Friday, October 12, 2012

The Crowd-Funding Quandary

Not exactly breaking news, but the project-funding website Kickstarter continues to be a big topic of conversation among comic book creators and other creative professionals like me. This summer during the San Diego Comic-Con, I was surprised how often the subject came up. Since then, truly a week does not go by without at least one appeal for help from someone in my online social networks.

In case you're unfamiliar with it, Kickstarter is one of a few online fundraising sites that are set up to enable individuals or groups to finance their personal or business projects using "crowd funding." If that last sentence makes sense, you may skip my oversimplified explanation in the next paragraph...

Crowd-funding is an interesting concept. On Kickstarter, you can basically pitch your project idea out into the ether for a campaign lasting an average of 30 days, and hope that generous sponsors will back you with donations as small as $1.  The project creator sets a monetary goal, and if that number isn’t reached by the end of the campaign, the project is not funded, and money is returned to the backers. Backers support projects because they either know the creator personally or professionally, or because they are interested in the incentive rewards offered, or out of the goodness of their hearts. Other crowd-funding sites have different rules, but Kickstarter is the most popular website of it’s kind-- at least, in my business. Make sense?

Like most people I’ve talked to, when Kickstarter first appeared on my radar, my feelings were mixed. I didn’t know what to make of it. All of a sudden, there were these frequent ‘tweets’ appearing in my social networking feeds, with people asking me for money. Many of them “friends,” some even actual, honest-to-god friends. What is the etiquette for ignoring your friend’s public pleas for financial aid?

Whether it happens on the street or in a tweet, most people have an adverse response to being asked for money. As recently as this June, I snarkily referred to the practice as “digital begging” in a podcast interview.  Even then, however, I was already coming around to a more nuanced position on the issue. Due, in part, to my close observation of my brother Brian’s own Kickstarter campaign, as well as having many conversations on the topic during Comic-Con, and since.

I want to use this post to express my own evolving feelings on the subject, but first I must state that in many cases, crowd-funding WORKS. Plain and simple. If you have access to a large online network, or are smart or creative enough to communicate your project’s needs in a way that appeals, this is a very exciting way to help realize your goals. For indie-comic book creators, this actually opens up a lot of possibilities in a market that is nigh-impossible to penetrate.

It seems to me that the people who can benefit the most are those who have built a large group of ‘followers’ on sites like Twitter or Facebook. Preferably by building their own ‘brand’ in a positive way.

The example I always think of is the indie artist who has been consistently working away on their web-comic, giving it away for free for a long time. There are a lot of these people, putting themselves and their work out there. They are not making any money, but they are growing a core group of loyal fans who want to see them succeed. They are trading on GOOD WILL, and we see it pay off again and again when their supporters step up and help turn their free web-comic into something more tangible.

So, let’s get back to me! My first impressions of Kickstarter were mixed-to-negative. Call me a skeptic, or just plain suspicious, but like everyone else, my responses are dictated by my own experience. So, when I see a bunch of people tweeting about how they need money to fund their self-published project, I automatically think back to my own forays into self-publishing. In 2002, I created the comics anthology magazine Comiculture. Several of my good friends contributed time and content, but the project was paid for out-of-pocket by my family, and put us in debt. It was a risk that did not pay off financially, but I knew the risks going in, and believed strongly in the project. I admit that part of me feels resentful when I see creators gambling with other people’s money instead of their own. Their stakes aren’t as high... we can only hope that their commitment is as high as it ought to be.

Another part of this complicated feelings-puzzle is that it’s easy to see how this system can be abused. There are a lot of campaigns on Kickstarter started by creators who are perfectly capable of getting their projects done by other means. Right now, there are  campaigns by well-established creators who would have no problem walking in to any publisher and making a deal. Some of these guys are very successful, and I’m pretty sure they have the financial wherewithal to invest in their own projects without help... if they really believe in them.

The problem is, creators like the the ones I’m describing are exactly the ones who are perfectly suited to make a Kickstarter campaign work! They are the people with 5,000 ‘friends’ on Facebook, and tens of thousands of Twitter followers. And, I’m pretty sure that with all that, they also have the resources to put together the slickest, most compelling viral Kickstarter video possible.

Sure, these guys have every right to work the system and take advantage of their star power. I assume they earned their fans fair and square (even if it may have been on someone else’s dime) Suffice to say that people like their work. But, I’m afraid to say, the practice of tapping into your fans as a resource you don’t need reminds me of the worst practices that our industry has perpetrated against ourselves and our fans in the past couple of decades (still talking about comics, btw).

It was not long ago when publishers (and even some big-name creators) used to routinely announce and solicit new projects, only to cancel them before publishing if the pre-orders did not meet their expectations. Similarly, if less egregious, many creators release and abandon their creations prematurely and often, in search of an instant hit.

What this does is to glut the market with a bunch of product that these creators and publishers have no commitment to. Throwing a bunch of half-baked story and character concepts out into the market to see what will sell, without any commitment, is a breach of the trust that holds together this thing we call “Fandom.”

It’s a little like the shopper who takes up an hour of a shop clerk’s time, only to seek a better price online. That waste of a person’s time is theft, plain and simple. I believe that putting out a glut of inferior product without committing to it is also a theft of a kind... a theft of that GOOD WILL. Why should I read your comic, or care about your characters, if there is no guarantee you will finish your story?

This is what I like the ambitious ‘web-comic’ guy in my previous example, and why I want to help HIS fundraising efforts, instead of giving to the guy with a dozen bestsellers under his belt. We know the little guy will see his project through to completion, because he has been producing for a long time without reward. This guy has earned the trust of his Fandom base, so why not help him get his project to the next level?

I know from my experience that it’s a hell of a lot of work to produce and stand behind a project you believe in if you don’t have the budget. It’s also a hell of a lot of work to run a successful Kickstarter campaign. Watching my brother’s campaign, and that of a few others by friends and colleagues, I have come to see that this kind of fundraising is not just “digital begging.” It may, in fact, be the hardest part of the project for some. Especially for people (like me!) who are not especially good at tooting one’s own horn.

Unfortunately, I can see no way to regulate this kind of thing to benefit the “little guy,” who needs it, over the abuser who takes advantage. In all likelihood, Kickstarter will reach a fatigue point, maybe sometime soon. Maybe due to cynicism produced by abusers like Amanda Palmer. In the aftermath of such a breakdown, wouldn’t it be great if the abusers just moved on to the next big thing, and left Kickstarter to the little guy?

To be continued...

Postscript: As an aside, I find the whole concept of crowd-funding and micro-financing to be fascinating! In March 2011, I attended a talk by Jessica Jackley who founded and, read about that here and watch the TED video

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