Brandon Sanderson bypasses the entire book business structure

THE WASHINGTON POST BOOK CLUB

Reviews and recommendations by critic Ron Charles Presented by Livermore Publishing

March 4, 2022

Brandon Sanderson launched “A Year of Sanderson” Kickstarter on March 1, 2022. (Youtube screenshot)
Brandon Sanderson launched “A Year of Sanderson” Kickstarter on March 1, 2022. (Youtube screenshot)

Brandon Sanderson is a popular writer of epic fantasies, but nothing he’s written is so epic and fantastical as what happened to him this week. 

On Tuesday, Sanderson launched a Kickstarter campaign to raise $1 million to sell four novels that he wrote secretly during the covid pandemic. By midnight, he’d raised $13.5 million. This morning — just four days into his month-long campaign — more than 83,000 readers have pledged more than $20 million. 

This is the kind of magic we’re used to seeing in the make-believe world of cryptocurrencies, not in the parsimonious halls of publishing. 

“It’s been just an incredible ride,” Sanderson told me last night from his home in Utah. On Kickstarter, fans can sign up for a variety of packages to receive his four novels, one per quarter, in 2023. The offers start at $40 for the e-books and reach all the way to $500 for a bundle of e-books, audiobooks, hardbacks and monthly swag boxes designed, Sanderson says, “for the fans as crazy as I am.” He explains these options in a wildly verbose, self-satirized video complete with multiple whiteboards (watch).

But surely nobody is laughing in New York. Sanderson’s astonishing success poses an existential challenge to the entire book industry: If the most popular authors can reach their readers directly, what’s to keep them from bypassing agents, editors, publishers, distributors and retailers? Such authors wouldn’t even need Amazon.

Sanderson insists that he appreciates and will continue working with Tor, his publisher. And besides, very few successful authors want to manage the complicated and expensive mechanics of publishing their own books. Sanderson has warehouses. He employs a staff of 30 people – so many that he needs an H.R. director. His author friends tell him, “We became writers so that we didn’t have to do that.”

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But Sanderson wanted to launch this Kickstarter to demonstrate to New York publishers that they need to be more responsive to readers’ desires for bundling multiple formats and selling related book merchandise. “I’ve been talking to New York about this for years,” he says. “Ours is the only industry I can think of that doesn’t try to upsell when you have such a dedicated fan base. It’s just baffling to me that we aren’t providing the things that people want.”

I detect a bit of a prepper mentality, too. Part of Sanderson’s motivation for this campaign is to make sure that he and his team can print hundreds of thousands of books and ship them on their own “just in case something happens.” He’s also concerned about Amazon’s dominance and the online retailer’s rising advertising fees. “I want to know that if for some reason Jeff Bezos decided he hated me and pushed a button . . . I have another recourse.” He recalls that during a pricing dispute in 2010, Amazon pulled Macmillan’s books from its website for about a week. If that happens again, he’ll be ready. (Amazon founder Jeff Bezos owns The Washington Post.)

“I have a very artistic temperament,” Sanderson says, “but I was trained by an accountant, my mother, and she’s a really good accountant.” No magic in the Cosmere is as powerful as that.

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