Kickstarter lab for writers: setting reward levels

laboratory blog

Any Madison Avenue mad man/ mad woman will tell you that selecting the right price-point can maximize profits. The same goes with the Kickstarter campaign for your novel.

I’m guessing there are more schools of thought for pricing than there are transistors in my phone (that’s a lot), but in the spirit of the laboratory experiment I’ll share with you the strategies I’m using and later I’ll edit this post to evaluate how they worked.


A Ladder, Not a Cliff

The most important thing is that you offer evenly spread-out reward prices. If you have too many reward levels within a few dollars of each other, it will look like a jumble and people might shrug their shoulders and walk away. Likewise, you should avoid huge jumps: I might have $40 in my pocket that I’m willing to spend, but if the only options are $20 or $100 then you’re not likely to get the right amount from me. Each pledge level should be like a rung of the ladder, evenly spaced and logical in their layout.

The critical thing is that whatever level a backer selects, s/he should be tempted to go up to the next level. For a novel, this means you should try to space them out by $15 to $25 dollars (so your reward levels might go $10, $20, $40, $60, etc). After the $75 or $100 mark, you can jump up by bigger increments because the high-end backers probably already know what they want to spend.


End in 0 or 9?

We all know that $9.99 is essentially the same as $10.00, yet year after year consumer shopping habits prove that psychology trumps logic. Yet Kickstarter seems to have a tradition of ending prices in 5 or 0—I don’t know why. Maybe project creators should jump on the 9 bandwagon (and many do).

I’m experimenting with this in a few different levels: I had originally set the “Creature Feature” level to $60 and the “Mad Doctor” level to $70, but I knocked a dollar off each. I kept the other pledge levels at nice round numbers, and I’ll compare the patterns of backers on this campaign to my last Kickstarter to see if there is a greater percentage of pledges at these levels. Of course, lots of factors will influence this, but it’s worth a buck for a chance to find out.


The Value Level

If you have a level you would prefer your backers to select—perhaps because it holds a higher profit margin for you or perhaps because you simply think it’s your most awesome stuff—then you might want to consider this strategy. First, price the desired level attractively and consider ending in a “9” even if your other prices are round numbers. Then, for the next level, bump it up 5 or 10 dollars even if the reward isn’t that much better—maybe especially if the reward isn’t that much better.

The idea is that potential backers will look over the options and decide that they’re getting a much better deal with the reward level you want them to pick (and they probably are). It’s a controversial tactic, but some very successful Kickstarter creators swear by it.


The Low-Level Pledge

Should you have a $1 pledge level or not? One school of thought is that you’re going to get a bunch of backers that you might not otherwise get, and those backers might increase their pledges later, bring in friends, or back future projects. On the other hand, it might draw backers away from higher-level pledges. Who’s right? Nobody knows. Last time I had 8 backers at the $1 level. This time, I have no $1 level but I have a $5 level—if I get 2 backers at that level, I’ll know it was worth switching up. Furthermore, if people see that they get one short story (plus stretch goals) for $5 and a whole eBook novel (plus stretch goals) for $10, they might bump up to the $10 level. I’ll let you know how it goes!


Pre-determined rewards FTW

Sure, anybody can pledge at any amount, but almost 100% of my backers pick one of the pre-determined levels and I’d bet it’s the same for everyone. Pricing them right and using an advertiser’s arsenal of psychological tricks can mean the difference between soaring high and falling short.

If you have any other strategies or schools of thought about pricing rewards, please leave them in the comments or post them to me on Facebook or Twitter. I’d love to hear them!

Kickstarter lab for writers: interview with Aaron de Orive

laboratory blog

Aaron de Orive is a talented writer who’s penned everything from video games to table top RPGs. In 2013 he garnered 120% funding for Blade Singer, an MG fantasy novel he co-wrote with Martha Wells. I recently had the chance to ask him a few questions about how he earned his success.


What can you tell us about Blade Singer?

Blade Singer is a middle-grade fantasy novel co-written with author Martha Wells. Here is a blurb about the story:
Sure, Manny Boreaux wanted to escape his real world problems. But being trapped in the body of a goblin pickpocket wasn’t what he had in mind. Still, it’s kind of cool to be able to move like a spider monkey and go invisible. Unless you happen to work for an evil witch and her vicious gang of cutthroats. If they find out who he really is, they’ll turn him into minced pies!
Can Manny fool his fellow thieves long enough to find some allies? Can he thwart the witch’s scheme to assassinate a young king and ignite a terrible war? And will he ever find a way home?

Why did you decide to launch Blade Singer on Kickstarter?

I believed in the story and was very proud of the work we had done. I resolved that even if publishers decided to pass on the book, I’d find a way to get it to an audience. Kickstarter proved to be the right choice in that regard.

Your campaign was impressively successful. What was the key to your success?

I’m not sure if there was any specific factor, but having a Nebula Award nominated co-author was pretty instrumental in the novel’s success. Martha’s amazing track record as a fantasy author definitely attracted a lot of attention.
We also did a really fun video. An attention-grabbing video is pretty important to the success of any Kickstarter and we were incredibly lucky to have the help of a couple of talented filmmakers. If you haven’t seen the video, you should check it out:

Is there anything you would do differently next time?

I’d try to come up with more compelling stretch goals. You have to be careful about what you promise, especially if the rewards are things you must package up and mail off. Those costs can quickly add up. Looking for more rewards that can be delivered electronically is a really good idea.
I’d also try and get other authors involved, meaning that if the Kickstarter hit a certain level of funding, I’d try and offer new ebooks from fellow authors. Getting two or three books instead of one would be great. Of course that’s assuming I could get other known authors to offer a new ebook as a stretch goal for my novel. That’s much easier said than done.

Have you been involved in any other crowdfunding projects?

I haven’t but I’ve been considering a new Kickstarter for a series of fully voiced narratives, which are a cross between a radio play and an audible book. Most of my writing experience has been as a screenwriter, and as most screenwriters can tell you that means I have a folder full of screenplays that will likely never see production. Making movies is very expensive, but something like a radio drama is more doable. Not to mention that I have a ton of friends who love doing voice-work. That’s where I’m focusing my attentions next.

Do you think it’s harder or easier to crowdfund novels compared to other kinds of projects? What makes it harder or easier?

That’s a great question. The most successful Kickstarters I’ve seen have been for games, both tabletop roleplaying games and video games. I think there is a thriving community for these types of games and I think they’ve learned to look at Kickstarter as the place where new indie games are being produced.
Novel campaigns are usually lower dollar than games but there are many more people trying to Kickstart their novels so the risk is higher (of finding a quality product). If you’re an unknown author, people will be much more cautious about pledging to your campaign. You must find a way to entice the backers.

Do you have any tips for success for authors launching their novels on Kickstarter?

Have a great, fun video that clearly explains why people should take a chance on your novel. Keep it sweet and to the point. Show your passion for the project but also your professionalism. Don’t come across as someone who has never written a novel and is offering their first attempt (even if that’s true).
Humility from an unknown author is not something that is likely to impress. Backers like confidence, intelligence, and wit, so try and show as much of that as you can. The better your video, the better you’re likely to do. Oh and put up a section (a chapter) of the novel for backers to read. Let them see your writing style and know what they’re going to be backing.

 Would you battle a six-legged tiger using a wooden spoon or be dipped in honey and buried up to the neck in an ant hive? I’m asking for a friend.

Yes to the first and hell no the second. And your friend sounds like a fascinating individual.

What projects are you working on now? What should Aaron de Orive fans be looking for?

These full-voiced narratives will be the next project I’ll be hopefully bringing to Kickstarter. If all goes well, we may have our campaign up by the Fall of 2015. I may also be involved in an RPG Kickstarter but that one is on the back-burner until the right team can be assembled.


Thank you, Aaron de Orive!

Kickstarter lab for writers: budgeting and pricing

laboratory blog

People talk about the big money crowdfunding smashes like Exploding Kittens (which recently raked in an astonishing 8.8 million). What people don’t often talk about is the dark side of success: when a project is successful but the creator still ends up in the red. There have been many project creators who ended up losing money on each reward shipped, and if they have to ship too many of those rewards then they end up in bankruptcy. It’s happened before, and it will happen again. Don’t let it happen to you!

Successful Kickstarter projects for novels and books can go upside down for several reasons. A few of the most common pitfalls:



It could be worse: it could be death. Whatever you make on any crowdfunding site will be reported to the IRS (and, if you create your own crowdfunding site on your blog or website, you’ll be breaking the law if you don’t report it for yourself).

Don’t forget local taxes, too. I live in Washington State, where I must collect sales tax, which means keeping track of which customers hail from this state and deducting the tax amount from the total received. That means I make less on local customers than I do on people out of state—but, hey, that’s the law, and it supports schools and so forth. I also have to pay business taxes on the gross (not the net) for both city and state. The point is this: know your tax laws, and you should seriously consider consulting a tax professional before you begin.

For more on taxes and Kickstarter, you should read Stonemaier Games’s excellent blog series on this topic (you should read it for other topics as well: it’s full of invaluable gems of crowdfunding advice). They point out that if you run your campaign at the end of a year then you will have to pay the taxes as part of that calendar year, but you won’t gain deductions for production, shipping, or any business expenses until the following year. Therefore, think twice about running your Kickstarter after September, and be sure to consult that tax professional!


Kickstarter Fees

If you ask me, Kickstarter fees are very reasonable. They take a flat 5%, plus credit card fees which vary by the card but tend to be around 3.5%. When I was planning my campaign, I rounded up to 10% just to be safe. Not bad, but, combined with taxes, adds up to a factor you should definitely consider when pricing. Indiegogo charges slightly less, and you can also set up your own crowdfunding site, but you may find it harder to build up momentum if you do it on your own.


Shipping Prices

More than any other factor, shipping can murder the profitability of a successful campaign. Electronic products are brilliant because you can deliver them anywhere in the world via email or by setting up a password-secured FTP site for your backers. Physical things, however, require physical motion, and that gets pricy.

Shipping costs are subject to rapid change—if the price of gas goes up, the post office is very likely to raise their rates. If it goes down, they’re not likely to lower them. Check with the US Post Office for the latest rates and nearby locations—you are almost certainly better off waiting in line at the USPS than paying the steep fees at a privately-owned mailbox center. If you don’t believe me, go ship the same item from each facility and your eyes will bug out of your head like Roger Rabbit when you see the price difference.

For figuring out international rates, Paul Roman Martinez of the 19xx has a brilliant suggestion about international Starbucks locations. Read it in tip #11 of 11 Things All Failed Kickstarter Projects Do Wrong.

The good news is that if what you’re shipping consists of books (either on paper or in an electronic format recorded on a digital storage device), then you should send it by media mail. At the time of this writing, it costs $2.61 to send a typical paperback via media mail. Keep in mind that if you put a t-shirt or other add-on reward in with the book, the package is no longer eligible as media mail. The post office reserves the right to open and inspect media mail packages to make sure they fit the requirements, but I’ve never known them to do this.

Shipping internationally is another cost hazard, and the prices here can fluctuate even faster. I know people who have watched helplessly as the international shipping rates jumped up 50% between the time their campaign closed and when they shipped orders, and this ate up just about all their profits.

Finally, don’t forget the cost of envelopes! For books, I order padded envelopes (6” x 9” for my books which measure 5.25×8”) in boxes of 100 through and they come out to be about 20 cents each. That doesn’t sound too bad, but you still need to factor in that cost, and you may find that you require other, more expensive packaging. Those nickels and dimes will add up if you don’t keep a close eye on them.


Add-On Prices & Minimum Orders

If you’re like me, you might be tempted to throw in all kinds of stylized swag: coffee mugs emblazoned with your cover image, Christmas tree ornaments bearing your characters’ faces, and customized USB drives in the shape of the ship your space-jockey character pilots throughout the multiverse—these are just a few of the things that are readily available through a myriad of manufacturers of promotional items.

Swag is awesome, but it almost always require set-up fees which you really must factor into each unit. If it costs $50 to set up the print run and you’re going to sell a hundred, then it’s no big deal. But if you only sell ten, then your $5 coffee mug is really $10, and that’s only the wholesale cost. Don’t forget shipping prices, because you have to pay twice: once to ship to you and then again to ship to your customers.

Even if a certain item is cheap enough for your personal use, you’re going to have to significantly increase the price to backers in order to overcome the other financial frictions such as taxes, shipping, and site fees. I wanted to do some very fancy credit-card USB drives for my upcoming Kickstarter for GHOST STORM, but would people really want to pay $30 for a 4 gigabyte USB drive? I doubted it, so I skipped it.


How much markup?

The standard markup is double or more. That means if you pay $10 for a t-shirt, you will almost certainly need to charge at least $20. For the THE NON-ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE crowdfunding campaign, I felt kind of guilty doubling the price of my items, but I crunched the numbers over and over and found that it was absolutely necessary. It also meant I had to forget about some of the nifty goodies I wanted to make. (More on what add-on rewards you might create in my next post)

My advice here is the same as my advice in my last post: if this is your first Kickstarter, run it as small as possible! If you skip some or all of the fancy promotional products, it will mean you can lower your required goal, which increases your chance of success and may also increase your profit margin. Also, having too many goodies and gizmos tends to distract from what you’re really trying to sell. After you’ve run one crowdfunding campaign, you will have a ballpark idea of how many backers you can expect the next time around and then you’ll be able to make a more informed decision about which bells and whistles you can add.


Kickstarter lab for writers: setting your goal

laboratory blogOne of the most crucial decisions you’ll have to make is how high to set your goal. Too much, and people won’t bother backing your project because they’ll think it has no chance. Too little, and you may lose momentum—although you may also pick up momentum when people see that your project has already overshot its goal. When in doubt, err on the side of a small goal.


Do You Need Kickstarter?

Thing is, very few novelists use Kickstarter. Maybe it’s because about 70% of publishing projects fail Kickstarter’s stats, but I think one important factor is that many self-publishers simply don’t need crowdfunding to begin with. However, even if you decide you don’t NEED to crowdfund, you might find that you still WANT to, because it offers some big advantages that you might not find anywhere else.


The Costs of Publishing

Anyone who knows anything about the contemporary publishing industry can see that self-published authors are now earning a MUCH higher percentage of sales than those published through traditional means. Different camps of writers bicker about whether it’s even worth working for a big publisher, and some writers approach this topic with the kind of fanatical belligerence not seen since the religious wars of the middle ages. The bottom line remains: with more big-name authors leaving traditional publishing houses every year or never working for them in the first place, indie publishing has moved from the dustbin of the publishing world into an exciting frontier of literature.

The technology that drove this change now allows a person to publish a book for very little money. For my last book, THE NON-ZOMBIE APOCALYPSE, I went from a finished Word document to a printed book in hand in about a month and for just under $1,000. My biggest expense was editing, but my money also bought printer set-up, ISBN fees, and publisher’s proofs. This is still on the cheap side because I did the layout and cover design myself (using the logo image created by Christopher Madden and a whole lot of time teaching myself Photoshop—more on image design in a future post.)

mad science apocalypse cover

Post-Production Costs

After you’ve got the book the way you want it, expect to pay wholesale costs for each copy. If you do print-on-demand, which most new authors do, it might be $6 per paperback copy depending on the number of pages. An offset print run is much cheaper per copy—maybe $2.50 per book—but you may have to order hundreds or even thousands at a time.

Don’t forget postage to each customer, because the mail is not an economy of scale (more backers = more postage costs with no rate cut for multiple packages).

Even considering those costs, most people have enough in their bank account to get their book out there without going to the hassle or risk of crowdfunding. But don’t give up on the idea yet!


Why Crowdfund?

Kickstarter, Indiegogo, and other crowdfunding sites still offer many advantages, even if you’re a novelist who doesn’t need the cash infusion to get started. Here are three of them:

  • Direct(er) Sales. A retailer typically keeps 50% to 60% of sales (still better than traditional publishers, who take 85% to 90%). Even eBooks distributors keep 30% or more. Kickstarter, by contrast, keeps less than 10%! You will have a hard time finding such wide distribution for such a small cut.
  • The “Kickstarter Push.” Although you should plan on using social media to provide hefty air support for your Kickstarter campaign, crowdfunding does provide a cache of its own. Anyone searching the site might stumble across your project and give it a try. And if you get selected as a “Kickstarter Staff Pick” then your project is featured on the front page and you’re golden!
  • An Exciting Event. Nothing gets people excited like a limited-time offer. Give your friends, family, and fans something to rally around and some reason for them to hype your work to others.


Publish First, Crowdfund Second

You’re going to have a much easier time getting funded if you already have at least one book on the market. If you do, you’ll not only have fans to help you, but you’ll also have proven that you’re a writer who can deliver.

Think about how many people say they’re going to write a book but never manage to finish. Think of how many finish a book and it turns out to be a poorly written “practice novel” (whether they think of it that way or not). Even with the best of intentions, there’s no way to prove to your backers that you’re worth reading unless you can point to a book you’ve already published.

If you’re determined to launch your first novel on Kickstarter or another crowdfunding site, at the very least you should have the manuscript complete and ready to go. Many people can draft a novel in a month (especially November—that’s a shout-out to all the daring NaNoWriMo participants out there!) but it can still take longer to revise than to draft, not to mention to perfect the cover art, the layout, and all that jazz.

If you are determined to crowdfund your very first novel, you should seriously consider setting your goal very low, perhaps a few hundred dollars at most. Remember that Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing platform, so if it doesn’t fund you get nothing! You might also consider Indiegogo or another site that allows partial funding.


Start Later, Not Sooner

My best advice for planning your first Kickstarter is not to think about how SOON you can launch your project, but how LATE. The more time you can spend building up to the launch with social media, production planning, and quality control, the more successful your project will be.

Your Kickstarter may only last 30 days, but the groundwork beforehand is what determines success.

Kickstarter laboratory for writers

Kickstarter Laboratory for Writers

Welcome to the first installment of a short series on using Kickstarter (or any other crowdfunding system) to launch a novel.


Harsh Truth #1: 70% of Kickstarter projects fail.

Don’t become a statistic.

The frightening fact is that only about 30% of campaigns in the publishing category end up successful (according to Kickstarter’s stats at the time of this post). This number includes projects with much broader appeal, such graphic novels and cook books, which makes me certain that novels have a lower rate of success and a lower average funding total. It’s easy to set up a campaign, but much more difficult to be successful. I’ll help you steer clear of some of these traps and pitfalls.


Harsh Truth #2: Novels are more difficult

Kickstarter and crowdfunding in general seems easy at first glance. All you have to do is explain your idea and then people give you money, right? Well, it turns out that crowdfunding has a pretty steep learning curve and some serious potential dangers.

Here's an explosion for no particular reason.
Here’s an explosion for no particular reason.

Some things that you can do to dramatically increase your odds:

  • Know your goal. The majority of Kickstarter projects either barely hit their goal or they fall way, way short . If you set your target too high, people won’t bother with what looks unattainable. If you set it too low, you might find your project losing momentum as soon as it hits its mark. (More on goal setting in a future post.)
  • Provide social media support. Gone are the days (if they ever existed) of simply posting your project and coming back in a month to find out how much you made. If you want to get funded, plan on dedicating every free minute to waving your banner online during your project month, and preferably for a long time before you even get started. (More on social media in a future post.)
  • Offer something special. Why would anyone give you money now in order to wait many months to get their product? Because you’re offering something special that can only be found for a limited time. Consider personalized copies, special covers, backer names in the credits, and/or unique add-ons. (More on backer rewards in a future post)
  • Develop a catchy video. Videos are optional… but only for people who don’t care if they succeed. It’s your chance to hook a whole segment of backers in an exciting way. (More on videos in a future post)

In my experience, most novels and novelists must leap over some special hurdles beyond what other types of products and creators encounter. Those hurdles include:

  • Find good visuals. Okay, you have a great cover, but how many times can you post it on the same page? (More on eye-grabbing design in a future post)
  • Demonstrate your quality. Most people aren’t willing to invest hours in reading an unknown book, let alone spend their hard-earned greenbacks buying it the first place. Your quality must be evident at a glance as well as under scrutiny. (More on page design in a future post)
  • Convince backers of your reliability. Although many backers fail to keep this in mind, Kickstarter is an investment, and all investments carry risk. You need to convince your potential backers that you won’t let them down. (More on making your case in a future post)

My Background

I don’t claim to be the world’s greatest crowdfunding innovator, so what I intend to offer you here is a look behind the curtain so you can see what I do, learn how it works, and decide whether you want to try it yourself. Much of what I plan to do is an experiment, and that’s why I’m calling this blog series a “laboratory.” If my strategies work, then my campaign will be successful. If not, then you can still learn what to do differently.

Coming from a game designer’s background, my work with Exile Game Studio’s HOLLOW EARTH EXPEDITION opened my eyes to how powerful Kickstarter can be. I’ve also known some creators who ended up frustrated because they couldn’t get any backers besides their own mothers, and a few who got in over their heads and couldn’t deliver what they promised.

I’ve run one Kickstarter campaign (which was 380% funded) and been tangentially involved in several others. More importantly, I’m launching a Kickstarter in May of 2015 for GHOST STORM, the third and final book in the MAD SCIENCE INSTITUTE series. I was successful last time, but I still have many new ideas to test this time around.

ks intro tile

I don’t claim to know all the answers to creating effective crowdfunding campaigns—not by a long shot. Instead, as I walk through the steps of launching GHOST STORM, I’m simply inviting you to my lab to see what I’ve got bubbling in the test tubes. I’ll be honest about what works and what doesn’t. If it succeeds, I’ll tell you why. If it doesn’t, you’ll be able to learn from my example.

Whatever happens, I hope you find something to help with your own crowdfunding endeavor. Be sure to subscribe to this blog so you don’t miss out!


The Med Bomb/Dye Bomb

The Med Bomb (from The Non-Zombie Apocalypse)
The Med Bomb (from The Non-Zombie Apocalypse)

This might not be the most exciting invention to look at, but this football-sized cylinder can explosively vent vapor . Nikki usually fills it with dye of various hues to flash-color just about any object (or person). In The Non-Zombie Apocalypse, it takes on an even more important role when Victor loads it up with the very last of the detergent that can kill the non-zombie parasites. Suddenly, this humble cannister becomes the Institute’s final hope!

The Non-Zombie Parasite

The Non-Zombie Parasite (from The Non-Zombie Apocalypse)
The Non-Zombie Parasite (from The Non-Zombie Apocalypse)

When it comes to my comfort zone with doodling, I’m only good with things that involve straight lines and sharp angles. That pretty much means robots. So I really took a risk with this one, because it’s all mushy and organic, just like a gigantic brain parasite should be.

In The Non-Zombie Apocalypse, these things will try to grab onto your face and then slide a tendril around your eye, up your optical nerve, and into your brain. The most terrifying thing is that some parasites can actually do this in real life. And it gets even worse when you have Blitzkrieger bikers working for the Professor deliberately trying to stuff these in people’s faces!

Robot apocalypse… delayed until further notice

At Tech Club we’ve been trying our hardest to bring about the robot apocalypse. We may still need a few upgrades.

Don’t miss out! Get 8 ebooks including The Non-Zombie Apocalypse and pay… whatever you want! Limited time only– don’t miss it on!

Science Fiction, Games, Publishing, Random Musings, and More

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