Earlier this year, Brandon Sanderson ran a Kickstarter to publish four novels he wrote during the pandemic and earned a whopping $41.7 million. This wasn’t the first Kickstarter run by an author or even by Sanderson himself, but the size of this campaign brought it into the public eye and got everyone talking about the potential of Kickstarter for authors.
After much debate, I thought I would share my own experience funding my book on Kickstarter: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
I’ve broken the story down into five parts:
- My Kickstarter
- Where things went wrong
- What I learned from the Kickstarter
- Would I run a Kickstarter again?
- My advice to other authors considering Kickstarter
This story will help you understand what Kickstarter is like for new authors and, I hope, help you decide if Kickstarter is right for you.
I ran a Kickstarter in 2018 for my first full-length novel, Moonshadow’s Guardian. My goal was to raise a modest $1500 to pay for editing and formatting. I had spent a fair bit of time doing setup for a Kickstarter campaign at one of my earliest jobs, backed about a dozen Kickstarters, and spent a considerable amount of time researching successful book Kickstarters.
Armed with this knowledge, I came up with what I still consider to be an excellent set of rewards. There were ebook and paperback copies of Moonshadow’s Guardian, of course, and paperback copies of my novella, Keeper of the Dawn (currently between publishers), but I had a whole bunch of other books, too. Ebooks and paperbacks donated by authors I knew, mostly from Twitter, gathered together into bundles.
The community thought these were great rewards, too. I got backers for all of the bundles and hit my goal about three weeks into the campaign, then coasted to the end of the 30 days, netting around $1900. I was thrilled, and I’m still enormously proud of the campaign, despite everything that went wrong afterward.
Where everything went wrong
Most writers I know hate marketing, but for me, the marketing was the easy part of the Kickstarter campaign. The more difficult things were editing the book in the timeframe I had given myself and shipping out rewards.
Let’s talk about the editing first. If you’re here, you probably know that editing is hard. Copyediting and proofreading might be easier than developmental edits, but you need a significant amount of focus to get them done. Focus I didn’t have enough of in 2018, thanks to a combination of undiagnosed ADHD and the mental exhaustion of dealing with a months-long traumatic situation in my personal life.
Instead of giving myself grace and pushing the release of Moonshadow’s Guardian back by six months, I pushed it out with an imperfect copyedit. There were, in fact, some pretty major errors in a couple of chapters that should never have made it into a printed book. I felt an enormous pressure to get the book out in the timeline I promised on my Kickstarter, and the book suffered for it.
Shipping rewards turned out to be a whole separate nightmare. Now, about 50% of this is because I live in Canada and it costs an arm and a leg to ship anything from here, but it’s also just a lot of tedious work to pack and ship 50 books. And, to be completely honest, there were a few books that never made it out.
There was also an impact on the release itself. A lot of my community had backed the book for the Kickstarter and weren’t prepared to buy it again, impacting my numbers on sites like Amazon, which in turn meant the algorithm recommended it less. I didn’t have the energy to market the launch with the same dedication I had given to the Kickstarter, either.
All in all, while the Kickstarter was funded successfully and the book was published, the overall venture fell far short of what I had hoped and, in the end, compromised the success of my book’s actual release.
What I learned about Kickstarter for authors
There are five main lessons I learned from my quasi-successful Kickstarter experience:
1. Set a goal for twice as much money as you think you’ll need
There are a couple of reasons for this. First, the costs of actually making and delivering rewards is significant and can change between when you run your campaign and when you’re ready to ship. And that’s without accounting for things like formatting errors that make it necessary to do multiple proofs or packages that go missing/get damaged.
The other reason to set a goal twice as high as you think you need is that you deserve to be paid for your time spent delivering campaigns. Maybe not a calculated hourly wage, but you deserve to at least have the funds to order in while you deal with all of those packages and emails and backer surveys. If life circumstances change while you’re working on the book you may even need some of that money for survival.
2. Give yourself twice as much time as you think you’ll need to deliver rewards
If you’re raising funds for developmental edits, make that three times as much time as you think you’ll need. Editing is hard work and you’ll probably have to fit it in around your day job and writing your new project and preparing for your actual book launch on Amazon (and potentially other stores). You want to make sure you’ve given yourself enough time to do the job right.
You’ll also want to give yourself lots of time to ship rewards. Packaging and mailing books can take a long time, especially if you’re not exactly close to your local post office.
3. Give yourself lots of time between your Kickstarter and your book release
Marketing a Kickstarter is a lot of work. You spend hours on it every day, it becomes the focus of all of your blog posts and most of your social media posts, and you talk about it so much that some people might even get sick of hearing about it. For their sakes, you want to make sure there are several months between the marketing barrage of your Kickstarter and the equally (or even more) massive marketing effort for your book launch.
This is for you, too, though. You’ll need time to recover after your Kickstarter. You’ll also need time to perfect your book launch plan, set up promotions, and participate in interviews. And you’ll want to have your book ready early enough to send out Advance Review Copies (ARCs) to at least a couple of bloggers, which leads nicely into the next lesson…
4. Your Kickstarter backers should be like ARC readers
One of the biggest struggles I had with the retail launch of Moonshadow’s Guardian was that a significant percentage of the people most interested in my work at the time had already backed the Kickstarter. Those people also didn’t receive the book until around the time of launch, and many didn’t receive it until much later. This, combined with personal struggles eliminating a lot of my marketing time, led to mediocre sales at launch.
However, if you time things properly, your Kickstarter backers can help you build buzz for your book. They can post reviews on Amazon within the first day or two of your book being published, share on their social profiles that they’ve read the book that’s just launching, and generally be your cheerleaders. You can’t necessarily expect this, of course, but your Kickstarter backers are your biggest fans—there’s a good chance that they’ll be eager to spread the word about your work. All you have to do is make sure they see it first, then remember to ask for reviews/shares when the book is published.
5. Doing it all on your own is hard
There are a lot of different components to a successful Kickstarter, and there’s a pretty good chance that you’re not going to be good at all of them. I, for example, am very good at marketing and not so great at organizing and shipping rewards.
If you’re not confident in your ability to do everything involved in running a campaign and delivering the rewards, hire help. This will likely mean raising your funding goal, but it will save you a lot of heartache down the road. You also may not have to pay much up front: there are companies that specialize in helping with Kickstarter campaigns that take some or all of their payment as a percentage of your funds raised.
Would I run a Kickstarter again?
So, after all of those lessons, would I run a Kickstarter again?
Well, anything’s possible, especially since some of my regrets are specifically tied to Moonshadow’s Guardian being my first book. Several books down the line, I might have the audience to run a Kickstarter and still do a successful launch. But a bigger audience isn’t the only thing I would need: I would need to work with a fulfillment company and/or multiple assistants to help me deal with logistics and shipping. I’m not sure I want that level of responsibility.
There is one situation where I’ll work on a Kickstarter though: if I’m partnering with a publisher to run a Kickstarter for a project like an anthology or a TTRPG. This is because, in those instances, the publisher will manage shipping and fulfillment, and will often already have processes in place for running other aspects of a Kickstarter. I would be able to focus on what I do best: convincing people that the stories I’m passionate about are ones they’ll be passionate about, too.
My advice to authors considering crowdfunding
So, what can you, the author considering crowdfunding for the first time, take away from this rambling tale?
Well, I could recite a list of small, practical tips, but I’ve already laid out the most important ones and in the end, they all boil down to one thing: funding your book through Kickstarter is no easier than any other publication method. In fact, in some ways, it’s harder than any of the other methods I’ve tried (and I’ve been both small-press published and self-published. If you don’t have assistants to help with marketing and shipping, running a Kickstarter is basically like having a full-time job for the month of funding and again for a few weeks when you’re dealing with shipping.
This doesn’t necessarily mean you shouldn’t do a Kickstarter. Crowdfunding is a powerful tool, especially if you have a large audience through social media platforms or an existing blog.
The key is to make sure that you’re ready to run a Kickstarter. Have processes for shipping and logistics in place or work with a fulfillment company so you can use their processes. Give yourself lots of wiggle room in your budget and timeline. And be willing to delay if it means a better book; you don’t want to be learning about errors from Amazon reviews.
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