Athena’s Daughters Kickstarter Lessons Learned

Wow, it’s been 2 weeks since the Athena’s Daughters Kickstarter, and I still feel like it JUST happened. And of course, I am still looking at the final number and going “whoa.”

A few people have asked me “how did you run such a successful kickstarter?” Well, the answer is simple. *I* didn’t!

It truly was a group effort, and without everyone coming together there is absolutely no way we would have gotten the word out nor interest in the project piqued. Everything from one of the authors for Apollo’s Daughters tipping off someone he knew at i09, to all the authors’ relentless promotion across all forms of social media, to people who stumbled across the Kickstarter page, thought it was cool and told all their friends about it, contributed greatly to the success.

Still, I feel I would not be giving credit where credit is due I didn’t post about how amazing the actual Kickstarter itself was, and that was primarily my husband’s doing – not only did he come up with the idea for the anthology itself, but he put together and managed the actual kickstarter page, leaving Maggie and me free to focus on getting the word out and managing the myriad of other admin items that needed to be taken care of (& special thanks to Bryan Young who put together the vid!).

So, going back to June, Ron (my husband) and I were driving home from OriginsGameFair and he said “You know what would be a great anthology? One where all the lead characters are women and all the stories are about women. I think we need more of those.” Even before he finished talking I had my phone out and I was calling my friend and business partner, Maggie Allen. Before I could finish pitching it to her she said “SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!” We then contacted Bryan Young, our other business partner and the 3rd co-owner of Silence in the Library Publishing (the 3 of us founded it together, and Ron is the CEO), and he thought it was a great idea, but then also suggested that we have a stretch goal for a companion volume of stories about women, but this time written by men. SOLD.

We spent the next couple months putting the project together, and I can’t even begin to say how thrilled we were over the people who agreed to be a part of the project – from the editor, to the artists, writers, and the astronaut penning our introduction, it truly was a stellar cast.

Preparations complete, it was time to launch the Kickstarter. At this point Silence in the Library had done 3 previously successful literary Kickstarters, but only one, Time Traveled Tales, was a also an anthology, so this was a chance to apply some of the lessons learned from our previous Kickstarters, especially TTT, and see if the things we found that worked the first time around would work again.

So, Kickstarter complete, now it’s time to share the lessons we learned. For this part I’m going to shamelessly plagiarize and add some additional content to my husband’s notes from his Time Traveled Tales Kickstarter notes, because why re-invent the wheel when all it really needs is an update?

*NOTE* These are things that work for us. This is by no means a list of the “RULES FOR A SUCCESSFUL LITERARY KICKSTARTER” – there are loads of successful literary Kickstarters out there that did things very differently – these are just the things that happen to work for us. Feel free to use all, some, or none. Do whatever works best for you and your Kickstarter.

Observations about our Kickstarter/Kickstarters in general:

1. Kickstarter is a great platform, but it only gets you so far. Looking back over where our funding came from, I’d say that the best estimate is that somewhere around  60-65% of our funding came from the existing networks of our authors/artists/publisher, and somewhere around 35-40% came from folks who found us through Kickstarter. So, the implication of that is that you need to have authors and artists who have active and diverse fan networks, and those authors and artists need to be actively engaged throughout the process. Another way of putting this, as I so frequently reminded my authors, is everyone involved in the project needs to be promoting the project every single day in some way, to the point of being sick of it. Then promote some more. This is not to say send out 50 tweets in a row that say “GO SUPPORT MY KICKSTARTER!” That is just annoying and is spam. People will tune you out. You need to find new and creative ways to promote. For Athena’s Daughters one of these routes was posting an excerpt one day from one of the authors, the next day linking a blog post, the day after posting about some new artwork for the anthology, and so on, across all forms of social media. I also did good old fashioned in person “Hey! You have a family member/friend who I think would like this… check it out!”  and I emailed everyone I knew. I cannot over emphasize how important it is for every single person involved in the project to be trying to get the word out every single day through various means.

2. You, as the project manager, have to have your pulse on the project at all times. Kickstarters run on an interesting cycle. In general, if you’ve energized your base well enough, you’ll see a large upsurge of investment at the beginning and end, and you’ll hit the doldrums somewhere during the middle of your funding cycle.

Also, your best funding days tend to be Tuesdays and Wednesdays. My belief is that this happens as a result of the standard work week. On Mondays, folks are relatively energized, and tend to pay more attention to their work at work. By Tuesday, they are back to surfing the web at least periodically from about 9am-11am. Our most productive times during the middle of the Kickstarter were 9am-11am on Tuesdays and Wednesdays, about 6pm-8pm on Mondays-Thursdays, and about 3am-6am on Tuesdays and Wednesdays (which is the corresponding European “screw off at work” time). Particularly during the middle of the funding cycle (say, after your first week and before your last week), Fridays and Saturdays are basically dead. Sundays are not much better. People are out living life, and less interested in checking out your project (as such, so as to not burn myself, or my social media followers out, I tried to focus my promotion during “peak” times, and avoided naturally dead times, since it was just going to be “noise.”)

My point with all of this is that you have to be well-enough attuned to the flow of funding to be able to feel when things are slowing down and respond. If you look at the growth chart for our project, there’s a big jump at the beginning (we fully funded in the first 36 hours), and a big jump at the end, and steady growth through the middle. There’s never a point where our project deadlines from day to day. For Time Traveled Tales every time it looked like things were slowing down Ron would contact people he knew had large networks in the Sci-Fi/Fantasy community, and asked them to put the word out about our project. He contacted specific authors in the anthology he knew would be able to mobilize a lot of people and refrained from utilizing them during the normal course of events specifically so that their impact would be greater at the points where the Kickstarter was slowing down. For Athena’s Daughters I reminded everyone involved daily to promote, sent out links to blog posts, articles, and new artwork for them to use. Additionally I had several friends who were excited about supporting the project and told me to let them know when things were slowing down and they would come in and back the project – I planned for slow days, specifically on and around Christmas, so on those days, to prevent a $0 day, I’d let them know “OK, if you’re still interested in backing the project, go for it.” This helped us maintain our momentum (especially on Christmas where we would have had a negative day due to some canceled pledges).

Which brings me to a new lesson learned – cancelled pledges. For Time Traveled Tales we had very few cancelled pledges, and every charge went through upon completion. Not so for Athena’s Daughters. We had nearly $4,000 in cancelled or reduced pledges, and about $1000 in failed payments at the end of the Kickstarter. I think several things contributed to this – for starters this Kickstarter had nearly 3 times as many backers as Time Traveled Tales, which means more people are going up, reduce, or cancel pledges. Added to that, we ran our campaign over the holidays which I think both helped and hurt us. People were in a “spending” mood so we got lots of backers, but then following Christmas I believe people looked at their credit card statements or didn’t receive the Christmas money they were banking on, so cancelled their pledges. Just something to consider during a big holiday Kickstarter.

So, back to what I said at the beginning. You, as the project manager, are a conductor. You have to know exactly what you need from every instrument at your disposal, and you have to get the best performance possible from each of those instruments. It’s going to be a lot of work, but it’s vital to great success.

3. Start an advertising campaign about 1-2 weeks out from the start of your project. Nothing huge and expensive, just (a) getting your authors with blogs to post a blog about the upcoming project, with directions to their followers to stay tuned for the link, (b) getting yourself and your authors on as many industry blogs/vlogs/podcasts as possible leading up to the start, (c) issuing a press release to the standard sic-fi/fantasy outlets, and (d) putting a “coming soon” post on your publishing company website/newsletter.

The thing is, that most successful Kickstarters fund at least 33% in the first week. You REALLY want to get to that number at a minimum, because many backers will take their cue off of the initial success. So, the more immediate investment you can trigger, the better.

4. Kickstarters should give the contributor something of substantive value at every contribution level. They should have something that they can read/look at/hold that reminds them as long as they have it that they got something for their investment. Not only is it the right thing to do, it’s the smart thing to do, particularly if you plan on doing future Kickstarters. An investor who feels like they came out ahead in their investment will come back again and again.

5. Honest communication is key. You need to stay connected with your contributors. We answered every message that was sent to us and every question posted in the comments section as quickly as possible through the course of the Kickstarter. Not only is this naturally the right thing to do, it also helps to generate a sense of community that drives people to want to get their friends and family involved in the project, as well.

It’s not enough to just communicate, though. You have to communicate honestly. Now, this doesn’t mean that you air your dirty laundry. Doing that might reduce investor confidence. What it does mean is that you are honest about what you can and cannot do. There will be times in the Kickstarter process where you’re tempted, particularly with large contributors, to just say “yes” to get the contribution. Do not give in to that temptation. You’ll either wind up hurting yourself and the project to try to do something you cannot do effectively, or you’ll wind up lying to the investor. Both are bad ideas. (ie, a few people asked if we would do signed copies of Athena’s Daughters. I would have loved to. They were a huge hit/sold very well for Time Traveled Tales. That said, Time Traveled Tales finished its Kickstarter in July and we are STILL trying to get all the author signatures for the signed books. Not only was it a far larger expense than we’d originally estimated, but between lost pages forcing us to start over on signatures, weather delays, and life happening to 20+ people, it’s just too unwieldy, and I knew we would not have the time/resources to do this for Athena’s Daughters and make an on time June delivery).

6. Your updates should be regular, but not excessive, and every update should have substantive content that moves the project forward or provides vital information to the contributors. If you can release some content (artwork, etc.) for the contributors to view as teasers on a regular basis, that would be a good thing.

7. I cannot express how vital it is to make people understand that they are part of something important. We launch all our Kickstarters with two goals: (1) to make a great book available to a wide audience, and (2) to effect positive change on the nature of the relationship between publishers, authors, and readers, effectively giving the authors and readers a more equal voice in the creative process. The fact that we were able to communicate the second goal in a way that resonated with the contributors, I believe, was a significant driver of our success.

8. Don’t be afraid to have fun with your contributors. If you can get to the point where your contributors are cheering on the process and feel comfortable posting playful and friendly comments, get into the groove with them. If you look at our last few updates and stretch goals for Time Traveled Tales, they’re just silly. Once we got silly, people got even more involved than they were before. People like to be a part of a community where they feel like they can be themselves. If you can create that community in your Kickstarter, you will be very successful.

9. It’s good to have a large variety of rewards (though I think we had TOO many options for Athena’s Daughters It became very confusing for backers, but that’s a lesson learned for us), and some stuff besides just a book, eBook, and art. I was amazed at how many contributors fell in love with the idea of challenge coins for Time Traveled Tales and Penny Blossoms for Athena’s Daughters. You need to have a decent variety of stuff out there so that you diversify the types of contributors to whom you appeal.

10. Establish stretch goals that contributors see as attainable, and have them out early on so that people see that your minimum funding goal is just that, your minimum. Our top funding goal was $44,000 and it was amazing to see everyone coming together in the last few hours to reach it.

11. Any time you can give contributors something extra at no additional cost to the kickstarter, do it. The best example from all of our Kickstarters are the eBooks, audio books, and albums that the authors contributed. They gave them at no cost, and so we were able to establish relatively short stretch goals that really moved the project along. By the end, a $5 contributor was receiving 5 ebooks, 18 short stories, 2 audio books, an album of original music, artwork, etc . Not only did this give the backers a lot of great “freebies” as thanks for their support, but it also introduced them to some authors they may not have known about or checked out prior to this. For example, for Time Traveled Tales I gave out the first book in my War of the Seasons trilogy as a stretch goal – I saw an immediate jump in sales of my following books after the kickstarter was over. We even had some authors not a part of Athena’s Daughters who wanted to contribute stories/novels and stretch goals to get some promotion for themselves/their work.

12. The initial funding goal should be as low as you can possibly make it. Ask for no more than the absolute minimum you need to produce the project and pay the authors and artists. The faster you attain your initial goal, the more buzz your project will generate. People like to support successful projects/projects that are clearly on track to succeed.

13. Promote, promote, promote. There are several blogs/podcasts that focus solely on Kickstarter projects (djgrandpa comes to mind immediately) or Sci-fi/fantasy projects. Have a plan to utilize them effectively through the course of the Kickstarter.

14. For your stretch goals, try to space them equally apart, and for a literary Kickstarter, I would try not to have more than $2500 between stretch goals. I think $1000 is a sweet spot. We were fortunate enough for Athena’s Daughters that we had so many contributions from authors that we could have the majority of our early stretch goals only $500 apart. That said, keep in mind that any physical stretch goal will have an associated cost and you MUST factor that in when you come up with your stretch goals. For example a free 5×7 print of your cover art is a GREAT stretch goal! But who gets it? Anyone who contributes? Then you need to factor in an additional shipping cost. OR, you can have the print go only to people who order the physical book – this means you have no additional shipping cost/can pay your authors more, and you only have to account for printing cost.

15. Shipping. DO NOT FORGET ABOUT SHIPPING! So many Kickstarters forget to account for this (we did on our first one), and books are heavy, and you will spend THOUSANDS of dollars on shipping (packaging and postage, not to mention the handling). If you don’t account for shipping and you barely fund, then you will have to pay for shipping out of your pocket…

16. Book pricing. You will see a diverse range of book pricing on Kickstarter. For us what has worked so so far is $5 for an eBook. It’s on the lower end, but we believe this is a fair price for an eBook and $5 is an amount most people are willing to “gamble” on an ebook where perhaps they are only familiar with one or two authors. Additionally, eBooks don’t have any associated shipping cost, so the more you can sell of these, the better. For Athena’s Daughters, just slightly over half of our contributors came in at the ebook only level. Additionally, try to make your print books as affordable as possible for your backers, and don’t get greedy – if they buy the print book, I recommend throwing in the eBook for free or at least a reduced rate. They’ve already purchased the book, and if they’re anything like me, they really only want the print book for their bookshelf and the eBook is what they will actually be reading. To me there is nothing worse than seeing a Kickstarter asking $20 for an eBook, $40 for the print book, and $60 for both. At that point I’m out – I feel like that Kickstarter just sees me as $$$, and not as a reader. As a contributor I’m not here to help pay for the start-up cost of a book so that after the Kickstarter they can turn around and sell that same book for $10/$25 at conventions/online and in book stores. Not cool. If anything, because I’m helping fund the initial print run I should get a better deal, OR at least something extra (like a free eBook) for supporting and believing in the project right from the get go. By doing it the other way I feel taken advantage of and there’s no way I’m going to support a project like that. Again, this is just my personal opinion – price your product however you need to, but just keep in mind that backers aren’t dollar signs – they are an integral part of your project. You can’t succeed without them.

17. Stay away from offering t-shirts and ball caps. They’re just a pain in the butt and the margin is not great enough to justify the pain. It’s just not something that’s going to make people go “Cool!”. Everyone does t-shirts and ball caps. If you can find some add-ons that are going to make people go “huh, you can’t get THAT just anywhere!”, that would be a good thing.

18. ADD-ONs. Be sure to explain in multiple places how to do add-ons. They are a completely non-intuitive part of Kickstarter and it confused me the first time I did it. The fact that you actually do no want to change your selected funding level (because you might lose an exclusive item if you do!) but simply want to manually add more money on so that your pledge is higher than the funding level is a bit odd. Having a section of your description that gives explicit instructions (and you’ll probably want to note this in the comments too, or maybe even in a backer email) and then lists the amounts for each add-on item is important. For many people your Kickstarter will be the first one they’ve ever backed, and you don’t want to lose sales because backers don’t know how to do this.

19. Lastly, remember, a Kickstarter is NOT so that you make a bunch of money. It’s to fund a project, meaning: to pay your artists, authors, editor, printing, shipping, and your basic operating costs. If you set out trying to get rich, 1) you are in the wrong business, and 2) your Kickstarter will fail.

Kickstarter is all about the backers. So long as you don’t forget that, you’ll be fine.

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Did you miss the Kickstarter for my newest anthology, Athena’s Daughters, a sci-fi and fantasy collection written by women, about women? Good news, you can still order your copy here.
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And in other news, Silence in the Library Publishing has a new kickstarter – it’s for an awesome graphic novel called Icarus. The story looks awesome, and the artwork is simply put, STUNNING. Check it out!
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Cool stuff plug time! A solar powered flashlight that ALSO charges my phone? SHUT UP AND TAKE MY MONEY!    
P.S. My dad designed this flashlight, so of course it would personally mean a lot to me if you checked it out. :)
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Lastly, need a copy of one of my books or missed the pre-order for War of the Seasons: The Hunter? Don’t worry, you can pick it, and my other books up here.