I’ll start, as I sometimes do, with a confession: I’ve not been especially interested in crowdfunding books. At the heart of my not-especially-well-founded objection was the thought that readers are already investing in my books by purchasing them, so how could I ask them to make an even greater investment up front, to help me produce them?
Then Karen E. Lewis, illustrator of my book Amazing Alaska, send me a link to her crowdfunded appeal on Kickstarter for a project called Grandmother Fish. When I clicked through on the link, the proverbial light bulb went on.
No matter how it’s published, every book has investors. First and foremost, there’s the author, who invests no small amount of time and—in many cases—cold, hard cash, paying for publicists, author tours, book launch events—and that’s not even getting into the costs of independently publishing a book with a professionally designed cover and top-notch editing.
In every aspect, the traditional publishing industry is all about investing in a product. As with all investors, the key players, be they agents or editors or publishers, are taking a risk on their investment in hopes of a return. What I didn’t get until I looked at Karen’s project is that investors in a well-crafted crowdfunded book project also get returns of a kind, in the form of creative products (and involvement) that they’ll find nowhere else. The best-crafted projects make them genuine partners.
The best part about crowdfunding your book? You’ve got a ready-made, boots-on-ground team of fans, aka word-of-mouth.
With 26 days to go, the Grandmother Fish project has already exceeded its goal, while other book projects by friends of mine have gone unfunded. What’s the difference?
· For this project, there’s real value for investors at each level. Even at the lowest level ($15), you get an e-book (including artwork), wallpaper images for your computer, and your name listed in the back matter of both the electronic and print editions.
· There’s a limited sponsorship level, for early backers—the sort of extra-value, limited offer deal that everyone loves. (Yup, it’s sold out!)
· There’s a pledge level that allows you to give to others—a matching book shipped to an education-oriented nonprofit.
· There’s ample evidence that the project is well-conceived and professional: video footage of children’s reactions as the book is read to them, a complete pdf of the book in draft, testimonials about the writer and artist.
· There’s humor. Without getting into a debate over creationism vs. evolution, you have to love that a project subtitled “A Child’s First Book of Evolution” offers a special “Wait, I’m a Creationist” level of sponsorship: “Do you *hate* the idea that we're teaching little kids about Evolution? Want to burn the books in protest? At this special level you get ten copies of the book, plus a specially illustrated book of matches so you can light the pile of books on fire as soon as they arrive!”
· Karen and writer Jonathan Tweet, who Karen describes as the real engine behind the project and the kickstarter campaign, have covered all the bases. Even the “Risks and challenges” section points to the inevitable success of this project: “The book is written and the art is underway. The major content questions are settled, and all that remains is putting the book together. Even if Jonathan or Karen were hit by a bus, the rest of the team could carry the project to completion.”
· It’s part of something larger: “If Grandmother Fish is successful, it could be the start of a line of books and games that introduce science concepts to children. We have already made valuable contacts in the science-education community that could help us succeed with future books, games, and apps.”
· It includes Dino-Wars (who doesn’t love Dino-Wars?), meaning investors get to be part of the creative process: “We’re going to include one dinosaur in the book, and as a backer you get to help choose which one. When you pledge, leave a comment telling us whether you want Karen to illustrate a Tyrannosaurus Rex or a Triceratops.”
· It’s clear that the author and illustrator have already made a major investment. Of the author’s journey: “He started the project fifteen years ago when his daughter was little. Last year, he added the interactive motions and sounds, which make the book click with young children. Reactions to the book were so positive that he decided to raise funds for it here on Kickstarter. Is the world ready for an evolution book for preschoolers? Jonathan’s betting that it is.”
· It’s a great project—well-conceived and professionally rendered.
· Last (but most definitely not least), it’s clear why this particular book needs to be crowdfunded: “US publishers consider evolution to be too “hot” a topic for children, but with your help we can make this book happen ourselves.”
None of this happened by accident. As Karen points out, the book’s author, Jonathan Tweet, “worked hard to understand his audience and gain support, reviews and attention for the book ahead of time. He is also working with a Kickstarter consultant to understand what works - and what doesn’t - for social media crowd funding. And he’s still hard at work - setting up interviews and making daily posts and updates to the project's Facebook account and Kickstarter page. It’s a full time job and hard-hitting publicity tour before the book is even finished.”
For her part, Karen adds, “I’m not a natural self-promoter. I work hard to find ways to promote the project with posts, in context, that have integrity. Talking about work in progress or the development of sketches and characters, for instance, feels much more natural than shouting BUY MY BOOK!!! BUY MY BOOK!!! over and over again.
She also notes the importance of having a project that you—and your backers—believe in. “While this may seem obvious to a (passionate) writer or illustrator of children’s books,” she adds, “it’s important to note that there’s no guarantee of making a bunch of money. We set modest but realistic goals that, now met, will make it possible to produce a wonderful little book and cover our basic costs.”
The best part, according to Karen? “We get to make our book! . . . which is pretty wonderful, as is getting feedback and support from a community of folks who think our concept and sketches have promise.”