Hamilcar Publications recently ran our first successful Kickstarter campaign. We raised more than $28,000 for our first pure hip-hop title, From Boom Bap to Trap: Hip-Hop’s Greatest Producers.
Why did we decide to try Kickstarter? We have worked hard over the past four years to build Hamilcar Publications into a respected publishing house. Feedback from customers, partners, agents, and other industry contacts has validated that for us repeatedly. What we realized was that funding an ambitious book on Kickstarter would actually strengthen that reputation, while giving us a direct line to the readers who would be most excited about a book like this.
For those who like quick lists (like me), here’s a summary of the benefits to a publisher using Kickstarter:
- Enter a New Category
- Acquire Loyal Customers
- Ease Publishing’s Crushing Cash Flow Cycle
- Gauge Market Interest
- Gain Print Economies of Scale
There are other reasons as well, which include allowing your publishing company to engage its creative passions and give birth to stories for underserved communities. You could find many other benefits.
Our experiment made one thing absolutely clear: Kickstarter is a legitimate—and underutilized—platform for publishers.
Over the last three years, Hamilcar has established a strong reputation in the boxing category (which is probably an understatement). But while we can speak personally to a dedicated audience (through strategic use of hyper-niche marketing), we have yet to publish a true breakthrough book in boxing. We can create a steady backlist in the category, along with a few books each year that are modestly successful in terms of sales. And we can get creative about generating additional revenue streams in boxing.
But the boxing category will not propel us to the next phase of building a prosperous publishing house.
Every publisher needs breakthrough titles to achieve proper cash flows. Or they need to at least start publishing books that hit the sales sweet spot of 5,000 to 10,000 units.
Our vision has always been to follow our passions when it comes to subject areas. This will guide us as we move beyond boxing books and on to bigger categories that will appeal to a broader base of customers, specifically those who love hip-hop and true crime.
Our first big move beyond the boxing category was to use the Kickstarter campaign for a hip-hop book. The industry sales comps in hip-hop are better than boxing and there is opportunity to find topics that hip-hop “heads” are passionate about and generate higher sales volume. And although playing in the hip-hop category may not yield a breakthrough book, it does set us up for a more robust backlist that features books that sell more than 10,000 copies. (True crime, the category we are targeting next, is four times larger than hip-hop.)
Our Kickstarter Project
The format for From Boom Bap to Trap will be a trade paperback.
To establish ourselves with the traditional Kickstarter audience, we also offered a Special Hardcover Edition and a Limited Collectors’ Edition. We also added extras like playing cards, original digital downloads of hip-hop music, digital posters (ready for hi-res printing and framing), and even two related titles from our catalog (Bundini: Don’t Believe The Hype and Beatboxing: How Hip-Hop Changed the Fight Game). Offering these extras is a unique opportunity that Kickstarter offers publishers, and using add-ons in our campaign helped us raise enough funding to get the primary book to market more quickly.
Some Information About Publishing & Kickstarter
Kickstarter celebrated its twelfth birthday in April 2021.
To date they have fostered 200,000 successful projects from twenty-five countries, with over 25 million backers and over $5 billion raised for projects from 149,000 creators. As of this writing, the publishing category alone has raised $200 million from 2.4 million backers.
I spoke with Oriana Leckert, Director of Publishing and Comics Outreach at Kickstarter, to dig deeper into the publishing category (any publisher reading this should connect with Oriana. The best way is through a dedicated Twitter account for the publishing category @KickstarterRead).
According to Oriana, in the Publishing category there have been 19,000 successful projects, raising over $205 million via 2.4 million backers.
The twelve-year average funding success rate in publishing is 35 percent, but the current success rate for projects with at least 25 backers is 81 percent.
I suspect that if you took out the projects that were run by creators who didn’t have the knowledge, resources, networks, or desire to create well-conceived campaigns, that overall success rate would be significantly higher. From what I can see in looking at unsuccessful projects, a common mistake is setting the funding goal too high—the most common one, however, is not having a large enough audience or not executing a promotional campaign to bring in the right audience to your campaign. Setting funding goals is a topic for another article entirely (after a few more successful campaigns of our own I’ll write that one).
The statistics above are for the Publishing category overall at Kickstarter. This does not include the highly successful comics and graphic novels category.
Oriana helped provide statistics for the nonfiction category (this is of course the one that we care about most). There have been over 10,500 successful nonfiction projects that have raised over $33 million across 500,000 Backers. The twelve-year average success rate is 29 percent, but for projects with at least twenty-five backers it’s 79 percent. This includes self-published authors (real people bringing real content into the world).
Successful Publishers on Kickstarter
It’s like getting paid to do marketing.—Elly Blue, Microcosm Publishing
There are some notable success stories from established independent publishers who have been using Kickstarter for a long time.
Microcosm Publishing has been in business for twenty-five years and has been using Kickstarter since 2010. They have created fifty projects. I surveyed thirty-four of those projects and found that they had raised over $415,000 and sold more than 13,000 books.
Those sales were just on Kickstarter. I took a look beyond the Kickstarter sales. NPD Bookscan data is notoriously incomplete, and Microcosm is an exceptional direct marketing company, with robust alternative sales channels of their own. Of the thirty-four projects, I found NPD Bookscan U.S. data reporting over 112,000 books sold into the trade. The majority of that volume came from the wildly successful Unf*ck Your Brain, which sold over 72,000 units into the trade (Source: NPD Bookscan, U.S.). Microcosm’s marketing director Elly Blue notes that Unf*ck Your Brain has sold over 150,000 print copies worldwide, and is about to surpass 3 million copies across all formats. She points out that the book was Microcosm’s first breakout title after twenty years in business. Unf*ck Your Brain raised $46,000, across 1,600 Backers, on Kickstarter.
Publishers considering using Kickstarter should look carefully at Microcosm as a company to emulate.
Elly says that Microcosm now uses Kickstarter for roughly half of their books, at a rate of around one campaign per month. Elly admitted that they don’t push as hard on the marketing and PR as they used to because they are now deep in the groove and set modest funding goals that underwrite only a portion of the manuscript-to-bound-book production costs.
The real triumph of Microcosm’s Kickstarter efforts is their ability to develop a loyal following of customers. This allows them to fund projects quickly and to cross-sell their backlist to their Kickstarter Backers. Selling backlist titles in a campaign was a revelation to me. I had assumed that crowdfunding should only be used for new projects. But, in reality, cross-selling backlist is just another way of adding convenience for your loyal customers. Elly also indicated that they see a general lift in book sales in other channels when they run campaigns.
My favorite quote from the interview with Elly is, “It’s like getting paid to do marketing.”
Admittedly, the pool of “traditional” publishers on Kickstarter is small (which is of course the point of this article).
Oriana Leckert listed out some publishers that quickly came to mind:
- Fiction/Nonfiction: PM Press, Microcosm, Small Beer Press, McSweeney’s, Tupelo Press, Restless Books, BOA Editions, Arizona State University, Wraithmarked, Beehive Books, Thornwillow, Flamingo Rampant, Enchanted Lion, Copper Canyon, Clover Press, McSweeney’s, Baby Tattoo, Red Henn Press, Et Alia Press
- Poetry: Copper Canyon
- Art books: 3D Total, Caurette, Flesk Publications
- Kids’ Books: Enchanted Lion, Baby Tattoo Books, Flamingo Rampant
- Comics: Dynamite, Top Cow, Boom Studios, Iron Circus, Red Hen Press, Legendary, Skybound, Rocketship, Paper Films, Cartoon Books, Albatross Funnybooks, Neurobellum, Cast Iron Books, Black Josei Press
Extraordinary Success Stories
There are a few recent notable books that caught fire on Kickstarter and show the potential of the platform to create huge hits.
Chassepot to FAMAS: French Military Rifles, 1866 – 2016 (Headstamp Publishing; $800,250 from 6,076 Backers), The Book: An Ultimate Civilization Revival Guide (raised $2,346,817 from 21,183 backers), and Good Night Stories For Rebel Girls, 1: 100 Tales of Extraordinary Women ($675,614 from 13,454 Backers). Rebel Girls went on to sell over 268,000 units in trade (Source: NPD BookScan, U.S.), and the sequel raised $866,193 across 14,475 avid fans (the sequel went on to sell over 85,000 units in trade according to data from NPD Bookscan U.S.).
One thing you won’t be able to see with any of these highly successful projects is how much money they spent on advertising. Some Kickstarter creators use experienced promotion companies that have very sophisticated promotional strategies and lists built out for social media advertising and other marketing channels. If you are swinging for the fences, then get out those spreadsheets and give them even more attention than you would with just a simple project.
Our Decision to Use Kickstarter
In launching From Boom Bap to Trap, there were a few attractive comps.
The Smithsonian Institution crowdfunded their Anthology of Hip-Hop and Rap, which raised $368,841 from 2,804 backers. They did have the benefit of being a nonprofit and leveraging Chuck D from Public Enemy and Questlove to help with promotion. But 2,804 people on Kickstarter cared enough to back a hip-hop book collection (spending an average $131 per person).
On the music side, the legendary group De La Soul funded an album in 2017, raising $600,874, across 11,169 Backers. That’s 11,000 people who might be interested in a book about hip-hop!
Independent artist Zuby raised £75,885, across 643 Backers for his new album.
Benefits of Using Crowdfunding as a Publisher
Entering A New Publishing Category
One excellent reason to give crowdfunding a try is to test out a new category.
It’s possible that your target audience is already there and waiting for what you have to offer. They are dedicated fans and willing to pre-order many months in advance.
In addition, every new crowdfunding campaign is an opportunity to generate press, push interesting social media content, and find new audiences online (or offline). Crowdfunding itself is no longer novel, and Publishers Weekly has covered the opportunity to some degree in publishing before (read more here and here). It’s about your content or unique approach to the book, plus Kickstarter that provides the new PR opportunity.
Acquire Loyal Customers
The case example of Microcosm above is the perfect example of acquiring loyal customers. At this stage in their Kickstarter experience they are able to fund campaigns quickly simply by launching the project and their previous Backers are notified.
Harvard Business Review conducted some valuable research about the loyalty that using crowdfunding provides in “When Do Consumers Prefer Crowdfunded Products?“
Here is an excerpt from the article (bold mine):
In an experiment with 1,512 consumers, we randomly assigned participants to one of the two conditions where a digital notebook with identical product information and consumer rating was presented. The only difference between the conditions was our crowdfunding cue (a text box above the product noting that the product is an outcome of a crowdfunding campaign). We asked participants to indicate their willingness to pay (WTP) in the course of an incentive-compatible auction. The results were striking; participants were willing to pay about 21 percent more for the same product when it was described as crowdfunded, compared to when no funding source information was present.
In two follow-up experiments, we compared crowdfunding with alternative funding sources such as venture capital, bank loan, and self-funding. The results were the same: consumers preferred the same product significantly more when its funding source was presented as “crowdfunded.”
Ease Publishing’s Difficult Cash Flow Cycle
Depending on how you time your crowdfunding campaign, you could shorten a portion of the cash flow cycle by two to three months.
The Kickstarter Trust and Safety team has recently become stricter about not allowing Creators to run back-to-back campaigns without first establishing a track record of fulfilling and delivering rewards. This is an effort to maintain backer trust, by demonstrating that a project can be completed before beginning another one.
The ideal way to time your campaign is as close to your print run as possible. This gives you a cash infusion before going to press and allows you to get rewards to your Backers as soon as your books hit the warehouse (or that of a fulfilment partner who specializes in crowdfunding).
Gauge Market Interest
If you are considering publishing in a new genre, going to Kickstarter to launch a campaign for the first book in that category is a great way to gauge interest. Not all genres/subject areas are represented on Kickstarter, but doing a quick survey of successful projects for your topic will give you a sense for whether or not using the platform is a good idea for your concept. In our case we found only a handful of hip-hop examples, including ones outside of publishing, but we were able to raise $28,000, and bring in a set of backers for the hip-hop category
Remember to look beyond successful book campaigns to gauge the potential appetite for your project. Fans of the subject will take a serious look at backing a book about their passions.
Gain Print Economies of Scale
A successfully-funded campaign will give you your first set of committed orders. Assuming you are bringing the book to traditional sales distribution, you can calibrate print runs to account for the quantity of orders in hand. Depending on the number of Backers, this data can help in deciding which print level will get you the best price break based on a conservative estimate.
If you are thinking that the Kickstarter unit sales will cannibalize traditional trade sales, consider the examples of Unf*ck Your Brain and Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls above. And how about Seth Godin’s The Icarus Deception? Seth sold 4,242 copies on Kickstarter and then went on to sell over 28,000 copies under Penguin’s Portfolio imprint.
It’s possible to cannibalize sales to a degree in a crowdfunding campaign, but even then you have orders in hand to go to press before your book hits the trades.
Using crowdfunding as a publisher might feel uncomfortable. Perhaps there is the fear involving brand perception, or there’s a doubt that the effort will bring a return on investment for your efforts.
We believe that the potential benefits outweigh the risks. If you can indeed nail the formula, using Kickstarter is a creative and disruptive way to improve your long-term bottom line, gain lifelong fans for your books, and raise the profile of your brand.