Twelve Tips for Successful Crowdfunding

For decades, publishers have avoided finding out whether their readers want the books that they painstakingly and expensively produce. We’ve conducted no customer surveys or marketing, and have relied instead on editorial hunches and the occasional word from our sales reps about what genre or works are exciting the general public.

Now, however, publishers have not only a means of not only determining just whether anyone is interested in the book we’re thinking of producing, but of removing the risk of producing it in the first place. We can now ask readers to invest in the book’s creation. This is crowdfunding, and it has opened up new possibilities for publishers everywhere.

My publishing company, Lantern Books, has now used crowdfunding—in our case,Indiegogo—to produce four books. The first, We Animals by Canadian photojournalist Jo-Anne McArthur, was a 208-page, full-color hardcover, the production of which (from writing the text to distribution) we budgeted at $35,000. After a 60-day campaign, 680 individuals bought 1280 copies and we raised $51,007. This allowed us not merely to cover the costs of the creation of this book but to print 1250 more copies than had been pre-ordered. These copies were effectively cost-free, and their subsequent sale through the usual book-distribution outlets allowed us to generate enough revenue to cover the costs associated with a conventional printing of another 3000 copies. We are currently selling down this inventory through standard publishing–retail means.

The second and third titles—American Icarus and America on the Couch by depth journalist Pythia Peay—were also budgeted at $35,000. Although these were not photo books, they required substantial editorial and production work. Once again, we made our budget, although we relied on a couple of large donors at the end of the 60-day campaign to take us over the top. These books are currently being edited and will be available in Spring 2015.

The final book is The Art of the Animal, edited by Kathryn Eddy, L. A. Watson, and Janell O’Rourke. Like We Animals, Art is in full-color; unlike with We Animals, we assumed a much smaller market for the book, and so the budget was less: $13,500. We ran a shorter campaign (45 days) as a means of intensifying interest, and pulled in $14,190.

Before the advent of crowdfunding, none of these books would have been feasible for a small, independent press such as Lantern. Certainly, the greater availability of short-run printing and higher-quality print-on-demand technology now make it possible to produce few, full-color books. But the creation of these works still requires editors, designers, and typesetters, all of whom need to be paid. Simply put, these titles’ size and complexity would have made them too expensive to produce.

That said, crowdfunding is not a sure-fire means to raise adequate revenues. Indiegogo,Kickstarter, GoFundMe, and other sites are full of  projects that didn’t get anywhere near their goal (at which point, they either forfeited nine percent of the revenues they earned or, in the case of Kickstarter, didn’t receive any of the money pledged). So, what have I learned in these campaigns that might help you lessen the chances of not making your goal?

  1. Set a reasonable target. Unless your project is very high-profile with a huge built-in fan-base, be very hard-headed about how much you can raise. If in doubt, only use crowdfunding for a part of the project. It’s better for your morale, for your customers, and for your bottom line to meet the smaller goal than fall far short of the bigger one.
  2. Orient the campaign toward a thing. Kickstarter began as a way for artists to raise money for their albums, books, shows, and so on. If you make the goal vague or numinous, it has much different expectations. To that end, therefore . . .
  3. . . . Don’t think of your campaign as charity. Yes, folks may want to support you in a general sense, but you need to think about the campaign as delivering a product. Use words like pre-order, investment, buy. Resist using words like donate, charity, give. Change your attitude, and that of your customers. They are getting something, and not just being kind.
  4. Make a movie. Anecdotal evidence suggests that a movie (three minutes or less) that explains your project—where you’re talking directly to your audience and making your pitch clearly and concisely—is fundamental to a campaign’s success. It doesn’t have to be a Hollywood production, and it absolutely should not be long, but it helps. Here, here, and here are some good examples of what to do.
  5. Consider your audience carefully. Is your community enthusiastic but poor or hard-to-reach but rich? How is your product generally valued in the marketplace? These considerations will enable you to choose and price accurately the perks you offer, in addition to branding the product in a way that speaks to your audience’s aspirations and self-image.
  6. Make the perks count.  The “perks” are those items or services that people can purchase in addition to the thing you’re trying to create. In our experience, you need to offer people a way to send you a small amount (because they want to be involved) as well as a large amount (because they want to feel like a sponsor or patron). Some campaigns, such as this one, rely on lots of small purchases; others need a blend of $30 and $500 ones. On the one hand, you need to ensure you can earn enough through the simple acquisition of the product and not rely on the big buyers. On the other, it’s advisable to provide folks with the option of purchasing something expensive.
  7. Budget for distribution. Your biggest headache is likely to be fulfillment. People are going to order your item from all over the world. Lantern’s solution has been to estimate shipping at one rate: the relatively many who live nearer your distribution point will pay more to compensate for the relatively few who live further away, who will pay much less. We’ve found that the costs work themselves out in the wash. Another option is to charge more for overseas shipping.
  8. Have a back-up plan. Use your credit card; engage a wealthy relative to step in; bring in some really amazing perks half-way through the campaign that are guaranteed to get you over the finish line. You do not want to fall short in your campaign.
  9. Send bulletins. Regular messages describing the campaign, expressing thanks, and telling folks about how the production is coming along are essential. Just because somebody’s already paid for something doesn’t mean they won’t buy another copy or let their friends know about their campaign. Don’t bombard your backers with messages (that’s irritating), but coddle your customers.
  10. Don’t just use social media to get the word out. In our last campaign, nearly half the money came from those who had been emailed, as opposed to accessing our campaign through Twitter, Facebook, and so on. That suggests two things: (1) people want to be approached directly; and (2) crowdfunding is now becoming so common that people are zoning it out. You need to be persistent, polite, and persuasive. Targeted emails may take longer, but they may be more remunerative than generic blasts or posts.
  11. Don’t do it all yourself. Make sure you have a group of folks responsible for reaching out to the community—preferably people who are networked to people in networks. In the case of The Art of the Animal, three well-connected and committed individuals were responsible for a third of the purchases made. In the case of We Animals,  the author could tap into organizations who knew her work and were willing to spread the word about the campaign to their networks. This meant that our outreach grew exponentially.
  12. Be positive. People don’t want to see your panic, smell your desperation, or hear you moan about a lack of support. They have plenty of other things to spend their money on. Make them feel part of something bold and exciting.

Norm Phelps (1939–2014)

Norm Phelps—the author of four books (The Longest Struggle, The Great Compassion, The Dominion of Love, and Changing the Game), all of which were published by Lantern—died on the last day of last year, less than a year after the passing of Rynn Berry: another writer,  independent scholar, and friend of the company. We were proud to be Norm’s publishers and learned a huge amount from his work and his insights. He was an exceptional writer. Not only was his prose clear and passionate, but he presented his manuscripts with the highest degree of professionalism. They were accurately footnoted and properly formatted, which saved us a great deal of time and gave us extra confidence that Norm knew what he was talking about. He received my editorial suggestions gracefully and willingly, again demonstrating how good a writer he was. (In my judgment, those who accept editorial suggestions are usually the best writers; those who refuse to change a word are the worst!)

Most importantly, Norm had something to say—and he did so with compassion as well as passion. He struck us as a very reasonable man: someone not interested in the petty brouhahas that bubble up constantly in the animal advocacy movement. He took the long view and we very much appreciated that. In fact, we thought Changing the Game precisely encapsulated his thesis that animal advocacy needs to place itself within the long arc of social justice movements and not worry about immediate success when other movements took many decades to do so.

We will be forever grateful for Norm’s vocal and demonstrable support for Lantern, which he championed at every opportunity. Norm truly appreciated independence of thought, and put his time and money where his mouth was. He took books seriously. In recent years, illness had hampered Norm’s ability to attend conferences and meet his fans. Our company, the movement, and the world are much enhanced with Norm having been a part of all of them.

The Two-Week Rule

everytime-you-make-a-typo-the-errorists-win

We have a rule in our offices at Lantern Books that no copies of a book newly arrived from the printers are to be scanned for typos, verbal infelicities, or solecisms. It’s hard to do: the eye roves over the page like a klieg-light, casting into sharp relief the typefaces chosen, the leading and kerning of letters and lines on the page, the running-head format, the dimensions of the book, the thickness of the paper, the margins, and so on. We’ve poured our hearts (and not an inconsiderable amount of money) into the book, and it’s beyond disheartening to be confronted with mistakes that somehow bypassed the author, editor, copyeditor, typesetter, and proofreader.

After fourteen days, however, we can view the errors with more equanimity than despair; and exasperation and self-loathing have been replaced by a shrug of the shoulders and steely determination not to do it again. Thankfully, technology has helped us experience fewer unwelcome surprises. Not only can we do a dummy run with one or more copies of the book, just so that we can get the three-dimensional item in our hands before committing ourselves more fully to print, but the actual print run can be a matter of only a few copies, allowing changes to be made quickly, with relatively little expense, and with relatively few tarnished copies out there in the world.

We still think the two-week rule needs to be applied—and not just for publishers. An author recently told us that she’d sent her mother a copy of a book over which she’d labored mightily for many years, only for her mother to reply immediately that she’d found three errors of fact—and that was just for starters. Of course, it is the ordained role of parents everywhere to remind their children that, no matter how much they may feel they have accomplished, they’ll always be in the wrong. So, authors: make sure you tell your readers (and especially your supposedly nearest and dearest) that for fourteen days you want nothing but unconditional love and support. After that, one’s fragile heart might be strong enough for the uncomfortable truth.

The Future of Publishing

Ten years ago, Lantern was asked (along with others) to form a panel on writing and publishing for an animal advocacy conference. We panelists were so gloomy and downbeat in our presentation that we were never invited back again! What a difference a decade makes: We’re actually very positive about the future of book publishing. The reasons why are contained in this fine extended essay from The Economist (kindly sent to us by Cassandra Greenwald), and which is worth reading in full. There are, however, three  paragraphs that distill just about all the “wisdom” that we impart to would-be authors, which are worth me quoting in full. In the future:

While there will be more books, there may be fewer people who can make a full living as writers and publishers, says Mike Shatzkin, an industry analyst.

This too could be in part seen as a return to previous eras, when people did not expect to earn a living by writing books but used books as a means to advance their career or as a creative outlet. It is clear that most self-published authors are not doing it for the money they can reasonably expect to get—they are doing it to leave a mark, if only a digital one. Those who make a living too may increasingly be the ones who become marketable personalities online, on the festival circuit and elsewhere, rather than just being faded pictures on the inside back cover.

And writers who are not also performers may find that new opportunities arise. People with an idea for a book they cannot afford to take the time to write no longer have to go to a publisher. They can offer something like old-fashioned subscriptions to prospective readers, either on generalist crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo, or through specialist firms such as Pubslush and Unbound. Many will not get funded; some will succeed beyond their dreams.