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Art of the Genre: The Joy and Pain of Kickstarter [and How Backed Projects Still Fail]

Friday, April 5th, 2013 | Posted by Scott Taylor

The first Kickstarter success, and it was a true joy!

The first Kickstarter success, and it was a true joy!

In early November 2011, I attended World Fantasy Con in San Diego with John O’Neill and the Black Gate crew. It was a truly eye-opening experience for the ‘writer me’ as I’d attended many conventions in my day, but nothing that was so cloistered and dedicated specifically to the art of writing.

I well remember sitting in my room after the first day of listening to readings and thinking to myself, ‘Holy Crap, you absolutely C-A-N’-T do this!’ [Seriously, just listen to Claire Cooney recite any of her works from memory and tremble beneath the power of a truly gifted writer].

After I got home from the convention, I crawled into bed for three days and didn’t come out again because for the first time in my life I felt the power of ‘real’ writers and how far I had to go to reach the level of their talent.

When I finally emerged from my cocoon of despair, I clicked on Facebook and found a post from old time D&D artist Jeff Dee concerning something he called Kickstarter. It was a curious thing, this Kickstarter platform, and the more I researched it, the more I thought, ‘Huh, maybe I’m not Claire Cooney, but I bet I can get a book made anyway.’

At the same time, John O’Neill, our fearless leader at Black Gate, was thinking of creating his own line of novels from Black Gate under the power of the current business model he’d used to help found the magazine, namely his own pocket venture capital. I asked him to try Kickstarter and he declined, so I bet him, in no uncertain terms, that no matter what he managed to do with his book line at Black Gate, that using Kickstarter I would outsell him by a multiple of 10 and produce twice as many original books as he could.

Thus began 2012, something I like to call ‘The Year of Kickstarter’. Not only had I discovered this platform, now three years old in the marketplace and ready to tip the balance of acceptability, but so had EVERYONE else.

By February of 2012, Kickstarter money contribution records were falling almost weekly in every category imaginable, especially in computer games. Funding was surging to unforeseen levels with millions of dollars going to video games, art books, albums, miniatures, you name it.

I watched, I studied, and I saw the evolution taking place right before my eyes, but in so doing I also caught the wave and road with it on my new publishing company I’d affectionately named Art of the Genre after this blog. By February, I’d managed my first successful Kickstarter, The Cursed Legion novel, with former AD&D art legend Jeff Easley.

What changed, you might wonder, concerning my inability to be a writer and then me finding a way to successfully get a Kickstarter novel funded? Well, I might not be on the same level as Claire Cooney as a novelist, but I’m a damn fine self-promoter. Attaching my name to an artist of Jeff Easley’s status, and then bombarding Facebook’s Old School Gamer clubs with marketing of a role-playing adventure fiction novel with original art, I had a niche.

Kickstarter #2 and all was still well, although a tad more stress putting this one out.

Kickstarter #2 and all was still well, although a tad more stress putting this one out.

Next up, I ran a second Kickstarter with former Star Trek, Battletech, and Space: 1889 artist David Dietrich in March. Wouldn’t you know it, the gaming community and older art fans supported that one as well! That meant that I’d been funded for two novels, both that I’d written in spare hours since November, just after I’d pulled myself up from the WFC funk and tried to use what I’d learned at the convention in a new style of writing.

By mid-April, The Cursed Legion was in print and the Dietrich novel, The Gun Kingdoms, was being finalized. Meanwhile, John’s Black Gate division was faltering, the financial weight of the start-up falling squarely on John’s shoulders and no books were forthcoming.

As April progressed, I announced my third Kickstarter, Tales of the Emerald Serpent, a anthology that I’d begun with dreams of selling to Night Shade Books when I attended WFC back in November. I’d self-funded the project thus far, so all the stories were done, but to get it to print, I needed a windfall. Kickstarter once again provided me with my most successful campaign yet.

When May hit, I delivered my Tales of the Emerald Serpent Anthology [a book I dedicated to John O’Neill and he’s yet to read or promote in any way, bastard! :) ] to a rather resounding applause from readers and editors. Apparently, I was doing something right.

Now, however, I had a choice, go with a more standard fantasy release I’d written called The Final Greylin, or try for a new market share with an erotic fantasy novel entitled The Burning City. In the end, The Burning City won out, and I launched that Kickstarter to lukewarm success, although funding did come through.

The Burning City was then piggybacked with the follow up to The Cursed Legion, another Easley venture titled The Mid-Winter Fall. So, on five consecutive months I’d launched five successful Kickstarter novels, and my burnout point was getting close.

Here is where the pain of Kickstarter begins to show. Four of these novels I’d written before I’d run the campaigns, and all but one of the artists involved were personal friends, but not the artist used for The Burning City. What many people running Kickstarters fail to understand is that each campaign is a lengthy and time straining investment on you personally, but more importantly any dependence on outside vendors is a complication to fulfillment.

For The Burning City, I’d built in a bit of breathing room, and instead of publishing the book in June, I decided on August. I did the same for The Mid-Winter Fall because I’d yet to write it and knew I’d need the time. Sounds simple, right? Not necessarily.

By August, it was clear the artist I’d contracted for The Burning City wasn’t going to deliver on schedule. In the end, this cost me two months as I waited for the work, the book finally being finished in November of 2012. Four books down, one to go, and after seeing the delay, and having two projects waiting months for fulfillment, I smartly decided to forgo running any further Kickstarters until I’d fulfilled my commitments.

Pressure mounts, but Tales was my most successful and well received novel, so I'm still feeling the love.

Pressure mounts, but Tales was my most successful and well received novel, so I’m still feeling the love.

Still, by the time I’d gotten The Burning City out the door, the final physical shipment of signed books going out the door three days before the dawning of 2013 because they’d been delayed once more with the artist who had to sign each physical copy, and now my Mid-Winter Fall book was a month overdue.

This book, now written, went to my copy editor at the end of December, my own delays in writing it having cost me a month. Then the copy editor got swamped with work at the beginning of 2013 and it took him two months rather than the single week it normally takes him to go over one of my books. Thus, by the time The Mid-Winter Fall was ready, it was March 2013, almost a year to the day that my first Kickstarter was rolling out.

Whatever the case, 2012 was extremely stressful, but I managed to fund and fulfill five Kickstarter-driven original novels that have been well reviewed and have shipped to eighteen countries around the world. However, the same cannot be said of other Kickstarters that I’ve backed or watched closely in the boom of 2012.

Any of you who have backed projects through the Kickstarter platform have probably been involved in a delayed project, as I know I have. What one must understand is that backing projects on Kickstarter is like buying anything, you really need to do your research beforehand and even then there are no guarantees.

One thing that Kickstarter states when you choose to back a project is that Kickstarter as an entity has no responsibility to see that rewards are provided to the backer. They are a facilitator, not an arbitrator in the process, and therefore you are only subject to the will of the project creator.

At the same time I was doing my Kickstarter run, several other notable projects came into the pipe, one of the largest of which was an absolute favorite, Order of the Stick. This project took in nearly $1.25 million on a proposed $57,000 goal structure with almost 15,000 backers coming on board. It had a final total of 25 backer level rewards, things that were attached to the project after its inception to help drive pledge numbers upward, a term referred to as ‘stretch goals’. It is basically a way of saying ‘if we hit X dollars, we’ll also include Y product for certain backers’.

Stretch goals look fantastic on paper, but the reality of them to a project manager is epically rough. They quickly turn into project loadstones for the campaign producers, and you have to remember that many of the folks running home-grown Kickstarters aren’t business managers. They don’t truly understand or have run the numbers on what they are offering, instead they get caught up in the process of making cool new things for backers to spend money on and spread the word.

Certainly there is an intoxicating thrill when your iPhone continuously buzzes with new backer and $ updates as your supposed profit skyrockets, but truly, stretch goals are a quick way to non-fulfillment so read very carefully what is being promised, even if not at your own backer level because ultimately high end rewards may bankrupt a project even if smaller goals seem reasonable.

The close of the Order of the Stick Kickstarter is now over a year old and its April 2012 backer reward delivery date is hitting the one year delinquency mark as well. Sometime in the late summer of 2012, Rich Burlew, the man behind Order of the Stick, had an accident that put him in the hospital and severely limited his ability to draw. Unforeseen and unfortunate, but when projects stretch out and goals go unfulfilled, life problems are bound to come up. To date, of the 25 backer rewards offered for Order of the Stick, 13, over half, have not seen full delivery.

This one nearly broke me, and I still have a hard time enjoying the thought of it.

This one nearly broke me, and I still have a hard time enjoying the thought of it.

In March 2012, GROGNARDIA‘s James Maliszewski partnered with U.S. gaming company Autarch to bring Old School Gamers the mega-dungeon Dwimmermount. The project took in a very respectable $48,756 on a $10K goal due to ‘stretch goals’ with 1,023 backers. Knowing James, I backed the project and it had a delivery date of August 2012, which seemed a good lead time.

In the early summer of 2012, James began having family issues that I won’t go into here, but by December he had ceased publication of the long-running Grognardia blog and was no longer communicating with Autarch, who were trying desperately to salvage their reputation on a seemingly dead project from which James had acquired all money and was the sole catalyst for the intellectual property.

Just a couple of weeks ago, Autarch assured backers that the money from the Kickstarter had finally been transferred to their account and that they would be fulfilling backer obligations from what information they’d already gotten from James in the summer of 2012. My heart goes out to the guys at Autarch who have faced delays, breaks in communication, hours of unpaid work, and finally the never-ending stress of trying to hold up a tumbledown project. Not sure how this one will finally play out, but again, life happens, partnerships are fragile, and backers beware.

Still, of all the projects I’ve seen, Mike Nystul’s three Kickstarter run from May 2012 to November 2012 was the most egregious to me personally. Mike, like many folks in these niche markets, is an old school designer who hasn’t had much relevance in recent years, and apparently isn’t an accomplished businessman. Suddenly, because of the power of Kickstarter and social media, he managed to collect a bit over $75,000 for three gaming-related Kickstarters, the first of which was Nystul’s Infinite Dungeon.

Infinite Dungeon was to ship in September 2012, but never showed up and was as recently as this week moved to a different company that has promised distribution of the product, but not fulfillment of the stretch goals promised in the Kickstarter, which still remain in Mike’s hands.

This initial Kickstarter was the catalyst in basically forcing the unprepared Nystul to begin printing money, robbing Peter to pay Paul so to speak. Once Nystul had the funds from the Infinite Dungeon, we can only assume he used those for some other purpose and then began a second Kickstarter to apparently fund the first. The second Kickstarter, Axes and Anvils, was an enormous success, taking in an astounding $35,000 on a $1000 goal.

Most of this was obviously made up in ‘stretch goals’, but a backer should look at those numbers and wonder. The project was supposed to be a basic leaflet on a dwarven rpg campaign, easily enough produced, but the money and stretch goals turned it into another thing entirely, as the addition of a Hardcover, Boxed Set, and miniatures kept bringing people in. Somehow, Nystul then created ‘Dwarfcon’ out of the Kickstarter, promising a full convention in Texas celebrating all things dwarven in 2013, which of course never happened.

And Kickstarter #5, the full circle and although it was a rough birth, I'm happy to see it out.

And Kickstarter #5, the full circle and although it was a rough birth, I’m happy to see it out.

Axes and Anvils was to be delivered in November 2012 and no word on that one at all. But to make matters worse, after laying the groundwork for Dwarfcon and creating the Castle Nystul company, we can once again assume Mike ran low on funds and still had not created any product, so then came Cairn, the kiddy ‘fuzzy fantasy rpg’ that would be ready for Christmas 2012.

Now right there it should have been flagged by both consumers and Kickstarter, with two pending Kickstarters unproduced and then this offering in the thirty-day window after the release of Axes and Anvils. And yet it raised another astounding $24,157 on a $2,000 goal.

Do I need to say that this book has yet to be seen in any form? Is it now possible that the full $75,000 Nystul ‘earned’ in Kickstarter projects in 2012 is gone?

Luckily, I didn’t back any of Nystul’s projects, so I don’t have an axe to grind here, but I guess by the time these offerings came out, I’d begun to see the writing on the wall and understood the inherent dangers in ‘stretch goals’ and projects that blew up into monstrous versions of themselves, especially for back to back to back Kickstarter campaigns.

And how about another delayed monster, the massive adventure game from Double Fine and 2 Player Productions!? That’s right, the company that started all the ‘fuss’ about Kickstarter in the February of 2012 by taking down Order of the Stick as the #1 cash generating goliath with $3.3 million in backing on a $400,000 goal and nearly 90,000 backers?

The release for their game was listed as October 2012, and have we seen it yet? Nope, it’s still slogging along in development as of this posting, presumably because of those pesky stretch goals that made the game bigger and better. Ah, how quickly the shine wears off, huh? Still, Double Fine is an established company so I’m sure they will fulfill rewards, but if you are backing big projects like this, you’d better be prepared for delays.

Anyway, long story short, be aware of what you invest in on Kickstarter, look at the project creator track record, try to make sense of the ‘stretch goals,’ and see how many projects the creator has run and more importantly fulfilled [assuming you can find this information, which Kickstarter does not provide]. Certainly there is great joy in Kickstarter, as my 5 books to John’s ZERO show [nailed you John!], but there is also an equal amount of pain, so be educated before you invest!


If you like what you read in Art of the Genre, you can listen to me talk about publishing and my current venture with great artists of the fantasy field or even come say hello on Facebook here. And my current RPG Art Blog can be found here. Also, for my hardcore fans and those that love small press books, I’ve launched my latest crowd-sourcing campaign that I’m determined to see become the most successful fantasy fiction Kickstarter of all time, so come help me and all my artist and writer friends create a franchise to remember!

15 Comments »

  1. Scott, if I haven’t said it before, congratulations on your five novels! That’s an amazing accomplishment under any circumstances… but to do it as part of five demanding Kickstarter campaigns is just shy of miraculous.

    I forget what we bet, exactly. I hope it doesn’t involve me dressing up in a tutu and singing Gilbert and Sullivan. I swore I’d never do that again after I bet Howard Jones he couldn’t finish a novel in 60 days.

    Comment by John ONeill - April 5, 2013 2:42 am

  2. I don’t back many books, as I back primarily board games, but I think that my most serious error was in backing Oh My God, There’s an Axe in My Head which was due to be delivered in Jan 2012. The weird part about it was that there were no stretch goals, and it was a reprint of a game that was already finished.

    I am still waiting.

    If you want to see weirdness, go read the updates for Katalyka. I think the creator either has undergone a breakdown or she is playing one heckuva role with her rationale about why her game has not been released.

    I think that sometimes publishers do not realise what the impact all their stretch goals will have on the final product and when they all come out, they face financial problems (Glory to Rome KS).

    Comment by JLB - April 5, 2013 10:43 am

  3. John: Nothing so drastic, but you COULD read Tales of the Emerald Serpent and talk about it on BG! Sheesh, I know you have a contractual obligation to do two posts a week on Bones of the Old Ones, but a bone thrown my way once a year would be great ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - April 5, 2013 11:55 am

  4. JLB: I’ve backed 18 Kickstarters since I found the medium and of those, ten were either delayed or completely fell apart and haven’t been delivered. It is a problem, to be sure.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - April 5, 2013 11:58 am

  5. Scott, after reading your post, I realize how lucky I’ve been with Kickstarter. I’ve backed 21 projects, almost all books. One was canceled by the author before the campaign was over. Of the ones that have finished, only one was delayed, and it was a game.

    And, BTW, I loved Tales of the Emerald Serpent and reviewed it on my blog, plus I mentioned it a couple of weeks ago in a column I write for the Amazing Stories blog. Haven’t had a chance to read The Burning City yet.

    Comment by westkeith - April 5, 2013 1:27 pm

  6. Westkeith: What, no link to your review of Tales of the Emerald Serpent?! I’d like to read that! And of course, thanks for the kind words on the anthology, AND we are currently in the process of another one that will be on Kickstarter as well starting in May, so keep an eye out for Volume 2!

    Comment by Scott Taylor - April 5, 2013 1:39 pm

  7. Scott,

    When you mentioned that we hadn’t promoted Tales of the Emerald Serpent on Black Gate, I went looking for the post to prove you wrong… and couldn’t find one! I was sure I had written a NEW TREASURES article, but apparently not. A grevious oversight.

    The nice thing about a writer with your level of productivity is that we’ll have plenty of future chances. :)

    Comment by John ONeill - April 5, 2013 1:41 pm

  8. John: LOL, I keep a close eye on these things! Well, you can at least send me an email saying, ‘Hey, I read it finally and it sucked’ :) I’d even take that, although New Treasures would be pretty nifty ;)

    Comment by Scott Taylor - April 5, 2013 1:46 pm

  9. Scott, I have backed 61 kickstarts and currently I have ten that are passed their promised date (and undelivered) out of the 25 I am still owed. I cancelled three “about to be” successful ones this week as well, after seeing the final cost of all the KS “exclusives”.

    On the flip side, I have had three delivered early, the Sentinels of the Multiverse (x2) and Zombicide Season 1 came early. The early delivery was a surprise, as I think Project Management and Financial skills are the weak points of some designers on KS.

    Comment by JLB - April 5, 2013 3:19 pm

  10. Scott, sorry about that. I was in a bit of a time crunch when I posted. Here’s the link to the review on my blog:

    http://adventuresfantastic.blogspot.com/2012/07/tales-of-emerald-serpent-is-great-start.html

    and here’s the link to where I mentioned it at Amazing Stories:

    http://amazingstoriesmag.com/2013/03/crowdfunding-as-a-publishing-strategy/

    I’m glad to hear there’s going to be a followup volume. I’ll keep my eye out for it.

    Comment by westkeith - April 5, 2013 5:08 pm

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  14. [...] I read Scott Taylor’s post in April about the perils of Kickstarter investing with interest. I myself have backed three other [...]

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