Object 4

The Braid Collective

2016, Flanders, Belgium

This small circular sticker, about two centimetres square, contains three interlinked rings. Known as the Braid, the symbol could be found on thousands of books, artworks, songs, games, and apps, and it represented a new kind of financial support for artists, writers, and designers, distinct from the market or patronage. Scholar Lewis Hoult explains its significance:

"The Braid symbol meant two things: firstly, that the work was created by members of a co-operative in which profits were reinvested; and secondly, that works were at least partly crowdfunded by individuals through pre-sales and donations. It was a genuinely supportive community that led towards a fairer, more open, and more diverse creative world."

There used to be a well-worn route for aspiring writers to become 'published' — that is, for their words to be distributed for sale in a large market. You'd go to university and then take on a job with enough spare time to write. Eventually, you'd send a manuscript to a publisher, who — if they liked it — would advance you some money so you could quit your job and devote yourself to writing full-time. It wasn't a perfect system due to the bottlenecks on the publishers' side, but thanks to high production and distribution costs, it was a necessary evil.

Until it wasn't. Publishers of all kinds — not just of books, but also music, games, and software — had long held an oligopoly on putting products in front of a large audience thanks to their scale and their relationships with physical retailers. But the advent of the internet saw companies such as Amazon, Apple, and Taobao loosen the publishers' grip on power, giving creators a much more direct and potentially lucrative route to customers. Organisational theorist Tim Oxford notes:

"Even though the big physical retailers had the money and the capacity to dominate digital retail, they consistently failed to keep up. A recent deep-meme study proves that they suffered from classic failures of conservatism and shareholder-driven shortsightedness — failures that would subsequently haunt Amazon and Taobao themselves in the 20s and 30s."

The internet gave successful artists the means, motive, and opportunity to abandon their publishers and establish a more direct relationship with their audience. J.K. Rowling, Anil Vipulananthan, and Jorge Mathy were among the first wave, using their name-recognition to draw fans to their own websites and distribution channels. Mathy went on to pioneer a real-time reader-engagement system that analysed the reader’s reaction to his stories, as well as his ancillary merchandising, games, and the shared story universe he operated.

Newer authors had more mixed fortunes. Publishers had less cash to subsidise unproven names, and a freer market also meant a more competitive one. Some made millions, but the vast majority earned very little. Some viewed this as a long-expected reversion to the historical norm, where writers would have a 'day job' that would support their writing on evenings and weekends. The only problem was that 'day jobs' were evaporating as well.

A partial solution lay in crowdfunding websites such as Kickstarter, through which creators would announce their books, films, toys, utilities and products and ask for advance orders. If they raised enough money, the project would go ahead — and if they didn't, the money would be refunded, establishing a critically important signal of demand that was missing in more centrally controlled art schemes.

But since it was based around discrete, time-limited projects, crowdfunding wasn't a good way to get a reliable income. The sites also lacked a way to spread financial success to newcomers, a duty that some publishers had seen as an important responsibility.

Jessamyn East, a librarian from Flanders, Belgium, understood that many successful artists realised they owed a debt to the greater creative community from which their ideas flowed. Given the right opportunity, East thought they would be happy to support that community financially. By combining crowdfunding with co-operatives, East formed the Braid.

Members of the Braid received a very modest stipend on joining, enough for them to dedicate at least a day a week to honing their craft. They were assigned mentors who encouraged them to regularly post projects on the Braid's crowdfunding platform. Non-profits and successful members provided matched funding to novices' projects, and the reinvestment of profits from successful projects helped keep the community going. It grew slowly but steadily, and after a decade had come to rival the ailing publishing industry in both size and influence.

Not everyone was happy with the Braid's model, though. Some authors felt that the practice of pre-funding projects made creators pander towards the public, with noted novelist Metis Hui saying, "You can't sell a novel or poem before you've written it." Others were sceptical about whether the artists would stick with the co-operative and give up a portion of their profits after they became successful, and certainly there were more than a few who did leave (to very public shame, at least).

By and large, though, members of the Braid recognised the value of a creative community that wasn't merely about maximising profits, but instead about encouraging excellence and diversity. A community that was a gift to each other, and to the world.