2019/12/05

OSR: How To Do Reasonably Well on Kickstarter

This is a companion post to How To Become A Hundredaire On DriveThruRPG and Sharpening the Axe - How I Plan and Write RPG Books.

Note: Physical copies Magical Industrial Revolution are now on sale. Just in time for the holidays! Reviews and notes are in the Megapost.

Part 1: Magical Industrial Revolution retrospective.

'Tis the season for the traditional airing of grievances, but I've got very few grievances to air. This project went pretty well. It was delayed by two months, I nearly lost my mind a few times, but I learned a lot. All books were delivered. All goals were met. I didn't have to compromise or alter my plans significantly. Everyone got paid.
 

Timeline

I like being busy. I like balancing a dozen spinning plates on sticks at the same time.

This sort of long-form project, as it turns out, has periods of excitement, but it also has long periods of tedious waiting. It's less balancing plates and more setting them spinning and deliberately walking away. Will the plates still be spinning when you get back? Did you set them spinning at all?



Writing Editing & Layout Art Kickstarter & Distribution
2018 Sept. 22nd First planning post.



Oct. 10th Innovation format set. 


2019 Jan. 14th Bulk of sections designed.



Jan. 31st

Contacted Jonathan.

Feb. 12th

Contacted Luka.

Feb. 25th

Contacted Logan.

Mar. 12th Price list complete.



Mar. 21st Industrial magic complete.



Mar. 25th

Logan round 1 art complete.

June 6th Bulk of sections written.



June 20th
Contacted David with all details.


June 26th
Obtained template files.


June 27th Playtest round 1 complete.
Luka interior art complete.

July 7th


Contacted Jelly Muppet.

Originally, Magical Industrial Revolution wasn't going to be crowdfunded. Like my previous books, the plan was to write it, pay for the art, editing, and layout up front, and then sell it via a Print on Demand service, eventually making my money back. It's my view that RPG books are tools. Print on Demand fits that paradigm. Make it cheap, printable at home, and eminently accessible.  

That was the plan... until mid June. As the scope of the project became clear, Print on Demand became less and less appealing. By late June, I'd decided to fund some sort of print run out of pocket too. I'd scouted a few distributors, including Exalted Funeral, and put together a list of questions and potential plans.

On July 7th, I contacted Zach (Jelly Muppet) of SoulMuppet Publishing for advice and potential collaboration. I can't thank him enough. We didn't end up working together, but his advice ended up writing over my penciled-in answers with indelible pen. How does X work? Oh, like this. Who do you print with? Oh, this company I'd already shortlisted. Brilliant.


If this was late 2017, and I'd just decided to write Kidnap the Archpriest, I'd have signed up with SoulMuppet for sure. But since then I'd made enough contacts and stepped on enough rakes to figure out the basics. Art was sorted, layout was sorted, coordination was sorted, distribution was... well, not sorted, but I figured I could handle it. The timelines for a Kickstarter also didn't quite line up.

Point is, if you've got an idea or a draft of an RPG book but aren't sure what to do next, contact Jelly Muppet. They'll take care of the rest.


Writing Editing & Layout Art Kickstarter & Distribution

July 10th


Contacted Exalted Funeral

July 17th Writing complete. Contacted Fiona regarding editing.


July 20th Playtest round 2 complete.



July 23rd

Public domain whitepointing begins. Contacted David regarding a KS.

By late July, the bulk of the book was complete. I'd set up a preliminary distribution plan with Exalted Funeral and the basic plan of a Kickstarter with David Shugars. I brought David on board at the Kickstarter level for three reasons. First, he'd already run a Kickstarter and knew the process. Second, if something went awry, it'd be good to have a second account ready to step in. Third, Kickstarter is a bit leaky for my tastes.


We ran into a layout snag. I was not very good with Affinity Publisher. I'm still not, but I was worse then. The files I sent to David that I'd hoped would be directly editable turned out to be less than ideal. Lots of artifacts, errors, and strange decisions had crept into the text. He'd need a raw text file to get the book into a suitable format. During that process, the margin size also changed. This didn't affect the bulk of the text but some table entries were designed to precisely fit the page width. Revising those took extra time.


Writing Editing & Layout Art Kickstarter & Distribution

July 25th

Contacted Logan for round 2.

July 26th Raw text file complete. File sent to first-pass editor. Luka cover art complete.

July 29th

Jonathan map complete.

Aug. 3rd
Edits recieved from first-pass editor. Emergency colorist contacted. KS details finalized.

Aug. 6th

Emergency cover art complete.

The project ran into another snag in late August. Luka suffered a family tragedy just after completing the cover art, and wasn't able to provide a second round of edits or colour alterations. I reached out to a local artist (who declined credit), and Logan, in case the local artist ran into difficulties. Luckily, and almost miraculously, everything worked out. The cover was completed just 6 days before the Kickstarter launched.



Writing Editing & Layout Art Kickstarter & Distribution

Aug. 9th

Jonathan interior art complete.

Aug. 12th Pamphlet text complete.

KS goes live.

Aug. 13th




Aug. 15th
Raw text sent to Fiona. Public domain whitepointing complete.

Aug. 17th
Edits recieved from Fiona


Aug. 18th Edits integrated into text.



Aug. 21st

Logan round 2 art complete.

Aug. 24th


KS ends.

Sept 8th Index complete.
Art card complete.

Sept. 13th
Primary book revisions complete. Luka bookplate complete.

Sept. 18th


Print proofs ordered.

Sept. 27th.


First PDF distributed to backers.

The Kickstarter launched on August 12th and ended on August 24th. You can follow the process via the Kickstarter updates.

I finished whitepointing, editing, and in some cases rescanning all the public domain art. Around 100 pieces made it into the book, but the workbook folders contain at least 1,000 images, not counting pieces I considered but didn't download or scan.

Fiona's editing run was less optimal than I'd planned, mostly because we didn't establish a style guide. A large number of "errors" were just differences of opinion, making integration with the main text more difficult than expected. This didn't delay the project, but it did mean a several extra hours of work. Style guides are important.


Writing Editing & Layout Art Kickstarter & Distribution

Oct. 6th
Backer-located errors fixed.


Oct. 9th


Print proofs recieved.

Oct. 11th
Final PDF created.
Books ordered.

Oct. 12th


New pamphlet printer located.

Oct. 15th


Second print proof ordered.

Oct. 24th


Second print proof received.

Oct. 28th


Books arrive at Exalted Funeral.

Nov. 18th


Distribution starts.

Nov. 27th


Distribution complete.

Dec. 4th


Books on sale now.

Another snag; the printer I'd selected wasn't able to complete the pamphlets. Luckily, pamphlet printing is common and fairly cheap. We found a replacement printer without delaying the overall delivery timetable.


A more serious delay occurred during book proof preparation. We'd done an order of 10 copies to check quality and provide a stock of complimentary copies. Despite no margin revisions or significant layout alterations, the printer insisted on sending a second proof.

Still, once those were sorted out, the books were shipped to Exalted Funeral.
 

Shipping

Exalted Funeral handled shipping and distribution.

Average US Domestic shipping was $4 per book. We collected $4.50.
Average Canadian shipping was $25 per book. We collected $13.50
Average international shipping was $35 per book. We collected $19.80.

Note: We charged $5, $15, and $22, but because Kickstarter's cut, we only collected ~90% of that value. I should have incorporated that into my initial math when setting up shipping.
If we'd charged shipping at cost, we'd have collected an extra $1,400. Subsidizing international shipping was always the intent, but now I've got data on how much it was subsidized.

Shipping kills Kickstarters. Get as many estimates as you can. Charge up front. People can whine, but it costs what it costs. Alternatively, you can spend hours and hours finding cheaper distributors in different countries. Run the cost-benefit analysis. See what makes sense based on your target audience. And prepare to eat some extra costs anyway.


Actual Profit

I'm not willing to publish all the numbers. I don't want to provide the exact rates artists or editors charged me. Everyone got paid what they asked for, though there was some haggling on a few points. If you want a hyperdetailed analysis of typical up-front costs, check out this post.

Pre-Kickstarter costs includes initial art, editing, and layout. Post-Kickstarter costs include extra payouts and proofs.


Pledge Total $20,500
Kickstarter Payout $18,750


Pre-Kickstarter Costs $1,900
Cost of Books $3,400
Cost of Pamphlets $170
Cost of Stretch Goals $310
Post-KS Costs $500
Packing Fees $3,000
Shipping (US, 219 orders) $880
Shipping (Canada, 26 orders) $660
Shipping (International, 74 orders) $2,400
Total Expenses $13,220


Profit $5,530

A percentage of the profit (plus a flat fee) went to David for running the Kickstarter and generally making the book exist.

 

Reasonable Human Math

Living wage in the USA, at the time of writing, is $16 per hour. It might be $20 or 3-bottle-caps-and-some-non-irradiated water by the time you're reading this.

I can type 60 words per minute. MIR is around 80,000 words. That's 22 hours of typing. $352 just to type out the words. Hooray, profit. Pretty sure it took more than 22 hours though.

Let's use the industry standard (i.e. poverty-passion wage) of $0.05 per word. I need to make $4,000 for the project to meet the minimum local standard.

And that's just writing. I did the basic layout (which David had to redo from scratch, true, but the choice of words on page, table widths, and facing pages was mine). I edited and whitepointed hundreds of images. I made three videos! Badly, I'll freely admit, but I did it. I found artists, negotiated contracts, did research, ran playtests, etc.

So overall, for a year+ long project, I'd say this book wasn't terrifically profitable. It still beats DriveThruRPG sales though. Not counting David's cut, I made $0.06 per word just on the Kickstarter.

Note 2019/12/29: This article by the creators of After the War covers $0.20 per word math. It's not a cheerful update.

Sources of Delay

  • I failed to budget sufficient time for print proofs.
  • There were some editing delays. Sometimes I'd request 10 edits, wait a week, and get back 8 edits plus a new change I hadn't asked for. It's a natural part of the process, and it didn't end up delaying the book significantly, but it was a definite frustration.
  • Art very nearly delayed the project a few times, but we scraped through in the nick of time.
  • Finding a backup printer for the stretch goals could have delayed the project, but it ended up not being an issue.
     

Part 2: Advice

My post on Sharpening the Axe covers book creation and planning in more detail. It's probably a good idea to read it first. Michael Prescott has a Kickstarter Task List that should also help.
 

Hire Good People

Find the best people you can and pay them what they want.

I'm not a huge fan of residuals, profit-sharing, or royalties. This industry has very low margins and it's a lot of work to coordinate it all. Given the choice between $200 and 5% of the profit of a Kickstarter, you should probably take the $200. Up front, if possible.

If you commit to long-term profit sharing, you're committing to the Dreaded Mathematics every month or quarter, for an indefinite period, for what could easily be a handful of change. It's a great deal if the product is immensely profitable, but the number of OSR bigwigs who own private islands and a garage full of classic sports cars appears to be zero.

You need to trust the people you work with, but you also need to hold them to deadlines, follow up, reject work, or make hard calls. There are elements of running a project like this that feel distinctly unfriendly. Always aim to be the most professional person in a group, even if everyone else is extremely professional. Be polite. Be efficient. Have a plan to pay everyone you hire.



Advertising Doesn't Work

Spending money on editing, playtesting, and high-level review is more important and more profitable than running ads. They simply don't work. Direct traffic, via a blog or a twitter account, is the way to go for small projects with a targeted audience. If people are excited about your project they will help out, but no amount of advertising can make people care.

For MIR, about 40% of pledges came through Discord, Blogger, and Twitter links. Around 10% came through Kickstarter directly. An i09 aggregate article brought in 9 backers. The rest were a medley of emails, notifications, and other sources.

If you're running a campaign for a product with broader appeal (a 5E module, a board game, dice, etc.), advertising might help. But for targeted or indie games, you'd be better off spending the money on comfortable socks and a chest of caffeinated beverages.
 

Estimate Kickstarter Backers

I went through about thirty recent OSR-ish kickstarters and looked at their tier numbers: PDF only vs book vs fancy book or book plus extras.

Based on the average, I came up with the following guidelines:
-50% of backers want a PDF, 50% want a physical book
-20% of backers who want a physical book will want a fancy version or stretch goals

So from 100 backers: 50 PDFs, 40 basic books, and 10 fancy books or stretch goals.

Knowing this, I could back-calculate how many backers I'd need to make the Kickstarter profitable. An added complication was the desire to overprint. I didn't want this project to end with the Kickstarter; I'd like the distributor to keep the product in stock until it stops selling. No limited editions here. I'd need to funnel some of my share of the profit into a larger print run.

After some back-and-forth with David, we decided to go with $40 base costs x 100 books for a $4,000 goal. If the KS funded, we'd print at least 100 books, so all costs could be based around that. Most costs decreased as volume increased, so as long as we budgeted around the worst case scenario we'd be OK. PDFs help; they're effectively pure revenue.
Note: Based on eyeballed numbers and other anecdotal evidence, you might be able to estimate the total number of Kickstarter backers by the number of views an average non-exciting blogpost gets in a week.
 

Estimate Pricing

This is an art more than a science. I wanted to keep the PDF cost low. $10 for the Kickstarter, $15 for sales afterwards. Eyeballed based on other similar products. That was easy.
Note: Once again, Retweeting "pay authors" or "support indie publishers" is free. Don't expect those people to turn up when the hat gets passed around.
Here's a formula for calculating the cost of a print book. It's not the one I used, but it's much nicer.

Let A = Price of Book

A = { [cost to print at minimal volume] + ( [cost of art+editing+layout] / [minimal volume] ) + [A*distributor percentage] + [safety factor] }*(KS cut factor)

Example (using made-up numbers):
  • The minimal volume for this project is 100 copies.
  • At 100 copies, this book costs $10 to print and ship to the distributor.
  • The total cost of art, editing, and layout is $1,000. $1,000/100 is $10, so that's another $10 per book.
  • The distributor percentage is 25% of the MSRP A.
  • Safety factor is $5 
  • Kickstarter, plus its payment processor, takes a 10% cut of all transactions. You'd better factor that in, and increase the price of your book by (1/0.9) = 1.11
Therefore:
A = [$10+$10+[A*0.25]+$5]*(1.11)
A = [$25+[A*0.25]]*1.11

A = $27.78+ 0.278A
A-0.278A = $27.79
A = $38.50

Hooray math. Feel free to add terms for percentage payouts to artists, editors, etc. Increase your safety factor and costs. Make the formula into a spreadsheet. Point out I missed a bracket. Whatever works.

But wait. You did the math for your Kickstarter and came to two conclusions:
1. $1000 for layout, art, and editing is ludicrously low.
2. There's no [term] for profit.

You are correct on both counts. If your fixed costs are a more reasonable $2k, you'll need to charge $54 per book. That might be a bit much, depending on your product. But the equation is still valuable. You can use it to eyeball your worst-case scenario. This is the floor. Every book over the minimum volume, every percentage under the rounded-up percentage, is profit.


Plan For Failure

Examine all moving parts of your project. Figure out what you'll do if one part fails. This is not a particularly nice thing to imagine, but it is necessary. Nobody is under any obligation to stay alive for your benefit. Given the choice between real-life stuff and helping an elfgame exist, most sensible people are going to choose real life. What's your plan?

For this Kickstarter, I had a backups bookmarked (but not, in most cases, specifically contacted) for all roles: layout, editing, interior art, cover art, map, printing, and distribution. As much as possible, I'd priced them out to ensure switching a new person in wouldn't sink the project. With the text complete before the Kickstarter began, it's possible a book would be produced even if I vanished.

Art is always a concern. I'd rated Logan as the artist least likely to have difficulty meeting their deadlines. Luka is normally pretty reliable, but he was working on Ultraviolet Grasslands at the same time. And Jonathan was a relative unknown; I'd never worked with them before and there weren't a lot of industry testimonials floating around. Luckily, aside from one minor issue covered above, everything worked out perfectly.



Plan For Success

Let's say you organize a picnic charity fundraiser. You expect, based on wishful thinking, 100 people to show up. 1,000 people show up instead. 5,000. Way, way too many. The parking lot is full. You're running out of hot dog buns. The portable toilets are apocalyptic. What's your plan?

Success can kill a project faster than failure. Calculations break down when demand rises by 10x. People get ambitious. Instead of running a Kickstarter for a print on demand book, they decide, when they see their total grow and grow, to go full offset print hardcover with extra stretch goals. Then they go bust, or spend all their profit on 2,000 hardover copies for a 200 backer project and have nothing left over to fix errors.

Restrain your expectations. Make sure your calculations work at high volumes. If you set out to use Printer A, stick with printer A. Don't get excited and switch to the unresearched Printer B at the last minute. Don't rely on wishful thinking and best case scenarios.

Let Other People Step On The Rakes

Learn from the failures of others. Don't step on the same rake. Find a new and exciting rake.

Off the top of my head, here are some reasons RPG Kickstarters failed:

  • The layout person: quit / went bonkers / dropped off the face of the earth for three months.
  • The artist: quit / traced all their art / lost the original scans / turned out to be a real asshole.
  • The printer: failed to deliver the books on time / changed rates / folded / shipped the books to Uruguay by slow boat / was chosen at the last minute because they seemed cheaper but weren't able to deliver / don't accept files in the formats we can supply / didn't fill out a customs form so the port authority used the books as fertilizer
  • The distributor: took a large deposit and folded / failed to ship the books / shipped the books in flimsy envelopes. 
  • A collaborator: turned out to be notoriously unreliable / over-promised and under-delivered / changed their scope of work mid project.
  • The main author: spent all the money before expenses were paid / failed to account for unexpected expenses / just didn't do what they said they were going to do.
The last point is critical. It's human nature. Once you've been paid, your motivation to finish the job plummets. "Why hunt mammoth if Thag already have mammoth?" some part of your brain thinks, and decides to futz around on the internet instead of sitting down and working on a project.

That's why I decided to write everything ahead of time. I also decided I'd be the last person to get paid.



Sunk Costs and Stretch Goals

In theory, crowdfunding gives you the cash to complete a project. In practice, if your costs are low, complete as much of the project as possible before crowdfunding. It reduces risk.
I wanted all art complete before the Kickstarter launched. This included stretch goal art. If you check the timeline, I had Logan and Luka working on the stretch goal art before the stretch goals were met or even announced. I'd written the stretch goal pamphlets before the Kickstarter launched. I don't like surprises.
 
I write RPG books. I don't make buttons, ribbons, elaborate leather carry cases, or fancy dice. I firmly believe people should buy a book based on its merits. There's enough nerd kitsch out there. I don't want to add more, and I definitely don't want to delay a book because a button-making factory has run into difficulties.
 

I strongly suggest focusing on your core product. Extras are nice as long as you're certain they won't delay or bankrupt your project. Steer clear of posters or bulky items. Shipping costs are ludicrous. Don't go mad over stretch goals. Effectively, you aren't being paid for them. People are backing your book anyway; why do more work for the same money? If you think stretch goals will drive funding, go for it, but the return curves seem similar for all projects.

Thanks

Once again, thanks to Jonathan Newell, Logan Stahl, Luka Rejec, Fiona Geist, Exalted Funeral, and David Shugars.
 

Questions

If you've got any questions about the process, leave a comment.

11 comments:

  1. And this folks is what a professional looks like. Nice break down and fantastic execution on the project (I have my book in hand already)!

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for writing this ...

    ReplyDelete
  3. Absolutely loving my copy. Great to see the process behind it!

    ReplyDelete
  4. I've never run ads, but I remember seeing threads by Daniel Fox about how targeted Facebook ads were extremely profitable and effective for Zweihander. I don't know if one needs special skills for that though.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. One would also need to give Facebook money. So, you know, there are tradeoffs.

      Delete
  5. "Then they go bust, or spend all their profit on 2,000 hardover copies for a 200 backer project and have nothing left over to fix errors."

    Haha, that almost describes me to a tee. Luckily, I had 300 backers. Still a lot of books to move. Oh well, it's my dream.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Your commitment to provide cautionary tales is admirable, I suppose.

      Let's say your KS raised $10k and you collected $9k, not including shipping.
      The cheapest I can imagine getting a 218 page A4/letter full colour hardcover book printed for is $10, including shipping to your location. You needed 200 copies, so ordering 400 or even 500 might have been viable. But 2,000?

      $10x2,000 = $20k So you're starting KS fulfillment at least $11k in the red.

      200 backers wanted physical books, so that's 1,800 copies left to sell. Assuming a (generous) $50 profit per book and a (very generous) 10 print sales per month, that's still... just under 2 years to make back your initial investment in the print run.

      It must be a dream, because you'd have to be asleep to believe it.

      Delete
    2. Some dreams come true... eventually. 2 months after receiving the books, I've sold about 50 more. That's not a lot, but sales continue to flow everyday. Plus, I have plenty of stock for my latest Kickstarter, Cha'alt: Fuchsia Malaise.

      Delete
  6. Great article, thanks for taking the time to share your experiences with us

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  7. It was a pleasure working on this. Wonderful post.

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  8. I'm very impressed by the thoroughness and frankness of this post. Some people would view this as business secrets they would never share. Thank you!

    ReplyDelete