breaking Kickstarter

A well-known fantasy writer has crushed Kickstarter's record for the biggest crowdfunding campaign of all time, and has all the details. Earlier this month, prolific fantasy writer Brandon Sanderson launched a Kickstarter to publish four "surprise" books that he had written during the pandemic. Three of the books are set in Sanderson's Cosmere, a shared universe in which many of his books are set. Sanderson's campaign also included the option to receive a series of loot-style boxes with merchandise themed around his various series. As of press time, the Kickstarter exceeded $30 million, crushing the previous record by over $10 million.

To try to understand just how big this Kickstarter was, we spoke to Sanderson via video call about the Kickstarter and how it impacts the publishing industry. In the first part of our two-part interview, we talked about Sanderson's expectations for the campaign, his publishers' reactions, and what he wishes fantasy publishers would do more. The second part of the interview will be posted tomorrow. Let's start off with the obvious. Your Kickstarter is the biggest Kickstarter over all time. In one of your video updates about the Kickstarter, you mentioned that you did not expect it to be this wildly successful. So, what were your expectations for the Kickstarter? How did you think was going to do?

Brandon Sanderson: So, I had guessed around two to four million dollars. This is my second Kickstarter. My first Kickstarter was for a leather bound edition of The Way of Kings. I thought that since it was for a leather bound book, it was going to have more people buying the more expensive options. With the new Kickstarter, I thought we'd probably get more people just buying the e-book at the lower price point. Also, The Way of Kings is my most famous and most popular book, so I figured it'll get more attention. 

What I underestimated is how many people would be willing to come to Kickstarter to get a new story from me. I knew that the audience was there, but normally, people tend to buy at the platform that they're most comfortable. 

I use the example that I still haven't played StarCraft II because I can't get it on Steam. Not that I'm offended by that, I just haven't gotten around to it. So I assumed that these books not being on Amazon or at their local bookstore would mean that less people would support the campaign. 


So, do you think that this Kickstarter going to be a game changer for the wider fantasy genre and the industry as a whole? Or is this some sort of singular event that only you could pull off?

Sanderson: I think the answer to both those questions is yes. So, what you're seeing with this Kickstarter is something that I am uniquely situated to be able to do. I have a fulfillment team, which most authors do not have. I built my fulfillment team to send out leather bound editions of my books, which my publishers in New York were not interested in doing. It just wasn't a part of the market that they wanted. And so they gave those rights back to me and I've been producing them myself for almost 10 years. So, I have a warehouse, I have HR, I have 30 employees and I am able to ship out a lot of things on my own. That's just not something, even people who have my level of fandom, could do very easily or even would really want to do.

But at the same time, there are a couple things that I think publishing has not been doing a good job at. Keep in mind, I'm not declaring that I'm leaving traditional publishing forever. I actually really like a lot of things about it. My biggest regret with this Kickstarter is I'm cutting out the bookstores. And I think a lot of your readers' local comic shops are a big and important fixture in their lives. The local bookstores are the same sort of fixture in our lives for those who love reading books. I think that bookstores are the best place still to discover new writers. It's so hard to get attention as a new author and bookstores are really great at giving readers a place to find new authors.

As an aside, I grew up buying all of my fantasy books at Cosmic Comics in Lincoln, Nebraska, my local comic book shop, which is where I bought my Eastman and Laird TMNT comics back in the days before. I bought that and I bought my fantasy novels. They sold those there. It has since closed down. I feel very bad about that. 

But this Kickstarter cuts those bookstores out by necessity. I am going to do what I can to get mass edition versions of these books to bookstores some time next year, so that we don't cut them out completely. But, I don't like that aspect of the Kickstarter. I like my bookstores. 

At the same time, one of the things that I think that publishing should have been doing is giving e-books with print copies, particularly expensive hardcovers. I think it's just ludicrous that you go and you buy a nice $40 hardcover and you don't get the e-book with it because e-books are so convenient and hardcovers look so nice on the shelves. 

In books, I think we have this cool advantage in that people still want the physical medium, right? In music, in movies, people don't really care about the physical medium nearly as much. In video games, they care about it for the old school games, but not as much for the new. And I know in comics, a lot of people still really like having the physical medium to collect.

Book readers are the same way. So, why make our fans choose between having the cool collector's thing and the convenience of reading on their Kindle? Let them do both at the same time and I actually have had conversations with New York for 10 years kind of trying to push them to do this. And they just weren't able to make it or weren't willing to. And so I'm like, well, I'll show them that it can be done. 

The other thing that New York is not doing that I think that other industries are doing a really good job of is letting readers choose their price point. When a really great video game comes out, they will have an edition that comes with cool merchandise. I have the really nice Witcher 3: Wild Hunt edition that came with a statue. I love that statue. It's really cool. Why are we in books not letting people choose an option? I want the edition that comes with the statue. I have the Lord of the Rings DVDs that came with bookends.

Why are we not doing that? Publishers say that the logistics are too hard to pull off, so I thought that I'd do it myself and show them. Some fans, if you give them the option, will choose the e-book at the lowest price option because that's best for them. But some will want the highest price option because they want to get all that cool swag. That's one thing I even underestimated is how many people would go for the top tier and get the merchandise bundles.

(Photo: Tor Books)

You touched on something, because I was really surprised how many people were willing to jump in on that like $500 price point. You explained in your Kickstarter that you didn't want to do an ongoing subscription box thing. But, these swag boxes are going to be on a whole other level than your past merchandise options.

Sanderson: Yes. It's going to be a whole other level for my team. I kind of gave my team a challenge . When we do the leather bounds, one of the things we find is that we have a big couple of months of shipping things out, but the rest of the year we don't need all of that work. It feels bad to hire seasonal employees who are really great people. We pay a good wage in our warehouse, but they would like to continue working.

And I went to my team and I said, "What if we did something where the nice thing about subscription box is, it can be 12 months and the same amount of work every month? And we could get a team together and we could know we're at least giving them a year's worth of work." 

Subscription boxes that I've subscribed to start repeating themselves too quickly, which is why I didn't want it to go longer than 12 months. I want to have 12 good months of really high quality merchandise without the mindset of trying to make it go as long as possible, rather than trying to string everybody as long as possible. Plus, there's the aspect of having consistent work and splitting it up around 12 months instead of three months of furious shipping.

So, how have your publishers responded to the Kickstarter? I'm assuming you told them beforehand. "Hey, I'm about to launch this Kickstarter for four novels."

Sanderson: I did. I went to them and I reassured them that this wasn't me declaring war. This is me exploring options. One of my primary reasons for doing this is to explore avenues of publishing that don't rely on Amazon. I like Amazon. I buy a lot of stuff from Amazon. They have a really good user experience. But they control an uncomfortably large percentage of the book market. This is now old history, but in 2010, because of contract disputes, Amazon decided to stop selling my books for a month.

If they did that right now, that's 80 to 90% of my income, just poof, gone. And I have a company of 30 people. If 90% of my income vanishes, then my company collapses, right? And that's the incomes and livelihoods of many families. I want to have a backup and I talked to my team and I said, "I don't expect this is going to happen. But if it does, I want to have some avenue and Amazon is audible. Indie publishing is all Amazon. Traditional publishing is all Amazon." We have a few bookstores fighting the good fight and offering an alternative. And I wanted to explore Kickstarter as another alternative, directly reaching my fans just in case.

And so I told the publishers "Look, we're all reliant too much on Amazon. This is not me declaring war on you. It's not even me declaring war on Amazon. I'm still going to be releasing Indie books with Amazon. But this is me exploring and giving myself options." And while they would much rather have published the books themselves, they understood. 

Let's make it very clear, these four books, though some of them are in one of my established universes, they are all new. They are not part of an established series, which means that these could be read by anybody who has loved my books in the past and new readers as well. But it also means I'm not taking something away from the publishers. It's not something I promised them. It's something that I wrote just for me. And so they understood, they didn't have a claim on these and they actually have been very pleasant to work with in this regard.

(Photo: Tor Books)

That's fantastic. When you announced this, I wondered if this represented a big paradigm shift in publishing. You're one of the biggest fantasy writers out there and you just shattered Kickstarter's records. I've covered big Kickstarters before and a big part of it is how it really changes the power dynamic in a good way.

Sanderson: Right. I would love if Kickstarter were a way that indie authors with a fan base were able to do something outside of Amazon for a pre-order. Just delivering digital goods only, right? If you don't have my fulfillment team, you can still deliver an e-Book and an audiobook, which a lot of the indie authors are good at making and putting together. I would love if this became a consistent avenue for indie authors to have their pre-orders that would help them have another option. 

But there are dangers. Number one, splitting your audience between two platforms in the current market can be dangerous because the way that books and things go viral is that if people pay a lot of attention to something, then you can get back manyfold returns. It's logarithmic rather than multiplicative. So, if you were going to get 100,000 people buying something opening week and you put them into 50,000 in each position instead, your virality doesn't drop by half. It could drop by much more than half, and that's a danger, right? 

The other big danger is that Kickstarter can be really good for a product that hasn't been made before to get backing. But I've found that for authors who don't already have an audience, it is a terrible way to launch yourself.

For authors who don't have an audience, Amazon is still a better place to gain that audience, particularly with something like Kindle Unlimited to start building people trying you out, giving your book away as free giveaways and things like that. Still, the way to make it as a new Indie author, rather than Kickstarter being the way to launch big. Unless you already have a platform for another reason. So, but the mid-list Indie authors and the best selling Indie authors, I mean, Michael J. Sullivan has been doing this on Kickstarter for many years, almost a decade, I believe. And he's been kind of proving that it is viable.

In part two of the interview, we'll dig a little deeper into the books themselves, talk about the possibility of a Cosmere TTRPG, and discuss whether Sanderson will ever return to his busy touring schedule.