Fireside’s Brian White and Raygun Chronicles’ Bryan Thomas Schmidt Discuss Crowdfunding, Passion Projects, & More

Bryan Thomas Schmidt: So Brian, you just launched your fourth Kickstarter, this one to fund Year Two of Fireside. In some ways, the most ambitious one yet. Tell us a bit about that.

Brian White: We funded three issues individually on Kickstarter last year. We figured we were eventually going to run into fatigue over the repeated Kickstarters, and we did with the third. We didn’t reach our funding goal until literally 12 seconds before the deadline. And so we knew we needed to figure out a way to provide more stability and certainty, both for our fans and for the magazine. What we came up with for Year Two was revamping into a monthly subscription website and ebook. Each issue in Year Two will have two flash fiction stories, one short story, and one episode of a serial-fiction experiment by Chuck Wendig. It is definitely the most ambitious we’ve been. We streamlined some things to make the magazine a little cheaper to produce, such as eliminating the comic we had been doing. But it’s still a much higher goal than we’ve set before: $25,000. Most of that — $20,000 — goes to paying our writers, artists, and web developers. If we can fund the full year, it gives us a lot of breathing room to plan for the future.

BTS: How did you decide on the changes and new approach? For example, you’ve dropped the comics, which I know were a personal passion. You’ve also got the serial running and increased issues and stories bought despite decreasing the size of each issue. Plus you’ve gone entirely digital. Talk us through a little of the advantages of those changes and how they came about please.

BW: Dropping the comic was tough, but it was by far the most expensive thing to do, because even a black-and-white needs three jobs to produce: writer, artist, and letterer. At the rates we wanted to pay, one comic cost $1,650. Each short story we print costs, at most, $500. I’m not willing to cut our pay rate and thus our idea of fair pay for writers and artists, and so the comic had to be set aside. I am hoping that we will be able to come up with a fun comics project in the future.

We’ve also reshaped the mix of stories in each issue. Whereas before we had 4 stories of 2,000-4,000 words, we will now have two pieces of flash fiction, a short story, and an episode of Chuck Wendig’s serial project. This was done in part to increase the variety in each issue, and in part to decrease the word count and make it possible to try to fund a year of the magazine without having an out-of-reach Kicksarter goal. We’d like to have more or longer stories in the future if the money is there. We’re excited about the serial. It’s a format that we are starting to see more people experiment with, and we think it’s a good fit for digital publishing.

And speaking of digital, we felt that it was really the only way we could go forward long-term and monthly. Doing small print runs of the print magazine was a lot of fun, but it was also expensive. Publishing a monthly print magazine would have driven the Kickstarter goal sky-high. Since we are focusing on digital, I started talking with Pablo Defendini about leading development and design of a website. Pablo has been thinking a lot about digital magazines for years and has strong ideas about ways to deliver our stories without distractions and on a site that will be readable and attractive on any screen size.

BTS: Of course, an argument can be made that slight cuts in the pay rate would have been viable. For one, your are pricing yourself near the top of short story markets. But without the cash flow is that sustainable into the long term? Writers making 3 cents less per word would still be paid well above standard rates and be very happy, for example. It’s obvious to me that cutting the comic and number of stories was the right move. You definitely can target those as things to build back up to later. And I certainly enjoyed the print editions, but perhaps it’s more viable to do an end of year anthology or something. Have you considered that?

BW: I didn’t want to cut the rates for two reasons. Short-term, the 12.5 cents per word is what I had promised when I picked up many of the short stories we are using for Year Two firing our open submissions last year. In he longer term, Fireside has always been in large part an experiment in being able to offer those high rates. It may be something we have to revisit if we’re not successful, but it’s one of our core ideas.

As for cash flow we’re hoping that after this Kickstarter we will have the time and the framework to start moving to a subscription model.

An anthology would be a great way to do a print thing and is something I may look at once we get the magazine settled.

BTS: Fair enough. And don’t get me wrong, one of the reasons I’ve done two Kickstarters now is to pay writers pro-rates, so I’m all for it. But I haven’t quite gotten so high as 12.5 cents per word. It’s a great thing your wanting to do but I definitely wanted to play devil’s advocate for the sake of this conversation. Now that we’ve done that, let’s talk Kickstarter. I’m running my second now, Raygun Chronicles. What are some keys to a successful Kickstarter to your mind?

BW: Kickstarters live and die by word of mouth. It goes back to the thing Amanda Palmer said last year, to crowdfund, you have to have a crowd. It doesn’t have to be a big one, I don’t think, especially for a modest goal, but you do have to have a group of people who will support you and enthusiastically spread the word.

In terms of the project itself, I think you have to have a clear vision of what you want to do, and then explain that clearly in your text and your video. I’ve seen plenty of muddled projects where you don’t really have a sense of what they are trying to do. And it’s important to offer a good range of rewards at different price levels, but to not have so many that a potential backer is overwhelmed by choice. (Like I always am in the grocery store.)

What have you found to be important and helpful when working on your projects?

BTS: Word of mouth has definitely been key. I think talent matters. People want to be sure the quality is going to be there. A track record of success seems to help as well as good momentum. It always seems to stall a bit in the middle and then pick back up closer to the end. Perhaps the countdown really does help. I think the video helps a concise, professional presentation. I know marketing is key although it can be hard. Sometimes it feels like you’re talking about the same things over and over.  Involvement from those participating in the project on every level can help with this. You can’t be sure word has really gotten out. For some reason, people gloss over stuff and need to hear it multiple times to connect. Plus, I think people wait for paychecks or think “I’ll do it later.”  It’s a bit stressful to wait when you’re passionate about the project. With Kickstarter it’s all or nothing, so if you don’t fund, the money goes away. That makes it challenging, too. But I don’t know that anyone has a magic trick. I’ve seen most Kickstarters go through all of these phases.

BW: What do you find most challenging when you are putting a Kickstarter together? My two biggest things are the video — I am getting better but it still intimidates the hell out of me — and trying to figure out what good prices are for rewards. The magazine itself is easy, because I just set the same rate I plan on selling issues for. But the extras are tricky. What is a tuckerization worth to someone, for example? Or an autograph. Too high and no one will pledge, and too low and you miss out on a good source of money.

BTS: I’m learning as I go. With Beyond The Sun, I underestimated the cost of rewards and shipping which ate up my editorial fee. I basically did the work for nothing. I do get a nice percentage from the publisher who picked it up for his catalog afterwards though. But with Raygun Chronicles, we budgeted carefully for that and have kept careful track as we created levels. We want to give a good deal, which is why the ebook is available for $5 backers, but at the same time, not wind up in debt funding the thing. If we had money to go in debt, we’d just fund it ourselves. I think it takes careful balance. Tuckerization was not that big of a deal with my Beyond The Sun backers, so we skipped it this time and have instead offered it as a bonus to encourage people to recruit more backers. But I think it definitely is a higher end reward. After all, you only have so many authors and stories you can tuckerize in.  Autographs are also a level up incentive from say ebook and paper copies. But you’re right. Higher level stuff has to be a lot more valuable from framed artwork, prints, multiple signed copies, etc. to, in our case, an all expenses paid trip and more. I think it’s a careful balance. You do have to make your lower levels as valuable as you can because those will be the heart of your support, in my experience. Which rewards have been consistently most popular for you?

BW: The actual magazines, both print and ebook, are obviously our core reward. I’ve found that for us, tuckerizations have consistently sold out, and we’ve also done well with rewards for backers to have their likenesses used in a story illustration. Another popular one that we offered in previous Kickstarters for only $5 above the reward for the magazine was bookmarks, which we could just slip in with the magazines when we were mailing them out. This time around, we decided to try postcards, since there is no print magazine going out.

BTS: Postcards, you sly dog. No, that’s a great idea. If they want to use them as bookmarks, they can. We have bookmarks in ours, too. And t-shirts.  Your latest Fireside KS is doing well, I see, with $4500 in 3 days. Congrats! That’s encouraging. What do you think the trick has been to keeping momentum or are you guessing like me?

BW: All credit for the postcards goes to my wife, Lauren. She suggested it because since we were not offering print magazines this time, postcards would be a good way to offer autographs from contributors. Plus it allows us to show off the gorgeous artwork that Galen Dara created for our Kickstarter.

We’re very happy with our first couple days. It’s by far the most money we’ve raised early in a Kickstarter, though since our goal is much higher I would say the percentage we’ve raised is in line with how we’ve done in the past. As for momentum, it’s largely a guessing game to me too. Some days some things — tweeting that we need $X to reach X% of our goal, talking about rewards that are getting snapped up, etc. — seem to generate a lot of activity, and others they don’t do any at all. It’s tricky striking a balance between over-promoting and being annoying, and under-promoting and missing out on potential backers. I tend to err a bit on the over-promoting side. It helps that I have a Twitter account solely for the magazine; I think peopel following that know to expect a high level of Kickstarter flogging when I have one going.

Now that we’re out of the first few days, we expect funding to slow down a good bit, which always happens with a Kickstarter. The goal now is to keep our name out there but also keep a cool head as our total grows more slowly.

BTS: A cool head? Yes, that’s the challenge, isn’t it? It can be stressful when you’re passionate about the project. And one doesn’t want to come off as a snake oil salesman or pushy marketer, but, at the same time, statistics typically show people need to hear of a book 3 times before they buy it, so I’d imagine it’s similar with a Kickstarter and there’s no guarantee about who sees your tweets. Do you offer any incentives for backers to help promote and recruit fellow backers?

BW: I haven’t really come up with anything in that vein besides telling them a little about the importance of word of mouth. Have you done something like that?

BTS: We’re actually offering tuckerization for the person who recruits the most backers to get us to $3k. No one’s taken us up on that yet. The people they recruit are supposed to message me about who recruited them. When we hit $2k, revealed of the backer t-shirt, which I think people will get fired up about, so we’re almost there. We also have bookmarks to reveal and a couple silly stunts we’ll pull at levels to come–you know, embarrassing things people have to do if such and such happens. We’re trying to make it entertaining while also getting the job done. I’ll let you know how it works.  Ironically, your Kickstarter ends 2 days before ours, even though it launched later.  So it may not help you.  Let’s talk a bit about long term vision as we prepare to wrap this up. What is your long term vision for Fireside or do you have one?

BW: Long-term, I hope that this Kickstarter will give us breathing room to shift from crowdfunding to subscriptions as our main source of cash. In that sense, I am thinking of this Kickstarter as a subscription drive. Of course, we will have to do a really good job and create a great magazine so the people who subscribe through the Kickstarter renew when next year rolls around. We also hope of course to get new subscribers once we start publishing in July. I don’t have a really specific plans beyond that; we’ll wait and see how it goes. If we get the magazine on a firm footing I would like to try some book projects. Nothing specific at this point, more a dreamy kind of thing I like to think about.

What do you have in store after the Raygun Chronicles?

BTS: You know, Raygun Chronicles and Beyond The Sun both came about out of a desire to pay authors for doing what they love and give up and coming authors a chance to shine alongside authors we all admire. It worked out better than I hoped with the Table Of Contents for Beyond The Sun, and Raygun Chronicles has all the right elements to do the same. I’ll be editing an anthology for Baen Books with Jennifer Brozek, putting out Blue Shift magazine, which I edit, and hopefully announcing a YA anthology I have in the works as well as a few other projects. To be honest, what I hope happens next is that my Abraham Lincoln Dinosaur Hunter kids series and Dawning Age fantasy trilogy sell to big publishers. They’re both a lot of fun to write and I’d like to go to the next level as writer as I already seem to be as editor. But hey, we’ll see where the wheel of time leads, won’t we?

Thanks for making time to compare notes. For those of you out there looking for good projects, here are links to ours.

Raygun Chronicles space opera anthology: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/601968027/raygun-chronicles-space-opera-science-fiction-anth

Fireside Magazine Year Two: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/firesidemag/fireside-magazine-year-two

We hope the advice here is helpful to you in planning your own projects or at least understanding what artists put ourselves through to pursue our passions. Thanks for your support. We’d have no reason to do it without the fans!