Graduate Essay: Travis Heermann–Crowdfunding for Authors

Heermann-6Freelance writer, novelist, award-winning screenwriter, editor, poker player, poet, and biker, Travis Heermann is a 2009 graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop and the author of Death Wind, The Ronin Trilogy (which begins with Heart of the Ronin), The Wild Boys, and Rogues of the Black Fury, plus short fiction pieces in anthologies and magazines such as Apex Magazine, Alembical, the Fiction River anthology series, Historical Lovecraft, and Cemetery Dance’s Shivers VII.  As a freelancer, he has produced a metric ton of role-playing game work both in print and online for properties including the Firefly Roleplaying Game, Battletech, Legend of Five Rings, d20 System, and EVE Online.

He enjoys cycling, martial arts, torturing young minds with otherworldly ideas, and zombies. He has three long-cherished dreams: a produced screenplay, a NYT best-seller, and a seat in the World Series of Poker.

In 2016, he returned to the U.S. after living in New Zealand for a year with his family, toting more Middle Earth souvenirs and photos than is reasonable.


If you haven’t heard of the crowdfunding sites Kickstarter or Indiegogo, you may be living under an Internet-free rock (for which I would blame no one nowadays). Crowdfunding is the idea that a crowd of people, each contributing just a little bit, can pay the costs to bring a creative project to life. It’s been an exciting new way for filmmakers, graphic artists, game designers, and oh yes, authors, to make their visions become reality—but it’s not without its potential pitfalls.

This article is intended to provide an outline of how crowdfunding works, plus the pros and cons of crowdfunding projects so that you can decide whether it’s right for you.

How Crowdfunding Works

The process is pretty straightforward.

  1. You post your project on one of the crowdfunding sites, either Kickstarter.com or Indiegogo.com, establish tiers of rewards at various dollar-levels, run a campaign usually lasting 30 days, and collect pledges from backers toward a monetary goal.
  2. Anyone can review your project and decide if they want to support it, and at what monetary contribution.
  3. If your project receives enough pledges to meet your goal, you get the money. If you don’t meet the goal, you get nothing. (Indiegogo has an option that you can keep the pledges even if the goal is not met.)
  4. You use the money to pay the project’s costs and produce rewards for your backers.

As an author, you’re probably going to be working on a book SotRCover_72dpi_300wideproject of some flavor. Your costs would most likely include editing, proofreading, art, design, printing, copyright registration, etc.—all expenses required to publish the book. So crowdfunding represents a way for you to self-publish a book not only without fronting the costs yourself, but also having a group of buyers already in place. It can be viewed as a kind of pre-sales.

Pros

  • You control everything, including costs, timing, delivery, creative vision and execution, marketing and customer interactions. It is the You Show.
  • You keep all rights. Projects remain 100% yours.
  • You can test and prove out the popularity of your project. This might be the first chance for you to see if your book has market appeal. You may also be able to test elements of your marketing approach and see how well it resonates with your target audience.
  • Your project might make much more money than you ever intended, or asked for. (This is not the norm, but it is possible.)
  • If you fail to meet your goal, you lose nothing (other than time and the dent to your public image). You can try again with an improved plan and presentation. Bear in mind when considering rebooting campaigns, though: If you are targeting the same customers or audience, they may well remember your earlier campaign, and its failure may have negative consequences.
  • You can pre-sell your project, building relationships with old fans and making new ones.
  • You may be able to get more than the actual retail cost of the product from backers who believe in your project.
  • You may receive very useful advice – and even offers of tangible assistance – from backers, who, after all, want you to succeed and will do everything they can to help you get there. For example, I invited and accepted several backers with the applicable skills to serve as proofreaders for Sword of the Ronin.
  • Your backers become your built-in marketing team and crew of brand evangelists, helping to promote your project to all their friends and contacts.

Cons

  • A crowdfunding campaign is not for the faint of heart. It’s stressful, filled with unexpected ups and downs – even when successful. On the Emotional Roller Coaster scale, think Thundering Cyclone, not the carousel.
  • Crowdfunding your own project requires a different skill set and different preparation than a traditional novel pitch. You’re reaching out to your audience directly–not to editors or agents, but to a different and far more diverse audience. This may necessitate knowledge of consumer marketing, social networks, and social marketing techniques.
  • Crowdfunding puts you and your ideas out directly in front of the public–and, potentially, in the line of fire. Success requires investing effort into ongoing social marketing campaigns and constant self-promotion throughout the duration of the fundraising campaign. If you’re terminally bashful, you’ll have to get over these tendencies, or find someone else to serve as a project spokesperson.
  • It doesn’t always work. About 44% of Kickstarter’s projects meet their funding goals. That’s not to say that you should be discouraged about the chances of successfully crowdfunding a project, but you do have to be realistic, and prepare yourself for potential failure. This often means having to have a Plan B – and C, D, etc.
  • Crowdfunding requires that your project–whatever its theme, scope or contents–be something that interests a sufficient number of people strongly enough to motivate them to part with hard-earned cash. When you are executing the campaign, you’ll have to target the right audience and strategize about how to engage them where they consume media, news, opinions and insights on a regular, running basis–no small task.
  • You assume responsibility for dealing directly with a diverse set of backers–all of whom may have differing expectations and demands.
  • No matter how interesting your project is, know that you will be competing against other projects–many of which may be vying for the same target audience and pool of disposable income. And, as crowdfunding continues to grow in popularity and notoriety, the landscape becomes even more competitive.

The bottom line before starting any crowdfunding campaign: do your research. Emulate successful projects similar to yours. Learn from the mistakes of unsuccessful campaigns. An excellent resource is The Crowdfunding Bible by Scott Steinberg, from which some of this material was adapted.

Spirit_Front_cover_72dpi_300wide (1)Crowdfunding has been an effective tool for me to put some of my work out into the world. Without it, Sword of the Ronin and Spirit of the Ronin (links to my Kickstarter campaigns) would be languishing unfinished. But it is to be approached cautiously and with every member of your phalanx of ducks marching in step. If you think crowdfunding is a way to easy cash and instant success, think again. It can be terrifying, paralyzing, and grinding, because you have to be prepared to stand up in front of the internet and tell the world why your project is awesome, over and over again. But it can also be exciting, uplifting, and gratifying, rewarding you with new fans and a new creative project brought into existence.

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