So You Want to Kickstart a Novel

Kickstarter has funded the hopes and dreams of thousands. Could it do the same for you?


First things first: Kickstarter is not the new self-publishing. A quick look at their own stats will prove it: less than half of the projects put up on KS have been funded. The statistics for the publishing category are even more grim: only a 31% success rate.

Still, it's better than querying, amirite?

I want to spend a couple of posts talking about what you can do to get yourself in that 31%, and why you might want to do it at all. Kickstarter isn't a magic bullet.


But it does have a couple of benefits over publishing straight to Amazon. Specifically:
  1. It shifts the risk. Instead of spending a couple years writing a novel only to discover nobody wants it, you can learn the same thing after only a couple of months.
  2. You can get input directly from the people you're writing for on what they like and don't like.
What Kickstarter can't give you is writing experience, which is admittedly kind of critical. So I can't really recommend it to inexperienced writers. But if you've been writing a while, and you've got this great idea for a story, but nothing of yours has ever sold really well and you're not sure if it'll be worth your time, well.... you might look into it.

There are 3 things you should probably have to run a successful Kickstarter. If you're only asking for a little money (say $1,000 or less), maybe you can get away with one of these. From $1k-10k (where most of the successful publishing projects are), you want at least two out of three.

(1) A great idea. Be careful here. Everybody thinks they've got a great idea. You've got to have an idea people want. No, more than that: an idea they need. It's hard to pitch something innovative, and a lot of great-but-untested projects fail right here. This is why nostalgia and spin-offs sell really well. But if you're an author looking to self-publish, you don't have the luxury of a license. High concept is your friend.

(2) Evidence that you can pull it off. Because everybody has great ideas, people are hesitant to back someone if that's all they've got. They want to know why you're the person to put this together. Anything that proves you can write: short stories, a blog with a following, even a popular Twitter feed. If you don't have anything, try an excerpt of what you're planning to make.

(3) A network of people to spread the word. Kickstarter does not mean instant visibility. While it's true your backers have a vested interest to spread the word on your behalf (another benefit of Kickstarter), you have to get some backers first. Having a platform to start from can help a lot.

If this looks a lot like what you need to succeed in self-publishing -- or querying agents and editors, for that matter -- you shouldn't be surprised. Kickstarter doesn't change the playing field. It just shifts things around. Instead of WRITE => BUILD PLATFORM => MAKE MONEY, now it's BUILD PLATFORM => MAKE MONEY => WRITE.

These are all just guidelines, of course. It depends very much on how much money you're asking for, and even then there's no guarantee that any of these will make your Kickstarter successful (see what I said before about magic bullets). Though if you've got an idea people are craving, a history that shows you can pull it off, and an audience just waiting for you to launch so they can tell their friends about it, well . . . then you might have something interesting indeed.

But you still need a campaign. We'll talk about that next time.


Matthew MacNish said...

Here's the thing:

As a reader, I don't think I would ever back a book kickstarter for an author I had not read.

But ... I would totally do it for an author I was already a fan of, and in fact, I have.

I don't know what that says, exactly, because with games or movies I think I'd be more inclined to get excited based on the idea alone.

Maybe I judge books too harshly.

Steve MC said...

Good tips, and thanks for laying that out.

Still, you forgot the number one best thing one can do with a Kickstarter project: get Patrick Rothfuss involved.

Susan Kaye Quinn said...

As a reader, I don't think I would ever back a book kickstarter for an author I had not read.


I've successfully gotten over my initial leeriness of Kickstarter, participated in a few (including yours!) and think I understand it from a fan-basis now (at least somewhat). And I think your three KEYS to a successful Kickstarter are spot-on. It's the application of this to publishing that's the trick... I'm honestly surprised that 31% actually get funded (in publishing).

My thoughts on this are too long for a comment, methinks. I may have to blog about it! But it short: for a debut novelist, I don't think Kickstarter is the way to go - better to fund your own initial expenses and build platform by having people actually read your works. The only exception would be if your platform was EPIC prior to publishing (not just a popular twitter feed or blog).

That all being said, I can see using Kickstarter to fund a second season of Debt Collector - there are already some built-in fans. A Kickstarter campaign could be used to judge whether there's enough fandom to support a second season. And the funds could be used to buy art or print editions (although this last point is weak - I think funding has to be something that is critical to the project as well).

Sarah Ahiers said...

Yeah Matt really nailed it on the head for me.
I don't think i'd ever kickstart a novel or whathaveyou. Chances are i'd try self-pubbing first and i don't see that happening any time soon.

Though i guess i will say that if a friend made a run at it with kickstarter, i'd back them just because i support my friends and stuff.