I think I speak for many first time authors when I say we are prone to daydreaming about money (and pre-disposed to alliteration). You get your first book published (either traditionally or self) and suddenly you are imagining monthly holidays in the Caribbean and writing from your million dollar villa in Spain. In your excitement you quit your run-of-the-mill job and suddenly find yourself up Poor River without your Pay Check Paddle. If only you had the money to get your next project off the ground. Most of us would suck it up by getting a cheaper, less striking cover; by agreeing to the publisher’s demands to be less ‘truthful’ in our next book if we want it to see the light of day (and snag the much needed advance); or by relying on a family friend who’s good at English to edit your novel rather than the professional you know you need.
However, if we stopped to have a look around we would realise the landscape is changing and it’s all due to the readers raising millions of dollars around the world for writing projects. What if I told you, you could get paid for writing, or to make your first print run? What if you could make a couple of grand to get you started? What if you could make a million? Three million? All before finishing your final novel/magazine/comic/video game (yes, I would argue they are ALL forms of storytelling, if you’ve been following Meanland posts you should also know this).
It’s incredible to think you could get paid before writing a single word, but if you are willing to do the work, then perhaps crowd funding is for you. Crowd funding allows artists to raise funds for their project by asking everyday people to pledge money toward it. It's not like traditional fundraising where you wear a Santa suit, put out a bucket to collect change and you hand it into the organisation (or I suppose yourself in this case). Crowd funding sets a goal and time limit, if you don't get enough people to pledge in the allotted time, everyone keeps their money, and the project goes back to square one. If the artist makes the funding goal only then will the project go ahead, and everyone who pledged gets some sort of reward for their wonderful help.
In the same way ebooks have allowed authors to release books in niches too specialised for a publisher to bother with, crowd funding democratises the process of story creation by allowing readers/consumers to support stories they want to see developed and give the artists the freedom to experiment, take risks and design without anyone else compromising their vision or telling them they are too boring for the This-Is-Your-Life documentary they’re planning. It’s a kind of creative luxury that most major, established publishers and magazines simply cannot afford to give their authors. Thus we are fed the same staple without a chocolate brownie to delight our entertainment tastebuds. We are being fed the content without getting the ‘rewards’ we truly crave and that crowd funding has brought into being.
It’s platforms like Kickstarter (US) and Pozible (Australia) that are allowing writers to raise insane amounts of money for their projects. Crowd funding is being used at all skill levels, from first time authors like Alain Guillemain who raised $7600 to edit, print and launch his book Customer Delight (To find out how he did it, check out this audio interview on my blog), to experienced veterans Kristine Rusch and Dean Smith - awarded World Fantasy Awards for their work with the Pulphouse Publishing Company - who raised $14,000, double their original $6,000 goal, to begin a bi-monthly fiction anthology, Fiction River.
Yet, the real leaders in this crowd funding phenomenon are not the prose writers, but the authors of graphic novels and games. Rich Burlew, author of a self-published web comic The Order of the Stick, overshot his original $57,000 goal to raise $1.2 million to bring his stories back into print; while Tim Schafer and his gaming company Double Fine, overshot their original $400,000 goal to make $3 million to develop their next game, a classic point and click adventure. If you aggregate all the successful Kickstarter graphic novel projects together, it results in the Kickstarter conglomerate being the second highest grossing comic/graphic novel publisher ($1.99m) behind Marvel ($2.7m) according to this Publisher’s Weekly article.
I have written previously about comic book companies being the geniuses of our industry. Not only do they mass produce paperback copies of their stories but they have television shows, movies, yearly conventions in major cities around the world, figurines of major AND minor characters, and heck, they even have lunch boxes. Depending on when they’re made, how rare they are, and whether or not the buyer has resisted temptation and left the item in its original packaging, the figurine of a villain’s hairless cat could go for several hundred dollars when first sold and several thousand dollars years later. Graphic novel author and artist Dan McGuiness, creator of Pilot and Huxley, explains this reader-creator model best:
“Comic book stores haven’t suffered the way book stores have with the digital revolution for one simple reason: Readers of comics are collectors. Comic series are built on rarity, on the knowledge that their fans want a special connection to their story and different ways to be a part of it, whether it is the rare first editions or figurines. I know several comic themed magazines that have gone out of print because comic news has gone digital, but because of that relationship between brand-series-reader, the comic store thrives. That’s probably why the e-book aspect of comics has started off so small, giving limited options to go indie for new artists.”
Graphic novelists (aka comic artists) have the same publishing restrictions as prose authors; there are only a handful of comic publishers in the world in comparison to book publishers, making the competition to be picked up by a house fierce. Most artists resort to free webcomics to be discovered, or to gain a following of their own so they can sell independent print runs. Many, including Rich Burlew several years ago, have to give up the printing of their comics due to cost. It seems crowd funding is one of the best avenues of indie publishing for a graphic novelist. This is because the crowd funding model fits the mindset of comic readers so well; it is aimed at this collector mentality, aimed at the school of thought that recognises a reader just wants to be involved.
It is the reason why these two projects have made millions while writing projects have only made thousands. “People want to own what they love,” explained Burlew, “So rather than selling access to the content, sell the permanent incarnation of it.” Exploiting that advice is something these projects have done brilliantly. Burlew offered a variety of awards including: an Order of the Stick fridge magnet, digital PDF of the full story, books, prints, autographs, an original crayon drawing, and if you pledged $5,000 your original Dungeons & Dragons character would receive a walk-on cameo in the webcomic. All options were sold out. The Double Fine gang went a step further in their project and promised an exclusive experience (see video below). The backers would get to see the game development unfold in real time. The whole creative progress was to be documented and released in monthly video updates exclusively to Kickstarter backers. A private online community would be set up for the backers to discuss the project with the developers, giving their feelings about the game’s direction and even being able to vote on some decisions. All of this was provided for a base pledge of $15. Anyone who pledged at levels higher than that got access to extras such as the full documentary in HD with bonus footage, unique posters, original concept art, or even a mini portrait done by the game’s artists. In essence they tailored their project for the readers, who were interested in the workings of the game industry. This concept saw them funded 750%.
These types of projects are what the crowd funding platforms encourage, pushing the idea of creative rewards hard. It’s little wonder that indie publisher Richard Nash talks most eloquently on writers needing to expand their scope from the novel to further interactive opportunities like workshops, Q&A sessions, memorabilia, exclusive dinner parties, their own board game or selection of swim wear (ok, so those last two were my ideas, but you never know…). Authors need to embrace the realisation that the comic and gaming industry have exploited for decades, people want to own what they love, but they also want something special and something that connects them to the creator. If authors and even independent publishers wish to float cutting edge ventures and command the kind of money crowd funded by these projects, they need to shift their mindset. A story is more than just a book; it’s the chance to connect with an audience in an infinite web of possibility.
Double Fine’s Kickstarter Video. Note its professional quality.
Crowd funding is the ultimate test of audience interest and connection. A bad idea or project will not float. The power of this method is now being acknowledged by government organisations like ScreenWest, who are matching the funding of crowd funded films in Western Australia three to one. So for every dollar raised, ScreenWest gives the successful project three bucks. Applications for this initiative are open now.
It’s easy to forget with the large numbers flying around that funding a successful project is not easy; it is a professional, artistic endeavour which requires a lot of planning, marketing, audience connection, and the ability to produce what you promised. I myself used Pozible at the start of this year to crowd fund $4500 for a photography project in Cambodia which took many hours of marketing dedication. Needless to say, proposing the purchase of sixty watermelons, a trebuchet and a giant canvas for experimental artwork is probably not going to see you raise five cents let alone three million dollars. Almost 50% of projects do not get funded in the allotted time. So you need to have a good, creative plan in place, a fan base and dedication. It’s also best to accept the cold hard fact that comic artists and gamers are geniuses, whose creative brain prose writers need to clone.
Emily is an emerging author of fantasy and YA fiction. In 2011-2012 she undertook a 12 month writing mentorship with Isobelle Carmody, for her manuscript Priori-The Power Within . You can read about her mentorship experience and the lessons she learnt at http://theoriginalfantasy.blogspot.com.au or visit her blog on e-books & author marketing at http://ebookrevolution.blogspot.com. Better yet, connect with her on Facebook http://www.facebook.com/ebookrevolution.