Between three creators from the Couscous Collective, five Kickstarters were successfully crowd funded. Shaenon K. Garrity used Kickstarter to collect a 2-volume omnibus of her Narbonic web comic and print volumes of the Skin Horse web comic with co-creator Jeffrey C. Wells. Karen Luk published Steampunk ABC for children. Jason B. Thompson printed The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath - his graphic novel adaption of H.P. Lovecraft’s dreamworld stories. Let’s talk about the motivations for creating a crowd funded project and pitfalls to avoid!
Q: Why did you decide to go the crowd funding route instead of courting an established publisher or self-publishing as you have done in the past for your other comic projects?
SKG: I started using Kickstarter simply as a way to take advance orders for my books. Kickstarter began to take off around the same time I was working on Skin Horse Volume 2, and I’d been looking for an easy way to take advance orders and gauge interest. It worked far better than I expected.
KL: After doing an informal survey to test the concept of the book, my original plan was to pay for printing Steampunk ABC myself. Kickstarter allowed me to share my work with more fans of steampunk. I wouldn’t have considered making the book hardcover with spot gloss otherwise as the cost was too much.
JBT: The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath Kickstarter was actually my wife Jay’s idea. (She also made the video!) I actually went to it as a last resort; for several years I had been trying to find a traditional publisher for Dream-Quest, but to be blunt, the book was rejected by everyone. (And I’ve just gone into a second printing! The fools! Mwa ha ha!) For awhile I doubted whether an audience really existed for Dream-Quest, so I was thrilled that the Kickstarter did so well. Surprised first, and then incredibly grateful to everyone who made it happen.
Q: How does crowd funding via Kickstarter, Indiegogo, etc. change self-publishing?
SKG: It certainly makes it easier to self-publish! I think it also helps create a connection between creators and readers. Readers get a better idea of what goes into making a book, and get a sense of participation in the project. That kind of connection is one of the things I like about web comics in general, so I enjoy building it with the print books, too.
KL: Crowd funding makes it easier to create independent books. I really enjoyed sharing my process with current and new fans of my work. I think they also liked being on the inside track of the new book project before anyone else.
JBT: It’s the best thing to happen to comics in years. Compared to a few years ago, it’s MUCH easier to self-publish; it’s so much easier to spread the word and find a “long tail” audience via social media. Crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are obviously much, much more effective than traditional publishers at helping creators find people who like their stuff (and vice versa). I’m sure there’s still a role for publishers as a partner and part of the creative & promotional process, but when I hear that a book like (for just one example) Mark Andrew Smith and James Stokoe’s Sullivan’s Sluggers didn’t get enough pre-orders to justify releasing it through its original publisher, and made $100,000 on Kickstarter, it’s obvious that the old system is broken.
Q: Other than completing the actual book, a pitch video, funding goal and pledge levels are needed too for setting up a project. What tips do you have for creating the video and deciding pledge levels in relation to the funding goal?
SKG: I’ve written about running a successful Kickstarter elsewhere, but the most important thing is to be clear about what you plan to do and how you plan to do it. It’s not fair to your backers if you go in without a clear plan.
KL: Treat the Kickstarter campaign set up like a business plan. You’re going to produce a product and then reward people for supporting the overall project. Be realistic about what kind of rewards you can deliver in timely fashion. Make sure to work with real quotes, so you can minimize surprise costs. Keep the pitch video short, have clean audio and use clear visuals and/or text on the screen. I think keeping the video to under two minutes is ideal.
JBT: I think the best videos show the creator talking onscreen and making their pitch directly, since you want to emphasize the connection between audience and creator…although good music, good visuals and not rambling on too long (like in the video for Sandy Petersen’s failed Kickstarter for a Cthulhu Mythos tactical iPhone game) are also important. About pledge levels, I’m still not sure I know how the magic works. Had I done the Dream-Quest Kickstarter over, I’d probably have offered original art at a lower funding level and sketches at a higher level, since the sketches took so much time. (Though they were fun to draw.)
KL: I too found that it took longer to fulfill the rewards with sketches attached to them, so don’t forget to build in extra time to complete similar rewards!
Q: Beyond the printing costs, what else can change the initial funding goal?
SKG: You definitely need to factor the expenses of the Kickstarter into your funding goal. Amazon takes a chunk of whatever you raise, so be sure to include that in your estimate. And the rewards may cost money, too. For Skin Horse 3, I offered slipcovers designed by Liz Conley, which were gorgeous, but also cost money to produce. Then there are the usual costs of publishing a book, like shipping. You really have to treat it as a business.
KL: In my case, US Postal rates went up, so the extra funding over the goal definitely helped to cover that increased cost. You want to factor in all the extra rewards and shipping required. Don’t forget taxes.
JBT: As Karen pointed out, you have to watch out for USPS rate increases, as well as the taxes.
Q: Once the project is accepted and ready to launch, what can creators do to get the word out?
SKG: Tell social media. Send press releases to comics news sites and anywhere else that might be interested. And send out additional reminders throughout the campaign, whenever you unlock a new pledge level or reach a stretch goal, so people don’t forget.
KL: Keeping folks informed via social media (Facebook, Twitter, LinkedIn, etc.) and asking them if they’d be willing to share the campaign. I also had a few friends talk up Steampunk ABC on various online groups. As the campaigns wears on, keeping people posted on how much more funding is needed and reward updates becomes important to hit your goal.
JBT: In my case, I’d saved every email from someone asking about Dream-Quest since I printed the original series as floppy comics back in 1999, so I emailed them all, in addition to the usual social media promotion. A few amazing people mentioned the series on German and French fansites, helping me get backers from those countries. Of course, I had the advantage of doing an HP Lovecraft-based project, which meant there’s a certain built-in audience and lots of people and sites that volunteered their time to help publicize the Kickstarter. But even if your project doesn’t have an obvious fandom, you need to figure out who might like it and spread the word to bloggers, magazines and forums. It’s just like publishing any book.
Q: What can creators expect during the campaign?
SKG: Every campaign is different, so…expect the unexpected, I guess?
KL: A project can get a lot of backers throwing in at the beginning, but then it tends to slow down a lot after the initial rush. Keep on sharing updates during the lull. Some backers may wait until the end to see what more rewards are offered. Press on!
JBT: It slowed down a lot after the first week or so, and for awhile I was worried I wouldn’t make it. But luckily, some big reviews helped boost the momentum.
Q: How did you get potential backers to click that pledge button? And, are stretch goals a necessity?
SKG: My current campaign is the first one for which I’ve done stretch goals, so no, they’re not necessary. But I do think it’s necessary to stay engaged throughout the campaign and give people reasons to keep checking up on it. If you do that, and your work is awesome, hopefully they’ll click that button.
KL: I factored in most of the rewards before I launched, so I didn’t do stretch goals myself – I just added bonuses to existing reward levels. Showing more of your project before the campaign closes piques people’s interest. Be sure to interact with backers online.
JBT: I didn’t do stretch goals; I probably should have, but I don’t think they were as big a thing back in 2011 (and/or I just wasn’t aware of them). Although it wasn’t a stretch goal per se, one result of getting nearly twice my original goal was that I was able to do the book in hardcover, as well as doing the Dreamlands map in 24″x36″ instead of a smaller size. I did add a new backer level, the Randolph Carter Dolls which my wife and my friend Katia made. Also, my friend Jake donated at the $1000 level meaning that I did a new comic for him (which turned out to be 20 pages long), gave him his choice of the original art and posted the scans online for all the backers to read… so that’s sort of like a stretch goal? Well, kinda.
Q: Assuming you didn’t print the exact number of books for the backers, what do you do distribute and sell the book?
SKG: My books are mostly sold online through the Couscous Collective online store. I sell through some comic shops, too, but online sales are my bread and butter.
KL: I sell Steampunk ABC online via my site and the Couscous Collective online store. I’ve sent out promotional copies to independent book stores, indicating the wholesale price and how to contact me for purchases. Currently, it’s selling at the Cartoon Art Museum Bookstore, Treasure Island Comics and Mission: Comics & Art. Most of those sales are on a consignment basis. I’m also looking to list the book on Amazon.
JBT: Happily, two distributors carry it: the book is available from Diamond Comics, as well as from Bud Plant. So, rock on! Also, I sell them at my store.
Q: You asked your established fan base to make the campaign a success and now you have a larger audience for your work. How do you keep new fans interested in your work and upcoming projects?
SKG: Keep doing awesome work! It’s the only way I know.
KL: Keep on making art and sharing it!
JBT: Like you said, keep drawing. I’m involved in several different fandoms which don’t have that much crossover: chiefly (1) manga, (2) tabletop RPGs and (3) HP Lovecraft stuff. Perhaps for the best, even I’ve never done a particular piece of work that hits all three points of that particular Venn Diagram, but I feel at home in these areas. Of course, I’m interested in other themes too, and I love it when other people are interested in them with me.
Q: What upcoming projects do you have?
SKG: I’m drawing Skin Horse every day and Monster of the Week every week. They keep me pretty busy. There are a few other projects I’m working on, but nothing I can announce yet. Also, I build a tiki bar/office in my back yard.
KL: I’m working on various short comics for upcoming Couscous Collective anthologies, a longer one to debut as ongoing web comic and possibly another project for Kickstarter at the end of the year. More announcements in the future!
JBT: I’ve got a story in Northwest Press’ upcoming anthology Anything That Loves about nonbinary sexuality. I’m also doing a 16-page story for the horror comics anthology The Sleep of Reason, which is Kickstarting right now. I’m also working on another Lovecraftian comic; re-posting and resuming my comic The Stiff which I originally did from 2003-2005; and working on a drawing/card game called Mangaka which will be my next Kickstarter project.
Thanks to Shaenon, Karen and Jason for offering crowd funding insights! Be sure to check out Shaenon’s current Kickstarter for Skin Horse 4 and The Sleep of Reason Kickstarter, a horror comic anthology, where Jason is a contributor. Both are currently funding! Follow Shaenon (Twitter and Facebook), Karen Luk (Twitter and Facebook), and Jason (Twitter and Facebook) online for more upcoming news about their projects.