You know, in a way I feel a bit sad that this post is going to be scheduled, and I’ll be “away” when it goes up, because this is a post that I would like to see the reader responses to. There’s no getting around the fact that with a somewhat topical subject like this, however, sooner is better, and so I don’t want to delay this installment of Being a Better Writer to a later time.
Really quick, before that, though, reminder that today is the last day to get a copy of Colony for free! Hit the books page and head on over to Amazon before midnight arrives!
Got it? Good! On with the post! I am going to preamble this a bit: I’ve never run a Kickstarter, even when I’ve had plenty of well-meaning advice from folks to do so. And even with the topical bit of news regarding the recent surge of books on Kickstarter, which we’re going to talk about … I still don’t have plans to run one.
So then, some of you may be asking, what qualifies me to talk about whether or not you need a Kickstarter? Well, not having run one is not the same as “I’ve looked into it, watched it, and seen how it operates, and made a decision based on both observed Kickstarters and conversations with those that have run successful and unsuccessful projects there.”
This is one of those rare BaBW posts that hits on writing related stuff, in this case marketing.
Now, some of you might be a little perplexed by that statement. “Marketing?” you may be saying. “Kickstarter isn’t marketing. It’s selling the book before it’s out!”
Well … sort of. But not really. And ultimately, success of failure with a Kickstarter comes down to one thing above all others: Advertising. Which is marketing.
Alright, let’s step back before we get in too deep and ahead of ourselves. Let’s start with the most basic part of this whole conversation: What is Kickstarter and why are so many in the book sphere talking about it right now?
Okay, so for the uninitiated, Kickstarter is a web service that allows fans and supporters of a product to “pledge” money toward that product before the product is ever made. Usually for a reward of some kind.
Think of it like a grassroots version of finding product investors. Except instead of selling shares in your company, what Kickstarter is “selling” is “support.”
I know, it sounds weird. This is why there are reward tiers for pledging so much money, and there’s almost always a tier that is effectively “Buy this product now at retail price, and we get your money, and use it to develop said product.” There are often other tiers, from the lower, which usually reward something like “You gave us a dollar because you believe the world needs our thing, so thank you” to the “I don’t want to buy this, but I’d love to have my name featured in the credits” to the extravagant “whale” tier where people spend $5,000, $10,000, or even more with rewards that range from “You get to design a few cards with our team for this board game” to “you get flown out and have dinner with the team.”
If you’re still a little confused, it may help to think of it like “pre-ordering” a product … though there is no guarantee the product will arrive. Sometimes a group asks for a million dollars to be pledged, only to never have pledges hit a million. In which case if the goal isn’t met, nothing happens and no one who pledged is charged. Other times, they hit that million, but turn out to have budgeted badly, needing another million, are unable to procure it, and the product never materializes. Which, in that case is “tough luck” for those that backed it.
This is the new world of crowdfunding, and why it works is it allows small start-ups who can’t get the investment of larger studios/companies/investors who are only interested in mega-returns regardless of the product’s viability to still enter the market and on their own terms. Crowdfunding on Kickstarter has led to plenty of failed projects (especially in its early days when there was a rush of people going for the gold) but also to successful ones as well (especially in the gaming sphere, where tabletop and video gaming have been met with a large array of successful projects).
But without digging deeper into that, the layman’s takeaway is that you can pledge to support a product such as the indie game Shovel Knight by effectively paying for it in advance, and a well-structured team going to Kickstarter can reliably use the service to fund and deliver project after project.
Another way to look at it may be to see it as a way of showing demand in advance. An investor might balk at a product because “Well, it’d need to sell 10,000 copies to break even on the three-year costs of development, and I don’t think it will do that.”
Well, with Kickstarter, you can sell those 10,000 copies before the product is done, and then have the funds in advance to pay for the three years of development. Sure, it means that at the end of three years your net profit is effectively zero unless you sell more than 10,000, but at the same time you had three years paid for to deliver said project in advance, without fear that you’d never make your money back to pay for everyone’s paychecks.
Now there’s more to it than that, obviously, and a long history I won’t get into here, but I think for the purposes of this discussion we’ve laid things out to a degree that the basics are understood: Fans/consumers of a product pledge money to build toward a stated amount from the creator, when that amount is hit, the project is “funded” and those that pledged are charged while the creator gets the funds and then must work to deliver the product. There are legal bits and bobs in here to keep things working as intended, and not, say, ending up in criminal court for someone just taking the money and running, and overall Kickstarter has worked for over a decade now with great success.
Now to part two of our setup: Enter Brandon Sanderson.
You might be familiar with him. Sanderson is a big name in book circles. He’s currently, unless I’m mistaken, the #1 best-selling fantasy author most years. He’s huge. His books sell millions of copies around the world, he can have any publisher or book deal he really wants …
Oh, and just a few months ago he set an all-time Kickstarter record to self-publish a bunch of books he wrote over the Covid pandemic lockdown.
Now, there are a few reasons this was such a huge deal. The first was that it is, as of writing this, the highest funded Kickstarter of all time. Regardless of what amount the Kickstarter was for, the project blew past ten million dollars in the first day, and at the end of its month-long drive, had broken forty million dollars.
So that’s huge deal. Book author breaks all Kickstarter records. But there was more to it than that. This was an indie project. That’s right, Brandon was self-publishing these books, with no traditional publisher in sight. This prompted a rash of frankly laughable news articles from various places on how the whole venture was doomed to fail because no one could self-pub books. Don’tchaknow publishers are a valued part of things? One, which if memory serves was from a very prominent New York-based publication, even had the audacity to suggest that there was no way Sanderson could pay four the publishing of four books with only forty million dollars. The editing, the formatting, the printing … it would break him! Publishers took on so many books at a loss because the cost was just overwhelming!
Which, you know, raises the question of “If forty million dollars isn’t enough to edit and print four novels attached to a name like Sanderson, then how on Earth does any publishing house exist?” But yeah, it was the usual anti-indie propaganda … Just made all the more ridiculous by who was now in the crosshairs.
The last reason this was a huge deal, and the most important to our discussion today, was that it was a literal beacon for many indie authors around the world. Sanderson had raised forty million dollars for publishing his books. Within days of his Kickstarter launching, I was already fielding questions from acquaintances about when I would launch my own Kickstarter, or why I hadn’t yet, or how I had missed such an “obvious” free route to money and funding.
Yes, this success was a beacon on the level of “Gondor calls for aid!” with everyone sitting up and taking notice. And, predictably, there was a sudden influx of books on Kickstarter from prospective, would-be, and even established authors, all wanting to get in on the new “gold rush.”
I was not one of them.
And look, the point of this post is not to say that “Kickstarter isn’t a place for books.” It very clearly is. But my point is to perhaps dull the flame of “free money” that some seem to think it is. Because right now? Personally, a lot of the writers flocking to Kickstarter are doing it because it’s the new gold rush. But the truth about gold rushes is that a lot of people lose everything when they overcommit, and burn themselves quite badly on quick-burning flame … even burning out.
If this sounds a little pessimistic perhaps, than I don’t fully intend for it to be. There are clearly ways to succeed on Kickstarter. However, as I’ve seen it in examining Kickstarter, both from looking at requirements and watching what succeeds, as well as talking to people who have both succeeded and burned out, there are ways to make Kickstarter work. But a lot of people? They don’t go into Kickstarter armed with foreknowledge of those ways.
Believe me, I’ve talked to a range of people who were super excited to start their Kickstarter journey (for multiple ranges of product) and heard them excitedly say how much work they would get done once the money started pouring in … only for them to go silent and disappear when the money never rolled in. Because they’d seen it, as some commentators I’ve fended recently have, as “free money.” It just shows up! No effort needed!
But as they’ve soon found, and as those that have run successful Kickstarters can attest … it’s not free money, and it doesn’t just “roll in” with no effort.
Kickstarter isn’t some sort of magic fairy granting funding wishes. Rather, it’s a very real project workload. One that can be very successful at budgeting the rest of the product, but it’s still a massive project. And if you don’t understand that, and don’t plan accordingly, your Kickstarter won’t succeed.
Now, this is Being a Better Writer. The goal is to succeed. So, now that we’ve covered all this background, let’s talk about Kickstarter in two terms. First, let’s talk about how you can go about setting up your Kickstarter to succeed. Not one that will succeed, but one that at least has a better chance than someone who simply throws the Kickstarter on a whim to get at that “free money.”
So, what steps will you need to take to give your Kickstarter the best chance of suceeding?
Well, one of the most important steps, one that I’ve heard from more than one operator of a successful Kickstarter, is to budget everything. Don’t just pull a number for your goal out of a hat. Know that number. Sit down and work out where every dime of it will go. As an author, this means working out prospective editing costs, publication costs, formatting costs. It will mean knowing the size of your book, and what you’re going for. You may end up with rough ranges, and if so, you’re going to want to outline where that extra funding, if you collect any or have any leftover, will go! You’ll also need to account for taxes as well as Kickstarter’s portion (they collect a percentage of the money collected to fund their own business), and believe it or not, I’ve seen reports from multiple failed projects that failed to account for this, some collecting values nearing millions of dollars without realizing that both that money would be taxed and that they’d have a chunk of it going to kickstarter.
Not only will you need to budget all this out in advance to know how much you’ll need to set as your goal, but many successful and failed Kickstarter project leads can also tell that you’ll want to plan out what your aim will be if you don’t reach said goal, or what you’ll do if unexpected occurrences happen and delay the project or even inflate costs past what you’ve collected.
The reasoning for all of this is twofold. The first is that it will help you and your project. You will know where this money is going. You will know how much you need. You will have made plans to account for overages, failure, and other aspects of project funding.
But second, and important to success with Kickstarting, that knowledge will be reflected in the Kickstarter itself. There are many failed projects on Kickstarter that died in large part due to the creator themselves not knowing at all where the money was going or what it would be spent on. The lack of knowledge being evident in the project proposal, potential supporters would shy away, looking for projects with more focused presentation.
Knowing where your budget is going to go not only helps your project be prepared for both success and failure in backing, but also will change the tone of how it’s presented. A project that doesn’t know where it’s funding would go or how it’s used is generally going to be very non-specific when it comes time to talk about just that on the project page. A project that has budgeted, however, will be confident and informed enough to explain why the project has the funding goal it does, where the money will be going, and what will happen both if the project is funded or if the funding goal isn’t met.
That sort of information shows preparedness across the project, and inspires confidence in those funding it.
But having things budgeted out isn’t all you’ll need to do. You’ll also need to advertise your Kickstarter.
Some of you may be thinking “But isn’t Kickstarter so I can make money for that?” Well … perhaps. But here’s the thing: Kickstarter isn’t advertisement.
I’ve seen ads for Kickstarter projects. Regular internet advertisements on mid-size sites. Brandon’s Kickstarter? I couldn’t not see marketing about it. Multiple people sent me links or news articles about. Brandon himself kicked it off with a YouTube video that held the very attention-getting title of It’s Time to Come Clean. Over a million views.
If you’re going to run a kickstarter, it’s not enough to simply “build it, and hope they come.” You need to market it. You need ads. You need attention. You may even need funding to pay for it. Yes, you saw that right: You may need to raise money to raise money.
Because unless people know about your Kickstarter, they won’t be able to decide whether or not to back it. You’re going to need to consider and plan how you’re going to get eyeballs on your project instead of someone else’s, or to Kickstarter at all.
This means marketing. This means ads on Facebook, or videos on YouTube. It means plugging it and getting others to plug and share it in the hopes that it reaches all the people you need. If your budget is say $15,000, and a $15 pledge gets someone the book, then you need a thousand people at least to pledge that amount. And not everyone who hears about it is going to pledge, so you’ll need to account for that to. If you expect one out of a hundred who see the page to pledge, then your marketing needs to attract 100,000 people to see your page. If only 15% of similar advertisements (and understand I pulled this number out of the air) are clicked on, then you need to market ads that will be seen by over 650,000 people.
Yikes. But it makes sense. Recall that a Kickstarter project is effectively to most letting them “pre-buy” a product, even if that isn’t totally accurate. But that does mean that you need to attract all those potential buyers of your book before the book can be held in their hands to fund it. You’re effectively marketing a product that doesn’t exist yet in order for it to exist.
And if you can’t get those eyes on your project well … it doesn’t matter how good it is. You won’t get funded.
Third, and not last but the last we’ll talk about, is that you’ll need to have some form of community management/public relations going on.
Kickstarter isn’t a place where you do the prior steps, collect everyone’s money, and say “Kthanksbye” before vanishing into your lair to put that money to good use. Kickstarter is a community initiative, where a bunch of people have pledged into a project to support it … and they will want to know how it’s going. They’ll want to know what the updates are, if things are going well or rough, and in general how things are coming along.
If you look at successful Kickstarter projects, you’ll often see a pattern of regular communication with backers from the people behind the project. Usually weekly, but other patterns exist. But the key element is that even before the project is backed, these conversations establish themselves as communicating with backers and keeping them up to date as a reassurance that they will see what happens with their support.
Meanwhile projects that don’t deliver regular updates tend to run into trouble even if they deliver what they promised their backers, simply because people shy away from supporting them again, citing that period with no communication as a worrying indicator of how the project is run.
People say “no news is good news” but the truth is that they want news. They want to hear how the Kickstarter is going, and how their pledge it being put to good use. So if you Kickstart, you’re going to want to factor in all your communication with your backers as well.
Okay, there are other things we could talk about with running a successful Kickstarter, but none of them, in my opinion, as weighty as those three above, which seem to hold the most sway with successful Kickstarter projects.
However, we’re not done yet. There’s one last thing to discuss today. A very vital question that, with the current “gold rush,” should be asked.
Do you actually need a Kickstarter?
See, here’s the thing: Yes, Kickstarter can be a boon for an indie author. But the key word there is “can.” If you’ve looked at all of the prep-work listed above, you’ve likely realized that there is a lot of work involved in running a good Kickstarter, and at the end of it all … what are you accomplishing? You’re getting people to buy your book in advance so that you can sell them your book.
It sounds weird, but that’s really what it is. You’re pre-selling a product. But do you need to?
I think that’s where I see this rush as a word of warning. A lot of people are launching themselves to Kickstarter and other fundraising services, riding the wave of “Wow, I can sell a book before I write it to pay for the writing of the book!”
Yes, you can. But you can also just … write the book.
Let me rephrase this: If you are in a position where you can Kickstart a book and are willing to put forth the effort, then it’s up to you if you want to or not. But look at what a Kickstarter takes, from advertising to pre-selling a title to however many thousand or so people you’ll need to pre-sell it to. The odds are that if you can do that, it’s because a lot of those people are already prepared with knowledge about you to buy a book sight unseen.
But a newcomer? Someone that’s never published a book before? That’s a hard pre-sell. And a lot of extra work to do atop of just … finishing the book and putting it out there.
You don’t need Kickstarter to finish a book and sell it. Sands, I’ve got eight books with my name on them, and I’ve never run a single Kickstarter. Could it help get, say … and audiobook of Colony? Yes, now that I’ve got an established brand and reputation, absolutely. I’d still need to spend a bunch on advertising to raise the amount the project would require, but the option is there (and I may actually do this once Starforge is out and the trilogy complete).
I’m not trying to say “don’t do Kickstarter right away.” Recently there was an author who self-pubbed their first book and it shot to the top of the charts, with over 3000 reviews already. Of course, they’re a long-time pro from another industry with tens of thousands of dollars to burn on advertising and a whole bunch of personal connections that sent the book to all the right people for instant publicity. They had a market already prepared. Kickstarter, with connections like that, could have been a great boon because the same paths that shot the book to the top of charts also would have worked great for getting a Kickstarter attention.
But they didn’t do that. They just published the book and used those connections to drive the book up anyway. Kickstarter was an option, but not the only path.
I suppose that is what this post was really getting at. It’s an option … but far from the only one. And yes, I realize we didn’t talk about whales or how a successful kickstarter is advertising in its own right. Frankly, the whole thing is a very complex beast and covering it in the entirety would take a whole chain of posts.
But I don’t need to do that. All I set out to do with this post was temper the fires of “free money” a bit and hopefully illustrate that Kickstarter is but one option forward for writing. You can go with it, or you can without it. It’s a tool, one that brings its own requirements and capabilities to the table.
Whether or not you choose to use it, you can still publish.
Good luck. Now get
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