Write It Sideways

Crowdfunding for Authors: Is it right and is it right for you?

Crowdfunding is a hot topic, and crowdfunding for authors is a bit controversial. Let’s take a look at whether, why, when, and how writers should approach crowdfunding.

Full disclosure: last fall I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign that raised $10,607 to fund the production and printing of my picture book, the Animal Store Alphabet Book.

The other day I was hanging around on Google+ and ran across a discussion about crowdfunding in a self-publishing community. The gist of the conversation was that writers shouldn’t bother with or even need to be funded. One remark in particular jumped out at me:

“… really I couldn’t ask friends or strangers for money to run my own business—to me it’s sponging/begging.”

I have to say, I was pretty surprised by the entire conversation, especially in a self-publishing forum. But this comment shocked me. Writing is our business. If you can’t ask your friends and family to buy one of your books, then you are almost destined to fail.

What is Crowdfunding?

Crowdfunding is sometimes called crowd financing or crowd fund sourcing. Techopedia offers a nice definition:

“… a method of raising capital in small amounts from a large group of people using the Internet and social media.”

In typical investing, a small group of people invests large amounts of money in a product or venture. In crowdfunding, large numbers of people invest relatively small amounts of money (often as little as $1) to help fund a project or venture.

Writing Is a Business

Make no mistake about it, writing is a business. Traditional publishers are in business to make money. Most, if not all of their decisions are based on the financial viability of investing in a particular book or author. If a publisher doesn’t think you or your book will make money for them and their investors, they won’t take you on.

As writers, we need to think of our work—our writing—as a business. If you want to be a writer, you should be planning your career. If you have only one book in you, you should be planning for the career of that book. Every story—even the life story of your book—has a beginning, a middle, and an end. The end of your book’s story is not when you finish writing it.

These are hard facts for many writers to face. Most of us want to think of ourselves as artists. While there is certainly art and craft that goes into writing a book, it is naïve to think that you can avoid talking about business if you want your book published for public consumption. If you are writing simply for your own joy and personal satisfaction, then fine. But if you have any hope of others buying and reading your work, then you had better start to wrap your head around the business part of the publishing business.

Marketing Your Book

Whether you are traditionally published or completely self-published, or if you choose some model in between, the bulk of the responsibility for marketing your book will fall on you. It used to be said that money flows only one way in publishing: toward the author. The sad fact is that that is no longer true.

In traditional publishing, you can still expect your publisher to pick up the tab for illustrations, cover art, book design, printing, and distribution. They will probably send out a few review copies. But don’t expect a big marketing budget. In fact, if you’re a first-time author, don’t expect any marketing budget. To get your book out there, you may need to hire a book marketing expert, pay for additional review copies, print postcards and press packets, and fund other marketing tools, from book trailers to bookmarks.

Self-published authors, of course, pay for everything. If you hope to compete with traditionally published books, you must produce a top-quality publication, which may mean hiring other professionals (editors, designers, proofreaders, etc.) to do the things you don’t know how to do. All of which takes money.

Kickstarter

There are many crowdfunding platforms out there, with new ones popping up daily. Kickstarter, which launched in 2009, is kind of the granddaddy (if there is such a thing as a four-year-old granddaddy), and was specifically designed to fund creative projects. Here are just a few (of many) others:

Each crowdfunding platform has its own set of rules, and different platforms cater to different kinds of businesses. We chose Kickstarter for our campaign for a variety of reasons:

To date, Kickstarter has hosted more than 100,000 projects, with an overall success rate of about 44%. Approximately 12,000 of these have been publishing campaigns, which have been somewhat less successful, funding at about 32%. That said, those successful publishing campaigns have raised more than $26,000,000 (I wrote out all those zeros so that number could sink in—twenty-six million dollars). FYI, Kickstarter updates its stats daily; find them at the bottom of the homepage.

How to Start

Before you consider launching a crowdfunding campaign, you should do some research to figure out which platform is right for you. How do they operate? How is money distributed? What is their cut?

Then play around a bit. Support a few campaigns. Follow a few that look promising and a few that don’t. See which ones are most successful and try to figure out why. When we first looked into Kickstarter, a writer named Jordon Stratford had recently completed a successful campaign. His goal was $4,000 to fund the production of one book called Wollstonecraft. He raised $91,751 and upped his commitment to write a four-book series. As best as I can tell, his largest pledge was about $500. He had more than 1,400 backers at the $10 level, which rewarded them with an e-copy of the as-of-then unwritten book.

How did he do it? Good question. He has a great idea that hits a lot of trends in a hot market: steampunk, pro-girl, STEM, middle grade. I read everything he wrote about his experience and tried to emulate his campaign. He was very generous about his Kickstarter experience (read more here). Our campaign did not go viral, his did.

But, even though we didn’t raise 20 times our goal (as Stratford did), our campaign did exactly what we set out to do, which was to cover the costs of producing 2,000 hardcover copies of our book, as well as the companion products that we decided to produce as rewards for our backers. Most of our backers were friends and family, with some support from the next circle of acquaintances. We turned to our friends and family to back our business by pre-buying our book—and they did. We are grateful. We hope they are pleased with the end product.

What You Need

Before you launch your campaign, you should have a sturdy platform in place across a variety of social networking sites. Your platform may include:

Most crowdfunding campaigns include a video. It doesn’t have to be elaborate or slick. I made ours. It was my first-ever video. Most people just talk right into the camera. Sincerity counts. If you believe in your project and are excited about it, it’s more likely that you will be able to get other people excited about it.

Plan to be working on your campaign for the duration. We ran our Kickstarter for 31 days. It was a full-time job getting the word out and asking people to contribute. If you are afraid to ask for help, don’t bother with crowdfunding. It won’t work.

Proof of Concept

On Kickstarter, backers donate money and campaigners don’t see a dime until and unless they make their goal. We created an extensive (25-page) business plan before we launched our campaign that allowed us to plot out our expenses and projections in detail, which helped us set our Kickstarter goal.

For novels or adult nonfiction books that don’t rely on a lot of photos or illustrations, print-on-demand (POD) offers a much less expensive production option than we chose. But for our picture book, we wanted high-quality paper, a hard cover, and four-color printing, which is not economically feasible via POD (at least, not yet). A big part of our business plan was costing out the printing and production costs, and determining the ideal number of books to print for the best return on our investment.

We set our rewards at essentially the retail cost of our products. This meant that we pre-sold our book and companion products (coloring book, poster, canvas prints and book bags). By making our goal, we proved that our book had a market. In business, this is called proof of concept.

It also meant that we started our self-publishing endeavor in the black—all our production, printing and shipping costs were covered by the Kickstarter. From that point on, every book we sell is 100% profit.

What Comes Next

Marketing. We pre-sold about 300 copies of our book to cover a print run of 2,000. That means we still have 1,700 books to sell. I talked earlier about how it is incumbent upon virtually every author to do the lion’s share of marketing for his or her book. It’s not easy, but it is part of the deal.

I leave off with some advice from Jason Stratford and his wildly successful Kickstarter. Be grateful. Say thank you. Say it a lot. People have invested in you because they believe in you and your work. They have put their faith in you and backed it with their hard-earned cash. Do a good job. Make them proud. And say thank you.