There are a lot of guidelines with regard to crowdfunding, but very few that are geared towards the large and diverse sector of artists, comic artists, and writers that try to fund their projects through crowdfunding sites.
Granted, this group can sometimes have a hard time with crowdfunding. After all, there are publishers for graphic novels and literature, right? Comic and writing projects seem to fail on a far more regular basis, and far more spectacularly, than others. People may not be willing to crowdfund something that you might just as well realise through a regular publishing house.
I predict that you will get people whining about you going for crowdfunding. Whether you’re successful or not, funnily. The bottom lines will probably range from “I gathered rejections from publishers, and so should you! If your project wasn’t picked up by a publisher, it’s obviously crap. Why should I pay for it?” to “Stop trying to please every f*ing idiot!”
The problem of self-publishers/indie publishers these days is, of course, that there are so many of us, and that qualities cover a wide spectrum (to put it mildly). I can’t even fault people whose reaction to crowdfunding a novel is eye-rolling. There’s a lot of appalling self-published stuff out there, and all we can do is to put out the best we possibly can, to let people decide for themselves whether what we do is worthy of being published, and worthy of support.
I had anticipated the eye-rollers and included a section on “Why Crowdfunding” in my campaign description, so that most of the time, other people were already jumping in to explain to the whiners why I had to go crowdfunding before I even read their comments. But even if you’re not doing a 140 page picture book for adults on military history that no publisher will touch with a ten-foot pole, there is one huge, huge argument for crowdfunding that several big industry names have discovered too:
With crowdfunding, you put your own project into action. You don’t have to take any hassle from publishers or illustrators, but you can do exactly what you want to do. In all campaign descriptions of successful projects that I’ve read, the love for what people are doing just shines through like a beacon. People are attracted to things that other people are passionate about. Others will find this off-putting pretty much just for the heck of it (and it’s kind of sad that some people don’t recognise enthusiasm when it dances in front of them). So for goodness’ sake, if someone thinks that crowdfunding is evil or that you’re an idiot, then let them.
Some Dos and Don’ts
In preparation for my own campaign, an illustrated novel about the battle of Cannae in 216 BC, I browsed dozens of guides, and hundreds of projects. Together with a friend, we tried to find the reasons why they succeeded – and more interestingly, why they failed. Failure is far easier to predict than success. The good thing is that with most failures, you can actually get an idea why.
Consider these projects:
Name behind it: little-known
Artwork and outset: Brilliant
Concept and originality: great
Impression of campaign site: professional
Goal met: No (12,000)
Killer: Little-known person and too-high goal, even if everything else looks absolutely terrific. A lot of people did donate, so a lot of people wanted to see this happen; it was just that the approach didn’t work like this.
Name behind it: no-name
Artwork and outset: pretty good
Concept and originality: good
Impression of campaign site: wtf did I just read?
Goal met: No (zero support)
Bottom line: Someone with a great style asking for a lot of money and leaves you with no idea what it was all about anyway – go figure.
Name behind it: loads of celebs
Artwork and outset: pretty good
Concept and originality: not quite sure
Impression of campaign site: I have no idea what they’re even doing, but the video is funny as hell
Goal met: Yes; overshot by 200%
Bottom line: If you’re a celeb, people will flock to whatever you do.
The bottom line of most failed comic/graphics/literature projects that I have seen were too-high goals and unclear campaign pages. On most campaign pages that advertised solid work, did not target a non-existent market, did a good job describing what they were doing and then managed to recruit a lot of people who helped with their project, and lastly asked for a sensible amount of money (around 3,000 for a print run), they usually reached their goals.
The magical 12,000
12,000€ seems to be a magical line for comics and books. I have seen several projects – mine included – that ended exactly at that amount. Some of them needed 2,000 and got 12,000. Some needed 40,000 and got 12,000. All of them had several things in common – solid work, a solid fan-base that nevertheless had no movie studio proportions, well-written campaign pages, and creators who obviously knew what they were doing. This also means: If you need more than 12,000€, you’d better have a good master plan and a large fanbase.
Since most of us are not celebs, Iet’s take a look at what factors go into a crowdfunding campaign.
Before you decide to go crowdfunding:
Know your network. Who of your own network will contribute? If you don’t know, chances are nobody will. This is probably the thing that is most underestimated by non-successful kickstarter creators. You see a successful project and think, well, I can do that too! You put together a fantastic project, you build a great page, have wonderful perk ideas – but what you can’t see unless you do some research is whether this successful person has spent years building his fanbase. And you need quite a home crowd before you start, because…
The crowdfunding platform will barely generate any traffic for you if you don’t direct it there! This was what surprised me most when I started my campaign. I don’t think I’m alone in my earlier belief that you put your project online and people will notice it and donate. They will not. 98% of my supporters in the first three weeks were people I either know personally or on-line, and who also know me. It was only after the first three weeks or so that the project attracted total strangers in greater numbers, and that probably happened because of the momentum that the project already had thanks to my “home crowd” (in Germany, we say the devil always sh*ts on the largest pile). If you’re not a celebrity OR unless your project is something people will wonder how they managed to live without (e. g., a blowjob machine), it’s incredibly difficult to attract strangers to pay for your dreams. This means…
The platform is not very important. I agonised over going for Indiegogo or going through a huge amount of hassle to get into Kickstarter (which is hard for non-US or UK residents). It’s worth watching whether the big two – or any others that may come forth – start specialising (like Kickstarter having a reputation for adventure games – thanks to Jenny Kit Pattison for the information), but for graphic projects, I haven’t been able to discern any such preference. Projects succeed and fail on both. Picking a well-known platform that looks trustworthy and respectable is probably a smart choice, but other than that, you direct your traffic, and then maybe others will pick up, but the platform is negligible. I chose Indiegogo for two reasons: (1) It had this flexible payment plan that lets you keep the money you gathered even if you don’t reach your goal (which was fine with me because I was going to make this book no matter what), and (2) Indigo is one of my favourite colours for painting.
So, if the platform hardly matters…
Build an audience. And even if you think you’ve built one, build a bigger one. This is months or years of work. I thought a thousand Facebook fans on my project would be enough. Only about 2 per cent of those actually supported the campaign. And that is still a lot – of my tens of thousands of deviantArt watchers, 0.1 per cent donated for Cannae. Likes and faves are cheap. People who don’t know you, even if they’re fired up for your project, are about fifty times less likely to give you any money than a friend who likes you and wants you to succeed, even if he’s not that much into the project itself! This was the most amazing bottom line from my Indiegogo experience.
My friends, on the other hand, completely surprised me. I knew they were a supportive and wonderful bunch, but I thought that they would not really be interested in military history. How wrong I was. They really kicked off the entire campaign to its fantastic start within the first few hours, and Facebook was a huge help with that – it really was like hanging out with a whole crowd and all celebrating together. I’ve seen projects succeeding without Facebook connection on the creators’ part; in my case, I’m sure that would not have worked.
If you’re a well-known cartoonist or graphic artist who does a project that all of your fans will love, it’ll be much easier. In my case, 90% percent of my deviantArt watchers are probably still angry with me for turning to Hannibal and neglecting Tolkien. ;)
Some quick Maths: Take 2% of your followers. Do you feel that this number of people might give you money? If every one of those gave you 20$ for your project, would that get you more than 50% of what you need? If yes – go for it!
Boost your signal. If you have a large fanbase who’ll jump onto your project, good for you! If you don’t – don’t despair. Scrounge up all the contacts you have to boost your signal. Particularly contacts who can actually reach exactly the people you’re trying to reach. I knew that, while my fanbase was large, many of them would not be interested in ancient warfare – so I reached out to people and sites that were. Several friends shared the project on wargame and miniature sites – resulting in a lot of supporters coming from there. I shared it on History boards and on the wonderful Roman Army Talk forum. If you can get the admins to toot your horn instead of doing it yourself, that works miracles. The singular most helpful person for me, however, was historical fiction author Ben Kane, who shared the project repeatedly on social media, and brought in a huge number of supporters (as well as contributing most generously himself).
Be realistic. Too-high goals are the most common reason for graphic and literature projects to fail. It actually makes sense to set your goal to less than you actually need. A smaller amount looks more easily possible, and people might not donate at all if they see that, after one week out of five, you’re at 500€ out of 50,000. Plus, on Indiegogo, you pay smaller fees if you reach your goal (4%), and higher ones if you don’t (9%). What I did was set the amount to the absolute minimum that would not leave me with a gaping hole in the family budget once Cannae went to print, and I hoped I might make more than that.
Covering the cost of a print edition will probably work. Finding people who will finance a well-off lifestyle for you while you do something you love for a full year sounds great but probably won’t work. Paying an artist for a year’s labour is noble but the goal is too high in most cases, and people might wonder why they should give you something that nobody will ever give them though they’d like it just as much. Something that rarely seems to work either is a 40,000 goal that covers professional editing, a marketing budget, etc. These might work for big industry names, but hardly for regular guys like you and me, unless it’s something that many people will feel emotionally attached to even if they don’t know you. This is true for a child with cancer, but not for an illustrated novel on an ancient battle.
Or you could…
Split your goal. Run several campaigns, and build on each previous one’s momentum. Then the above point might work.
When writing your campaign page and recording your video:
Be professional. Nobody expects you to make a polished video, but make sure the audio and video are clear and you come across as someone people will trust with their money.
Be yourself. Are you an engaging type who can really appeal to people? Or do you prefer to stay in the background? Plan your video accordingly. My experience shows that an open, easy talker in the video is something people can relate to quickly.
Spend time on working out your campaign page. The time you put into compiling your descriptions will show. No video, and a description that you obviously put together in fifteen minutes is almost a guarantee that your campaign will fail. If you can’t bother to put work into presenting yourself, then it’s quite obvious that you can’t bother to put work into the product either.
Be redundant. Many people won’t watch your video, while others won’t look beyond it. Put all the important information both in the video and in the text.
Be clear. Where is the money going to? If you want to raise an above-average amount, make sure you tell people what it’s for! Most successful crowdfunding projects I’ve seen calculate with little personal profit. People expect to see you make something cool, but they’ll be more reluctant to make you filthy rich.
Be precise. Use graphics, charts, photos, images for important information. Not a wall of text (unlike most of this post. I’m sorry. But hey, it’s not as if I wanted you to buy anything here. XD)
If your project has anything to do with writing, edit. Nothing is as off-putting as a badly-written description of literature. I’d go as far as saying that you should use the same diligence with proper grammar, spelling, and punctuation on social media.
If your project is about your writing, include examples of your writing. This should go without saying, but I have rarely seen a single writing project on crowdfunding platforms where you didn’t buy a complete cat in a bag. People will rarely pre-order a book no matter how cool your story is, unless you give them a taste of what you can do.
Even more of a no-brainer, but you still see projects that don’t do it: if your project is about your artwork… show some of your artwork. And not just one image. People want to get a feel for what they’re supporting. Test pages and mockups are the best way to show them what exactly you want them to help you with. You probably know exactly what your finished work will look like. Your supporters want to know, too.
The three above points are, in my experience, the most common factors why projects fail to reach even modest goals (or dwindle at the dreaded zero support for weeks). In the self-publishing world, you can’t allow yourself to put a half-arsed project online. Make it as professional-looking as you possibly can. Rise above the self-publishing chaff. But don’t come across as a big-headed twit. That is off-putting too. I have seen campaigns fail simply because their creators looked like terribly big-headed twits.
When devising your perks:
Ask around what people actually want. What would you want? What would you pay for it? Honestly?
Custom-tailor your perks. What kinds of people might donate? What sort of perk title would appeal to them? What would be off-putting? Name and describe them accordingly. (Fun example: I took a lot of time deciding what to call my “prime perk” – the signed copy. In the end, I thought that most of my readers would be fans of Roman history more than of Hannibal, and named it “Legionary” – and two people actually told me that they almost didn’t get it because they despised the Romans! One of them even got himself a Celtic Cavalryman too. To ride down his Legionary. XD Isn’t it fun when you can play with your food – sorry, perks?)
Perks that involve others need to be well planned. The cameo appearances in Darkness over Cannae were a lot of fun and a lot of work beyond the simple artwork, and while I had previously been able to do everything as a one woman show, I suddenly had to work with other people’s wishes and their schedules (it’s hard to send over reference pictures while you’re backpacking in Himalaya). This slows your work down. Don’t leave that out of your calculations.
How are you going to handle shipping of physical items? There are two ways to do this: include shipping in the perk price, or have people use a separate perk for shipping to their location. There are assets and downsides for both.
Including shipping in your perks means you need to calculate how much shipping there’ll be, and how it will vary for different countries. I knew most of my supporters would be from outside Germany, and that immediately meant my German supporters would have to pay more than they had to. I counteracted that by making the perks themselves very affordable. A problem I had not anticipated was that the book, when it was done, weighed more than 500 grams, sending all my calculations down the drain.
Letting buyers use a separate perk for shipping means that you will likely have to personally run after every second supporter because they chose the wrong shipping perk, or none at all. Many of them just won’t see they have to pick a separate shipping perk. If they do see it, it may look too complicated to them, putting them off altogether. If it doesn’t put them off, trust a lot of them to click the wrong country.
Pricing your perks:
So you’ve put together a great campaign site, you’ve mobilised your friends, you’ve made a kickass video. But you’re not getting much support.
Check your prices critically.
Remember, you’re still selling a book. There should be a perk around $15-30 that buys a physical copy, without any fuss. Digital downloads should be considerably below that (remember, a kindle e-book costs 2-6 Euros!)
Now, of course you’ve got a budget to scrape together. Somehow, you have to get to those 2.000/5.000/12.000/40.000 Euros. And many people seem to price their perks in a way that a few supporters taking it will get them there.
In my experience, that doesn’t work. Nobody will pay $1000 for a skype call with you unless you’re Hugh Jackman (or similar). A “thank you” email for $10 is also something that people won’t exactly line up for. (Every supporter should get one anyway!)
You need to offer value. Ideally, physical value. Put the crowd in crowdfunding.Instead of hoping for five people to give you 1,000 Euros to cover your 5,000 budget, aim for 100 people to give you 50. Or 200 to give you 25. The 25-50 Euro range is the one that people like most. The physical item plus an additional bonus works really well in that category. A signed copy, a little sketch, some goodies that won’t break your back making them (bookmarks, postcards, stickers, buttons). Don’t offer something for a lot of money that costs you almost nothing – people simply won’t want it. They’ll feel cheated. Create affordable perks that you can handle in great numbers, and a lot of people will jump on.
Many campaigns I’ve seen offer original artwork. You’re attached to it and want to get a lot of money for it. The problem is that others simply won’t see the value. In most cases, it’s too small to hang on a wall, or simply isn’t living-room material. Maybe you can make it into something people can actually use? Is it bookmark size? Can you frame it? If you spend a few bucks to frame and mat it, you’ll magically turn a little drawing into ART.
Maybe you can throw it in with another thing, for a huge bundle that simply offers a lot of odds and ends. Crowdfunding supporters are collectors. They’re more likely to pick up a piece of original artwork if it comes with a cameo, a print, a sketch, a bookmark, a set of stickers.
Before your campaign:
Fine-tune your campaign. Check spelling.
Before you launch, get feedback on the campaign page. Preferably from extremely honest people who are not related to you, and from more than just one.
Walk the fine line between firing people up and getting on everyone’s nerves. Warn your Facebook friends that you’re going to be rather obnoxious over the next few weeks. Most of them will understand.
You find this in all the crowdfunding how-to’s, and I didn’t believe it, but: make your run-time short and sweet. The common misconception is that the crowdfunding platform will give you loads of traffic, so the longer it’s on, the more money it’ll make. It doesn’t. Darkness over Cannae spent two weeks on Indiegogo’s start page, and it spent the entire duration of the campaign in the top slots in the “writing” category. Granted, it’s very nerdy business that doesn’t really attract fans all by its own, but during that time, I hardly got a single contributor who had stumbled across the project on Indiegogo (as opposed to twenty spam messages). Do you browse Crowdfunding platforms in search of random projects to support? Probably not. So the people who support you probably knew they would support you by the first week of the campaign. My run-time was fifty days, and that was at least two weeks too long. Keeping your campaign running, up to date and active during all this time is a lot of work that seriously drains you, especially if you’re running the campaign on your own. The lull in the middle was demoralising and could have been avoided – the end rush will just come sooner. And it will come. I’d be willing to bet that keeping my run-time much shorter would not have resulted in any significant drop in funding.
I set the campaign run-time so long because I couldn’t see the harm. But the truth is: It’s nerve-wrecking. My first few days, as you can well imagine (100% funded in thirteen hours) were dizzying. You interact, write thank you emails, take suggestions for stretch goals, devise them, and just DO STUFF that takes up an insane amount of time. Make sure you have that time. I never, ever expected this campaign to run so ridiculously well, so I was not really prepared for the work that would follow.
When your campaign is online:
Say thank you. I have contributed to six campaigns and got a personal email reply in one. Doesn’t make you feel appreciated.
Involve the audience, listen to their suggestions and put things up for debate if your project allows this. If it doesn’t allow it, ask yourself: Can I make it so? Crowdfunding works best if the crowd is actually a part of the stuff you do. They’re your crowd. They want to be. They bloody deserve this.
Postscript: What the Potato Salad can teach us.
I wrote this guide in the weeks before the famed Potato Salad Phenomenon. (In case you live on the backside of the moon or in Jülich-Barmen, it was about a guy making potato salad, asking $10; as I write, he’s past 40,000).
Most of my artist friends are seriously, seriously pissed at this guy. We struggle with making our dreams a reality, we try and fail to generate traffic, and this guy makes a fortune with friggin’ salad.
Because he went viral. Okay. We all hope we do. Hardly any of us will. Is that all? Going viral?
No. Because the people backing him did not want any potato salad. (This should come as no surprise.) They wanted to be funny. And this is what the Potato Salad Incident can actually teach us: Many people will not support crowdfunding campaigns for the artist, but for themselves. Offer something they want. This can be a product, or it can be a feeling. The feeling of being smart or funny or, is this case, delightfully anti. I am not giving any money for world peace! Screw you, world! I am supporting potato salad!