“Well, I guess it would be okay for me to die now”. This was the surprising and unbidden thought that entered my mind when I turned the pages of a “just off the press” copy of my first book, Along the Way. And the very next thing that popped into my head: “Where the hell did that thought come from?”
The answer to that, I think, lies in the power of books. When I held the book and turned its pages, there was, on some level, a humbling awareness that my work was no longer simply my own, but belonged, for better or worse, to the world at large. A published book is the tangible embodiment of the fact that its contents have entered the collective consciousness of the culture and society that spawned it. Once a book is “out there” in the world, it might come to rest anywhere: libraries, universities, in the hands of connoisseurs and collectors, and inevitably second hand bookshops and thrift stores, to perhaps find a new home before the landfill or recycle bin. It stands an exceptionally good chance of outliving its creator. It’s no wonder many dream of having their (or a loved one’s) photographs published in book form. It had certainly been my own ambition since the mid 1970s. As many photographers know, the highest, and sometimes insurmountable hurdle between the dream and the reality is the cost. Publishing a photo book is an expensive proposition.
Including Along the Way, I’ve had four books of my photographs published, financed in a variety of ways. It is the funding of the most recent of these books, Parallel Landscapes, published in 2016, that is the subject of this article. The generic term for the method used is crowdfunding, a word that I don’t believe existed in the English language until recent years.
Let’s assume a dollar figure, say $20,000, that would be required to produce a modest run, perhaps 800 copies, of a fine photography book. In the old model, the entire amount would be raised from a single source or two: a gallery, museum, a wealthy collector, or if the book promised commercial success (difficult to suppress a chuckle here), an established publisher**. Another way would be if a photographer were fortunate enough to have the means to pay for it “out of pocket”. If any of these were a viable path for you, it’s unlikely you’d be reading an article with “crowdfunding” in the title.
For those of you not familiar with the term “crowdfunding”, a simple way to describe it would be to say that the $20,000 would be raised by hundreds, possibly thousands, of individual sources, each contributing a small amount. It is analogous to the method Bernie Sanders largely used in his 2016 presidential campaign: the principle being that a few million $10, $20, and $50 donations can equal the donations of a handful of wealthy contributors.
In the last decade or so, with the proliferation of “social media”, someone got the brilliant idea that the internet could be used as a venue to reach previously unimaginable numbers of people for fundraising purposes. Several web companies popped up to facilitate this: Kickstarter and GoFundMe being two of the best known*. I will be limiting my own discussion to Kickstarter, since that is the platform I used, and the only one with which I’m personally familiar.
How does Kickstarter work?
You begin by going to kickstarter.com and click on “Start a project”. At this point their instructions will guide you through the process. In a nutshell, here is how it works:
step 1: Name your project (in my case, Parallel Landscapes, the title of the proposed book), and set a dollar amount that you seek to raise.
step 2: You are asked to create a short (5 minutes) video, describing your project
step 3: Create a rewards structure for donors
step 4: Launch the campaign
1-Your book, and its dollar amount target
You can’t just grab a dollar figure out of thin air. You will need to research what your costs will be for your book’s production: design, printing, transporting the finished book from the printer to the distributor (which may in fact be you), plus incidentals.
Many photographers nowadays possess graphic design software that allows them to design their own books. However, I would suggest that the first budget item you might consider is the services of a professional book designer, ideally one whose finished books you have seen and admired. Even if you have the taste and design sense to do a good job with your page layout software and create a terrific PDF of your proposed book, there are other important attributes a professional designer brings. An experienced designer’s job is to know the entire process of creating your book, and in my view is more than worth the investment. Making “beginner mistakes” in the production process, and then correcting them, can be very expensive, and easily cost you more than a designer’s fee.
Your target amount:
Let’s say you’ve enlisted a designer, whose fee for a project such as yours is $5,000. The designer tells you that they’ve used a great printer in Singapore (or Italy, or Vermont, or wherever), who will do a superior job for your book: proofed, printed and bound, for $12,000. And that printer tells you that shipping, plus customs fees (if printed abroad), for your finished book, all 800 copies, to your address will cost $1500. You now have a beginning point to form your budget/target amount: $18,500. (This figure will increase at step 4).
The importance of the five minute video you produce and post cannot be overstated. It is your “sales pitch” to the Kickstarter universe, and everyone and anyone who considers donating to your project will be sold (or not) by the persuasiveness of your presentation. This obviously won’t apply to family and close friends. But it will to everyone else, such as business associates, your students, collectors of as well as those interested in your work, acquaintances, and the large number of people who will see your presentation that you don’t know, and will most likely never know.
Most Kickstarter videos are homemade jobs. Unlike my advice in regard to hiring a professional book designer, I don’t think it’s essential to hire a professional videographer. As long as your video is well photographed (which most digital cameras can do), and your presentation is articulate and nicely illustrated, it will serve its purpose. In your exploration of the Kickstarter site you may view all the videos you’d like (including mine, which is still viewable: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/508807921/parallel-landscapes?ref=user_menu), to get ideas for your own. (Full disclosure: the woman who designed Parallel Landscapes also produced my Kickstarter video, and she had many years of experience working in Swiss Television. So while I did in fact have the benefit of a professional’s touch, it is nonetheless not a requirement for a successful video).
Central to the Kickstarter modus operandi is the structure of tangible rewards to the various levels of donors***. For my Kickstarter campaign, I provided reward levels for donations of $10, (a postcard of the book’s cover photo), up to $3,000 or more (a copy of the book, plus a platinum/palladium print of the book’s best known photograph). The $100 pledge level (and levels above), included a copy of the book in the reward. Not coincidentally I believe, the $100 donation level generated the largest number of pledges. I encourage you to copy and paste the provided link to my Kickstarter page if you’d like to see an example of how the rewards might be structured. Once you’re on the Kickstarter site you can explore other campaigns to see variations on this theme.
4- Launch the campaign
Before you launch, you need to fine tune your target dollar amount with several considerations in mind, other than your direct design, printing, and transportation costs.
First among these to include are your costs that will be incurred in the process of fulfilling the promised rewards. If you are producing an object, be it a postcard, a print, or anything at all, what are those production costs? And what will be the shipping costs of getting the rewards to each of your donors? Unless you are prepared to dip into your own pocket to cover these costs, it’s essential that you figure them as accurately as possible, and include them in your budget.
Next, it is prudent to include an amount for “unexpected expenses”. Something you didn’t anticipate is likely to arise.
The last thing to consider is Kickstarter’s fee for providing you with this fundraising platform. Kickstarter takes 5% of the total raised as its payment, plus something called a “payment fee”, which will be an additional 3% to 5% of the total raised.
So let’s return to the budget that we began in step 1(keep in mind, these figures are hypothetical, for demonstration purposes only):
designer’s fee: $5,000
unexpected expenses: $500
fulfilling rewards: $1,000
up to 10% to Kickstarter: $2,000
adjusted target amount: $22,000
This is your target amount. You have thirty days from your launch to reach your target, so be prepared to “hustle” once you’ve begun. By that I mean you’ll need to send out emails to your list of contacts, and post to as many “social media” platforms as you participate in: Facebook, Twitter, etc. In all cases, post frequently during those thirty days, and always include the link to your fundraising page. On Facebook, encourage all of your friends to “share” your post, thereby exponentially enlarging your pool of potential donors. You walk a fine line between being persistent and being a nuisance. As someone who has always disliked either using or being targeted by aggressive sales tactics, this was the hardest part of the process for me. I tried my best to be tactful, but I know my campaign irritated some.
An important thing to be aware of: with Kickstarter, if you don’t reach your target amount, you get nothing. Kickstarter will keep all pledges in a sort of limbo for the thirty day campaign period: no donor’s credit card will be charged until the end of those thirty days, providing the target is reached. If it isn’t reached, all pledges are nullified, in effect “returned” to the donors. You, and Kickstarter, get nothing.
This effectively encourages you to keep your target amount as low as possible, since the lower your amount the better the chances it may be achieved. Your campaign may in fact raise more than your target, and you do get to keep all of the excess, minus (of course) Kickstarter’s percentage. So set your target as low as you can to get the job done. Raising more will simply give you more options. My campaign for Parallel Landscapes raised more than our target, and it allowed for a larger than planned run of copies of the book, and best of all, paid for me to be “on press” in Italy, where the book was printed.
Why Use an On-line Crowdfunding Platform
Perhaps you’re asking yourself why you should use an on-line crowdfunding platform at all, given the fact that they impose their own requirements, and then take a percentage of the total raised. Good question!
An alternate approach for creating a book would be to use an on-line publisher to produce an “on demand” book. With this approach you may design your book on your computer, and have copies printed one at a time if need be. It requires almost no initial investment. (See Barrie Rokeach’s article on this site for a full discussion of “on-line” publishing). But the unit price of “on demand” books is significantly higher than offset printed books. Perhaps more importantly, the quality can be inconsistent, and even at its best it is not a match for the quality and options offset printing provides.
If offset printing is still your preference, you will need to raise the funds up front. If you are confident that you can do this from your own personal network of friends and acquaintances, there is no need to go the crowdfunding route. But if not, and you are relying on an extended network of donors, a known and credible crowdfunding site can be an important ally. It is an entity that gives those potential supporters the assurances that yours is a legitimate project, and not a scam, and that if the necessary amount is not raised they will have their pledge returned in full. Kickstarter, as does any established brand, brings a certain level of confidence to the consumer’s (your donor’s) mind. It can be a considerable advantage.
*There is a website: www.crowdfunding.com, that lists and compares many crowdfunding platforms.
** It should be mentioned here that the Library of Congress no longer automatically accepts self published books, which it once did. On the LoC’s website it now states:
These categories of material are ineligible…:
Books paid for or subsidized by individual authors
Books published on demand
Books published by firms that have published books by fewer than three different authors
My surmise is that there may be a way around this, but you would have to explore the LoC website, and no doubt spend long hours on the phone with them, to find it.