Let’s open this up with a touching personal story: A couple of months ago, I needed $10,000 to self-publish a big omnibus collection of my webcomic Narbonic. By way of explanation, I am not one of your big-name webcartoonists. At this point people are vaguely familiar with my work, but I’m not one of those folks with half a million page views and people queuing up to buy t-shirts with my characters’ hip and witty comments printed on them. I have a moderate but very devoted (and very entertaining) audience, and I am in no danger whatsoever of making a living from my comics.
To raise the funds for the Narbonic books, I set up a page on Kickstarter.com. Within forty-eight hours, I’d met my goal. In the end, I raised $27,226. Now my only problem is sending out books to all those backers.
Since its launch in 2009, Kickstarter, a “crowdfunding” site that allows artists to attract funding for creative projects, has become enormously popular with webcartoonists as a low-risk way to fund print collections of their work. Todd Allen of Publishers Weekly estimates that Kickstarter is now the third-largest indie publisher of graphic novels in the U.S., after Dark Horse and IDW. In a much-publicized recent drive, Renae De Liz used Kickstarter to fund Womanthology, an anthology of comics by female creators. De Liz asked for $25,000; she got $109,301. Over two thousand people backed Womanthology.
Kickstarter has attracted its share of criticism. PvP creator Scott Kurtz called it “begging” in a series of Twitter posts, while cartoonist MK Reed published a thoughtful two-part analysis of the flaws of Kickstarter on The Beat. Perhaps the most trenchant criticism of Kickstarter is that it processes payments only through Amazon, forcing creators to use a site that, for many indie cartoonists, represents corporate steamrolling of brick-and-mortar bookstores and comic-book shops. Reed also gently suggested that De Liz find wise uses for her Womanthology windfall, like maybe paying the artists, who had all agreed to work for free before the drive.
But say you don’t care about all that. You just want money to print your webcomic. And maybe you’re aware that, for all the hubbub, less than half of Kickstarter projects get funded. How do you join the blessed 44% of successful kick-starts?
From my own experiences, and from talking to creators with successful Kickstarter projects under their belts, here are some guidelines. Also check out webcartoonist Spike Trotman’s no-nonsense list of Kickstarter tips, from which I shamelessly stole ideas when I was running my own Kickstarter drive. Spike used Kickstarter to fund her book Poorcraft: A Comic Book Guide to Frugal Urban and Suburban Living, and raised over twice her goal. She knows what she's doing.
Have the right project. Kickstarter is for funding creative projects. Not business startups, not charity fundraisers, not personal expenses. Your project should be a specific, one-time creative work that needs money to happen.
Do your research. Go to the comics section of Kickstarter and look at the current drives. Notice which projects get you excited and which ones look unappealing or unprofessional. See for yourself what works.
Be professional. Have a clear business plan. Know how long your project will take, how much it will cost, and where the money will go. If you have previously published work or other relevant experience, mention that. Convince people that you know what you’re doing and you won’t flake out. (You won’t, right?)
Explain your project clearly. Some potential backers will never have seen your work before. Some potential backers will never have seen Kickstarter. Be able to explain exactly what you’re doing and why people should pledge.
Don’t get greedy. Figure out exactly how much money you need, including Kickstarter’s 5% cut and Amazon’s processing fees, and ask for that amount and no more. Remember, if you can’t get your full amount funded, you’ll get jack.
Plan your tiers. Have a wide range of backer tiers, from small pledges of five to ten dollars to large pledges of hundreds of dollars. Offer small but appealing incentives for small pledges, and juicy, tempting incentives at the higher levels. Make it fun and rewarding to pledge.
Plan your rewards. Offer rewards that people will want. In addition to standard offerings like copies of your book and original artwork, think of creative rewards that will catch backers’ eyes and make your drive stand out.
Keep the pledge period brief. Kickstarter recommends a pledge period of about a month. If your project can’t get funded in that time, it probably can’t get funded.
Go multimedia. Make a video, upload artwork, and provide a detailed write-up of your project. Kickstarter offers multiple ways to promote your project, so use them all. Spike notes, “Joe Murray (creator of Rocko's Modern Life) just pointed a webcam at himself. So can you.”
Have a personal touch. Being professional doesn’t mean being corporate and distant. A simple but heartfelt video can attract more backers than a slickly produced one. The most appealing rewards are things you make yourself to show off your artistic skills.
Have fans online. Kickstarter works best for creators who have a sizable online fanbase that’s willing to a) pledge and b) spread the word. If you don’t have a fanbase like that, you’ll have to work twice as hard to get funded. Start beefing up your online presence now.
Use social media. This should be a no-brainer, but keep Facebook and Twitter updated on every development.
Advertise in meatspace. Online advertising and word-of-mouth attract the most backers, but don’t overlook the possibilities of advertising cheaply offline with fliers and postcards.
Keep people talking. Spread the word once or twice a week. Add additional incentives midway through the drive to spark interest. Above all, when the project is nearing completion, let people know they have a limited time left to pledge.
Keep your backers updated. Throughout the drive, stay in communication with your backers through Kickstarter’s messaging system. No one likes to be left in the dark about a project they’ve put money into.
It’s not just about the money. Running a drive on Kickstarter will expose your work to a new audience. Be aware of the opportunities to get your name out and get people interested in your work even if they don’t pledge.
So … given all that, why was the Womanthology drive so wildly successful? First, there’s one big thing it did wrong: by proposing to give the money to charity rather than using it to fund the publication of the book directly, De Liz technically violated Kickstarter guidelines. Kickstarter let this one slide, but don’t do the same. Use the money for the project.
Now, what Womanthology did right:
An awesome video. Although the Womanthology video was created with simple video production software (probably iMovie, which comes with all Macintosh computers), it was professional and eye-catching, with a haunting soundtrack, arresting artwork from the book, and even animation. It explained the project in detail, letting backers know exactly how the money would be used, why De Liz chose Kickstarter, and future projects the group would pursue if the book was funded. Anyone who watched the video would get excited about the project.
Professionalism. The video and the information on the Kickstarter page gave the impression that De Liz had a clear plan for Womanthology and knew how to make it happen. The roster of artists was extensive and included some impressive names. This was clearly not a group that was going to flake out on backers.
Spreading the word. Here’s where the huge roster of artists really helped Womanthology: there were plenty of creators to help spread the word both online and off. As the project heated up, De Liz kept people talking by advertising Womanthology’s big numbers and offering much-publicized extra rewards (see below).
A modest minimum goal. Although Womanthology ended up raising over $100,000, it initially asked for only $25,000—quite a wad of cash, but not an unreasonable estimate for a large, full-color book. Whether or not De Liz guessed she could raise far more than her minimum, she didn’t get greedy.
A wide range of pledge tiers. The tiers for Womanthology went from $1 (which got your name on the thank-you page of the Womanthology website) all the way up to $1,500 (which got you a chance to have Marvel artist Brian Denham draw a complete 22-page comic, plus cover, from your script). Yes, that one $1,500 pledge was a big boost to Womanthology, but the 23 $1 pledges and 109 $5 pledges didn’t hurt either. And the lower tiers made the big rewards at the higher tiers look even more appealing.
Awesome rewards. The initial list of rewards included typical Kickstarter goodies—copies of the book, original art, a mini sketchbook—but also creative rewards like a cameo in a Womanthology comic and a chance to get a script critique from a professional writer. As Womanthology attracted more attention, De Liz was able to add even more impressive “Special Unlocked Rewards,” including merchandise donated by various companies, the chance to have your child’s artwork inked by a professional inker, and an original sketch by Neil Gaiman. The rewards were extremely tempting and De Liz clearly put a lot of thought and effort into assembling them.
So there you have it: get Neil Gaiman to agree to do sketches for you, and you too can raise money on Kickstarter. Or you could be like me and just make a bunch of prints.