In October 2023, I ran a Kickstarter campaign for my book The Hill of the Skull. The campaign was unsuccessful. Below are some thoughts.

Some raw numbers

  • The funding goal: $12,000 USD
  • Campaign length: 32 days
  • Dates: 24 September - 26 October 2023
  • Number of backers: 69
  • Total amount pledged: $4,388
  • Percentage of goal funded: 36%
  • Number of project “followers” and conversion rate: 95 (26%)
  • Number (and percentage) of backers who didn’t “follow” the project: 44 (64%)

Context

I ran a Kickstarter campaign in October 2023 to fund a special edition of my book The Hill of the Skull. I call the book a “photobook memoir” for two reasons: firstly, because it has a 7,000-word memoir and around 50 photos; and secondly, because I didn’t know what else to call it. The book also has an afterword by author Pico Iyer and a transcribed dialogue I had with photographer Alys Tomlinson.

The book is not a “photobook” in the conventional sense of the term: an artist book driven by a “high concept” that challenges viewers to engage with ideas beyond the surface level aesthetics of the work. THOTS stands firmly and proudly in the land of the real, the literal, the documentary.

The vision

I wanted to produce a high-quality book, one wrapped in linen cloth and offset printed. It was going to have a screen-printed cover, beautiful endbands, and an uncoated art paper stock. I wanted the container to be as beautiful as the contents. I wanted to avoid print-on-demand services, which excel in delivering trade paperbacks but leave much to be desired when it comes to producing high-quality books.

My vision would come at a premium.

I contacted art book and photobook manufacturers around the globe. I got quotes and samples from some of the major manufacturers in the United States, Europe, and Asia (in ascending order of cost). American quotes were far too high to even entertain. European quotes came in at around $11,000 USD. Asian quotes — particularly the Chinese quotes — came in at under $4,000 USD. These quotes included delivery fees. Book import fees into the USA are zero.

Asian printers were eager for the business. They happily sent photos and samples. However, communication wasn’t as good as I hoped. Neither was their effort to help me find a paper stock I was happy with. I felt as if they were pushing a particular kind of paper stock on me, unwilling to even try to help me get what I wanted. The time delay (9 am in Florida was 10 pm in China) meant that communications were also slow.

European printers communicated better. They were also more accommodating. Some sent samples. A few didn’t need to; I actually own books that some of the manufacturers had produced. However, European printers were a lot more expensive. But it was the right choice. Despite their high price, the communications, quality guarantee, and some ethical considerations (labor, politics, etc.) made choosing a European printer the right choice.

Or so I thought.

The campaign

The Hill of the Skull Campaign on Kickstarter

I ran the campaign in the fall, from 24 September to 26 October 2023. I wanted to start/end the campaign on these dates because some online Kickstarter guru had mentioned that these days of the week are the best days to start and end campaigns on. I wanted to stack the deck in my favor.

The rewards

I offered the following rewards at the following price points.

  • Audiobook - $10
  • Ebook and Audiobook - $15
  • Paperback Book - $25
  • Hardcover Book Plus Above - $50
  • Hardcover Book - $60
  • Hardcover Book + Print - $150
  • Collector’s Edition + Print - $350

The audiobook/ebook/paperback versions were late additions. I hadn’t thought about offering these, but Joanna Penn recommended that I add them to the campaign because more options/price-points are the better for customers. Besides, I already had done most of the work, and converting the hardcover into paperback and ebook versions wouldn’t be too difficult. Plus, recording the audiobook version would be worth it if the campaign was successful. I feared that these options would cannibalize support from the hardcover book, but Joanna assuaged my fears.

Shipping

One of Kickstarter’s flaws is that shipping costs are factored into campaign goals. If an item sells for $40 and shipping is $15, the pledge registers $55 towards the total campaign goal instead of just $40. This means that creators need to include shipping costs in their campaign goal and campaign math, or they may be out of pocket. Calculations gets more complicated when adding different physical products at different price-points and shipping rates (shipping doesn’t relate to digital products, obviously).

Worse still, shipping costs need to be inflated by ~10% because Kickstarter takes a ~10% cut off the top of the total pledged amount if a campaign is successful.

My solution to the shipping problem was to charge shipping after the campaign. I decided to do this because I didn’t want backers to pay inflated shipping costs, and the inclusion of shipping wouldn’t force me to increase my campaign goal even higher.

I tried to be forthcoming about potential shipping costs, offering some estimates at current rates. I received only one email from a confused backer complaining about the way I was doing shipping. One angry complaint from someone who didn’t even back the project suggests my comms weren’t unclear.

But I’ll admit that charging shipping after the fact is not ideal, and it is far less complicated to have just one transaction bound within Kickstarter.

Marketing

My marketing campaign involved leveraging

  • My podcast, Travel Writing World, for the initial announcements
  • My email lists
  • OPP (other people’s platforms) like podcasts, blogs, etc.
  • Social media outreach

I chose to target travel- and photography-related podcasts. I also pitched a few podcaster friends, most of whom came through. Most of the podcasters I emailed said that it was too short of a notice (four to six weeks in advance).

My marketing calendar during the campaign looked something like this:

  • Travel Writing World podcast announcement: 25 September 2023
  • The Creative Penn podcast interview: 25 September 2023
  • Take a Wander with Shebs YouTube interview: 25 September 2023
  • Personal Landscapes podcast interview: 26 September 2023
  • Mailing-list email announcements: 26 September 2023
  • Genius Loci email newsletter: 1 October 2023
  • YouTube livestream: 1 October 2023
  • Travel Writing World rebroadcast of the Personal Landscapes interview: 11 October 2023
  • 2-weeks left email via Kickstarter: 12 October 2023

The results

The campaign failed.

Rewards

Based on the data, most people opted to get the main hardcover reward. The other rewards were nowhere near as popular.

Below is a graph, seemingly flicking me off, representing the reward distribution. The chart represents total number of backers for each reward option.

The Hill of the Skull reward distribution

From left to right, the bars represent the following rewards and price points (and the total number of backers):

  • No Reward Backer - $28 average (6)
  • Audiobook - $10 (2)
  • Ebook and Audiobook - $15 (4)
  • Paperback Book - $25 (5)
  • Hardcover Book Plus Above - $50 (44)
  • Hardcover Book - $60 (4)
  • Hardcover Book + Print - $150 (3)
  • Collector’s Edition + Print - $350 (1)

The first column represents the number of backers who supported without a reward. The next two columns represent the audiobook and ebook rewards, respectively, with 6 backers combined and 2% of the total amount pledged. These first three columns amount to around 6% of the total pledge amount. Interestingly, more money was raised from the same number of people who didn’t want a reward (first column) than from those who chose the audio/ebook options.

The fourth column represents the number of backers who chose the black-and-white paperback version of the book with 5 backers and $125 total.

The tallest column, and the one immediately to its right, represent the hardcover book at different price points ($50 and $60, respectively). Combined, they account for 48 backers (70% of total number of backers) and nearly 60% of the total amount pledged ($2,520).

Surprisingly, the last two columns show that few people backed the print bundle and the collector’s edition (4 backers or 7% of the total), but the high price points made them a respectable percentage of the total pledged amount (15%).

The hardcover book was the star of the show. It was the reason I was raising funds. The overwhelming concentration of hardcover support suggests that my fears were wrong: backers were not distracted by the other, cheaper audiobook, ebook, and paperback options.

However, if we assume the proportion of backers would have remained the same across all rewards in a successful campaign, the audiobook/ebook/paperback options might have been distractions for me after the campaign. Why? Because I would have been beholden to producing these versions alongside the hardcover book for a relatively small number of backers and percentage of the total. The audiobook specifically would have been a high effort, low reward situation.

Why did the campaign fail?

  • An unwise decision choosing a bookmaker
  • Poor marketing efforts
  • An overestimation of my reach and “audience,” respective of the high funding goal

An unwise decision

I learned a valuable business lesson.

I got quotes from a variety of bookmakers around the world. In every instance, of course, Chinese bookmakers supplied production and shipping quotes 3 to 4x lower than the American or European bookmakers.

The frustrating part of the failed campaign is knowing that had I chosen my preferred Chinese bookmaker, $4,388 would have been enough to fund the book. Choosing the European bookmaker was the primary reason the beautiful, hardcover book is not in the hands of backers.

A civilian friend of mine (someone who isn’t really interested in books, photobooks, etc.) came over and looked at one of the Chinese books. He looked at me as if I were crazy when I spoke about its paper stock, binding, etc. He couldn’t tell the different, and most people probably can’t (or don’t care to) either.

I’d like to believe that ethics and business can mix well, but I’m 0 for 1 in my track record when it comes to this.

The takeaway: unless you’re making your ethical considerations a core part of your project and your marketing campaign, making business decisions on ethical considerations is not always the smart move when your goals is to produce and sell a thing. Base business decisions on business matters. Reread Adam Smith.

Poor marketing

A Kickstarter campaign is nothing without marketing. Its success is determined by how successful its marketing campaign is. Marketing and outreach get your Kickstarter campaign in front of the eyes of backers. The success or failure of a Kickstarter campaign often has less to do with the product itself than it does with a host of indirect factors like marketing, promotion, audience size, etc.

The more time you have to market your Kickstarter campaign, the better. People say that marketing a campaign takes many months. I’m more comfortable saying that marketing a Kickstarter campaign from scratch could take at least a year, preferably more. The more time you have to build trust, the better.

I started reaching out to podcasters for coverage about a month and a half in advance. For most of the shows I contacted, this was not enough time. As a podcaster myself, I should have known better. I was floundering in insecurity during those months, scared to send emails out, feeling like an imposter or a fraud, feeling gross sending marketing emails out, etc. My loss.

I also should have cast a wider net. I should have reached out to different types of podcasts, even if the relation was tenuous. I should have pushed harder.

I also should have created a press release PDF and it out to media websites, bloggers, and press contacts.

More marketing should have gone into the “dead zone,” which you can clearly see in the image below.

The Hill of the Skull daily pledges

All of these marketing/outreach emails should start at least 6 months before the launch date, with monthly follow-ups thereafter.

Lastly, I should have had more touch points on my own platforms in the months before a launch. I should have spoken more openly about the project on Travel Writing World, which may have drummed up more anticipation and interest.

Overestimated my reach and audience

Simply put, I overestimated my reach and my “audience.”

The Travel Writing World podcast has gotten nearly 100k downloads since its inception 4 years ago. I hoped this would translate into Kickstarter support, but something went wrong. Perhaps it was alchemical thinking to believe that download numbers could mean something else.

One of my blunders, I think, has been not talking more openly about myself and my projects on my podcast. It has always been about the guest, and rightly so. But I should have taken more liberties when the opportunity presented itself to speak about myself and my work. There are other tactics which I could have employed, such as doing more personal updates in episode introductions. I needed to lower my walls, let audiences get to know me and my work better.

Additional takeaways from an unsuccessful Kickstarter campaign

Email marketing works

If you have an engaged audience, email might be the best way to move the needle. Ultimately, my audience was not big enough to support a $12,000 launch. But I felt the power of email marketing.

Two emails alone accounted for 40% of the total pledged amount. That’s real power. And an overwhelming majority of backers and pledges came directly from my own emails and marketing efforts, as tracked by tracking/referral URLs.

Don’t rely on Kickstarter’s discovery algorithm

You should not depend on Kickstarter’s algorithm to give a significant boost to your campaign. I can account for 6 pledges totaling $300 coming from Kickstarter’s discovery engine. This was despite my project being recognized by Kickstarter as a “Project We Love.” The rest of the total came directly from my own marketing efforts (i.e.: social media posts, newsletters, emails) and actions. I am including here Kickstarter’s emails to those who requested to be notified of the project’s launch as “my own marketing efforts” because, though Kickstarter emailed those backers, I was the one who initiated those backers and (likely) sent them there in the first place.

Reframing failure

Creative acts or works of art cannot be failures. I’m not sure they can be successes either. They just are. But the expectations we attach to our creative output can be understood in terms of success and failure. In other words, works of art cannot be successes or failures in and of themselves; what can be failures or successes are the aspirations we attach to works of art.

Letting go of these artistic aspirations and emotions is key, I think, for artists.

It is tough to fail, especially in such a public way. Especially when you make a big deal about your own work. But those who don’t fail probably aren’t trying hard enough. That’s what I tell myself, at least.

All is not lost

Besides, there is no “loss” in creative work.

This is especially true when the creative work is already finished. I completed my book before the campaign launched. It is done. It exists with or without Kickstarter, and that is wonderful.

I originally didn’t want to go down the print-on-demand route, but I had no choice in the matter if I wanted to see the book published.

I’d rather have an imperfect version of the book out in the world than… what’s the alternative? Having nothing tangible to show for the project I’ve spent a year working on? No thanks.

The book is now available on my shop and all the online retailers.

Sure, the book isn’t as fancy as I wanted it to be. It isn’t as big, as colorful, or as premium as I had envisioned. But the book’s content exists independently of its container. The book’s story is independent of its style.

If you’ve made it this far, thanks for reading.

And please consider supporting my work through my Patreon-clone ARTIFACT INTERNATIONAL.

JB