Kickstarter is Cool (and Probably Not for Me)

I am not infrequently asked whether or not I’ll be running a Kickstarter campaign for some of the things that I want to do creatively, given that so many of my friends have done them and seem to have been reasonably successful at them, and because I think that in a general sense Kickstarters (and their various cognates via Indiegogo and other such funding sites) have been a very cool thing for a lot of creative folks. In many ways it would seem I’d be a prime candidate to do a Kickstarter.

I don’t see one in my near future, however, save possibly one in which I have a cameo role at best, and for which I have no responsibility for planning or disbursement (for example, as I did with Paul & Storm, in which I chipped in a couple of extras if certain funding levels were met). The reasons for this have very little to do with the politics of self-funding — and there are politics of self-funding, which I find hugely irritating and enervating and kind of boring –and have mostly to do with my own circumstances and personal make-up. In no particular order, they are thus:

1. I’m already under contract for projects for the next couple of years. Which is to say, I’m busy and will continue to be so for a while, thank God.

2. The things I want to do that are not under contract I’m likely to get contracts (or similar business agreements) for. At this moment in time I am a reasonably safe bet for publishers, so many of them are willing to give me money for things, on terms I find largely congenial. This works for me, because:

3. I would prefer not to have to do everything. And most Kickstarters are a commitment to have to do everything. Some people want to have control over every step of the process, or at the very least are willing to put in the work. Good for them. I’m of the “I’d do all of it if I had no other choice, but if I have other choices I’d rather do that” school of thinking. Related to this:

4. Kickstarters are an immense commitment of time and energy, before, during and after. The initial planning, the advertising and marketing of the Kickstarter, the stretch goals and the planning for them, the fulfillment of said stretch goals in addition to the original products, so on and so forth. Jesus, I look at what some of my friends who do Kickstarters oblige themselves to in order to get their funding and I get tired and want to cry. Also:

5. I am aware of all the things I don’t know about planning/budgeting/creating/marketing a finished product, and also aware that means there are all sorts of pitfalls that I won’t see until I flail down them. Again, some people have a taste for adventure and a willingness to put in the time and effort to learn all this stuff. Good for them. I’d much rather let other people who already have experience do that for me. And you may say here, well, you could hire those people! To which I say, well, yes. That’s exactly what I do when I partner with a publisher. 

All of which is to say:

6. By and large the advantages of doing a Kickstarter, for me, do not outweigh the disadvantages. The advantages are: People give you money! On your own terms! The disadvantages are: Then you have to fulfill your promises! On the terms you set! Which may turn out not to be to your actual advantage, unless you are very smart and careful and lucky. I know myself well enough to know that the sort of person who is all three of those, in the context of a Kickstarter campaign, is unlikely to be me.

Again: The issue here is not the Kickstarter model, which I think is fine and which is perfectly congenial for some people. Some people really like the whole Kickstarter experience, and I think that’s fantastic. It’s just that I look at it and think Oh God, so much work and then hope that the world never gets to the point where it’s the predominant model for funding creative work, because then I’m just going to sell blood plasma and live beneath an underpass.

So, yeah. I like Kickstarter (and other similar companies) in theory and as a new and vital avenue for works to be funded when they might not otherwise. I’m not sure it’s for me — or at least, not right for me without a team of people behind me to do everything I don’t want to/am not competent to do.

Fortunately for me, at the moment at least I can already work with teams of competent people willing to do the stuff I don’t want to, called “publishers.” I’m going to keep working that angle for a while, I think.

34 thoughts on “Kickstarter is Cool (and Probably Not for Me)

  1. What keeps me shy of Kickstarter is that it seems like a good way to get hundreds or thousands of strangers thinking your schedule and budget are accountable to them. Do not want.

  2. That’s a good analysis. I wonder – although KS fans might think this is wrong – how much crowdfunding may be just another digital network crowdcraze that only the earliest adopters get a good return from.

    So, myspace facebook spoke friendster etc…, they all look great, and they all have a shelf life until it become kind of grimy to be part of. Not that much of Kickstarter campaigns are grimy, but the more that don’t deliver, the less noble the better ones will seem.

  3. I hear what you’re saying. My book was a solid Kickstarter success story, but the planning process was really scary and kept me up late at night, and I didn’t feel relieved every single reward had shipped out. (Despite the extensive planning, I was still blindsided by a hike in U.S. Postal Service shipping rates that happened between the end of my campaign and when I was ready to ship out rewards.)

    My book–a true story about a murder in Kansas in 1925–was a great project for Kickstarter–but I went the Kickstarter route only after exhausting traditional roads to publishing (the book was rejected because it was “too local” and the murder remained unsolved). I have a background in public relations, which gave me a huge advantage, but I was blown away at how online information about self-publishing and eBooks could be a month old and already completely outdated, making it really challenging to choose the best eBook and paperback publishing processes.

    Looking back, I would guess that I put about 30 or 40 hours a week into maintaining, updating, and promoting the 30-day Kickstarter campaign while it was running, and that was despite meeting my funding goal within the first 27 hours. It’s a huge undertaking.

  4. I will push back a little on your #4 and #5. I did an Indiegogo campaign to fund printing of 7 Secrets of the Prolific. It WAS a shit-ton of work for a solid month, as you note. However, it was really valuable work. The process forced me to see my work through the customer’s eyes, craft a winning appeal, get good graphics, get testimonials, etc. And everything I did was reusable elsewhere.

    And then it yielded $4,100 – so in a way it was like I was being paid to learn to market.

    It also forced me to get out there and sell.

    So many authors are disappointed in their sales, and yet they are reluctant to get out there and market and sell. Crowdfunding is a good technique for them because it is very structured, with a defined endpoint and goal.

    One “bad” thing about crowdfunding is this – it shows who your true supporters are and aren’t. There were about a dozen people I considered friends who didn’t contribute to my campaign, and to be honest I resented it. (Esp. if I had previously supported their weddings, kids’ cookie drives, and various other endeavors.) Some of these people are great people and great friends – they just don’t like being asked for money. Also, crowdfunding is still weird to many people. But my minimum contribution was $3, and I feel they could have just bit the bullet and paid up, even if they did think it was weird.

  5. If not for Kickstarter Jill Thompson wouldn’t be working on a Scary Godmother doll, so I’m all for this (and all the others I’ve heard of) crowd funding method. For Somebody Else. Unless I come up with a /really/ awesome Idea.
    I think it’s good that running a Kickstarter is lots of work: This will weed out some of the con artists and people who don’t have what it takes to actually do the product.
    And crowd funding seems like it would keep things that aren’t worth doing from getting funded. Sort of a run it up the flagpole and see who salutes thing.

  6. I will add this – that if you aren’t willing to do the work you shouldn’t crowdfund because a half-hearted effort won’t get you anywhere AND it will just reflect badly on you.

    Also, in contrast to KS, Indiegogo lets you collect contributions as they come in (cash flow is queen!), and that means you collect even if you don’t meet your target. That was lucky for me because I didn’t actually meet my target.

    Collecting the funds as they come in could be problematic if it results in someone getting ripped off for a product that’s never released, but I believe most of those cases have been manufacturing or movies. If you’re going to release the book either way, you might as well get paid for copies up front.

  7. I’m seriously considering Patreon, which is like Kickstarter only for ongoing projects like webcomics or vlogs. There’s no deadline, no final end product, the creator just gets paid whenever they update.

  8. Everyone who wants to do a Kickstarter campaign should read this post. A lot of people never get past the “People give you money!” part. Like this one (which I did not back): http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/zpmespresso/pid-controlled-espresso-machine. They were funded two years ago and are still trying to figure out how to do what they said they’d do. At least they haven’t given up and walked away. But I’m sure they are very, very sorry they ever did this.

    That said, I’ve backed almost twenty projects and have been mildly to extremely pleased with everything that has been delivered so far: a couple CDs, an iPhone dock, two vinyl LPs, a movie, bitters, a book, and WiFi LED light bulbs. I’m just careful about reading between the lines to make sure that the folks on the project have some idea what they’re getting themselves into.

  9. I’ve backed several Kickstarters for ebooks and been happy with the results every time. For those who know what they’re doing it seems to be one viable means to self-publish.

  10. I backed (at $5; my upper limit is $10, which I figure I can safely afford if it goes south) a second season of a web series that had put up a really cool first season but was IMO asking for an unrealistic amount of money. It got about a quarter funded. They ran a second Kickstarter, adding a couple of very cool actors to the project and keeping the same too-high monetary goal. Near as I can tell, they then did NOTHING to reach more people in their target audience. I didn’t bother; if I saw NO buzz about it in the five or six venues I frequent that are filled with the target audience, they weren’t doing the marketing. I think it got less than the first Kickstarter.

    You can have a great product, but you HAVE to tell your audience about it.

  11. “They were funded two years ago and are still trying to figure out how to do what they said they’d do.”

    That’s just being irresponsible. People doing a Kickstarter need to realize that you’re asking people to front some kind of cost. It might be the cost of manufacturing a product, it might be the cost of renting studio time and paying session musicians, it might be the cost of hiring a professional illustrator or editor, but it’s flat out irresponsible to not know how you’re going to do what you are asking people to back.

    Now, sure, you might get into it and find out new information but that’s different than starting in ignorance. If you’re not a project planner sort, partner with someone who is because as Chaosprime alludes to above, you *are* making a commitment to people about what you’re going to do with their money and you need to have some realistic plan for how much you really need, what the steps from funding to done are, etc.

    And *do* be realistic about what it will take. If it will take 6 months of full-time effort from 3 people to produce what you’re going to produce figure out what that really means and don’t forget to subtract KS fees, etc. And be cautious – if your best case to hit Done is 6 months it’s more likely to take 9. If that happens and you’re out of money at 6 months, what happens?

  12. I’m thinking of mounting Kickstarter or Indiegogo campaign to fund the next year of my Podrunner series of workout-music mixes. It’s existed on a donation basis for years, but that funding model seems to be on the wane across the net.

    Several podcasts and online shows have run admirable campaigns to fund a next season, notably 99% Invisible. Publishing-design guru Craig Mod wrote a hugely informative study of his own book-publishing campaign that I think might prove helpful for a lot of people.

    It’s a scary prospect, I have to admit. Besides being a lot of work (which I’m willing to do), there are a lot of unknowns, and it’s clear you need good marketing skills. (In fact, the downsideof Kickstarter seems to be that there are a lot of people who are good at marketing but not so good at fulfilling.) Having a built-in audience is enormously helpful, but clearly you have to reach watering holes and media outlets.

  13. @John: What would you think about a Kickstarter-project for a translation of one of your books into a foreign language?

  14. @steveboyett and @Martin

    I wouldn’t be afraid to do it. But keep in mind that success (e.g., levels of funding) seems to correlate directly with the size of your mailing list. That’s why, Martin, I didn’t crowdfund my own translations – because I didn’t have a big enough mailing list in Spanish or Japanese.

    Also, keep in mind you really have to hustle throughout the campaign. It’s a lot of work to get the page up, but then once it is, you have to contact and recontact people and get them to take the step of investing. I probably sent four newsletters about the campaign out to my whole list, and about fifty individual emails to people asking them to buy.

    Hill

  15. @Hill Due to a post in Jim C: Hines blog (http://www.jimchines.com/2014/01/2013-writing-income/) i started thinking about the problems of English speaking SF&F authors on the German market. Couldn’t stop and i put them into a longer text (http://blog.literarily-starved.com/2014/01/the-german-science-fiction-fantasy-book.html).

    It outlines the problems of translations to German at least. Then came this post from John and i noticed, that a Kickstarter project would probably take care of several (not all) of those problems. Especially the QA could be done by the funders.

    A mailing list doesn’t need to be big and (when you are an author) you have already a lot of Germans that read your posts on G+, FB and your blog.

    If you look at the revenue that comes from translations for non-celebrity authors, i see a real chance to surpass it and get a excellent translation as well.

  16. Another fan/poster/pro hereabouts did a Kickstarter sometime back – but the whole thing was handled by one of their existing publishers (bar things like autographed copies and such that required the artist’s involvement.) Kind of the middle ground – the artist created the work and put in the additional work for unique reward items, but the publisher did the heavy lifting. Not a bad compromise, and in that case a success all around. (The results were f’ing gorgeous.)

    (Note that I’m not suggesting that Hachette or Random Penguin, to name two, should be going to Kickstarter to promote authors and save themselves some bucks. This is a small-creator, small-press model, but by Gad it worked sir!)

  17. I guess Kickstarter works for some and not others. I have no interest in starting one for the same reasons I don’t want to start my own business. I am good at creative things, like designing jewelry, cross stitch patterns, writing, painting. Not so good at business. I would much prefer to be the worker creating stuff and getting a paycheck rather than running the business. From what I have seen with Kickstarter, you really need to know how to run a business as well as have the creativity to produce your products. Sigh. I need a good business person to be my partner…

  18. @Martin: One of JS’ books? Well, uh….
    @Martin: A Kickstarter for money to hire a translator who can do a novel and stuff I don’t want to try to think of. If the KS meets a viable goal than yer golden.

  19. “A lot of people never get past the ‘People give you money!’ part. Like this one (which I did not back): http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/zpmespresso/pid-controlled-espresso-machine. They were funded two years ago and are still trying to figure out how to do what they said they’d do.”

    On looking at the project updates, I don’t think this is an adequate summary. They appear to have had a plan the whole way through; they just keep running into real-world complications that they never anticipated. (e.g., issues with circuit-board manufacturing; quality-control issues with things that worked in small batches, but not so much in mass production; a software dev they’d hired bailing out for personal-life reasons; and—especially—changes needing to be made for UL certification.) At this point, 50 machines have gone out to backers who volunteered to serve as beta testers, and they appear to be hard at work on ironing out the final kinks and getting this out there.

    Were they naïve? It looks like it, yes, but it also looks much more like “[getting] into it and [finding] out new information” than “starting in ignorance.” And it looks like backers have been kept in the loop through all this. If I drank espresso, and if I’d backed this project, I don’t think I’d be too upset with them. (It’s the people who don’t follow through on their promises at all, don’t provide updates, and/or do a bait-and-switch who piss me off.)

  20. I should try to think of something for on topic.
    I’m three minutes into a movie named “The Boy Who Cried Werewolf”
    So awesome would be “The Boy Who Cried Were Wolves.”
    Tiny little of them running dripping from his eyes.

  21. What a brilliant post John. And to top it some very informed comments!

    I particularly am using the word ‘brilliant’ coz, I have a comment on the Kickstarter and the entire crowd-funding model, which is: I have a dream, I will finish it, but baby, let me raise money first!

    Its as if: I will work on my business plan, but hey dear VC, please write me the cheque first.

    Logically, what project creators must do is: overcome their project obstacles, minimise risk, build a tribe of early evangelists and then ensure that they raise money fast and DELIVER!

    This is precisely the problem, I set out to solve with hashtaag.com ! Its my second startup and I strongly feel, Crowd Helping comes Before Crowd Funding!

    If you find my comment logical, I’d love to get your views on it, may be through a blog post!

  22. As Kickstarter and similar funding operations continue to evolve, I wonder if we’ll see the emergence of consultants/facilitators who agree to handle the business and organizational aspects of these projects, freeing up creators to focus on the creative work, in exchange for a cut of the take. Assuming this hasn’t happened already, of course (I know that how-to books have already been written on the subject).

  23. “Boy Who Cried Werewolf” was a total bad movie. Such a formula thing, the critics would say. F the critics. It was fun.

  24. Kickstarter is not an investment its a donation. An investment comes with a return. Typically businesses had 3 ways to raise money. Investing your own money, loans, and then equity investment (Give up a percentage of the business). Now you have kickstarter which is a free handout and a double dog promise to build you a neat toy or book or so on.

    There are no legal consequences if they fail. See Neal Stephenson. He raised $700,000 to make a sword game and then poof gone. Or so they claim. They could have paid themselfs $200,000 and then spent the rest on the product. There are no laws requiring how you spend the money.

    Its really just free money. When you invest your own money you are taking a risk. When you get a loan you have a contract that legally obligates you to pay the money back, and when you give up equity you give up part of your business. When someone does a ‘kickstarter’ they get a handout.

    I don’t donate to kickstarter. I don’t see a reason to give a business a handout so they can turn around and make money. I might donate to a kickstarter if it was for a charity or something (but I would prefer to donate another way since kickstarter takes what 20% of the gross and that is a waste of my money).

    That being said, if I had a neat idea for a business and I thought I could get free money on kickstarter to fund it, I would definitely do it. Hell, its free money. If you want to make an ‘investment’ you should look for something with a return. The savings the rate in the US is very low.

  25. Useful insights & comments, for which I thank you all! I’m currently prepping for an upcoming Kickstarter (preview: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/1678683250/397284808?token=7adc8cda) to fund a self-publishing venture.

    The amount of work is daunting but the key issue for me is that I alternate regularly between unrestrained optimism and deep despair. Optimism is fueled by the supportive community and the existance of the technology and capabilities to launch such a crowd-funded venture. Deep despair comes from having worked in marketing and understanding the profound limitations in my own reach and ability to generate the visibility and attention necessary to make it work.

    The “field of dreams” approach (build it and they will come) used by so many, is generally not a sustainable one…

  26. @steveboyett: your workout videos look pretty cool (so are your books). I just started p90x, but I’d be interested in trying your videos and I finish my 90 day round. That being said, I’m more interested in paying for a finished product (like you have now) than giving you money on the promise of funding something new. This is not a knock on you. Your a small business owner so I don’t mean this as an attack. I’m just averse to people going ‘please give me money so I can make a product’. I’d rather wait for the finished product and pay for it if its good.

  27. @Tim: At least in the realm of tabletop games, there are a couple of companies already specializing in taking games from the “OK, we have a design, how do we make it?” stage to finished products via Kickstarter. I am not privy to their precise business arrangements, but it seems to be beneficial for everyone involved.

    @Guess: It’s a patronage model; many Kickstarter projects are for creative works that would never get made if not for the support of the crowd. You’re correct that it’s an error to call it an investment in almost every case (I suppose one could receive a physical good that one can later resell at a markup), but if too many people wait for the finished product, the Kickstarter won’t fund and no one will get the product at all. I’ve pledged to dozens of Kickstarter projects and only been burned on a few of them, so perhaps my experience is more fortunate than most.

  28. Like Dean Hamilton, I’m in the process of assembling a Kickstarter campaign—though he’s a bit further along with it than I am. (I need to raise money to bring my ebook into print.)

    A lot of posters above commented how many projects were not well planned out and suffered for it. Considering some of the descriptions given, I’m not too surprised by the issues brought out.

    While Kickstarter isn’t exactly a venture capital investment, the project owners are promising a return—swag—in exchange for the benefactors money. One needs to have a business plan in place to manage the proper exchange. Goals on using the money, how to advertise the project, how to process the rewards to benefactors, shipping costs, etc. A well thought out plan will help smooth the bumpiest of surprises during the process. Heck, I even called UPS about negotiating a bulk rate and pickup so when I’m done processing and packaging the rewards, a truck will back up to my house and take it all away in one shot.

    There is a lot of work to do, but the compensation for that work is worth it if it brings your project to life.

    I do recognize that Kickstarter may be past its prime; that people will see yet another book funding deal and pass on. For that reason, I’m also looking at some of the other fundraising sites as alternatives, in case the Kickstarter fails.

    I won’t know unless I give it a try.

  29. @Guess: The money goes to ensure the continued availability of a large archive (they’re workout music mixes, not videos, btw), as well as the regular appearance of new ones. My “finished product” relies on contributions to remain available. NPR works similarly.

    I listed the Kickstarter campaign of 99% Invisible for that reason: Listeners are funding the continued presence of something they find valuable. Kickstarter is an interesting way to attempt to maintain a service, as well as a way to fund products.

    I’m doing P90x2 for the second time right now, by the way. It’s much loonier than the first one. :)

    I’m delighted you like my books!

  30. @steve: my knock against kickstarter is more for the larger businesses looking for handouts instead of getting investment. I donated 2, to of them for roguelike games. One for an old roguelike called ‘adom’ and one for an opensource zombie roguelike called Cataclysm DDA (this is not for profit… people develop it for fun).

    Ariel would make excellent movie. The plot strikes me as being very good to convert to a movie.

    slightly off topic, so if John actually checks back this far in time, the ‘scalzi-anger-meter’ might go up…

    you know… you might be able to do a good fundraiser for charity if you do some exercise videos with out of shape middle aged science fiction writers. Problem with most work out videos is most people are ripped. If you get ‘regular people’ doing them you can sympathize with how hard it is. Would be even more entertaining if you writers that are known to dislike each other in SFWA to participate together. So its equal opportunity and no one gets mad about picking on one side over the other. You might do a great service and get them to focus their rage on you. Could be a bonding experience…. could also be funny.

    now that is a kickstarter or fundraiser for charity I could get behind.

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