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Boskone Panel Notes: Crowdfunding and a Community of Caring

This panel took place on Saturday at 3pm. I was a bit nervous going in since I was the only panelist who had no experience running a fundraiser, but it turned out that was a good counterpoint because I could speak comfortably as a backer and participant, and I also had relevant questions. The other panelists were all great, and I learned a lot in this panel.

These notes are (as always) incomplete, and not meant to be taken as true transcripts. They're just based on whatever I happened to scribble down during the panel. Please feel free to offer corrections or additions in the comments.

Here's the official blurb:

The SF/F/H community has a long, strong history of supporting its members. Now, with the rise of crowdfunding sites (Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Peerbackers) and our community of caring projects (auctions to help people in need, the World Travelers Fund, the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund), we can tap into our community in powerful new ways. Panelists who have conducted successful campaigns share experiences and advice while discussing crowdfunding pros and cons.
Elaine Isaak (M), John Picacio, Julia Rios, Erin Underwood


Elaine Isaak, our fearless moderator, began by asking us to introduce ourselves. Elaine is a fantasy writer with three novels and numerous short stories out. She ran a kickstarter for a project, and it didn't meet its funding goal (oh no!), but she learned a lot in the process. Her website is here.

John Picacio is a successful book cover artist. He was Boskone's Artist Guest of Honor in 2010, and he's won several awards for his artwork. He launched a very successful kickstarter for a calender full of his artwork just a few months ago. His website is here.

Julia Rios is me! I'm a writer, editor, podcaster, and narrator. My experience with crowdfunding is all from the donation side. I've backed a lot of kickstarters, donated to several causes, and offered goods or services for auctions. My website is here.

Erin Underwood is a writer, editor, and publisher. She ran a successful kickstarter for a YA SF anthology, and also had one failed attempt before that. She had a lot of useful tips. Her website is here.

John: His first kickstarter was in November of 2012 for a 2013 calendar. He asked for $12,000 and ended up getting $28,000. Although he's won the World Fantasy and Hugo Awards, and although he's been successful as a book cover artist, he feels times are changing and that in order to keep making enough to sustain himself he needed to investigate new modes of marketing and promotion.

Julia: I've backed a lot of different projects, and also donated to different causes. I think there are two main strains of crowdfunding. The ones that are there to fund the creation of a specific project, and the ones that are there to raise money for a specific cause. For the second kind, there are lots of options apart from Kickstarter, like the online auction of donated goods and services. Right now I am offering a short story critique for the Con or Bust online auction so I can help raise money to send people of color to conventions. [The auction ends Sunday the 24th of February, 2012, so if you want to bid on a critique, there's still time!]

Erin: Her successful Kickstarter was for Futuredaze, an anthology of YA science fiction. The Kickstarter funded in June of 2012. She asked for $1,700 and got $2,600. Futuredaze is available for purchase as of February 2013.

Elaine: Her unsuccessful Kickstarter was for An Author's Grimoire: a manual for fantasy writers. The Kickstarter ran from the end of February to the beginning of April, 2012. She asked for $6,500 and got $2,600.

Erin: Her first experience with crowfunding was actually running an online auction for the Interstitial Arts Foundation. She was overwhelmed by how supportive the community was for that. When she tried her first unsuccessful Kickstarter for Pop Fic Review, though, she asked for $2,000 and got only $18. She realized she had no idea how to reach out and build a community from scratch. The IAF had an established community, which made a giant difference.

John: Going into the summer of 2012, he'd talked to his friend, Lou Anders. Lou suggested a Kickstarter, but John was worried about the stigma of self-marketing. What if people thought he was desperate and a failure? But then he won the Hugo Award in September, and that was enough outside validation that he decided to brave the Kickstarter. Budgets for book covers are starting to disappear, and he worries about getting enough work, not because publisher don't like his work, but because they're tightening budgets. The market is changing, so he has to change, too. Even now that the Kickstarter was wildly successful, he admits he still worries sometimes about the potential stigma, though.

[Edited to add: John notes that I have his reasons for worrying wrong here. I was basing them on very sketchy notes, and projecting what I have heard other people worry about in the context of self-publishing vs. publishing with a large publishing house. John says:

I don't remember saying the word "desperate" or "failure" in reference to my career prospects, or that I was worried about getting jobs. That seems off-key? What I did feel going into Kickstarter is the possibility of diminished credibility because most of my work has been done through traditional publishing thoroughfares, and I've worked years to earn that credibility. I wasn't sure if doing KS would subvert that cred, and therefore wasn't sure if I was a good fit for the platform. The truth, much to my relief, is it hasn't been a problem at all, and in fact, my cred has been part of the foundation of my KS success so far.

As far as getting jobs, I'm in a great position and I'm constantly offered cover gigs, but what I was telling the audience was I worry about the next generation of artists, and what their prospects will be. Even though I'm in a good position right now and the market wants what I do, I also believe in not being content or feeling like I'm in a safe position. So using Kickstarter to build my own creator-owned brand is part of my new equation for being diverse in a shifting marketplace. But if I gave the impression that I was worried about being broke or jobless tomorrow -- no, that's not the case at all.


Sorry for the misrepresentation! This is what I mean when I say these panel notes are ALWAYS incomplete and likely full of errors. --Julia Rios, 22 February, 2013]


Audience: One member is here because she wants has founded a charitable organization. Gentle Hugs 4 Paws hopes to give companion animals to people who live with chronic pain. The founder is hoping to run an auction of items like signed books at some point in the future. Donations are welcome any time.

Panel: Agrees that this is a cool idea.

Audience: Another audience member is upset about the lack of access for disabled people at science fiction conventions and wants to kickstart a project to make hotels and conventions more accessible.

Erin: This is a great idea. The next step is to come up with a clear and measurable goal. One thing she learned in her Kickstarters is that the potential backers need a clear concept and solid end goal to grab onto. What is the next step in this plan? Does the audience member want to start an advocacy group? Does the audience member hope to raise funds for pamphlets or other literature to raise awareness?

John: Agrees with Erin that the cause is great, but also that having a solid concept for backers is important. He did the calendar kickstarter to raise funds so he could produce a deck of Loteria cards, but when he did the calendar Kickstarter, he didn't mention the Loteria project. He focused on the smaller project, and then put his profits into the Loteria project after the fact.

Elaine: Going back to what John said about the market changing for creators, she muses that Kickstarters may replace advances in the future. Advantage of traditional publishing: you send book, and they send money. In indie publishing, you have to raise the funds to create the book before you can send it out.

John: You do get to keep your rights with indie projects, but then there's the question of how you let people know your work exists. Not just for the life of the Kickstarter, but indefinitely.

Elaine: What makes you back a project?

Julia: Well, for the causes, it's a case of a) do I support this cause, and b) do I have any money right now. For projects, it's a case of a) do I want this particular thing to exist? and b) do I have money right now? If yes, for projects, I consider it kind of like a pre-order. Many projects have a backer reward level which includes the item, so I usually sign up at that level. Since I know my contribution alone will not fund the project, the other thing I do is tell others, "Hey, look at this neat thing! I want it to exist! If you do, too, consider backing it!"

Erin: Friend everyone! Fostering community is essential, and if you lay that groundwork, you'll have a much better chance of succeeding when you apply to that community to back your project. Also, Facebook was a ke instrument in the success of her Futuredaze Kickstarter.

John: Has always felt that he should say something once and then shut up, but you really can't with a Kickstarter. You need to promote it a lot if you want people to pay attention and back it.

Julia: There is a big difference between just saying, "Back my project!" over and over, and engaging ith your audience, though. I get really annoyed by constant repeat notices. I don't mind when they are showing me interesting things or asking for audience input, though.

John: Yes, this is helpful. When he did the calendar Kickstarter, he put some process type stuff out there, like sketches, etc.

Erin: Did interviews with people about YA SF, and that was offering interesting content instead of just saying, "Buy my anthology."

John: For products, it's important to move away from "Please support me!" and toward "Here is a cool thing I would like to make for you!" Show backers what their money will buy them.

[Speaker not listed in notes]: Travis Heermann wrote a story in the world of his novels as a bonus stretch goal in his successful Kickstarter. He asked for $4,000 and got $6,000.

Erin: For things like the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund (CBLDF), backers know they are going to help a specific person stay out of jail.

Julia: But they also raise that money by doing things like online auctions of rare Neil Gaiman manuscripts and things. Some people will give out of the goodness of their hearts, but it never hurts to entice them with stuff that they really want to have.

--Some discussion of different options for fundraising. Kickstarter is big one, but there is also Indiegogo, which allows for the option of setting a goal, but keeping the money donated even if you don't reach that goal.

On the non-product side, there are also multiple options.
*Many causes in the past have used LiveJournal communities to hose auctions.
*The CBLDF has used E-Bay for online auctions.
*Con Or Bust uses its own website.
*The World SF Travel Fund uses Peerbackers.
*The Sequence a Science Fiction Writer fundraiser to sequence Jay Lake's DNA used You Caring.

John: One thing you should think about is how you are going to fulfill your orders. He often has workdays that start at 5am and go till 11pm. Where is the time to fill orders in that schedule? Luckily his wife, Tara, was there to help him with that aspect of it. Important to plan for helpers, or for another alternative.

[Edited to add: John notes in the comments that Tara is not his wife. Oops! My apologies. --Julia Rios 22 February, 2013]

Elaine: It's important to think about when you'll be able to produce work. A solid timeline is good, and it's also good to think about scale (how many can you reasonably make?) and the cost of shipping. Also, think about types of rewards you offer. Mugs might sound like cool rewards, but they are expensive to produce and to ship, so they may not be practical.

Erin: Used to run order processing for software company. Did all her own administrative work, and did a good job, but still didn't think of everything. Did not account for international shipping being much higher than domestic shipping. It meant she took a loss on every international order. Since then she has noticed people having specific international backer levels with higher shipping factored into the price.

Audience: Is a game designer, and wonders how to deal with limited production runs.

Elaine: One option is to create a stretch goal, and say if you reach that, you'll make more copies. Your base goal should be enough to fund your limited run, but if there's demand, you can effectively use the stretch goal to meet it. One thing you need is a video!

John: Yes! Really didn't want to make a video, but people told him he needed to, and it really helped bring backers in.

Erin: Her video was just powerpoint slides, but it still helped. Need visual component so people can see what they're backing.

Julia: What are some of the mistakes that you made in your unsuccessful attempts? Or common mistakes you see others making?

Erin: Your minimum should be the absolute minimum of what would make the project worthwhile to you. If you need $5,000 to make it happen, but you'd like $10,000, ask for $5,000 and make the stretch goal $10,000. Otherwise, the project might not happen at all.

John: This is a key reason why he didn't use Kickstarter for his Loteria project. It would be too much expense, and he worried e would not meet his funding goal. There will be a Loteria Kickstarter later, but he'll be able to ask for less money than he would have at first because some of the funding came in from the calendar's sales.

Elaine: Spent a lot of time thinking about how much to ask for, and it ultimately ended up being too much for the backer based. If she'd had time and money from other sources, she might have been able to ask for less.

About incentives, Tobias Buckell said not to have more than 4 reward levels, because too many options confuse backers. However, Elaine learned that it would have been a good idea to have a backer level from the start for people like family and friends who just wanted to support her personally and didn't want her product.

Erin: It's very important to do regular, honest updates.

Elaine: Offers two great resources for people who are looking into this type of fundraising.
*Hacking Kickstarter is a giant tutorial explaining exactly how one project raised $100,000 in 10 days.
*Kicking It: Successful Crowdfunding is an e-book by Shanna Germain and Monte Cook, both of whom have had successful crowdfunding projects.

That was the end of the panel. To see more panel notes, click the panel notes tag. I will post the last two panels I have notes for (Steampunk and Podcasting) by the end of the weekend.
Tags: boskone, cons, crowdfunding, panel notes
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