Breaking even

Twitter pal @peterdamien was musing today about whether crowdfunded projects make any money for the creator, or simply fund the project. Now, I haven’t created a project of my own, but I’ve observed from the sidelines for the last year or so, and I think the answer is a rather complicated “maybe”.

To me, the ideal use of crowdfunding is to apply polish to something, and get it ready for a wider audience. In my case, I’ve given a little thought to using crowdfunding to finance the completion of a mobile game. A simple analysis of this sort of project tells me that there’s five major areas I’d need to address to create a sellable indie game: game design, coding, graphics, audio, and marketing. Game design and coding are the fun parts, I don’t want to give those up. Marketing, to some degree, is fun too, and for an indie game seems maybe to be about marketing the creator as much as the game. So I’d want to control those, and would probably do them for free.

Graphics and audio (which I’m considering to be in-game sounds and music) are my weak spots. I would probably need help for those. And that help is what I’d be funding via my campaign. I’m using the crowdfunding platform to take something I’ve made and make it ready for others. For a fiction project, this would likely be used to fund editing, cover design, e-book formatting, printing, etc. And of course if you have special rewards, those aren’t likely to be free.

So, it’s totally conceivable and probably a reasonable expectation that you come to the end of a successfully funded project that doesn’t demolish it’s goal (or does, and adds in stretch goals) with a polished, sellable piece of work that you have made zero profit on. But, and this is the salient point here, I think, you have a much better end product than if you hadn’t done the campaign. And, you now own something that can continue to be sold, and if you’ve been a gracious and sensible creator, you also hopefully have a few hundred fans out there awaiting your product and talking about it. And it’s the sales after the campaign that make money, since those are much “cheaper” sales (i.e. you’ve already paid the costs of creation, and you’re doing marketing only) (not that you should shortchange marketing) (again, take me with a grain of salt, but I would assume creation cost > marketing cost) (and don’t overdo it with the parentheticals).

So, do crowdfunded campaigns make money? Maybe! What do you think? If you’ve run a campaign, what has been your experience?

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NaNoPostMo

I recently raised the white flag on my rookie attempt at NaNoWriMo. After about 4,000 words, my story stalled out, right about the time I had introduced the setting, major characters, and larger conflict. I still like the concept but I had no new words to write. Since I had set out on NaNo as a learning experience, first and foremost, and I learned a lot, I’m not upset.

I learned that, for me, conceiving of a story one day and laying down words the next doesn’t seem to work, at least not at this stage. I think I need to outline. And I also learned that if I devote all of my available working time to producing words, but not consuming them, I get twitchy and unhappy. I need a balance of reading and writing, or else I get antsy for one or the other. At present, the one upside of my very long rail commute is that I have nearly two hours a day to devote to reading and writing. And I think that’s enough time to churn out work at a pace that should let me feel like I’m progressing toward competence.

I read a lot of writing advice. My latest find is Lawrence Block’s WRITING THE NOVEL, which is wonderfully interesting, four chapters in. My favorite aspect so far is his chapter on dissecting your reading. He advocates the following approach to using reading to kickstart your writing. Say you want to write in a specific genre. He recommends choosing six books within that genre, preferably by six different authors. Read each book through, and write a synopsis for each upon completion. Then, read them each through again, and write an outline of each chapter. Then, read through the outlines to see what they all have in common. Thus, will you learn a lot about the chosen genre.

I suspect many writers, more experienced than I am (i.e. everybody), do this kind of in their heads, but it seemed a very useful tool. So I’m trying it. I’ve got six books chosen (I’ll be keeping them to myself, along with the genre) and I’m eager to see what I learn. I’m not sure how much I’ll be writing during this exercise, but I know I should continue. Even if I keep producing trunk chapters and false starts, I will still learn about putting one word in front of another. I’ll just have to remind myself that it’s enough.

The Fireside Magazine Submissions Process

I recently had the chance to work with Brian White of Fireside Magazine on the submissions process for Issues 3 through 5. If you follow me on Twitter or read this blog you’ve heard me talk about Fireside. If not, Fireside is a fiction and comics magazine with two founding principles: good storytelling regardless of genre and fair pay for artists. To date it has published two issues, both funded via Kickstarter. I first heard of it via the mighty Neil Gaiman and his essential Twitter feed (@neilhimself), and within 10 minutes I had pledged and asked Brian if I could help with submissions.  Since then we’ve developed a friendship on Twitter, based on mutually escalating attempts at absurdities and insults. As you do.

When Brian first approached me to ask if I wanted to help manage the submissions process, his chief concern was that by funding the magazine via Kickstarter pledges, it left the magazine open to intimations that the submission process was less than honest, and that stories were placed through quid-pro-quo. He needed someone to be at the front of the process, distributing stories to volunteer readers, and then to him, so he could review and decide on stories without ever knowing who the authors were until the end. I haven’t worked in submissions before, but I work as a software engineer and before that I was an accountant, so I have some experience with information and process. So I said yes, and Brian and I came up with the following process. If you work in publishing at all, but particularly in the small indie press/magazine world, I hope you’ll find some useful nugget in what we learned.

When a story arrived in the Fireside inbox, the first step was to make it ready for distribution. We could have simply forwarded emails, but we wanted to be as careful as possible and decided to make the stories anonymous before they went to the first reader. The submissions manager (in this case, me), would have to download, make a copy, strip out names, and then forward that copy. This seemed a lot of manual labor that technology could help with, and luckily enough Fireside runs on Google Apps. This gave us the option to code Google Scripts to do some basic, repetitive tasks for us and leave the judgment to a human.

We found a script written by Amit Agarwal, which we modified, that would read the inbox every 5 minutes and do the following steps:

  1. Download two copies of any attachment, one each to the Submissions or Submissions Anon folder on Google Drive. One would be a pristine copy we did not touch, to the Submissions folder, and another to modify before distribution, to the Submissions Anon folder.
  2. Next, the email was tagged as read, and moved into the All Items folder so we would know which emails had been processed, and if the process stopped working, which had not.
  3. Lastly, we maintained a Google Spreadsheet….um…spreadsheet, that kept the following data: Email, Author Name, Document Name, Assigned Reader, and which we would also use to track status. The first three pieces of information we got from the Google Scripts representation of the email message and attachment, the last we got from a list of readers we built into the script and walked through from start to finish and back to start again. When we were ready to add the next row to the spreadsheet, we simply looked at the last row written, got the name, found it in our list, and then picked the next one. As long as we didn’t screw around with the spreadsheet, this would work well. At least until the time the script, through dumb luck, assigned an author’s story to HER ROOMMATE. Know your readers, folks.

I’ve written up a separate post on the script for those of you who are technically inclined.

At this point we switched over to manual processing. We set up a folder for each reader. If we had decided to allow the readers to strip out author names, we could have gone one step further and had the script move stories into the reader’s folders. But we decided that checking sub guidelines and making stories anonymous would be the subs manager’s job. So before I copied stories into readers’ folders, I downloaded them, cleaned them up and checked sub guidelines (word count, etc.) and the copied them out to readers folders. One thing we did not know until we started was that a) we would get a lot of .rtf files (I think from Scrivener, as a Scrivener user it looks like their templates were used a lot) and b) Google Docs does not know how to read .rtf files. So I downloaded them all, saved as .doc files and cleaned up, then uploaded. And noted in the spreadsheet that the story had been assigned, and a rough date when this had occurred. Throughout the submissions period, I would let the team know when a round of submissions had been distributed.

Next came time to deal with reader decisions. Once readers had a chance to go through their assigned stories, they were to move them into either Accepted or Rejected folders. Generally, readers had access to their folders alone, not the spreadsheet (including Brian) or Brian’s folders. The accepted stories were copied into Brian’s folders, and I noted the first reader’s decision in the spreadsheet. If the story was rejected, including from Brian, I noted this in the spreadsheet, and left it where it was until I had a chance to send emails. I did my best to stay on top of emails, but I didn’t have a very smart process at first for the emails and these piled up a bit. Close to the end I came up with an idea for how to more quickly create the form emails using a formula in the spreadsheet (similar to a mail merge in Excel), and this helped. Once an email was sent, this was noted in the spreadsheet and the copies of the documents moved into the archive folder.

There were many things that could have been done better. We had many more readers than we probably needed, which is great! The interest in helping out was fantastic. But I think as a result the reading speeds of our original team varied from “within a few hours” to “Fire-who? I didn’t ask to read this stuff”. If we had fewer readers, when submissions slowed in the middle of the period, they might have been more if they were still getting stories each day or two. Second, if we had decided to ask the readers to anonymize (screw you, Microsoft Word, that IS TOO A WORD) the stories, we could have skipped the download and upload step. And as useful as the Google Apps scripting and integration was, Google Drive was a little difficult to use for the readers. With fewer readers, I think we could have assigned them each Fireside addresses, but for a magazine as young as Fireside, I’m not sure the extra cost is worth it. That’s Brian’s business as editor and publisher, and I trust his judgment.

In the end, with a volunteer corps, we reviewed 160 submissions in a month’s time, on a system that we built in a few hours for free. Brian bought a total of 8 stories, 5 more than initially planned, and we each got a chance to help out a great project. I learned a lot, both from the reading and from designing the process with Brian, and I hope there’s at least one or two useful ideas in here for someone else. Lastly, Issue 3 is currently open on Kickstarter, so check it out and help get some good fiction published. Cheers!

Submissions Script for Fireside Magazine

Below is the script I used to save files to Google Drive. It was originally created by Amit Agarwal, and modified slightly by me to create additional copies and write to a spreadsheet, including reader assignments. Amit’s tutorial also demonstrates how to install this script, so rather than recreate it, I recommend you check out his site. Apologies for the formatting, but I wanted to post the entire script and WordPress security prevented me from uploading the script as an attachment.

/*************************************************

Send to Google Drive by Digital Inspiration, modified by Matt White for Fireside Magazine
——————————————-

tutorial : http://www.labnol.org/?p=21236 (and original code)

contact : amit@labnol.org
twitter : @labnol

CHANGELOG v2.0

1. Fetch 5 messages at a time to prevent timout
2. Folder logic moved to a separate function
3. Better status messages

***************************************************/
function sendToGDrive() {

var sheet = SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSheet();
var gLabel = “submissions”;
var gFolder = “August 2012”;
var gFolderAnon = “August 2012 Anon”;
var readers = [“Reader One”,”Reader Two”,”Reader Three”];

var threads = GmailApp.search(“label:” + gLabel, 0, 5);
var folder = DocsList.getFolder(gFolder);
var folderAnon = DocsList.getFolder(gFolderAnon);

for (var x=0; x<threads.length; x++) {

var messages = threads[x].getMessages();

for (var y=0; y<messages.length; y++) {

var att = messages[y].getAttachments();
var message = messages[y];
var from = message.getFrom();

for (var z=0; z<att.length; z++) {
try {
var folderFiles = DocsList.getFolder(gFolder).getFiles();
var readerIndex = folderFiles.length%readers.length
var file = folder.createFile(att[z]);
var fileAnon = folderAnon.createFile(att[z]);
Utilities.sleep(1000);
var row = SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSheet().getLastRow();
SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSheet().insertRowAfter(row);
SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSheet().appendRow([from,file.getName(),readers[readerIndex]]);
}
catch (e) {
GmailApp.sendEmail(“subs@example.com”,”system error”, e.message);
}
}
}
GmailApp.getUserLabelByName(gLabel)
.removeFromThread(threads[x]);
}
}

function configure() {
var sheet = SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSheet();
var gLabel = “submissions”;

if (!GmailApp.getUserLabelByName(gLabel)) {
GmailApp.createLabel(gLabel);
}

if (ScriptApp.getScriptTriggers().length == 0) {
ScriptApp.newTrigger(“sendToGDrive”).timeBased().everyMinutes(5).create();
}

SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSpreadsheet()
.toast(“You can now close this Google Docs sheet and it will run in the background.”,
“Success”, -1);
}

function onOpen() {
var menu = [
{name: “Initialize”, functionName: “configure”},
{name: “Run”, functionName: “configure”}
];
SpreadsheetApp.getActiveSpreadsheet()
.addMenu(“Submissions”, menu);
}

A hello, and some Kickstarted words

Hello again. I’m still in the woods trying to determine the future of the blog, but I did want to offer a longer treatment to one new, one ongoing, and one completed project. I’m finding that one of the most compelling uses of Kickstarter is as a means to vet and fund self-published writing (and I include comics in this as well), and each of these projects is a great example of that.

About a year ago I picked up a copy of STORIES, the genre-agnostic Neil Gaiman/Al Sarrantonio anthology of short stories. What a great idea it was! It got me wondering whether a fiction magazine could follow the same model, to pay for fiction at professional rates but exist without classifying itself into a genre. Enter Fireside Magazine.

Fireside has published two issues in this, its first year, based on a pre-sale model via Kickstarter. I like the idea of the magazine so much I’ve backed both issues, and pestered publisher Brian White into giving me an interview for the site, and into letting me help with the submissions process (now open through Labor Day). But what I really dig most about the magazine is that it took an idea, and willed a magazine into existence. With the help of the crowd. Isn’t that just great?

Another great example of using Kickstarter to get a project made is Book Riot’s START HERE book. I’m fond of the idea behind this one as it reminds me of Michael Chabon’s MAPS AND LEGENDS. START HERE will collect essays from 25 critics and authors, who will each provide a guided tour of a renowned author’s work, allowing the reader a pathway to understanding that author better. MAPS AND LEGENDS had a similar effect, but also in reverse, as it helped me to better understand both Chabon and the writers he discussed. As a lover of fiction who made only the merest gesture toward actual study, I’m hoping that START HERE will give me a chance to better fill in the gaps.

And lastly, I find Matt Forbeck’s year-long Kickstarter odyssey very compelling. His fourth campaign in his 12 for ’12 series, MONSTER ACADEMY, just went live today and is nearly 30% funded already. This insane collection of campaigns has led Matt to promise to write 12 novels in 12 months at 50,000 words each. He’s a bit behind at the moment, but he’s managed to squeeze in a tie-in novel for Leverage as well as write the Magic: The Gathering comic, so let’s cut him some slack, eh?

The threads that I think tie each of these campaigns together are the producers’ eagerness to rely on the crowd to get their work done, and to do so in an area I hold dear: the written word. We’ve all heard how much the market for the written word is changing, for fiction, journalism, and non-fiction. Much ink has been spilled predicting the demise of, well, all of it. But in the face of all that is there is an opportunity for creators and readers to get together, without interference or obfuscation by other self-interested parties, and to get things done.

This doesn’t have to happen via Kickstarter, and I will admit some reluctance to read unvetted, self-published work. The beauty of Kickstarter is that it combines the publishing, vetting, and purchase processes. It allows readers to get some taste of the work to come, while also acting as a buzz-building machine. Once the base project is finished, the author has a piece of work that they own, and some money in their pocket, that they can use to continue to sell the project to the outside world.

I don’t know if Kickstarter will ever lead to best-seller sales during a campaign. I suspect there will be work that surprises us with how well it does. But I’m certain that some day, in the not too distant future, we’ll see some book catch fire, that started out as a Kickstarter project. I’m looking forward to that, both for that author, and for the community of talented writers cranking out work. I’d love to see those people have a better chance to making a living doing what they love.

Rethinking

I’ve clearly done a substandard job of keeping the blog fresh and useful lately. I’m fairly disappointed in myself, for many reasons, one of which is that I’ve wanted to start a blog for a long time, and on the basis of simply telling a few prominent people that I would try this, I suddenly found myself with a blog and a pretty generous number of followers last month. But I did nearly no preparation, and tried to make it work on the fly, or as Ray Bradbury put it, jump and build my wings on the way down.

I’ve had some trouble keeping up with the pace I originally envisioned, and the inevitable real life has been a real bastard lately. I’m fine, and my family is well, it’s just been a barrage of things demanding my attention. Which is to say, I’m a man with a wife, a son, and a job, and life will do that. It’s not an excuse, it’s a reality I have failed to properly account for in trying to make this blog work.

So I’m putting some thought into how best to accomplish what I want to accomplish: that is, create an interesting, engaging, and fun space to talk about crowdfunding, specifically of artistic endeavors of a certain ilk, because I believe a strictly corporate-driven approach leaves too much good art unrewarded. I’ve learned a lot in the last month that I think I can apply here. 

I’m a big-time process nerd. As much output of creative endeavors like fiction, comics, movies, etc. interest me, the creative process is a big draw for me as well. And I have basically no process beyond blindly groping through links, RSS feeds, etc and then trying to hammer out something at the last minute. It’s not sustainable, and it’s led me to produce some stuff I’m not crazy about. I need to make my process.

So I want to do better. I’m not going away for good, but I’m going to walk in the wilderness for a little while, and might be quiet on the blog for a few weeks. I need to really think about what I want to produce and how I want to do it, and how to make it happen without neglecting my family, job, reading, or my writing ambitions (there, I said it!). I’m not sure what this will look like when I come back, but whatever it is I want to make it the best I can, and I hope I’ll reward you if you join me.

Caveat…oh hell you know what I’m going to say

There’s something I haven’t yet addressed here that I probably should; the risk you take as a backer. When you fund a project, no matter what sort of checks are in place, you are taking a risk. Whether it’s a Kickstarter campaign, or any of the other platforms,they take no responsibility for the projects they host. They provide a service, connecting eager producers with willing backers and enabling the funding to take place. They do this for a fee. If a project is funded, and the project meets their goals and provides rewards on schedule, everyone is happy.

But on the wind there’s an expectation that the first big crowdfunding scandal or theft isn’t far off. There’s also a sense that the platform might benefit the haves more than the have nots, i.e. an established producer will fare better than an upstart and even take away funding from them. To this second concern I can only say that it’s a new platform, but the old advantages still exist. It’s the first that makes me nervous.

My worst fear isn’t some sort of massive fraud executed by people who have no intention of ever meeting their goals. I feel like that kind of campaign might be easy to spot, though I suspect there’s already been several little ones. My real fear is the huge project that the producers can’t pull off. It’s the project that has a slick, engaging campaign, by someone you might not have heard of but who seems to have good intentions. They don’t destroy their funding goal, but just barely meet it, and it turns out it’s not enough.

They scrap, and fight to get their product ready, but they just can’t make it happen. They had planned to work full time on it but the money ran out, and they aren’t done yet. They then have two choices; ship an incomplete project, or take much, much longer to finish and blow through their deadlines. Either way, backers lose. And I suppose there’s a third choice: they fail to ship at all. I would think as a show of good faith they would simply release whatever was done, if for no other reason than to try to avoid legal action. But maybe not.

What scares me about this is the macro impact. Obviously it’s lousy for the backers. But the bigger concern I have is for the impact on the notion of crowdfunding as a whole. We who have bought into the idea have faith in our producers, and they nearly always reward that faith. But the skeptics are just waiting for a big project to fail, and I worry if the failure is big enough, it could turn a lot of people off, and possibly even start hurting other campaigns and the idea as a whole. It wouldn’t be the end of the world, and stuff would get made and people would buy it, and something else new would come along. But we’ve got a good thing going, and I hope we don’t mess it up.

When you back a project, I think it’s to your benefit to be prepared for your reward to be delayed or even never delivered. You’re spending money months in advance of actually getting the thing you want, and a lot can happen during that time, and you probably don’t know much about the people you bought that thing from. I think crowdfunding is great, and a lot of people benefit from it on both sides of the transaction. But it is a transaction. Money can muddy things up quickly and can make smart people do stupid things. Let’s all be careful out there and try to be savvy about what we back or talk about.