Kickstarting an Anthology of Genre Stories

In November 2017, I helped run a Kickstarter campaign for Sword & Sonnet, an anthology of genre stories featuring women or non-binary battle poets. We successfully funded and raised $9348 USD. Here are some thoughts about what I learned from the process. I’ll only be talking about preparing and running the campaign itself. How to go about fulfilling the rewards (and things like what printing service to use) is a different process and one we’re working on now.

The anthology will be released in 2018 and I’m co-editing it along with E. Catherine Tobler and Rachael K. Jones. It was important for us to offer professional pay rates (US 6c per word as defined by SFWA) for our writers. Rachael and Elise both have editorial experience (Rachael is the former editor of PodCastle and Elise is the editor of Shimmer) and I’m an Associate Editor at PodCastle, but none of us had run a Kickstarter before. For research purposes we looked at other crowdfunded genre anthologies to see how they did.

There are a variety of crowdfunding platforms but Kickstarter is by far the most popular. There are the breakout anthology successes (often based around existing magazines) such as Uncanny’s Disabled People Destroy Science Fiction and Lightspeed’s Women Destroy Science Fiction which had a lot of community goodwill. These are the exceptions though. Most genre anthologies aim to raise around $8000-$10000 US. Here are some of the recent successful campaigns for anthologies paying professional rates, along with their number of backers and US dollars raised. (NB: These are anthologies which reached their funding goal, that doesn’t necessarily mean they successfully delivered the anthology). (I also converted foreign currencies to US$ for consistency).

From this I determined that 300 backers was a good goal to aim for. If you’ve got 1000 Twitter followers then maybe you’re thinking that 300 backers doesn’t sound like a big number. However, there’s a big difference between getting someone to like your tweets and getting them to hand over money.

If you have friends who have run successful campaigns, then ask them if they have any advice for you (while making sure to be nice about it and respecting their time).

It’s also important to look at failed campaigns. Kickstarter’s Stats Page shows that around 36% of campaigns succeed. This is lower for publishing projects — around 31%. There are a few people who have written their thoughts on why their crowdfunding campaign failed (in most cases not enough preparation resulted in not getting the campaign in front of enough people).

Stories

One of the key things for an anthology crowdfunding campaign is to decide whether you’re going to accept stories before the campaign funds. Some campaigns choose their stories beforehand, with the acceptance being dependent on funding. It might be easier to convince potential backers when they know exactly who is going to be in the anthology. But this can suck for your authors. What if your campaign doesn’t succeed? Are they going to have to sell their stories elsewhere?

We chose to ask a group of writers to agree to contribute to the anthology and then write the story after the campaign succeeded. That way if we didn’t succeed, we haven’t wasted too much of their time.

Many of the people interested in backing your campaign are likely to be writers as well and having an open submission period can increase their interest in your project.

Our open submission period ran in February 2018.

What not to do — offer a reward level where potential contributors are given preferential treatment for having a submission accepted. Having contributors buy their way into an anthology doesn’t look good.

Jed Hartman has a good list of things to think about from a publishers’ point of view when you’re organising a Kickstarter. SFWA has an article on things for writers to watch out for when submitting to a Kickstarter. As a publisher you want to allay these concerns.

Cover Art

One thing you’ll probably have to pay for in advance of the Kickstarter is hiring an artist to do your cover. When promoting the project you want to have a nice image to show off (it helps it stand out on Twitter and Kickstarter’s list of projects). We hired Vlada Monakhova who produced our beautiful cover illustration.

There are lots of artists online to choose from. Look through their portfolios to find a style you like. One thing to bear in mind is that popular artists are likely to have a busy schedule, so commissioning the cover art is something you want to do well in advance of your campaign.

Choosing Your Funding Goal

So how much money do you ask for? The most common advice is to choose the minimum amount you need to produce the anthology. With Kickstarter, if you don’t reach your target, you don’t get anything. Backers are only charged if your project succeeds. (This is actually a good thing. What if you only got half the money you needed? You wouldn’t be able to pay all of your contributors. How are you going to make the book?)

The bulk of all Kickstarter projects that succeed ask for less than $10000. If you’re paying professional rates for authors, then that is likely to be the largest part of your expenses. Plus cover art, formatting, Kickstarter fees, and the cost of producing the books. And don’t forget postage!

Postage costs have been the undoing of many a campaign. Don’t underestimate how much it costs to internationally post books. (As an Australian, I’m used to the ferocious costs of international postage). You should also take into consideration that postage costs are included as part of the money raised by the Kickstarter.

Putting together a spreadsheet and playing with different funding amounts is a good idea.

Rewards

For an anthology the obvious reward levels to include are ebook versions and a paperback version. Other common rewards are offering short story critiques, Tuckerizations (naming characters after supporters) and art prints based on the cover artwork. Looking at other campaigns shows that most price their ebook around $10.

There are lots of different options for printing books. I won’t go into detail here, but the advantage of using a printing service like CreateSpace is that you can have them post the books directly to backers rather than doubling up on postage costs.

The ebook will probably be your most popular reward. The upside of this is that there are no postage costs and once the anthology is completed, there are no costs for extra ebooks. But it’s hard to raise a lot of money if most of your backers are donating $10. You’ll need some higher level reward levels with some rewards unique to your campaign.

It’s also important to strike a balance between having too many reward levels (it gets more complicated and means more work) and having the options that give your backers flexibility to easily choose what they want (although no matter what you do, someone will invariably ask for another option).

The mechanics of using Kickstarter itself are prone to change quite often but Kickstarter’s help section provides lots of information about setting up your project.

Preparing for the Kickstarter

Ideally you want to line up some guest blog posts and podcast appearances at least a couple of months beforehand. This is one area where we left things a bit late. We didn’t give them enough lead time and Tor.com mentioned our project the day after the campaign ended. I’ve seen authors write that they don’t think guest blog posts make much difference to novel sales, but they can make a big difference for a Kickstarter. Even a single backer will propel you closer to funding.

Which blogs and genre news sites do you ask to mention your project? That comes down to who you know and whether you can make an interesting article about a topic related to your project. Something other than just “give us money.”

Kickstarter recommends keeping the length of the campaign to 30 days or under. It’s hard to keep a momentum going beyond that. I think 30 days / a month is good for your first campaign. It gives you a bit of time to organise things you should have prepared beforehand but didn’t know about (like guest blog posts).

Running the Kickstarter

The bulk of your funding will likely come in the first couple of days and the last week of your campaign. Kickstarter has the option to allow people to get a reminder about the campaign 48 hours before it’s due to finish. As long as it looks likely your campaign is going to fund (or has already funded) expect many of your backers to back then. I’ve seen people recommend that you want to reach around 10% of your funding in the campaign’s first day. People are much less likely to back a campaign if they don’t think there is much chance of it succeeding.

This is our funding progress.

We had a good couple of first days but then slowed down. Most campaigns are slow in the middle, but we would have liked to have been further along. By the time we reached the campaign’s halfway point, we were less than 50% funded. Fortunately the project took off in the last week and we surpassed our goal.

Kicktraq is a web site that provides extra statistics about Kickstarter campaigns. They also have trend and projection graphs which give estimates about where your campaign is likely to end up. You’re probably better off ignoring these estimates. They change all of the time and are not accurate. The web site does provide some nice graphs showing how many backers and how much money was pledged each day.

Kickstarter gives you a dashboard with a list of reference links showing how backers reached your site. (This is not always accurate, but at least gives you a rough indication). More than a third of our backers came via Twitter. Kickstarter itself was the next biggest source of backers. Our project was listed as a project Kickstarter loved and in our final week made it onto the hot projects list, which meant people browsing Kickstarter had a chance of discovering the project. Facebook was another source of backers, but wasn’t nearly as effective as Twitter.

You want to maintain a balance between spamming all your friends and giving people the opportunity to hear about your project. No one is going to be impressed if you simply post the same link over and over again. I’ve never spent as much time on Twitter, posting links about the project and joining in conversations about themes related to the book.

Hopefully your contributors will boost the project as well. (This is one of the biggest advantages of crowdfunding an anthology vs a single author collection). We were fortunate enough to have some contributors with lots of Twitter followers and noticed a bump in backers after they mentioned the project. We also had an idea that excited people enough to mention it to their followers. Our relationship with existing markets like Shimmer and PodCastle helped as well, as they mentioned the project to their followers.

You’re also likely to get a bunch of messages from people offering their crowdfunding expertise and promotion packages. “Give us $100 and we’ll send your project link to a bunch of random people who likely have little interest in your project.” I’d recommend avoiding all of these packages.

Watching the project’s progress can be stressful. Especially when it looks like you might not fund. It’s not just the disappointment of it not going ahead, it’s the idea of disappointing the people who have helped contribute. Fortunately, we passed our target. The night we reached our goal, I sat in front of the computer and watched the total pass our goal. It’s exciting to see how many people want to see the project come to life.

Be prepared for some of your backers to cancel their pledges when you fund. Maybe they wanted to help bring the project to life, but now that you’ve reached your goal, they think their help isn’t needed any more.
We ended up with 333 backers, 6 of whom had their payment details rejected (expect this to happen to a few backers), leaving us with a final tally of 327 backers (even though Kickstarter still shows the project had 333 backers).

Backers are only charged after the campaign finishes (assuming it funded). Initially we had 20 backers whose payment was declined. Part of the reason for the high number was that the campaign was funding in Australian dollars and was treated as an international payment for US backers (and many of them had to contact their bank to authorise an international payment). Kickstarter gives them 1 week to sort out their payment details. Then Kickstarter will send you the campaign’s money 2 weeks after it finished. (Minus their roughly 10% fees).

We ended up with backers from around the world, with the majority from the US, Australia and the UK.

Australia 45
Canada 21
Denmark 3
Finland 1
France 2
Greece 1
Italy 1
New Zealand 2
Norway 3
Philippines 1
Singapore 1
South Africa 1
Sweden 5
Switzerland 2
UK 32
USA 206

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