It takes a village

The wild success of Brandon Sanderson's Kickstarter holds lessons for building a resilient fan community

It takes a village
Image: Brandon Sanderson

"I can no longer live with this secret." Brandon Sanderson sent out a serious-looking email to his newsletter subscribers the other day, linking to a video with an ominous headline: "It's time to come clean."

Fortunately for his fans, the entire thing was a bit of coy misdirection: an announcement that he'd written five novels in the time freed up because of the COVID-19 lockdown, and that he was publishing four of them through Kickstarter. His campaign, Surprise! Four Secret Novels by Brandon Sanderson, has since smashed Kickstarter's records, garnering $27 million dollars since its launch, and prompting more than a little chatter about what it means for the future of publishing and reading.  

Watching the news, I feel like there's one big lesson here: the wild success of his Kickstarter is a good demonstration of not only the power of one author's particular branding and fan community, but that publishers can likely play a larger role in helping an author grow that community.

In his Kickstarter video, Sanderson explained that COVID-19 left him with a big chunk of time that would have otherwise been devoted to travel, around 70-100 days out of the year. "Suddenly, I had time again," he said. With that newfound time, he began writing some stories for his own enjoyment and for his wife.

The result is a book that he started writing as a gift for his wife, and he found that experience — writing a book with no expectations or publishing plans or audience — liberating. "The process rejuvenated me," he explained, and after presenting the book to his wife, she encouraged him to publish it for his readers.

That wasn't the only book: he went on to pull a clown-car's worth of manuscripts from out of frame, noting that he'd had plenty of years for stories over the years, but his commitments to his larger series meant that he couldn't devote the time to explore them. With the COVID lockdowns, he had that time, and explained that he wrote four additional novels. "I might have gone a little overboard, because I've written five extra novels in the last two years. I know, don't roll your eyes at me, you deal with isolation and quarantine in your way, I'll deal with it in mine."

He's opted to self-publish four of those books (the fifth, a middle-grade, is one that he's evaluating). Three of those books are in his Cosmere universe, and the fourth is one that stands alone.

Sanderson's kept most of the details about the books secret, noting that he'd like fans to go into them blind, although he will host some previews on his YouTube channel moving forward. Through the Kickstarter, he'll be releasing them in audio, digital, and hard cover editions, each of which will be available at various backer levels. He'll also be offering up bundled packages of all editions, and what he's calling "A Year of Sanderson", a series of 12 boxes that contain not only the books, but additional, themed swag boxes.

Already, he's raked in more than $27 million for his efforts, with more than 117,000 backers pledging their support. It's an unprecedented success.

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