How Crowdfunding Helps This Small Press Stay in Business — And Fight Back Politically

Oct 27, 2017 | Jennifer Swann

“There’s this aphorism in publishing that does the rounds and everybody kind of laughs at it,” says Pablo Defendini, the publisher of the small literary press Fireside Fiction. “Basically it goes, the fastest way to became a millionaire is to start out as a billionaire and start a publishing company.”

Publishing might not be the most lucrative industry, but it hasn’t been a losing game for Defendini. He’s managed to make Fireside Fiction profitable through a series of successful crowdfunding efforts, which in turn allows him to pay writers and illustrators a fair wage. That goes a long way toward attracting talent in an industry where creatives are all too often asked to work for free in exchange for so-called exposure.

“In the science fiction/fantasy/literary world where we operate, it’s very prevalent for these types of smaller magazines to operate on a volunteer basis,” says Defendini, who prides himself on paying writers at least double the rate that the Science Fiction Writers of America suggests as a minimum. “I don’t believe in working for free. Everybody needs to pay their rent.”

Involuntary Volunteerism

As a freelance graphic designer and a UX designer for tech products, Defendini knows what it’s like to put in time and effort pitching himself for a job, only to be told by a prospective client that they don’t have the budget to pay him for his work. He says his own experiences as a freelancer helped inform Fireside’s practices of ensuring all of its contributors are well compensated and that their wages don’t stagnate.

“As our revenues increase, our compensation to all the people who work on the magazine increases proportionately,” Defendini says. “It’s really important to me to run a business, in the full sense of the word. A sustainable ongoing operation that supports itself and creates, maybe not wealth, but prosperity and opportunities for everyone involved.”

It’s a guiding principle that has garnered not just a wide readership but also a loyal fan base of more than 550 financial supporters. That’s at least how many donors contribute regularly to Fireside Fiction’s Patreon, a membership-based platform that allows individuals and businesses to raise money on an ongoing basis. In exchange for helping the online magazine meet its monthly goal of $3,500, Patreon contributors get access to perks including pins, postcards, and monthly e-books in advance of their publication on the website.

Crowdfunding might seem like a risky move for a small business, but it’s a natural fit for Fireside, which launched with a $7,000 Kickstarter campaign in 2012. The magazine used Kickstarter to finance its first three years before realizing it needed a more sustainable fundraising model. “The stress of not knowing whether you’re going to make your goals really got to be a lot,” Defendini says of using Kickstarter. “[Now] I can pull up my numbers and I can see our revenue growing or shrinking. I can identify trends and I can kind of play with that stuff.”

Fighting Stance

When it was founded five years ago, the aims of Fireside Fiction were fairly straightforward: Publish great works of literary science fiction and pay its contributors well. But over time, the small online company has broadened its goals to tackle some of the most pressing social and political issues not just within the publishing industry, but also within the country at large. Every year it sets aside several thousand dollars to fund a survey on the representation of writers of color within the science fiction market in the hopes that the findings will help encourage more diversity.

“We take people to task. None of us are doing well in this respect, Fireside included; we have our blind spots, too,” says Defendini. “We’ve taken it upon ourselves to create a lot of noise there [to make sure people] aren’t just aware of it in general but also aware of how their unconscious biases contribute to the problem.”

The company isn’t afraid to mix business with politics, and in fact, it has made its more recent goal of “resisting the global rise of fascism and far-right populism” clear on its website. But words can only go so far: Fireside Fiction also puts its money where its mouth is by donating a portion of its Patreon funds to organizations like the Southern Poverty Law Center, which fights against hate groups.

“You go into this because you love doing it,” says Defendini. “You love putting work out there and enabling artists to work in the world.” Even better when that work also helps support the causes you care about.