In late 2012 I took a gamble on crowdfunding my first book project. After three weeks of planning and preparation, I clicked the ‘launch’ button early one morning from the comfort of my bed, and nodded off for a little doze.
What happened next was this:
- £300 in pledges had come in before I got out of bed.
- I’d raised a grand before lunchtime.
- By the end of the day the total had climbed to £2,422 — 40% of my target.
- By the end of the first week the £6,000 goal had not just been met but exceeded.
- The campaign ended after 21 days with a pledged total of nearly £10,000 — more than 150% of the £6,000 I’d asked for.
I was stunned by this dice-roll on an untested concept. I’d launched the campaign during Kickstarter’s own opening day in the UK!
But I’m aware that it wasn’t just luck: there were identifiable factors that made it a success. In this article I want to share them.
I’ll be going into detail (with figures) about the financial side of the project, and I’ll also point out the unforeseen hurdles I encountered. My hope is that it will benefit you if you’re considering crowdfunding your own projects in the future.
Should I crowdfund my project?
Crowdfunding is a way of raising cash and support to do something that you’d be unable to do without it — an appeal to invest, rather than to buy or donate. The best crowdfunding projects are passion projects; things that you, the creator, care deeply about pulling off, and for which the return on investment is often an emotional one.
To get a flavour of the backers’ experience, I funded a number of eccentric ideas — kitting out a vintage van to bring ‘good and proper tea‘ back to the streets of London, shooting a documentary about the Cairngorms in winter, producing an iPad magazine on the topic of Couchsurfing — simply because it was obvious that the creators were in love with their projects.
Emilie is now parked up outside Kings’ Cross serving tea & toasted muffins to frozen Londoners. Chris & Terry’s film is scheduled for screening at Keswick Mountain Festival in May. SOFAzine unfortunately did not make their ambitious target in time, but the first issue is still being produced regardless.
Chipping in with a tenner is therefore an act of anarchy: it’s enabling someone to do what they love without ending up in debt, selling out to venture capitalists, or acting as a corporate shill, which is how too many people have been forced to raise funds — until now.
Be aware that backers can be just as invested in your success as in your product or service. Belief in your project shows through when you’re open about it; the stakes are set high as a result; backers empathise with this and want to help.
This is particularly important for the personal video appeal that should be the centrepiece of your campaign, no matter how uncomfortable you are on camera.
It’s easy to get the message wrong. I recently considered backing an ambitious design project and signed up for email updates, but received a flurry of emails along the lines of “buy our product now via Kickstarter before it’s too late!!!”.
Instead of remaining enthusiastic about the designers’ concept, I felt irritated by the hard sell and the false sense of urgency, and so I didn’t back the project.
While it’s still up to you to deliver on your promise, you’ll have an ongoing relationship with a small army of people who have entrusted you with their cash and want you to succeed.
And, as the creator, delivering your promise will be all the more fulfilling. I took great pleasure and satisfaction in sending out project updates every week, and in writing messages and signing finished books for the 339 people who funded it.
What does a successful crowdfunding campaign look like?
Campaigns seem to fall into a couple of categories. The first is similar to a sales pitch:
“Here’s why my thing is the best thing since sliced bread, and here’s why you can’t live without it.”
It’s a common formula, and it results in investors backing the product, rather than the creator.
The second is different:
“Here’s why it’s so important that I do this thing, and why I’m going to do it to the best of my ability, even though it’s not necessarily going to change the world”.
It’s an appeal to invest in the creator’s mission as much as or more than the end result, even if a physical product is indeed part of the backers’ reward.
While both are entirely valid approaches, my campaign fell into the second category — mainly because attempting to pitch my little tale as the best thing since sliced bread would be untrue. It isn’t. It’s just a story. There was no more reason for me to bring the book into existence than there was for any other creative whim that was ever entertained.
(Which didn’t mean I wasn’t going to tell the best god-damned story I was capable of telling — I did!)
Successful campaigns are convincing ones. You can convince people of a deceit, a delusion or a wild exaggeration. Or you can convince people of something real and honest. In our free-market economy there are plenty of both.
Which you choose is a question of personal morals and ethics. I recently had an interesting Skype chat with an Outside magazine journalist on this topic, and she’s since published this pithy article.
Why a successful-looking campaign doesn’t automagically equal success
If I had penned the best copy ever committed to paper, recorded the most persuasive video in the world, clicked the ‘launch’ button, and then spent 21 days sitting on my backside waiting for the money to roll in, I would not have brought in £9,399 in pledges. This I can say with absolute certainty.
‘Cos I got statistics:
What this figure means is that if I’d relied on people stumbling across my campaign on Kickstarter’s website, I would have received only £1,433 in pledges. In other words, I’d have got nowhere near my target, and the campaign would have failed.
It also means that £7,966 in pledged funds originated from somewhere other than Kickstarter’s campaign listings. I got statistics for that, too:
In case you’re wondering what ‘direct traffic’ (the single biggest source of funds) consisted of, I can tell you: it was clickthroughs from my email newsletter.
When you think about it, this makes a lot of sense. I’ve been blogging for 6 years now, and I’ve always made it easy to subscribe to email updates.
Admittedly, my original mailing list was composed entirely of friends and family, and my early writing was utter codswallop.
But as a result of working on my craft, telling compelling stories and dishing out whatever lessons I gleaned, I’ve now got a list of about 2,000 subscribers who have actively requested that I contact them directly about what I’m doing.
And so it should not have been a surprise that when I announced to these people — many of whom had followed the story from its very beginning — that I was looking for help publishing the book, they were actively waiting to do so.
If you’re creating something and you’re putting it out in the public domain, you should also be inviting people who are interested in your work to give you a direct line to their inboxes.
Not only does this allow you to be more generous with your work, reaching people directly with your creations, but you’ll have a community of trusting people waiting to hear about your next project.
Last October, my next project happened to be a crowdfunding campaign.
More broadly, as the Kickstarter School constantly reiterates, it’s your existing contacts who will be on the front line in helping your project become a success.
I wrote individually to each of my closest friends and family members asking them to help spread the word, and many of them not only obliged but also backed the project themselves.
As you can see from the stats, the resulting social media buzz was the next biggest source of funds after my mailing list.
Keeping Momentum Going
Most crowdfunding platforms allow you to specify how long your campaign will run for. And it’s easy to assume that longer equals better — after all, it’ll give people more time to pledge, right?
Wrong. It’ll give people more time to procrastinate, make excuses and forget.
It’ll also mean that you have to sustain interest in your campaign for longer. There’s only so much trumpet-blowing you can do before you start to get irritating (to others and also to yourself!).
I was excited to see the pledges coming in, and I tried to keep the noise I made about it interesting and entertaining, for example by pledging to leap naked into a freezing cold lake (and film it) if I made a particular target by the end of the day.
(The water was bloody freezing.)
But what became clear was that it was the launch and the conclusion of the campaign that mattered most, as the following graph will demonstrate:
Of course it’s possible to use the use the middle period of a campaign to spread the word beyond your existing networks and into communities to whom you’re not already connected.
But there’s going to be less support from people who don’t already know you, and thus there’s a sweet spot for duration. That’s why the majority of successful Kickstarter campaign are under 30 days long.
Shorter also means you’ll be less likely to lose enthusiasm for your own project. And it’s easier to reignite interest in the end days of a campaign if you haven’t already spent weeks boring the crap out of the same group of people with your updates!
Getting your budget right
It goes without saying that it’s important to ask for the right amount. Projects of all kinds go over budget all the time. Mine did, too, and I’ll explain why shortly, but importantly it didn’t affect the finished result.
Most of the crowdfunded projects you hear negative noise about are ones which ran out of funding and thus could not deliver on their promises at all.
Fees, taxes and failed pledges
The first thing to remember when putting a budget together is that a £10 pledge does not equal £10 in the bank. Of the £9,399 pledged to Janapar, I was left with £8,346.61 to play with, meaning 9% of the total went elsewhere before it reached me.
Here’s how that breaks down:
- £79 in pledges was lost to failed card transactions,
- £466 went towards Kickstarter’s fee (only fair; they gotta eat),
- £345.15 was taken in payment processing fees (because bankers gotta eat too, right?),
- £162.23 was taken out to pay the VAT on the fees above.
So don’t forget to add 10% on top of your budget to account for these subtractions.
That’s after adding a slush fund to pay for the project costs you weren’t expecting, such as…
Completely ridiculous postage costs
Be really, really careful if you offer to post things to people as rewards, particularly if it involves overseas postage. I was burned badly on this, because I hadn’t allowed for the finished book being quite a bit chunkier and heavier (though better-looking and nicer to read) than my original estimate.
The basic reward I offered was a simple £10 paperback. Where I went wrong was — at the last minute and in a needless attempt to make the reward more attractive — adding that I would post it anywhere in the world for free as part of the £10 pledge.
The finished 400-page paperback, packed in a cardboard bookwrap with a set of postcards and a thank-you note, weighed 520g, which was considerably more than the hypothetical 300-page paperback I’d originally budgeted for. Posting this by standard airmail to Australia (for example) ended up costing £9.54 a copy.
Factoring in the cost of printing and packaging, I was actually spending £1-£1.50 a pop on a decent chunk of my overseas backers, with nothing of their £10 pledges left for the project itself!
I know at least one self-publishing author who deliberately writes books to fit Royal Mail’s criteria for a Large Letter (as opposed to a Small Packet), precisely in order to avoid exorbitant postage costs.
The hidden costs of ‘admin’
Thankfully, the number of UK-based backers, and the popularity of the £25 book-and-DVD reward, meant that I did still have some cash left after the post office run to pay for the things I actually needed the funds for, such as editing, design and printing.
Despite this, there were still lots of little things that added up to a substantial chunk of the book’s budget.
Here’s a rough breakdown of where the money went:
You’ll notice that there’s no writer’s fee in my budget. Some people are happy to pay themselves a salary out of raised funds; personally I wouldn’t feel at all comfortable with this — I believe that contributing your own time and energy for free is a fundamental principle of a passion project, and an important demonstration to potential backers of your commitment and priorities as a project creator.
You’ll also notice that there’s no budget for publicity. A commercial publisher will spend a considerable amount on making a book visible to the public via traditional advertising and publicity.
On the other hand I’ve relied entirely on social media, word-of-mouth and real-life events to get the book to the people I wrote it for.
(That’s also one of the reasons why, having successfully self-published the first edition, I’ll be looking for a publishing partner for future editions and for distributing the book more widely. Ultimately I’m more interested in writing books and articles than in running my own publishing company!)
Completing the project and delivering the rewards cost me just over £1,000 more than I received from the Kickstarter campaign, despite raising over 50% more than the original target.
I’d already planned to make up the deficit through pre-sales of the book, but at times it was touch-and-go whether or not I would be able to do this without propping things up from my own personal funds.
This was a palpable reminder of several things: of the importance of conservative budgeting; that things always take longer and cost more than you think; and that ‘proper’ book publishing is indeed a quite expensive business (and therefore worth the effort for motivated individuals to crowdfund it!).
One of the screening questions asked by Kickstarter to filter out non-committal creators has to do with what might go wrong and what risks are involved. This is more than just box-ticking — it’s important to have a Plan B, else you’ll risk having a lot of disgruntled backers at your door.
Would you crowdfund another project?
Yes, I would — for the right project.
Having run one campaign, I feel much better placed to understand what kind of project suits the crowdfunding approach. They’re creative, niche projects for which it’s more important to simply get it made than to profit from doing so, and for which there’s already an established audience.
I think it’s possible to use crowdfunding to launch a commercial venture, too, but there’s one important caveat: your most avid followers will already have ‘bought’ whatever it is you’re making by the time you start selling it.
Taking things beyond the initial creation and reward fulfilment will therefore involve finding new audiences and customers. This can easily turn into a full-time job — fine if that’s what you’re aiming to do, but potentially quite frustrating if you never really wanted to become responsible for running a small business.
But the campaign achieved its goal: to professionally produce and publish a debut book and put it in the hands of the people who were waiting to read it.
And I’m not sure how I’d have done that without this wonderful marriage of trust, technology and community known as crowdfunding.
Janapar: Love on a Bike, my crowdfunded debut book, is now on general release, available from Amazon.co.uk in the UK, Amazon.com in the US, and by request from all good UK booksellers. There’s also a UK Kindle edition (US version here). It has lots of lovely write-ups from readers, too, which has made this journey all the more worthwhile.