Most everyone reading this who knows me (and I figure there might be a few of you) recognizes me as the author of a failed urban fantasy series, Twenty Palaces. The blog post I wrote about my failure to find an audience for those books (and the reasons why) continues to be the most popular post on my site, almost three and a half years after I wrote it.
I hate it. I hate being defined by my response to the worst failure of my life.
Last year, after it became clear that no NY publisher was going to pick up my new epic fantasy trilogy (another failure!) I put together a Kickstarter campaign to crowdfund the editing and other publishing costs of the books. (Don't worry, I'm not asking for pledges. The campaign ended long ago.) I set the goal at $10,000; I raised a little over $50,000.
A big success, right? Absolutely. At the time I write this, I'm still ranked ninth on the list of "Most Funded" Kickstarter campaigns in the Fiction category. Still, that post (which I'm not linking for obvious reasons) about my cancelled series is still my most popular.
But! in the spirit of moving forward, I thought I would share some of the lessons I learned in putting together a successful crowd-funding campaign. Maybe you have thought about a crowd-funding project of your own. Maybe Charlie will want to Kickstart something someday, and antipope readers would like tips on how best to help. Maybe what I learned re: that campaign are applicable elsewhere.
The first thing to keep in mind is that crowd-funding isn't a novelty anymore. A few years ago, just the fact that you (generic you, obviously) had started a Kickstarter campaign was enough to pique someone's interest. It was new! People were curious about how it worked! There were explanations to be made!
In the accelerated timeline of the Internet Age, Kickstarter is practically a venerable institution. Also, "everyone's" doing it.
So, while you can no longer get attention because of the novelty of the platform, you can still spread the word and make your goal. It just takes some planning.
First, things to consider:
Is the project complete, or nearly so? Backers are leery of putting money into projects where the work has barely begun. Kickstarters sometimes don't deliver (although the Pictures for Sad Children creator had a fan who stepped in and finished their Kickstarter fulfillment.) The further along things are when the campaign begins, the more legitimate it will seem to potential backers. It's not an absolute requirement to write a first draft before crowd-sourcing, but if you can do it, I think it's a good strategy.
Will a successful campaign be profitable? For the freelancers you hire, almost certainly. For you, the person putting together the campaign, probably not. Expect to make your money from the project when you release the finished version for sale.
How much of your time will it take? A lot. I'm not trying to be coy, but however much time you think it will take, triple it. Even after it's planned, a successful campaign generates a lot of interaction.
Who will back this project? Kickstarter rewards creators with small but dedicated fan bases (or large, dedicated fanbases, as the new card game featuring art by The Oatmeal proves) so it's important to spread the word about a campaign before it launches. You want to reduce the number of people who approach you after the campaign is over and say "Wait... you ran a Kickstarter and I missed it?"
Second, making your campaign stand out:
- People need a reason to talk about your project. The important thing to remember here is that backers don't want to know how this project will be great for you, how it will free you from gatekeepers, or how you'll finally have a chance to SHOW THE WORLD. How will it make life better for the backer? How will it make life better for everyone else?
The Women Destroy Science Fiction campaign had a mission: to increase the representation of women in the genre. It was already a topic of conversation all over social media, and when Lightspeed Magazine created a campaign, it became part of that ongoing discussion.
When I started the first draft of The Great Way, grimdark was big and getting bigger. Even though I like grimdark, I thought it would be cool to write a story without a bunch of grimdark tropes. That didn't impress publishers, but backers responded.
Does your campaign tie into the current cultural discussion? Because that helps.
- People need a reason to share your project with others. Being part of a larger conversation is a good first step, but the campaign should also offer something that people will tell their friends about, and that's why game designer Fred Hicks says the first step in a successful Kickstarter is to spend ten years building a fanbase.
If you're Matthew Inman, word about a card game called "Exploding kittens" with your art in it will spread like a fire in a gasoline factory. If you're Pat Rothfuss, you have super-fans enthusiastically sharing news with casual readers.
But even for creators with small fanbases, friends will spread the word in their social circles, (although you may have to ask them to do it). Beyond that, you need a way to connect your project to some other popular thing.
For the creators of The Omni, that meant Minecraft, Skyrim, and Call of Duty. Sure, they could have showed their device working with Bastion or any number of perfectly good games, but they chose ones that were wildly popular.
For me, it was to offer a Fate Core supplement based on my books.
In truth, I sort of wish I hadn't done this: I think the game is fantastic (seriously, if you're into rpgs, check it out) but I've really struggled with the supplement. It's far longer than I'd intended and I'm not going to be able to design it on the page the way good supplements are. Plus, it's hard. Fiction I can do. RPG rules adaptations are extremely dense; it's a crapton of work.
Other writers have offered prints of the cover art, tapping the attention of the artist's fanbase. Sometimes it's music. Sometimes the only way to reach a larger fanbase is through something as small as a blurb from a better-known author. The point is, you want fans (yours and others') talking to fans about what you're offering.
- People like nice things. This might come as a surprise to no one, but there it is. Personally, I over-estimated the appeal of getting an affordable copy of the trade paperback and under-estimated the appeal of a limited edition hardback omnibus. Backers were willing to spend more for a nice package, something a committed cheapskate like me didn't expect.
Third, it's easy to self-destruct:
- Shipping costs more than you think. Especially international shipping. I felt guilty asking for thirty dollars to cover shipping outside the U.S. Later, as I was sliding packages across the post office counter, it was clear to me that it wasn't enough.
Let's just say that goods you deliver electronically are your friend.
Don't forget to budget for the tax man and for Kickstarter's cut. If you can arrange it so the money comes in during the same tax year the expenses go out, that would probably be a good thing.
Don't offer too much. It's easy to think of pledge levels as a price tag for backer rewards. It's not. There's a patronage dividend mixed in there, because it's a rare Kickstarter that will bring enough backers to cover production costs at retail prices. Backers know they're patrons, too (or they should know) so the trick is to find the right balance. Charge enough to break even, not so much that everyone rolls their eyes and closes the tab. Look at other campaigns to get a good sense of this.
Alternately, beware of stretch goals that require months of work to create and distribute. Offering an extra novel you've already written is one thing. Offering a brand new novel you'll be writing from scratch? Well, you'll get marks for enthusiasm, but I hope you're especially prolific.
Paychecks? In the U.S., many people get paid on the first and the 15th of the month. That first check is usually dedicated to rent/mortgage/bills, but the second will sometimes have some fun money in it. Arrange for the campaign to end on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday after that second check, so your backers will feel comfortable pitching in. If you live somewhere else, with different ways of paying employees, adapt that advice as you see fit.
Eyeballs? The common wisdom is that the best time to spread the word about a project online is between 10–11am on Tuesday, Wednesday, and Thursday, when office workers are bored and surfing the web. Time zones complicate this, yes.
This being Charlie's blog, I'm going to schedule this post to go live a few minutes after 10am, GMT. Of course, I live in Seattle, where it will be 2am. Don't mind me if it takes a little while for me to respond to commentsChange of plans: I'll get up early on Sunday and hit the post button, per Charlie's preference.
Emails? Omg, the emails. So. Very. Many.
You'll want to send emails to friends, mail lists, whatever, to ask for help spreading the word. Don't try to write those on the morning the Kickstarter launches; you'll have too much else to do. It's better to write them several days before and have them ready.
Is this post long enough?
Not yet! There's more advice out there, especially about the video (which is more important than you might think) but it's either on Kickstarter's site itself or reveals itself readily to Google. Alternately, I may be expounding in comments, if people are curious.
But this is a solid start, I think, and antipope gets enough traffic that I hope this advice reaches those who need it. Even though Kickstarter has been around for a while, I still hear from creators considering a campaign of their own, who want to know more first. Personally, I find that advice like this makes the process seem less chancy.
And there's still a risk. Missing a Kickstarter goal is a very public way to fail, and while the perception of success helps create success, the... Well, let's just allow that thought to trail off.
Still, with a realistic budget, a modest goal, and some planning, creative folks with a modest fan base can successfully crowd-source the expense of publishing their own work.
And here we get to the part you all knew was coming: that successful Kickstarter campaign I mentioned may have ended in 2013, but the epic fantasy novels they supported are new releases. In fact, the last book in the trilogy will be released the day after tomorrow. That's Tuesday, Feb 3.
If you're curious to see what sort of cover the ninth-most funded Fiction Kickstarter can buy, here you go:
One of the oldest tropes in epic fantasy is the fallen empire, a powerful nation that once spanned the continent but has been reduced to interesting ruins for the protagonists to visit. Well, I thought it would be fun to write about the fall of an empire like that. Also, while the book has dark moments, there are no sociopathic protagonists, honor and decency are not tragic flaws, and there's no rape.
"Gripping, absorbing, and fast-moving, an epic fantasy for those of us who like it lively" -- Charles Stross.
If you have any questions about crowfunding or whatever, drop them in comments. I'll answer as many as I can.