Kickstarter comics: communism in action or a licence to print pish? Michael Molcher asks whether crowdfunded comics are the future for indie creators
Is crowdfunding the way forward for indie comic book creators?
Depending on who you talk to, Kickstarter is either the saviour or the bane of the comic book industry. Launched in 2009, the website’s popularity has lead to it becoming synonymous with the very idea of crowdfunding – a site that allows users to appeal for funding for projects as diverse as comics, fashion, technology and theatre, the aim being to reach the preferred total within a month or 60-day campaign.
According to Publisher’s Weekly, there were 1,401 Kickstarter comics projects launched in 2013, which generated $12.5m in pledges. At the time of writing – mid-June – there were more than 4,100 Kickstarter comics appeals running. That’s a massive increase. Kickstarter, it seems, has become the go-to platform for comic creators keen to see their ideas in print; from webcomics to print comics, anthologies to epics, floppies to trades, it’s fans who are now funding their reading choices directly – cutting out the comic book publishers and stores.
But away from the high-profile projects from established talents, what does Kickstarter mean for grass roots creators; those without major audiences or who are locked out of the commercial mainstream?
Webcomic creator Charlie “Spike” Trotman had her first experience of Kickstarter the year it launched, when
Kickstarter is a huge boon to comics. It absolutely enables creators to do their own projects on their own terms Greg Pak
the concept was unproved and there was significant scepticism about the concept. Her comic book guide to frugal living, Poorcraft, set a $6,000 target and wound up raising $13,000. “That was it,” she said. “I was a believer. I’d never needed any convincing to begin with, but that experience turned me evangelical.”
She has since run several successful Kickstarters and recently distilled her advice into a PDF ebook (http://tinyurl. com/lkwf9a7) called Let’s Kickstart A Comic (And Not Screw It Up).
The appeal of Kickstarter, she says, is that it bypasses the age-old gatekeepers of the comics industry – editors: “They decided what got published, what got the spotlight, and what got rejected. And sometimes, what got rejected was turned down for reasons that had nothing to do with quality or merit. Before the likes of Kickstarter, all you could do was keep knocking on doors, keep submitting portfolios. It was vanishingly rare for a creator to independently publish at a profit. Even those who published through established houses weren’t guaranteed living wages.
“Now, an independent creator who’s earned an audience can skip the editorial process entirely. Anyone capable of running and fulfilling a Kickstarter project can go straight to their fanbase for not just the funds to publish, but the money to sustain their lives. It’s so pure and genuine, I like it a lot.”
This is borne out by the reasons why creators turn to Kickstarter; they feel there is no other way to get their project printed.
“My intention was always to print, but at the time I began the comic, Kickstarter wasn’t available in the UK yet,” says Kate Ashwin, the creator behind Victorian-era magical adventure comic Widdershins (www.widdershinscomic.com). “I paid for the print run of my first volume out of my own pocket, which was a terrifying gamble. Luckily, it did sell, and by the time the second book was ready to go, Kickstarter was talking about its UK launch.
“If you don’t have a publisher behind you to cover your printing costs, which many of us webcomic folk don’t, it means more than I can say to have your stock paid for up front. It lifts the financial burden significantly and, more than that, it’s a reassurance that people actually want your book and enjoy your work.”
The key obstacle to creating your own comics is cost – most independent creators simply do not have the resources to risk on even a small print run.
If you don’t have a publisher to cover printing costs, which many of us webcomic folk don’t, it means more than I can say to have your stock paid for up front Kate ashwin
Leicester-based Rachael Smith’s 92-page graphic novel House Party (www. rachaelsmith.org / store.greatbeastcomics. com) used Kickstarter as a “pre-ordering” platform: “I didn’t want to just ask for donations. Kickstarter was a good way of letting people pre-order the book, in order to fund the printing. I could have gone with a different publishing house who could have paid for the printing, but they would have also taken some of the profits. Or I could have got a loan I guess – or saved up for a bit (but I’m rubbish at that). I
decided to self-publish with Great Beast and use Kickstarter so I could keep full control of the project, and get it off the ground as quickly as possible.”
George Wassil, whose Oh, Hell graphic novel (www.ohhellcomics.com) was successfully funded, had been paying for the project out of his own pocket. “A successful Kickstarter campaign would reverse the cash flow a bit,” he said, “and enable me to cover printing and some distribution costs. Secondly, I am a nobody – a total unknown in the comics world and I felt that a successful Kickstarter of some substantial size, might generate buzz around Oh, Hell. I’m hoping that adding the words, ‘Successfully funded on Kickstarter’ to our signage will draw some extra interest at the comic cons.”
Friends from school (who probably recalled my affinity for comics as a kid) donated – it was overwhelming Liam john McKenna
The site is not the sole preserve of independent creators though. Many wellknown artists and writers have turned to Kickstarter to fund either uncommercial projects or labours of love. Having an existing fanbase to call on, however, does not guarantee success.
Fables writer Bill Willingham and artist Frank Cho’s Bifrost graphic novel and Tony Harris’s Roundeye: For Love were early failures, mainly due to those involved misunderstanding the quid pro quo nature of rewards and, in the eyes of some, treating the site as a way of mitigating day-to-day costs rather than to raise funds for a single special object or goal.
That single object can reinforce one of Kickstarter’s unique aspects – the ability for projects to cross genre and industry boundaries. Writer Greg Pak is known for his work on X-Treme X-Men and The Hulk, but he teamed up with Takeshi Miyazawa and singer-songwriter Jonathan Coulton, a college friend of Pak’s known for his songs about geek culture.
Their Code Monkey Save World appeal smashed through its $39,000 goal in just eight hours and ultimately raised almost 10 times that amount. Pak says that because of the way it uses the direct relationship with fans, Kickstarter seemed the ideal platform: “It was absolutely the right choice for our particular project – the most efficient way to get the book into the hands of the audience that most wanted it. It felt like such an internet-friendly idea that
Jonathan’s (and, to a lesser extent, my) existing fans might go nuts for. And we already had direct access to those fans via our mailing lists and social media.
“We felt very good about our chances of making our goal. But we didn’t expect to pass it in eight hours on day one. Backers literally make our dreams come true – we can’t thank them enough.”
No cash cow
As an established comics professional, Pak says Kickstarter does make things easier for a creator but it isn’t a licence to print free money: “Kickstarter is a huge boon to comics. Yes, it absolutely has enabled creators to do their own projects on their own terms. On the most basic level, it provides another option and a viable business plan for an independent comic.
“But, of course, it’s approximately 100 times harder to run and fulfil a Kickstarter campaign than do a work-for-hire book. When you use Kickstarter for an independent comics project, you become not only the writer and/or artist; you become the editor and project manager and distributor and customer service rep and publicity person and quality control team and accountant and office manager and carrier-of-boxes and stuffer-of-envelopes... you’re basically running a massive small business undertaking, which is hugely more time consuming than just writing a work-for-hire script
“The advantage, of course, is that you’re presumably doing this all for a book that you and your collaborators own the rights to as opposed to something someone else owns. But each creator needs to carefully
There’s still a risk, of course – if your project doesn’t make target then nothing gets made at all Rachael smith
assess the work involved and make sure it makes sense for him or her.”
The majority of users do not have the buffer of existing fans to call on for support yet that is part of the beauty of Kickstarter.
“With only a small following, I knew most of my backers would be friends and family,” says Liam John McKenna, who recently completed his first Kickstarter for $1,000 to take his self-produced comics to East Coast Comic Expo. “It was nonetheless surprising to see people be
so generous. A lot of friends I’d known from school donated. They were people I hadn’t seen in years, but who probably recalled my affinity for comics when I was a kid and recognised this as a step towards my dream. It was truly overwhelming.”
Unlike other crowdsourcing platforms, comics on Kickstarter remain inextricably tied to the end result, a physical object that backers can own; projects that offer only digital rewards rarely find success. This raises an interesting issue for creators of webcomics, allowing them to create a premium product from something normally offered for free.
“The lines are definitely blurring between print and web,” said Ashwin. “I’ve seen many published artists/authors funding their own personal projects outside of the bounds of their publishers, presumably so they can have greater control over the work.”
Strangebeard (www.strangebeard.com) creator Kelly Tindall compares Kickstarter to the Xeric Foundation’s self-publishing grants set up by Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles co-creator Peter Laird, “but with the added bonus of adding a lot of attention to the webcomic itself. It used to be that you’d have to raise money to print a book and then find a way to market it, but a lot of the initial investment in the fanbase is taken care of by the webcomic itself.”
Tindall found most of her backers were friends, family and fans: “Every publisher I spoke with liked the book, but all of them were afraid of publishing an all-ages book, especially one starring a little girl. Most of the backers have families and a lot of my external readership are girls or parents of girls. Something I, for some silly reason, did not anticipate when I started making the strip, but now I consider it a major responsibility to create work that has a more diverse female cast. About 30-40% of my backers came from outside my social media circle, so I couldn’t tell you anything about them. Except, I guess, that they have great taste in pirate comics!”
Of the 4,000 plus projects running on the site at this moment, a significant proportion will not make their targets and Publisher’s Weekly estimated that comic book projects in 2013 saw a success rate of less than 50%.
Spike Trotman says users’ reactions to an appeal can be complex: “The fact that gross, impulsive, tacky people have to
I’ve had friends who launched ks projects that went very bad. They ended up facing financial and psychological ruin spike trotman
try to figure out how much you stand to make, and how much of that they think you deserve, has discouraged some artists I know from using Kickstarter at all.
“I’ve also had friends who launched KS projects that went bad. Very bad. They didn’t calculate and include shipping costs, they didn’t find a printer and obtain a quote... I even know someone who priced out their project so they would take a slight loss on every reward shipped, and they knew that, but they didn’t rectify the problem because they wanted to keep their reward tiers as cheap as possible. They ended up making over $70,000 on a project that asked for $6,000, and facing financial and psychological ruin.”
Meanwhile, the postal system and its costs can remain a weak link in the Kickstarter chain, with stories abounding of underestimating postage or rises in international costs crippling creators.
“We posted hundreds of books around the world,” says Darrin O’Toole, “but every
single time we posted to Australia, the parcels vanished... every time! So you have to prepare for this.”
“I found that Kickstarter wasn’t super clear on one thing: the time it takes to process your funds. It’s covered in the FAQs, but it’s still lacking in clarity,” says George Wassil. “My KS closed on 17 May, and I received my funds on 6 June. I anticipated two weeks based on the FAQ, so to end up closer to three was alarming. And it takes a while for the bank to process after KS is done confirming the order.
“To be honest we severely undercharged for postage too,” says O’Toole. “The other issue only applied to .001% of our backers, most of whom were outstanding and offered amazing support to push the book. But doing a Kickstarter opens the doors to your readers in both good and bad ways. Thankfully, as I said, it was by and large a positive experience, but the odd person took a step too far in terms of constantly contacting creators.”
“I was lucky enough to be able to take advice from friends who’d already run Kickstarters,” says Kate Ashwin. “I tend to keep my extra rewards somewhat grounded so it can all be completed in a timely manner, which lowers the stress factor.”
“I’d also recommend thinking very carefully about rewards that require extra work,” adds Pak. The objective is to make the original object/thing you’re Kickstarting, not to spend weeks and months creating personalised ancillary products. Extra rewards are fun and often essential to achieving the needed levels for many projects. But it’s worth really thinking through the time commitment created by each individual reward and making sure it makes sense.”
Away from the nitty gritty of running an appeal, what does Kickstarter mean for the future of comics? Everyone is in no doubt that the answer is simply “freedom”.
“For good or bad it has eliminated the filters that have existed in the past so it’s given us a way to go directly to a lot of people we would otherwise never come in contact with,” says Wassil.
Smith adds: “It certainly gives you a lot of freedom to create your project the way you want to. There’s still a risk, of course – if your project doesn’t make target then nothing gets made at all. If you’re a single creator working by yourself then that’s an awful lot of pressure.”
Trotman is convinced that Kickstarter, and other services like it, are going to make an independent art career even more feasible. “When I was a teenager, going it alone was so much more difficult. Now, it’s something recent graduates and aspiring artists simply expect. Professional independents are no longer the exceptions that prove the rule; they’re becoming business as usual. And the whole world of comics is scrambling to adjust to that. I once said that we’re living in a comics renaissance, and I stand by that. Comics haven’t been this interesting and diverse and unfettered since ever. Kickstarter is helping to facilitate that. I can’t wait to see how things are in five years.”
As more and more creators take the plunge and begin putting their appeals together, what advice do those who’ve been through it have?
Greg Pak says that research is key: “Hundreds of comic book makers have run successful (and unsuccessful!) Kickstarters and a huge number of those people have provided fantastic advice and information online. I’d also say do not rush. Take your time to really plan it out and you will save yourself a lot of trouble.”
“Show it to people every step of the way,” says Smith. “Getting someone else to proof your stuff is so, so important. And once your project is live, don’t expect it to look after itself. Promote the hell out of it.”
Although now seemingly ubiquitous, Kickstarter is undoubtedly the first blossoming of crowdfunding and its effects on the comics industry are only just beginning to be felt.
“It’s a lot more settled,” says Trotman. “Less slapdash, less hysterical. Fewer people are in a rush to get their projects up, and nobody thinks the site is going away anytime soon. The cries of ‘Kickstarter is OVER!’ and ‘(random legislation or failed project) will be the death of Kickstarter!’ are fewer and farther between, unless someone’s got an axe to grind. And no one feels the need to defend their use of KS anymore. That’s refreshing!”
Top: Charlie “Spike” Trotman was a Kickstarter pioneer. Above: Kate Ashwin’s Widdershins – the second volume was funded by a Kickstarter campaign.
Bifrost – not all Kickstarters succeed.
Roundeye: For Love, another early failure.
Above: Greg Pak’s Code Monkey Save World collaboration was funded by a hugely successful Kickstarter.
The cast of Strangebeard celebrate hitting their target.
Left: Kelly Tindall’s Strangebeard.