Understanding Crowdfunding as a Self-Publishing Option, Part 1

Crowdfunding sites have become a legitimate option for writers who wish to self-publish. Learn how to define a crowdfunding strategy and choose a crowdfunding site.
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Asking family, friends, and even strangers for money doesn’t carry the stigma it used to. In the last few years, crowdfunding sites—where people collect donations to cover the cost of everything from essential surgery to wearable technology—have become a legitimate option for writers who want to self-publish without plunging into debt.

This guest post is by Diane Shipley. Shipley is a freelance journalist who writes about books, pop culture, technology, and psychology—or any combination of the above. Her bylines include The Guardian, The Los Angeles Times, Writer’s Digest, and Mental Health Today.

Diane Shipley featured

She’s also a frequent contributor to Twitter (@dianeshipley).

Novelists are using crowdfunding to bring passion projects to life, communicate with fans, and connect with Hollywood producers. In some cases, they’re even garnering critical respect. Paul Kingsnorth’s crowdfunded postapocalyptic novel, The Wake, won The Bookseller Industry Book of the Year Award 2015, was long-listed for the Man Booker Prize, and received a favorable review from The New York Times.

On Kickstarter, the biggest and best-known crowdfunding site, donors gave more than $20 million to publishing projects in 2016 alone. And since the site launched in 2009, publishing projects have raised over $100 million.

Yet only 40 percent of projects ever reach their funding goal. So how can you ensure success? In a word, planning.

Define Your Crowdfunding Strategy

Kickstarter’s publishing outreach lead, Maris Kreizman, says that authors need to do their research before deciding how much to ask for. That means getting quotes for services like editing, cover design, and printing. Plus you need to factor in site fees (Kickstarter and its main competitor, Indiegogo, take a 5 percent cut of the earnings for successful projects, plus 3 to 5 percent for processing payments), and the cost of shipping and rewards.

A key part of crowdfunding campaigns is offering backers something for their money at different donation levels: For example, a donation of $10 awards an e-book, and a pledge of $20 awards a print copy. Sometimes authors create merchandise, which Kreizman says is a nice idea but an unnecessary expense. “You can still do exclusive rewards, but it doesn’t have to be a physical object. A phone call or recommended reading list can be just as meaningful.” While crowdfunding campaigns that rake in millions hit the headlines, it’s more realistic to aim for an amount that covers your costs. “We recommend [trying to raise] the bare minimum to make the book you want to make,” Kreizman says.

Whichever site you choose, you’ll need to make your project page as attractive as possible in order to appeal to potential backers, which means explaining what your book’s about and what it means to you. Break up any large blocks of text with bullet points, links to other writing samples, and relevant images (as long as you own the rights to them). According to Indiegogo, campaigns with videos raise 114 percent more money than the average campaign, but a video doesn’t have to be professional quality. Keep it short (under two minutes), sincere, and free of background noise.

Spread the Word

Once you’re happy with the look of your project page, it’s time to launch your campaign. Kelly Thompson, who has used Kickstarter to fund two novels, says that a social media presence is crucial. “You need to be on Twitter or Tumblr or Facebook or a blog, or all of the above,” she says. “You can’t expect to go to Kickstarter and find an audience there. You have to have a preexisting audience, even if it’s a small one.”

Publishing consultant Jane Friedman says that before launching a crowdfunding campaign, you should make a spreadsheet of your contacts and estimate how much you can reasonably expect them to donate. “I recommend with social media that people consider 1 percent of their total following to be potential donors. If you have three thousand [followers], that’s at most thirty [donors], and even that [number] feels optimistic.”

Ideally, you’ll know a handful of people who will be willing to put up the initial 10 to 20 percent in order to build momentum for the campaign. Friedman recommends that authors send an e-mail to their contacts at the start of a campaign asking for support—but know who it’s appropriate to approach. Because Friedman has a lot of Twitter followers (220,000 at last count), strangers frequently ask her to tweet about their campaigns. “They’ve asked me to support their project because they know it can be helpful to have someone with a following mention them. But that doesn’t work; you need to have had some sort of interaction.”

Liz Hennessy, who writes as E.A Hennessy, used Indiegogo to raise money for her first novel, Grigory’s Gadget, a steampunk adventure story. She was keen to self-publish so she could keep creative control, and she looked to crowdfunding when she realized how costly that route would be. She found asking for donations difficult and says that if she were to crowdfund again, she’d assemble a team of ambassadors to help promote her campaign. “I’m a shy, introverted person, so it was difficult for me to approach even friends and family. You know they care, but it’s hard to reach out and say, ‘This is how you can help me.’” In the end, she raised $2,021 of her $4,000 goal, and as she’d chosen Indiegogo’s flexible funding option (as opposed to fixed funding, which requires the campaign to be fully funded to pay out), she got to keep the money she raised. That gave her enough to cover editing. By using personal savings to cover smaller publishing expenses, she was still able to self-publish Grigory’s Gadget.

Which Site Is Right for You?

Weigh the pros and cons of the different options before making your choice.

  • Kickstarter (Kickstarter.com): biggest and best-known crowdfunding site, and the one with the strictest guidelines. Every project must be well-defined and have a clear end goal and delivery date. Fixed funding only.
  • Indiegogo (Indiegogo.com): This site doesn’t have the reach or cachet of Kickstarter, but it allows you to choose between fixed or flexible funding, where you can keep every cent you raise (minus fees).
  • Unbound (Unbound.co.uk): This U.K.-based crowdfunding publisher is favored by literary authors and celebrities. It encourages authors to pitch their book before they’ve started writing and to update their backers regularly.
  • Inkshares (Inkshares.com): This crowdfunding publisher allows authors to upload drafts of their projects to receive feedback and build a following before their campaign. It offers the option of a 250-book print run for niche projects.
  • Publishizer (Publishizer.com): A crowdfunding site/matchmaker. For every pre-sales goal met (from 250 to 1000 copies), an author’s book proposal is shared with a bigger group of publishers. It offers flexible funding, but fees start at 15 percent.

Interested in more tips, success stories, and hybrid crowdfunding options? Check out the second half of this post on Thursday morning.

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