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Greg Pak’s Kickstarter Primer

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UPDATE 4.19.16 – If you like this article, you’ll love Kickstarter Secrets, an ebook of Kickstarter advice that I’m funding (you guessed it) via Kickstarter! Check out the campaign today!

By Greg Pak

A small wave of folks have asked me for advice on running Kickstarters for comics or book projects over the last few months. It’s a huge subject and I’m still learning every day myself. But I thought I’d put together a few quick thoughts about what I’ve learned from the Kickstarter campaigns for ABC Disgusting, The Princess Who Saved Herself, and Code Monkey Save World. (Also, please do check out my current Kickstarter for ABC Disgusting, an alphabet book about disgusting things. That campaign ends on July 29 — every fun, gross kid in your life needs this book!)

1. Make sure you understand Kickstarter and are ready for everything that running a project requires.

One of the best things you can do to prepare for running a Kickstarter is to back a bunch of Kickstarters and follow them for a few months. First, that will show that you’re committed to the idea of crowdfunding and community building. Backers can be very suspicious of creators who have never backed another Kickstarter, sometimes rightly so. A creator who’s backed multiple projects before launching his or her own is more likely to understand the culture of the site and the expectations of other Kickstarter backers.

Second, you’ll learn a huge amount about the general life cycles of Kickstarter campaigns as you read the updates about the trials, travails, and triumphs of the creators whose projects you back. Running a Kickstarter is a massive job — it requires a total commitment to the creative project you want to make as well as the ability to budget, run a production, manage customer service, and handle publicity and marketing. Make sure you understand the scope of the undertaking before you plunge in.

2. Make sure your project belongs on Kickstarter.

This is a tricky one, mainly because the glory of Kickstarter is that the conventional wisdom about what there’s an audience for gets overturned every day on Kickstarter. So on the one hand, don’t let anyone tell you there’s no audience for your project — your job is to prove there is! At the same time, don’t walk into this thing blind. Study similar projects on the Kickstarter website. Think through what made them successful. Consider their quality, their ability to get press and attention, the reasonableness of their budgets. And take a look at your own project and think hard about where you fit in and what your realistic expectations might be. If your project doesn’t match up in terms of quality, think about how to improve it before launching. If your project can’t be described in a simple hook, think about how to pitch it better. If you don’t have enough material to show off for the launch, take some more time to create more and better art. If there are a hundred very similar projects on the site already, think hard about what makes your project unique.

3. Get pros to handle the legal and accounting stuff.

Hire a good lawyer and a good accountant to handle that stuff. That’s a job for the pros.

4. Budget thoroughly and add 10 percent to your major costs.

I’ve gotten cold sweats while looking over some seemingly successful Kickstarters that have raised tens of thousands of dollars — because I can see what they’ve promised to deliver and I know they’re going to end up in the red. This is what you desperately want to avoid. Budget for everything your project will require, including your postage and fulfillment costs. I highly recommend talking to actual fulfillment houses if you think you’ll need to send out more than a couple of hundred packages. Get actual quotes from your printer and every other vendor you’re planning to use. Ask lots of questions. Talk with friends who have done similar projects and find out all the hidden costs. Create sample packages and weigh them at the post office to determine how much they’ll actually cost to send across the country or overseas. Always assume the worst in your budget so that you won’t be surprised. And repeat this process every time you add a new reward or stretch goal.

5. Tell the story of your project in both the video and the text description.

People absorb information in different ways. So you can’t expect the video to do all the work of explaining your project — you need good, written text and static images, too. Also, I recommend getting a clear description of your project and what makes it awesome as early as possible in your pitch. Past credits are useful for helping folks determine if they’re going to back the project, but potential backers are only going to get to that stage if your initial story pitch has wowed them.

6. Show as much of your project as you can.

The Princess Who Saved Herself children’s book, based on the classic song by Jonathan Coulton, began life as digital stretch goal for the Code Monkey Save World graphic novel Kickstarter, also based on the songs of Jonathan Coulton. So when Jonathan and I launched the Kickstarter to make physical copies of The Princess Who Saved Herself, we had the huge advantage of being able to share completed pages. In fact, we delivered the complete digital version of the book to our Code Monkey Save World backers the day we launched the PWSH Kickstarter. The book itself was the best advertising we could have had.

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With the ABC Disgusting Kickstarter, my team had four or five great pages that we were able to show off when the Kickstarter launched. Artist Takeshi Miyazawa, colorist Jessica Kholinne, and letterer Simon Bowland have been working on the book as the campaign’s progressed and we hope to share a lettered preview of a good chunk of pages in the next week.

Of course this could be a risk — there’s a chance we might lose existing backers if they don’t love some of the new pages. But we’re running the Kickstarter because we believe our project is awesome. So we’re showing as much as we can without spoiling the experience of reading the actual finished book.

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7. Make sure your base reward actually delivers the project you’re creating and that it’s affordable.

I’d guess that the average backer of a comics or publishing Kickstarter is willing to pay somewhere between $20 and $35 for the basic finished book. If your Kickstarter doesn’t provide the thing you’re making for a price somewhere around there, you’re probably going to run into trouble (unless you’re offering a spectacularly massive reward like the great Tom Tomorrow’s current double volume set).

If you’re charging a huge premium for a smallish book, you’re looking less for readers and more for patrons — folks who are willing to give you TONS of money, overpaying for your art. That’s possible and I’ve seen a handful of projects survive that way. But not many of us have enough fabulously wealthy patrons to draw on for that strategy to work. I think it’s a much stronger move to get the actual project into the hands of a much larger number of people for a lower average price.

8. Have a reward for every level of backer.

So you’ve got that basic $20 level covered. But some backers might only have a few bucks, and others might be willing to spend much more money. With all my publishing projects, I’ve put in a $3 or $5 level for stickers, a $10 or $12 level for a digital version, and higher levels for signed copies (or copies with signed bookplates) along with a few very high levels for special things like the backer’s likeness drawn into the book. I’ve also found that rewards of multiple copies of children’s books do well — people with several small children in their lives often want to buy each of them a copy of the book.

9. Don’t overdo it with rewards that will be incredibly hard to fulfill.

With the Code Monkey Save World Kickstarter, we went a little crazy with T-shirts and mugs and posters and challenge coins. All of these items were awesome and we loved making them. But every new physical object you add to your rewards increases the amount of time you’ll be devoting to fulfilling the ancillary aspects of the Kickstarter instead of actually making the main thing the Kickstarter’s all about. I have zero regrets about all those rewards — they were a blast and totally added value to the rewards those backers chose. But we made a conscious choice to scale down a bit with The Princess Who Saved Herself, which we just needed to print and wanted to get out to backers as soon as possible. At the same time, special rewards can be absolutely critical to getting smaller Kickstarters over the line. Right now, the “Likeness” rewards in ABC Disgusting have been key to nudging us up where we need to be to hit our goal.

10. Don’t ask for too much for a first-time project. (Or a third-time project, for that matter!)

We’ve all been dazzled by Kickstarter projects that rocket into five figures on their first day. But that’s rare — and almost vanishingly rare for first-time creators. If you’re launching a Kickstarter for your very first project, it’s a great idea to aim low — pick a project you can complete for just a couple of thousand dollars or less. Then build on the experience and audience you get to go to the next level, and the next. Even for established creators, it’s smart to keep the “ask” as low as possible without shooting yourself in the foot.

That being said, I highly, highly recommend budgeting to pay your collaborators. Both because it’s the right thing to do and because projects that don’t plan to pay people often don’t get made.

11. Build your audience for months (or years) BEFORE you launch your Kickstarter.

This may be the hardest piece of advice because the whole point of crowdfunding seems to be to open the doors to folks who have great ideas but haven’t been able to get traditional support to make them come to life. But the reality is that Kickstarter backers are smart and choosy and will only support projects they fall in love with and that they think will actually get made. So successful Kickstarters tend to come from folks who have already done enough work to start honing their craft and building an audience. So if possible, it’s a fantastic idea to get some work out into the world before you launch that first Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a great place to build audience. But it works best for folks who are able to bring some audience along to prime the pump.

12. Plan your launch dates and end dates carefully.

I’ve launched each of my Kickstarters on Monday mornings and ended each on a Tuesday or Wednesday. I launch on Mondays because if I’m getting press to coincide with the launch, I want a full work week for that press to have a chance to work its magic. Launching with press on a Friday would be a terrible waste because so many people zone out from Friday afternoon until Monday morning, and then that press cycle is dead.

It’s also smart to be aware of what holidays fall during your Kickstarter dates. We launched ABC Disgusting the Monday before Fourth of July weekend, which in retrospect might not have been the best idea — people were likely to be leaving on vacations early that week and were almost certainly online less. But we weren’t ready to launch before then, and launching later would have put us in direct competition with the San Diego Comic Con, so you do the best you can.

13. Reach out to everyone who’s ever supported your work to promote your Kickstarter — but don’t spam.

If no one knows about your Kickstarter, no one will back it. But emailing or tweeting dozens of people you don’t personally know with the link to your Kickstarter isn’t likely to help. Kickstarter is based on trust, and people who don’t know you personally or by reputation aren’t likely to help you spread the word about your project because they have no idea of the project’s quality or if you’ll actually finish it.

So start with the people you know, or the people who know your work. If you have pre-existing work, contact the folks who have interviewed you or reviewed your work in the past to see if they’d be willing to write about your new project. Post about your project — frequently — on your social media sites, particularly if you’ve been using social media for your professional work. Change all your bios to include the link to your Kickstarter. Change your email signatures to include the link to your Kickstarter. Don’t be shy about reminding people about the project from time to time, but strive to find new things to reveal or talk about each time you do it.

In general, I’m also a big advocate of casting my bread upon the water when it comes to crowdfunding and creative projects in general. Back other people’s projects. Spread the word about other people’s great projects to your own networks. Do it not because you expect an immediate tit-for-tat, but because you love that work and want to support it. That’s the culture you’re buying into when you launch a Kickstarter. Embrace it.

14. Figure out your niche and reach out to it.

Many of the most successful projects on Kickstarter are projects that big companies might pass on because the target audience seems too niche. But the internet thrives on niches. There’s a community for just about every interest. So if your project relates directly to a certain niche, figure out how to reach it. Ideally, before you launch your Kickstarter you’ll have spent months or years building relationships and joining communities that let you reach your niche. Code Monkey Save World is a pretty extreme example of that — its niche audience was Jonathan Coulton fans, and Jonathan clearly had the best ability of anyone on the planet to reach them directly, so we definitely had that going for us.

15. There’s a reason anthologies have great success rates.

Just food for thought… comics anthologies are incredibly hard to sell in the traditional marketplace. But they’re consistently successful on Kickstarter. It makes perfect sense when you think about the number of people involved in creating an anthology. Sometimes fifty different creators can contribute. That means fifty different people will be sending updates about the Kickstarter out to their personal networks.

Sometimes you may have a project that involves tons of people. Sometimes it’ll just be you and a few others. Each project needs to be what it needs to be for its own creative mandate. But if you’re thinking about crowdfunding, be aware of the power of collaborators — both creatively and in terms of getting the word out.

16. Don’t use Facebook ads.

I keep getting tempted by those dumb things, but I don’t see any new backers when I use ‘em. If anyone has ever seen actual Kickstarter numbers increase as a direct result of using a Facebook ad, I’d love to hear. But it hasn’t done anything measurable for me.

17. Try to do actual events in physical spaces.

During the Code Monkey Save World campaign, Jonathan and I did a number of events in New York City that absolutely helped goose interest, get press, and bring out more backers. Of course, we had a huge advantage in that Jonathan’s an internet superstar musician who actually performed at those events. So this doesn’t necessarily apply to every project. But if you have the chance to do signings or panels or events during your campaign, I highly recommend doing them and plugging your project. Reaching more people is always going to be a better plan than not.

18. Think about how to get attention at different stages in your campaign by providing new art or announcements at key moments.

Most Kickstarter campaigns start off with a nice spike, then dip down, come close to flatlining a few times in the middle of the campaign, and then end the last few days with another nice spike. So a big challenge is figuring out how to maintain and grow interest in the middle weeks of the campaign.

Sometimes you’ll have some nice built-in announcements — if you hit your goal before the end of the campaign, you can announce stretch goals. And if you have great stretch goals, you might be able to get more excitement and even some press for them. During the Code Monkey Save World campaign, we came up with a stretch goal of making a digital children’s book based on Jonathan’s classic song “The Princess Who Saved Herself.” That garnered a huge amount of attention — we had a number of backers say they were more excited about that bonus book than about the main book!

But not every campaign hits its stretch goals so quickly. Right now ABC Disgusting is halfway through its campaign and 82 percent funded. So now we’re working towards releasing a gorgeous, lettered preview of the book, complete with never-before-seen colored art. That’ll hopefully help us get new eyes on the project to help goose things in this middle stage. And if we’re lucky, we’ll hit our goal and be able to announce some stretch goals and get another bit of attention before the final stretch.

(And here’s a little secret — I’m hoping this very article brings a few more eyes to ABC Disgusting during this quiet middle period! Shameless, right? But go ahead, check it out!)

19. Answer questions from backers and potential backers quickly and be upfront about any problems, miscommunications, or schedule changes.

We live in an age in which people are used to getting fast answers via the internet from the companies they buy from. When potential backers message you via Kickstarter with questions about the campaign, it’s a great idea to answer them as quickly and courteously as possible. Same goes for answering backer comments. You can also learn a lot from those messages and comments — there was a point during the PWSH campaign when I realized a LOT of people wanted multiple copies of the book. Listening to those requests and adding rewards with multiple copies helped us move a lot more books.

For funded projects, creators have the additional responsibility to communicate about any problems or delays to the schedule and to stay on top of any problems backers might have during the fulfillment and shipping stage. If you’re managing a Kickstarter, you’re signing up for customer service. Embrace that job and do it right.

20. Always say please and thank you.

Crowdfunding isn’t just another way to sell your product. For backers, the campaign itself is an experience and a community, a chance to be part of something exciting at the ground level. As a creator, your dreams are coming true because of the excitement and generosity of your backers. Thank them sincerely and frequently, because they’re making it all happen, and if you do it right, maybe they’ll be back for the next crazy project you throw out into the world.

21. Don’t be afraid of failure.

Your Kickstarter might fail. That sounds terrible. But I’ve heard Kickstarter’s Craig Engler say multiple times that success rates for people’s SECOND Kickstarter projects tend to be very high. Creators often take all the lessons they’ve learned from their first, failed Kickstarter to rework their budgets and scope. And many of their original backers come back on board to support their second try.

22. Adjust on the fly and never give up.

If you have a 30 day Kickstarter campaign, you’ve got a lot of chances to figure out what’s working and what isn’t and adjust accordingly. Study your project’s stats on Kicktraq.com. Pay attention to the referral data on your Kickstarter page to figure out what kind of outreach is working best. And if things aren’t working, you can add better art. Replace your Kickstarter video. Come up with more attractive rewards. Rework your project description.

I was recently a contributor to the Broken Frontier comics anthology Kickstarter. Given how that campaign was going, it seemed pretty destined to failure. But it had the most mind-blowing finish I’ve ever seen for a Kickstarter. Just check out this daily chart from Kicktraq.com:

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That late surge is almost unheard of. But it happened because the dozens of people involved in the project rallied and spread the word and put it over the top.

So that’s my basic Kickstarter advice in a nutshell! Hope it helps and best of luck!

(Also please go back ABC Disgusting. 😉 )

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