I've known author and podcaster Mur Lafferty around the Internet for several years. She's the editor of Escape Pod, the host of I Should Be Writing, and the author of The Afterlife Series. You can find her projects at www.murverse.com
Mur has taken an innovative approach to using grassroots funding for her new self-publishing project, and she was gracious enough to guest blog about her experience. Take it away, Mur!
First, a little backstory. I've been podcasting my fiction for a while now, a sort of serialized audio self-publishing tool. Back in 2006 I started a little series I called Heaven about two friends who die, are dissatisfied with their afterlife, and then go wandering. The episodic tales spanned five seasons, ending in 2010. Many listeners asked for me to bring it to print, but I felt confident in it enough to try to shop it to publishers. I was wrong. After exhausting all outlets for publication, I decided to bring it to ebook and do a sort of limited edition self published hardcover (a la Cory Doctorow). I didn't want to do a crap job myself, so I decided to hire someone. The Afterlife series is five novella-length books, so doing it right was going to cost me. Then, I heard about Kickstarter.
Kickstarter is a patronage site where you can post information about your creative project and ask for people to fund you within a fixed time period. People pledge money, and if you meet your goal, they pay. If you don't meet your goal, then they lose no money (and you have to find another way to support your creative endeavors.)
I wanted to tell you about my Kickstarter experience: First, I checked around for advice. Neil Gaiman had posted something about Kickstarter and so I followed that link. There are a lot of key factors listed there, but to me, there seemed to be three keys to a successful Kickstarter campaign:
Set a realistic goal, not too high, not too low: So I took in my costs: $1600 for the ebook conversion, but I had to remember there would be costs for Kickstarter (They get 5% if you're successful) and the cost of the rewards (more about that later.) I also needed some software to transcribe Book 3, because I've lost that manuscript and have only the audio file. Lastly, I had to remember postage for reward fulfillment. OK, so I figured I'd shoot for $2000, counting on the fact that I could probably make more than that because of my established audience who wanted the books, in case my math was wrong. (In retrospect, this was likely too low! Your goal is very important, and you need to remember all the details.)
Offer good rewards: People who pledge need incentives, they're not just supporting your awesomeness. So you need to set levels of pledging, and offer different rewards for different levels. For me, I offered to put everyone who pledged in the book, then at $5 they could get a signed postcard from me with a book cover on the other side, and then on up I offered the ebooks for free, a custom thumb drive with the ebooks AND the audio books, and then higher up, the limited edition hardcovers. The whole set of hardcovers, plus the thumb drive, I priced at a $164 pledge. I figured I'd throw in a crazy "brass ring" level at $1,000, saying whoever got that would get me to write the sixth story in the series (as well as all the other goodies.)
Use video to promote: Kickstarter pages have a spot for video in the center of the page; it's more prominent than the area to write about your project. Now this was the weird one. Writing is not a visual activity (prose, not comic books, I mean) and I wasn't an animator, so a hot book trailer was out of the question. But I've heard that video is key to projecting your image, so I got my camera and filmed me talking about the project, its history, the plot of the books, and the incentives. I threw in some art for the book covers (My ebook designer was already at work) and some blurbs I'd gotten from listeners and other authors.
So I had my video, I had my rewards set out, I had my kickstarter page. It was Friday, March 11. I was impatient, but my husband suggested I sleep on it, look over the project in the morning, and then launch it. So at 8:00 am on Saturday, I launched it. Then I put it on Twitter, my two blogs, and Facebook.
I was fully funded by 10:00am. By bedtime I had $5,000.
I was a bit shocked. OK, utterly flabbergasted. Someone had even grabbed the brass ring, a longtime listener of mine, which was vital to pushing it so high so fast. I had people grabbing up the full set of books and several shooting for the $44 pledge to get the copy of the first book.
So then I texted my ebook designer, who was at SXSW, and told him what was going on. He wrote back that we would chat when he got back about how to make the project even more awesome. So now we're talking illustrations, better covers, marketing for the ebook, and he's going to be doing the work for the hardcover book layouts.
Naturally, as the days went on, it slowed down. I tried not to give Twitter "Mur Fatigue" and hawk my campaign too much. I did an update for the campaign, explaining why you'd want to pledge since I was already funded (in short, Kickstarter is the only way to get the hardcovers, and pledges will make the ebooks and the eventual softcovers even cooler). On March 20 I did bang the drums a little on Twitter to push the project over $10,000. Some days I have no pledges, some days I'll be surprised by three people wanting the whole set.
We're halfway through the campaign now, and I'm trying to gather the lessons I've learned so far:
- Don't expect this kind of success for every project. I read somewhere (sorry, source lost) that about 40% of projects are successful on Kickstarter. As I said, this is my most loved work of all the stuff I've released in the past 5 years. There was a built in audience for it. If I launched a new project today, I don't know how many of my listeners would go for an unknown project. So even though my eyes are glazed over by the sheer surreality of having my project be 562% funded as of March 24, I have to know I can't expect this rate of success for every project.
- People can, and do, withdraw pledges. I had someone pledge at the $300 level (wow! yay!) and a day later, remove it (...poo). I have no idea how to factor this reality into your planning, but be aware it could happen.
- People want 1 book, 2 books, or 5 books. I have almost no pledges for the 3 and 4 book offers. If you're thinking of pushing a series, consider that most people are either a little in, or all in.
- Your fans/followers are your key to success. I had people retweet my news, put it on facebook, and blog about it, bringing new people to check out my work because of it. If you don't think you have fans, don't discount any social media following; still promote like mad. You never know who will pick up your project and promote it (there was one project that, on its last day, was promoted by Neil Gaiman on Twitter. Dude was looking for $8500, and he was at only $6000 with hours left. Gaiman's tweet pushed him easily to over $10,000.)
- It doesn't stop when you're fully funded. As I understand it, you wait for the whole period of funding (April 11 for me), then the money takes about a week to go from Amazon Payments to you. Then you need to keep in touch with your backers to get their addresses and any personalization info you require -- Kickstarter provides an excellent tool for that, allowing you to contact people who have pledged at different reward tiers. This way I can ask the people who pledged $200 questions that are moot to people who pledged $9. Then you must fulfill. I don't think Kickstarter has a tool for punishing people who don't fulfill, but they do hint that you could be in for some legal badness from your backers.
For me, fulfillment means having the illustrators get to work, having the ebook designer finalize the covers and conversions, do the hardcover designs, and order the books. I'm frankly terrified at the actual physical act of fulfillment, but I have local friends who have volunteered to help me ship books.
And then I can't forget to actually launch the ebooks, the real reason I'm doing all of this!
To say I'm glad I used Kickstarter is like saying puppies are kinda cute. This monstrous success is giving me hopes in my future of self-ebook publishing, and I will use it again.
Kickstarter is a fantastic took for anyone doing creative stuff. I've backed journal makers, comic book artists, dice makers, and an iPhone app. People use it for film, movies, music, handmade instruments, and more. The site has a fantastic FAQ, and I'm available for questions if anyone wishes to discuss further. And if you want to support my Kickstarter project, well, that's cool too. :)