I Kickstarted my first novel, sold 1,319 books, and made $4,369.14 (so far) — and so can you (maybe) (under fairly specific circumstances)
I came up with the idea for this book back in July of 2012. But I was wary of writing the whole thing and then trying to navigate a traditional publication process that might go nowhere, and Kickstarter, at that point only a few years old, was starting to become a known quantity. I decided I would crowdsource the novel instead, using the money to pay for printing, editing, and distribution — with, hopefully, some money left over that would be equal to or better than advances and royalties I might’ve gotten through traditional publishing. Since I was a freelancer, I hoped, in essence, that the by crowdfunding I could at least pay in advance for the time I spent working on the novel rather than other paying projects. Never having written a novel before, I set the absurdly optimistic target date of November 2013, and a devilish fundraising target of $6,666.
The Kickstarter blew through that goal, ending at a grand total of $20,159. But as noted, the actual process of writing the novel took a lot longer than I thought. This was very stressful to me; I felt like I was letting all my backers down, and with the very, very large amount of money I raised being very, very public, I worried that people would think I had scammed everyone out of an awful lot of cash.
Eventually, the book did get done, and I was quite proud of it! You can read the first chapter on Medium or listen to me read the third chapter on the Catapult podcast. And because that $20,159 figure has been out there in the world so long, I now want to talk about the actual costs of producing the book, shipping it to Kickstarter backers, and selling it to other people. I figure with both crowdfunding and self-publishing getting more and more attention among creative types, people would appreciate some hard figures from a real-life case. I certainly would’ve liked to have read an article like this when I was doing my campaign!
This article is pretty long, and if you want, you can skip ahead to the lessons section for some wisdom I’ve gained from hard-won experience. But if you want to get into the nitty gritty, I’m going to approach my analysis in a couple different ways. First, I’ll give you a detailed, basically chronological cash-accounting version of the past four years: this is how much I made and how I made it, this is how much I spent and what I spent it on. Then I’ll try to drill down into details of that to look at what types of books or sales channels were more — or less — lucrative.
But before I get into any of that, I want to talk about how exactly that very large Kickstarter haul came my way in the first place.
The secret to a successful Kickstarter doesn’t start with Kickstarter
How does someone who’s never written a book convince 750 or so people to pony up $20,000+ to write one? This is a question that a lot of people asked me in the immediate aftermath of the Kickstarter campaign, to the point that I became increasingly embarrassed and uncomfortable with my success, especially when talking to other authors.
I have been A Person On The Internet for many years. Since 2004, I’ve posted daily on my blog, the Comics Curmudgeon, which is remarkably well-read considering it’s mostly off-color jokes aboutMary Worth. I parlayed the minor Internet fame from my blog into bouts of semi-regular writing at Wonkette, and from there have written at some other high-profile online publications like The Awl. These various gigs have netted me a decent sized social media following, particularly on Twitter. Basically, I was the perfect candidate for Kickstarting a book: someone with a lot of Internet fans who’d been giving away content for free for years. That doesn’t mean I’m a better or more deserving writer or novelist than the folks behind the many first-novel Kickstarters that don’t meet their goals; it just means that my career was uniquely suited to crowdsourcing. When people asked me “How can I do what you did?” I was tempted to say, “First, write something online every day for eight years that a lot of people think is funny.”
One of the questions I asked in my survey to backers was how they first became aware of me as a person from whom they might purchase literature. Of those who answered, 87% were readers of the Comics Curmudgeon. I don’t necessarily think of that blog as the only thing I do anymore, but it’s clearly how most of my fans found their way to me. 5% of backers knew me personally, and 3%, a nice little bump, came because the campaign was a Featured Project on the Kickstarter site. But that probably wouldn’t have happened if it hadn’t gotten off to such a quick start, driven by my blog readers. The rest came from a scattering of other sources.
The other thing I did that helped boost my success — and this is something that any crowdfunder can and should do — is give people a lot of options about how they could buy the book, at different price points. They could buy an e-book for $8, a paperback for $15, a hardcover for $25, a signed hardcover for $35. They could get various add-ons, including cartoon art generously donated by my friend Francesco Marciuliano, Sally Forth writer and cat poet. They could pay for a book party, where I’d come to their house and talk to their group about the novel. (These turned out to be incredibly fun!) I even put bait at the low and high ends: you could kick in $3 and not get anything in return but your name in the Thank You section of the book, or you could put in $1,000 and get to write a paragraph in the book’s introduction. People took me up on both, much to my surprise.
So by July of 2012, I had $20,159 and a basic outline of a novel. Where did I go from there?
Follow the money
Well, truth be told, I didn’t quite start out with that much money. Kickstarter takes a percentage for itself, of course, and at that time Amazon handled the payment processing, and they charged a fee as well. Together, these fees came to $1,806.89. (Kickstarter now handles payment processing directly, but I don’t think the fees are significantly less.) So that means that by the time the money actually got transferred into my bank account, I had:
$20,159 — $1,806.89 = $18,352.11
The first money I spent was on something that seems kind of silly now: I convinced myself that I was selling a book in Maryland and should really pay Maryland sales tax on it, which I calculated to be $689.25. While this might, in the strictest legal sense, have been required, I imagine that I could’ve skipped this step with no legal consequence, as I assume virtually all crowdfunders do. But pay it I did. You’re welcome, Maryland!
$18,352.11 — $689.25 = 17,662.86
(I should also say at this point that your crowdfunding income is subject to income and self-employment taxes, if you live in the U.S.! That doesn’t figure into my calculations of profits here, because that profit is the income that gets taxed, but you definitely need to keep this mind. I talk about it in more detail in at the appendix at the end of this article.)
So I socked away most of that money into a savings account and started writing. As mentioned, this took … a while, and sometimes I was bad at communicating with backers about when they could expect the final product. I had one person, who backed at the $15 level, ask for a refund,which I gladly gave.
$17,662.86 — $15 = $17,647.86
One of the things that I would’ve had from a traditional publisher that I needed to pay for waseditorial help. I had two editors I worked with. Emily Gordon helped me get started and work through some ideas I had at the beginning of the writing process, and then gave me a really excellent and detailed set of notes on my first draft that shaped the novel into something I was proud of. Bill Peschel served as copy editor at the end of the process, checking for spelling, grammar, continuity, and logic. Between the two of them, I paid $2,550. Their services were invaluable, but I’m pretty sure editors at an actual publishing house would’ve spent more time with me, to an extent that would’ve been beyond my budget.
$17,647.86 — $2,550 = 15,097.86
I also needed cover art, of course, and I had set a stretch goal during the Kickstarter where if I met it I’d get illustrations for the inside of the book. I ended up getting cover art for both paperback and hardcover editions, as well as three internal illustrations, from three different artists: Matt Lubchansky, Don Sparrow, and Catty Donnelly. This all cost $1,000. I probably could’ve done this for less, but I picked artists that I liked and was very pleased with the results.
$15,097.86 — $1,000 = $14,097.86
Then I needed to design the book. This is not the same thing as illustrations — it involves font choice, layout, chapter markers, and a host of other small decisions that lead to a polished final product. Theoretically, I could’ve just used Word or Adobe InDesign to produce a PDF of the book myself, but the layout of The Enthusiast was fairly complex, because a lot of the text is in the form of text messages, online forum posts, and the like, and I really wanted it to look good. I worked with a great designer, David Malki !, who spent quite a bit of time on it. He also helped coordinate the next couple of steps — getting the book ready for the printers and ebook conversation — which I’m not sure I would’ve been able to do as well on my own. His services cost $952.50, and we paid a company in Argentina $149.71 to create the ebook files.
$14,112.86 — $952.50 — $149.71 = $12,995.65
The next step involved some tricky decision making, so I’m going to dwell on it for a bit. The big questions were: how was I going to print the physical copies of the book that I needed to get to my backers? And how would I sell copies to people who hadn’t backed the Kickstarter, but might want it once it was released?
When I first was formulating the idea of doing the Kickstarter, I assumed I would use Amazon’s CreateSpace print on demand service to print the paperbacks. With print on demand, you upload all the necessary files to Amazon, and they literally print a copy of the book out of a glorified laser printer whenever someone orders it. Conor Lastowka and I had done this for our [Citation Needed]books and I had been pleased with the results — the books were not quite as nice as a “real” printed book, but the quality difference wasn’t that noticeable, and was improving over time. I figured I would have a bunch of them shipped to me and I’d mail them out myself; anyone who hadn’t already backed the book could just buy one from Amazon without me having to do anything except collect the money. Hardcover books are trickier to do as print on demand, and I thought I might have to do a small offset print run, which is the technical term for printing a book in the usual way. The downsides of this were that I’d have to pay for it up front, and that you can’t just print an arbitrary numbers of books: the smallest print run would be around 500. But back in 2012 I figured I’d figure all that out when I had to.
The Kickstarter actually ended up selling more books than I expected: 237 paperbacks, and 309 hardcovers. Those numbers created an interesting dilemma. There really was no option for hardcovers: what print on demand services there were for hardcovers would actually charge morefor printing 309 books than I’d pay for an offset run of 500 or so. But much of the cost of an offset run comes in the initial setting up of the printing press, and almost all of the pages could be shared by both the hardcover and paperback versions. Since I was already committed to doing the hardcover run, the paperback run became less expensive than it would’ve been in isolation. The more books I printed, the more I paid up front, but the cheaper it got to print each individual book, and the more money I could potentially make per book — if I could sell them. My original plan was to do the minimum print run for each — 500ish hardcovers and 500ish paperbacks — but doubling the paperbacks only added 30% to the paperback side of the ledger, so I figured I’d go for it. In the end, I printed:
- 538 hardcovers for $2,907.96
- 1,072 paperbacks for $4,076.12
- And it cost $702.17 to ship the books from the printers
$12,995.65 — $2,907.96 — $4,076.12 — $702.12 = $5,308.80
There was also the question of how I was going to ship books to backers, and how to sell any books I printed and wanted to get to customers if I wasn’t going through Amazon. When I launched the Kickstarter in 2012, I lived in a house in Baltimore with a decent-sized basement, and figured I would be there indefinitely. But by the time I was ready to publish, I lived in a much smaller house in Los Angeles and had no idea where I’d store hundreds of books or stage them for selling and shipping. Then there was the daunting thought of setting up an online storefront to sell the books. And at this point we were coming up on the end of 2015, and I really, really wanted books to be available to sell by Christmas.
For these reasons and more, I hooked up with Make That Thing, a company that exists specifically to do Kickstarter fulfillment. (OK, I’m tweaking the chronology here a bit: I already knew I wanted to work with them, and they’re the ones who connected me with Malki.) MTT would receive and store the big boxes of books at their warehouse in Massachusetts and ship everything out to backers. In addition, through their sister company, TopatoCo (which you might recognize as the folks who do merch sales for many beloved webcomics artists and other Internet celebs), they’d put up a storefront where anyone who wanted could buy my books, until all the extras from the print run sold out.
This took a huge burden of stress and labor off my shoulders, but naturally it wasn’t free. Make That Thing’s service fees came to $1,495.50. I also racked up $2,770.04 worth of postage charges, which I would’ve had to spend no matter how I got books to backers.
$5,308.80 — $1,495.50 — $2,770.04 = $1,043.26
I’ll also mention a few other small charges from around this time. Many backers got not just hardcover books, but signed hardcovers. Because I was never in the same place as most of the books, though, I had to buy bookplates, sign them, and mail them to MTT to insert into the books; those cost $221.50. (I commissioned Matt Lubchansky to put more art onto them, because I couldn’t help myself; that’s part of the cost of art I listed above.) Also, the $70 reward tier from the Kickstarter got backers an item of their choice from my CafePress store; now I actually had to buy the items myself and have them shipped to backers. That all came to $256.25. Finally, I threw myself a book launch party at the Los Angeles County Store, a boutique in Silver Lake a friend of mine owns. Wine and snacks for this cost $97.96.
$1,043.26 — $221.50 — $256.25 — $97.96 = $467.55
$467.55 is only about 2% of my original Kickstarter haul. So at this point, I’m getting dangerously close to not making any money at all! Don’t panic, though; remember, my biggest single expense so far was printing, and I printed a lot of extra books, hopefully to sell. So: how did sales go?
Post-Kickstarter sales and expenses
My TopatoCo storefront was, to my mind, my primary means of selling physical copies of my book, because the books there were ones I had already paid to print: any book out of that batch that went unsold was essentially money wasted. I also wanted to sell ebooks to people who wanted them, and for that purpose I set up a storefront on Gumroad, which lets you sell digital files with very low markup. Gumroad buyers got DRM-free ebook files in all major formats.
However, because I’m a realist, I know that for many people, the book-buying path goes something like this: they hear about a book, and then they look it up on Amazon, and if they find it there they buy it, and if they don’t they never think about it again. So I actually did make my book available to purchase on Amazon, both in print-on-demand paperback and as an ebook via the Kindle store. I advertised this literally nowhere, but figured (correctly, as it turned out) that a good number of people would find them.
I also sold a decent number of books at that aforementioned book launch party, and sold some to friends directly. Here’s how much I made from each of these channels over the past eight months or so. I’ll get into the number of books sold in the next section, as well as to how profitable each channel was. For now, these figures are just revenue, i.e., the actual amount each of these places have sent me as checks or electronic deposits.
- TopatoCo: $1,488.75
- Gumroad: $792.20
- Amazon: $1,013.96
- LA County Store: $597
- Direct retail sales: $308.29
- Total: $4,200.20
Add that back into our total and we now have:
$467.55 + $4,200.20 = $4,667.75
Oh, right, and remember the book parties I mentioned above? And the fact that I used to live in Baltimore and now live in LA? Well, I charged for book parties based on distance from Baltimore, so that really threw everything for a loop. All but one of the parties was in the Northeast, so I combined them into one trip. And since I had to make this trip out there anyway, I decided to try to create a mini book tour out of it. I managed to cram those four parties, plus the four in-store events I managed to set up, into a two-week stretch over four cities. My total travel costs — tickets and meals, as I stayed with friends or family everywhere — came to $1,122.40. The amount I actually got from stores over the course of the trip was $839.02. So I ended the trip $283.38poorer, though keep in mind that the amount people had paid for book parties via the Kickstarter more than covered that.
$4,667.75 — $283.38 = $4,374.37
Finally, a couple last tweaks: I got a refund for $299.76 for some of the hardcover books that arrived at the warehouse damaged, and here and there I’ve paid $304.99 in postage over and above that described above. (Books are heavy and expensive to ship!)
$4,374.37 + 299.76 — $304.99 = $4,369.14
So that’s the final profit, so far! And there are a few more things I still need to spend money on. I have one more book party for a Kickstarter backer left to do, in Phoenix: I need to schedule that and buy tickets, and I want to try to do some bookstore events in Phoenix and/or Tucson along the way, in hopes of making back at least as much as I need to spend to get there. And I’ve actually only paid half my fee to my copy editor; he was contemplating taking the other half in free advertising on my site for his own books, and we still need to work that process out.
So far, this has all be extremely mercenary, all about the cash. But what about the glory? How many people have actually read this thing? While I can’t answer that question — who knows how many bookshelves and Kindles it’s sitting on right now, never opened? — I can at least tell you how many people bought it, and in what form.
Where the books are
In the headline, I already told you the Big Number: as of this writing, I have sold 1,319 copies ofThe Enthusiast. But the questions of how, when, and in what form, are, I think, interesting!
Here’s the breakdown of books sold through the Kickstarter itself:
- E-books: 207
- Paperbacks: 237
- Hardcovers: 309
- Total: 753
This doesn’t quite match up to the number of Kickstarter backers because some backers bought more than one book and some backers gave money without requesting a book.
Once I offered the books for sale publicly, here’s how many I sold via various channels:
- Hardcover: 30
- Paperback: 77
- Total TopatoCo: 107
Gumroad e-books: 109
- Paperback: 92
- E-books: 120
- Total Amazon: 212
- Direct sales to friends and family:
- Hardcover: 8
- Paperback: 7
- Total direct sales: 15
- Total: 443
The sales trajectory for all of these channels looks more or less the same: a burst of activity in December and January, when I first made the book available, followed by a rapid drop-off by the end of March. I haven’t sold more than 10 books a month through all of these channels combined since April. It’s easy to understand why: I have no advertising or marketing budget, and there wasn’t any particular word-of-mouth groundswell that happened organically.
But let’s not forget all those in-store events I mentioned, both my launch party and my book tour. Over those five events, I sold:
- Hardcover: 42
- Paperbacks: 81
- Total: 123
Add all that up, and you get 1,319 books! Not a best seller by any means, but I feel like it’s a respectable number, considering the no-advertising-or-marketing-budget factor just mentioned.
Some interesting facts that emerge from the above data:
- As of this writing, the majority of books I sold — about 58% of total copies — went through the Kickstarter.
- The breakdown of books by format was a lot more even than I expected — 389 hardcovers (29% of the total), 494 paperbacks (37%), and 436 ebooks (33%).
- Everywhere I’ve been promoting my novel, I’ve been pointing people to the TopatoCo store (for physical books) and Gumroad (for e-books); I sold 219 copies combined between those two channels. I sold almost as many books — 212 — through Amazon, despite literally never posting those links anywhere. Considering that I’m guessing almost every copy of this book was sold no more than two degrees of separation away from me promoting it directly, this is a testament to the stranglehold Amazon has on the book-buying public’s mind.
So now let’s get down to the final, and, it turns out, trickiest question: how much did I make from each kind of book, in all the different ways I sold them?
Breaking down the Kickstarter
First, let’s look at the Kickstarter itself in isolation. For my calculation purposes, I consider myself to have “sold” ebooks for $8, paperbacks for $15, and hardcovers for $25. That’s the starting point. Then I figured out how much each book in each format cost me, factoring in the Kickstarter and payment processing fees; the sales tax I paid to Maryland; the cost of printing the books and shipping them to Make That Thing; Make That Thing’s customer service fees; and the cost of shipping the books to backers. Once I had that number, I could come up with a per-book profit.
- E-books: cost, $1.14; profit, $6.86
- Paperbacks: cost, $13.99; profit, $1.01
- Hardcover: cost, $16.95; profit, $8.05
The very low amount I made per Kickstarted paperback was a pretty big shock to me. This was ultimately due to a miscalculation I made when I set the original pledge levels: my original assumptions on printing costs were based on a 225-page novel. At the time, that seemed like a lot,and one of my biggest fears was that I wouldn’t have enough to say to write a novel-length work. In hindsight, this turned out to be the least of my problems; the final product was around 300 pages, and that was after I had cut quite a bit out of the first draft. But when you’re paying to print your own books, you’re paying in part by the page, so this cut into my profit margin.
I wasn’t selling just books through the Kickstarter, though. For instance, you got a personalized signed hardcover at the $35 pledge level; this wasn’t framed as me selling my signature for $10, but that’s essentially what I was doing, and that $10 was almost all profit. The other add-ons — merch, book parties, donated comics — were similarly lucrative. And then there’s the way Kickstarter makes it easy for people to just straight-up give you money. You can, for instance, back at $50 but only request the $25 reward, and many people did; I would count the extra $25 as a “donation.” I ended up with $2,148 in donations in all, though almost half of that came from the single insanely generous person who backed at the $1,000 “Patron of the Arts” level.
In the end, 64% of the money pledged to the Kickstarter was for books, 25% was for add-ons, and 11% was just in the form of donations. But accounting for my costs, those numbers shift pretty dramatically: 43% of my profits came from books, 36% from add-ons, and 21% from donations. Keep in mind that the costs I used to figure these profits only include things I could directly attribute to books on a per-book basis; fixed costs, like editing and book design, aren’t included in that, and neither are the costs of unsold books, which I’ll get to in a bit.
Your money to my pocket
Now that the Kickstarter is over, I have several different ways I’m selling the novel, as I outlined above. But which is the most profitable?
A version of this question that people sometimes ask me is, “What’s the way I can buy your book that gets you the most money?” This is a nice thing to ask! My answer is usually “Buy it in the way that is most convenient to you,” and I genuinely mean that. I’m honestly just glad people want to read it! But the actual answers are instructive as to how the self-publishing game works, so I’ll outline them here:
- If you buy an e-book via Gumroad, you pay $8, and I receive $7.35.
- If you buy an e-book via the Amazon Kindle store, you pay $8, and I receive $5.42.
- If you buy a paperback book via Amazon, you pay $15 (plus shipping, though you can get free shipping if you don’t need it right away) and I receive $4.43.
- If you buy a paperback book via TopatoCo, you pay $15 (plus shipping), and I receive $11.25.
- If you buy a hardcover book via TopatoCo, you pay $25 (plus shipping), and I receive $20.75.
You’ll note that, even though I’m charging the same amount for books as their equivalent Kickstarter backer levels, I’m making more per book on the physical books than I did via the Kickstarter. That’s largely because, when I was figuring out my per-book costs for the Kickstarter, I had to factor in the per-book shipping costs. So if you had pledged $15, you got a paperback book and you got it shipped to you. But if you’re buying a paperback now, you either pay extra for shipping (from TopatoCo) or have shipping covered by Amazon (thanks to their sweet deals with shipping companies/Amazon shareholders’ continuing preference of growth over profits/devil magic).
The biggest thing that probably jumps out at you from those numbers is the huge gap between how much I make per paperback book from Amazon vs. how much I make from TopatoCo. That gap is not as substantial in reality; remember, I had to pay to have the books currently sitting in TopatoCo’s warehouse printed and shipped, whereas the Amazon books cost me nothing. But in practice, I’ve already paid to print and ship those books, so a TopatoCo sale really does put $6.82 more into my pocket in the here and now than an Amazon sale does. In essence, it reduces one of my largest costs: unsold paperback books.
Optimism might not pay
Let’s wrap up by circling back to that bet I made on printing books. Remember, I had 1,072 paperbacks printed. I had 538 hardcovers printed, but 78 were damaged and I got refunds for them, so I ended up paying for 460 hardcovers. How did that match up with demand?
So far, I’ve sold 388 hardcover books, via Kickstarter, TopatoCo, and in-store events. That’s almost 85% of my print run, which I think is pretty good. In terms of paperbacks from my offset run, I sold 402, via Kickstarter, TopatoCo, and in-store events. (I sold nearly 100 additional paperbacks through Amazon, but remember, those are print on demand.) I thus have 670 paperbacks left over — more than half the print run. It’s great that I still have these books for people to buy, and some will certainly be sold at future live events or in dribs and drabs online; but, unless something very unusual happens and this book finds a second wind months or years after it was released, it seems unlikely that I’m going to make a significant dent in that pile.
If you just divide the printing cost over the number of unsold books, at the moment I lost $2,839.79 on unsold paperbacks. Remember, though, it isn’t quite that simple: if I had chosen to print fewer paperbacks, or if I had just gone to print on demand for them, I would’ve paid more per book, and made less per individual sale. And — hope springs eternal! — that loss can be chipped away as books are sold.
I realize this has been terrifically long! We could, believe it or not, get even deeper into the numbers, and if you’d like, I’m happy to send you a copy of the gynromous Excel spreadsheet I used to figure all this out — email me if you’re interested!
I hope, if you’re planning on crowdfudning a book, that this has, despite its length and detail, been helpful to you in figuring out how to proceed. I want to summarize some of the lessons I learned from the process, which I think you’ll find helpful even if all the numbers made your head spin.
Kickstarter isn’t magic. A huge majority of my backers came from people who already were invested in me as a writer, an audience I had cultivated over years of writing professionally. Crowdfunding campaigns don’t pull money out of thin air.
Write the book first. This doesn’t have anything to do with costs, but it was a huge part of the experience of Kickstarting a novel for me. Having never written a novel before, I chose an entirely unrealistic target date. If the idea was that the Kickstarter money would pay for the time I spent writing, that never played out: I had to put enough aside for taxes and expenses that it’s not like I could dedicate long, unbroken stretches to writing the novel when I’d otherwise be working on paying gigs. And dividing my profits so far by the many, many hours I spent working on the books gives me a hourly rate that’s not much above minimum wage. I also spent much of 2013 and 2014 feeling like I had let a lot of people down, and while I suppose that anxiety spurred me to finish, it also left me feeling creatively blocked and unhappy a lot of the time. In retrospect, I should’ve gotten the first draft done, then launched the Kickstarter campaign, then used the money to get it edited, designed, and printed, which I could’ve done within a year.
Do your best to estimate costs in advance, and be conservative. I did do my research on printing costs, but my underestimation of how long the book would be threw me for a loop. (This is another problem that would’ve been solved if I had a first draft by the time I launched the Kickstarter.) Try to know as much as you can about how much you’ll be spending before you start.
Professional services aren’t cheap. I spent nearly $4,500 on art, design, and editorial services — things that, technically speaking, I didn’t need to do to deliver a book to backers. I could’ve hacked together a design myself in Word or InDesign and paid for much cheaper art and very cursory editing. I 100% don’t regret spending this money. I think the book looks great and the experience of reading it is much improved by the work these professionals did for me. But you have to consider what your priorities are. Be aware that this is a place where you could end up spending more than you think.
Don’t bet on big sales if you don’t have to. While you should always believe in yourself, in hindsight, I shouldn’t have gotten that 1,000+ print run of paperback books. 670 leftover books is a lot of money basically wasted. Amazon’s print-on-demand books are high enough quality that I would have felt fine sending them to backers, and while the process might’ve meant a few more days of labor for me, it would’ve cost a lot less. Though I would’ve made less per book on paperback sales to nonbackers, the absence of upfront costs would’ve more than made up for it. Print-on-demand services like Amazon’s give you flexibility you should take advantage of if you can.
Be sure to offer big-ticket items. Hardcover books were a more expensive tier than paperbacks, but they had much higher markup, and I sold more of them through the Kickstarter than I did paperbacks. Adding things like a signature plate netted even more cash at not much cost. People who are backing you are likely to be invested in you and want you to succeed, so a personal touch like that is something they’ll enjoy and appreciate. Plus it was fun for me to write all the notes!
In the end, while I didn’t create a breakout self-published best-seller like The Martian, I wrote a book I’m really proud of, sold more than 1,300 copies, and made a few grand, which is more than most people can say. I am very interested to hear what the sales and earning numbers for non-bestselling authors who go through the traditional publishing industry are — I suspect they aren’t that different. If you want to dish, drop me a line!
Meanwhile, I have an idea for another book, which I might try to get published through traditional channels, with the option of doing a Kickstarter for it if that doesn’t work out (this time I’ll write the first draft first, I promise). I’d also love to talk more about what Kickstarting the book was like — if you’re interested in hearing me having me talk in person for a class or writer’s group, or for your publication or on your podcast or whatever, I’m available via e-mail. And if you want to buy the book — of course you want to buy the book! — you can:
You can also get it from Amazon, but for the reasons outlined above, I’d rather you went with one of these methods! And if you want to have your very own Enthusiast book party, e-mail me and we can work out a price based on your location.
Thanks for reading this far! If you have any questions on any of this, or want advice on your own Kickstarter, drop me a line and I’ll do what I can to help.
Appendix: On taxes
If you live in the United States, money that you make via crowdfunding campaigns is, as far as the IRS is concerned, income that is taxed. Many first-time crowdfunders who have never received business or freelance income aren’t aware that they need to take this into consideration and set aside money to pay taxes.
Up above, I said, that “taxes don’t figure into my calculations on profits here, because that profit is the income that gets taxed.” I realize that sentence might’ve sounded like gibberish! Think of it this way: say you have a job where your salary is $30,000 a year. This is probably how you think about it: “I make $30,000 a year!” But in fact, the IRS takes money out every paycheck, so the amount deposited in your bank account is less than $30,000 a year.
When you have business income — and crowdsourcing a creative project is considered business income — you owe taxes on your profits, which is to say, how much money you take in minus what you spend on expenses. So in my case, the $4,369.14 I made is added to my other taxable income for the year. I made $4,369.14, and now I owe taxes on it. Unlike money you make at a regular job, though, the income you get from crowdfunding hasn’t had taxes taken out before you get it. You’re responsible for figuring out how much you owe and paying it to the IRS.
That process is way beyond the scope of this article; I’ve actually written about it both at The Billfold and Mel Magazine. Kickstarter also has some information on the topic, but if you’re still lost, you should talk to an accountant or tax pro. One final note here is that my tax situation was even trickier because it was spread out over multiple years: basically, I had a very high income in 2012 and then an income much reduced by business expenses in 2015. I have a tax system for myself that let me handle this roller coaster, but it’s very helpful if you can arrange things so that your income and the bulk of your expenses happen in the same year.