Publishing is expensive, which is something we talked about in our "Paying Your People" article. By the time you pay your author, an editor, a formatter, a cover artist, and put together some kind of marketing effort, you're probably pretty far in the red. This is especially true if you're doing an anthology, where the contributors should be paid in advance.
Crowdfunding seems like a wonderful alternative to debt, and it most certainly can be under the right circumstances. It allows would-be consumers of your publication to put money down in advance so the sales help fund the creation of the project.
Unfortunately, the community has seen crowdfunding turn into a divisive issue because it's so ripe for exploitation. And wherever money is concerned, discussions tend to get heated.
So today we're going to talk about crowdfunding, the optics of it, and offer some tips for doing it responsibly.
A Quick Note About KickStarter
While there are a lot of different platforms available online for funding creative projects, there are two main crowdfunding websites that we see in the indie horror space. One is GoFundMe and the other is Kickstarter. If you're not familiar with the two platforms you might think that they're interchangeable, but there is a key difference. GoFundMe generally raises money to be donated to a cause, to help someone who is in a bad spot, whereas KickStarter is a platform where money is raised specifically for a project.
We wanted to take a moment to make that distinction, just for people who are unaware of the nuances of the two most popular sites.
Moving forward in the article we'll be talking about KickStarter in our examples, but know that the advice and information isn't exclusive to KickStarter. It's valid for any crowdfunding platforms that operate in a similar way: collecting money before the release of a project to help fund that project.
The Perks of Crowdfunding
As we discussed in our intro, there is a great incentive to crowdfund, and it's that publishing is way more expensive than most people realize. If you're a single person with a dream, you probably don't have that much money upfront. Even if you are publishing on behalf of a press, the expenses can be daunting to take on all in advance.
They can also be a great marketing tool. Readers will feel so invested in a project that they helped bring to life with their support. And who doesn't feel better about buying something when the alternative is the thing not existing at all?
Our official stance at The Scoop is that crowdfunding, generally, is good. It's a great tool to help bring more art into the world and obviously we support that.
The Drawbacks of Crowdfunding
Crowdfunding isn't perfect, though.
Until a project is done, it can be hard to accurately promote its sale. How do you tell someone how long a novel is or how many authors contributed to an anthology before the entire thing is written? Things change behind the scenes all the time, and that is way scarier when you have to break that news to backers.
There's also the very fact that you suddenly have to give news to backers. Communication is key when it comes to operating transparently. Unfortunately a lot of creatives are used to working on things quietly, meeting deadlines for only themselves, and not announcing every setback publicly. This can be frustrating to the team, and the people who paid money, especially if a deadline is missed or a big change gets made.
It can also be a lot of extra stress to the writers and artists if they're not done with their portion of the work yet. Some people work really well with that extra level of accountability but sometimes stress and pressure can be terrible for the creative process.
We'll talk about this again toward the end, because we feel it's worthy of its own section, but there's also a certain level of public scrutiny that is invited when you're running a Kickstarter. If you're confident in your project, your online presence, and your mission statement, it can be good promotion. But not everyone likes that level of attention and it does run the danger of re-opening old conflicts.
A Note About Finances
Running a KickStarter can be a great tool to mitigate the risk of a project. However, because most KickStarters for books include a copy of the book for backers, it helps a little to think of them as preorders. If you are trying to raise $1,000 to publish your book and all of your regular readers pitch in on the Kickstarter and it's successful, that's awesome! But that wasn't a free $1,000. And most of your market now already has the book purchased.
A big drawback that many people don't seem to consider is that successful campaigns -- especially those that exceed their goal -- aren't likely to sell tremendously well on launch day. That can feel like a huge letdown if you frame it as $0 in sales, and not a book that is already in the black from its publishing costs, or, you know, $1,000 in sales.
The Dangers of Crowdfunding Too Much
KickStarter specifically will limit how often you can run campaigns through their site. But because there are other kinds of crowdfunding (and theoretically someone could run campaigns for both a business and a personal project at the same time) there are still some loopholes that could allow for someone to run several campaigns for several projects.
On the one hand, that's not so bad, right?
Again, more crowdfunding means more lower-risk art coming out into the world.
Only, the drawbacks are multiplied as well. The financials in publishing already have a lot of moving parts, and the more Kickstarters you run, the less each individual one starts to feel like a passion project.
There's a certain, grass-roots, love of the art feeling that makes KickStarter campaigns feel very exclusive and special to backers. A lot of people seem to think some of that magic is lost if KickStarting is just a given part of that process.
While KickStarter can seem like a great financial option for every single project, the audience might look at a press running several of them as a press that is incapable (or unwilling) to sustain itself financially. That's less of a concern for an individual running campaigns, but it's not a good look in the world of publishing for a press or imprint that is trying to be financially viable. It can put off a lot of authors, readers, and potential backers of projects unless you have a long history of successful campaigns, immaculate track record, and a good marketing team.
The Obligations of Crowdfunding
Let's say you do have a history of successful campaigns and a great marketing team, or are otherwise just very careful about what projects you choose to fund this way.
What will you owe to your backers?
Well, a lot. We talked to a lot of people who have run KickStarters, who have supported KickStarters, and who have felt cheated by KickStarters in the past. Needless to say, expectations vary. We're going to talk about the few commonalities we saw and then address one of the more important outliers.
Transparency The number one thing people wanted to see as a KickStarter backer was transparency. They wanted to know where the money was going, and what the cost breakdown would be of each aspect of a project. Aside from the strange, stray horror story, people didn't care so much how the money was being spent or if some extra funds were raised for the press, as long as they knew upfront and the accounting was in check.
Communication Over half of the grievances that I heard about campaigns while working on this piece boiled down to a publisher ghosting their backers for long periods of a time. Again, there were some exceptions, but for the most part people seemed content to hear that changes were being made behind the scenes or that delays had come up, so long as they were being kept in the loop.
Quality One very common thing we heard was that if a project is being crowdfunded, the expectations would be high for quality. This makes a lot of sense because in self-publishing and small publishing, everything can be free if you're willing to sacrifice quality. Getting backers to pay out of pocket for things like art and editing, mean that the art and editing have to be worth paying for. They're not only trusting you, but the people you hire as well.
Now, the one other answer we received we thought was interesting because it was sort of antithetical to most of the advice we received about running KickStarters, and what we had planned to pass along to you.
We had one person tell us that they were more likely to back a campaign if they saw that the person's other campaigns had been both successful, and well-received. Since a lot of the other information we received seemed to take a "less is more" approach to crowdfunding, I was quite curious about this. They explained that seeing the response from backers of previous campaigns helped inform how confident they felt about a current, ongoing campaign.
This opens up just a couple miscellaneous points that we thought would be worth mentioning.
KickStarter Lists Previous Campaigns It is possible to see how many campaigns have been run through a KickStarter account previously. It can, therefore, look unintentionally suspicious if there is no account of a campaign anywhere else online.
Some People Do Their Research I might not ever have realized that was a thing that KickStarter did had it not been called to my attention. My level of research before I back something is "does it look cool?" and "do I know anyone involved?" Some people are more discerning, and when it comes to backing a project with their own money, I'd argue they have the right to be. It's one reason why we're writing this up, because a lot of publishers probably just haven't considered the level of scrutiny crowdfunding can bring, or what details backers might be looking for.
Alternatives to Crowdfunding
Sometimes, the sad truth is that there ARE no alternatives to crowdfunding. We are going to make a couple suggestions for things that we've seen work, but they only work circumstantially and with time or luck. They're not feasible for everyone or for every project. They're just things to consider before jumping straight to KickStarter.
Pitching This obviously works best if you are an individual, and not a press. But if you are a single person with a great idea that you can't afford to do, consider pitching it to a press who could cover the cost.
Saving A lot of people -- especially in the publishing world -- are living paycheck to paycheck right now. We're not about to tell you that you can fund an anthology or illustrated book simply by skipping Starbucks or cutting out avocado toast or whatever. Because you could, but it would take a lifetime. What we have seen work is freelancing to fund a passion project. If you have a freelance service that you offer, or have a shop, you can always run a promotion or sale explaining that you're opening up slots or dropping prices to save x amount of money for something you've dreamed up.
Exchanging Services While exchanging services obviously can't pay for an entire book, it can lower the out of pocket costs considerably. If you are an editor, you can offer to edit in exchange for cover art, or formatting. I got my position here at The Scoop doing web design for the genius editor that edited my last book. If you're working with talented people that you trust, this isn't going to bring down the quality of your project but it can make it less daunting and more affordable.
Splitting Royalties Similarly, if you find you only need the help of one or two people to make your dream a reality, you can always offer royalty splits. These can get tricky and complicated, but if you enter the partnership with people you trust, it can be a bonding experience that you're all taking the risk together to create something wonderful.
Something Important to Remember
We just wanted to end with something really important. We don't want to villainize crowdfunding. Some of our favorite creative projects ever have been crowdfunded. It's a great tool to bring art into the world that wouldn't otherwise be possible. We're also not trying to assign any moral value to needing or not needing extra resources in publishing.
Honestly, anyone has the right to KickStart any project that they want at any time. That's the beauty of it.
We just wanted to share this information because with crowdfunding, a publisher opens themself up to the opinion of the crowd. There's extra scrutiny and that often means extra criticism about current or past practices and quality.
Usually this is the part of the article where I launch into a personal story from myself or an anonymous consultant for the article, but I'm going to refrain here. Some of the horror stories I heard in research are pretty complicated and public and we truly wanted this to be a positive piece that was informative to publishers about what to expect when crowdfunding -- not a call out or an opinion piece.
In the future we may well incorporate some of these thoughts into more of a How-to guide for those seeking to crowdfund, but today we hope we just set an expectation of what to expect if it's something you're looking into.