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Let’s Talk About Why Brandon Sanderson’s Getting Mixed Reactions to His Record-Breaking “Secret Novels” Kickstarter

And it's not jealousy.

"Surprise! Four Secret Novels by Brandon Sanderson." Image: DragonSteel Books.

When Brandon Sanderson, one of the best-selling American science fiction and fantasy authors, hinted on social media that he had to come clean and share news with his audience online, many were understandably concerned about his welfare. However, to fans’ delight, Sanderson actually announced a secret project now available to back on Kickstarter. Within four days, the project broke Kickstarter records.

Sanderson’s Kickstarter project reached its goal of one million dollars within 35 minutes of going live and it currently sits at $26.9 million dollars ten days later. Dubbed “2023 The Year of Sanderson,” the project includes four previously unannounced “secret novels” and a 12-month subscription option to receive exclusive merch the two months between each book release.

While updates have followed, at the time of the launch there was no information on the plot, title names, or who is narrating the audiobook. These are just some of many unanswered questions, and yet the undying loyalty of Sanderson’s fans quickly sent the project skyrocketing into the record books. The project features tiers, but the average backer donated $240. Sanderson basically said “if you like my novels you will like these.” (Sanderson is known for finishing Robert Jordan’s Wheel of Time series as well as his own extensive series, many of which are set in the fictional Cosmere universe.) Those that miss out will get an opportunity to purchase the books in ebook format and later print. However, this could be a few years as he’s got tens of thousands of backers to sort out first. It helps that Sanderson has his own company, Dragonsteel Entertainment, which employs 30 people “including a marketing director, concept artist, continuity editor and human resources director,” and has its own warehouse.

Sanderson noted in the video that he intends on working with his publishers in the future, however, this was something that started as a book for his wife that she insisted he share. Nevertheless, many are wondering what this means for publishing at large if a popular author can just bypass traditional publishing with such astronomic success. Some writers and readers have pointed to this moment as a sign of the future of publishing or what publishing should be. No and no.

Why this is not the future of publishing

Even if there was a more equitable pay structure within publishing (on all sides) there would not be money left over to give every writer this kind of “treatment.” (I put that in quotes because the money raised is not just an advance, but goes to production costs.) Very few authors working with a publisher who are not already a celebrity of sorts receive an adequate rollout of their book. There is not enough time, money, and people.

This only happened because Sanderson is such a big name with such a famously devoted fanbase. People can (and do) debate whether they like his books or not, but regardless he is connecting to readers both online and through his work so in that respect, he deserves his flowers. Pre-pandemic, he also toured and traveled extensively to connect with fans in person. However, there is an incredible amount of privilege he holds and not only as a white man in a historically super white genre canon. After the passing of Wheel of Time writer Robert Jordan, Tor Books and Jordan’s widow chose Sanderson to continue the popular series.

Jess Owens further addressed that in addition to the number of books Sanderson puts out a year, he is also very online which isn’t something most writers should be expected. There was a lot of theatrical drama in this Kickstarter release and Sanderson interacts with readers in a way most writers can’t. This is no shade to him or those writers, it’s just a different skill and built-in audience that the vast majority of writers cannot replicate.

Fellow SFF writer John Scalzi wrote, “Using Brandon Sanderson as evidence of anything other than that he makes a very fine and successful Brandon Sanderson is ignoring a lot of the work he did and eliding over the factors that got him to this point.”

The elephant in the room

There many justifiably upset that this success on Kickstarter would not be afforded to most women writers, let alone writers of color. Some frustratingly joked that next time people complain about how hard it is to be a white man in SFF or publishing (which is extra ridiculous because that information is public), they can just point to this Kickstarter.

In 2015, author Stacey Jay took to Kickstarter to get her a sequel to her YA fantasy novel published but was driven into hiding when people said she was asking for too much ($10,500) and she was doxxed. This biggest point of criticism was 66% of the money would cover cost of living expenses for her and her family for three months so she could write the book.

This issue is not something that is falling to the platform or Sanderson alone, or something that Sanderson caused. But some are suggesting that he use his success to help uplift marginalized authors and artists who have not been afforded such a platform. Author Rick Riordan did so within middle-grade fantasy by creating Riordan Presents with his imprint Disney-Hyperion Publishing. A win-win for him, the under-represented authors, and readers.

His connections to LDS and BYU

As the dollar amount of this campaign keeps climbing, there have also been some concerns voiced about what a boost in money to Sanderson means to his affiliate to the Mormon church (LDS). Sanderson’s connection through the church and as a creative writing teacher at Brigum Young University (BYU) isn’t new per se, but his Kickstarter news comes alongside stories about the church the last few years.

LDS encourages all members to tithe (donate) 10% of their income to the organization. In addition to upkeep, charity, and a rainy day fund, the money (over $100 billion dollars) is actively going to “mission work” in the U.S. and poorer nations across the world, especially across Africa. Yes, the same church that didn’t allow Black priests until 1978.

Regarding BYU, they’ve been in and out of headlines as queer students fight hateful policies that prevent same-sex couples from even dating. Despite existing as a place for education, BYU prides itself as a university where over half of the students go for the main purpose of getting married. The school encourages this at every level as long as there’s “celibacy” and they’re straight. I’ll stop here, but I implore you to read just what it’s been like for students of color and very specific gender policy conversations the last two or three years alone.

All of these reasons and more are why this news, even among fans of Sanderson’s works, about breaking records and jaw-dropping sums aren’t universally loved or seen as something to praise—or a direction that publishing in general should be going in. Sanderson and his company Dragonsteel Books will likely be able to deliver these goods to the fans, but this Kickstarter alone will not likely move the needle in mainstream publishing or for self-published writers.

(image: Dragonsteel Books)

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