How I Ran Two Successful Novel Kickstarters in Less Than Six Months — Part I
This is Part I of a two-part series on How to Run a Successful Novel Kickstarter
Find Part II here.
For years I’d been planning on pulling together my short fiction into a collection of some sort to get it out and into the world. And for years I hemmed and hawed about actually doing it. I didn’t have the time. It wouldn’t do well. My time would be better spent on my next novel. You’ve probably said many of the same things yourself.
Well, late last year, a few things changed. One, I wrapped up my debut trilogy, The Lays of Anuskaya, which finally freed up a bit of time for me to work on something besides novel-length work. And two, Kickstarter happened. What do I mean by that? Well, Kickstarter had been around for a few years, but more and more I was seeing successful projects being started and completed on the platform. I saw how impressive some of them were as well, how caught up I got in the “community” that successful projects could bring about. I saw how savvy some project owners were about running the Kickstarters during the ‘Starter itself.
And it got me to thinking: it may take some time and effort, but if they can do it, so can I.
And if I can do it, so can you.
The second Kickstarter I ran was for the third book in my Lays of Anuskaya Trilogy, The Flames of Shadam Khoreh, and it came about all quick-like. That is, I hadn’t planned on running a second Kickstarter, but there were a few, well, “issues” with my publisher, Night Shade Books. You can read about it more on the post I created then.
You may also know by this point that Night Shade subsequently folded and sold off their assets to Skyhorse Publishing and Start Publishing. Suffice it to say that after how well my first ‘Starter went, I felt like I could take on this project to get the third book out and do it successfully.
What follows are a few pieces of practical advice that may help you run your own. Note that this isn’t about how to create a book—that is, it’s not about how to generate epubs and mobis and fulfilling the Kickstarter once you’ve run it—these are tips on how to run a Kickstarter from pre-launch to post-close.
One of the things you really have to do is to make your Kickstarter look professional. I’m listing this first as this, to me, is probably the most important factor that leads to a successful project.
Just take a look at some of the successful Kickstarters out there (for books or other projects). Look at Michael J. Sullivan’s Kickstarter for Hollow World. Or Matt Forbeck’s Monster Academy, part of his insane 12 for ’12 project. Or Krillbite Studio’s recent project for Among the Sleep. Look at these crazy runaway successes from Steve Jackson Games for the Ogre relaunch and from Patrick Rothfuss for the playing cards based on his book, The Name of the Wind. There are several things in common with these and so many other successful projects. They have the air of professionalism about them. Whether or not that’s what’s happening behind the scenes isn’t important. What’s important is that the viewer, your potential backer, sees a nicely present package that gives them the confidence that you’ll not only deliver what was promised, but deliver a quality product to boot.
Take a look at some unsuccessful projects as well. The easiest way to do this is to go to Kickstarter and click the Ending Soon link on the right side. It’s an easy scroll to find the projects that will not make their funding goal. Look at this Kickstarter from Jason Lee Guthrie, a project for a worship album.
The amount Mr. Guthrie was looking for was modest. The reward levels were also not out of line. He should have easily been able to meet his goals. So what went wrong?
Well, probably a lot of small things, but a few big things stand out. First, the description of the project is very spare. I got no real sense of what the project was about, what he was about, his history, his goals, and so on. And why on Earth he didn’t have a full song for people to listen to I cannot guess. Even if it was pre-production quality, it would make a huge difference to a potential backer. You don’t want to pad your project with nonsense just to fill space, but you do want high-quality information that gives the project backer confidence that this will be a good project that they’ll enjoy after they receive their rewards. Only after getting that sense of comfort will they be able to get in to the groupmind enthusiasm that fuels so many Kickstarters.
Now take a look at a similar project, this from Chaise Candie, again for a new music album.
You could argue that one was from “some guy” and one was from a beautiful woman unafraid to use her sex appeal—and there’s some validity to that argument—but then again, she was looking for more than twice what Mr. Guthrie was looking for. And just watch the videos. Look over two project pages. Ms. Candie’s was much more informative, detailed, and personal. It gave links at the end of the video to social networking sites (something I should have done, actually). It had an actual song to listen to, complete with video and another version en Español.
Stated simply, Chaise Candie had a much stronger pitch than Jason Lee Guthrie.
These were music projects, but you can see the same thing in a lot of creative projects like novels, graphic novels, computer games, board games, and so on, the stark difference between failed projects and successful ones.
You have to put your best foot forward, because you’re going to be relying on two things for your Kickstarter: your base and building a new audience for your project. You have little control over your own base. It is what it is. It may be large or it may be small, but by the time your Kickstarter begins, you’re pretty much in the boat you’re in. As a small aside, though, don’t discount your friends and family. Their enthusiasm can mean a lot to the initial “getting out the word” effort.
So what can you control for relatively little cost?
We’re talking about novels here, and the cover art is going to be your biggest seller. For Lest Our Passage Be Forgotten, I found existing art to use for the cover (a beautiful piece by Sang Han), and I talked with him about terms before I ran the Kickstarter. With that agreement in hand, I was able to create mock-ups for the book cover that I was able to use over and over and over. I used it for the book itself. I used it for the video image (reworking it to get the dimensions right). I used it for the mini-banners within the Kickstarter project page. I used it in updates, emails, Facebook and Twitter posts. By the time I was done with it, I’m sure people were sick of looking at it, but it worked well, because it was an attractive piece and I had designed good images using it to help promote the book.
If you’re not good at graphic design, this may be one of the places where you want to invest. It’s so key to your success that you may want to find a qualified designer to help you with the cover and a few of the things I mentioned above. It’ll go a long way toward showing the kind of product you plan to deliver.
Another popular thing you’ll see are “project gauges,” images that show the stretch goals, how far everyone has come and what’s left to conquer. Here’s one from Among the Sleep.
You can do this with text, and many projects do, but I think it gives you an edge if you use these types of images as it’s easy to digest just how successful things are.
There are many ways to “project professionalism,” and the way you do it is going to vary based on the project itself, your strengths, your friends’ strengths, what resources you have access to, how much money you’re willing to spend, and so on. But at the very minimum I think you’ll want to include the following in your messaging for a novel project:
- Your bona fides—what you’ve written in the past and why people might like to back you for this project
- What the project is about
- What made you fall in love with it <— this may, in fact, be the biggest key in your message
- Why you need help
- An explanation of where the money is being spent
This doesn’t mean this all has to be done in one place, but between the video and the project page, you should cover these points.
2. The Video
There really is no question of whether or not you should have a video. You should. And in this day and age, there’s no excuse not to have one.
The real question is: what form should it take?
Just like project pages, there are some amazing videos out there. Some are earnest appeals, which is the approach I used in both of my projects. Some are Q&A’s, like Patrick Rothfuss used in his playing card Kickstarter and Time Traveled Tales used for its anthology project. Others are jaw-droppingly impressive, like the runaway success of the Veronica Mars Kickstarter or Torment: Tides of Numenera.
Don’t get too caught up on the flash and sizzle of some of those videos, because this, I think, is where the viewer is going to be a bit more forgiving. Not everyone has access to the greatest cameras and cool editing software and knock-your-socks-off locations in which to film. If you have those things, great, but for a novel, what people are looking for is earnestness, enthusiasm, a succinct pitch of what the book is about, and why you’ve chosen Kickstarter as your venue for publication. If possible, try to capture the tone of the novel. If it’s a comedy, be funny or write a funny script or read a humorous piece of the novel. If it’s a thriller, make the video have some sense of that with the music or the graphics or by teasing them with some plot points.
I mentioned finding artwork for the project page above, and you should absolutely use that for your video. You can use it for cutaways between your major points in the video, but certainly use it to intro and outro the video.
And don’t forget a call to action. Don’t just tell us what the project is about, ask people to back you. Ask them to spread the word. Give your thanks. It will go a long way toward getting them to click “Back This Project” and part with some of their hard-earned money.
For the actual taping, I would recommend creating an outline of talking points. I would not recommend, however, that you create a script. Create a script and it will view like you’re reading from cue cards. Badly. Keep the points generic, and then speak from the heart. That’s what’s going to get people to believe in you and to reward your for taking this bold step. Sound like you’re stiffly reading words someone else gave you and they’re bound to move on, never to return.
And remember, retakes are your friend. Get the jitters out of the way by practicing. You can always throw it away. Keep going until you feel comfortable, but don’t forget to keep the enthusiasm in the taping. Don’t drum that out of yourself with too many takes.
If you haven’t watched Mary Robinette Kowal’s series on how to give dramatic readings, do yourself a favor and watch them. The taping of a Kickstarter video is not the same thing as delivering a narrative reading, but I think there’s a fair bit of overlap.
My three favorite bits of advice from Mary’s talks are to (1) slow down, (2) to remember to vary your pacing and pitch, and (3) to choose one word per sentence to stress. These tips alone can work well to create an earnest, approachable, believable video that sells you and your work. And the funny thing is, we use these techniques in our everyday lives. When we’re telling people about the near-miss we had on Hwy 20 when the jerk cut into our lane, when we’re talking politics, when we’re telling the prideful story of our daughter’s win at her swim meet. When there’s no pressure, we talk conversationally. We talk easily. We speed up and slow down. We vary our pitch depending on our level of excitement.
Mary’s tips are (in part) trying to recapture that for performance’s sake. So use them to your advantage.
3. The Psychology of the Funding Goal
You’ll find all kinds of advice that tell you to make sure you account for everything that you’re going to need to spend money on. And this is great advice. Certainly follow it. You want to know how much you’re going to need to make that first dollar in profit. Here is a list of the things that I had to take into account when I started. I’ll list the direct costs (both fixed and variable) and the investments (things that I spent money on but that can be applied to other projects as well).
Fixed Direct Costs for Novels
- Structural Editing
- Copy Editing
- Line Editing
- Cover Art or Photos
- Interior Art or Photos (if any)
- Fonts (optional)
- ISBN numbers for each version of the book you’ll have generally available for sale (MMPB, TBP, HC, EPUB, MOBI)
- Printer setup costs (charged per title)
- Hard copy proofs (can be costly depending on your printer)
- ARC printing costs (for promotion and early giveaways)
- Promotional items (bookmarks, posters, tee shirts, various stretch goal items, etc.)
- Optional professional assistance for various parts of the project where you’re unable to provide it yourself
- Cover Design
- Interior Design
- E-book generation
- PAYMENT FOR YOU, THE AUTHOR, TO DO ALL THIS STUFF!
Variable Direct Costs for Novels (driven by number of copies purchased in Kickstarter)
- Book printing costs (including shipping to you)
- Shipping costs (to your backers)
- Shipping material like bubble wrap and boxes or envelopes (don’t overlook this!)
- PAYMENT FOR YOU, THE AUTHOR, TO DO ALL THIS STUFF!
Indirect Costs (with my choices noted for each)
- Video editing software — iMovie (luckily I have a Mac, and iMovie was good enough for my purposes)
- Graphical editing software — Photoshop
- Book layout software for print copies — inDesign
- Novel drafting software — Scrivener
- E-book generation software — Scrivener
Essentially, you’re going to be adding that up to get a basic funding level for the project. You’ll add the fixed direct costs and a projection of the variable direct costs to come up with some baseline, and then you can add in any of the indirect costs if you wish. Matt Forbeck has a nice writeup on adding up your costs.
But here’s the flip side of adding all this up to get a grand total. The higher you make your starting goal, the tougher it’s going to be to reach. And the tougher it seems like it will be to reach, the more resistance you’ll have on the part of your potential backer. I’ll reference Matt Forbeck again here. He has a nice blog entry on how to gauge your novel’s chances for funding via Kickstarter.
I wanted my first Kickstarter to seem very attainable. I made it a mere $1,000 because I wanted the project to succeed, and I wanted it to appear to be a success early. This is important. Our perceptions form so much of our reasons for buying things. If people see your project as a success right off the bat, they feel more comfortable in backing it. If it seems like it’s iffy that the funding goal will be reached, they’ll hesitate. It’s human nature.
But show that you funded in a few hours like my first Kickstarter did? That’s news. It gets people excited. It makes more people want to join in.
And remember, Kickstarter is a lot about joining in something as a community. People that hop onboard feel ownership of its success (rightfully so) but the flip side of this is that no one wants to back a loser. So be careful with the price you choose.
Had I made only my $1,000 funding goal on my first Kickstarter, I would have been losing money, but I set it low on purpose so that it had a chance to build that elusive buzz we always want for our books. Had I set my goal at $5,000, I might have still funded, but it would have increased the chances that I would fail. So I kept it low, and I used the relative success to my advantage.
You’ll have to make the call on where you set your goals. But be reasonable. Plan to make money as the author, because we deserve that. But also recognize that there’s more than one path you can take to reach your goals.
4. Pricing of Reward Levels
Reward levels are the price points at which backers can join back your project. Backers can give more if they like, and there are even allowances for “no reward” for the backer, but generally people are choosing one reward and paying a set fee for it.
You want to choose these rewards and their corresponding price points carefully. You’ll want something modest. Something around the $25-30 mark (because for many, that’s doable), and then more exclusive rewards with similarly exclusive price points. I’d be careful, however, on stretching the generosity of your backers. Don’t push the envelope too far. Yes, you want to make money, and it’s fair to charge a premium for certain things, especially a limited edition of anything, but you also don’t want to push people away with reward that seem offensively high.
Where the right price point is is tough to say—it does depend on the project itself, how many books there are, the format being offered, its costs, your profit goals, and so on—but try to find the sweet spot between fan/friend support and going too far and turning people off.
As for the number of reward levels, I would recommend 4-6 “standard” backing options plus a few exclusive, limited rewards. The standard rewards tend to run along these lines (with rough ranges of prices I’ve seen for those sorts of rewards)
- Bookmark or screensaver using the project’s artwork or a “thank you” in the book ($1 – $10)
- E-book (or an ePack, like I offered, with EPUB, MOBI, and PDF versions for the backers) ($3 – $10)
- Signed e-book ($10 – $20)
- Trade Paperback (often signed) ($15 – $30)
- Hardcover (often signed, perhaps limited to a certain number of copies) ($50 – $100)
This list can grow if you’re offering more than one book, but try not to go crazy. Offer too many options, and people can get confused. I had three books in my second Kickstarter, but to keep things simple I only offered either the third book by itself (1 book) or the entire trilogy (3 books, i.e. I had no option for 2 of 3 books).
Another thing often forgotten is the recap of your rewards. You’ll often see things change as new stretch goals are added, and sometimes new backing levels are added mid-project. And some rewards can “include” other rewards, which may be good for a simplistic pitch in the rewards, but can get confusing if they become labarynthine.
Current and potential backers can get confused as to what they get with each reward level. Don’t be afraid to send out an update and to revise your project page to recap what backers get, including stretch goals and “included” rewards, so that it’s clear what they’re getting for their money. I’ll admit, I fell pray to a few too many reward levels in my second project, and even my first, which is why I added a recap in each.
5. Exclusivity Is Your Friend
For fiction, the limited rewards range from Tuckerizing backers into your stories or novels to flying to a party with books for your backer’s friends to working with the backer on a brand new story.
Michael J. Sullivan even offered a “Patron for Life” in his Hollow World Kickstarter, in which the backers receive all of his future ebooks and will be recognized as patrons for life in the credits. He sold 25 of those rewards at $250 each. That’s $6,250, my friends. Now, this type of reward doesn’t fit all projects, and not everyone will be as successful as Michael was if they decide to include it, but it shows the variety you can add to capture the interest of potential backers or fans of your work.
Use your creativity. Find something unique to you and your work that will get your backers excited. Make sure it’s something you’ll really want to do, of course, but there are unlimited possibilities within that simple framework.
If you look around at the various Kickstarters, you’ll see that many offer something only for the backers of the project. I think this is a wise idea, and I adopted it for both of my Kickstarters in the form of limited edition hardcovers that were only being offered to the backers of the project. I ended up needing to have a limited run of 100 copies of the hardcovers, so I do in fact have some left over, but the backers had first crack at them, and I’ll offer extras to backers before I open them up to any further sales to sell off my stock.
People who run music projects offer limited signed copies of their CDs. Patrick Rothfuss offered a Limited Edition run of his playing cards to backers in his Name of the Wind Playing Card Kickstarter.
This is not just an idea that builds buzz. It’s fun. It gets your backers excited.
So again, try new things. Use the uniqueness of the limited rewards as news items as you spread the word. Sometimes these things will take on a life of their own, so try to make it noteworthy in some way.
Click here for Part II in this series.