Publishing with crowdsourced funding

Photo by Hudin

Earlier this year we released the newest edition to the Vinologue enotourism series that focused on DO Montsant. We had decided to do this book next as it’s the companion to Priorat and to not do it would have been silly–plus the wines are delicious.

Given that the Vinologue books have a large audience (wine lovers) that is also niche (enotourism), we decided to give a go at using two of the crowdfunding platforms out there to reach some of these people and give them a chance to order the book in advance as while it’s out in Spain, it doesn’t go on sale in the US/Canada until September 1st thanks to our distributor’s annoying twice a year release schedule. For the US, we launched it on Kickstarter. For Europe, on Verkami. Long story short, the campaign failed. There’s nothing new in this as 68% of publishing campaigns on Kickstarter fail although they like to paint it as “32% success!” Of course things like this obviously don’t help in the taking a wine book seriously department…

There was no inherent reason that it should have failed though. We did all the things that people recommended in order to supposedly succeed. We fully outlined the project. We described our past, successful titles. We described how this one would be completed and people would indeed see the book and companion rewards. We chose realistic funding goals (half of what it seems most book projects strive for.) We did a small, super targeted push with Facebook advertising. More importantly, we offered varied and interesting rewards including very awesome wine tours that were a great bargain. We didn’t do a video. Maybe that would have helped, but I doubt it as there are key aspects to these systems that simply don’t work for most people.

The biggest mistake we made was to use two campaign sites. In retrospect we should have used only one, but that was difficult as Kickstarter doesn’t offer multilingual abilities like Verkami nor does it allow anything but USD funding and we wanted people to be able to pay in EUR. We publish English and Catalan editions so this was quite crucial. But, we wanted to be able to take advantage of what we thought was Kickstarter’s large community of people interested in funding unique projects. That part turned out to be meaningless as Kickstarter has all the community of AirBnB and these days they function solely as an intermediary and not a terribly good one at that.

In reading various articles such as this one I’d be much more interested in Kickstarter’s new vs. returning funder ratio as this is a crucial metric to all of this. The article that I just linked to was a successful publishing campaign but it seemed to come at the cost of those involved beating the hell out of the digital pavement to raise awareness of the book and get contributors. I mention this because in every article about “How to succeed with Kickstarter!” they state that you need to explain what Kickstarter is meaning that you’re pulling in all the funding to Kickstarter and the platform itself is giving you next to nothing except a central payment point.

So as it seems in everything I’ve read, despite so many years of being around, people aren’t browsing through the website for projects to fund. You can take from this what you’d like, but I interpret that to mean that I’m actually better offer not using a platform like Kickstarter or Verkami because I have both a solid website and online store where I probably would have received more pre-orders if I had just focused on those. This may seem like a “Dude, duh…” moment to those reading this with 20/20 hindsight, but when you’ve read again and again about all these successes that were crowdfunded, you think that maybe it’s worth a try.

And it’s true that it can possibly help you out but this gets in to the biggest issue of all which is the popularity contest. Both myself and the Editor in Chief of Vinologue books were not popular people in school. So we’re very familiar with how popularity contests work in life and they’ve transferred themselves directly in to the digital world as well. If you have a massive real world following, you will probably succeed with a crowdfunding campaign whether it be books or a friend of mine’s Microcatalunya project. The guy behind this project, Marc tossed up this campaign because he could. He’s published two books with a major publisher here in Spain and is well-connected in publishing, radio, TV, and in general everywhere in media, plus he speaks really well in public. Naturally, his campaign succeeded because of this, but it had already succeeded on other fronts beforehand because the guy is able to pitch and carry any project he comes up with.

There’s one last aspect to crowdfunding to take in to account and that’s the fact that Americans view it as charity which they are also quite numb to and sick of. Being an American, I know how this line of thinking works and it explains why artistic projects like Theater and Dance with nearly 70% success rate do so well on Kickstarter as in the US people are accustomed to the “pass the hat” method of funding the arts due to next to no institutional support. This will become a problem if you present yourself as properly set up and serious. The users of Kickstarter seem more apt to support a first time project which is why Matthew Inman (who can raise massive online support) bluntly stated in his Tesla Museum preservation drive, “And crowdfunding it won’t work a second time. We’ve already played that card.” Of course the irony in this is that they’ll support a first time project as long as it’s put up by someone with a following.

Ultimately this is my takeaway: If you’re publishing a book (or a new type of book) for the first time, you have a solid real world following, the moment is right, you can create a grassroots-esque appeal, and you’re willing to invest a shit tonne of hours in to the promotion of it to the point where you’re probably not actually making any money, in the end it will work great for you. This equation was perfect for my friend Liz Castro in publishing What’s up with Catalonia? For the Vinologue series? Meh. Obviously we’ll stick to using newsletters to fans and our own online store to handle pre-orders for the next title and never ever repeat crowdfunding again.