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Crowdfunding is becoming ever more popular with creatives to raise fund for various projects. But when is it a good idea for an author?
In this interview with author, poet and creative coach, Orna Ross, we go into her love of WB Yeats and how this passion has turned into her own print project, as well as tips for other authors considering crowdfunding. Orna is also the founder of the Alliance of Independent Authors, so she is very knowledgeable about the current state of publishing.
Watch the video below or Orna Ross Yeats on YouTube. You can also read the full transcript of the interview below.
Transcript of interview with Orna Ross
Joanna: Hi everyone, I'm Joanna Penn from TheCreativePenn.com and today I'm here with Orna Ross. Hello Orna!
Orna: Hi Jo. Hello everyone.
Joanna: Now just in case people don't know who are, and I can't imagine who they might be (!) but just tell us a bit about you and your writing background.
Orna: Okay. Well, I write novels. I write poems and I write guides to creativism, what I call creativisim, which is applying the creative process to life. But novels, I suppose is my main activity and has been for some years. And I also run the Alliance of Independent Authors, since I started in 2011-2012 self publishing my own work. And yeah, that's about it, I think.
Joanna: More than a full time job, as I know. So that's you, you're a bit of a starter. You start loads of things. And you've got this project that you've started – as if you didn't have enough going on.
Tell us about this project that you are about to do.
Orna: It's crazy, because I have been working on this novel, a series of novels really, for a very long time based on the life, and specifically the love life and the creative life of the great Irish poet, WB Yeats.
And for those who may not know, he is considered to be probably the greatest poet of the 20th Century. Really important in Ireland in that he is the founder of our National Theatre, but also one of the feeders of the cultural nationalism that actually lead to the Independence war that kinda founded our state.
So all of that is his public life. Me, as an impressionable little girl in school, I was introduced to his work as every Irish schoolchild is and I was the perfect reader for his brand of romance, which was very tied up with the vision of Ireland as the creative space that we escape to. So for Yeats, he lived in London, he was a Londoner really, more than anywhere else. So he, like a lot of creatives, lived in lots of different places, but he had a long life in London.
But London for him and indeed for his Mother, who was from Sligo, London for him was the heart of the British Empire, the materialist world. Sligo, specifically, but Ireland, generally, was the creative space that we escape to so he wrote this very provocative “come away oh human child” the waters and the wild. He set up this image of romantic Ireland, a place anybody could slip into and be in a creative space. So that's my abiding interest in Yeats, if you like.
When you're told about Yeats, you're instantly told about the muse, the great love of his life, Maud Gonne, who inspired much of his poetry, in particular but an awful lot of his writing. He said all of his oeuvre really came out of his wish to explain himself to her and I would say also to his mother, which is another story and they're linked in the book.
So he created this poetic myth around his love for Maud, of unrequited love. He was the courtly lover who splayed his dreams unto her feet and asked her to tread softly on them. Now when I went and looked behind the myth and started to look at things from Maude's point of view the story looked a little different. And that's what sparked my novel, which is called Her Secret Rose.
It's based around the time that he was writing a book of short stories called The Secret Rose, and so my novel is the story behind those stories, if you like, which ties into the themes I've just been talking about there. And it's a novel of intrigue and secrets and double-dealing and all sorts of interesting things.
So, that was enough work. I am getting to answer your question here! There was enough work in all of that but I decided, because it is Yeats' 150th anniversary this year that I would like to do something really special to celebrate that, and of course, writing a novel, finishing a novel, publishing a novel that is in a sense a tribute that everything he stands for.
But anyway I got this idea, wouldn't it be great to put my novel and his stories into one volume and produce a beautiful print work that would be a replica of his 1897 first edition of The Secret Rose stories.
So that's what I decided I would like to do. I investigated and it was ridiculously expensive. The paper alone is expensive and it's embossed in gilt. It's got these beautiful mystical symbols that meant an awful lot to him, which are all explained in my novel. And, it's an expensive project so I decided, well, I'd do it if enough Yeats fans decide that they'd like me to do it. So I said let's see if we can crowdfund the funds needed.
Joanna: And there's so much I want to ask you about that, but I want to come back to a bit more of personal question, because you talk there about Yeats in London and in Ireland, and of course, you're in London and you're Irish.
How much of his feelings about Ireland and London are reflected in your own or what's different?
Orna: That's really interesting actually. I suppose that's what I'm teasing out in my novel Her Secret Rose. I see a different Ireland to that mystical place that Yeats conjures up in his poetry, but indeed so did he. And in 1913 he wrote a line, “Romantic Ireland's dead and gone. It's with O'Leary in the grave.” O'Leary was his political mentor.
And he had a number instances in his life where he took the Irish people to task for being not good enough in his terms, which essentially meant being too materialistic. “Fumbling in the greasy till” is how he put it. He took to the stage one night in the Abbey when there were riots against a play that he had promoted in the Abbey Theatre and he took to the stage and said, “You have disgraced yourselves again”. So he was always lecturing the Irish of not being quite living up to his high ideals.
And I suppose for me I've got that double relationship. Ireland for me, the landscape particularly, I grew up in rural Ireland. I'm a country girl. I love nature and there is nothing like Irish scenery, for me, in terms of touching that place where the magic happens.
But I can't live there. I can't live in Ireland. To live there full term doesn't feed what I need. And I find London a much more congenial place creatively, much more vibrant, diverse, and interesting and stimulating. So, I live here and I go home, as I say, a lot. And I'm always hopping across the Irish Sea and then I come home, which is back to London very happily.
Joanna: That's cool. So going back to the crowdfunding project. We've had a talk before about most independent authors make their money from digital versions of books. So this is not a financial project as such. It is “for the love of Yeats”, but also for the love of print.
So talk us a bit more through this print project and why print means so much to you, when you could just be doing this as an e-book and presumably making a profit, as opposed to doing it this way.
Orna: You're absolutely right. It's not a financial project, it's a passion project.
And why does print mean so much to me? I mean it's an interesting question. I do actually, fundamentally if there is a choice to be made, for me the magic is in the words, the format is not the most important thing. But there really isn't a choice to be made. We can have more than just the magic of the words, we can also have it packaged in a very nice way. I find that reading books in print and reading books digitally is a different experience.
And one of the things that I do, if I really enjoy an e-book, I'll often buy the hardback to own it, and I will read it again later on and have a different reading experience. I also, this particular book was designed by a woman called Althea Gyles. She's a really interesting character in her own right. She was born in County Waterford, as I was myself. And there were loads of little sorts of coincidences and . . . what do you call this?
Orna: Lots of synchronicities around that and I just really admired her work. And I have this need after, I mean I've been self-publishing now from late 2011, early 2012 and I include in self-publishing in that term, blogging and all sorts of different publications.
And I just had a need to create something really tactile, really visual, really beautiful.
Something that special and different and out of the ordinary. And I don't know why, why do we get these urges? They're crazy. Why are we writers in the first place? It's nuts. So it's really that sort of motivation.
Joanna: Is there something around longevity?
Because I don't really buy print at all. I don't buy hardbacks or something to keep. The only print books I have are like Carl Jung's Red Book, which is really massively oversize and contains full color print. And it was like £100 pounds. And I'll be getting one of your Yeats books, but I'll actually read the e-book on my Kindle. I'll have the print book for more of an art piece. So is that a part of it? Having something that has more longevity than e-books?
Orna: Definitely. You know if this was just a hardback of my own novel, it wouldn't be exciting me in that way. It is because the symbols that are on it and the gilt embossed that it's very meaningful. It is in a conceptual sort of art way. And yes, I see it as a souvenir and publication of Yeats 2015.
I also see it very much as resuscitating the stories.
Yeats is considered, you know he's celebrated mainly as a poet, also as a dramatist, but people largely overlook his fiction. And I understand why that is, he’s sort of a failed novelist. He didn't really manage to get novels together, but these stories are very interesting.
They're done in the folkloric tradition and he had done a huge amount of research and a huge amount of collection of folklore. What he did was write these original stories about his own vision of what he calls the mystical rose, which is a very ancient and magic symbol really in the western magic tradition.
And magic was a creative fuel of his life.
It was a secret for a long, long time because to say you were interested in magic, it was instantly termed, you found yourself a bit of a loon.
He was an indie author in the sense he always had one eye toward his reputation. He marketed very cleverly. He put himself out there in a very interesting way. He knew what he was doing and he took huge interest in how the books were put out there.
So he was our definition of an indie author. He did work with the trade publishers because you have to, but The Secret Rose itself was crowdfunded in a way.
O'Leary helped him to get subscribers who paid a certain amount. And once you reached an amount then the publisher would go ahead and do it for you. So very, very similar to crowdfunding really. It was a crowdfunded project in 1897.
Joanna: In terms of thinking about that as you were talking, I was thinking then of John Martin the painter who also did things after they had already been funded as such. I think you're right that this is more of an ancient thing that's coming back now.
But, for people who are watching who are interested in crowdfunding. I mean I've been blogging for 6 years. I've got quite a big audience, and it's not something I'm ready to do yet. I don't have a passion project like you do.
What are the types of projects that authors should even think of crowdfunding?
Orna: I think that's a really good question, because I don't think crowdfunding is a very wise decision if it's just about publishing a book. I think books should be published on their own merits.
We have such fantastic tools now. It's not overly expensive in terms of either the money or time. And you should believe enough in your book to be able to invest the relatively small amount that it takes to produce a decent book and get it out there in digital format. Print, as well. Print On Demand.
Maybe five years ago there were enough people who'd be interested enough in the fact that you were even doing that to fund it. But now, when every second person is writing and publishing a book, I don't think that people feel too much about it. It's enough in a way to expect than to buy your book. You know they expect you to have the belief in it in the first place.
But I think for something that's obviously outside the reach of an individual to fund, then I think it's okay to crowdfund. But I think you need to be very clear about what you're offering.
Crowdfunding isn't charity.
You are actually offering rewards in return for the investment. So, in my case there are the books obviously in e-book format and this beautiful print version, but there are various events that I think would be very appealing to Yeats' followers and the launch itself.
I'm very lucky, honored indeed to be launching the book at the Yeats' International summer school, which is a famous gathering of academics and scholars and poets and singers and writers who love Yeats. And part of the crowdfunder is to invite people to come along a share that evening with us. We're going to have really fabulous dinner in the home of the president of the Yeats' Society, whose wife just happens to be a brilliant chef, and she'll talk about Yeats and she'll feed us lovely things. And there are other events and things.
I'm also offering my own creative mentoring because I do see this book as being very much about creativity and the creative process of how that operates in us all.
So the rewards that are on offer are very much linked to the project. And I think that's the key.
Well for me, that seems like the key. If you're asking people to donate money that you're offering them something that they would value in return. So I do think that what puts a lot of people off crowdfunding is that they feel it's a fancy begging or a charity ask, but I don't really feel that it is. I feel if there are enough people who share how I feel about this, then they'll join in and together we'll all create something that wouldn't have been possible, if we didn't all bound together to make it happen.
Joanna: And I agree with you that it's more like paying in advance for a piece of art, really. That's basically what it is. It's committing to paying in advance for something you haven't seen yet.
So there's a element of trust from the purchaser as such. But I really like it and I've helped crowdfund quite a few things like the font from Sigmund Freud's handwriting, which I know I've told you about before, which I thought was just cool. And I haven't even used it. It was just a kind of cool thing to be involved with.
I've been involved in quite a lot of book projects, all that were more than just a novel. It's very fulfilling to be part of that as an audience member and to get the updates about what's happening.
So I hope you'll be showing us some behind the scenes on the actual print process. Are you going to be able to do that?
Orna: I hope so and the decision as to exactly who's going to help with the printing is being made as we speak. I know we've got to the stage in the crowdfunder that the project is going ahead. So we're about half way there, and so it will be happening. So now it's a matter of seeing who's going to actually help us make it happen.
I really would love to share, because I think people are interested in how a book gets put together. And I'm celebrating, not just Yeats, the writer, the maker of the content, but also he was a book maker and he really took such an interest in it. And his interest is inspiring my interest in a way. It's not something I ever did before or really got involved in, but it's fascinating when you look at how books are made. And indeed when you look at how POD is made now these days, so it's a whole new world and it's really, really interesting.
His sisters, in fact, ran a small press and they were the outlets for his work. So again, there is that touch of him setting up his own indie scene, to deliver whatever he felt like he wanted to put out into the world. He didn't have Amazon Kindle, but he would have loved it [laughter].
Joanna: I went to the London Center for Book Arts and made my own little book, you know? [watch the video here!]
Orna: I remember you saying that.
Joanna: And it was awesome. I did think at the time, if I do this, I do want to do some limited edition binding. And Cory Doctorow's done that. He's done limited edition bindings for some, like he did it himself.
There's actually no limit to these creative things we can do with our own words.
So you definitely helped me think about what I'd like to do in the future.
But we should just point out that Yeats' words are public domain, aren't they? Would you just explain that?
Orna: That's so important and I keep forgetting to say it actually. The only reason I can resuscitate these stories is because Yeats is now out of copyright. It's over, just over 70 years since he died. In fact when I wrote about him before, I published a book, back in 2008, which contained some of the material that's in this book and he wasn't out of copyright at that time and it was like a real leap through the rights landscape to try and get it. So yeah, don't try this at home with your favorite writer unless they're out of copyright!
Joanna: That's really important. And then the other question I had on the crowdfunding: there's a lot of stories of people who've done it and then ended up not costing it properly, because you actually have to make sure that you funded all your levels correctly and promise the right things, right? You can't over commit because a percentage has to go to the crowdfunding site. You get a certain percentage, there's various fees and things involved.
So how did you analyze how much money you needed?
Orna: Yeah. I probably got it wrong, which remains to be seen [laughter].
Joanna: Wrong answer.
Orna: I got a quote for the various costs. The main costs for me, in my mind, are the costs of the actual production of the book. So that's what takes outside the realm of an ordinary project. I'm committing an amount of my own money obviously to it as well. There's a small charity thing going through. I'm using Pubslush as the crowdfunding platform, because they specialize in literary projects and I think that's nice. I think that must be hard to only do books in the crowdfunding space, so I'm very happy to be going with them on that. And yeah. So they do a small sort of charity thing, as well. Very delighted to donate to that.
So there, yes, you're right, it sounds like a huge amount of money, and what on earth are you going to be doing with it? But actually lots and lots of it will go in different directions.
And there's a huge responsibility. I was aware of that before I started it, but I'm more and more aware of that as I go through the process.
That people are committing their money and their interest, those who are interested in it are very interested in it and so, yeah, you got to deliver.
And I did try, in terms, of working out what rewards I was able to give for it to be realistic about what I could, in fact, do and what I could not do. So I could have offered a lot more or possibly got money easier maybe from that I don't know.
But in a way I think it's like a lot of creative things, you can't over-think it.
You just ride the desire and the intention to do it and see what arises as you go. Do your very best. Get some of it right. Get some of it wrong. And if at the end we get a lovely book and some great events then it would have done what it set out to do. Exactly.
Joanna: So, timeline? You have a hard deadline on this, don't you?
Orna: I do.
Joanna: So tell us the timeline of your plan?
Orna: It's really ridiculous and so I finish the book this month, May, and it goes into editorial. And it goes straight then from editorial to proofing, from proofing into production, and the launch is on the 3rd of August. So it's bang, bang, bang.
But you know what? I'm loving that, because one of the things that I found most difficult about trade publishing is the gap in time between your investment in the project creatively and emotionally and everything else and then going out into the world with it.
So I had the experience, for example, on my first novel of there being three years between me signing the contract and the book actually appearing. I found it so difficult to go out there and talk about the book, because I was a different person.
Joanna: You'd forgotten it.
Orna: I had forgotten it. I'd moved on. The disconnect was there. So at the moment I'm just in this Yeatsian fuzz and hey, everything is about either the production of this print or else the finishing up of the book, itself, which has been hanging around for far too long. So I'm really pleased to be finishing it and seeing it out in such stylish fashion [laughter].
Joanna: Brilliant. So tell us where we can find the crowdfunding project and also your other books, online?
Orna: Ornaross.com is the simplest way through and back out to the various places where the books are sold and specifically the crowdfunder, OrnaRoss.com/SecretRose will bring you to the crowdfunding page.
Joanna: Fantastic. Well, I'm very excited to hear about it Orna, and looking forward to my copy. So wishing you all the best.
Orna: Oh, thanks Jo. Thank you so much for supporting us and for doing this interview. I really appreciate it.
Do you have any questions about crowdfunding or Yeats? Please do leave them below and join the conversation.
Andrew Lowe says
Thanks for that, Joanna. Orna – I hope the project gets comfortably funded and goes really well. I might have to wait a while for my favourite poet (Larkin) to go out of copyright…
Smart idea about using crowdfunding for passion projects like this. Maybe there’s a route here to publishing ‘special’ editions of previously published books that have sold well – since I ndependent authors have the copyright freedom to do that, and it’s the perfect opportunity to offer something to Mailing List subscribers/advocates.
It’ll be interesting to see how Story Terrace develops. That seems to be a tweak of the old ‘vanity’ model (pay a ghostwriter to bring your own story to life). I imagine we’ll see a lot of those projects crowdfunded because they lend themselves well to strong, real-life hooks.