Bryan Thomas Schmidt: Okay, Matt, so I launched my first Kickstarter the other day for this anthology called Beyond The Sun, space colonists stories, and in part, it’s your fault. I saw how much success you’ve been having with Kickstarter and thought it might be the best way to get my passion projects off the ground. How many Kickstarters have you run so far now?
Matt Forbeck: I’ve completed four Kickstarters, each of which is part of this 12 for ’12 challenge I set out for myself to write a dozen novels this year. I wanted to try something like this for a while, but I couldn’t figure out how I could afford to take the time to write the books until Kickstarter came along. It provided me a clean and easy way to reach out to readers and see if they liked my pitches for my books enough to support them.
I broke the dozen books up into four trilogies and ran a Kickstarter drive for each one of them. I’m happy to report that every one of them smashed past its funding goal, and I’m now busy writing all those books.
BTS: What made you think of using Kickstarter as a way to make that happen?
MF: The concept of crowdfunding always intrigued me, and I’d been watching Kickstarter for a while. I actually backed my first project back in 2009. The real kickers, though, were watching a couple of roleplaying game books take off in the summer of 2011.
A newcomer named Jeremy Keller did a bang-up presentation for his game Technoir, and he asked for $2,500. He came up just shy of $25,000 instead. Similarly, my pal Gareth-Michael Skarka asked for $5,000 for his Far West game and wound up with just under $50,000 by the end. When I saw that happen, I knew Kickstarter had finally reached a critical mass.
BTS: Interesting. I think you’re one of the first people whom I saw using Kickstarter and thus who made me aware of it. I kind of grew up in a family that focused on service and giving but being dependent on others was always hard. I hate asking people for money. I like to work hard and earn stuff. But there came a point with the changes in publishing that it seemed to me that allowing people to share your vision and support you if they were excited about it might actually not be an invalid way to achieve success. Did you have any similar concerns?
MF: Two things in my life got me over that same reluctance. First, back in the 1996, I co-founded a game publishing company called Pinnacle Entertainment Group with my pal Shane Hensley, and I served as the company’s president for four years. Heading up a small publishing outfit trained me to reach out to fans and ask them to buy our games and books. If you’re shy about it, you have to get over it, or you’re going to fail.
Second, in 2002, my wife gave birth to quadruplets. We had to ask people for help, and we wound up having thirty-some volunteers coming into our house every week to lend a hand with diapering, feeding, cleaning, and so on. I don’t know how we would have made it through that first year without that kindness from our community, and much of it came from people I barely knew or didn’t know at all. Some of them are still good friends of ours ten years later. That taught me that there’s no shame in asking for help if you need it, especially if it’s for your kids.
Despite that, I don’t see Kickstarter as charity at all. When I run one, I craft my rewards tiers so that everyone who makes a pledge gets something of value in return for it. It’s far more than a standard purchase, for sure — a closer relationship than the regular sort of sale — but if you treat it like you’re running a charity, you’re going to lose out to things like the March of Dimes. And rightfully so.
BTS: Okay so speaking of that. Doing this successful is an artform, and, while sites like Kickstarter help streamline it in certain ways, you do have to know what you’re doing. A video seems to be key and some of them get quite fancy. For Beyond The Sun, I got lucky and found a girl in Spain on Fiverr who did the thing at very low cost as long as I provided some of the images and did the voice over. She turned out to be quite resourceful and very smart and I did very little editing after turning over the initial concept to her. But then also, you mention tiers. It seems having clever, project-related names for them and a variety of levels with good rewards are key to successful Kickstarter projects. What make good rewards? How do you budget accordingly? And what other elements are necessary to a good Kickstarter in your mind?
MF: As you say, it’s an art, but that doesn’t mean there’s not some craft to it. Ideally you have one backer level below $25, say at $5, for easy entry. Then you need one at or near $25, which is the most popular backing level. I like to have only five or six levels at $100 or less, and I try to keep it simple for people.
The last thing you want to do is make it hard for people to choose between levels. When that happens, it’s easy for them to hesitate and decide to try again later, or maybe give up altogether. To prevent that from happening, try to make it so that higher levels give you all the benefits of lower levels, plus something cool. That makes for a natural progression from one tier to another.
For the video, it doesn’t have to be polished, but it should be honest, clear, and short. Boring people is always a crime. It should also showcase your passion for the project too. If you can’t feel it, you can’t expect your potential backers to feel it either.
The same thing goes for the “Story” section of your page. Keep it simple, passionate, and clear. You can make it longer if necessary, but be as succinct as you can.
As for budgeting, that should be part of the business plan you come up with before you launch. A Kickstarter drive is a business, after all, and you need to make sure you can cover your costs and hopefully make a bit of a profit. If you plan on selling your product to the public after your Kickstarter, keep that in mind when setting your prices too.
One other thing that really helps is having a fan base to start with. I’ve done my projects alone, which can be a challenge, but if you can tap other headliners for the project, that can really help drum up publicity too. You did that with Beyond the Sun, right? How’d you manage that? And how did those headliners feel about Kickstarter?
BTS: Yeah, headliners are really key to sales. People want names they recognize and respect so they know there’s some quality they’re getting, so I wanted to line those up. Mike Resnick has worked with me before, so it was easy to just shoot him an email. I recently interviewed Bob Silverberg and his publisher and he liked it so much they ran it on Penguin’s website, so we’ve corresponded a bit and met at WorldCon. And Nancy Kress I met at WorldCon on a panel and she was open to it as well. None of the three hesitated or even questioned it. They loved the concept and were enthusiastic. And I have a fourth big name who just did a successful Kickstarter herself and who will come aboard if we can get to our goals. So four headliners. They also liked the idea that I am trying to pay everyone pro rates and mixing headliners with up and coming. They also really liked the family friendly/educational focus. We want this to be usable in schools, not just entertainment, and something parents can share with kids and use to stimulate discussion.
MF: I love when I can do that with my kids. They don’t always have the attention span for the adult novels. But I also notice a lot of new names in there as well.
BTS: Yeah, along the lines of that, diversity is key, I think, so we have what I’d call midlist short story writers, people who’ve had several publications and are familiar names like Jamie Todd Rubin, Cat Rambo, Jennifer Brozek, Matt Cook, Guy Anthony DeMarco, Erin Hoffman, Jason Sanford and Jean Johnson. Jean and Erin have multiple novels out and Jean’s are bestsellers. And, of course, Cat and Jennifer are well known as editors. It gives me an assurance of good stories but also a good mix. And allows me to encourage, help and nurture fellow writers which is important to me and which Resnick and others have been doing for me. Lastly, I also made sure to invite as many female writers and male because we really have a lot of great women writing these days, and I like to get a good mix of perspectives.
You mentioned having a business plan. You committed yourself to an awful lot of writing. Does having deadlines for these books inspire you and help you stay productive? How do you decide delivery dates and how’s your progress going? You said you’re still writing the books. Are any finished? What process do you use to ensure they are professional i.e. edited, copy-edited, layout, etc.?
MF: Nothing inspires like a deadline and a mortgage. When I set my delivery dates, I tried to give myself a bit of slack in case of the schedule slipping. I figured I could write the first drafts fast enough, but I wasn’t sure how well I’d be able to tackle revision and production on the kind of schedule I needed to keep.
So far, I’m a bit behind, but with good reason. We had a cold savage my house for about a month in the spring, and then I took a month to write the first novel based on the Leverage TV show on TNT. I’d set the deal for that in motion two years beforehand, and I couldn’t bear to let it slip by, although maybe I should have.
I also spent a good chunk of my summer working on getting the first four books out the door and into the hands of my backers. I could have let that slide a bit, but I wanted to make sure that people saw that I was delivering on the earlier Kickstarters to give them more confidence in the later ones.
I spent years as a copy-editor, so my text is fairly clean to start with, but I have my wife read over the text for typos and logic gaffes. I’ve won awards for graphic design, so I handle the covers and the layout myself. I write in Scrivener, which outputs directly to ePub and PDF, and I use that to manage the production of the books myself too. It’s a bit more effort, but I’m picky about the quality, and this way I get exactly what I want.
BTS: Quality matters and when you’re asking people to invest and put their name behind an idea, all the more so. You and I have editing experience, but, like you, I do have someone else look at it to ensure I don’t miss anything, despite clean drafts. And I can do a lot of the production stuff. Still, having done so many, I’m sure the value of delivering an end product so professional it would blend in with anything at Barnes & Noble has entered your mind. I have noticed that many Kickstarters actually go beyond their budget and most of that comes from donors at the smaller levels, as you mentioned. What kind of responses are you getting from those who’ve received their rewards already? Do you send the rewards as they become available or have you waited to send them as a unit once everything’s done? And what do you recommend?
MF: So far, I haven’t had any complaints from the people who’ve received their awards. In fact, they’ve given the books several kind reviews. In a sense, they become an army of promoters for my writing, something I truly appreciate.
I send the rewards out as I get them done, but that’s mostly because many of the rewards are files I can simply email to backers. If I had to ship separate things out by mail, I’d probably try to gather them together to ship at the same time, if only to save on postage. Things like international mail can devour cash fast.
In the end, I think it’s better to take your time and do a good job and make sure that the backers are happy with what they receive. If they wind up having to wait a couple weeks, they might get a little irritated, but if they get something they’re not happy with, they’ll remember that a lot longer.
BTS: I think the crowdfunding thing has become far more mainstream. A year ago, when a publisher suggested I use Kickstarter for an anthology I was editing, Space Battles, I hadn’t heard much about it and didn’t want to recommend it to my headliners for fear they’d back out. But now, I have big names who willingly came aboard knowing it was a Kickstarter. One even crowdfunded a project herself just recently. So, in a sense, I think it’s accepted more broadly and that has to make a difference. Any thoughts on that?
MF: I think you’re absolutely correct about that. The huge successes of Kickstarters like those for the Pebble watch, the OUYA, and so on have made Kickstarter itself the focus of countless news stories. There’s also the fact that connected authors may already know someone who’s used Kickstarter to fund a project, and that kind of personal recommendation for the service goes a long way.
BTS: Indeed. As I said, I was encouraged to try it because of watching your success. Well, thanks for taking time to chat about this. In wrapping up, I have three final questions, but let’s start with: you’ve got a lot of books to write. But do you have plans for any more Kickstarters? Was Monster Academy the last 12 for 12? And are those books available to the general public as well? Beyond The Sun certainly will be when it’s finished.
MF: To tackle these one by one: Yes! Yes! Yes! (Or, they will be, once they’re done and shipped out to my backers first.)
BTS: Well, I loved your book Carpathia, so I look forward to checking them out. My last question is: what are some Kickstarter projects you’d recommend people take a look at if they’re looking for projects to back and projects that are well put together in KS terms.
MF: This changes on a daily basis, of course, as projects get launched and come to a close. At the moment, I’d recommend Cthulhu Claus Greeting Cards (Lovecraft themed holiday cards), Invasion of the Saucer People (a card game from my pal Lester Smith), and Stay Alive — Not Undead (a zombie coloring and activity book), plus, of course, Beyond the Sun.
For top of the line Kickstarters, check out Monte Cook’s recent project Numenera (a tabletop RPG that raised over half a million dollars) and Project Eternity (a video game from Obsidian that raised $1.1 million dollars in just over a day). You can also take a look at my latest one for Monster Academy (a trilogy of YA novels). It’s over now, but it should serve as a good model for others still.
How about you? What’s caught your eye recently?
BTS: Well, I think Electric Velocipede is well worth supporting. And who can resist Hotel Noir, an indie film starring Danny DeVito and more? Black Lotus Empire, a superhero comic set in China looks really good. And The Writers Workshop of Science Fiction and Fantasy is a project after my own heart. We really hope SF Signal’s readers will check these and more worthy projects out at www.kickstarter.com. And chase your passions. It’s a wild ride but it’s worth the reward.
MF: I agree. Thanks for the chat! And good luck with Beyond the Sun. I’m looking forward to reading it!
MATT FORBECK has been a full-time creator of award-winning games and fiction since 1989. He has designed games and toys and written stories of all sorts. He has twenty novels published to date, including the award-nominated Guild Wars: Ghosts of Ascalon and the critically acclaimed Amortals and Vegas Knights. His latest work includes the Magic: The Gathering comic book and the historical horror novel Carpathia. He is currently in the middle of his 12 for ’12 project, in which he’s writing a novel every month this year. For more about him and his work, visit Forbeck.com.
BRYAN THOMAS SCHMIDT is an author and editor of adult and children’s speculative fiction. His debut novel, The Worker Prince (2011) received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club’s Year’s Best Science Fiction Releases for 2011. A sequel The Returning followed in 2012 and The Exodus will appear in 2013, completing the space opera Saga Of Davi Rhii. His first children’s books, 102 More Hilarious Dinosaur Books For Kids (ebook only) and Abraham Lincoln: Dinosaur Hunter- Land Of Legends (forthcoming) appeared from Delabarre Publishing in 2012. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. He edited the anthology Space Battles: Full Throttle Space Tales #6 (2012) and is working on Beyond The Sun,forthcoming. He hosts #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer’s Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter and is an affiliate member of the SFWA.