What I Learned From My Kickstarter Campaign
A little less than two weeks ago, my Kickstarter campaign ended with 330% of its original goal. I had asked for $8,000 to help fund the printing of my first novel, The Girl Who Would Be King, which I had tried and failed to sell to publishers in 2010 (read about that journey here!) and ended up with a shockingly wonderful $26,478. So what did I learn? Well, first I must say it's not over yet, so there's still much to learn (hopefully not too painfully), but the folks here at LitReactor thought you might be interested in what I've discovered so far...
You’ll be surprised both by who pledges, and by who doesn’t
While I had a ton of friends and family turn up as expected, a lot of people I genuinely thought would support me didn’t. Meanwhile, I got a ton of backing from both colleagues and “fans,” as well as a surprising number of people I had never heard of before (and who I assume had never heard of me before). About 35% (nearly $10k!) of my funds came from people surfing Kickstarter looking for interesting projects. People found my project primarily in the “discover fiction” section, the “local” section, the “staff picks” section, and the "popular fiction” section, and a good number found me via other Kickstarter user accounts. It goes to show that really thinking about how you put your pitch together can make all the difference. The project listing has got to be clear and concise to get those surfers to plunk down money, and it’s a huge bonus if you have inspiring images to go with it, rather than just blocks of text. Kickstarter will tell you that making a video is key, and I agree. It helps you connect with viewers and makes things far more personal in general.
Going into this experiment I already had a pretty fantastic and loyal following, built up from 3+ years of giving away (what I hope was quality) free content. At the time that I launched my campaign I had an average of 1200 hits a day on my personal blog and just over 1,000 Twitter followers, as well as exposure on a few larger platforms (Comics Should Be Good, CBR, LitReactor, etc). I also had an advantage in that, though The Girl Who Would Be King is prose and most of my audiences is more comics based, it's still about superpowered people, so there was a nice crossover from the start.
Over those same three years I built some wonderful relationships and made some fantastic connections - again, mostly to people in comics – and I made a group of those I thought might be interested aware of the project before I launched. This drummed up some incredible offers to donate things for reward levels (original art and art commissions, as well as some writing critiques). At the same time, I reached out to handpicked media, sending them "promotional packages" – which were basically PDFs that included information, some art, and the first two (short) sample chapters. This got the attention of some brilliant people at Pop Candy, Wired, After Ellen, Robot 6, and The Mary Sue, among others. None of those stories created any huge influx of pledges, but each produced between 10 - 20 direct sales, and who knows how many others through non-direct social media spread.
No matter how much research you do and how well you try to price things, everything ends up costing more than you think
Whether it’s because you underestimate shipping costs or because you forget to add some small extra (that becomes not so small when you have to print and ship 500 of them) you’re never going to end up with MORE money than you were hoping for, no matter how well your campaign goes. One thing I suggest avoiding is offering a reward that has very little, if any, overage built into it, with the thinking that it’s not a big deal because nobody is going to want it. That will be the reward that everyone picks. I promise you. So don’t do that. Also, be especially careful with shipping. International shipping can get insanely expensive, and when you have to multiply that by dozens, or hundreds (or thousands) you could end up in some serious trouble. If you underestimate your shipping, or are unclear with your backers about what they need to include for shipping, it could be devastating to your project (and your checking account).
People will decrease and cancel pledges and you’ll never know why
Throughout the project you’ll get notifications about decreased pledges and even cancelations, and most of the time you won't know why. The occasional awesome person will send you an email to explain, but mostly you'll have no idea, and trying to figure out the 'why' will drive you insane. Just accept it and go back to looking at all your shiny new pledges. Most of the time it has nothing to do with you or your project. Not everything is about you. I know, I know, it’s hard to believe. I had trouble with it myself.
There is nothing cooler than going to sleep and waking up to new pledges ($$$!) for your project
This the first time in my life that money has come to me while I did “nothing,” and that was a moment of epiphany for me. The realization that “this is how it’s supposed to be to be a working writer" blew my mind. The idea that you work your fingers to the bone on a project and then someday, while you’re sleeping, or watching reruns of Law & Order, or trying your damnedest to figure out your next book, people are buying your books, giving you money for doing something you love, and hopefully something they are going to love too, is wonderfully new to me. People who write for a living intrinsically understand this. Those of us that are still traveling that road are still learning. I am the latter and so it was a eureka moment for me to realize - this is how it’s supposed to work!
You will get totally sick of talking about your project before it's over
Even you won’t want to hear the name of your book at the end of the 30 days - and don’t make your campaign longer than the recommended 30 days, seriously. If you’re like me you’ll have trouble pestering people repeatedly anyway. Because you have to send reminders, and it’ll be more emails than you want to send even if you’re careful with your updates. Try not to send updates unless you have significant news. By the time you hit those last 24 hours you’ll be glad you didn’t over-solicit early on. Which brings us to...
A lot happens in the last 24 hours
Seriously, a lot. 48 hours before the end of your project, Kickstarter automatically sends out emails to people that have asked to be reminded about your project before it ends. I got a good number of pledges from that email alone. But you will also get cancelations. There’s a lot of up and down in those last two days, and especially in the last 12 to 24 hours. For me the net effect was positive, as I raised about $4k in the last two days, and that after more than $750 in dropped pledges (thanks to two big backers having to drop out or decrease their pledge).
And here comes the advice
If I could only give 3 pieces of advice for people looking to run their own campaign they would be:
1. Don’t start a campaign until you have a solid audience and the confidence that a good percentage of them will show up to support your project. A well-conceived project and campaign can get a ton of support from backers searching for interesting projects, but you cannot rely on Kickstarter for your pledges. And having momentum - jumping out of the gate powerfully in the first two days (I fully funded in the first 30 hours) can do wonders for word of mouth on your project, and encourage those that may have been skeptical. If you don’t have an audience and a way to connect with that audience, then you are going to end up in the hell reserved for sad projects with only a handful of backers. Seriously, troll the graveyard of those projects that don’t get funded if you need a reality check. In fact, look at those projects to see what they did wrong, and look at popular projects in your field to study what they did right - how they priced their rewards, if they give away samples of their work- you gotta do the research.
2. If you’re going to do a campaign, you must have confidence in your project. Enough confidence that you are willing to invest a good amount of time, energy, and yes, money, into preparing it. I invested my own funds in both editing services and professional cover art (to the tune of almost $2,000) before I started my campaign. The professional cover art especially was a massive hit. The art drew tons of people to my project, and it was then my job to convince them that the ideas and writing (and rewards) could live up to its beauty. The investment was clearly worth its weight in gold. The internet is such a visual place, and having amazing, inspiring visuals by top tier artists made all the difference for me - from Stephanie Hans vision for the book, to fun stuff like Meredith McClaren's "itties" and Ross Campbell's illustrated "heads" of the main characters. It gave people something tangible to love (and desire) without even having read the material (or much of it).
3. Keep your expectations low and always be appreciative, polite, thankful, and ready to answer questions. These people believe in you and your project. They are handing you their money based on the promise that you're going to deliver them a product. It's a big leap of faith for them in many ways, and you have to be respectful of that. As much as you want to make your goals (or your stretch goals) don't ever pressure people, especially about upping their pledges or bringing in new backers, "pyramid style." It's just a bad idea, in part because people should only pledge what they feel comfortable with. Otherwise everyone is destined for disappointment (including you). Sure, encourage your backers to spread the word amongst their friends/family/social media if they think the project is worthy, but sending desperate emails that ask everyone to bring in friends to back the project may backfire down the line.
I can’t give a detailed breakdown of the expenses, in part because they’re still in flux, but here’s a little breakdown, which I find is helpful when it comes time to reality check yourself. Twenty-five thousand dollars sounds like a hell of a lot of money, but you know what's expensive? PRINTING BOOKS.
After fees (and a few dropped backers – six in my project's case) I received: $23,986.00. I had heard that this could take a long time to process for some people, and I'm sure at higher amounts it does take longer to collect and process, but I had 98% of my funds within a week.
The estimate for all the books (hardcover and paperback), swag (magnets, promo cards, stickers, and bookmarks), signed prints, posters, and a few other extras, as well as shipping costs, editing costs, font purchases, ISBN purchases, website/domain costs, and my original investment (of about $2,000) is going to run me about: $21,000.00
Less taxes (my accountant has recommended I withhold at 38%) I’ll be lucky to come out with $2,000.00 in profit when all the bills are paid.
However, I will have leftover books, prints, and fun extras to sell, should the book do well and people have interest (where I’ll store these things in my tiny NYC apartment is a whole other nightmare). But as I keep reminding myself, profit was not the point. The point was funding the project. The point was not going into the poorhouse while I produced a book that could be sold on Amazon (etc.) as both an ePub and print edition. The point was to make some noise about the book and get people interested. And with that in mind I consider my campaign a great success.
Had I simply released the book quietly as an ePub I seriously doubt I would have gotten the response I did (over 700 people potentially reading my book). I also never would have gotten the opportunity to produce an amazing hardcover illustrated volume, and I can’t imagine I would have drummed up the publicity I did. So it’s impossible to complain. That said, I’ll go ahead and complain, if only to give you guys some of the fair warning that should come with what has otherwise been mostly positive, and here it is: It has been a tremendous amount of work. I have already sent and received more than 2,000 emails related to this project. I've had to get competitive pricing for every single thing I want to produce. I've built a website from scratch, as well as shot and edited a campaign video. I've swallowed my pride and asked people I admire for help in getting the word out and in making donations of either talent, time, money, or all three. And it's far from over. There's still more editing and formatting to do, tons of orders to be placed and bills to be paid, not to mention that there will eventually be over 500 packages to mail... and I loathe the post office. Oh god…what have I done!?
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