Walk into a book store, and what do you see? Thousands of books, all calmly waiting in stock, all neatly categorised, all with a price-tag and a bar-code. It’s a serene vision of publishing, and it’s easy to imagine that every author on the shelves is in a special, equally serene position. They’re professionals, they made it big, they found a publisher, and they’re in the shops! And your entertainment comes from the realms of their misty imagination, directly into your hands.
Suddenly, in stumbles crowd-funding, like some embarrassing drunken uncle.
“I’ll write you a book if you give me some money” it drawls “I’ve been working on this since I was 12, it’s an epic story of…”
Uncomfortably, you shuffle out of the shop, wishing that the internet had never been invented.
I once heard someone call kickstarter a “tax on the imagination”, and I can imagine what sort of thing might have prompted the phrase! They’d just seen an embarrassing project get no funding. A creator who took their money never did anything with it. A project they backed and loved didn’t make the target. A project they had absolutely no respect for and didn’t back got $2,000,000.
It’s easy to imagine that these problems are unique to kickstarter, brand new creative dilemmas, brought into being by the evils of the internet. The truth is a little less comforting. That uncertain feeling of excitement mingled with caution that you get when you see a good idea before you see a good product may feel brand new, but editors and publishers around the world are very familiar with it.
For every book in our serene bookshop, there are failed projects, missed deadlines, people working for free, squandered money, and wannabe authors being given their first chance – it just happens where the general public can’t see it. The true “tax on the imagination” is the inflated price of each individual book that bears the burden of the entire creative process! When you pay for a book, you’re paying the author, editor, proof reader, publisher, designer, cover artist, warehouse, printer, distributor and bookshop, not to mention the costs of running a business in which success is the exception, not the rule! The vast majority of books on the shelves never even make their money back. They make a loss for the publisher, who relies on their popular titles to break even. The same in various proportions goes for comics, games, films, you name it.
Does Uncle Kickstarter look quite so drunken now? He’s just the long lost twin of Aunty Publishing, and she’s cracking out the gin again.
I’d hazard a guess that the only imaginations being taxed by crowd funding are the imaginations of people who don’t like thinking about the mouldy under-belly of the creative process…
If it’s not the case that every book on the shelf is a success, and if publishing isn’t a well-oiled machine in which everyone is paid well and good work always gets rewarded, then we need another myth!
Here it is: “Crowd Funding is Easy Money”.
Even if Uncle kickstarter is mostly drunk, he’s also stinking rich, and he gives it out to ANYONE with a half-arsed comic or a lame idea for a video game. Even whilst we ridicule him, and poke fun at all his silly unprofessional ideas, we secretly wish that we were the ones he was giving money to, because surely anyone with half a brain and some spare time can get funded!
And I must admit, that without fully realising it, I’d bought into slightly less jaded version this idea myself when I started the IndieGoGo campaign for The Firelight Isle. I’d just come off the back of an extremely popular webcomic, working for one of the best known writers in comics, I was confident and a little naïve. It didn’t take me a long time to realise my mistake, and I’m going to be honest about exactly how I made it, so that others can approach crowd funding realistically too:
I went in without enough material. You can’t get proper funds off the back of vague promises about a project to come. I’d gone so far as to create a website, do some poster art, write up paragraphs about how I’d use the money, but in the end, I hadn’t got a single page of the actual project to show up-front. Half way through the campaign I was less than half way to my total, and my traffic rates were dropping alarmingly. I knew that I needed to do something a little special to reach my goal. Because there were solid reasons that I couldn’t produce sample pages, I made an animated trailer instead, and that did the trick, but it was a LOT of work to make something good enough to get people properly excited.
I underestimated how much effort promotion is. Promoting my project and driving traffic to the site was hard work! This is a major factor, you can’t just send out one or two tweets and a blog article and wait, you have to be constantly reminding people, constantly talking about it, constantly coming up with ways to make people excited enough to talk about your project to other people. You have to call in favours and bug people who you know don’t want to be bugged. It wasn’t until after I’d made the trailer, and talked to my sister (who works in digital marketing) that I really cracked this, and even then it took effort.
I didn’t realise how much money Admin costs. Even after you’ve made your total, the simple fact that you’ve succeeded comes with its own burden. Emailing everyone, spending the time to track the money, fulfil the perks, keep the site updated, it all takes time, and the money for that time has to come from somewhere.
Perks and Fees mean that totals aren’t as impressive as they seem. You can knock anywhere between 20% and 50% of the total money raised by any kickstarter campaign off simply because of the money tied up in fees and fulfilling people’s perks. Even very very well-funded campaigns will rarely actually make any profit, and profit isn’t the purpose. All the money eventually goes back into something directly relating to the campaign.
So you need at least a few of the following to get a successful campaign finished:
- good material that stands out from the crowd
- a head for business and admin
- a head for marketing and time to generate traffic
- a pre-existing crowd of fans who already trust you
- a back-log of projects
- perseverance and the confidence to shout about yourself.
And if you don’t have a number of those things, you won’t have a successful campaign. I learnt all this on the fly, and even after achieving my goal, I’ve had to be careful with every penny I raised in order to use it how I’d promised to use it.
Hopefully, I’ve shattered two myths here about publishing and crowd funding respectively. We can dispense with all this “drunken uncle and aunt” stuff. Crowd funding is not easy money, and more often than not, you need to be a dedicated creator with a pre-existing fan-base to think about getting a decent sum of money for a new project.
So, some things to remember about Kickstarter: If they weren’t asking you for funding, they’d have to ask a publisher. If you didn’t have to take a risk, an editor would. If you don’t pay for the costs of production up-front, you still pay for them with the price of the product itself! Kickstarter cuts out the middle-man, and it can be argued whether this is ultimately a good or a bad thing. But one way or the other, it makes the creative process a lot more transparent, and this is a positive change in my opinion.