Kickstarting the Future

Gabriella in the snowNo, not a Horseblog. That’s next week. I’m up to something else, and I’ll be blogging that every now and then over the next six weeks or so, in addition to the Horseblog.

One thing Book View Cafe is about (besides a cooperative of excellent authors working to get their backlists and, more and more, their new work out there in this brave new publishing world) is experimentation. We try different things in different ways, to see what works.

We’re not alone in that, at all. It’s a wonderful time to be in the arts–but also a terrifying one, because so many of the old ways of doing things have changed or eroded or outright up and died. For writers there are more opportunities to both succeed and fail than there have been in decades, but most of those opportunities either don’t pay, or don’t pay up front. And writers, like everyone else, have to eat and pay rent.

Enter a concept unique to our era: crowdfunding on the internet. Putting art out on the Web and inviting people to toss a few pennies in the hat if they like it or want to see more. It’s the virtual version of busking in the subway, and many singers and entertainers do it, too–but the internet lets writers join the show.

The basic model is pretty simple. Put up a blog or a web page and install a Donate button. BVC has this setup, though most of its income comes from sales of ebooks in the bookstore and off site from such venues as Smashwords and Amazon. Individual crowdfunding often takes the form of a serial posted either regularly or whenever the tip jar hits a certain level.

Last year or thereabouts, a new concept started to rumble through the interwebs. It was this thing called Kickstarter. People talked about how you could set up this project in the arts (music, film, publishing, tech) and this site would let you set a goal and a time frame and you could invite people to back your project. And the cool part was, if you made your funding goal within the time you set, you got the money. But if you didn’t make the goal, you got nothing and your backers didn’t have to pay anything. You weren’t limited to the goal amount, either. If the funding went over, even ‘waaaayyyyy over, you still got it (less site and payment fees).

Interesting idea for microfunding things like short films to enter at Sundance, or music videos, or, yes, works of fiction, novellas and such. But I was leery. I usually am about new things–I’m like my horses that way. I wondered if it was exploiting backers who couldn’t really afford to do such a thing. Wasn’t it a bit too too PR-y? Even if it was a great idea and all on the level and completely fair to the backers, wouldn’t everybody leap on the bandwagon and overload the poor backer base and make the whole thing go bust?

So I watched some of my friends and colleagues give it a try. Fellow BVC member Laura Anne Gilman funded a novella (which will be published by BVC in the near future). Urban-fantasy author C.E. Murphy had a wildly successful run with a novella featuring a favorite character from one of her series. And by wild I mean wild–it was like a season of The Amazing Race, watching the pot get bigger and bigger and bigger as the clock ticked down. And then there was the project set up by a certain huge fan favorite that attracted negative commentary along the lines of, “Why is this person taking money away from lesser-known people who, you know, really need the funding?” So I had that to balance the positives I was seeing and hearing.

Then I posted on livejournal as I do, about life and horses and oh god have mercy the price of hay, and mentioned that I was eyeing the revision letter for an original novel that I planned to publish with BVC (letter by the wonderful Sherwood Smith, who has promised good and solid ass-kickage in the interest of creating a truly kickass book), and a couple of commenters including Catie piped up and said, “Hey! That sounds as if it would be perfect for a Kickstarter!”

I wibbled. I wobbled. I woobled. I did some research. I asked lots and lots and lots of questions, which Catie answered in a series of blog posts here and here and here, and also here. (Do take the time to read them; they’re thorough and honest and, just incidentally, entertaining.)

Meanwhile I checked out the system, saw what was required. Read the FAQs. Looked at what was up for funding. Realized I could do it, even the video part, which isn’t required but is highly recommended.

And decided to take the leap. Ponies have to eat, after all. And if the thing funds, I’ve bought myself time to work on the project without also having to do sixteen different things that aren’t writing in order to pay the bills. Same sort of thing publishers’ advances do, but under my control, and going direct to the readers.

If it funds.

That’s the scary part. What if I give a party and nobody comes? 54% of projects don’t make their funding goal. There’s a lot of work and energy involved, and a lot of hope, too–but as with sending out mss. to publishers, there’s no guarantee. At the same time, you can’t win if you don’t play. Right?

So I did the video. Several takes. In the last one, the horse stole the show. Naturally that was the one that had to go up. I followed advice there: Keep it short (it’s 1 minute long). Stay on point. Speak clearly. Don’t ramble. And make it interesting.

Same goes for the project itself. Short. Clear. To the point. Rewards are a must–financial incentives and partnerships are banned; copies of the book or the music CD, new stories, even recipes and cookies, are encouraged. Involve the backers. Share your process and your project. Give them things they’re likely to want. And be prepared if the project goes over goal to offer bonuses and incentives to get it even higher.

Lots of work, planning, consulting. Somewhere in the middle I was approached by an artist, and we’re working on cover and interior art, some of which will be rewards for backers. That’s when it really came alive–when the collaboration started to happen.

On Friday evening, after much twitching and additional wibbling, I flipped the switch. It was alive. Right here. I tweeted and facebooked the fact.

And the crowd went wild. As I write this, it’s two-thirds funded, with six weeks to go. Naturally, being a writer and all, I have this vision of it stopping right here and not budging and being a bust and and and. But that’s a writer for you.

Things I did not expect when I flipped the switch:

The sheer crazy adrenaline rush of seeing it go live and then getting this deluge of email with the header, “New Backer Alert!” And watching the total go up, up, up.

The mild terror of realizing that this had 45 days to go. And I would have to keep from flipping completely out. And also, you know, keep talking about it. And not let it dribble off. But not give everyone promo fatigue.

Also, thinking that maybe I should start thinking about bonuses if it goes over. Cool things people would want, like extra stories. Art. Cookies? A pony?

The joy and the humblement (hush, it’s a word if I say it’s a word) of realizing how many people had come to support the project–not just with pledges but with boosting of the signal. Fans, readers, colleagues–it’s a true group effort. They want to be a part of it, and they want to share.

One friend made me laugh. He observed, “You realize you have an unfair advantage. You have Lipizzan mares to kick it into motion.”

Hey. Whatever works.

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Kickstarting the Future — 8 Comments

  1. Thanks, Judith.

    My friend Scott turned me onto your work years ago, and you deserve audience and success. So yes, not long after my twitter comment about Horse Archers, I signed up on the Kickstarter…

  2. Thank you so much! Part of the fun is seeing who’s backing it, and looking forward to sharing the process with them. It’s true performance art, rather than the old cliche of laboring alone in a garret and flinging the results out into the cold and uncaring world. (What are we about if not drama? After all.)

  3. Aside from my total belief in this book, I have watched a bunch of these projects be floated. Some take off . . . and some lead balloon. And not always can one predict which will do what.

    Too many of the book projects I’ve seen flop began with variations on the pompous yet whiny “Those troglodytes in New York don’t know genius when they see it . . .”, or come from people who–as you say–are perceived to already have more than their share of the pie. Even if that might not be actually true.

    Or they don’t have gorgeous white horses to beckon customers up to the video! That reminds me, for one of your updates, you really, really should show one of those pix of the horsies flapping their tongues back and forth. Talk about a crackup!

  4. Oooo yeah, Sherwood. And for a bonus–video! Maybe not flapping tongues, but something else exciting.

    Also I will -have- to write a Space Ponies story.

  5. This is so incredibly exciting. I’ve helped crowd-source a couple of things that made it and a couple that did not. It’s a terrifying notion to try it myself, mainly because I really don’t have a base to draw from. My publication history was way too long ago, and besides, my new work is fantasy and my history is romance.

    But you are rockin’ the casbah! Look at those horses go!

    Woot!

  6. Some contingency planning is needed if this project not only launches, but has a nice supply of financial propellant left. I know a number of people would like tiny walk-on parts (not important enough for a “cameo”) as something other than a generic redshirt who does not survive to the end of the paragraph. An expandable universe would be helpful, too.

    Since you have a whole herd of FWP egos to deal with, how about a portrait gallery for them? One from their official portraits from the great hall of the manor horse, and one of each with their manes let down, after the paparazzi have been escorted from the premises, and they can blow off steam after pretending to be equine role models all day long. 🙂

  7. Expandable universe? Baby, you ain’t seen NOTHIN’ yet. Mwahaha!

    Love the portrait-gallery idea.

    Pooks, thank you! It’s nearly at 75%. There is much EEEEEE! and SQUEEEEE! this morning.