How to Harness the Power of the Crowd: 5 Must-Read Tips for Writers Considering Crowdfunding
Deciding to publish your own work is big step, but the cost of putting out a book by oneself can be enough to derail even the most stalwart of self-pub dreamers. Thankfully, somewhere between paying it all out of pocket and finding one of the Big 5 to foot the bill, there are some options for raising funds for indie writers.
The concept of crowdfunding is simple: Get a bunch of people together to give a little (or hopefully a lot!) to help you see your project through. Unfortunately, the reality can become much more complicated. But never fear! I’ve been there, done that a few times already, and I’ve learned a lot along the way.
I’ll be sharing info about:
- Picking the right crowdfunding platform for to fit your schedule and funding needs
- The types of rewards that work and don’t work
- Tips for creating a reasonable budget to help you be a getter goal-setter
- Who is really going to contribute to your campaign and why
- How to ensure the time is right for launching your campaign
Choose the Right Platform for Your Schedule and Needs
When crowdfunding first emerged, Kickstarter was the only option I knew of. Others have arisen in the meantime, and each one does things a little differently. It is important to look at your options and consider what type of campaign would fit your life.
For instance, platforms like Kickstarter and Indiegogo are going to be a good option for someone who wants to run just one campaign for a short time in order to accomplish a specific goal. Getting the first 500 copies of your book printed, for instance, could be a one-shot campaign. You could also ask for funding to attend a writing seminar or agent event in order to boost your career. After the campaign is over, you must fulfill the rewards you promise, but after that you are off the hook to add any more updates to your backers unless you want to.
The Long Haul
Patreon, on the other hand, has a very different model. The idea behind this platform is for your fans to give small amounts on an on-going basis in exchange for a stream of extra content and looks “behind the scenes.” This requires a much larger commitment from you over a longer period of time. The other option on that platform is to be paid every time you produce a thing. This is great for musicians, and could potentially work on a per-chapter basis. This still means you would need to be producing (plus editing) a regular stream of content in order to get paid.
If you are a writer who does not yet have a blog, this could actually be a great chance for you start using Patreon to practice. Posts can be made to the public or just your backers, and it could help get you in the habit of posting material regularly. For writers who already blog regularly, adding the burden of generating even MORE content could prove to be too much for the time you have available. On the other hand, it can also be a great way to test out new material on a smaller number of people before you release it out into the world.
I’ve only named three platforms so far, and there are many more. Kickstarter boasts 13.5 million contributions to campaigns, but its popularity also makes it hard to be heard over the rabble. Smaller platforms will have less competition, but also fewer potential backers. Only you know how much time and energy you have to commit to crowdfunding and finding support, so choose the option that fits with your personal goals and availability.
A bumper sticker I designed for my first Kickstarter campaign. I had hundreds of extras printed to give out at the conventions I visited.
(Source: Phoebe Darqueling)
Offer a Variety of Rewards
If you take away only one tidbit from this article, let it be this: Don’t offer the thing you are creating as the only reward. (And no, digital vs. print release of your book don’t count as different rewards in this case.)
Over and over again, I see campaigns flounder and fail because the only thing the writer offers is the finished product, and often for the same price they would sell it for after it is published. Though I completely see the logic here of using the platform like a pre-order system, it simply does not work unless you already have a very large following, or are aiming for a very small goal such as just the cover art. Plus, if you “sell” your book at the same price as it will appear on Amazon, keep in mind you will still need to pay fees to the platform, so you don’t come out any better. Plus, you’ll have to take care of all the packaging and shipping out yourself.
Instead, try to come up with special rewards that only YOU could personally offer, and at several different price points. Though it may seem counterintuitive for a writer seeking funding, you will get more backers if you don’t only offer written rewards. An additional short story set in your world is great, but it won’t help you get the attention of people who are on the fence about your book to begin with. For instance, my mother isn’t a fan of fantasy, but she does like the color blue. If you offer something pretty and blue, she might back your campaign whether or not she ever reads a word you write.
The Rules of Rewards and Creative Solutions
As long as you produce it in some way yourself, there are very few rules about what you can and can’t offer, though it varies by platform. Generally, you can’t offer booze, firearms, pornography, or raffle tickets, but everything else is fair game. So, let your mind run wild when you are thinking about what you could offer in addition to your book.
One of the fascinators I made to go with my second Kickstarter campaign
(Source: Phoebe Darqueling)
Here’s a list to get your brainstorming started.
- Print backer’s name in the dedication
- Name a minor character after a backer
- Offer personalized thank you videos or poems
- Create character and world artwork. You don’t have to be a great artist to create something somebody likes. Art is totally subjective, and it is all about what you can contribute that is unique to you. Plus, many of your backers should be people you know, who might choose that option for the sake of nostalgia.
- Create ANY kind of artwork or craft. That’s right, what you offer doesn’t even have to tie directly to your story. I got the biggest boosts to my own campaigns when I offered some of my paper engineering pieces. Not only did it give me a high tier to offer, it made my whole campaign more visually appealing and fun.
- Create tie-in merchandise – mugs, USB sticks, bookmarks, magnets, etc. If you have a logo or quote with a wide appeal, consider putting it on a physical object or two. Obviously, you aren’t producing the merch yourself, but if it has your logo or something to do with your project, it counts as being “made by the creator” and fits in the rules. You can often order a sample before you commit to a large order and then use the sample in pictures for your campaign. Even if you don’t make your goal or no one chooses that tier, you will still have an awesome keepsake for yourself.
- Create a certificate that makes them an “official” something-or-other in your world. For instance, a Steampunk campaign I contributed to allowed me to choose the name of my own fictional dirigible. Then, they sent out a fancy certificate that I could hang on my wall declaring me the captain.
- Give people a chance to have some say in the direction you take. When I created my Steam Tour projects, one important aspect was to get feedback from the backers. I was going on trips to different Steampunk events and Victorian-era locales to create a travel guide. So, I offered backers-only surveys about which things they wanted me to make sure to include to give them the greatest value. If you don’t want people to touch your content, you can still give them opportunities to vote for their favorite cover option, help you choose a name for a character, object, or place, or decide on a sticky plot point. People LOVE to be asked for their opinions, so give them a chance.
- If getting you to events in order to sell your book in person is part of your budget, think about things you could bring back from the event or location. For instance, when I went to New Orleans to report on the Edwardian Ball, I offered prints of photos from the event, as well as a grab bag of NOLA souvenirs to my upper-tier backers.
- Got a website? Offer advertising space and sponsored posts. I designed the banner below and it appeared on my website for a month in return for a $50 pledge.
Budget, Budget, Budget
This is arguably the least fun part of the entire campaign, but don’t give in to the urge to just put down a number and deal with it later. There is no such thing as too much planning before you launch a campaign. Depending on which platform you choose, different parts of it will be more or less flexible—the cover image, the video, the number of each type of reward you offer. Patreon is the most customizable option I have found so far because there is no single goal when finding patrons there. But in most cases, once you set your budget and launch your campaign, there is no going back.
Using crowdfunding is no excuse to slack off on your self-publishing budget homework. Yes, you may find people to help you alleviate your costs, but that doesn’t make you any less accountable to a budget than if you were spending your own money. In fact, it makes your MORE accountable. These crowdfunding websites do not have a means of forcing you to fulfill your rewards or compel you to use the money for what you say you will, but if you burn your backers, don’t expect them to help you out or buy your book later.
So, do the legwork (or “fingerwork” as the case may be) and find out about the costs of publishing through different platforms. Research how much shipping things both domestically and internationally will cost. Think hard about how much your materials are going to cost you if you are making physical rewards. Decide if you will include all of your travel costs, or only some of them. If you are hiring an editor or cover artist with your crowdfunding money, be very clear about their expectations for payment. Plus, never forget that these platforms have their own taxes and fees, so make sure to read the terms before you set your budget. In addition, I often add a 10% buffer on small campaigns or 5% on large ones to help me deal with unforeseen costs.
Set Your Goals with your Platform in Mind
When you are setting your campaign goals, it is vital to tailor it to your platform. If you are using Indiegogo, aim high; if you are using Kickstarter, aim low. Why? Because even if you don’t reach your goal on Indiegogo, you still keep any money that is donated. On Kickstarter, the funding is all or nothing, so if you don’t reach your minimum you have nothing to show for it. It might seem cruel, but I personally appreciate Kickstarter’s way of doing things. Basically, they want their successful projects to truly be supported by a large number of people, hence the term “crowdfunding.”
Luckily, there are also ways to work around Kickstarter’s restrictions. Campaigns often have “stretch goals” that “unlock” new rewards once the minimum budget is met. For instance, a writer could create a campaign to cover the cost of publishing in only digital formats first, then offer the opportunity to get a print copy later on when the first goal is met. I have also seen writers add additional short stories to a novel or anthology to add value to the main reward.
(Source: Phoebe Darqueling)
Scarlet was Wrong. You Can’t JUST Rely on the Kindness of Strangers
If you think that crowdfunding is your ticket to finding your fanbase, think again. And that deep-pocketed anonymous benefactor you are dreaming of? Dream on.
The truth is that the vast majority of funds received by campaigns comes from people who have met the person, or at least already communicate with them online somehow. Even though we act like crowdfunding supports ideas and projects, it is really about the people. Across all platforms I have researched, the how-to materials tell you that campaigns with videos receive far more money than those that don’t. So, don’t be shy! Literally anything you say to a camera is better than having no video at all.
Even with the best video in the world, over 80% of funding will have to come from people you already know. Kickstarter’s intro videos are very clear on this fact. If you have a big dream, but don’t already know that you will get some financial support from your family and friends, crowdfunding may not be the right path for you. And I’m sorry to say that kind-hearted and generous single donor you hope will make your dreams come true is probably not going to materialize. The average pledge on Kickstarter is $25.
So, What Do You Do?
But don’t fret! There are plenty of ways to get your friends, family, and fans involved with your campaign. Even if they can’t spare the dough, ask them to share the campaign with their own networks. Share you campaign in Facebook groups where you are already a member rather than joining a bunch right before the campaign. You’ve got much more “street cred” with people who have interacted with you in the past than you do with perfect strangers. And no one likes it when a newbie shows up and plasters the thread with their own stuff right away.
You can also reach out to your fellow writers. Chances are, you’ve met other indie folks online who could also use a boost. We swap reviews and beta-reading, so why not trade in blog posts and interviews about your project? Somewhere down the line, you simply return the favor. It gives you both content that reaches a wider audience than if you were working on your own. Remember, the people who give you cold hard cash aren’t the only type of support you will need to succeed.
The bottom line is, don’t be shy about your campaign with the people closest to you. They are your life support. If you know people who already contribute to a platform, make sure to include that in your decision-making process for choosing the best fit. The easier it is to contribute, the more likely they will do so. During my first campaign, my biggest barrier to getting my extended family involved was getting them signed up for Kickstarter in the first place. They didn’t want to give out their credit card information to yet another site for fear of hackers getting their info. And it isn’t like they handed me a twenty the next time I saw them to make up for it, they simply did not contribute even though they supported me and my work.
I offered altered canvas shadowboxes as a reward for each of my campaigns.
(Source: Phoebe Darqueling)
Get the Timing Right for YOU
There is not a categorically “right” or “wrong” time to launch your crowdfunding campaign. Generally, people are less generous in January and February because they are still reeling from the holidays. At the same time, if you have a great tie-in to something happening during those months, such as a romance novel building a campaign around Valentine’s Day, then it can be a huge bonus.
Make yourself a schedule that extends at least a month before your launch and one month after. The month before is about reaching out and doing your homework. During the campaign, you need to push like there is no tomorrow. And afterwards, there is no time to rest because you have rewards to get to your backers. Be realistic about how much time you will have to devote to each step and schedule your launch accordingly.
If you are going to be interviewed or have a guest post somewhere else, coordinate the timing so it occurs during your campaign. When it is posted, check it to make sure the link to your campaign is in the post. During my first campaign, I didn’t take this step and the interview I did was wasted as a promotional tool.
You only get one chance at launching your campaign, and the first week can make or break it.
People like to back “winners.” In the case of crowdfunding, this means campaigns that don’t look like they need help are the ones most likely to get money. I know, it is totally backwards, but this is the reality. So, make sure to encourage the people you do know to contribute early. (Pssst. You can even get a little tricksy and have a friend pledge a large amount at the beginning, but lower it once people start to contribute.)
The absolute most important question to answer before you launch is, am I ready? If there is any doubt, then it isn’t the right time to launch. You have to be very active promoting your campaign while it is running. So, make sure you plan your launch around other deadlines, vacations, and life events. You and your project deserve to put your best foot forward.
What about our readers? Have you got a good, bad, or ugly crowdfunding story to share? Are there some other tips you think writers should know? Tell us about it below!
Phoebe Darqueling is a freelance writer and editor specializing in fantasy, science fiction, and any fiction set around the 19th century. She has run three successful Kickstarter campaigns, including one to fund her travelogue about exploring the places to find a touch of the Victorian era in modern London entitled Steam Tour: An American Steampunk in London. Download your free copy now.