By the third week, I’m in hell.
I’m managing a Kickstarter campaign to fund the self-publication of my third novel Badge. I need to accrue $6,000 in donations in a total of 25 days or I get nothing. For me this means hitting up Facebook friends, the 400 or so people on my email list, friends and family, telling them about my book and the campaign. By this third week, things have stalled. The tally is just above $3,000—over half way there—but it’s been slow for over a week. I’ve already hit my contacts hard. I have no idea what else to do.
When it became clear my third novel Badge wasn’t going to get publishing traditionally, I decided to crowd source its self-publication. I was familiar with Kickstarter. I’d helped promote the Kickstarter campaign to fund the film version of my first novel Stuck Outside of Phoenix, which met its goal, and the film is now in the can awaiting distribution. I didn’t care much for the roller coaster process of crowd sourcing, but I liked it a lot better than not having a film version of my first novel in the can.
I could’ve just published Badge on the cheap—say, as an ebook with no money for promotion—but Badge was my best book yet, the culmination of seventeen years of novel writing. To publish it solely as an ebook—or to watch myself go into debt with it as I had with my first two self-published novels—wasn’t what I had in mind. Three novels into my writing career, I felt the least I could ask for was not to lose money on publishing my fiction.
I wrote up a business plan—proofreading, publishing, printing and review copy submissions of Badge, plus a five-city West Coast tour. The bottom line came to about $5,000. It wasn’t an ideal plan; I considered it the minimum of what I wanted for Badge. Figuring I was probably underestimating expenses, I decided I needed $6,000 for the project.
At the time I set up the campaign, there were a couple of main companies you could go through to crowd source. Kickstarter was one. A Kickstarter campaign’s most distinguishing feature is that the artist has to reach or exceed her goal to get any money. If your goal is $10,000 and you raise $9,999, you get $0. Indiegogo, the second major way to crowd source, allows you to choose whether your campaign is all-or-nothing or not. If the example above were earned during a non-all-or-nothing Indiegogo campaign, the artist would keep $9,999 (minus fees).
On the surface, getting to keep whatever you raise looks like a huge asset for the artist. Can you imagine doing all that pleading for nothing? But that’s not the whole story. Something about all-or-nothing campaigns are more exciting than ones that merely have a suggested goal. The drama of $10k-or-the-highway is real, and people tune in, check to see how you’re doing, root for you, share your campaign with friends and, of course, donate. It must be harder to keep people interested over the course of a weeks-long campaign if they aren’t wondering if you’re going to make it. Donors want to win just like you do.
What I love about Indiegogo is its independent status. Kickstarter is deeply entrenched with Amazon, which handles all of the company’s money transactions, and Amazon gets a percentage of every dollar raised on Kickstarter. If you’ve followed the publishing industry for the last couple of decades, you know Amazon’s goal is to pretty much destroy independent bookstores. I find neighborhood indies vital to my own sanity, so I go out of my way not to support Amazon.
Still, I went with Kickstarter for Badge for one reason: many of the folks in my social circle gave to the Stuck the Movie Kickstarter campaign, and I didn’t want to scare them away with a crowd sourcing method that was new to them. In the end, I couldn’t afford to be too precious about not giving one thin dime to Amazon. If I wanted to publish Badge well, I needed this thing to work.
As I prepared the Badge page at Kickstarter, I had to pick a block of time for the campaign. Kickstarter recommends one month. I remember from the Stuck the Movie fundraising that a month seemed too long, so I opted for 25 days. That was four full work weeks, which I think is a healthy arc for the story of your campaign to build momentum.
From my experience, Kickstarter campaigns follow a certain trajectory. The first few days bring lots of excitement and donations. By the second week, the campaign feels like old news, and there are few donations. The third week often rekindles energy and donations, and the fourth week brings great drama and (hopefully) pushes you over the line. Patrons seem not to want to end these things before the clock ticks down or they’ll kill the arc. I also think they want to wait to see if you’re going to be successful before they donate. It’s a weird synergy. You need people to donate to encourage others to donate, but no one seems to want to donate if there aren’t already donations. It becomes a chicken-or-egg scenario. During the Stuck the Movie campaign, I got excited when donations came during the days when nothing else was going on, or when larger sums were donated that clearly encouraged others to give at more modest levels. The former kept me hopeful, the latter helped create a winning vibe. Everyone involved needs a jolt here and there.
I started my Badge campaign on May 19th, let everyone in my social network (Facebook and Twitter) know about it, and sent an email to my email list. To complicate things, my wife and I don’t have the Internet at home, so much of this online work was done at the library, or in my truck in the McDonald’s parking lot up the street, taking advantage of their wayward wifi signal. Not the way I’d choose to spend my time, but it was working. A couple of large donations got things rolling, and I was thrilled to make it to $2,500 by the end of the first week.
During the second week, I kept it up on Facebook and Twitter, but incoming donations were much slower going. I had to post like crazy to eke my total above $3,000 by week’s end. Halfway there at the halfway point wasn’t bad, but the constant marketing had me doubting myself. I remembered a Faulkner story called “Spotted Horses” in which the unsavory Flem Snopes comes to town with a batch of wild horses. Snopes announces they’re for sale, and the townspeople laugh. No one would buy such a worthless bunch of animals. Snopes is undaunted, sets up shop in the middle of town, creates a temporary corral. Eventually, in a skillful tap dance that would make any used car salesman proud, Snopes sells every last horse, some to the same townspeople who’d laughed at him. The theme is clear: Hang around long enough, present yourself with enough authority, and eventually you’ll sell. My weeks-long Internet barrage had me feeling vaguely Snopes-ish, but I reminded myself I wasn’t selling something worthless. I was selling a novel that took seven years to write, and it wasn’t going to see the light of day unless people donated. If it didn’t make the goal, I wouldn’t waste any more of my or their time, but I wasn’t going to get sheepish now.
I count on week three to reinvigorate my campaign, but the trickle continues. At this point, I’m desperate. I email my largest donors, ask them politely what I could do to entice them into a higher bracket. I even create a new $1,000 donation level with a reward I hadn’t thought of before. When the third week comes to a close, I’m at $3,700. One week and $2,300 to go. I regret tacking on that extra grand to my goal in the beginning. Still, I accrued $2,500 in the first week. There’s nothing to do but keep slogging.
More Facebook posts, more emails, more Tweets early in the last week bring some curious folks out of the woodwork, and I wind up at $4,500 with one work day to go. The only answer seems to be to hang out in the McDonald’s parking lot all day, making sure folks understand the end is nigh. I’m betting the whole McMuffin on the drama factor making people feel generous at the end. At this point, it’s my only play.
That afternoon, a big donor puts me above $5,000, and I feel a weight lifted. I announce all over Facebook I’m within $1,000 and that there are only a handful hours to go. Then I get a $125 donation, then $75, then $50. I’m over $5,500 with two hours to go. Five hundred lousy bucks! I post, I tweet, I email. The last hour brings a flurry of smaller donations, and with mere seconds to go I wind up at $6,031. By the skin of my teeth, Badge will happen the way I want it to happen.
The campaign was pretty much all I thought about for 25 days. I was always online, checking my donation status, posting updates, sending emails, thanking patrons and constantly wondering if that was enough.
And it was worth it. It’s hard to overestimate how much having money to start a publication project means to me. I’ve self-published two novels over the past decade, and I have yet to profit from either. In the end, there was a minimum amount of dignity I wanted for my work on Badge, and that dignity cost $6,000. I’m grateful to all 87 of my Kickstarter donors who helped get me there.
Crowd sourcing is a relatively new tool that allows self-publishers more opportunity to make a living as writers, or at least not to lose money on their projects. That might not sound like much, but for those of us who need to do this, it beats the hell out of the alternative.
Yours in laying down the law,
Watch the Book Trailer for Badge.