Writers: Say Goodbye to Grants, Say Hello to Kickstarter

A few years back I happened upon the blog of a children’s writer living in the west of Ireland who had just got a €10,000 ($14,000-/£9,000-ish) bursary from our Arts Council to effectively stay at home and finish a novel she was writing. She had no contract, agent or anything other than a demonstrable talent for writing, but yet she had been deemed worthy of Arts Council funds. At the time I was working for Satan in a job that was depleting my will to live and so getting enough government money to chuck in the 9-5 and write for a year sounded too good to be true.

And for me, it was.

As soon as I downloaded the form and the information booklets, I realized that my art of choice – commercial fiction – was not favored by the powers that be. Still, I decided to go ahead and apply. Couldn’t hurt to try, right? The guidelines said bursaries could be used for general living expenses, i.e. pay bills so the writer is freed up to write instead of work, but yet the form demanded an itemized list of all expected costs, broken down and twelve months in advance, and, at the end of the year, receipts would have to be provided. A headache, but understandable – it was tax payer’s money, and would have to be accounted for. I soldiered on. But then I got to the small print about drawing down the money, and worked out that even if I got the full amount I was applying for (which was unlikely), it would mean payments of something like €300 once a month. I’d be better off quitting my job and going on unemployment benefit, which (at the time) would’ve worked out at around €800 per month and required considerably less paperwork. This was all for nothing anyway, because the only projects the council supported were those with a strong Irish streak. I was Irish, yes, and writing in Ireland, but my novel was set in the States. And it was commercial. I was doomed to fail.

But here’s what I could have done instead, and here’s what you can do now to fund your creative projects: Kickstarter.

What is Kickstarter?

Kickstarter is a funding platform for creative types, be they inventors, writers, film-makers, sculptors, musicians or something else. The idea is that you create a project, tell people how much money you need to do it, offer them a reward for contributing and then, if you reach your funding goal, you get the money. I had heard of it before but I assumed it was a place to go if you were a venture capitalist or otherwise rolling in cash, and looking for something to invest serious money in.

But it’s not like that at all, as I discovered this week when a link on Twitter sent me to a Kickstarter project.

Here’s what I didn’t realize about Kickstarter until now:

  • Most Kickstarter projects have a minimum pledge of only $1
  • It’s all or nothing, so if you pledge money to a project and it doesn’t reach its funding goal, you don’t pay anything
  • There are rewards for pledging a minimum amount, e.g. $25 or more
  • With many projects this reward is a finished product and so you are essentially pre-ordering the item being funded
  • Many of the projects are novels, movies and theatre productions, i.e. created by people like us.

Before we go any further I should tell you that at present, to start a Kickstarter project you have to be (i) a US resident and (ii) have a social security number, although anyone can pledge money and be a backer. Sucks, I know. They’re working to open it up to more countries but for the majority of people reading this blog, everything I’m about to talk about is something to think about for the future, not do right now. Unless you can find a US resident to partner you in your project, of course. 

Some Kickstarter Projects You Gotta Love

The best-looking “fund the writing of my novel” project I’ve come across on Kickstarter is Scott Morris and Gaines Green. His pitch is extremely professional, well thought-out and even has some Hollywood star power – Armie Hammer – the actor who played both Winklevoss twins in The Social Network – which alone would get my vote… But, ahem. Anyway… His funding goal is $12,000 but you can donate as little as $1. Rewards include a signed copy for pledges of $100 or more and your name in the acknowledgements for pledges of $5,000 or more, among others. You can check out his Kickstarter page here.

I’ve discovered that browsing Kickstarter projects and wanting to back them can quickly become Twitter-like addictive, but no wonder when there are just so many great projects on there. Here are three I’m seriously considering backing:

  • Bound Custom Journals. The idea is you go to a website, select exactly what you need in a notebook and what order you want it in (choices include lined pages, graph pages, storyboards, To Do lists, maps, etc.) and then it gets delivered to you in a bound, hardcover journal. This isn’t the first of its kind but I think it has a little something the others don’t, and the simplicity of the idea is its biggest strength. And it’s perfect for writers. They’re looking for $10,000 to get their website and business off the ground, and you only have to pledge $40 to get a coupon for one of the first custom journals. The minimum pledge is $5.
  • The Sticker That Will Save the World. Simple but potentially profound, I know this sticker would make this I-Always-Recycle-When-I-Remember-To girl pull up her environmental socks. This project has a funding goal of $350 and just $1 gets you a finished sticker.
  • ISS Notify. (See video below). This is the project that brought me, via a Twitter link, to Kickstarter in the first place. This lamp will light up and pulse whenever the International Space Station passes overheard, and I HAVE to have one! Its inventor is looking for $10,000 to get the show on the road, and only $85 gets you one of the first finished lamps. The minimum pledge is $1. With a retweet from NASA’s official Twitter account, this one is (hopefully!) well on its way.

And here is a project that boy oh boy oh boy, did I wish I’d backed. It closed on May 3rd so now I just have to wait for the finished product to hit the market, and rest assured I’ve already signed up to their newsletter so I’ll know when it happens. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Coffee Joulies.

Quite possibly the best coffee-related idea ever (although they work for all hot beverages), I am so buying me some of these. They are actual magic (coffee) beans that thanks to some fancy thermodynamic fairies, first absorb heat from the liquid around them, cooling your coffee from Burnt Tongue to I Can Actually Drink This, and then slowly release it back in, keeping your coffee warmer for twice as long. Such an amazing idea that despite only asking for $9,500, the Coffee Joulies boys raised more than $350,000!

How Self-Publishers (and Other Writers) Could Use Kickstarter

As in the example of Scott Morris above, you could simply ask Kickstarter users for the money to pay the bills while you write your novel, and as a reward offer them something like a signed copy or their name in the book. But I really think it’s the pledge-as-a-product-pre-order model (like the Bound Custom Journals) where self-publishers can take best advantage.

You could, theoretically, use Kickstarter to get your readers to cover your upfront self-publishing costs. Let’s say that I’m self-publishing a sequel to a book that had a large readership/great sales. This time I’m only doing what I do now: POD paperback and e-book. Well, editing is going to cost a few hundred dollars, let say, and cover design another bit onto that. If I got 500 people to pledge $3 on Kickstarter, I’d have more than enough money to pay for it. In return, those 500 people would get a coupon for a free e-book download. Essentially, they’re paying me in advance for the e-book they’re going to buy anyway. If you were clever about this and had a project page that convinced people to pledge the money, Kickstarter could be a really effective way of raising the money needed to self-publish well.

Just yesterday I was kicking around ideas for a proper book trailer for my novel, with Gemma Burgess’ amazing trailer for The Dating Detox (above) as my example of perfection. I’m not 100% on board with doing it yet, and the main reason is that I’d probably have to spend around €500 ($714) to do it, and when your whole approach is No-t0-Low Risk that’s a lot of money on something that may or may not translate into sales. But what if I turned to Kickstarter? Backers could be rewarded with discount coupons, free e-books, pride of place in the acknowledgements or even special limited edition signed copies depending on how much they pledged.

I know for sure that it beats filling out grant applications…

What do you think of writers using Kickstarter? And aren’t the Coffee Joulies the best thing in the history of civilization like, ever?

UPDATE: FundIt.ie is a similar set-up available here in Ireland.

14 thoughts on “Writers: Say Goodbye to Grants, Say Hello to Kickstarter

  1. Emma Newman says:

    I looked at Kickstarter last year, after falling in love with the idea and getting very excited about it, but if memory serves, only Americans could set up a project – maybe that’s changed now. Or maybe I’m muddling it up with something else, I’m terrible with names.

    But yes, I adore the concept – I’m pinning my future plans on Unbound now though, which is the next generation of Kickstarter-esque crowd funding, but tailored to books. It’s deeply sexy. Only catch is you have to either have an agent or a published book, but for authors right at the beginning of all this madness, like I am, it looks really cool.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      No, as I said above you still need to be a US resident/have a SSN but they claim they are “working on” (could they have used a broader term?!) opening it up to projects from other countries. Alternatively you could partner with a US resident.

      I love the idea of Unbound, but I have one major problem with them: their shitty attitude. Bashing traditional publishing is seen as “cool” at the moment, and it just makes my blood boil. I was on their site, thinking, oh, this is very nice, great idea, etc. and then I found this gem in their FAQ:

      “Q – I’d like to buy a book that is deliberately marketed and designed to look just like a bestselling book from last year – even though has nothing to do with the original book. Is that something you can help me with?

      A – No, you have us confused with a traditional publishing house.”

      I can’t even accurately convey the amount of eye-rolling I indulged in when I read that! Can’t we all just get along…? ;-D

  2. Belinda Kroll, Quirky Historical Romance says:

    I used Kickstarter to fund my second book, Haunting Miss Trentwood, because I hadn’t the funds to hire an editor and buy the image rights for my cover at the time. It was a TON of work, and stressful when we got to the last week and I wasn’t certain I’d make my goal. But I did, in the end, and it was worth it. I love my book, my backers were so supportive, and it taught me a lot about how much time goes into publicity.

  3. Tahir says:

    Catherine, this is a brilliantidea, thanks for researching it! I didn’t think of using it for publishing projects but as you say it’s perfect for essentially preordering *and* you get the publicity for free. I’d be potentially interested in partnering with non-US residents if it is something I would be enthusiastic about and believe in (including nonpublishing projects). By the way, in case anyone is wondering, that ISS thingy doesn’t actually detect the ISS overhead, it uses equations which have to be updated every two weeks, so it wasn’t clear to me whether you have to plug it into your computer or not.

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      Re: the ISS-Notify, this is what the inventor says:

      “There is a fundamental problem tracking the space station, it’s not predicable! The orbit decays and is periodically raised to compensate. You need to have a computer and access to the internet to check for updates. But I’m going to try and make it as painless as possible to update. Once updated it should be accurate for a couple of weeks.”

  4. Marcus says:

    Catherine, I know there were similar services to Kickstarter in Europe a few years ago because I watched a documentary about it on TV. I can’t remember which countries they originated from but they definitely existed in Europe too.

  5. Marcus says:

    I had a brief look around and there are quite many international crowdfunding sites (even one in Ireland, but it’s very new). The only thing is how many visitors they have. I didn’t find much under publishing yet, but video production is popular…so if a book trailer’s your goal it might work in Europe.

  6. Talli Roland says:

    Interesting – I’ve never head of Kickstarter, but I have heard of crowdfunding. And thanks for the info on the Amazon tags (your post below). I had no idea they’d disappeared!

  7. Elisa Michelle says:

    I’m really intrigued by Kickstarter. A friend of mine got enough funds for his self-published book through it, but since I’m still in the draft/edit phases of my novel in progress, I never bothered with it. But this is great information to know, definitely worth passing along or taking a deeper look at. Do you have any in-depth experience with Kickstarter?

    • catherineryanhoward says:

      I don’t but after seeing Belinda’s comment (above) I’ve asked her to write a guest post about her experience with Kickstarter/self-publishing, and she’s kindly agreed. So look out for it, coming soon. I’m really intrigued about the idea myself and really look forward to reading it!

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