How to self-publish a book on Kickstarter and get a six-figure profit.
First, a story.
I’ve worked on three successful Kickstarter projects in the past, and when the time comes, I teach my backers about what goes into self-publishing a book and what I stand to get out of it.
One year, I published all of the figures for my first book, Cadence & Slang. At that point, I had made about $40,000 in profit off of it. That profit went to three things: a pair of nice shoes, a fancy dinner with my utterly patient partner, and my student loans.
Two weeks later, I went to a big conference. One night, someone I respect tremendously – someone who had, by this point, published two books through traditional means – took me aside and said “Nick, you made ten times more in profit than the highest author advance I’ve ever heard of, and twenty times more than my book.”
I was dumbfounded. I had no idea. I was just making a thing and sharing it with the world. Nobody talked to me about their author advances in the past; I always assumed that it would get them a fair amount of money. Why doesn’t it?
You have a great idea for a book, but no way to get it published. You’ve tried talking with big fancy publishers, but their contracts look insane – and besides, they don’t pay you enough to justify writing the book.
Happily, there is a better way. Self-publishing used to have the stigma that you haven’t “made it” as writer, but now it’s a sign of pride in your work and care in the product you create. And with the rise of crowdfunding platforms, it’s never been easier to find and connect with a high-quality audience.
This post will teach you how to conceive, launch, print, ship, and service a crowdfunded publishing project.
Here are some small caveats of note:
- I am going to talk about crowdfunding from a Kickstarter-centric perspective. Other crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo are similar, but they might have some differences that I will totally gloss over. You could also roll your own platform!
- I write nonfiction professional texts. I will go on a lot about business value and serving customer needs in a few points, which I imagine makes scant sense if you are writing the next great novel.
- I put most of my focus on physical books. Print isn’t dead: mass-market print is. You should hopefully be interested not only in making books, but beautiful books. Ebooks are great, but they require a lot less effort to distribute – and a crowdfunding campaign may not make a whole lot of sense for producing one. Just launch and promote it!
- I write about publishing projects. If you’re making the next iPhone dock dock, which is a dock that can fit a versatile array of other iPhone docks, I will offer a lot of advice that can help your next project, but I’ll also be discussing a lot of things around getting trees killed, turned prettier, and mailed to people. You will find less of this post useful than a dedicated publisher or writer.
And with those caveats, onward! I hope you find this useful, and I welcome any and all feedback, no matter how brutally critical.
Profits vs. Traditional Methods
In the early nineties, musician and producer Steve Albini wrote an influential article called “The Problem with Music”, wherein he broke down the costs involved in releasing an album on a major label. He came to the conclusion that, for the vast majority of musicians, it made no financial sense to join a major, and they would largely be doing it “for the exposure.”
You know what happens when you do it for the exposure? You die. People believe that there’s a necessary dichotomy between self-publishing and the mass market, but with the rise of numerous tools to get your work out there, self-publishers can now have their cake and eat it too.
Remember that chat I had with the author at the beginning of this post? It came after I sold the whole print run of 1,060 books. I was not hurting for exposure at that point: heck, if anything, I was too exposed, because Cadence & Slang would stay sold out for another two years!
And if you think this is an isolated, freak incident, I’m not alone:
- Jack Cheng wrote his first novel, These Days, and it sold to over 900 people before they even read a word of it.
- Frank Chimero published a book, The Shape of Design, and made over a hundred thousand dollars overnight.
- Cassie McDaniel made a children’s book, Beto’s Burrito, with her father, and it made over 250% of its goal.
- Nathan Barry sells his three books online without any crowdfunding effort, and makes tens of thousands of dollars on them, without any middleman to get in the way.
All of these people published their first books independently, without any prior experience, and each of them did extremely well.
To be clear, there are good reasons to get a major publisher. If your book involves significant historical research or multiple years of work, you might want to get a large advance for it before you commence work. If you need a professional editorial staff to pick apart your work, it might be easier to find one of those at a traditional publisher. (That said, you might want to work with a good freelance editor, instead, and price that out in your project!)
But I believe it makes increasingly less sense to go with a major publisher – and I don’t expect that to change anytime soon. These days, “mid-list” titles, aka the vast swath of published authors, suffer far more when they go with major publishers. And if your book targets a small niche, just forget it. You will make more money and find the right people more effectively with independent work and a crowdfunded campaign.
If your name is J.K. Rowling, you might want to go with a big publisher. And your name is not J.K. Rowling. I know, because I pay attention to who spreads the word about my work. And I can pay attention – because I manage my whole operation myself.
You can do this, too. It takes some effort, but the rewards are massive:
- A better connection with your readers. If you sell your books through Amazon and Barnes & Noble, you never know who picks up your book. If you sell by yourself, you can continue interacting with your audience long after your first launch.
- Work on your own terms. Want to release an ebook with an audio interview component? Good luck doing that on the Kindle Store. Want to go with the best illustrator you know? Go ahead, you’re the boss. Want to print hardcover? Sure, just charge a couple of bucks more per copy. Independent work empowers you to call the shots.
- More profit. You’re cutting out dozens of middlemen in the bloated publishing industry, all of whom skim some off the top. Who keeps the rest of that money? You do.
If you’re willing to put in the time and effort to make great work and serve others well, you can do far worse than work by yourself.
I Assume I’ve Persuaded You By This Point, So Let’s Move On
A good Kickstarter project is mostly preparation. Here’s the overall outline of what you need to do, in chronological order:
- Write the book.
- Price out the project.
- Develop the project page.
- Launch the project.
- Print the book.
- Ship the book.
- Sell additional copies, if any.
- Continue engaging with your audience into perpetuity.
- Return to step 1 with your next book.
This is not a post on how to write well or consistently. With that in mind, though, the most important thing you can do for your book is to make the best text possible. No amount of great marketing or quality design can save bad writing, and you will absolutely need to put more effort into writing and editing than you think.
If you’re making a nonfiction text, think: what can serve the reader? You aren’t writing this book for yourself. You’re writing to improve the lives of others: to entertain them or teach them. Never forget who your audience is and always think about how you can best serve them.
To provide a better focus on my text, I write all of my books in a plain text editor. I write the chapter headings as an outline, and fill each one in as I go. I use Markdown to provide light stylistic flourishes: bold, italic, headings, and bullet points. Writing for a specific chapter or heading helps me chunk a large task up into many smaller jobs, which give me a sense of accomplishment at the end of the day.
That said, you work differently than I do, and you’re probably working on something much different than Cadence & Slang or a giant blog post. Find what habits work for you, and stay the course.
There are two other processes you’ll want to take care of, which might not be in your immediate purview:
Unless you’re publishing exclusively for ePub and the Kindle (both of which I don’t much recommend), self-publishing means you will have to design your book as well – and I’m sorry to report that your double-spaced Times New Roman manuscript in Microsoft Word will not cut it.
Good books are easy to read, and good typography allows people to read more easily. With better design, your book will look more beautiful and be more salable to your readership.
It’s a sad fact of life, but people really do judge books by their covers. People read your book for a few days, and then put it on their bookshelves for years. They will form their impressions on your book’s external design more than any other parameter. If you make your book into an object that they’ll be proud to own, they’ll be more likely to keep it for a long time and recommend it to others.
Your text should also fit the form of your medium. If you translate a printed chapbook into an 8.5”x11” PDF, you will probably need to typeset the whole thing again if you want to make something that looks just as good.
You might want to farm out these processes to a dedicated graphic designer. Make sure they have some experience in quality typography – not just logo design, branding, or interactive design.
Even if you need a graphic designer, though, a basic fluency in typography will serve you quite well, especially when it comes time to thoughtfully critique the work that someone else produces for you. For those who want to get more into the details of quality type, Robert Bringhurst’s The Elements of Typographic Style is well-written, entertaining, and quite detailed.
Good writing is good editing; nothing great came out perfect the first time. All text can benefit from an expert third-party perspective. And no matter what you’re publishing, you need a good editor.
What do you look for in a good editor? Editorial experience can vary widely, and experience within your area of interest can help tremendously. Explore what they’ve worked on in the past, and ask what kinds of books they like to edit. What was their line of thinking when they made any specific editorial decisions? Can they point to “before” and “after” versions of a text?
Do they have any high-level statements of purpose? One of my favorite editors once said that she wanted her “work” to be invisible – but your writing would be the best of your life. What editorial ideas resonate with you?
How do you find an editor? The majority of independent creative work comes in through referral. People work up a reputation for doing something, and their clients end up referring more and more work to them. I found my editor through my friends. Many other writers ask colleagues who edited their books, and get referred to editors that way. Even throwing a lazy request out on Twitter might be helpful for finding someone great.
Editorial work can be priced out per-hour or per-project. While I personally advocate for per-project billing, in either case, try to get a solid estimate of how much your editor might cost, in order to build that into the cost of your Kickstarter project.
Note: The more overhead you add into your Kickstarter project, the more difficult it will be to fund it. Put more positively: the more activities you bring under your own roof, the more likely you will get funded and take a profit in addition. I design and ship my own books because I like doing those things, and they have the added consequence of providing me with more profit. Design and editorial might be the two most common things that are outsourced, followed closely by shipping.
Print or Digital?
I’m going to go ahead and assume that you have your own reasons for choosing a printed book, but I’ll riff on my own for a bit.
I printed a book about interaction design. Designed books tend to work well as physical objects; for my book, I can’t point to a single review that didn’t also recommend the printed product. Are you a photographer? You might want to print your own photographs. An artist? Coffee table books, as a business, are not going anywhere.
Do you write novels? Excellent! Does your novel have a reason to be printed? What would your novel’s printed form look like? If you’re writing a mystery novel, maybe you have illustrated it and want the drawings to look as beautiful as possible. If you’re making manga, maybe you want it to look the same as existing manga books. If you can’t find a print-centric reason to print your book, consider releasing an ebook instead.
What are the startup costs of an ebook? Almost none. With a budget of zero dollars, you can put your PDF on the internet and begin selling it. Go on Gumroad, Goodsie, or Fetch. When you choose the ebook route, what costs are left? Well, you don’t need to print or ship it anymore, so that gets rid of your two biggest expenses. You’ll probably still need to edit and design it. Are those costs worth putting together a Kickstarter project?
Kickstarter projects are generally good for physical artifacts. People want you to make and ship things using Kickstarter as a platform. Nothing stops you from using Kickstarter to fund an editor and designer’s fees – you’re still putting together a creative project, after all – but your prospective customers may be less than receptive to the final executed product. The rest of this post assumes that you want to publish a physical book and have good reasons for doing so.
Note: Why not Amazon? Amazon takes too much of a share, and they don’t provide much beyond exposure in return. Remember all that stuff I said earlier about “doing it for the exposure?” That’s what would happen if you publish your book on Amazon. It simply isn’t worth it for anyone wanting to actually make money on their book. The more you take in-house, the better your margins and more passionate your audience will be.
There are so many beautiful possibilities when making a printed book.
But it’s just a book, right? Okay, let’s run with that. There are paperback and hardcover books. There are large books and small books. There are foil-stamped hardcovers, letterpressed hardcovers, and laminated hardcovers. There are hardcover and softcover books that are lined in leather, pleather, plastic, and vinyl. There are weird inserts where the pages are all black for some reason. There’s perfect binding, lay-flat binding, staple binding, and like ten other kinds of binding, each of which is less popular but no less interesting. Just look at all the different forms that McSweeney’s quarterly issues have taken in the past, and you’ll understand how a book can become a creative act unto itself.
A book can be printed on your inkjet at home. Or you could splurge and get a fancy laser printer. Or you could go pro and get your book digitally printed. Or you could get it offset printed. Or you could just send it to a print-on-demand service.
When you go to a fancy printer, your book can be printed digital – basically a glorified laser printer that could handily fill your living room – or offset, which exposes plates to light, making them attract or repel ink before it’s pressed to paper. (When you think professional printing, you’re probably thinking of offset printing. Offset printing tends to be around 2,400dpi; digital printing depends on the printer, but roughly nudges 1,200dpi on good printers.)
Oh wait! You’re printing a bunch of photographs, so now you want glossy paper in addition to all the dull boring paper you’re using for your text. And you made $100,000 on your Kickstarter project and are wondering whether it makes sense to splurge on the archival-quality, acid-free paper stock that the paper mill is offering.
I’d also like to note that this is your first book and you have no idea what you are doing. Thankfully, I’m here to help. And I’m serious: you’ll really want a designer for a great printed book. Don’t kill trees on something boring. Your text is the most important thing, sure, but the printed form matters just as much.
I’m going to go through this at a breakneck pace, so you might want to check out On Book Design by Richard Hendel, as well as Jan V. White’s books, in order to understand these issues a bit more carefully. In addition, take a careful look at the most beautiful books that you own. How are they put together? What makes them look great?
In general, you can print a paperback or a hardcover. In reality, your options are far more nuanced, but we’ll ignore all that right now.
Hardcovers often contain slip covers – the little papers that envelop a hardcover for protection – as an optional thing, if you want to have a book that stands out well against others at a bookstore. Other hardcovers stand out well simply by being made well. Many hardcover books use foil stamping, which adds silver, black, or gold foil lettering to the spine and cover. Good professional printers will have a list of what foils, cloths, and covers that they stock on hand. Really good printers will be able to break down the price tradeoffs for each of these; sometimes, even individual colors of cloth binding can vary wildly in cost.
Note: You will want to select a printer based on cost, of course, but also on how well they treat you as an independent publisher. Do they turn your questions around quickly? Do they work well over email? Are they patient with you as you try to navigate the process? Will they mail paper and cover samples to you? Will they mail you any already-printed books in order to show what an example will look like? Take the time and effort to vet not only how good of a printer they are, but how they treat you as a creative collaborator and professional partner.
Text paper – even if you’re printing photos, the paper is still called text, as opposed to cover – generally comes in white or “natural” (slightly off-white), in different weights. A weight is a number with a # at the end (pronounced “pound”), like 80#. Higher numbers correspond to thicker sheets, and they are more expensive. Thicker sheets mean the ink is less likely to show up, ghost-like, through the previous page. (Compare a newspaper with your favorite art book if you want to see a drastic example of this.)
Thick paper is not necessarily better paper, though. You might want thinner paper if it fits the creative direction of your book: essays, for instance, or a periodical. Or you might want to compromise with slightly thinner paper in order to make it archival-quality and acid-free, so the pages never yellow over time.
Paper also comes in different finishes, which corresponds to the way the paper is produced and how it feels in the final product. Remember when people had to print their résumés on bright white linen paper? Well, if you’re insane, you can make your whole book look like that. There are nicer-looking finishes out there, too: one of my favorite books, The Elements of Typographic Style, uses a subtle laid finish, with the look of old handmade paper. Other common finishes are glossy, matte, and satin. Ask your printer if they have any in-house stock offerings; if they don’t, go to independent paper mills, ask for their sample books, and price things out accordingly. In the United States, my favorite paper mills are Sappi, French, Mohawk, Glatfelter, and Neenah. (Full disclosure: Sappi were a client of mine in 2010.)
Books can be bound in numerous different ways. Smyth sewn case binding is the most popular method for hardcovers; perfect binding is the most popular for paperbacks. Some paperbacks have fancier bindings that allow the book to lay flat, which you might want for especially thick books or large-format books.
If you’re printing offset, you can print either black & white, CMYK, or spot colors, where the printer hand-mixes your ink to PANTONE specification, resulting in a much crisper printout.
If you’re printing digital or on-demand, you’re stuck with CMYK or a complicated variant thereof.
Getting the Quote
When you first contact a printer, you want to get a quote from them. Here’s what you need to specify in order to get the most accurate estimate:
- How many copies you plan on printing.
- What method you want them printed in (digital, offset, etc).
- What size text and cover you want printed.
- What kind of binding you want.
- How many pages are in the book.
- What kind of proofs you want to get. Some printers will overnight you a physical proof in order to convey margins, registration, and cut lines; others will simply email you a PDF. Either way, they will charge you for the work it takes to create the proof (which is called preflighting), as well as any shipping charges to send it to you.
- Whether you want different end papers for the book, AKA the papers that glue to the insides of a hardcover.
- What colors you plan on printing, on both cover and text. (You can have a color cover and black & white text!)
- How and where you want the books delivered. (A warehouse? Your living room? Overnighted? Freight?)
- What over/under range you want. Offset printers typically offer an approximate estimate, because copies will always turn out defective, and they often have to print eight or sixteen copies at a time. As a result, they don’t give you exactly 2,000 copies, for instance: they give you 2,000 copies +/- 10%. Lower margins of error correspond to higher estimates. I’m guessing you’re okay with a high margin of error.
Your quote should cover everything from proofing the book to printing the book to getting the books where they need to go. Some printers add their own sales tax if you don’t provide them with a sales tax form for your state, and that can become a pretty big number. Other printers require you to use their own courier companies, which might cost a fair amount. If you decide to print locally, you might want to rent a U-Haul and fill it yourself.
If you need to find out who prints great books near your home, you should give Inker Linker a try.
How to Price Your Book
Now that you have your quotes in hand, you might have settled on a printer – as well as a rough expectation of how much it will cost to print the book.
Next, we’ll tackle the most important number you need to figure out: how much is your Kickstarter goal going to be? Kickstarter campaigns are all-or-nothing: you have a dollar amount and a time limit, and you need to hit the dollar amount by the time limit.
Your dollar amount needs to tackle all expenses for the project, with the expectation that you not go over budget. It would be very, very bad if you went over budget. Do not go over budget.
But it’s so tempting to peg a low number, because the lower the number, the more likely it is that your book will be funded! Again: you want the lowest number that will safely get a book printed. I went over budget on Distance and it resulted in two years of anxiety-filled hell. Do not go over budget. Do. Not. Go. Over. Budget. And the easiest way to not go over budget is to establish a high goal – more likely than not, this is a realistic goal.
- Shipping labels.
- The printer and toner to print shipping labels.
Very Likely Expenses
- An editor’s fees.
- A graphic designer’s fees.
- Other goodies you want to throw in each envelope. In the past I’ve shipped little custom notebooks, self-addressed stamped postcards, and stickers. I’ve seen others ship bookmarks and buttons with their books, too.
- Typeface licenses for your book.
- Stock photo licenses, if you want something like this on your cover.
- Software licenses (e.g. Acrobat, InDesign, Apple Pages) for typesetting your book.
- A domain name and web hosting for your book’s official site.
- A keg of beer, so you can bribe your friends who help you pack everything.
How to price everything out
- Outline everything you will need to ship the project, no matter how detailed. For example, do you not have a laser printer for your mailing labels? (No, an inkjet won’t suffice. You want your labels to be more waterproof than that.) Okay, buy a cheap one and put it in your project cost.
- Get estimates for everything in that list.
- Add everything together.
- Account for income taxes. I’m not an accountant, so I’m not going to provide advice here. I will say, however, that you will probably have to declare Kickstarter income on your tax return.
- Add 10% to that. Kickstarter takes 5% from all funded projects (if you aren’t funded successfully, you pay them nothing). Amazon Payments, Kickstarter’s payment processor, also takes about 4.25%.
- Add about 15% to that. I call this idiocy padding. Things go wrong, and things absolutely will go wrong for you. You are tackling a complex project with a lot of moving parts, and you will want to make sure this doesn’t screw you – especially if this is your first rodeo.
And then you have your number. But you also have more than that: you have the whole breakdown about how you got to that number. And your backers will eat that process up like catnip. People love reading the strategies of folks who are prepared and go into the geeky details. 48 hours after I launch a project, I always write a backer update that breaks the aforementioned process down, and it always results in another major sales bump.
Knowing you put in the time and effort to settle on a thoughtful, careful budget will give people more enthusiasm to back your project, making it more likely that your project will ship. On Kickstarter, being organized and promoting the impression that you know what you’re doing provides you with a very virtuous cycle.
I will now go into further detail about all this.
Postage is the cost you are most liable to underestimate. Quotes come in pretty unambiguously with printers, and unless you ask for insane terms or keep sending proofs back to be reworked, you won’t find yourself running too far over budget with them.
Postage, though, is a bear. After printing, postage is the second-largest expense you will have to deal with, and it’s the most liable to unexpected fluctuations. You do not want to be caught putting $10,000 in postage on your credit card because you did not plan this out carefully enough. Project creators do that all the time on Kickstarter, and it undermines the credibility of Kickstarter as a platform writ large. So that not only wrecks your life, but it also hurts everyone else’s ability to use Kickstarter to fund their dreams. If you want self-publishing to have any value for you in the long term, you need to calculate your postage (and the rest of your project!) right.
I’ve made this sound daunting and terrifying, but it really isn’t. I’ve calculated postage well on three Kickstarter projects, and – knock on wood – have not been burned yet. I’m going to assume you live in the United States, but this shouldn’t be hard to adapt to your own mail carrier. Here is the way I’ve successfully done it:
- Figure out the weight of book + envelope + mailing label + any extras. Don’t know what your book weighs yet? Of course you don’t. Weigh a book that’s about the same size with the same binding, then add three ounces just to make sure.
- Figure out how much it costs you to ship one book domestically. If you’re mailing books, USPS has media mail, which charges a much lower rate per book and takes a few extra days to arrive. Lots of people hate on media mail, but I have shipped thousands of books via media mail in the past with little issue. Media mail requires you to round up to the nearest pound, and calculate postage from there.
- Figure out how much it costs you to ship one book internationally. International rates vary per country, and depend heavily on whether your book qualifies as a package. Envelopes over 0.75” in thickness might add 50% or more to your international shipping expenses.
You can calculate per-piece shipping charges very easily with the shipping software that I use, Endicia. Endicia has Mac and PC versions and is under active development. I have almost never had a problem with it, and their customer support has always been helpful for me. Endicia charges $16 per month for its use. I would sign up for a trial of Endicia and calculate per-unit expenses out using its software; USPS has its own form for doing so, but it’s confusing and doesn’t provide the kind of feedback that you need to optimize your shipments.
You will likely be shipping your book via international first-class mail, which allows you to calculate your shipment in increments of 4 ounces, up to 64 ounces (or 4 pounds). This goes by regions – Canada, for instance, costs less than the United Kingdom – but if you price it out for the UK, you’ll be able to handle the cheaper rates (Canada) and the more expensive (Siberia) in one go. (Yes, this means I charge Canadians more than I need to. Kickstarter doesn’t allow per-country shipping prices yet.)
If your final shipment is more than 0.75” thick, you will have to ship it as a package instead of a thick envelope, meaning you will be subject to higher rates. (A 16-ounce book costs $4 more per copy to ship this way.) If your final shipment weighs more than 64 ounces, you will need to ship it via international priority mail instead, which costs a lot more. For example, current rates for a 16-ounce book to the UK go as follows:
- First-Class, Large envelope: $11.40
- First-Class, Package: $15.08
- International Priority: $49.26
All three of these methods get your book to the right place, but they represent vast differences in what you get charged.
- Round each of these costs up to the nearest dollar.
- Add your domestic shipping to the per-unit cost of your book on your Kickstarter backer reward, then round up to the nearest five dollars.
- Add your international shipping to the per-unit cost of your book on your Kickstarter backer reward, then round up to the nearest five dollars. Finally, charge the difference between international and domestic postage for your international backers.
So let’s say you want to sell a book for $30. It costs you $3 ($2.48 rounded up) to ship domestically, and $12 ($11.40) to ship internationally. You should charge $35 ($33 rounded up) for domestic copies, and $45 ($30 + $12 = $43 rounded up) for international copies.
Kickstarter allows you to set up a reward that provides for international postage. So you can say “this reward costs $35, and add $10 if you are international,” and Kickstarter will figure out the rest for you. Magic!
A Kickstarter project is all about thorough planning
People seem to not know how to calculate postage, or they optimistically underestimate it. But you’re dealing with the government, here. You can’t fool them. They are capable of weighing things, and they know when you are trying to shave a couple of bucks off.
You should absolutely be passing shipping charges on to your customers. The USPS is in such a bad state right now that they had to nearly double international rates last year. If I had absorbed that cost, it would have cost my business tens of thousands of dollars. If $15 shipping deters any international customers, it’s the USPS’s fault, not yours.
And it is your fault if you don’t explain this to your international customers early. Try to prevent sticker shock when it comes time for them to pay. Your customers will appreciate it. I am going to write the following in bold letters now:
Do not allow a single iota of ambiguity in your shipping charges for domestic or international postage. Also, round up on shipping charges wherever possible, in order to give yourself enough of a safety net.
Finally, USPS rates tend to increase at the end of every calendar year. If you’re shipping around the holidays, make sure your postage is marked for the correct shipment date, and keep tabs on how much shipping might change.
Envelopes & Labels
You need a laser printer for your labels. Don’t print on an inkjet: it will cost too much for the ink, and it won’t be as waterproof.
You will want to use ULINE for all of your labels and envelopes. They make the best and cheapest labels and envelopes right now. (If you are shipping posters for whatever reason, or anything insanely large format, you will want to use Yazoo Mills for mailing tubes instead of ULINE. They are less liable to be damaged in shipment.)
Endicia prints out its labels on 8.5”x5.5” sheets, meaning you can run a label through your printer twice. You can buy 200 labels for $19 or 2,000 labels for $134. Get more labels than you think you need.
By now, you should know how large and thick your notional future book is. ULINE has numerous envelopes of all shapes and sizes. Give about an inch on each side, so your book won’t be so tight that it gets damaged in transit. And don’t forget that you might need to account for your book’s thickness, especially if it’s over 3/4” thick. And finally, outside width and length is what you should use when pricing things out for shipping, but the usable column is what you should use for estimating how the book will actually fit in practice.
ULINE ships via UPS ground, but its fees might run a bit steep because you are dealing with very large (envelopes) and heavy (bulk labels) boxes. I live about an hour’s drive from their warehouse, and they’re great for local pick-up. See if this is an option in your part of the country – if it isn’t, that’s fine, but definitely make sure you factor ULINE’s shipping charges into your labels and envelopes estimate. Go right up to the point where you need to check out, so you don’t end up shouldering a $150 expense on your own.
Making the Project
You might have noted that I’ve walked you through over six thousand words of instructions without actually asking you to load Kickstarter’s website. That’s because a successful Kickstarter project is 99% preparation and 1% execution.
If you scrolled to this part expecting the grand secrets of the internal Kickstarter cabal, you will be sorely disappointed. A successful Kickstarter project is all about hard work, careful planning, and making something that people will love. There is no magic bullet. Kickstarter is not a glorified give-me-a-sack-of-money button. Kickstarter is a framework for promoting great work and allowing people to pay for it. And a framework can contain anything, even a pile of total hot garbage.
You need to write the first draft of your book before you launch the project: mentally, that’s the hardest part, and you don’t want to be buckling under the pressure of hundreds of backers when your deadline slips. Once that’s done, you need to estimate the book’s physical parameters. Then, you need to estimate shipping charges and physical handling charges. Only then should you go over to Kickstarter and begin the first draft your project.
And you haven’t even launched anything yet! Maybe you’ve told all of your friends, and they’re getting bored and impatient with you. But you still haven’t launched anything – and, crucially, you have not printed a book yet.
I’m going to walk you through the components of a great Kickstarter project, and then I’ll talk about how to execute on it. I think that will get us to the end of this post. Phew!
A project description has three parts:
- A summary, usually one or two sentences, that shows up on all of Kickstarter’s preview collateral.
- The description itself, which can be any length you want.
- Risks and challenges, describing all of the hard stuff you might face as you actually make the thing – anything that can delay shipment or run up the budget.
Your summary should cover the following:
- What you are making. “I want to print a book about X.” This sentence contains two things: what the book is about, and what exactly you’re hoping to make (a printed book).
- What your backers’ money will go to make. “Help me cover the printing and shipping costs!”
Your summary should get people excited to click through and see what you have to offer. Don’t be afraid to add your own personality, but it serves a significantly functional purpose. If you’re writing a fiction book, I might mention a plot detail, but shy away from the summary being entirely plot details, because that wouldn’t adequately describe the final product.
Risks & Challenges
In early 2011, writer and strategist Paul Ford wrote one of the best summaries of the internet ever. The Web Is a Customer Service Medium said the fundamental question of the web is why wasn’t I consulted?, indicating that customer empowerment and covering your bases was paramount.
And so it is with Kickstarter projects. You don’t want to be someone who gets burned by their Kickstarter project backfiring on them. Risks & Challenges allows you to set forth what might go wrong, and when, and what you might be able to do about it. If you stay honest and forthright with yourself, you’ll be able to handle this section admirably.
A good Risks & Challenges section should:
- Lay out where you’re at in the project right now. Do you have a manuscript written? Edited? Do you have just an outline?
- Discuss what issues are facing you right now.
- Discuss what issues might be facing you as you create the thing, right up to shipment and final servicing.
But you need to have the right perspective. Perspective is fairly qualitative, but with enough work you can get yourself to the right place. Here are four questions you need to honestly answer to yourself before you even approach the Risks & Challenges text box:
- What are all of the things that might delay this project?
- What are all of the things that might cause this project to run over its budget?
- What will happen in the slim chance that this project blows up and garners way more backers than I expected?
- Finally, what will I do if any of these things do occur?
Risks & Challenges should not write all of these things out in detail. But you still need to know them, so you can have the right perspective. Then you can discuss them later in the project, which promotes the impression that you have everything together well.
Risks & Challenges can be as long as you need, but it usually takes a few paragraphs, and you don’t need to go into harrowing detail about what might happen during crazy edge cases, like your house burning down or something.
This is where your personality can shine. Your project’s description can be of any length, and it generally follows the following format:
- What you’re making, very concisely
- What your backers’ money will go towards, very concisely
- What you’re making, why you’re making it, and why backers might enjoy it, not-at-all concisely
- What your backers’ money will go towards, less concisely
- What rewards they might receive
- Thanks for their support
The first two and last three points probably stand on their own pretty well. Let’s dive into that middle bit more.
What are you making?
Is it a physical book? Good. Does it look awesome? Great: you should be shameless in mentioning that it’s clothbound, letterpressed, foil-stamped, professional-grade, offset-printed, edge-gilded, archival-quality and acid-free, etc., and that your backers will appreciate it for years and years to come.
Are you making other things around it? I know you’re going to be mentioning all of this in the rewards column, but those are just summaries. You have the chance to expound on every reward that you might be making for people here, and you should take it.
Why are you making it?
Did you have a higher calling in writing your book? Did you get frustrated with the deplorable state of textbooks about birdwatching, and decide to make your own? You have a chance here to talk about your story, and your story is great.
Why will backers enjoy it?
If you’re running a Kickstarter project, you are not making this book for yourself. You’re making it for a group of people that you hope can find you some day.
You want to help them in some way. If you’re writing a professional text, maybe you want to help them do their jobs better. If you are writing a novel, fiction is capable of enriching the reader’s life and teaching them more about how to be a person in the world.
Self-publishing once had a stigma behind it, partly because of the vast sea of crappy works out there that failed to take the customer’s needs into account. Fortunately, if you’ve read this far, you’re less likely to fall into that trap, making it easy for you to describe why your backers will enjoy what you have to put together. And at this point, you need to explicitly lay out why. Make a sales pitch if you have to!
In crowdfunded projects, you can’t ask people to give you money without offering something in return. Kickstarter projects allow you to offer rewards for your backers’ money.
Rewards can be anything, no matter whether they actually map well to the project. Want to publish a book? You can offer copies of the book once it’s finished. Or you can offer custom videos of yourself tap-dancing to a song of your backers’ choice, if they want to pay a certain amount for it. Does that have anything to do with your book? Probably not! But you can still do it!
No matter what, you need to figure out what rewards make sense for you to offer, both from the customer’s perspective (it’s something they want) and from your perspective (you’re able to fulfill everything, even if it scales up fairly high).
Rewards can be limited or unlimited. If you actually think the tap-dancing video thing is a good idea, you can cap it at ten videos, so you don’t end up indenturing yourself to a life of tap-dancing. Or if you want to offer some kind of fancy, deluxe package, keeping it limited-edition might encourage people to order it more quickly. Or if you want to provide an “early bird” discount, you can provide the same reward twice, at two different price points – only the pricier one ends up unlimited.
I once saw a project that was about writing postcards to people. $19 would get you a handwritten postcard. $20, on the other hand, would get you a handwritten postcard – but the author would get drunk ahead of time. This clever pair of rewards got a lot of people talking about the project, and that publicity must have been quite valuable for them. For the record, very few people selected the $19 postcard.
Kickstarter themselves encourage you to put together lots of rewards, but I personally believe the best project has as few as possible, with each reward specifically pertinent to the purpose of the project. Fewer rewards are easier to fulfill, it provides greater clarity about your intentions, and it makes for a cleaner, more scannable project page.
Every reward you add provides its own set of logistics and costs that you need to fulfill. Be very careful about what you offer, as it will provide that much more work.
I strongly recommend that you keep your rewards minimal, especially if this is your first project. Here are some guidelines:
- Your rewards should fit the project as well as possible. Are you writing a book? Your reward should be the book. Period. If you want to add more rewards, consider other deluxe packages with valuable offerings. If you’re making a professional text, you can provide templates, guides, expert interviews, and (limited!) one-on-one consultations in higher-tier offerings.
- Don’t do a meaningless, cheap reward. Are you writing a book? Don’t sell stickers for $5 without the book. Some people might believe they’re still given access to the book – which might not be true. Make them pay full price for your work, and stand up for yourself.
- Corollary: make your cheapest reward related to the actual purpose of the project. You can sell ebooks for cheaper than the print version: that’s still your book that you’re trying to get funded. But don’t provide an excerpt, t-shirt, or “access to exclusive updates” for a pittance. You want to attract people who care about you enough to pay full price for something.
- Shy away from numerous varieties of a reward without a very good reason for it. Are you throwing multiple events in multiple cities? That might be a good reason to have several rewards at a given tier.
- Corollary: shy away from numerous rewards at the same price point without a good reason for it. They should likely be related to one another in some way.
- Every project has a most important reward: the thing that is most connected to the project’s purpose. If you’re writing a print book, probably your most important reward is a single copy of the book. The most important reward should probably be somewhere between $20 and $60. Kickstarter’s backers typically donate a mean of $45. If you’re making a chapbook or zine, you might want to price lower; if you’re making a super fancy art book, you might want to price higher. But no matter what, don’t leave money on the table by pricing your key product too low.
- Never do a $1 or $5 “thanks for donating!” reward. They get in the way of the actual rewards and breed low-involvement customers who will, in the long term, get in the way of effective marketing and community-building. At best, you’ll make about $20 from this reward – and it will be from your least interested backers. (People can always donate $1 and not ask for a reward, but at least you aren’t encouraging the practice.)
Your mileage will vary, of course, but my most successful project contained two rewards: one for the PDF only, and one for the print book and PDF. Uptake was higher and people backed quicker. It was easier to fulfill: the whole project, from launch to final shipment, took 112 days. And my customers were blown away by how well-organized the whole operation was, which is not too common for many Kickstarter projects!
Frequently Asked Questions
Kickstarter allows you to add a FAQ to the bottom of your project page. This should contain any obvious questions about your shipment date, but also little goodies: for example, if you had someone film your video, the FAQ is a great place to give them credit.
You should have frequently asked questions written ahead of launch, and one of those should be “When will my card be charged?”. Kickstarter doesn’t charge your backers’ cards until the end of the project. At the same time, it benefits your project to have people back it as early as possible. So you want to head that objection off, as it’s important to ensuring more prospective hits turn into backers. At the moment, Kickstarter doesn’t do it for you.
Once you launch your project, one of your first priorities should be to add these FAQ items. Right now, Kickstarter doesn’t let you add a FAQ to an unfinished project, but hopefully they will allow this in the future.
The Dreaded Video
According to Kickstarter, videos are optional. I am here to tell you that they are absolutely not optional. Projects with a video typically raise 50% more than projects without a video. You will be leaving thousands of dollars on the table if you launch without a video; your project might even fail.
I know you don’t know how to take a video. I know you are squeamish on camera. Some people love recording videos for their Kickstarter projects, but for most people it’s the hardest, most time-consuming part of their preparation.
I hope to teach you to make a good video, but know this: a terrible video is better than no video. If you don’t have the time to make something really amazing, you still need to do something.
A good video tends to follow a pretty typical format:
- Introduce yourself.
- Discuss the project.
- Elaborate on why the project will be great: get people excited about it.
- Mention why it costs a lot of money to do the project, and connect it to how the listener’s donations will help.
- Optionally, show where you’re at right now: prototypes, half-finished manuscripts, and so on.
- Thank the listener for their time.
This can be as simple as getting in front of a webcam for two minutes. If you choose to go that route, I strongly recommend having a well-lit room. You will want to be lit from the sides, so it doesn’t look like you are interrogating your customers.
No matter what, you will want to go with as nice of a camera as possible. Your laptop is less good than the latest model of iPhone, which in turn is less good than a video-capable digital SLR.
Filming in nonstandard locales is great. If you can be in a park or a coffee shop, that might look a little better than your disheveled bedroom. But keep in mind that sound can become an issue in these areas, so you might want to bring along an external boom mic, or dub the sound over a video track later.
Get friends to help you. Someone needs to operate the camera while you talk. With enough planning, a good video can come together in an afternoon.
Towards that end, you should script your video ahead of time, and you should memorize any speaking parts. What will you say? When will cuts occur? You can perhaps conduct a voiceover as you flip through a prototype of your book: when will that take place, what will you say over it, and will the sound be appreciably different after you make the cut (e.g., from a room mic versus a fancy vocal mic)?
Sound-wise, a $50 mic is a vast improvement over your laptop or cell phone’s mic, and quality can improve exponentially based on what you put into it. I wouldn’t splurge on more than a mid-range USB mic for the video; this will make you sound good enough for a Kickstarter video.
You don’t need to worry about the best equipment; in fact, you should pour more of your energy into having a great personality on camera. You should come across as likable and authoritative, and your project should come across as inevitable – but only with the backer’s help.
Video is a terrifically malleable medium, and you don’t necessarily need to follow a rote format. Here are some examples of good videos that break the mold:
- Frank Chimero’s book The Shape of Design cycled through a series of handwritten notecards and notebook pages as a song played in the background.
- Bottle koozie company Freaker complimented your hair, shoes, and the way you smell in a video that, uh, speaks for itself.
- Double Fine Adventure chatted with numerous employees of the company before going into their pitch.
- Max Temkin’s Werewolf project paired slides against a song.
- On my own front, Cadence & Slang’s two projects both involve a voiceover paired with Keynote slides. My face is never shown on the screen.
- And furthermore, Distance involved me typing in a window, in real time, as music played in the background.
Use your video as an opportunity to have fun. People tend to get nervous in front of a camera, but you can keep doing multiple takes in order to get yourself acclimated to the situation. And if you’re still nervous after that, and you partake in alcohol, I suggest whiskey. Trust me on this: whiskey never hurts your Kickstarter video.
Submission and Revision
Constructive criticism is the foundation of great creative work, and your project absolutely qualifies as creative work. Once you’re finished with the first draft of your project, you can send a preview link to your friends and colleagues, so they can rip it apart. New perspectives will help you catch errors and improve the way you plan to sell your book.
Send the preview link on to a few friends (asking them to keep things quiet!), and solicit as much feedback from them as possible. A form exists at the top of your “draft” project page, which allows people to enter feedback easily – and for you to respond to it. If your recipients haven’t filled that out in two days, follow up with each of them.
Once you’ve addressed as much feedback as needed and are getting ready to launch, you need to submit it to Kickstarter’s staff so they can approve your project. By this point, you should have solid, cleaned-up drafts of your rewards, description, header image, and video.
I would give about a week for approval to happen: you never know how much of a backlog Kickstarter might have, and you don’t want your launch to be delayed by their approval. If you are friends with folks who work at Kickstarter, you might want to kindly and humbly nudge them with your draft project link.
Once your project has been approved, you can – and likely will – continue making edits to it before launch. But they should be small: you shouldn’t totally reinvent the wheel by this point unless you have a very good reason to do so.
Launching is more than just hitting a button on Kickstarter: it can make or break your project. The vast majority of your backers will come at the very beginning and very end of your project, making both periods critical to your success.
- The beginning of your project will see backers from friends and colleagues who you gave the heads-up to ahead of time, as well as any of their friends who might notice the existence of your project during your initial PR push.
- The end of your project will see people who back in relative haste. A statement like “Only 2 hours left!” will forcefully spur people towards a buying decision. Also, you may be near your goal at this point – and people want to be the one who pushes you over the finish line, leading you to get even more momentum.
Kickstarter allows projects with a maximum length of 60 days, but in practice you shouldn’t go longer than 30 days without a very good reason for doing so. The middle of a project will almost always see the fewest number of backers, and if you lengthen that period you run the risk of people forgetting about your project towards the end. Only create a project longer than 30 days if you have a specific media push planned for a date longer than 30 days into the future and you can’t delay the project’s launch for whatever reason (holidays, a rigorous production schedule, etc).
With that in mind, when do you launch? How do you launch? To whom do you launch? Let’s tackle each one of these separately.
When do you launch?
In general, launch only when the hardest parts are solved. I generally don’t launch until I at least have a first draft together of my manuscript. This allows fewer things to go wrong between launch and shipment. Editorial work tends to be on a fairly sane timeline, as long as you have things cleaned up decently. Design might take a while, especially if you’re unfamiliar with page layout software and want to do it yourself – so keep that in mind before you decide to launch.
People are generally at their computers, with credit cards, during business hours, and you want as much post-launch momentum as possible to carry you through the week. So, don’t launch on the weekend or a Friday, and don’t launch in the evening. I tend to launch between 10am and Noon on Tuesdays.
But what about time zones? Launch during your local time. No matter what country you live in, you’re liable to get a lot of local backers. That said, if you live somewhere remote, where not a lot of folks live in your time zone (Alaska, Hawaii, Newfoundland, etc.), try to nudge this by a couple of hours so you can cater to where most of your customers live.
But I want to throw a launch party! I love parties, thank you for inviting me! You should still launch in the morning and throw your party that night. I once saw someone throw a party where they launched the project in front of everyone, and then their staff walked around with iPads for people to back it. But nobody is going to want to throw money at you while they’re having fun at a party. They are going to want to drink and schmooze. Let them do that.
Try to keep it so the project runs with as few holidays as possible during its duration, especially towards the beginning and end. Also, make sure your project won’t end on a weekend.
To whom do you launch?
Your launch time matters, of course, but a launch won’t be very effective if you don’t have an audience to launch to. I’m going to chat a bit about how you can build an audience and get them excited to support you.
In short: you build an audience by teaching them. The internet is a communicative medium above all else. Here are some things you can do to teach people right now:
Build a mailing list. But I’d be spamming people! Get over it. Email remains the most powerful communications medium on the internet, and you’re nuts to not use it. You should start a mailing list – I recommend Tinyletter, which is free and easy to use – and email people once every one or two weeks. Be consistent in how often you post, and tell people everything you know.
But I don’t have an audience yet! That’s fair – but everybody starts with no audience. My first-ever newsletter went out to 27 people, who signed up after I tweeted about it. In my third installment, I asked people to share it and tell their friends to subscribe. It doubled in size overnight.
With email, you’re playing the long game, and it’s never too soon to start. You can post links to subscribe on Twitter and Facebook, but once you get a website together for your book (which you should do before launch!), I strongly recommend adding a form to collect email addresses so people can find out when it’s ready.
You can email people about anything you want, even if it has nothing to do with the book you’re writing. Email forges relationships over time and gets folks excited about you as a person.
As you get closer to launch, though, you’ll definitely want to mention that you are writing a book and are planning a Kickstarter for it. For me, this is a great way to sap away any motivation for writing it – so I never announce anything until I’ve written at least 10,000 words. (No matter what, 10,000 words is salvageable into something – like big long blog posts.)
Once you’ve announced, this is a terrific time for you to post your best excerpts and discuss the process of writing it. What did you struggle with? If you’re writing a professional text, what are the pains that you might alleviate for your readers? Talk about your story, but make it something that makes sense to people. Address them directly. And ask them questions: you’ll find that their feedback will improve your book.
Write blog posts. Your mailing list will contain your most passionate and interested audience, but you can cast a wider net by writing blog posts.
Blog posts can always make for good mailing list content, and vice-versa: just make sure that you provide an easy way for people to subscribe to the mailing list from the blog, and vice-versa. A call to subscribe works especially well at the bottom of an individual post’s body – after all, you presumably just helped the reader out a bit, and they’re at the height of their interest by the end.
Don’t worry about making a fancy blog. You can go from not having a blog to having a blog in five minutes on Wordpress or Tumblr. Your writing always matters more than anything else: after all, lots of people use RSS, Instapaper, or Safari Reader to strip away your fancy design, anyway.
Be present and available. This part is really about social media, but what matters more than “doing social media” is being present and available to others. If you do the work from this viewpoint, “social media” will take care of itself.
Being present means you are checking social networks for mentions of your name, websites, and the titles of work, and responding accordingly. Did someone complain about how high your pricing is? Did someone ask if anyone has heard of [your book’s title] before? Reach out and say you’d be happy to answer any questions.
Being available means you’re using social media on a day-to-day basis, talking with folks in your field or industry, and becoming an authority on some topic. It doesn’t matter where or how you do this, just that you do it in some capacity.
Post links to interesting things you’ve read – doesn’t matter if you didn’t write them. Get into (friendly and non-combative!) chats with folks about big issues. Make sure people remember you, and associate you with an interest in some topic. The only way that will happen is if you put yourself out there.
How do you launch?
This whole part assumes you have already built an audience ahead of time. I’m going to say a lot about who you communicate to and when. By this point, people should know about your book and when it comes out – and they should have made a decision about whether to purchase it.
Never, ever, ever launch when nobody is already following you. On the internet, a tree that falls in the forest really will make no sound. Do not be that tree.
The day before your launch, you should write an email to your mailing list that you’ll be launching tomorrow. List exactly when, and give them the heads-up that you’ll be sending an announcement to them. This is a great opportunity to get people excited about it.
You should also write drafts of the following:
- An email to your mailing list.
- A blog post announcing the launch.
- A template of a personal email to individual people who might be interested in promoting your project.
- A tweet and/or Facebook post announcing the project itself.
You won’t have the actual link to your project until it’s launched, but you’ll want to write these ahead of time, and insert the link after the project is up.
You should also compile a list of influential people you hope to email directly. Your mileage may vary, but in my industry, a tiny handful of people can influence an outsize amount of your sales. (For one of my own books, over two-thirds of its launch sales were because a single person wrote a long, heartfelt blog post.)
Don’t write a giant email blast to these people. Take the time to individually address your email to them, and include their name and allude to details about them, so they know it isn’t just a form letter. This makes you into more of a person and less of a PR department. You might even want to send these folks preview chapters or a full manuscript ahead of time, asking them for feedback. People love when you think of them early, and get them in on the ground floor of something cool.
On the launch day, you should do a few things in order.
- Launch the project about ten minutes ahead of schedule. So if you told people you’d be launching at 10am CDT, launch it at 9:50. People might back it during this time; that’s fine.
- Add the FAQs. One of Kickstarter’s most maddening project management issues: you can’t add frequently asked questions to a draft project. So take the time to do this right now. You should already have your FAQs written, of course.
- Copy out the project’s link, and paste it into all of the things you write ahead of time.
- Email your mailing list first. Give first crack to the people who support you the most directly.
- Post to social media outlets next.
- Post to your blog next.
- If you posted to Twitter, go to Twitter and see if anyone is asking any questions. @-reply anyone and everyone who is part of the conversation. If people just spread it or praised the book, don’t bother @-replying them with your gratitude just yet: you have more important work to do right now.
- Finally, write your personal emails to folks, making sure to address them directly and add the project’s link.
It’s worth noting that you’ve just done most of the work you need to do today. Go outside. Hit up a local park. Treat yourself. Try not to think about things too hard. Check in every couple of hours to answer questions. Get a nice sandwich. Go out with friends – and don’t forget to set your phone to airplane mode. The biggest parts of your whole project – the creation of your manuscript and planning the Kickstarter – are over at last.
Promoting the Launched Project
The hard part may be over, but you still aren’t done yet. You need to promote your project so it can get funded.
Very few projects are funded within so short a time that they don’t need any promotion – and even after you do get funded, promotion will help you earn extra money that will give you more peace of mind when printing, and maybe even the opportunity to make a better-quality book than you had planned.
Most projects fall into two categories: either they were successfully funded, or they raised barely 10% of their funds. Almost no projects fail by a hair. Looking at all of Kickstarter’s existing projects, if you raise about a third of your money at any point during your project, you have about a 92% chance of raising the rest.
But those numbers don’t give you an excuse not to promote; in fact, many projects only succeed because they have been extensively promoted up until they get funded. So let’s talk about some things you can do to promote your project.
Press outlets can help you quite a bit. People can interview you during your project’s duration, and a link back to the project will gather a lot of interest.
It helps to know your press contacts fairly well. Emailing someone cold might work, but it’s less likely to work if they don’t know who you are, or they don’t already have a positive impression of you. The best way to get to know the press is to help them – and you should be helping them well before your project begins.
I’ve found that specialist publications tend to help my project more than generalist ones; that is, because I work in technology, I’d more appreciate a link from Wired than from The Guardian. (Although either would be great.) Fortunately, you already know a lot about your niche, and you probably have some experience in staying on top of it.
Do you know who prominently writes about your field? Ping them with articles that they might find interesting – well in advance of your Kickstarter. If someone has, for instance, written about social gaming in the past, maybe fire them an insightful blog post or two about the topic.
Are they swamped with email? Do they never reply to you? Maybe dig a little deeper: find relatively obscure names in prominent outlets, and help them out as well. Either way, be friendly, generous, and outgoing to folks. We’re all in this together, and press folks might be more liable to help you when you ask for it. Heck, you might even find that you make a few friends.
Email interviews – or ongoing interviews that happen over a shared document – are a great way for new audiences to learn about you. They’re also a good way to overcome a mid-project lull: a well-timed interview can drive a lot of interest when your immediate friends may be spreading the word less. You can also chat with the press over Skype or Google Hangout, or provide them with a press release.
Either way, make sure you cast a wide net, and try to chat with folks from the media in a helpful and constructive way. Don’t just email them a press release without any context or any prior relationship: that’s the internet equivalent of the local pizza joint flyering your mailbox without your permission. Kindness and generosity will always reward you down the line.
I talked a little earlier about being present and available on social media. Those two characteristics are important, but I’ll add a third: don’t be annoying.
You should definitely let people know when your project has launched (probably with two posts) and when it’s about to end (probably with three posts). Post about your project every week or so towards the middle.
Posts towards the end of the project work well as reminders that the project is closing soon. Posts towards the beginning work well to alert people about your launch and that your work is available for sale.
Just don’t be totally annoying about it. Your immediate friends have read about your project by week two. I assure you: they know. And they have probably made a purchasing decision by that point. Continuing to force the matter may drive people away, including those who might potentially be interested and passionate customers.
- Don’t write an impersonal email to hundreds of your barely-acquainted friends and colleagues. This walks the line between marketing and spam, and Kickstarter frowns on spam. At best, it won’t convert very well. At worst, you’re wasting others’ time.
- Don’t email or @-reply other project creators with a link to your project. Unless you know them personally, this absolutely is spam.
- Don’t email the backers of a similar project with yours. Same.
- Don’t write a press release and email it to dozens of press outlets that you don’t already know. This isn’t spam, but it won’t really get you anywhere.
Overall: don’t do something that you would personally frown upon if your friends did it. Kickstarter rewards honesty and quality, and there is no way to fake either.
Following Through: Backer Updates
Kickstarter allows you to write brief updates to your backers, so you can keep them apprised of your progress. Backer updates are half blog – they look like one, nestled within a tab on your project page – and half mailing list, with new updates emailed to all of your backers by default.
Backer updates can be about anything, but they should primarily be to share your progress and discuss the preparations you’ve put in. Other details can help provide insight into your personality and motivations, which does a great job for humanizing you – making your backers are invested in something more personal and intimate that they would get from a typical store.
I’ve personally found that no details are too small. I have developed a reputation for sharing the whole budget for the project, down to small things like toner and staples. If you can clearly show that you’ve thought through the budget, people are more liable to trust your ability to get everything shipped under budget and on time – and they’re more likely to respect your reasons for requesting as much money as you have.
You could also discuss where and how you created your book. Did you write in a coffee shop? On a cliffside in the middle of nowhere? What encouraged you to write through any major stumbling blocks? What was the easiest part to write? Get people invested in your story.
Backer updates can be viewable by the whole public, or only by logged-in backers. Only use “backers only” updates if you have:
- Administrative information that wouldn’t be relevant to the general public.
- Passwords to secret sites. I share my PDF download links this way.
Do not use a backers only update to share bad news. People will view you as dishonest and cowardly, and the information will leak to the general public anyway.
DIY Book, DIY Service
The instant you launch a project on Kickstarter, you’ll have to conduct customer service. People will have questions about the project, and you’ll have to answer them. People will wonder when everything is going to be shipped, and you’ll need to address them. Their copies will be lost or damaged in the mail, and it’ll fall on you to replace them.
One of the most thrilling and maddening things about being on Kickstarter is that you have to connect directly with your readers. And sometimes that can be stressful. Some authors love it; others secretly dread it. (Don’t publicly cop to dreading it.) Either way, I’m going to chat about how you can set expectations and follow through with a great product.
Underpromising & Overdelivering
A large part of running your project involves managing your backers’ expectations, and providing lower expectations will always benefit you. After all, this is probably your first time going through all this, and you have a lot to learn.
For example: Kickstarter requires all rewards to have an associated ship date, as precise as the month and year. Do you think your book will ship in May? Tell your backers it will ship in October. Then, when you end up shipping it in August, it’s technically two months late by your estimates, but pleasantly early by theirs.
It is far worse to predict an early shipment and have it be late. Likewise, it’s much worse to predict a high quality standard for the product itself and then ship a trade paperback. People will trust you less, and they will rightly believe they wasted their money on something sub-par.
You need to make sure expectations are set well in your project description, video, and ship dates. Make sure you clearly set forth what you’re trying to make, and try to act with as much humility and grace as possible.
The Backer Survey
Once you’re ready to ship, you have the ability to send a survey that asks backers for their shipping information and otter details.
You can add custom form fields for things like t-shirt size, ask silly survey questions, or – perhaps most importantly – add a yes/no question for opting in to your mailing list, so you can stay in touch with them in the future. (I doubled the size of my mailing list that way.) Some of your customers’ Kickstarter emails might differ significantly from their personal emails, so you should also ask them for their email address, even though this may seem redundant to you.
You can send different backer surveys to people who backed at different levels. Did a subset of your customers order physical books? You can ask them and only them for a physical address. Do this for every backer level.
Kickstarter only allows you to send out your backer survey once, so make sure you get everything right the first time.
Send out your backer survey 10 days before you know you will ship. This ensures the highest proportion of accurate addresses. The vast majority of your backers will respond to the survey within a week: enough that you might get one or two stragglers after your initial shipment date, which can be easily handled as one-offs. If this means you need to delay your ship date by 10 days, so be it: there are worse problems to be had in the world.
Packing & Shipment
By this point, you’ve estimated the size of your envelopes, purchased envelopes and labels, and received your books in the mail. You’re ready to ship!
The day before you pack everything, download all of your addresses from Kickstarter. This will be furnished as a comma-separated value document, or CSV. It’s basically a fancy way of saying a spreadsheet, but formatted in plain text. You can import a CSV into Excel or Numbers to make edits, then export it back to CSV when you’re done. Or, if you’re comfortable playing around in a plaintext editor, you can load a CSV straight in there and make edits manually.
Kickstarter’s spreadsheets typically come with a header row that shows what columns correspond to what fields. You can safely delete this, as well as a handful of columns that correspond to your backer’s email address and any other survey questions. For shipment, you probably need just their mailing address fields. And don’t forget to delete any blank rows from anybody who didn’t answer the survey yet, as Endicia chokes on these. (In addition, make sure to email these folks a direct follow-up so they can answer their surveys!)
Then, use Endicia to print out batch postage, taking care to separate domestic from international (the rates are a lot different, and you’ll have to print customs forms), as well as multiple copies from single copies.
Endicia allows you to import your CSV as tab-delimited or comma-delimited, meaning the columns are separated with either tabs or commas in the final document. Kickstarter’s initial CSV comes comma-delimited. I recommend keeping your CSV comma-delimited for a more legible, bug-free final document.
Once you’ve printed your postage, it’s time to pack books and affix your stamps. Personally, I find that things move a lot faster if I can get my friends involved. So I order a keg of beer – usually with the last of my Kickstarter money – and invite a bunch of folks over to form an assembly line.
Finally, go on the USPS’s website and arrange a local pickup. Let them know when to come and how many books to expect. Once the day comes, stick around so you can help them fill the truck. Ask if you can work from home, or take a “sick” day.
And then you’re done!… sort of. Almost.
You might have extra copies sitting around; in fact, you will definitely have at least a few hundred copies sitting around if you printed offset. If you played your cards right, these extra copies represent pure profit. You should have a website together to sell these, and you should launch it the second your Kickstarter ends. At that point, lots of people will be talking about how great your project was and will congratulate you on a job well done. This represents an opportunity to publicize the launch of your book’s site and the ability to preorder additional copies.
Don’t put a purchase link on your book’s site while the Kickstarter is running. You don’t want multiple sources of funding, and you want to funnel as many people into your project page as possible, so it can be a successful project earlier on.
Make sure your Kickstarter backers know to spread the word. I enclose a little quarter-sheet with every book I sell, telling people that word of mouth is all I have. This encourages people to share the book on social media and tell their colleagues. In the week after you ship a book, you’ll be able to sell quite a few more copies this way.
Kickstarter is a Customer Service Medium
You should give about three weeks for copies to arrive all over the world. If someone hasn’t received theirs in three weeks, either they live in an especially remote part of the world, their customs office is particularly restrictive (looking at you, Russia!), their country doesn’t have a solid postal infrastructure (hi, Afghanistan!), or their copy has been lost in the mail.
If the first three definitely aren’t true, mail them a replacement copy. If one of the first three is true and the customer has reached out already, ask them to wait a week; usually their copy will arrive shortly.
If their copy was damaged in the mail, mail them a replacement copy via Priority Mail, and ask them to give the other copy to a friend when it arrives.
If their copy was returned back to you, email them asking for a different address. Do not send a returned copy to the same address; there’s a 99.9999% chance that it will just be returned back to you again.
For all other inquiries, remember: the customer is always right. Don’t risk frustrating someone if they ask for your PDF and you don’t see their name on your backer survey. Just give them the PDF. Life’s too short to worry about it.
Give your backers the benefit of the doubt, and don’t bother with applying DRM or watermarking your digital work. Treat your customers like real people and they will return the favor in kind. Plus, if your book gets on a torrent tracker, it’ll probably be downloaded by folks who would never bother paying you anyway.
Critique is the foundation of great creative work, and you’ll learn a lot from the feedback that your readers provide. It’s an awful lot easier to get that feedback when you’re servicing and shipping directly to them, and they’re more liable to tell you what you need to hear.
Two months after you’ve shipped, post a backer update asking for feedback about the book. What did your readers like about it? What did they not enjoy? If they haven’t read the book yet, do they have a justification, or was your book’s introduction just that boring?
Use your feedback to act on making even better work in the future. If you play your cards right, the cycle never stops – and that’s a very good thing.
Strictly speaking, Kickstarter projects have a discrete end: you have finished the project when something happens. In the case of this book, you’ve finished writing a book and have shipped it to your backers. Once it’s shipped, you can call the project complete.
But in reality, the cycle is never done. You’ll have extra copies to sell independently. You’ll be servicing the book and answering questions. And, most importantly, you always have something new to write. If you’ve done things right, Kickstarter has validated your first idea – or, perhaps, it turned out that the world wasn’t ready for your next book. Either way, now it’s time for you to work on your next one. Put in the time and effort, and you’ll be shocked at where the world can take you.
Thanks to Erin Watson for her assistance in editing drafts of this, and to Vitorio Miliano for additional editorial help. Thanks also to Glenn Fleishman for pointing out a mistake in the way offset printing works.