[AA's note: Pardon the third-person POV. This is a case study my friend Diana Kimball wrote based on information I gave her about the Realms Unreel Kickstarter project I'm running in collaboration with my friend Ian Steplowski.]
Realms Unreel: A Fiction Project by Audrey Auden
On December 5, 2011, Audrey Auden stepped away from her standing desk and rubbed the LCD-induced nearsightedness from her eyes. Four weeks earlier, she had self-published her debut novel, a Silicon Valley cyberpunk fantasy entitled Realms Unreel, on Amazon’s Kindle store and Barnes & Noble’s Nook store. Twelve months of writing, the generous feedback of friendly beta readers, and the professional help of editorial hired guns had enabled Auden to fulfill a childhood dream. She was now a science fiction author.
But writing the book was only the beginning. Emboldened by the process of taking a novel from conception to completion over the course of a year, Auden had spent the last few weeks brainstorming ways to keep the momentum going and launch the writing career she’d dreamed of since childhood. As she contemplated the shiny stacks of newly-printed Realms Unreel paperbacks arranged around the perimeter of her office, a new idea popped into her head. Excitedly, she stepped back up to her keyboard and drafted an email to a friend.
In publishing Realms Unreel two weeks prior, Auden had decided to forgo the traditional publishing process, with its gatekeepers, inevitable months (or even years) of form rejections, and improbable odds of success. Immersed as she was in Bay Area startup culture, she believed in the power of social media to launch the career of an independent author. In fact, she considered the book project itself to be a kind of startup.
Having no prior publishing experience and no established readership, knew that promoting Realms Unreel would be a process of trial and error. She decided to embrace her inexperience, and she set up her author blog intending to document the process of acquiring a readership from scratch. Perhaps even inexperience could be turned to some advantage.
Rather than dwell too much on what she didn’t know, Auden decided to focus on what she did. She knew that her book would have broad appeal in the geeky online subcultures that had inspired Realms Unreel, so she would build her presence in these places. She knew that the number of readers embracing e-books was rapidly growing, so she would publish the book in digital formats. She knew that print-on-demand publishing made it possible for even a novice typesetter to put ink to paper, so she would create a physical product, as well.
Taking a cue from the software startup model, Auden decided to release her product in phases. The first phase would be a kind of alpha release: an announcement to first- degree friends on Facebook and Twitter that the book was officially published and now available for purchase on the Amazon Kindle and Barnes & Noble ebook stores. Two weeks later, a second announcement followed when she finished the typesetting work required to make the book available in paperback via Amazon’s CreateSpace print-on- demand publishing service.
But, as Auden had anticipated, the initial bump in sales that accompanied her alpha release quickly flattened out. Auden would have to keep the momentum going by other means.
Auden knew that long-form fiction would be a difficult sell in a world of instant gratification and short attention spans. Musicians and visual artists have the advantage of producing work that can be enjoyed in minutes, even seconds. But a writer needs the reader’s undivided attention, and a novelist usually requires solid hours of it.
Having run a software user interface design company with her husband for years, Auden knew the attention-grabbing power of visual art. She also had the good fortune to know many talented artists, including her friend Ian Steplowski, a character modeler at Pixar Animation Studios. Auden had floated the idea of a book illustration project with Steplowski years earlier when she was working on a novel she never managed to complete. Now that she had at last finished a book, perhaps it was time to restart that discussion with Steplowski.
So Auden took Steplowski out for Indian food, and over dinner she pitched the story to him and outlined her idea for an illustrated version of the book. Steplowski was excited by the idea of collaborating on an illustration project for a story with the potential for so many rich, futuristic visuals, but his work schedule would prohibit any illustration work from starting until the spring. The lead time would be useful for both of them, however. Steplowski was finishing up a class that would teach him a number of new visual modeling tools that he hoped to use to produce a unique look for the book illustrations. Auden could use the time to gather the visual references she had used while researching the book to provide Steplowski with a foundation for rendering the futuristic environments and mythological references in the book.
With Steplowski on board, Auden knew that a truly attention-grabbing product was in the works. A color-illustrated hardcover version of Realms Unreel would be a beautiful object with the potential to fully capture both the narrative and the visual elements of Realms Unreel. Auden was delighted by the prospect, and she thought readers would be, too.
Unfortunately, the printing costs for the book Auden envisioned would be prohibitively expensive using the print-on-demand technology that had made the paperback version of the book possible. Based on her preliminary specs for the hardcover, Auden expected it would cost $60 to $85 per copy. Even at that cost, print-on-demand materials and binding options would severely limit the quality of the final product. A better option would be to do a short-run print with a full-service book printer, but doing so would require a minimum order size of 100 copies, with an up-front cost of over two thousand dollars. That was a big chunk of change, especially without a guarantee of readers to purchase the books.
But what seemed to be a problem from a printing standpoint turned out to be a solution from a promotion standpoint. From her home office on December 5, Auden suddenly realized that she and Steplowski had the perfect Kickstarter project. She picked up her iPhone and put in a call.
Preparing for Launch
Over the course of their conversation, Steplowski agreed that the illustration project could make a compelling Kickstarter pitch. But with the holidays coming up and his work schedule still full until their agreed-upon start date in February, he knew that he would have little time to devote to the campaign. That was no problem for Auden, who was prepared to do the Kickstarter legwork solo in the interest of having funding for the printing costs lined up by the time they started work together.
Auden spent the weekend of December 10th readying her Kickstarter video pitch, project overview, and reward tiers. Since the project was as much a campaign for readers as a fundraising effort for the hardcover printing costs, Auden decided to ensure that every Kickstarter backer would receive the book in some form. Even $1 backers would receive a copy of the ebook in the format of their choice, as Auden could deliver the e-book at essentially zero marginal cost. At the high end, Auden decided to offer $1,000 and even $5,000 reward levels—more to provide an entertaining progression of reward options than with the expectation of backers at those levels. (In the end, however, even the $1,000 reward found a backer.) Auden designed the rewards to drive backers to the $30 level at which the backer’s full pledge would be devoted to the hardcover, as this product was the focus of the Kickstarter project. She set a funding goal of $5,000. Based on her guess of what the distribution of pledge amounts might be and the costs to deliver the rewards at each level, she thought this goal would guarantee the funds required for a minimum engagement with a short-run printer. Her deadline was January 16—just five weeks away.
On December 12, Auden held her breath and launched the project. Between family members and close friends, she ended the day up $570 — over 10% of the way to her goal. The strong early support from loved ones bolstered Auden’s optimism about the project immensely, but she knew that she would need to reach a wider audience if the project was to meet its goal.
Engaging the Audience
Auden saw her Kickstarter campaign as an opportunity to build relationships with potential readers, and she decided that consistency and accessibility would be key to her project’s success. From an accessibility standpoint, Auden wanted all backers to feel that they had a line of communication to her inbox and that their pledge was meaningful to her. With few exceptions, she wrote personal notes to each new backer within 24 hours of receiving their pledge and responded to numerous inquiries and comments she received from backers through Kickstarter, Facebook, and Twitter. Anywhere that readers were tweeting or sharing news about her project, Auden was prompt to thank them for their support.
From a consistency standpoint, Auden knew that it would be tough to maintain momentum through the holidays. With her project running during a time when people traditionally spend less time in front of their computers and more time with their families, she wanted to make sure that she made steady progress toward the funding goal. Except for a brief lull around Christmas, Auden engaged friends and community members on Reddit, Facebook, her blog, Kickstarter, Authonomy, and Kindle Boards at least once every 2 to 3 days (Exhibit 2). Auden’s funding progress mirrored the steady heartbeat of her communication with backers: the project exhibited smooth, almost linear growth for its duration, with a brief period of steeper growth leading up to the finish line.
Crossing the Finish Line
On January 11, 2012, just 30 days after the project’s launch, the Realms Unreel Kickstarter funding campaign crossed the $5,000 mark, then kept going. The final tally at midnight on January 15 was $6,666 — 33% above the original target. In the end, 51% of backers were new to Auden’s work, with the other 49% comprised of Steplowski’s and Auden’s friends and family.
On the morning of January 16, Auden sent out an elated note to her 146 backers:
Dear Kickstarter supporter,
Last night, I stayed up to watch as Kickstarter counted down the last few minutes of our funding campaign. At midnight Pacific Standard Time, our page status switched from “Funding” to “Funded”!
Ian and I are blown away by your generosity. You and 145 other backers together helped us raise the magnificently devilish sum of $6,666, which is a full 133% of our original goal. As a result, over 350 copies of the book will now be traveling out to all corners of the globe over the next several days, weeks, and months.
Today, I’m preparing the Kickstarter surveys that we’ll use to gather your contact information, mailing address, and other details required to prepare and ship your rewards. The first reward to reach you will probably be your ebook copy of the book, since it will travel at cyberspeed. For those of you receiving physical rewards as well, I’ll be shipping them out as quickly as possible — paperbacks first, then tee shirts, then hardcovers and signed prints. I’ll keep you abreast of shipping timing so you’ll know approximately when to expect your goodies in the mail.
We are delighted by the prospect of sharing the illustration project with you over the course of this spring, and we hope that seeing the artwork unfold will deepen your enjoyment of the story, whether you choose to read it first in its original narrative form or wait to read until you have the illustrated hardcover in hand.
Thank you for making this project possible!
Audrey & Ian