This article by M.C.A. Hogarth is from the March 2019 edition of Nink, the monthly newsletter of Novelists, Inc. (NINC). Nink, which is packed each month with informative articles for career novelists, is a benefit of NINC membership.
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Most people know about Kickstarter, the website where creators crowdfund their projects to the tune of thousands of dollars, and for the most part we’ve heard about the outrageous successes (and the devastating failures). These stories paint Kickstarter as a “go big or go home” platform, which obscures one of its most useful functions: arranging for small infusions of capital, quickly. Would it be nice for us to swing one of those $100,000 campaigns? Sure, but who has the time to manage several thousand backers’ products? We’re too busy writing. But that doesn’t mean you need to pay for the small-to-medium expenses of your career on your own.
What kind of things am I talking about?
- Putting your backlist in print again (or in ebook for the first time).
- Getting a new cover designed for some of your backlist works.
- Buying audio editions of your work.
- Writing that niche novella you can’t justify otherwise.
- Getting fun merchandise done for in-person events.
Most of us have some loose ends we’d like to tie up. Why not enlist your fans’ help? You can do it with the right kind of Kickstarter campaign.
First, ask for the least amount of money you can get away with. The formula is this: Amount I Need to Buy the Thing I’m Raising For + Amount I Need to Fulfill Prizes + 20 percent of that total for fees and taxes + another 20 percent for profit. (You need to pay yourself.)
Your total goal should be under $2,000; if it’s not, you’re out of the ‘quick and dirty’ Kickstarter range and into the ‘I need to take this a lot more seriously’ department. If your goal can’t be achieved in under $2,000, then you have three choices: (1) pick something else that does come in under that goal; (2) run the project intending to fulfill only some of your expenses, and (3) pay the rest out of your pocket; or retool to run a major campaign. (Which I don’t recommend. Write another book instead.)
The best way to keep things small is to limit your prizes and your tiers—that minimizes your mental overhead when it’s time to figure out who gets what. Most of your prizes should be virtual and cheap to deliver: wallpapers, ebooks, emailed cut scenes, cameos, names listed in the backs of the books, etc. Get creative; anything you can do once and reproduce infinitely is good! Are you good at singing? Send an MP3! Like talking to people on camera? Give them a backer-only video. Reserve physical prizes for very high tiers, and limit their numbers. Don’t get trapped into shipping several hundred hardcovers; have one tier for 10 autographed books and charge more for them.
Don’t feel bad about fewer tiers. Tell your backers that you’re streamlining so that everyone gets what they backed for as quickly as possible. So many Kickstarter projects never send their awards that if you do so consistently, you will be lauded for it.
Don’t let these campaigns drag on. A well-run campaign needs daily attention, plus you’re going to be burning time fulfilling prizes. One to two weeks is good; generally the more money you’re asking—the longer you need. But there’s a point of diminishing returns: it’s hard to sustain backer excitement over three or four weeks, so don’t try.
The moment you hit your goal (and it might be fast!), start to work on those prizes so you can get them out the door as quickly as possible. You don’t want your responsibility to your campaign to linger any longer than necessary.
One of Kickstarter’s features is the ability to offer stretch goals: additional prizes that get “unlocked” when the campaign hits a certain goal over and above the one needed for a successful campaign. These stretch goals give backers a reason to keep throwing money at the project. Usually creators promise things like more merchandise, extra gifts, another story—the possibilities are endless. Which is exactly why you shouldn’t declare too many. Stretch goals are a good way to overextend yourself. Pick one or two that won’t take much time or effort and don’t be tempted to add more as your totals go up. You’re not aiming for “most money possible” because that usually entails “most effort possible.” You’re aiming for “most money possible for the least amount of effort, so I can stay focused on my core business. Which is writing. Not fulfilling Kickstarter prizes.”
I usually pick one or two stretch goals, and tie them into something I want to do anyway, and can resell later, like cut scenes or bonus short fiction I can bundle later into a collection for retail.
I didn’t fund!
There are a lot of reasons a Kickstarter might not fund, but most of them boil down to “my goal didn’t match up with my audience.” (It’s a lot like writing a successful novel that way.) But here are the most common problems:
- You didn’t tell your fans. They can’t fund your project if they don’t know about it, and you should give them some advance warning so they can plan their budgets. (I usually tell mine a month in advance, and hit up all my major social media/newsletter/chat outlets before and during the campaign.)
- You didn’t keep the project alive. You should plan to post an update to your project every day it’s active, and then regularly after closing, especially until you’re done sending out prizes. Don’t just talk about the campaign’s progress; have a list of topics related to your project. If it’s a book, you can talk about how you came up with the characters, or share photographs of the place the book’s set, or discuss forensics—whatever seems relevant. If it’s a side project, like merchandise, you can talk about the process of hiring artists, or what your vision was, or ask fans for suggestions on how to use the results. (Asking your fans things in these posts is a great way to promote engagement.)
- You asked for too much money in too little time for the number of fans you have. Keep in mind 95 percent of your money’s going to come from your existing fanbase, not from people “discovering” you on Kickstarter: the amount you can raise is going to be limited by that number. If you have one hundred fans, don’t ask them for $2,000, ask for $250. Likewise, don’t ask people for $2,000 in five days (unless you have several thousand fans). The amount you can raise and the time you can do it in are directly related to how many people you can mobilize, so use that to set your expectations.
- Something about your prizes wasn’t compelling. Best way to fix this problem is to ask your fans what they want—and what they find uninteresting. Mine keep telling me they love bookmarks, for instance, and aren’t very interested in patches, so I keep producing bookmarks!
It may take you a few tries to get the formula down. Don’t be discouraged if you don’t figure it out immediately. Use Kickstarter’s search engine to find other (successfully funded) writer projects and see how they handled it. (Here’s my profile if you want to see mine: https://www.kickstarter.com/profile/mcahogarth/created). Take notes. Listen to your fans, too; they’ll tell you what they’re willing to pay for, and how often. They want to help you! So let them!
Do it again
Did it work? Excellent. Do it again. One of the side effects of a good Kickstarter campaign is that it gives your fans something fun to get worked up about. They like helping you accomplish something; they enjoy watching the totals rise and unlocking your one or two stretch goals. Don’t let this tool rust now that you’ve mastered it … any time you’ve got a small project that could use some capital, use Kickstarter for a quick injection. Have fun with it!