17 Dec

How I used Kickstarter to reboot a book series, and my career (and maybe my life?)

Hello.

Some of you who will read this won’t know me from Adam. But the short version is that I’m a science fiction writer. I write and freelance full time since 2006, the ratio of each to my total income changing based on the uncertainties of both lines of income (some years the fiction income mostly pays the bills, some others freelance). I’ve seen 50+ short stories appear in various venues since 2000. I’ve been translated into 16 different languages.

I’m probably most known for writing a HALO novel that hit the NYT Bestseller list, though I’ve written many other science fiction novels. My entire bibliography is here. I’m 33 years old, and I’ve dreamt of being an SF writer since 14. I sold my first story at 19 and have been working hard at this since.

This is a long post. I don’t know why, it came out this way. I tried to make it short. But I had so much to share, and every time I sliced into something short I cut out all of the nuance, and joy, and information I was trying to share. So I made it long again. And I like it.

Bear with me.

Seriously, this is like 5,000 words long. Don’t say I didn’t tell you.

Welcome to the Xenowealth

My first science fiction novel debuted in 2006. Crystal Rain was flavored with a science fiction stew of Caribbean refugees fled to a lost world, steampunk, a dangerous dreadlocked cyborg in a trench coat, and an ancient evil pressing down on our heroes. The first of my Xenowealth novels, it was followed by Ragamuffin in 2007 (a Nebula nominee), and Sly Mongoose in 2008. I was in my mid to late twenties. I wanted to write more. I wanted to grab the dream I had since I was 14 (and indeed in 2008, after much hustling, most of my money was coming from fiction and I was pretty much living the life I’d been striving toward).

The books didn’t do too well in chain bookstores, each time getting a smaller order. As we know from real estate: location location location. So each book sold less in bookstores. It was quite dramatic with the step between Crystal Rain and Ragamuffin (where a small buy-in from Wal-Mart even buoyed first time reader numbers, but was not repeated for following books). And yet…

…readers of the series compensated for the loss of chain bookstore placement by switching to ordering online off Amazon. Independent stores were still really nice to me (special shout out to Mysterious Galaxy in San Diego, which always was responsible for moving the highest number of copies). Library orders still remained okay. Sales didn’t increase, but they weren’t dying. In fact, Sly Mongoose slightly grew in hardcover (it just came out in paperback this year after a 3 year delay, so those numbers are still trickling in). Tor had agreed to buy two more books in the series, giving me my planned 5 book series.

But I am nothing if not a realist. In later 2008, when I met my editor after seeing that Sly Mongoose was barely carried in any bookstores we had an honest discussion about the chances the 4th Xenowealth book would have. It would probably get even less bookstore placement, being harder for readers to stumble on. Based on the core, awesome, dedicated readers I already have, we guessed that it would do okay. Just like Sly Mongoose it would get enough readers to offset the loss in bookstore readers, and indies would help. But overall, I wouldn’t be growing sales much. Just ticking up slightly.

Some have wondered if my publisher killed the series. No. It was a mutual decision hashed out over a business lunch, the topic raised by me. My editor and I thought, hey, let’s change direction. I started working on a novel called Arctic Rising.

In which life sucks for a while and I don’t write much (skip if you don’t want to read depressing shit):

Life being life, I also promptly was hospitalized for a nasty genetic heart defect a couple months or so later, suffered a pulmonary embolism as a side effect of exploratory surgery, and was left with my health, confidence, and stamina shattered. Despite good health insurance, I had been dumb enough to have this happen at the end of the year, and was in hospital both at the end of the year and at the start of the next. Doubling my deductible. My wife was just about to give birth to twins.

Yeah.

Also, I had a few hours of stamina every day, and doctors wouldn’t tell me whether my heard defect meant I could drop dead at any moment or if I had a good chance at living on. So for a year I didn’t work on novel-length work, as I had no decent personal expectation that I would live long enough to finish the damn thing. Also, my savings was wiped out, credit extended, as I could only work a few hours a day (and was thus earning less as I worked less, a horrible cycle). I focused on the highest per-word work I could do. Friends (and boy in situations do you find out who *they* are) helped me find some freelance gigs that helped. I wrote some short fiction where I could.

By September 2009 I’d lived almost a year, and begun to suspect that I might stumble through a bit longer. I began to work a bit on Arctic Rising again as I could. And collapsing in the Canadian health system, where doctors will happily tell you what they think about your chance of living because they’re not worried about lawsuits, really helped me. A heart specialist in Montreal said he’d bet that I died of something else before my heart defect, and said that I had a very survivable version of it (thus, with one sentence and five minutes and some paper towels while I broke down, changing everything for me).

I felt I could risk writing novels again.

Getting slowly back in the ring

For the next two years I worked on Arctic Rising as best I could in between freelance work. I sold my little red sports car to give me breathing room and time to write. I stole hours where I could. I lived lean. I got it done. And by September of 2011 I knew it was scheduled to come out from Tor in February 2012. From August 2008 to February 2012 there would be a giant hole in my novel writing career, but I was finally moving forward.

During this time, people kept asking me a single question: When was I going to write another Xenowealth book? I’d been thinking about this for a while.

From 2008 to 2011 things had been swinging around a lot (hell, since 2000). I’ve always been one to keep my basket diversified. I’d released ebooks of short stories as creative commons to see how they spread, or were read. I’d sold them through Fictionwise. I’d worked with medium sized presses, smaller ones, and one of the largest. I’d written a media tie in novel that hit some bestseller lists.

Lots of people kept suggesting that if I just released another Xenowealth book digitally, I’d suddenly be on my way to riches and gold. But I spent enough time reading through Kindle forums to see people selling single digits worth of books to know there are no guarantees. I’d released a short story collection to test what the lifecycle of an eBook looked like. How covers affected it. My feeling was, there might be some money in doing this. But it was a risky gamble. And I had a family to take care of. It was easy for *other* people to suggest I spend a year’s worth of productivity on a gamble.

But Kickstarter.

Kickstarter makes things interesting

I’d been watching authors and other artistic types use Kickstarter to good affect. And the powerful part of it was the ability to test your potential market. Kickstarter took pledges (or pre-orders) from everyone, and didn’t withdraw the money unless you raised a certain amount. That caught my interest right away, because I knew then that this was a way to try something different. In my view, this was more potentially disruptive than just eBooks. Because sometimes it’s getting seed money to kick that generator, to get it to fire, is sometimes the hardest trick.

I was freelancing to keep from drowning, and snatching writing time while underwater and holding my breath. I’d been doing that since the day I got out of the hospital.

But I started working with my friend Pablo Defendini to create some custom art for what would become the next book. I began working on a video for the project, and I signed up for Kickstarter. I mulled the idea over with friends I trusted. I thought, at the very least, it was a moment that would let me see if there was enough fan support to write another book in the series. We could let it go, if not. And move on.

So in October 2011, I took a deep breath and went for it.

What I did

I created a Kickstarter page. I created a video with the custom graphics Pablo had made, with me giving a brief synopsis of the novel to be, and a lot of explanation as to how Kickstarter worked (it was a little over a year ago, it was a newer concept).

I researched every similar project I could, and read the Kickstarter (and Kickstarter lesson articles) blog summaries of statistics.

I decided that I would a) keep to as few levels of support (rewards for backers) as I could, as many indicated too much choice creates choice fatigue or confusion and b) focus on the $25 and $50 price levels that Kickstarter indicated are the two most popular.

I set the eBook as the $25 reward, and the printed limited edition hardcover as the $50.

I promised to start the novel January 1st, and finish it sometime in the middle of the year (I kept using July as a target month).

I created a spreadsheet, where I then ‘gamed’ various scenarios based on averages that Kickstarter showed for successful projects (most people support at 25, then 50, and so on).

I took a look at a print on demand publisher, Lulu, and eyeballed out what a per-book cost was going to be. For the hardcover, Lulu estimated ~$20. I added in $5 shipping and handling on my end, I wasn’t sure how much they would charge, so I guessed $30 a book to be a very safe place to be. I gamed out how different levels of support would affect the overall profit of the project, and came up with a final price.

Back in 2006, five years earlier, I sold my first novel for roughly the bog standard minimum wage of genre novel writing. The mythical $5,000 advance. I earned way more than that in royalties once it earned out, and translation sales, audio rights, and the SF Bookclub addition. My advances are higher now, but this was my first attempt. It felt right to compare.

So I figured, I needed to at least beat $5,000 in profit. Printing fees looked like they could be anywhere from $2,000 and on up. I set aside money for design (Pablo does amazing work, man, and deserved to be paid as he does this stuff professionally, as he was doing a cover design, an interior PDF for the print copy, and so on). There was shipping. There was copy editing that would need done. There was the 10% in fees that would be taken out (5% to Kickstarter, 5% to Amazon payments). I looked at it and figured, $10,000. Minimum needed to make it work.

So that was the set up. The Apocalypse Ocean. $10,000 needed to fund it to match the same sort of base scenario as my first novel.

What was I hoping?

I was hoping to squeak over the 10K. The five figures seemed like a barrier, a dangerous one. Some of my friend suggested lowering it, but I know I needed that to do this right.

I was hoping, at the time, to build my portfolio. I had short stories, two collections, all making a little bit of money each month. Not a lot, but a regular flow. The idea was that I’d work on this book in between the freelancing, pushing myself to finish it in between the cracks. I’d taken over two years to write Arctic Rising, I knew the sequel was going to take a long time as well. But this would maybe make me some extra, much needed money. Novels sell better than short stories or collections.

And, I wanted to get closer to giving fans all five books. Really.

When it gets down to it, if I were only in it for nothing but the money, I’d be a stock broker. Not a novelist. There’s love here.

That was where I was. Hoping that it would, down the line, help things out.

And I wanted a win. I’ll be honest.

Hell, I needed a solid win. Yes I’d turned in Arctic Rising, but I had no idea how it was going to do. And my novel writing career had this huge, growing gap in it. I wanted a successful Kickstarter.

After treading water I wanted to just hit a project out of the park, feel enthusiasm, and go for broke without risking hurting anyone.

What makes a successful Kickstarter?

I think there are three things that make for a Kickstarter success:

1) An intriguing product

2) Created by an entity that has proven it can deliver it

3) Created by an entity that has a following (or publicity reach)

Any two of those create an atmosphere where I think success is more likely. Hit all three, you’re likely to see something interesting.

Look over successful Kickstarters, you’ll find a lot of doubles and triples, and very few of the above successful as singles. I’ve seen even famous people stick up a Kickstarter, people who should have a huge following, and fizzle because they had not fulfilled #1 and #2. I’ve seen plenty of #1s, by people who had no following or proof they could deliver it. Fizzle.

I’ve seen lots of projects that hit #1 and #3, and watched them struggle to deliver it. That’s made a lot of news in the last six months. But they still got funded. And I bet still will.

What I had was a little bit of a following. My blog gets two thousand user sessions a day or higher. At the time a few thousand people followed me on twitter. And I knew that there were some fans of the Xenowealth out there, because they asked me about writing another book a lot. So I had to trust the books.

I knew I could prove #2. I’d written a number of novels.

So I had #2 for sure, and some hazy amount of #3 after 11 years of publishing stories and novels and people reading Crystal Rain, Ragamuffin, and Sly Mongoose. Those were my two, for sure, strong legs.

I made a case for #1 in the video about the project, and hoped that people would find it intriguing.

And it worked!

Kickstarterfund

A couple of thousand dollars of orders for a new Xenowealth book came in during the first few days. That was when most of the action happens, so it was exciting. But at only 25% of the amount, I was worried. Many successful projects funded in the first couple days. I might, I realized, end up rejected by my own readers in public in front of everyone.

That was the fear, wasn’t it? That had everyone asking me if I really wanted to do this. It’s so public.

But rejection and failure are just business. It means you tried. And you’ll never get a win if you don’t at least swing for one.

I love my blog readers, fans, and twitter followers, so I did my best not to constantly spam them about the Kickstarter after the first few days. I tried to settle into a once a week thing.

I knew from the Kickstarter blog that 90% of all projects that hit the 50% mark get funded. So it took from September 18 to October 1st before that happened. For 13 days, it just kept inching forward as we went through the middle muddle. But on October 1st I celebrated with a beer, knowing that 90% was not a bad coin toss. We spent the next 15 days inching forward from 50% to 75%, increasing the odds.

And then it seemed that people couldn’t stand the tension, because on the 15th a host of pledges came in to kick the project up over the 10K mark. In the end, $11,652 came in, meaning that the little extra covered the Kickstarter and Amazon fees.

There it was. In a month and a half, I’d be starting a new novel in an old, treasured universe I’d started on years ago.

I now owed my readers a book!

How it changed everything…

Here’s the thing. I’d been working three freelance gigs. And right as this Kickstarter happened, one of them folded. I spent December running the figures on my spreadsheet, forecasting cash flow. Thanks to gig #3, I’d set some cash aside. Not a lot, but enough to cover printing costs and then a little extra. Combined with the Kickstarter money, I looked at my cash burn rate, and realized I could do something truly, insanely, crazy:

I could quit gig #2, stick with only gig #1, and I had enough money to make it for nine months. Maybe ten.

I had a taste, in 2008, of only working one freelance gig and then spending all other time writing. It was the thing I’d worked toward since I was fourteen. I’d always juggled in various amounts, but never down to a single freelance gig on the side while writing furiously.

After talking it over with Emily (my wife), I did it. I jumped.

I came up for breath thanks to the Kickstarter and was writing. Not just moments underwater. Full on. We lived tight, and it wasn’t easy, but I was able to really put some fuel in the furnace.

I wrote The Apocalypse Ocean, I wrote short stories, I wrote novellas, I wrote another novel called The Trove, I wrote a nice chunk of another novel, Hurricane Fever, I completely revised another project. I dreamed words, people. It was good.

Those freelance gigs, I love them. But the writer in me got to stretch some serious wings and soar. And I’d been furled up and caught up in that treading for so long, it was a great feeling. In this last 11 months, I’ve learned a lot about how to do this better, how to harness the energy, and what I can do when unleashed.

I recently accepted an offer from gig #2. I have just two gigs now. I know now I was burned out from juggling 3 freelance gigs and writing. Going to just one gig and writing gave me recovery time. I have the tools to handle two and writing. Ultimately, food goes back on the table. I’m not unhappy in the slightest. I’m ahead. I made it. And I couldn’t have done it without that injection, that nugget that Kickstarter provided when I was really down low.

I’m glad I went for the win. Because I was able to go on an author book tour for Arctic Rising when it came out. To speak at Tools of Change in New York (which was amazing). To write, write, write.

There’s a spark in me, now, that was getting flickery just due to plain exhaustion.

Yes, this year has been stressful. Great goodness has it been. Watching that money leak out slowly over the eleven months while trying to make other deals happen; that’s been crazy tough. I’d been hoping something would strike before I had to go get a freelance gig #2, and I could continue the run. Arctic Rising is doing well, but it takes a while for that money to reach me. There are other things percolating in the distance. Having the time to write nearly full time gave me the time to pitch some ideas, work angles a little harder.

So I wouldn’t trade it the last eleven months. Not for anything.

Why not do another Kickstarter? I was asked this recently, but I explained it thusly:

I am still working on studying The Apocalypse Ocean and how it did. I did Kickstart it, and when all was said and done, with extra sales outside of the Kickstarter, and a pledge from a bookstore for a number of copies, I think I ended up making a $7,000 profit. But that is not a living. So now The Apocalypse Ocean is up for sale through Kindle, B&N, and Kobo, and iTunes. I need to get a sense for how it does for a few months to get a sense of the entire book’s lifecycle. Will the backlist sales be solid? Or very meagre? My guess is that if it does as well as the novella I have up, then this will have been smart.

But also, I didn’t want to ask people to pony up for a Kickstarter until everything I’ve set out to do with current Kickstarters is delivered. That means everyone has their limited editions of The Apocalypse Ocean and are reading them. And I did another Kickstarter, a short story collection called Mitigated Futures. Backers didn’t have their copies yet. I couldn’t ask again. No, I wanted both the data on sales after the projects and for people to have been satisfied and taken care of.

It’s a point of honor.

Hey, how did you print the book?

Well, that’s a pretty cool story, actually. One of the backers who got The Apocalypse Ocean twittered that they were “high quality, I mean, like Subterranean Press quality.” When I first ran the figures I knew it was going to be expensive per book. As I got near time to print them, Pablo and I got copies from Lulu to check out the process. But I was also emailing around asking, and looking, for alternatives. This was part of the learning process!

Lulu wasn’t too bad. It was actually better than I expected. I’d feared what print on demand would be. It’s come very far in just a couple of years.

But Bill at Subterranean was able to recommend me an offset printer he worked with, and the quote, it turned out, was not too bad. It was more expensive, for sure, than the Lulu run. But… for an extra $800 I could finagle a very, very high quality printing.

I couldn’t do this with the short story collection Mitigated Futures that I had Kickstartered later in this year. Too few copies. But I could with the novel.

And in the end, as I mentioned, if this was only about the money, I wouldn’t be here. The chance to print a 200 copy limited edition run of the fourth Xenowealth book in high quality paper stock?

I didn’t even think twice, really. It was an investment in my future, as someone who could deliver on execution. And because it would become properly collectible.

Mistakes, as they say, were made

And now, to the brutal self honesty part I promised would come.

I have made mistakes.

Boy have I ever.

I launched the project at noon. Because I was writing and fixing things that morning. So I set it to go live. Rookie. That meant I missed four hours of first day, the biggest day, of word-of-mouth and fundraising. The momentum was slow from day one. People love piling onto a winning project. Mine did not come out the gate strong for The Apocalypse Ocean. Next time, I set it to go live at 7am.

I set the eBook price too high. $25. It worked, because fans backed the project and jumped aboard. I think I could risk focusing harder on a $10 eBook. Then maybe a $25 trade paper, and then move up.

While I got backers their eBooks as fast as I could, roughly by the deadline, I vastly underestimated how long the project management of creating a print book would take. Physical copies had to be mailed around. Proofed. Schedules had to be lined up. It was all… fiddly. I thought August/September I would have books delivered. Instead, it ended up being early December.

To be fair, part of that was because I switched from going with Lulu to going with a real printer.

I don’t even regret that. Next time around, I know where I’d be bringing a novel if we have preorders. But I spent a lot of time making first timer mistakes.

Some have asked if this makes me way more interested in going it alone. But the truth is, I really, really like having a team around me that can take stuff out of my brain-worrying area so I can focus. I’ve talked to people who are interested in helping authors run a Kickstarter, it’s something I will ponder in the future.

With the collection of short stories I did, Mitigated Futures, my distractibility ended up costing me a whole print run. I didn’t spot an error. I had to reorder the hardcovers with the fix. I was the one who approved the final, it was on me. Again, a big mistake.

Another mistake was that I really botched the $100 backer level with The Apocalypse Ocean. If you ordered the $50, you got a limited edition hardcover. For $100, you got it signed, and your name in the back of the back as a backer. For $250 you got that plus reading the book *as I wrote it!*

When I was designing the Kickstarter, I overvalued the live read along, which I thought would snag a few more people. Halfway through, I asked the $250 level people for permission to tweak things, and bring the $100 crew into the live read along. I didn’t get enough replies quickly enough to feel confident about shifting everything. It was my first time, I was nervous about breaking trust.

Next time around, I would put the live read along at $100, to see if it would pull some people out of the $50.

Toward the end of the The Apocalypse Ocean’s print run, I felt I’d communicated what was happening not too well, some readers felt compelled to keep asking what was going on. Some people don’t want over-explained or bugged, but I needed to be clearer about timelines. And if I wasn’t, to be okay with bugging people.

Another thing I won’t do: I won’t take orders after the Kickstarter closes. Keeping track of those was… really hard. Those people didn’t get notified at the same time, it added extra stress.

What were the negative sides of using Kickstarter?

There weren’t many negative sides. But there were a few things that stood out.

One was that owing your readers a new project, directly, meant they had a stake and ownership in you in a way that is not normally experienced. So… there was pressure to deliver. However, I’d been living under various sorts of pressure, it only really upset me when I got a weird dizzy spell period that affected my ability to focus on a monitor and use a computer. Falling behind freaked me out.

Two, some people started hitting me up about their Kickstarter. Sure, there were many people doing Kickstarters that I loved, and backed, or raised the word about and loved hearing from. But there were also people I’d never met, never talked to, didn’t know, insinuating that since they spread the word for me (and in these cases I’m not even sure they did) I should do the same for them. I felt it should be about stuff we genuinely loved, not logrolling. But it sometimes got a little passive/aggressive.

Three, a lot of people assumed I was now a fighter against the evil New York corporate publishing system and would be taking it to the man. I’m sorry to report that I’m still a corporate sellout. There were some weird reactions.

Would you do it again?

I get asked a lot, would I do it again?

I have a nuanced reply. I think, for short story collections of mine, Kickstarter has been an obviously solid experiment. With Mitigated Futures, I had already written the stories. A couple of a new ones were commissioned. We did the books with Lulu, which is not as cool as traditional offset print run, but still solid. The big bonus was interior art for the collection and everyone got their eBooks really quickly. Right at the end of the month the Kickstarter happened.

For novels, I still think it is powerful and potentially transformative. It gave me the money I needed to get this off the ground. It came along at just the right moment to help give me a sorely needed boost. But so far I’m not making as much as I do for novels like Arctic Rising.

But I’m doing two things here. I’m playing a long game, hoping that the royalties on a book that I wrote and own directly will help me out. And… I wrote the fourth book of the Xenowealth series!

It got done, and it’s out there. And it’ll find new readers. And things will will build. And, maybe sometime very soon, or maybe a little further out, I’ll come back again to do the final book.

But for now, I’m writing Hurricane Fever. The sequel to Arctic Rising. And, yeah, it’s a lot of fun. That’s my focus. That has to be done.

But I have no doubt the final book, Desolation’s Gap, will be written. If I finish Hurricane Fever very soon, and I see that The Apocalypse Ocean has a solid stream of sales… then it will be sooner. Maybe even over this summer. That would be cool. That would be my dream. Maybe it will happen. Maybe it won’t. I don’t know.

But if it’s really a trickle then I’ll wait until the sales build and give it time. Like a good wine. And the book will come along then, after some aging, while I pursue some other stuff. But the lessons, and the tools that Kickstarter gave me, they’re all still here. There are more possibilities in the air.

As a writer, it’s a good time. I can work with a large publisher, I can work with a medium sized publisher, I can work with smaller publishers. I can put projects directly up as an eBook. I can use Kickstarter.

This is a modern, diversified author, using the tools at their disposal. It’s all good. There is no one True Way, there are, instead, lots of opportunities.

Thank you!

To all of you who backed the book, and made it real. We did it! Pepper lives!

So many of you spread the word, cheerleaded me, and just offered to help. Doing this reminded me that I had a readership that enjoyed what I wrote and was passionate about my stuff. That really made a difference. More than many will ever realize. I live to tell these stories, and seeing them valued in real time like that was surprisingly empowering. So… thank you.

Buy the book! Spread the word!

Seriously, if you’ve read this far, I have poured my little heart out. I got ready to launch on Friday, but yanked everything down. It wasn’t the time. But today, Monday, I’d like to re-launch The Apocalypse Ocean (and will be telling everyone it’s here). And I’d ever so appreciate your help in spreading this little story you read. Or anything about the book.

Here’s the book. Buy it, rate it, spread it around:

The ebook is available [directly from me] on [Amazon Kindle] or [B&N Nook] or [Kobo Books] or [iBooks]