Kickstart this book! What I learned about crowdsourced publishing

So, you want to Kickstart a book? In August 2012, our company Book Riot  successfully funded a $25,000 Kickstarter campaign for “Start Here: Read Your Way Into 25 Amazing Authors,” a survey of works from a wide range of genres, from classics to contemporary fiction to comics (you can buy it here!). It was a learning experience, and one that Book Riot will certainly repeat.

That said, lest anyone think crowdsourcing is the path to instant publishing fame, dust off your business, promotion, and logistics skills and read on for our experience. The bottom line is that you better prepare to get scrappy.

Step 1: The Business

One of the primary advantages of Kickstarter is that it provides a platform to test the viability of a project with nominal upfront cost – the marketer in me loves this. But more than testing viability, Kickstarter also gives you the freedom to offer intangible rewards that aren’t easily monetized through traditional or self-published avenues. However, it all costs. And unlike a traditionally published project, there is no imprint with deep pockets to cover cost overruns: it all falls on you. So, budget.

To start, determine your rewards. Will you just distribute an ebook? What about a printed edition? Decide what they will cost in dollars and assign a value to your effort (don’t forget your effort!). We chose to do both print and digital to provide additional reward tiers and got a quote from Book Baby for both (we aren’t affiliated with them, and other companies offer similar services). Their digital conversion services were $249, and they agreed to print and fulfill 500 paperback copies for just under $6,000. (Having recently experienced a USPS station in Brooklyn, I’m glad we paid them to send the paperbacks to our backers.)

Kickstarter emphasizes keeping the rewards to the product, and we included a couple of “related” rewards. In retrospect, they didn’t add much value, and they ate margin. The extra rewards sound fancy, but backers aren’t backing the project for the fancy rewards. They are backing the project for the project.

Our project took the form of an anthology, so we had chapters written by multiple people. This required attorneys’ fees to secure the legal rights to what they submitted to the tune of nearly $1,500. And then we paid the people who weren’t employees of Book Riot to write the chapters for another $2,550.

Add to that cover design, video production, promotion, advertising, giveaways and launch party, plus Kickstarter and Amazon’s 9 percent take — and we had only $2,500 left from our $25,ooo Kickstarter campaign to cover the cost of our time. Had we more accurately estimated the amount of time required for the project, we would have set our funding goal higher so we could have paid ourselves more than minimum wage to work on it.

Step 2: The Promotion

You must embrace your inner newsie, and not just repeat “Extra! Extra!” to your friends and family but to ALL the internet. You’ve got to have a plan to reach the largest audience possible. We started plugging in dates and deliverables for promotion on Book Riot and began briefing our biggest fans weeks in advance. We ran contests, promoted it and advertised it through social channels, contacted friendlies with engaged social followings, and asked influencers to write chapters. You have to remind your community about the project every day, and the reminding needs to be creative.

How you promote a project will vary according to your offering, but as you plan, note this: think soldiers, not generals. Don’t get too caught up in trying to attract @BigNameFamousPerson to contribute to the project or share it with their followers. If someone with a million followers tweets about what you’re doing, you won’t get much out of it unless their followers have a reason to care about your project *beyond* the fact that @BigNameFamousPerson tweeted it.

Most of your support (and most of your financial backing) is going to come from your existing fans. Of the 947 people who backed our project, a couple were big names, but the vast majority were Book Riot readers who were already actively participating in our community. They’re the people who help us keep the lights on in the day-to-day, and they’re the most invested in our continued success. Never undervalue that.

Step 3: The Logistics

For 2012, Kickstarter reported that only 29.5% of publishing projects were successful. If you make it to Step 3, drink a celebratory beer, and bid farewell to the longest 30 days in recent memory. Then get ready for the heavy lifting. There is a reason logistics is a multi-billion dollar business. It’s freakin’ hard work.

But let’s not forget the fun part. You did this so you could do what you love – write. So go write.

Now remember that reward someone offered in-kind? How are you going to get it to the backer? Recall all those personalized book recommendations you promised to give? When are you going to have time for that? And all those backers. They are records in spreadsheets now. And you need to move product from both physical and virtual warehouses to each one. You need a plan. (Hear a recurring theme?)

It might sound obvious, but apparently it’s not: create a spreadsheet with all the reward levels and list the tasks required to reach fulfillment readiness for each level. Then, start completing the tasks. Delegate if you can. Outsource where possible.

In the spirit of full disclosure, we were late in delivering our project to backers. A hurricane in Brooklyn that preceded the Thanksgiving and Christmas holidays compounded small delays. In our project, we stated an October delivery. The book actually shipped on December 27th. When we do this again, we’ll determine the date we believe we can deliver the project and add three months. Rule to live by: If you are going to be late, communicate.


In addition to fulfillment, we opted to make Start Here available for purchase as an ebook on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Kobo and iBookstore. This adds a layer of complexity to the fulfillment process. And you’ll want to market it. Which requires a plan (and we don’t have room to go into it here).

Should you try a publishing Kickstarter? For people without an established following, the odds are against you being able to set a goal that lets you exit the experience cash-positive. If this is a concern, I suggest you spend time growing your audience before trying to Kickstart a book. More ominously, most projects were attempting to raise smaller sums than Book Riot, and the failure rate is still a daunting 70 percent. If you do decide to try a publishing Kickstarter, I suggest making a commitment to run three Kickstarters so that you can turn your prior learning into higher margins on successive projects.

Clinton Kabler is COO of Riot New Media Group which, and the soon to launch Follow him on Twitter @clintonk.

Have an idea for a post you’d like to contribute to GigaOm? Click here for our guidelines and contact info.