Is Kickstarter the Answer for Aspiring Authors?

Few unpublished novelists or memoirists are able to convince a publisher to consider their work until it is complete. But it can be daunting to spend months or years bringing a book to completion with no assurance it will ever be published. Established authors can at times secure advances based on book proposals and a few sample chapters. Is there a way, I have been wondering, to provide that for would-be novelists or memoirists who lack a publishing contract?

I found myself thinking about Kickstarter. I know a number of musicians who have made use of this service, raising money before recording tracks. Could it work for aspiring authors?

An evangelist of the digital self-start era, Seth Godin, is a believer. He has a book coming out in January titled The Icarus Deception: How High Will You Fly? that challenges readers to consider their works art. That certainly echoes the messaging of The Artist’s Road. Now Mr. Godin, a best-selling author, doesn’t need the help of donations to land a book contract. But while writing this book under contract, he chose to launch a Kickstarter campaign for it, and has raised nearly $300,000. Those giving receive nice give-backs, from a digital preview copy for $4 up to having your artistic story given at least one paragraph in his book for $1,150 (he limited that to five individuals and sold it out).

“This project on Kickstarter is my way to organize the tribe,” Mr. Godin wrote, “to send a signal to risk-averse publishers and booksellers (who have limited shelf space and limited paper). We can let them know loud and clear that this is a book that’s going to get talked about. Kickstarter coordinates and it amplifies.”

He’s right. But he’s a bit of an outlier example. Had an unpublished author pitched the exact same book with the exact same message, I’m comfortable speculating it would not have generated six-figure donations.

I decided to focus my research on novelists and memoirists who had met their donation goals. I wanted to see what their plans were for the money, and where they were in the process of writing. My somewhat limited examination of successful campaigns suggested Kickstarter does not actually kick the start of a project, but the finish.

I found a twice-published author who was unable to sell his third novel, began an MFA program, decided to return his attention to the book, and has now corralled $12,000 to polish it up before sending it to publishers. But I wanted someone unpublished.

I then found a talented visual artist who had fallen short of selling her first prose novel commercially, so she turned to Kickstarter and raised $26,478 to self-publish the book, well past her $8,000 goal. A fantastic story, yes? But she also is an example of the challenges of self-publishing. She blogged recently that she had to abandon NaNoWriMo because of the time it was taking her to mail copies of her novel to those who had pledged her donations.

Both of those novelists had already completed their books. But then I found a memoirist who reached his goal while saying he was still writing his story, a book about his three-year bicycle journey around the world. As someone writing a travel memoir myself, I was intrigued. But then I learned his trip was the subject of a BBC documentary. I wanted someone whose story had not yet been told.

That led me to another travel memoir, based around a trip to Mount Rainier that weaves in an inner journey as well. This individual successfully met his $3,000 goal, which he is using to cover self-publishing costs of an already complete manuscript.

Kickstarter is framed by many as a way for and artist to bypass the middleman. That is true, and also obvious. Kickstarter has also been framed as an inevitable future, one in which middlemen will go extinct, and artists and consumers will bask in digital interconnection. That future does not seem assured.

I suspect I couldn’t find a successful Kickstarter campaign in which a would-be author received money to write his or her book for the same reason that a publisher won’t extend that individual a contract; when putting up money, you want a sense of what you are getting in return. Pledges come with rewards, usually in the form of advanced or signed copies. If a book hasn’t even been written yet, how would a donor know that pledge would ever be fulfilled? And let’s not forget how long the donor would have to wait to receive that reward, even if the author managed to complete the work?

Kickstarter, to me, seems a good complement to someone’s self-publishing plan. Beyond providing investment capital, it builds an audience and generates interest in the work. Mr. Godin said he wanted his Kickstarter campaign to tell publishers to take this approach seriously; it’s possible someone looking to self-publish could generate such interest on Kickstarter that a publisher would be persuaded to take them on. I hope that has happened.

But Kickstarter seems unlikely to be a tool to ease the financial pain of writing a book on spec, at least if your name isn’t Seth Godin.

What are your thoughts on Kickstarter? Have you donated before? Have you sought funding on it? Are you curious to try? And would you give to someone who was looking to write a book, as opposed to preparing an existing manuscript for publication?

ADDENDUM (12/5/12): How does Porter Anderson do it? The Energizer Bunny stays on top of trends in publishing like no one else I know. He was kind enough to include an analysis of this post in his latest Ether post on Publishing Perspectives. Lots of good stuff in there, as always. But he drew my attention to two other recent posts about Kickstarter I hadn’t seen. One is a New Republic piece by Noreen Malone titled “The False Promise of Kickstarter,” and the other is a follow-up piece by Suw Charman-Anderson in Forbes titled “Kickstarter: Dream Maker or Promise Breaker?” If you’re thinking of either making use of Kickstarter or donating to those using it, you should read these. Among the insights I discovered is 1) a University of Pennsylvania study that found only about 1/4 of projects are delivered to donors on time and 2) you’re in a buyer-beware situation if you give money and the project doesn’t launch.

About Patrick Ross

I'm the author of Committed: A Memoir of the Artist's Road.

21 Responses to “Is Kickstarter the Answer for Aspiring Authors?”

  1. Great research to try and find a Kickstarter project that fit the niche. I’m a backer of many projects on KS (from geeky tangible things to movies and books) and am planning my own KS project for my book. While I’m okay, as a backer, with a long lead time, or in-development time, on a film, a book’s different. I don’t believe KS is the platform to raise money to *write* the book. My plans are to launch the KS appeal when the book is pretty much done and ready to go – the funding will be to actually print it.

    Believe me, I tried to find ways to structure rewards and funding so I could complete parts of it… but none of it rang true. I agree that Seth Godin’s success isn’t typical – he has a huge following. I backed the $4 digital preview, to see what he did with it – and frankly, wasn’t impressed. What he has done brilliantly, though, is send out regular, witty updates about the fulfillment process and progress.

    (Related example – a film I backed a while ago met its KS goal, but it was a modest one – I think the filmmaker was hoping to go over the goal. A “finish the film” KS project was launched and failed; there have been several private appeals for more money; another funding effort showed up on IndieGoGo… and the film still isn’t finished.)

    My current KS plan has been structured and reworked, finding the perfect balance (I hope, perfect!) between Intriguing Story To Encourage People To Support A Cool Project … and a reasonable wait time for the end result. For a book, my research shows that’s about 6 months… which means the book has to be finished, to go to press.

    Having someone pay us while we quit our day jobs and get to “just write” is a lovely fantasy… I think I’ll go buy my lotto ticket now ;)

    • ML, this is a really valuable comment, and I know many Artist’s Road readers will value it. Let me begin by saying that you need to let me know when you launch your KS pitch, and I’ll help promote it.

      Yes, it would seem KS is more suited to finishing a book than starting. It still leaves the question of what sources of income one could find to help at the start. There are, of course, a handful of literary grants out there, but I would have to think the competition is fierce, and there likely is some expectation that the finished product would somehow enrich the world beyond providing a good read.

      Don’t rule out the idea that your writing might eventually support you. It is rare, yes, but there’s no reason to limit yourself to ensure it doesn’t happen. You can’t control what ping-pong balls drop during the lottery drawing, but you can control your writing path!

  2. This is interesting information to file away, Patrick. I didn’t know what Kickstart was. Not sure if I’ll use it but at least I know how now. Thanks.

  3. Couldn’t quite get my head round this, the way I struggle with understanding my tax return.
    But I can say, that after self publishing two books, and having sold small amounts. I find the hassle of marketing them myself too daunting to want to do it again. I wouldn’t mind the time spend wrapping them up and sending them off if there were that many! But after the first flush of radio and media interviews, sales dwindled, and I don’t feel inclined to do huge marketing ploys… even talking to book clubs and groups may only sell a couple of books, especially now since I find people have read the book on KIndle before I turn up to talk!
    so it looks like back to finding a publisher…and there really doesn’t seem any alternative to completing a book before offering it…
    I began self publishing when I read that two of my favourite best-selling biographers in London were having difficulty getting publishers interested in their latest projects…
    Its a bit of a rock and a hard place…

    • Egads, no writer wants to hear his prose compared to filing taxes! :)

      I find your path to self-publication really interesting, Valerie. It sounds like you chose to do it because writers you respected felt that was the right choice. I suspect many will follow Seth Godin’s guidance and self-publish, even though he is actually using a commercial publisher.

      I think many who have had the good fortune to be published by a commercial publisher will tell you that they still had to do most of the marketing, and that sales dropped after they exhausted that marketing. For me, I would value a publisher for editing (again, they don’t do that as much any more, but I would insist upon it) and for the cachet that, fairly or not, comes with having been selected to be published.

      As to having to complete the book first, many first-time authors can land a contract for a non-fiction book with only a chapter, but it happens when they are pitching, say, a how-to book or a business success book, and they have a background in that area that lends credibility. I’ve discovered a memoir is not as a rule considered in that same non-fiction category.

      • Yes to everything you say! I do know that when my previous books were published by reputable firms like Collins and Random House, I hated the promotional tours, but somehow it seemed easier than generating the marketing publicity myself..

        The reason I decided to self publish after hearing about the difficulties of best selling writers in getting published, is that at the moment publishing is in the tightest financial straitjacket that it’s ever been in, and I couldn’t face pitting myself against the odds!

        • Valerie, there are many book promoters out and about… easy enough to find via internet search or (better) talking to other authors. They can draw up a plan that fits in what you’re willing/able to do (in terms of travel, how many radio shows, etc.) so you don’t have to be a marketing whiz.

          I enjoy switching hats, and I *love* public speaking to groups large or small… plus, I work in marketing at my day job, so I haven’t investigated promoters for myself. But even that’s on my list for my current project, as I just run out of time.

          Agree with Patrick’s comment back that unless you’re, oh, Hillary Clinton, you’re (we’re) going to have to promote our own books, self-published or not. Best of luck to you.

  4. Patrick you must have read my mind because this weekend I was trolling around Kickstarter wondering how I could make it a viable resource for my own art, written or visual. I do think more unique projects, or projects by branded people appear to gain the momentum needed to meet financial goals. Yet I do wonder, as you mention, how long people spend on acknowledging contributions according to the donated amount? I’m still waiting for my big idea that will suit this resource, I’ll be interested to see if you harness Kickstarter at all!

    • Hi Carrie! I don’t anticipate using Kickstarter at the moment, but I haven’t closed the door on it. It would seem the key is to create incentives that bring value to the donor but don’t overly burden the artist. A tricky balance, I suspect.

      Let me know if you do pursue this, and I’d welcome a guest post from you on your experience.

  5. Great post! In all honesty, I had never heard of Kickstarter but it does truly sound like an a great tool for indie writers.

  6. This is a topic I’ve thought about quite a bit, so I’m glad you brought it up. I know Chuck Wendig has done at least one successful Kickstarter to write a new novel, although it’s my understanding that he already had some self-publishing success before that – and the novel might have been one in a series. I’m not sure.

    In theory, this is a brilliant idea. In practice, something about it rubs me the wrong way. I’ve heard some people say it’s basically just preselling books, but I don’t have any problem with that. To me, the difference is that Kickstarter comes with implications. Preselling books only happens when the book is a definite. But Kickstarter is generally used for artists who can’t afford to start their desired project otherwise. So if an author says they’ll write a book if their Kickstarter meets its goal, it implies to me that they won’t if it doesn’t. Which is a huge problem, because it draws into doubt (for me) their desire to truly write the book. I would never not write a book I believe in just because of un-guaranteed sales… and I would never ask people to fund a book I don’t believe in.

    But that’s just me. In some circumstances, I can appreciate the business savvy of this technique, but it’s still a turn-off for personal/artistic reasons. I do like what ML Hart says, above, about using this as a way of funding printing, rather than writing. That I could get behind.

    • Thanks, Annie. That’s an interesting point, the matter of whether you would write it anyway. I will say as a nonfiction writer, it is quite common to query an editor and only write the story if you get an offer. It’s not that you don’t believe in the story, it’s that there are other things you also believe in and can write, so you will focus your time on those that will be published. Of course, this is not the case in creative nonfiction with literary journals, as I’ve learned; they want to see the finished product first.

      I suspect your mindset is pretty common. You wouldn’t donate to someone who needed the money in order to write it, and others likely feel the same way, which would discourage would-be authors from pursuing said funding.

  7. A fascinating set of comments.
    I have backed a few Kickstarter projects, but never a written one, mostly films and music. In the case where I have supported projects by people I didn’t have a relationship with in some other context (usually as friend or fan), I have funded films. In both cases, the pitch included a short film that persuaded me they could probably follow through and get the film made.
    I am not sure I can envision a Kickstarter writing project that doesn’t include a pitch at least as long as what usually gets presented to publishers. I can imagine backing a marketing and distribution campaign for a completed book but probably not anything that is part of the writing process.
    That said, I wonder whether you might be able to get funding for a research trip by putting together “souvenir packages” from the destination and a copy of the finished book.
    The biggest issue is credibility and most of the people who have had highly successful Kickstarter projects already had the fan base.

    • “The biggest issue is credibility and most of the people who have had highly successful Kickstarter projects already had the fan base.”

      That’s the golden sentence right there. I get a bit frustrated at the Digital Utopians who believe that Kickstarter is the replacement for traditional sources of funding for artists. If anything, it can be yet another avenue for the advantaged to gain more advantage. But it is another possible channel for funding, and one in which the artist has some control, so I’m glad it’s there.

      The research trip idea is interesting, but I still fear there would be so much time between when the funding came in and when the manuscript could be delivered. I suspect that would be easier if you were already published in that field, and loyal readers wanted to read more from you about that subject.

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