Balance of Powers: Kickstarter-funded literature

A serialised story in weekly instalments, delivered via the internet. A Cold War thriller with interactive elements. Balance of Powers is old-fashioned storytelling with an online twist, writes David Varela.

There are four writers behind this project – Naomi Alderman, Adrian Hon, Andrea Phillips, and me, David Varela – and it’s the first time we’ve all worked together since making Perplex City, which ended in 2007. That was a transmedia extravaganza backed by millions of dollars in venture capital. For our next project, we thought we’d do something smaller and considerably cheaper. We raised the start-up funding through Kickstarter. A month-long campaign in August 2011 raised $6,565. We made it very clear from the start that we would be giving away the story for free – each weekly instalment is published openly on www.balanceofpowers.org – but our backers were paying for something else.

At the lowest level, we were offering early access to each chapter via email. A larger donation would buy them a physical copy of a newspaper we wrote to give an insight into the wider world of our story. Almost a year after we raised the funds, those newspapers were delivered last week. The most generous patrons were also invited to a live online ambassadorial reception, held on Saturday 25 August. The audience were given characters to play, and objectives to achieve in what amounted to a carefully directed improv chat room. Over the course of two hours, they chatted to each other as well as to a number of other characters played by us writers. I particularly enjoyed being Violet Klein, an alcoholic artist with a very fruity vocabulary.

By the end of the evening, an ambassador had been murdered and everyone had had a great time. As high-level backers, those participants were immediately emailed the next chapter in the story – which gave them another perspective on the events they had just been part of.

The story is unfolding over 32 weeks, with a new chapter uploaded each Sunday. The first few chapters are live now and you can read the whole thing for free. But Kickstarter – and the wider ecosystem of digital entertainment – shows that while people increasingly expect their online entertainment to be free, there are some things they’ll pay for.

The music industry has long since stopped trying to turn a profit from downloads. They realised that the real fans will pay for three things: exclusive access, live gigs, and merchandise. We’ve essentially applied that new model to literature, giving away the story for free but charging for physical objects, live events, and advance access to each chapter.

But there is another thing – something far less commercial. Our Kickstarter backers – our friends and fans – wanted to support us. They realised that we would make better art, for everyone to enjoy, if they gave us a bit of money. There is tremendous trust and generosity in that.

And on our side, we’re not doing this to get rich. If we were paying ourselves a living wage for the work we’ve put in, that $6,565 would be… well, we would have starved to death sometime in September last year. We’ll be selling posters, and eventually releasing the complete text as an ebook , but these aren’t serious money-making endeavours.

For my part, the real appeal of this project was the chance to write with three of my favourite people again. The folder on my computer with all the Balance of Powers stuff in it is still labelled ‘Getting the band back together’. This kind of jamming session is rewarding in itself, but all the more so when there’s a live audience cheering along too.

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