How I planned my Kickstarter and why I think it worked out so well


So! As many of you know, last September and October I ran a Kickstarter for my new epic fantasy trilogy. My goal was $10K, which was barely enough to cover the cost of cover art, interior design, a map, printing, copy editing, etc. In my original budget I had about $80 worth of wiggle room, which I figured would be safe enough; if costs went over, I could cover them with the Twenty Palaces POD edition which is coming out soon.

Then this happened:

The project hit its goal in about 8 hours and doubled it the next day. This post is going to be about what happened, why it happened, what I did right and wrong, and what I learned from it.

Since I know a lot of people will be finding this post through Google long after it goes up and won’t know me at all, let me start by saying that my Kickstarter was not such a roaring success because I’m so much better than other writers. I think I’m good, but I’m not blow-the-doors-off-500%-of-goal good.

Also: it wasn’t down to who I know (although I certainly had help), or a fancy video, or an unimaginably exciting project.

So what made it such a success? I’m going to break it down to the things I could control and the things I couldn’t.

What I could not control:

Mainstream publishing rewards authors who have an intense core of ardent fans and a large number of casually-interested readers. The Twenty Palaces books that I published through Del Rey got me fans (thanks, you guys) but not that many casual readers. People either really liked them or they hated them–there just wasn’t a lot of middle ground.

In contrast to traditional publishing, Kickstarter rewards people with a small number of serious fans. You don’t need a whole lot of people willing to chip in a few bucks for your next book to hit your goal. In fact, have a look at that image above: 1206 backers is a fantastic number for a crowdsourcing campaign (especially for straight prose fiction) but if those were actual sales numbers, that book would be an abject failure and I wouldn’t be able to publish under that name again.

Additionally, the Twenty Palaces books ended on a bit of a cliff-hanger (sorry) and fans felt a little burned. I know that many people backed the project in the hope that a successful campaign now would convince me to Kickstart a new 20P book later (sorry again).

Finally, I hadn’t put out a new book in two years, so people were ready for something new.

Notice: none of these things are about me or my writing skills specifically. Yeah, the 20P books are a little different than other urban fantasy but books find fans whether the books are different or straight down the middle of the genre, so I don’t think I’m unique that way. None of that stuff is something a writer can plan (and Christ, why would you want to?)

What I could control:

Finding advice:

I dug up a great deal of advice on creating a successful Kickstarter. This is what I learned from other people’s experiences:

  1. Keep the goal under $12K.
  2. Create a very low pledge level so people choose the next highest.
  3. Prep emails ahead of time so they are ready to send on launch day, and keep them short.
  4. Have photos and other promo materials ready for people who want to help spread the word.
  5. Don’t announce all stretch goals at once.
  6. Consider recipes.
  7. Consider leaving out other books as stretch goals?
  8. Keep the funding period to 30 days or less.
  9. Make sure it starts and ends after but close to the 15th of the month.
  10. Start early on that first day.
  11. Make sure it ends on a Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night.
  12. Make a list of blogs/websites you would like to help publicize the project.
  13. Begin telling people about the Kickstarter at least three months in advance.
  14. Better to under-promise and over-deliver than the other way around.

Followup notes:
— Re #3: Even if you’re comfortable typing out casual emails to friends and mailing lists, asking for their help, do it ahead of time. A Kickstarter campaign really is time-consuming.
— Re #4: Have images, tweets they can copy and paste, Facebook statuses, etc. Be extremely polite, don’t take up too much of their time, and don’t expect them to actually do it. If you are tempted to end a friendship with someone because they didn’t share a Facebook status, go sit in a dark, quiet closet somewhere and think about your life. The same goes for #12.
— Re #5: Save talk about stretch goals for later in the campaign, when you need something to fill up your updates.
— Re #7: One of the most common tips people offered was not to go overboard promising additional projects. For my own stretch goals, I only promised things that were pretty much done or that I’d planned to do anyway.
— Re #9: Many people get paid twice a month. That first check covers rent and a lot of bills. The second check of the month sometimes has a bit more fun money in it.
— Re #8 and #11: I have no idea why these would be true, but supposedly they are so I did it.

Yes, I’d originally planned to use status updates to offer recipes of the foods the characters ate but that turned out to be a lot of work (testing the recipes, I mean) that I didn’t have time for. I’d also planned to write (what I hoped would be) traffic-bait posts on this lonely, desolate ghost-blog I’m running here. That was unnecessary, too.

What I offered:

I had written a trilogy so I wanted to offer the book and nothing but. Other authors do bookmarks, but I’m dubious about their value. I have enough bookmarks to pack a coffee mug (seriously, I’m looking at it right now) but I have never in my life read a book because of one.

I also wanted to avoid art prints. Frankly, they weren’t in the budget and the few prints I’ve received from KS projects have been more burden than treasure: I don’t have space to display them even if I wanted to. (Have I mentioned that my wife is a painter? Our wall space is pretty much covered.) So I don’t want to receive something beautiful that I would have to store in my already over-packed apartment.

That meant I wanted to offer books and only books. Luckily, since I had already written a trilogy I could create a variety of pledge levels: dedication, newsletter, 1st book as an ebook, trilogy as an ebook, 1st book as trade paperback, 1st tpb signed, hardcover omnibus, other more ephemeral rewards.

My thinking was that the trade would be for people who wanted the whole series but didn’t want to spend big money on a hardcover and also for people who were unsure if they would like the series and didn’t want to commit to all three. Since I plan to release all three books at once like a Netflix Original series, people getting the trade would be able to order the other books right away, if they wanted them (and for cheaper, too).

It turned out that backers didn’t like that. They wanted to be able to purchase the whole trilogy right at that moment, but without going all the way to the $100 omnibus level. Saying: “But you can take these extra steps to buy the other books from someone else!” was a non-starter.

I also under-estimated the appeal of the hardcover omnibus. Frankly, it’s going to be expensive to print, and I was afraid that too many people would go for that reward level and bust my budget. I’d originally limited the hardcovers to only 50, but once we hit goal I added more, then eventually took the limits off. The truth is, many people want something nice from a Kickstarter, like a fancy rare limited edition.

Also, initially, I didn’t realize that I could change the limits on pledge levels, so once the “King” level filled up I created a second reward called “Queen.” Eventually, I took off both limitations and let people choose either one.

Number of backers who cancelled their “Queen” pledge so they could switch it to “King”: Two.

Fate Core:

The reward I haven’t mentioned yet is the writeup for the setting of The Great Way so people can role-play it with the Fate Core ruleset. I suspect this supplement will be longer than I’d originally planned, but I expect to have fun with it. I play in a Fate game, received the books from their Kickstarter, and I wrote a tie-in novel for the company, so it seemed like a natural extra to add.

I promised this for a simple reason: I wanted to give people a reason to talk about the Kickstarter. It gave Fate players a reason to link to the campaign on message boards, in Google Plus communities, and wherever and bring in new readers

Once the supplements are written (I’ve also promised one for the stretch goal novel) I plan to release them under a creative commons license. It’ll be interesting to see whether they drive any sales for my book at all.

The Video:


Okay, before I talk about my video, I want to share the tips for making a Kickstarter video that I found online. There’s a lot out there:

  1. Explain who I am (my credits, basically) and why backers can trust me to finish the task.
  2. Explain why this project belongs in a Kickstarter
  3. Tell the story of the project.
  4. Mention that the first draft is complete.
  5. Specifically ask for backers’ support.
  6. Mention the rewards.
  7. Talk about the nature of Kickstarter for people new to the site
  8. Thank people.
  9. Frontload information.

That’s pretty straight forward, I think

Next, I’ll encourage you to take a look at this video from my friend Aaron’s project:

If you watched to the end, you’ll see that–on top of all the terrific makeup and other production values–they included a few funny outtakes at the end, not the beginning. Ugh, I can’t tell you how many people start off their video with an awkward moment, clumsy moment or something else that delays the start of the description of the project. Every time I see that I want to close the tab.

Anyway, I also added a little joke clip at the end of my video. Sadly, only 40% of viewers saw it.

I’m sure that other 60% were so excited by my presentation that they hurriedly clicked the pledge button before I could even finish my pitch.

Anyway, that seems like a lot of plays, which I didn’t really expect. Kickstarter doesn’t give creators a lot of data, so I can’t tell how many of those went on to pledge, how many were unique visits, whatever. But most of the plays happened on the Kickstarter site, in part because we hit our goal so quickly that I backed off on the full-court promotional press I’d intended and didn’t embed it very often.

What’s really weird is that many people told me they genuinely liked that video. Maybe it’s my writerly self-loathing, but I have a hard time watching it, even now. I will tell you this: That is not the first version.

Originally, I created a mini-animation to start off with, using mainly primary colors, public domain images, and my non-existent GIMP skills. No, it didn’t really work, but it was the best I could do and I hoped it would be interesting where it couldn’t be skillful. I also made the “Talking Author” part of the video very short, because it can be very difficult to hold a viewer’s attention.

It didn’t work.

Sadly, the animation felt like a waste of time and the part where I talked–shot in a single take–was not what you’d call a friendly, enthusiastic pitch for the book.

At least, that’s what my agent said when she previewed it. She told me I could NOT make a video where I talked about my own book as though it was just some thing I did and maybe folks would be interested but if not that’s totally cool. She told me I had to actually pitch it.

Out went the animation and out went the original script. (Kickstarter recommends people do their video pitches from note card outlines, but I think that sucks. I read a script.)  Instead, I wrote a longer speech that’s pretty much what you see on the site. Also I decided to do the John Green thing of delivering one line close to the camera and the next farther back.

Anyway, people really liked it, which continues to surprise me. I would have done another take or two later in the week but I had an allergic reaction to something I ate and my face turned all red and weird-looking.

Besides my agent, I asked two (very busy) friends to look over the project. Both of them have experience running and supporting Kickstarters, and both gave me excellent advice on describing the project and setting the rewards.


Remember when I said Kickstarter doesn’t give a lot of deep data? Well, I have no idea what this means:

I assume it has something to do with the way people set up their browser security or something. Otherwise, psh.

However, this makes much more sense:

ks referrers list

Twitter was the big deal for me, which is no surprise. That’s where I spend most of my social media time, that’s where I put most of my energy, and that’s where I have the most fun. It’s also extremely share-friendly and even better mentioning your project more than once doesn’t get you the same hate mail you’d get on Facebook.

Below that is, which is funny because up until the day before the campaign closed, that site had referred 13 people. Then up went a post by Jim’s webmaster about my campaign and I received a sudden late flood of pledges.

As you can see, my own site sent about 60% of the pledges his did, with a lower conversion rate and less money raised. (I should probably count “Embedded widget” as “my” referrals, since I stuck that damn widget on every blog post I wrote, plus a few of my more popular older posts, but it’s not clear every referral is mine.) That referral from Jim’s site wasn’t a make-or-break thing, obviously, but it doesn’t hurt to get your project mentioned on a well-trafficked site, and I didn’t do a thing to make that happen.

Finally, there’s this:

Click the link to see this full size.

Click to see this full size.

One thing you might not know is that there were a few backers who decided the project should reach $50K. I was happy below that (how shitty would I be if I weren’t?) but I’m in a position to know that more than one person increased their pledges in the last few hours to hit that entirely arbitrary but impressive number. (Thank you.)

Also, those first few days blew my mind. I really, really did not expect this to go so well. I had a general idea of what I wanted to do with stretch goals, but as I sat there on the second day trying to work out some numbers, I would think I should set this stretch goal for $X, then turn to the monitor and see that the campaign had already reached $X. I really had no conception for things to go as well as they did.

My advice:

Prepare a lot. Try do to things several different ways, but don’t waste a lot of time (as I did) trying to be proficient in something you’re not. Ask for help. I needed it. So does everyone else.

It really helps to have a fanbase already. I expect most of the people who will stumble on this post while looking for Kickstarter advice will never have heard of me, but you don’t have to be wildly famous. You just need a few people who look forward to the work you’re already doing.

Also, when you do the video, get right to the point at the start and be more open and friendly than you feel. In fact, imagine you’re talking to someone with very little free time who is also extremely shy or uncomfortable. Imagine that the burden is on you to be open and friendly to make a connection with that person.

Have some stretch goals in mind, but you should also ask backers what they want.

Finally, be lucky.

Thanks for reading all this and good luck.