Kickstarter & publishing: good or bad?

As reported at Galleycat, Kickstarter released donation stats for 2014. Two of the categories that matter most to us here at Empty Set Entertainment are “Publishing” (obviously) and “Journalism.” I kind of lump those two things together when talking about the book biz. It’s all wordz, baby. From the Galleycat article:

The crowd sharing company revealed some stats from 2014, revealing that 3.3 million people from all over the globe pledged more than half a billion dollars to help finance some 22,252 creative projects. Reading Rainbow was one of the most backed projects of the year with 105,857 backers contributing more than $5.4 million.

A half a billion is a nice chunk of change. Of that haul, Kickstarter funded 2,064 publishing and 158 journalism projects.

So why are we talking about it here? Because we fund several Kickstarters a year, but one thing we don’t contribute to is authors attempting to fund their first novel with Kickstarter. I think it is a horrible idea, for two reasons.

First, you don’t already have a following, you’re setting yourself up for failure.
You are basically formalizing the process of asking friends and family for money to create a physical book, as strangers are unlikely to fund a first novel from someone they’ve never heard of. A novel isn’t a cool widget funders can imagine using, or an art book they can see, it’s mostly words on paper. Words on paper are expensive to make. Why would someone pay for your words when you’ve done nothing to prove yourself as a creator?

Second (and mentioned earlier), words on paper are expensive to make.
Why Kickstarter a print book when you can release that same book in the Kindle store? Your production costs are drastically lower, and you’re putting your work into a venue with millions of potential buyers who are actively looking for cool books to read. Do that, and you start developing a following. Also —trust us on this one — print books are expensive and cumbersome to warehouse, expensive to ship, and your chances of putting them in actual bookstores are damn near nil. And if you’re lucky or persistent enough to get any print distribution, guess what? You will probably lose money anyway (shipping to bookstores, selling at a 40% discount, covering the cost of returns, if you land a distributor giving them a percentage, etc).

You can sell your print books online, sure, and we do exactly that. But know why we can make a profit at that? Because we’ve spent a decade giving away product to build a following, then reinforcing and expanding that following with book after book of solid fiction. People buy from us because we have proven to them that we deliver a solid story. If it’s your first novel, you’ve proven absolutely nothing — why would you ask strangers to fund your dream?

There are always exceptions — but you will dance with the devil.
Sure, a few people will hit the right message at the right time and fund their project. Then comes the hardest part of all: fulfillment. You have to print your products and ship them. Sound easy? Yeah, good luck with that. We’ve learned the hard way that shipping books to thousands of customers is a massive undertaking. Unless you do shipping for a living, or you can count on getting people to help you, you are not ready to handle a truly successful Kickstarter. Ignore our advice at your peril, chum.

Dat following, tho …
Again, I’m saying people who do not have a following should avoid Kickstartering their first novel. People with a successful podcast (like me) or a YouTube show (say, Nika Harper, with 32k subscribers to her Wordplay show) do have a following, and running a Kickstarter to that existing fan base can work well. Or if you are a media personality with an existing following, Buffy-actress-turned-novelist Amber Benson or Author/NerdKing Wil Wheaton, you have a great shot at making a cool Kickstarter and successfully funding it. The reason I point out these people is this: if you are not them, do not expect success, do not use successful Kickstarters by people who are already celebrities as a benchmark for what you can accomplish. 

You don’t need it, sir or ma’am
With the Kindle store open to all, this is the greatest time in the history of man to to be an author. There has never been an opportunity like this. I’ll go into more detail in a future blog post, but the short version is your novel can have global distribution into an existing marketplace with millions of eager customers. That’s not what Kickstarter is. If you want to launch your writing career, make books and sell them in the Kindle store. Build a following. Write more books. Make your following bigger. At that point, you probably don’t even need Kickstarter anymore. If you do, it will be for super cool, fan-centric projects like the Hollow World Kickstarter by rockstar author Michael J. Sullivan. Yeah, his funded, at ten times the initial goal. Why? Because he already had a big following created by making great novels and busting his ass using social media to interact with his fan base.

Kickstarter works, but “work” is the key word, as in, far more work than you think. Spend your time writing books and selling them. Build your audience. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and you’ll probably find you don’t need a Kickstarter at all.

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