[GUEST POST] Matthew Wayne Selznick on Neo-Patronage, Crowdfunding and Kickstarter: One Author’s In-Progress Case Study


Matthew Wayne Selznick is a creator working with words, music, pictures and people. Through MWS Media, he provides a variety of creative services to independent creators, agencies, and entertainment companies. He lives in Long Beach, California and on the web at http://www.mattselznick.com

As an independent creator, I believe a creative endeavor isn’t truly art until it’s experienced by others. As an advocate of the DIY ethic, I’m committed to minimizing the separation between author and reader. I’ve watched with interest over the last six years as the neo-patronage / crowdfunding movement gains steam.

As I write, a Kickstarter campaign to fund the creation of my book “Pilgrimage – A Novel of the Sovereign Era is exactly half over and slightly over half funded. From within this Schrödinger’s box of crowdfunding, I’d like to share my particular experience. It’s my hope authors might learn something they can use, and readers will have a new perspective on the process.

Why Crowdfund A Novel?

I’m repeatedly asked: “Why not just write the book and publish it the normal way, instead of asking for funding up front?”

PRIORITIES CREATIVE AND PRAGMATIC

My job is making things, and helping others make things. Even if you’re a creator with a different “day job,” the act of creation requires an investment of time, energy, and other limited resources.

Like me, you probably have a list of creative to-do’s. Each has its place on a sliding scale of difficulty, time required, and potential audience. If you make you living as a creator (or hope to), “marketability” is another factor to weigh.

You can prioritize creative projects according to the amount of resources required to bring each to fruition, the amount of resources you’ll have to divert, and a reasonable idea of potential return on your investment.

It’s up to you to define what “return on the investment” means. It might be downloads, reader comments, five star reviews… and if you make your living as a creator, the project assigned the highest priority should be the one that stands the best chance to generate income while not stifling other opportunities.

“But Matt, what about writing for the love? You make it sound so cold!”

If you’re a creator, you’ll love creating anything on your list. Might as well be smart about what you do next!

For me, writing a novel is a massive investment of time and energy that would otherwise be spent paying the bills. And for me, the cost of professional services like editing, layout, cover art and printing / distribution is a significant drain on my bank account.

So… how to intelligently embark on a major creative endeavor without taking on too much risk or losing your shirt?

Enter crowdfunding.

Asking friends, family and fans to commit to a book before it’s commercially available (or even, perhaps, written), allows the author to minimize risk and offset costs of production and potential loss of other revenue. Perhaps most important, a successful crowdfunding campaign reveals that segment of the audience truly dedicated to their success. What a gift!

How I Engineered My Kickstarter Crowdfunding Campaign

It’s important to note this isn’t my first rodeo. I’m the author of Brave Men Run – A Novel of the Sovereign Era,” a relatively successful independent novel that helped me build a modest personal brand and author platform. Personally, it’s unlikely I would attempt crowdfunding a book without that existing audience. More on that later…

DO YOUR DUE DILLIGENCE

Despite anecdotal feedback suggesting demand for a new Sovereign Era book, I wanted better information. I created an online survey that, among other things, asked if respondents were interested in reading a new Sovereign Era novel featuring characters from “Brave Men Run,” and if those who answered “yes” would support a crowdfunding campaign to finance that book.

The response was very positive. Knowing those people represented a definable fraction of my total audience, I had an idea of the population that might support a crowdfunding campaign.

The numbers looked good. I would proceed!

THE PRODUCT

It’s important to define the product, as cost estimates will depend on what you’re building. For authors, of course, it’s a book of some kind. For “Pilgrimage – A Novel of the Sovereign Era,” it’s paperback, epub, and mobi editions.

WORKING OUT THE GOAL

My Kickstarter campaign will specifically fund professional editing, professional cover art, proofs and distribution and, possibly, professional layout expenses associated with the book.

Some of these costs are well defined. For others, I have an idea of what I’m willing to spend based on what I charge for the same things. Figure these things out for your own project. Shop around!

Next, I factored in shipping the paperback books, then added some padding for mistakes and “the unforeseen.”

This gave me a rough figure at least partially based on definable, measurable data. Next, it was time to account for the cost of actually running the Kickstarter campaign.

Kickstarter takes 5% of your gross pledges. Amazon.com takes, at most, 5% of every dollar it processes. Your government may consider your Kickstarter revenue taxable – put aside the appropriate percentage of your net income (the amount you actually end up with in your bank account) for that.

Based on all of that, I came up with a goal of $5,000.00.

BASIC PLEDGE LEVELS

It’s a happy coincidence that the retail cover price of a paperback book, plus shipping in the United States, closely matches the most popular pledge amount on Kickstarter: $25.00.

Given that, I based my pledges and rewards around a $25.00 basic pledge. That amount also provides a nice yardstick: I need 200 people to pledge at least $25.00 to meet the $5,000.00 goal.

Having a solid number grounds your campaign plans. I’m sure I’m acquainted with, and have permission to contact, at least 200 people who dig me or my work enough to cough up the price of a sit-down dinner. It seemed I was on the right track.

Real-World Check: At the middle of my campaign, with 104 backers and 55% funded, the average pledge amount was $26.50. So far, so good.

You’ll certainly provide e-book editions. Since these cost next to nothing to store and distribute (except perhaps the cost of time – not to be discounted!), set a pledge level for e-books accordingly. I chose $10.00, and threw in listing the patron’s name in the Acknowledgements section of the book.

These two pledge levels provide a target for people who want a copy of your book – it’s the main reason they’re participating. Now it’s time to address everyone else.

REWARD-DRIVEN PLEDGE LEVELS

Now that you know your basic pledge levels, it’s time to move down… and up. And up!

I created $1.00 (no reward, you’re just giving a 100-penny “thumbs up” to the project and giving me permission to contact you within the Kickstarter ecosystem) and $5.00 (your name in the Acknowledgements, but you don’t get a book) pledge levels to enable people to support the endeavor even if they can’t afford higher amounts. Next time around, I probably won’t offer a $1.00 reward level, as it skews the donor numbers without an appreciable nudge in the funding. Perhaps if I had a much larger audience, or a much smaller goal, $1.00 would make more sense.

Above $25.00, I created a series of reward levels that appeal to the fan: personal, connective experiences specifically intended for people who not only want an experience with me (bless ‘em) but also have the means to contribute progressively larger amounts of money.

These experience-driven rewards include

  • …naming a character in a future work after the patron
  • …listing the patron (with a link if applicable) on a special section of my website
  • …autographed original pages from my hand-edited first draft manuscript
  • …hours of my creative services consultation on a patron’s project

The next three levels are for the real superfan with a lot of discretionary income. A rare breed, to be sure, especially when you’re talking about the audience of a mid-level independent author!

These pie-in-the-sky pledge reward levels give you something fun to talk about while promoting the crowdfunding campaign, and they don’t cost anything to offer. Besides, who knows who’s out there, fingering their wallet? You must have rewards at this rarefied level.

Is there something you can offer that’s pure fun? A unique experience the donor could not get from any other person in the world? Since I’m a musician, I offer a live house concert (via HD video outside of a 100 mile radius around my home), plus everything at the $100.00 level for a pledge of $1,000.00. What can you offer your patrons?

How about dinner with the patron… and I’ll travel to their town and pick up the tab? Again, the aim here is for a personal, one-on-one experience, a thank-you only I can deliver… for $2,000.00.

Finally, be sure to offer one pledge reward level that is simply ridiculous and only available to one patron. In the Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign for “Pilgrimage – A Novel of the Sovereign Era,” I decided to give an autographed copy of everything I make and release for the rest of my life (or the patron’s, whichever comes first) for the very reasonable (but outrageous) price of $10,000.00.

Because you never know… and it’s fun.

PROMOTIONAL PLEDGE LEVELS

Kickstarter prohibits changing a pledge level once it has donors, but you can add pledge levels (and rewards) any time during an active campaign. I used this to celebrate the 50%-funded milestone by adding a $15.00 pledge level – the ebook, but with a personalized autograph page.

I also upgraded the rewards at $25.00 and above to the autographed e-book version. Naturally, I encouraged everyone who pledged at the $10.00 level to upgrade to at least $15.00 to get their unique electronic artifact… and a few people did just that!

The point is, always be on the lookout for ways you can use the campaign itself to reward patrons… and don’t be afraid to fine-tune things once the campaign has launched.

Promoting The Campaign

If you’re going to do a crowdfunding campaign, you must be prepared to put yourself out there and actively market to your prospective patrons. The campaign home page is the hub of promotional activity, and the video is its face. Your face!

MAKING A VIDEO

Half of all Kickstarter campaigns with a video are fully funded. Less than a third without a video achieve success. A video matters.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be, like, an amazing basket of chicken wings. What’s important is you, on camera, telling your story and giving people incentive to pledge. My video is runs about four minutes… unless you’re a whiz on camera and in production, don’t stretch it out too much longer than that. Get in, make your pitch, and get out. Be human. Have fun. Get excited.

I also posted my video to my YouTube channel and made it the first of a dedicated playlist to have a few more promotional options, like the invitation for patrons to post their own videos explaining why they pledged. A couple of people did that; I’d love to see more in the tail-end of the campaign!

THE STORY

Your Kickstarter home page is where you present a long-form, text version of your pitch. Write in your own voice, in the first person, and, just as in your video, be sure your personality comes through, because ultimately, a successful campaign hinges on the relationship between the author and patron.

Heck, a successful career depends on that, too!

GETTING THE WORD OUT

I’m fortunate to have a very modest online audience. When my crowdfunding campaign launched on July 28, 2012, I gently announced it on Facebook and Twitter, then to my mailing lists, then on my website and elsewhere. Twenty one people responded with 12% of the funding goal in the first twenty four hours, with the first one-third milestone hit in three days. Not a record by any means, but a heady affirmation that the campaign had a chance!

In the first two weeks, I appeared on several podcasts. This makes sense for me, as much of my audience discovered my work through the free podcast edition of “Brave Men Run – A Novel of the Sovereign Era.” Your approach will be different. What matters is that you go where your audience is, bring them into the fold, and, ideally, encourage them to become evangelists as well as patrons. A crowdfunding campaign is a long road… don’t try to cover all that ground yourself!

In the last two weeks, I’ll continue to solicit podcasters while widening the net to blogs (hello and thank you, SF Signal!) and online communities. I may investigate local media (but in truth, I should have done that weeks ago.)

Every couple of days, I remind my social networking friends on Facebook, Twitter, Google + and LinkedIn that the campaign is running. Nearly 22% of contributing patrons came as a result of Facebook, so it’s clear that’s getting results.

Watch your statistics carefully… it’s like an open-book test, right there in your Kickstarter dashboard. Be careful, though – remember, always, that social media is about being social and being human. Don’t let your Kickstarter campaign be the only thing you talk about for the duration!

Finally, when the campaign is in its final days, I plan to reach out directly to the people who have already pledged. They’re the ones I know, with certainty, truly believe in the mission. I think there’s a good chance they’re the ones who’ll help take things the last few yards… or beyond. I’ll be asking them to do one final push to tell their friends, family, co-workers, strangers… anyone who will listen.

BE A SUPPORTER, TOO

In for a penny, in for a pound, authors. Don’t even think about starting your own crowdfunding campaign without getting in there and supporting other campaigns. I backed nine campaigns in the last year before I started my own. Since starting my own campaign, I’ve backed four more, and three are still in progress.

Get in the game. Not only will you show prospective patrons you believe in what you’re asking them to do, you’ll learn a lot studying what others try.

WHAT IF YOU DON’T HAVE AN ESTABLISHED AUDIENCE?

If you’re an author with no measurable following or reputation, I think a Kickstarter crowdfunding campaign might be a tough row to hoe.

On the other hand… what a baptism of fire! Ray Bradbury used to say, “Jump off the cliff and grow your wings on the way down.” So… go for it… but be ready to work harder than you may have ever worked before.

Be ready to be bold enough to reach out to strangers like bloggers, fellow authors, podcasters, and media to ask for interviews and coverage. Be comfortable asking your family and friends not just for their money but for their voice, their platform, their megaphone. Believe, utterly and unshakably, in the book you’re hoping to make… and make sure that book is the better than the best thing you’ve ever done in your life.

Make your audacity part of the story.

What If The Campaign Fails?

I’ve had a few people ask me that. I would think the answer would be simple: the book doesn’t get written, not for the foreseeable future and maybe not ever.

A crowdfunding campaign is a conversation between an author and the audience. If the campaign fails, that means the audience really doesn’t want the book, the author didn’t work hard enough, or both.

Either way, the result is clear: the promise works both ways: fund it and I’ll make it, don’t fund it and I’ll turn to something else on the priority / risk list.

It’s important to stress this: if the campaign fails and I were to turn around and start writing “Pilgrimage – A Novel of the Sovereign Era” in September anyway… the campaign meant nothing, and worse, the contract between the author and the audience for future crowdfunding campaigns loses all power.

If the crowd says “no,” move on. A crowdfunding campaign is a covenant.

What If The Campaign Succeeds?

I get to work!

And if the campaign succeeds by leaps and bounds, I’ve set up a number of “stretch goals” that include other, related products provided at a discount to patrons.

Whether the campaign raises exactly $5,000.00, or $25,000.00… even if it fails, in fact… the most valuable thing to come out of it is a stronger connection to my patrons. Without the audience, the author is nothing. Nothing.

At this moment, at forty minutes after midnight on August 13, with two weeks to go, I know that one hundred and two people are out there in the world saying, “What you do is something.”

That is humbling and wonderful.

What Happens Next?

Well, we wait and see, don’t we? I would love your thoughts, both authors and readers, on this in-progress case study. Please leave a comment… and of course, please pledge to support the Kickstarter campaign to fund “Pilgrimage – A Novel of the Sovereign Era” right now! After August 27, 2012, no matter how things turn out, perhaps I’ll return for a post-mortum…if I haven’t spent my word count allowance at SF Signal, that is!

5 thoughts on “[GUEST POST] Matthew Wayne Selznick on Neo-Patronage, Crowdfunding and Kickstarter: One Author’s In-Progress Case Study”

  1. Excellent post, MWS.

    As someone who was an also-ran on a crowdfunded novel campaign (still in silent running), it’s nice to see someone do it well. I think that the lack of an existing readership did me in (debut novel as so forth) as well as my general unlikability among friends and family.

    But as you said, you can just throw your hat in and try it. I’ve certainly learned from it, and there’s nothing stopping me from trying again.

    1. Regan, I think another thing to keep in mind if you haven’t yet established an audience (and your friends and family hate you) is that the time to start building those relationships is long, long before your book is ready to be placed front-of-mind with the world.

      Lay some groundwork, be patient… and strike when it makes the most practical, pragmatic sense to strike. That’s probably going to be well after you want to strike!

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