How I Ran Two Successful Novel Kickstarters in Less Than Six Months — Part II
This is Part II of a two-part series on How to Run a Successful Novel Kickstarter
Find Part I 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 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 fair 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 while, but more and more I was seeing successful projects being started and completed on the platform. I saw how impressive some of them were, how caught up I got in the “community” that successful projects could bring about. I saw how effective 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 one, 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, per se. It’s not about how to generate epubs and mobis and fulfilling the Kickstarter once you’ve run it. It’s about how to run a Kickstarter from pre-launch to post-close.
6. Stretch Goals — Appealing to the Group
A big part of Kickstarter’s appeal is that it gives a sense of ownership to those who back it. It gives backers a sense of pride because without them, the project wouldn’t succeed. And for me personally (and I suspect a lot of other people as well) there’s an underdog appeal to backing a project, and an anti-corporate undercurrent that sees Kickstarter as leveling the playing field (at least a bit) for those daring enough to take the plunge and do things themselves. This is why Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites will continue to work well in the future, long after the luster of newness has worn off. With corporations as large as they are, with each of us controlling less and less of our destiny, this gives us a way to bring something into the world that isn’t beholden to corporate interests.
(This is sidestepping the issue of whether or not progressively larger corporations will enter the crowdfunding fray. They will. But that doesn’t diminish the small projects that can succeed in big ways through venues like Kickstarter.)
Stretch goals are a very interesting aspect of Kickstarters. If the reward levels are about self (i.e. the backer is getting something for their money), then the stretch goals are about group (everyone or a certain specified group gets something). And I think this goes hand-in-hand with the sense that you’re banding together as a group to make a project succeed. Together, you have made the project work, and stretch goals are both a way to acknowledge everyone’s contributions and to help enhance those feelings of community.
If you think about a typical drive for money—say, a random charity fund you decide to donate to—you’ll often donate and that’s the last you’ll ever hear about it (beyond more calls to donate, of course). You’ll feel good, but you generally (at least, I don’t) get much sense of community from it. With Kickstarter stretch goals, you can formalize group success to highlight the effect that people’s contributions have. In other words, stretch goals tighten the bonds between you and the backers and between the backers themselves. It’s a really interesting phenomenon that can help lead to the runaway successes we’ve seen from Kickstarter.
So how to leverage stretch goals to best effect?
Here, again, you’ll want to be creative. Some of the more common stretch goals for Kickstarters are bookmarks, added interior artwork for the project, posters, added content like afterwords or short stories that tie into the novel.
In the Time Traveled Tales Kickstarter I’m a part of, several stretch goals added new stories from various authors, and if a really lofty goal of $20,000 is met, an additional story from every writer will be added to the anthology. Time Traveled Tales also added challenge coins—coins that feature interior artwork and the cover on opposite sides of the coin. Those will be something that’s really neat. A true collector’s item that many backers will appreciate.
Raffles are an interesting way to create buzz without a huge amount of added expense. I added a raffle to my Kickstarter for three rare Advanced Reader Copies of The Flames of Shadam Khoreh. I did the same for prints of the interior art within the book. Michael J. Sullivan had an interesting raffle for four people to be chosen to name characters in his upcoming book, Hollow World.
If you have related work, or really any other work that you want to promote, (assuming you have the rights to do so) you could offer ebooks to everyone if you reach a certain goal. For my Kickstarter for Lest Our Passage Be Forgotten & Other Stories, I arranged with my then-publisher, Night Shade Books, to allow me to give away copies of the first two books of The Lays of Anuskaya to all backers if we reached certain levels (there was one stretch goal for Book 1 and another for Book 2). I think that was a great way to thank everyone for their help in getting the project funded and also to generate more buzz about the Kickstarter.
Take a look at Matt Forbeck’s Kickstarter for Monster Academy. By the time Monster Academy was up and running, Matt had already ran three prior Kickstarters for the other nine books in his 12 for ’12 project. He had various stretch goals where he gave those who pledged at certain minimum levels extra ebooks from the other Kickstarters.
One of my favorite stretch goals, strangely enough, was for the computer game, Among the Sleep. The first one, at $200,000, was ice cream for the team that’s creating the game. Why was it my favorite? I’m not really sure. It was clear that this team was very professional, that they had put in a ton of work for (up to that point) little gain, and that they were very serious about finishing the project. So I just liked that it wasn’t 100% business, that they were willing to take a seat for a moment and reward themselves for all the hard work they’d put in. There were additional stretch goals that were for the backers, but I applauded their willingness to add some humor and a bit of cheer to the whole process.
One of the more inventive stretch goals I’ve seen is from Tobias Buckell for his third novel in the Xenowealth series, The Apocalypse Ocean. The $30,000 stretch goal was for an immediate start to the project instead of waiting for a certain window in the future he’d initially scheduled for the new novel. That’s a very interesting way to incentivize a group, and if you have enough supporters that are really hoping for that next novel, it’s a great reward for them as well.
Again, much of this is going to be project-specific, and also based on your unique set of abilities, interests, background, and so on. But do try to think of things that will enhance the sense of community that builds around these projects. That will help everyone to feel part of the group, and that will help to boost adoption of the upper backing levels and also the willingness of your backers to spread the word.
7. Add-ons — Capitalizing on the Enthusiasm
Add-ons are things that are outside of the scope of the original backing levels. Things that might be only peripherally related to the project, but that people might certainly want. Just take a look at Pat Rothfuss’s add-ons from his Name of the Wind playing cards Kickstarter:
But wait, there’s more:
Nope, not done yet:
Now, please keep in mind that Pat had a team of people working on this Kickstarter. And he also had a lot of items (not to mention the experience of ordering and fulfillment) from The Tinker’s Packs. Not everyone will be able to add so much to their Kickstarter. But certainly look over various Kickstarters and think of things you might be able to add.
Larry Elmore had a number of cool add-ons for his Complete Elmore Artbook project, one of which was to get a dragon doodle. I thought that was a really neat idea, and I opted for that when I was paying for the artbook once the Kickstarter had ended.
I’ll admit it, Add-ons are something I completely fell down on in my own projects. I had grand plans. I wanted to add tee shirts. Hats. Coffee mugs. All sorts of things to boost sales but also to give people something cool to remember the project by. I simply ran out of time. But don’t let that stop you. Plan ahead, do some research into costs and how to fulfill orders once you have them, and get a few things ready to go before the Kickstarter begins.
And don’t forget to bundle them. Bundling is a tried and true method for getting people to opt for more because they’re getting a better deal overall. Below is an image from Pat Rothfuss’s Name of the Wind playing cards Kickstarter in which two of the backing levels were put in an image for easier view, but you could do the same for a bundled set of add-ons.
8. Spreading the News
Let me start by saying that I’m not going to list a bunch of places where you can list your Kickstarter to get the word out. Those resources exist, and you should find them, but there isn’t much more I can add to the subject. What I want to talk about instead is how to approach communications over the course of the Kickstarter and how that should change as the project evolves.
No one will argue that your project will live or die by how well you can get out the word. And to me there are three distinct phases to this. To use a story analog, there is the Beginning, the Middle, and the End. Study just about any successful Kickstarter and you’ll see that there is a flurry of people joining in the Beginning, there’s a drop off in the Middle, and there’s a flurry again at the End.
Let’s talk about each.
The Beginning is when you’ll be using your contacts (i.e. friends, family, close fellow writers) to spread the news that there’s a new Kickstarter in town. Your base will certainly help you. Word will get out, and you’ll have “early adopters” who will hopefully help to spread the news throughout the remainder of the campaign
Hopefully you can get some early successes in the Beginning as well. Use your social networks and blog to talk about the milestones you’re knocking down. Good news items are first backers, first backers at certain reward levels, reaching milestones like 25% funded, 50%, and so on. You’ll be running a mile a minute at this point, and it’s usually not too hard to keep the enthusiasm running for several days as the initial news hits the airwaves.
To take a step back a moment to the pre-planning for your project, the Beginning is where everything in the Kickstarter is new. It’s why you want to spend so much time making things look professional, so you can grab people right away. First impressions count. So make you’re presentation and your rewards attractive, and people will hop onboard.
But eventually the days will pass, the initial rush will fade, and you’ll hit the Middle, the doldrums, the point after which all of your likely early backers have already joined and now you’re fighting to gain new backers and to awaken those “semi-interested” backers. In this phase you’re trying to energize your base so that they’ll continue to spread the word, which will allow you to go reach previously untapped groups of people (you know, friends of friends, and friends of friends of friends). You’re also trying to reach those people that have seen your news but haven’t yet clicked through, or have but have not yet taken the plunge but still might.
I would recommend a couple of things in the Middle of your campaign. First, continue to use major milestones as news items. Those are interesting and can make people sit up and take notice. My Kickstarter for Lest Our Passage Be Forgotten & Other Stories funded in about 5 hours, if I recall correctly, and was about 200% funded at the 24-hour mark. That was news, and I continued to use that as the Kickstarter moved along. By the end of Michael J. Sullivan’s Hollow World project, he’d hit 1000% funding—1000%!!!—but Michael also used the major milestones (100% funding, 200%, 300%, etc.) to help get people excited and to spread the news.
Share your amazement at how things are going, and people will pick up on your enthusiasm. They’ll become enthusiastic too.
The second thing I would recommend for the Middle is to keep some things in reserve. If you have stretch goals planned, don’t announce all of them at once. Announce one or two up front, but then leak more of them as the Kickstarter continues. This makes valid news items that people are going to want to hear about. It keeps the Kickstarter “fresh” as it moves along through the middle days, where it seems like backers are very hard to come by.
You could do things like add new videos or testimonials. When I was running my Kickstarter for Flames, I had sent out advance reader copies to various people, and I asked them to create a video of their impressions of the book. I released two of those videos partway through. Here’s one of them that was a compilation of four different video reviews:
You can also adjust some of the reward levels, or add new ones. As long as no one has backed a particular reward level, you can make changes to it. You can also add something new to them via stretch goals (as opposed to having the stretch goal apply to all backing levels).
Add-ons can become news as well. Don’t add them all at once and you can create a buzz about the cool things you’re adding to the Kickstarter.
The days will continued to pass, and eventually you’ll reach the End, the closing days of your project. I think there are two things to consider here regarding communication that will help to maximize the excitement that accompanies the End of a Kickstarter project.
First, you’ll want to make adjustments to the Kickstarter that will entice backers to opt for the higher reward levels. I mentioned the stretch goals above. Well, if some of those are available only to the higher backing levels, remind people of it. And if you have things that are exclusive to the Kickstarter, now is the time to highlight them. I had limited edition hardcovers in both of my Kickstarters. Remind people that time is running out to get them.
If you’ve added or adjusted reward levels along the way (from new stretch goals or modified rewards), consider creating a special update that details what people will get for their money at each reward level.
And second, you’ll want to try to re-engage your friends and backers to help spread the word. Make everyone aware of the ticking clock. Show how close you are to certain goals that will benefit everyone. Make special appeals for people to spread the word in the final days and hours.
In short, in the final run-up to the End, be positive and energetic, appeal for help and make it clear what people will get and how little time is left to get it.
The flurry of backers at the End is just as much of a rush as those early days—perhaps even more so because the project will soon be complete—but keep in mind that it’s a rush for everyone else as well.
Be sure to use that to your advantage.
9. Don’t Make It All About the Kickstarter
I was tempted to make this a note in the Spreading the News section above, but I think it’s important enough that I wanted to highlight it in its own section.
For me, it was important not to go full bore. I didn’t want my life to be all Kickstarter, all the time. Part of that is simply because I didn’t want the project to take over my life. But the other side of it is that no one else wants it to be that way either. There’s no bigger turnoff than when you feel like you’re being sold to. Constantly. With nothing gained for you. And you can fall into that trap if you’re not careful.
Look, you’re depending on your friends and backers to spread the news for you. I consider that a favor. I didn’t want to betray their generosity and forbearance by what could amount to a month’s worth of spam about my project. Yes, close friends will put up with it. But those you don’t know very well? They’ll tune you out. Maybe even drop you if you go overboard.
So on my social networks I tried to keep my enthusiasm about the project high, but I also tried to mix in my “normal stuff” into the mix. Everyone has their own M.O. when they’re socializing on FB and Twitter and G+, right? Don’t lose that person. Keep that person around. And also, pull back the curtains a little bit. Tell people that it’s hectic, that it’s a wild ride. Tell them about what it’s like to run a Kickstarter, because that’s interesting, without selling to them every time you post. Does that make sense?
On Kickstarter updates (more on this below), people will be more forgiving about project-only communications, but don’t take their generosity for granted. Update them when there are important things, but otherwise treat it like a privilege, not a right, to be able to communicate with your project backers.
Also consider adding a bit of humor, or give back to your backers in some way. Those who know me know I like to cook, so For The Flames of Shadam Khoreh, for every $1,000 the project hit, I sent out an update with one of my favorite recipes—either one of my own or one from a chef I’d tried and liked. I don’t know if everyone enjoyed those updates, but many people let me know that they did.
Consider the long haul, here. You might run another Kickstarter someday, so don’t make your first one an unpleasant experience.
Or no one will stick around for the others.
10. Updates – Communication With Your Backers
I kept this one separate from “Spreading the News” because Kickstarter Updates are generally for backers only—at least, that’s the intended target; you can optionally allow anyone to see them. The point is that you’ll be communicating to those who have already decided to hop onboard the train, and so your approach to them will not be the same as for others (i.e. potential backers who have not yet joined).
I used to be a fan of The Apprentice (before the show became ultra commercial and before I realized how much of an ass Donald Trump was). In one season, the contestants were to head to Atlantic City and create some marketing buzz around something or other. I forget what the actual goal was for the contestants on that day, but in doing so, one of the teams had lined up a young animal tamer that worked regularly in Atlantic City. He was like a tiny version of Siegfried. Or Roy. Take your pick.
In any case, there was some convincing to be done before the kid agreed. The teams had a limited budget, and the young man was normally pretty expensive. And after a heated sales cycle, the kid finally said yes, but afterward, one of the contestants, a southern car salesman type of guy, kept after him, telling him how cool it was going to be, how good for his career, and so on. And the kid stopped him, and he said, “Let me tell you something about life. Don’t try to sell something that’s already sold.” And it shut the contestant right up.
The kid was right. And you’d be wise to remember it was well. Don’t try to sell something that’s already sold.
You want to spread news. It’s fine to tell people about major milestones. It’s fine to tell them about changes to what you’re doing, or what you have planned, but don’t take them for granted. They can still back out of the Kickstarter, remember.
So what do you say in your updates? Well, take a look at a few. Here are the update pages for The Flames of Shadam Khoreh and Lest Our Passage Be Forgotten. I added updates to let people know what was going on behind the scenes. I shared interior artwork that was being generated, both sketches and final pieces. I told them the progress I had been making on fulfillment even while the project was running.
If I had a rule of thumb, I’d say you probably don’t want more than one update every 2-3 days. But as always, your mileage may vary. There will be certain times when you’ll have more updates, and certain times where they’ll be more spread out.
And remember that updates are for more than just when the Kickstarter is actively running. It’s for after the Kickstarter ends, too. Use it as a way to keep everyone informed. You don’t want to fall off the face of the planet or you’ll risk people wondering what’s going on. As you did during the Kickstarter, keep people informed of milestones and your progress toward fulfillment.
I shared some of the steps I was going through along the way and some of the things I learned. I let people know when the ms was complete, when the editing was done, when layout was finalized. I shared artwork as it came in, including various versions of the covers for different formats. And when you start fulfilling, let people know that as well. It will give people the confidence that you’re running a good project now, and that you’ll do so again if you decide to run another Kickstarter in the future.
I hope this was a useful guide. There are certainly more things to learn than what I passed along here, but hopefully this will help you to run a successful Kickstarter of your own.
If you have any questions about this, please feel free to ping me via my Contact page.
Best of luck to you!