Friday 7 June 2013

Reality kick

Every so often these days, somebody suggests using Kickstarter to fund one of my comics or gamebooks. I expect it was similar in the 1930s – “You just need to put it on the wireless.” Did Caxton tell Malory that the printing press would make him rich?

I’m no expert on crowdfunding. In fact, so much not an expert that I’m not even sure about the “crowd” part. Most projects seem to get off the ground because less than a thousand people stump up an average fifty dollars apiece. Those T-shirts had better be stunning.

But let’s say you put your comic or gamebook on Kickstarter and you raise $100,000. Whoop! Quit your day job, right? Well, no… Because you now have to print, parcel and post about six thousand copies of the book. Plus some T-shirts and a free lunch for the rich kids. A conventionally-published book doesn’t get onto the bestseller lists by selling six thousand copies.

Admittedly, by using Kickstarter as a publishing platform you cut out the bookseller. So that’s 50% of the cover price that you don’t have to give away. But you do have all the manufacture and fulfilment issues to take care of.

What’s the profit margin on a Kickstarter campaign? I haven’t looked (see Not An Expert disclaimer above) but I’d expect them to vary wildly. By profit, I mean the money you’re left with when the last cheque clears and the last book goes sliding down the chute at the post office. With that you have to cover all your fixed costs – writing, art, typesetting, leaving aside the risk of running the Kickstarter in the first place.

This is why I’m sceptical when somebody tells me how easy it would be to fund an entire book through crowdfunding. I can do all the writing for nothing (I didn’t pay myself a penny for all the work I did on Mirabilis books 1, 2 and 3, including layouts and lettering) but there’s still artwork costs. Editing, if you care about quality. Lettering. Typesetting. Printer set-up.

I’m pretty versatile. I can do about three-quarters of that stuff myself. But I still have to pay artists and colorists. And at the end of the rainbow I’m even hoping there might be a few coins left to pay for the thousands of man-hours I put in along the way.

Kickstarter is a way of raising a subscription to print books. It also serves as a great way to enthuse a core of fans who will hopefully spread the word about your project. But it is not a viable way to raise development funds – unless you are super-famous to begin with, in which case you probably don’t need the development funds that badly anyway.

But Kickstarter as a publishing platform? That’s something else. Now you have to make enough on sales to cover costs from scratch. I’m often asked about gamebooks because I wrote a lot of them in the ‘80s and ‘90s. A gamebook takes about four man-months to write. (My interactive adaptation of Frankenstein took nearly eight months, but that was much bigger than a regular gamebook.) Interior art, call that a man-month. Cover, editing, typesetting, another man-month. So a minimum of six man-months for just a black-and-white gamebook. For a full color graphic novel like Mirabilis it’s getting on for twice that.

Writers and artists do need to eat. (Nobody in the movie or publishing industries believes this.) No executive wants to pay them as much as you’d get for flicking paperclips around an office and setting up PowerPoint presentations, but even so that Kickstarter-based publisher will need to find some $23,000 to fund the gamebook, $46,000 for a graphic novel. If you build in a 20% profit on sales, that means the campaign will need to hit a quarter million to get the OGN paid for.

That’s not how it works, of course. I didn’t go out and get investors to do Mirabilis. We had some money in the early days from David Fickling and Random House, but when The DFC (blessed be its memory) had to fold, we didn’t shut up shop. I continued writing for nothing. I went out and found supporting jobs that would pay for Leo and Nikos. This is how most creators have to work. Kickstarter may be a shiny new thing, but it’s not going to change that.


  1. I’m even less of an expert, having never attempted to publish anything myself either by the crowdsourced or the conventional route, although I know a bit about what goes into publishing books in general from working for various academic publishers over the years. Nevertheless, pretty much everything you’ve suggested here accords with my assumptions. Out of the gamebook projects that I’ve backed on Kickstarter, only two have been published so far, both of them being delayed and (to judge from the authors’ comments) going over budget despite having already been written at the start of their campaigns. So, yes, realistically, unless you already have a large fanbase (e.g. Zach Weiner), or unless your project turns into one of those freakish campaigns that ends up being funded 1000% for no immediately obvious reason, a gamebook Kickstarter will be paying for production and distribution only. It will not fund a lifestyle, or any of your other bills.

    Another thing that would deter me from going to Kickstarter would be the pressure of meeting backer expectations with suitably enticing “Reward Tiers” and “Add Ons”. I notice that some projects have taken to attaching “Reward Matrices”, so complex has this industry now become.

    Having said all of that, I’ll admit that my average gamebook pledge on Kickstarter is well over $50, which I don’t regret. I want to see these books published, including those of a more unashamedly traditional variety, and I am therefore willing to support them to the limited extent that I can.

    1. So far the only crowdfunding I've done is for Andrew Wildman's Horizon comic on Indiegogo:

      Likewise, $50 didn't seem too much because I wanted to see the project succeed.

      Subscription-based publishing is a good (and venerable) model, but I don't think we'll see anything interesting as long as it's all on a per-project basis. That just encourages a "Dinosaurs vs Aliens" mentality of creating noisy high concepts. What would be better would be a system where you subscribe say $100 and for that will get your pick of 5 novels from a tranche of new books by a pool of maybe twenty authors. You'd be backing them because you believe they'll do something interesting, not because you have glommed onto a specific project.

    2. Addendum: that's not the only crowdfunding I attempted. I also backed Howard Phillips' Know-It-All app:
      but it didn't reach its target. I can sure pick 'em.

  2. Factor in Kickstarter and Amazon taking approximately 10% of the total funding. For shipping factor that into your domestic funding levels. For international make separate funding levels that includes the extra shipping costs

    You can also create funding levels that are significantly higher than a basic book pre-order, such as a hand written thank you note, art sketch, book signing, the sky is the limit! If people are interested and truly love your work, they will fund above and beyond the minimum to get exclusive swag. Limited signed hardcovers at $50+ US plus shipping? Not an uncommon price and those usually fund and disappear first.

    Yes it may cost more for people to get a book but that's the whole point of crowd funding, to get you started with a print run of books and let the backers get something extra special in return. The most difficult part is getting all the production quotes prior to starting a project, and engaging the backers DAILY. If you don't have time for that, well then this is probably the wrong business for you.

    Hope you get over your doubts and really make this happen. You already have my money coins, just let me know when and where to toss them.

    1. In effect, then, charging an extra $10 for a thank you note is really just a way of increasing the profit margin.

      At the risk of repeating myself, the point I am making here about Kickstarter is not about doubts, but rather a clarification of what it does well. Too many people say, "His book campaign raised $100,000!" without realizing that you could say that about a traditional book that sells ten thousand copies - which is respectable, but no bestseller.

      My very good friend James Wallis ran a successful campaign for his project Alas Vegas
      and raised an average of $40 per backer. Which is great, but he has to ship a whole lot of books and Tarot card decks for that. It's a brilliant marketing exercise that will cover its costs and (as the name suggests) it is a great kick-start to the Alas Vegas IP. James will go on to turn Alas Vegas into a viable business, I'm sure. But as a vehicle for funding a publisher, with all the development costs a publisher has, Kickstarter is not viable - unless you're massively famous.

      I guess I am now just repeating exactly what I already explained in the post, actually, so I'll leave it there.

  3. Hi, Dave. I'm a fan of the aforementioned gamebooks :). Blood Sword was one of my favourites series.

    So I've been thinking about Kickstarter as well as other alternatives for publishing, steadily working on my own graphical novel at the same time. The thing I wanted to add is not my own idea (I'm publishing newbie), it is the insight of Seth Godin. He says Kickstarter on itself is not so much a "community" as it is a software tool. You have to bring in your own community. And of course it is hard work to build a community. It takes time, energy, marketing experience. Most writers/artists don't have the necessary skills ( neither do they have the time ).

    I think that ( in a perfect world where publishers love and care for their writers ), it would be their responsibility to do the marketing. But this is not how it works in the real world, it seems.