I keep having the same conversation over and over again with other authors on the Inkshares platform. “Crowdfunding is impossible,” they say. “No,” says the new me, “it’s science. Science is never impossible.” “I don’t know anyone,” they reply. “I bet you know more than you think,” I say. Then I go into my favorite illustration on the nature of crowdfunding.
But since I’ve been having the conversation so very often, I thought it was best to distill all my advice into a blog post. That way I can just toss a link at the person I’m talking to instead of wearing out my fingers typing the same thing over and over again. But first, a little background on how I arrived at my current theories on crowdfunding a book.
I, like the myriads of other authors out there, had decided to self-publish because I wanted to get my book out there. I figured I could make it big because I was good at writing, and quality will out, right? Over the summer of 2015 I polished my first novel, Shadow of the Owl, worked on a cover, and even hired a freelance editor to make sure all the plot holes were taped up and the spelling wasn’t atrocious. At the end of that summer, I had planned to self-publish via the KDP Select program, since I was hearing so many great things about authors making their $1000 a month self-publishing their work.
And then a Nerdist article came across my Facebook feed about a contest they were running with a company called Inkshares. They were looking for the next great science fiction or fantasy novel, and were going to publish the top five books in the contest. It seemed like a sign from above. Here I had an already edited novel — sure it was a little cliche, and I had come up with the original premise back when I was 12 — surely quality will out and I will be a shoe in for a novel contest. WRONG. Because entering this contest I failed to realize that it wasn’t about writing, it was about crowdfunding, and I had no skills in this area. My brief foray into public relations had taught me I was excellent at writing and horrible at pitching. That’s why I had become a blogger, so I wouldn’t have to deal with cold-pitching individuals about topics, I could receive the pitches and write my little articles about them.
But it was Nerdist, and the chance to get a publishing deal, so after watching the standings for a day or two, I entered. Blind. Without any understanding of what it takes to win a popularity contest. And I hit the wall of failure hard. I think my book finished top ten, but most likely not. I think by the time the funding ended on that book I had maybe 80 of the 1000 orders I needed to get it published with Inkshares, so I tossed it up on Amazon, as I had originally intended, having spent almost $1700 on it, and called it a day.
Since that first contest in 2015 I have entered three Inkshares contests and won one. That win though was collaborative effort of fifteen authors coming together to share the burden of crowdfunding. I have also successfully crowdfunded a novel through the light publishing channel at Inkshares. I still have two projects that I am waiting to finish before I crowdfund them.
Basically, TL;DR: I have experienced the entire spectrum of experiences that Inkshares has to offer, and from those experiences I have learned a particular perspective on crowdfunding that I think is both healthy and helpful to others.
With that background explained, let’s get to the guide.
Step One: Map Your Network
So many writers do what I did, see a crowdfunding publisher like Inkshares and jump in immediately, head first, sometimes face first as was my case. They launch their campaign without knowing what resources they have to back it up. Because like I said, crowdfunding is science, and we’re writers — all about the art. But in order to succeed as an indie author you have to develop some business skills, and fast. The first of those is you need to know who your potential customer base is.
Ricardo Henriquez, author of The Catcher’s Trap, created a great series of infographics on this topic. The first step for crowdfunding anything is to research who you know. So start with a spreadsheet and name everyone you can think of. EVERYONE. Remember this is science, but it’s not comfortable science by any means. You need to know who you are connected to, and the only way to do this is to list them all out.
So you open up Excel and type out the names of everyone you know. Then next to their names you note down how close these people are to you. This translates to how likely they are to buy your book, so in the next column note down how much money you think you could reasonably ask them for. On Inkshares people order copies of your book at either the $10 ebook level or the $20 print copy level. Knowing who you can ask for which level is important.
Okay now you have your map, and you’re exceedingly uncomfortable knowing you’re quantifying all the people you’ve made relationships with. That’s fine. At this point it’s time to move on to step two.
Step Two: Do the Math
Crowdfunding is all about numbers. I’m going to use Inkshares as my case study because I know their terms and have a decent amount of experience with them, but you can apply this all to any number of crowdfunding platforms. So to successfully get a base-level bare bones publishing contract (what I call a discount on self-publishing) at Inkshares, you have to get 250 copies preordered of your book. For a full publishing contract, you need to get 750 copies (as of the date of this article. Keep in mind this company is currently revamping their business model, but still these numbers are good for now).
So looking at your list of contacts, how many are there? Do you have 100? 200? 1000? As Ricardo says, you are going to need a potential supporter base that is about 30% larger than your actual crowdfunding goal, but you have to know how many people you have before you know what that goal is. Why? Because there’s no reason to start a campaign if you don’t know you will succeed. That’s the science part of this. If your list of potential supporter is has 25 people on it, can you reasonably expect to get 250 orders? Only if each of those people is willing to drop $200 on buying 10 print copies of your book. It’s possible, I suppose, but not likely. Also, with that sort of backing you come up against the trouble of an imaginary audience, but I’ll get to that later.
If you have a list of backers that is hovering around the 300 range, then you would be fine running a base-level discount on self-publishing (they call it Quill on Inkshares) campaign and feel reasonably sure of success. If you have about 1500 people on that list, chances are you would be able to sustain a full publishing campaign and successfully fund your book.
Okay. You’ve done your research, mapped your network. You’ve done the math and know which campaign to shoot for. Already you are incredibly informed about the promotion part of your book business, and are leaps ahead of many of the hundreds of authors out there trying to get their books funded. Now it’s time to plan.
Step Three: Plan your Strategy
Now it’s time to plan how you will turn your potential supporters into actual supporters. The research you’ve done has told you which sort of campaign to shoot for, be it basic or full. Next you need to identify when you are running your campaign, and for how long. Is this book something you are entering in a publishing contest at Inkshares or is this a campaign you are launching on your own timing? A contest campaign will run completely differently than a standalone one, because contests are all about the number of people that order your book, not the number of orders.
For a contest campaign, you are going to need to get about 300 to 400 people on board if you want to get the number one spot, and 200 to 300 if you want to get number two, 175 to 250 for the third place spot. Each contest has its own rhythm and ecosystem, but since we know crowdfunding is science, we are armed with the knowledge to know if we can succeed. This is a good place to check back with your network map. Do you have enough active friends (those close enough to you to order a book immediately when asked) do place in the top three of the contest? Be honest and if your answer is no, then move on. Spend your energy elsewhere. There’s no reason to pound against a brick wall if you don’t have the right chisel.
A quick note if you’re still running your contest campaign: If you run during a contest you’re going to want to gather a group of your most vocal supporters and have them order the book day one. If you can get to 1/3 of your goal in the first 24 hours that will be a strong enough show of force that you might start getting orders just from being at the top of the standings. So here is where you prime your support network ahead of time, reaching out a few days before the contest and letting them know you will be asking for their $10 order in the near future. Get your yeses and note them down (new spreadsheet time), and note down the no’s too because these are the people you’re going to have to convince. I also highly suggest running the campaign length as the same length of the contest rather than longer. The added “all or nothing” pressure to the shorter length will be a boon to getting people on board fast and helping you achieve your publishing goal before the clock strikes twelve.
And when I say reach out, I don’t mean in group posts on social media. We have all been trained by Facebook and Twitter to ignore the noise, so contact everyone personally. Emails, Direct Messages, Telephone calls, Dropping in to chat in person — this is how you will get your yeses. If someone ignores you when you personally contact them, chances are they aren’t actually on your support network.
Now you have a list of who has said “yes, I will order your book.” This is not a list of who will order your book, but of those people who have at least connected with the concept of ordering. How many do you have? If it’s 30% of your supporter list or more, good job, your going when the campaign launches will be easier. If you have less than 10% yes rate despite all your hundreds of personal attempts to reach out, perhaps you don’t have as large a support network as you thought. Time to rethink the choice to crowdfund, because you will have a tough road ahead if the people you thought were your supporters won’t commit to supporting.
Yes, you read that right. I’ve told you twice now that if you don’t have enough numbers you shouldn’t crowdfund your book. Why? Because there is already an avenue for getting a book published without an established social network — we call it self-publishing and it’s working for thousands of writers already. Save yourself the stress. If the research is telling you that the support isn’t there for a campaign, listen to it.
Here’s the secret I recently learned: You are the brand they are backing, not the book. People are supporting you because they like you. The book doesn’t exist yet, and it’s only important to you (unless you already have a reader base, in which case your supporter network is probably large enough to sustain a campaign). But you exist, you are concrete and real and valued by your network. They are backing you when they contribute to your campaign. That’s why things like Kickstarter launch parties exist. To celebrate you, the campaign owner.
And that brings me to the last step, actually getting your orders.
Step Four: Sell Your Tickets
This is my tried-and-true method for getting preorders for a crowdfunded book, and it came to me as I was listening to other successful authors talk about how they did it, particularly G. Derek Adams, author of one of my favorite books of all time, Asteroid Made of Dragons (this shouldn’t be a surprise as I just wrote that glowing review). I imagine myself as a concert promoter.
A concert promoter doesn’t ask for people to love the concert. Their job is to sell tickets to the event, $10 a pop. They have to fill seats, and if they don’t sell enough tickets the band won’t be able to rent the venue they want and they’ll have to go play elsewhere. The band will still play, but not at the big shiny arena with the amazing sound system and the 100,000 seats. The band really wants to play there, and it’s up to you to help get them the venue.
But no one has heard the band play before. They’re good, you know they’re good, but the people in town don’t know them. This concert will rock their world, you know it, but in order for it to happen you’re gonna have to put butts in seats. You have to sell your tickets. So you put an ad in the paper, no sales. You put up fliers, no sales. Why? Because the people in town don’t know the band, aren’t familiar with their music.
But you’re from this town, you know people there, and so you go knocking on doors and now you’re selling tickets. People like you and believe you when you say the band is great. And $10 isn’t that big a deal. Even if they can’t go when the concert rolls around, at least they know they helped you keep your job.
And what about the no’s? When someone says “no, I don’t want to go to that concert,” does the concert promoter feel crushed? Nope. Not a bit, they just go on to the next person they know and ask their help. Sometimes people just don’t have the money, or don’t see the vision of what you’re trying to do. It’s all good. You move on to the next house.
With this analogy, you separate the writer you from the promoter you, and in doing so you create a persona that protects your fragile artistic ego. Asking someone to buy a ticket to an event has no emotional stigma to it, whereas asking someone to buy this work you’ve spend 400 hours on, it hurts when they say no.
Anytime I hear a writer complain about how hard it is to crowdfund, I tell them to put butts in seats. The supporters will love the book later, but that’s a year away. Right now they are there to support you, so let them. Don’t make them prove they love the music first, sell them the ticket and let them discover that for themselves when the concert comes around. You never hear of a concert promoter pulling out their phone and playing a song and asking the person they are trying to sell to “Do you love this song? only buy my ticket if you love this song.” You’ll never fill a venue if you force everyone who wants to support you as a person so also proclaim their love for your band. Sell your tickets, then let the supporter decide if they like the music once the venue is booked.
A Warning: Don’t Build an Empty Audience
I know I just got telling you that you need to put butts in seats, but in that analogy you never saw me tell you to go out and ask 10 of your friends to buy 20 tickets. On paper that strategy will get the venue paid for, but when the concert comes around you have 10 people coming instead of 200.
Sometimes we put on our crowdfunding hat and forget the writer hat completely. We kick it into the corner and it collects dust and spider corpses. Hopefully you are an author that wants to make writing your career. As such you’re going to need to have a reader base, fans that love your work. I get that this sounds completely contradictory from my previous admonition, but it really isn’t.
If you get 1000 to back your book, that’s 1000 potential readers, 1000 people who might fall in love with your world and your characters and leave you harsh reviews on Amazon when their favorite character dies. That’s 1000 tickets to the show friends. But if through coupons or promotions or other means you manage to get 100 friends to help you publish your book, that’s only 100 people to fall in love. That’s a significantly smaller reader base. In doing everything possible to crowdfund your book, you shot your author self in the foot later on.
Separating yourself into a promoter and a writer is a good thing. Filling the venue with empty seats will only hurt your sales in the long run. No one is going to be there to read your book, to leave reviews, to spread the word about how that ninja hobbit fell in love with the ogre pirate in act three. This is a big deal, and again, that’s why I say if you don’t have enough actual people to support your campaign, don’t do it. You’d be better off as a writer putting up your book on CreateSpace or IngramSpark and selling what copies you can to your actual support system. Imaginary people don’t fill seats, and they don’t buy books.
A successful book crowdfunding campaign requires self-reflection. You first need to know now many people will support you before you can plan to hit a crowdfunding goal on a site like Inkshares. Once you have that knowledge, it’s essential to put a strategy in place based on the sort of campaign you’re running: contest or standard, light publishing or full contract. Before you go live, reach out to your potential supporters and get a commitment from them to help. Then when you go live, divorce your promoter self from your writer self, and sell tickets to the event without making your supporters prove they love the book first. In the end though, while publishing is important, there are other venues for your band to play in, and if you fill the seats with imaginary people, you won’t have a fan base there to support the rest of your writing career.