30th May this year was a pretty special day for me as I crossed off the number one goal on my bucket list; to become a published novelist. I was able to do this because 811 strangers from the internet decided they wanted to read my story enough to back me with hard cash over a year in advance of it being written. In fact, when those brave (foolhardy?) souls put their credit cards into the pot I hadn’t even come up with a solid storyline; but then I guess that is the power of collaborative consumption.
More commonly known as ‘crowd-funding’, this is a growing social phenomenon that it’s reckoned will add 270,000 new jobs and inject $65 billion to the global economy by the end of this year. In these times of continuing austerity, those are numbers that cannot be sniffed at.
My personal journey began at the end of 2012 when I invested in a crowd-funding campaign for Elite: Dangerous, which aimed to raise £1.25 million to create the latest iteration of a gaming franchise that arguably kick started the home computer games market (in the original sense of the term) thirty years ago.
The original Elite game, first released in 1984 on the BBC Micro, was also responsible for igniting my passion for technology; I’ve written about this previously for the BCS Women in Technology campaign. As part of their campaign the developers were offering to sell licenses to write a piece of licenced fiction for the new release of the game, and thanks to author, Drew Wagar, a bunch of fans decided to run their own crowd funding campaigns to finance pledging the required £4,500. It’s a fascinating story that led to several licenses eventually being funded, so if you have time I recommend you read Drew’s blog on the topic here.
The way many crowd-funding platforms work is they allow you to offer a ‘buy in’ to invest in your project at different levels, in return for different rewards. Exactly what’s on offer will depend a lot on the end product. If it is something you can own, like a game or a book, the lower level tiers might be a copy of it. If the project is raising funds for something less tangible, like a theatrical production, you might be pledging for tickets to the opening night or your name on the poster.
A lot of gadgets find success on these platforms too, the Pebble Watch being one of the most notable campaigns early on in the evolution of crowd funding, making a record-breaking $10.2 million back in May 2012. In cases like this, supporters are paying up front for an advance order on the end product, although no money is debited from their accounts until the end of the campaign period and only then if the final target has been surpassed.
As well as the lower level tiers the smart campaign organiser will devise a number of extended pledge tiers, which offer limited and exclusive bonuses for a bigger financial commitment. As you can see from my successful KickStarter campaign I offered character naming options and other things that would affect the plot of the story. Two-hundred investors at £25.00 got their names subtly woven into the plot, as a bit-part character, spaceship name, nebula or disease. For the three biggest investors at £200 each the pledge tier was called ‘revenge killing’ and I promised deal out a grisly end to a character named by their choice.
After a fair amount of heart-ache and one of the most stressful and exhilarating months of my life so far I closed my campaign successfully at over 400 per cent of the original target and my novel, Elite: Mostly Harmless, was released as an eBook just a few weeks ago with the audiobook available soon.
It was an interesting challenge and I have to say I nearly overstretched myself getting in the two-hundred names without it seeming forced (and I will admit that my father was somewhat shocked on reading some of the more gruesome death scenes), but it has been an immense and life-changing experience from beginning to end. Really the experience is far from over too, as I continue to communicate with my backers, getting feedback and encouragement from them to write a sequel soon.
I realise that having a TV profile and sizable social media following plays massively in my favour when considering a crowd funding campaign. But you don’t need to raise as much money as I did to make a creative endeavour worth doing. I managed to raise £17,000 through just 811 people. The average adult Facebook user has 200 friends, and that’s just one of many great avenues to garner support for your campaign. So if you’re just looking to raise £2,000 to buy some new equipment for an after school coding club (for example), it’s not unreasonable to expect the average adult social media user to successfully run that campaign.
I do get asked for my advice on running a campaign quite a lot, so here are a few essential tips to help you on your way:
- Find the right platform: There are lots of different types of platform and different websites attract different communities. If you're looking for a crowd funding platform - either to invest or gain funding for your project, CrowdSurfer is a good place to start. The website is currently going through a major overhaul though, so you’ll have to use the form on their website to find out exactly when the search tool is going live again.
- Factor in the fees: Prices and structures for all of the platforms vary greatly, so make sure you read and understand the small print and have factored the fees into any targets you set if you don’t want to be out of pocket.
- Be prepared to engage: A key lesson I learned from running my own campaign is that it's an emotionally draining experience, requiring a lot of social interaction on a daily basis, so make sure you launch your campaign at a time when you can engage.
- Be social: I can’t count how many times people have asked me to share a campaign for them, and when I look at the project they are three weeks in have not made a single update or engaged with any comments on the page. What a waste! An update sends an email directly into the email inbox of someone who was committed enough to supporting you to put their credit card in the pot. Tell them how you’re doing. Ask them for help spreading the word. Remind them why they backed you and encourage them to reach out to their peers.
- Don't put all your energy into chasing the big guns: Sorry to disappoint you but Stephen Fry is HIGHLY UNLIKELY to retweet your campaign, and even if he did how many of his followers would invest in you just because your link flew by in a retweet? Once you have your first few investors, wasting time chasing plugs and mentions from big hitting social stars with no connection to your project is nowhere near as effective as engaging with your existing backers and getting them to act as your ambassadors.
- Keep it brief: As tempting as it is to run your campaign for a few months to ensure a good level of funding this is actually a bad strategy. Apart from the fact you'll be emotionally exhausted (see earlier point!) when funders are presented with a long term campaign the danger is they will decide to come back later and see how it is going, at which point you may lose them entirely.
- It's not over when it's over: Once your campaign ends the real work starts, as you need to deliver on all the promises you made. Post-campaign updates are a brilliant opportunity to further communicate with your backers and build on the relationship. Make sure you have a very low, nominal amount pledge tier in your offering; say £1 for which you just promise to keep them informed as the project rolls out. This way they will also be included in your mailing list for future updates and you have an opportunity to up-sell them to the finished product when the time comes.
With the online world still in freefall about how to solve digital rights protection and make sure artists get paid fairly for creative works, I genuinely believe that crowd funding could form the groundwork of a new intellectual property model. Artists can use collaborative consumption to seek a cash advance from their fans and audience - a minimum fair price to make it worth their while putting in the work, if you like.
If enough demand is there the project will get funded and the artist will be able to pay their mortgage and put food on the table. If the finished product becomes a runaway success they can seek a share of whatever revenue streams remain once the work has been distributed to its backers.
That’s certainly how I, and the other Elite Fiction authors signed to my publisher, Fantastic Books Publishing have played it. Our work is now being distributed, DRM-free, to those people who pledged their support. We hope others will hear about the books and buy their own copies to read.
Yes, there is the risk the DRM-free digital files will be copied and shared illegally, but if that happens it will hopefully lead to elevated status having our creativity shared, discussed and loved by millions around the world. In this case it shouldn’t be too hard to turn that notoriety into profit when the time comes to fund our next projects.
About the author
Kate Russell has been writing and talking about technology, gaming and the Internet since 1995. Best known for weekly appearances on BBC technology programme Click, she is also a regular on the sofa at ITV’s Daybreak and other TV and radio stations and writes columns for several magazines.
She published her first book (about the internet, of course), in 2013, and after a successful crowd funding campaign her second book - a sci-fi novel based on the game Elite, which was her childhood inspiration to learn about technology - was published in June.