Crowdfunding Moby Dick: Some Thoughts on Kickstarter

As many readers will know, in January I ran a Kickstarter campaign to publish a fine print edition of Moby-Dick, based on the excellent powermobydick.com online annotated edition. Unfortunately, despite a lot of interest, and 177 backers, it didn’t raise the £7100 needed to go ahead with publication. I’ve had time to reflect on why it was unsuccessful, and on the Kickstarter experience as a whole. Different kinds of projects need different approaches, so much of what follows applies to literary projects like this one, drawing largely on a small, but established and highly committed audience.

My reasons for choosing Kickstarter for the project were that it offered the clearest, most direct way (as far as I could see) of setting up and running the campaign. The idea of a video pitch, a written explanation, and a variety of different levels of pledges is simple and straightforward. I’d already decided that Twitter would be my primary social media outlet for the campaign, but I also knew that email would be important. Statistics don’t tell the whole story, but as it turned out it was email, and connections with established networks of enthusiasts, academics, and book lovers that proved the most effective way of spreading the word, though it was also very hard work. The Kickstarter site itself was also a significant source of pledging, providing almost a quarter of the total. Surprisingly, mentions on major literary and publishing blogs, including Galleycat, and The Reader Online, caused barely a ripple on the soft and dirge-like main.

I made some mistakes in presenting the book and working out the offer. My assumption was that price would be a critical factor, and that keeping the price low would generate most revenue. I was wrong. The 100 hardbacks (out of a total print run of 500) sold out quickly at £32, which, including shipping outside Europe, would have been more like £42, or $60. I received a lot of emails asking for more, but having offered a ‘limited’ run of 100 I couldn’t then justify raising the number to 200. I also made the mistake of following Kickstarter’s advice to keep the campaign short. From the beginning this campaign was slow but steady. The graph of pledges over time suggests that another week or two would have seen it make the target–it came pretty close as it was.

Kickstartergraph

There are down sides to Kickstarter, and I ran up against a few of them. For one thing, I wouldn’t go into a project again having to raise all the money this way. Unless you have money to invest (or lose) yourself–I’d suggest ten percent of the total–it is very difficult to add rewards once the campaign is underway. Once the target is set, any change you make affects the calculation and might lead to a situation in which you make the target but can’t fund everything you have offered. In my case, any risk I took adding to the offer would have been funded from our family budget, and that wasn’t something I was prepared to do. Adding rewards also changes people’s expectations and as musician Amanda Palmer found, failing to live up to supporters’ expectations, even when they are misplaced, is a serious consideration too. This aspect of Kickstarter was perhaps the least pleasant for me. It reminded me a little of an auction, where the temptation is to keep raising your bid: I wanted the project to work, so it would have been very easy to throw money at it in the form of new rewards and perhaps see the number of supporters rise. But part of surviving Kickstarter is knowing your limits, and knowing how much you personally are prepared to put in.

Kickstarter’s fee, which makes up a substantial chunk of the target, is often criticized, and it is true that without it my project may well have succeeded. But a more significant issue, I think, is the binary nature of the Kickstarter model: you either make the target, and succeed, or fall short and fail. In some ways that’s attractive. Hollywood thrillers make millions on the basis of win or lose; Las Vegas thrives on it. But I’m not sure now that it makes sense for many projects. The ability to access some or all of the funding even if the target isn’t reached would allow a great many more projects to re-imagine themselves, perhaps find other funding sources, and succeed. That, after all, is how things work in the world outside the Kickstarter hothouse. And there are alternatives to Kickstarter which do just that, including Indiegogo.

Although this project didn’t make it, and despite the limitations of Kickstarter as a platform, my overall experience was a positive one. The relationship between commerce and creation is strained by Kickstarter’s reliance on a fabricated ‘race against time’ approach, but what most impressed me about it was the generosity of strangers in offering up their own money, and the time many of them took to give great advice and encouragement. From a personal point of view, having so many people put their trust in you to deliver is a humbling experience. But according to this New York Times article, these acts of kindness and trust are no surprise: Kickstarter and other crowdfunding sites have more to do with the impulse to make art than conventional market economics. Even so, in the end it is not the art, but the social and economic sides of the project that determine its success.