Publishing anthologies, like any other skill in life, is generally something you learn to do well by making mistakes. When I was pulling together all of the bits and pieces of our latest dark fantasy anthology Kickstarter, The King Must Fall, I had a few moments where I reflected on how the team and I got to this point—how much our production methodology and capability had grown since we first fumbled our way through to releasing the Stabby award winning Evil is a Matter of Perspective way back in 2017.
Let me share some of those moments with you.
After the breakout success of Evil is a Matter of Perspective our team had our second crack at a Kickstarter anthology with Landfall. We had a brilliant cast of writers who built an amazing and dark world based on Australian colonial settlers and the American frontier to write stories in, but we royally screwed up the market release. The project flopped. Didn’t even raise USD3,500.
When I realised what we’d done it hit me like crossbow bolt to the head. Behind the scenes, the project started out as a digital-only competitor to SerialBox. However, we didn’t have a distribution platform like SerialBox, and when it all came together from a financial perspective (cost of paying creators, distributing, etc, versus income from backers) we realised that we would need an inordinate amount of backers to reach the target because we didn’t have a high-income print product. We also realised this at the last minute. So, instead of pushing back the project so we could re-do the pitch, we rushed through a print production mapping-out, put in some print book collateral (essentially turning it into an online serial release that then got turned into a print anthology as well), and released what was probably the most wishy washy and confusing anthology marketing pitch ever.
When you commit to a Kickstarter and that big wad of project capital drops into your bank account, you’re committing to delivering on that project no matter what. If you’ve forgotten to cost a line item, you can’t just short-change your backers on something and expect no repercussions. That money has to come from somewhere—and the only somewhere left is you.
If you’re spending money on it, you need to put it into your costing spreadsheet. Even if you expect that money to come from your company’s coffers as a sunk cost, make sure you put it into the same sheet as the other expenses so you have complete transparency into how much you’re spending and where that money is coming from. Art, print runs, Facebook ads, freight, shipping, designer costs, ISBNs, author pay, that special splash of colour you want on the signature page—it all adds up, and it adds up bloody quickly, especially when you’ve forgotten to collect that money from somewhere.
Also make sure you’re capable of mapping out the financial impact of scale. Kickstarters can go viral, so what are the impacts on your financial model if you hit the big time and sell more than your initial print run? How much is each book after that? Is freight from the printer to your distributor increased by another palette-load? With Evil is a Matter of Perspective this is one of the main ways I hurt myself financially—scale. I did not get my spreadsheet right, and had to dip into my own coffers to finish the project. So, for The King Must Fall I hired (through the whiskey economy) a regional financial controller to create a spreadsheet that would allow me to properly map out the impacts of scale on finances.
Which takes us to my next point.
People are going to be investing a lot in your Kickstarter project. Time, money, and where they share your project to their social circles, reputation. Do not blow it by cheaping out on the production. If you’re creating an anthology, for example, that means taking a long hard look at yourself and finding where somebody else could do a significantly better job than you—usually for a cost.
For The King Must Fall, that means hiring Shawn T. King and Felix Ortiz to do the cover, Carlos Diaz to create interior art, Mike Myers to edit the stories, Pen Astridge to create a marketing animation, Greg Patmore to create an audio version, an accountant to build a pricing spreadsheet, and so on.
Getting the right people on board to cover off the things you’re not good at means you can create a product so good people will come back for more the next time you go to market with a Kickstarter.
This, I cannot stress enough. The Kickstarter creator community calls the period between the first and last 48hrs the “trough of despair” (or something similar) for a reason. Typically, your big spending products (limited editions, for example) sell out in the first 48hrs giving you a massive boost towards that funding goal as a small amount of people provide a large amount of funding. Then, once those products are gone, you need a large amount of people spending less to move that funding line north—and often your first marketing push has captured most of your established fans and customers, meaning you now need to convince a lot of people who’ve never heard of you before to trust you and back your Kickstarter.
Once the hype and the excitement of that explosive first couple of days passes, your funding tracker graph changes from the side of a mountain to a gentle slope, and you go from making sometimes tens of thousands in a day to under a thousand a day, or under a hundred in a day, it’s very easy to become despondent. But this is when it’s time for the grind. You’ll bust out that list of marketing ideas and names you spent months putting together and write articles, do interviews, re-share posts, send out emails, beg blog spots, and ask your contributors to do a little of the same. Sometimes you’ll get a nice lift, sometimes you won’t get a single extra pledge. Embrace the grind and keep going. Don’t panic.
It’s during this time that every marketing company under the sun is going to come at you, promising to help you break the trough of despair. Now, I’m not saying that all of these companies are dodgy and relying on your panic reaction to your flattening financial graph line to purchase their products, but I will say that despite every marketer’s pitch having tens, sometimes hundreds of thousands of people in their email lists and stories of people JUST LIKE ME hitting the big time, not one of them has been able to tell me how many people in their email lists are interested in publishing projects (let alone anthologies), or what the open rate and click-through rate of that sub-group is. And if you know, say from your day-job or from looking at Bookbub’s pricing structure, that the kind of data I’m requesting is not a big ask for a marketing company worth its salt, you MIGHT decide not to purchase their services. MAYBE.
I’m not saying never use them. Maybe there are some good ones out there I haven’t met. I am saying ask questions, demand evidence, and don’t panic buy.
As I said earlier, you are on the hook for delivering the project you’ve sold to your backers. If you’ve ever project managed something before, or if you know a project manager, you’ll know very few projects ever run perfectly. You need buffers built into your project. Such as:
· Financial: Factor in a percentage of the Kickstarter funds to cover off things going wrong. Little or big, they will hurt. I would also ensure I have some personal or business funds in the background ready to go, just in case things really go wrong.
· Time: It’s always better to under-promise and over-deliver than the reverse. If you think you can comfortably deliver a project in under five months, give yourself six or seven to be safe.
· Personal: If you’re like me and running a Kickstarter on top of a full-time job and a life full of people you want to retain connection with, buffer in time off. It’s very easy to get so caught up in the project delivery that you forget that you’re a human now working almost two full time jobs. Tired people make mistakes. Make sure you have personal time locked aside. Put down the phone or laptop. Recharge. Recuperate. Deliver your project to the best of your ability.
If, in the end, you manage the perfect project and don’t need your financial or time buffers, then you are absolutely gold. And better at this than I am.
Finally, have fun. Look after yourself. Deliver on the project in a way that makes you want to do it again. Because what’s the point of all this effort if you’re not enjoying yourself?
I certainly have been with The King Must Fall.
Cyberpunk remains one of the most enduring new genres of science fiction, having been created during the Reaganite/Thatcher era with an idea that computers as well as corrupt looter capitalism would eventually proliferate beyond all control. Indeed, there's a solid argument that cyberpunk is no longer a science fiction genre because so much of what it predicted has come to pass. The video games WATCH_DOGS and WATCH_DOGS 2 take place in the present-day of Chicago and San Fransisco while otherwise being classic cyberpunk tales of hackers versus the evil rich. There's still cyberpunk tales in the near and far future, though, like the BBC's BLACK MIRROR and ALTERED CARBON (now on Netflix).