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Another Crowdfunding Fail: John Campbell Self-Destructs on Kickstarter

Wednesday, March 5th, 2014 | Posted by John ONeill

Pictures for Sad ChildrenWe’ve reported here on a handful of Kickstarter failures, including Erik Chevalier, whose Doom That Came To Atlantic City campaign raised an astounding $122,874 on a $35,000 goal, and who managed to spend virtually all the money without producing a single copy of the game. But I don’t think I’ve ever read an example as egregious as John Campbell’s Sad Pictures for Children.

Campbell is the author of the web comic Pictures for Sad Children. He self-published his first book, collecting the first 200 comics, in 2011 and launched a Kickstarter campaign in April 2012 to fund a second volume. He set a goal of $8,000 and raised over $51,000.

Unlike Chevalier, Campbell managed to print the books and began distributing them to backers, but he quickly became disillusioned with the level of effort and cost involved. As complaints from his backers mounted, an apparently furious Campbell posted a video showing him burning 127 copies of the book, one for every e-mail he received requesting an update.

In a rambling and nonsensical Update 32, Campbell vents his wrath at his backers, saying no more books will be mailed, that he’ll burn one copy of the book for every attempt to contact him, and asking for more money — this time with no promises attached.

I shipped about 75% of kickstarter rewards to backers. I will not be shipping any more. I will not be issuing any refunds. For every message I receive about this book through e-mail, social media or any other means, I will burn another book… If you would like a refund, please contact a fan of my work directly for your money. This is where the money would come from anyway. I am cutting out the middle man…

You could try to harass me or inconvenience me or tell other people negative things about me or this kickstarter in the hope that this will affect me negatively. Be aware that each attempt to contact me about this book will individually result in the burning of a book until the books are gone…

I want direct funding for my living necessities… I am looking for people who do not feel they need to see any “return” on their “investment…” I’m looking for people who like me were born with a lot of privileges but who have had the awareness and emotional stability to keep their bucket under the faucet when the money comes out.

I am not looking for the support of anyone who wants a book, or wants to see me put stick figure comics on the internet. I do not need the support of anyone who thinks that I will deserve to eat and sleep only after I have fulfilled some standard they’ve chosen to hold me to. I am looking for people who believe that if you spend your life in a small room thinking, you deserve to live and breathe the same amount as someone who spends their life doing intense physical or mental labor… I’d love to hear that there are people interested in meeting another person’s needs directly with no hope for reward of any kind.

Wow. It’s hard to determine from that last paragraph if he’s in the middle of a complete breakdown, engaged in a philosophical attack on capitalism, or both.

Various media outlets have tried to make sense of Campbell’s meltdown. Comic site Bleeding Cool called his rant “Bizarre… a lot of psychobabble which makes Shia Labeouf look like Andy Capp.” And Aja Romano at the Daily Dot wonders “Is this a Kickstarter scam or performance art?

Read the latest updates from Campbell at his Kickstarter page.

21 Comments »

  1. I’m not familiar with Campbell or his work, so I cannot begin to speculate on whether this is a nervous breakdown or “performance art,” but on reading his rant it did cross my mind that the person who sets the rewards on a Kickstarter project is the person him/herself. Whether or not there are people out there who feel compelled to give him money “with no hope for reward of any kind” is kind of irrelevant to the fact that, in this case, what happened is he made a promise and then reneged on it.

    It also seems to show an insufficient grasp of the whole concept behind funding venues like Kickstarter. At its most basic level, such services offer a way to reverse the usual order of “artist produces work and then audience buys it.” It’s for those fans who really want a favorite author to publish another work or for a favorite band to get into the studio again and cut another album, but who know that the necessary funding is not going to be forthcoming from a corporate backer. So they step in and cover the cost, so that the work may come to be. Given this motive, it’s, um, not unreasonable that they would be among the first to get the book or game or album that they had a hand in bringing to fruition.

    I’ve parsed the words quoted above carefully, and the only sense one can take away from it is that all Campbell wants is for people who will pay for his “living necessities,” food and shelter, with no expectation beyond that he can “spend [his] life in a small room thinking,” i.e., he is asking for charity. Well, yeah, that would be great. How I wish that people would just leave me alone to my thinking (and reading and playing with my kids and getting caught up on True Detective), except to slip a check under my door every couple weeks. Campbell had better be prepared to be disillusioned. Even Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t get away with that stunt — being left alone to his genius without any expectation from his patrons.

    If someone is going to give you some of his/her hard-earned money to support your artistic endeavors, he/she is going to expect that that’s what you use it for. The backer showed trust and goodwill in paying for the work first. If we flipped that back to the traditional arrangement — work is produced, then I pay for it — it would make just as much sense for me to take the book and say, “I’m not going to pay you; I want you to give me this book with ‘no hope for reward of any kind.’”

    And if I pay money to you to help you produce a book, and then when I ask for my copy you set it on fire, I’m going to be annoyed.

    This one, well, it’s a head scratcher. The whole thing’s not just a put-on, is it? I double-checked; it’s not April 1st yet.

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 5, 2014 2:40 am

  2. “I’d love to hear that there are people interested in meeting another person’s needs directly with no hope for reward of any kind.” There are such people – they’re called Mama and Daddy; they change diapers. I don’t think Mr. Campbell is going to find anyone willing to do that for him at this late date.

    Comment by emcgargle - March 5, 2014 10:28 am

  3. This isn’t the first time (nor, I expect, will it be the last) that an artist has had a legitimate breakdown on Kickstarter. I think there’s something about the pressure inherent in the format that can have a very real effect on one’s mental health.

    Comment by Golgonooza - March 5, 2014 12:16 pm

  4. “I do not need the support of anyone who thinks that I will deserve to eat and sleep only after I have fulfilled some standard they’ve chosen to hold me to.”

    This, combined with the announcement that he’ll burn a copy for every e-mail inquiring about updates seems to point to someone who got burnt out communicating with backers. And if he’s the type that just wants to do his art and not deal with the business-end of things I could see how even the most gentle and minor or inquiries could be taken as demands that he not do anything else until he’s fulfilled the backer rewards.

    Not to justify his threats about burning the books, but it really does take a team of people to run a successful Kickstarter campaign from start to finish (and finish meaning sending off the last backer reward) It can be brutal if you are doing it alone. Especially if you aren’t used to being accountable to backers.

    Comment by Raechel Henderson - March 5, 2014 1:09 pm

  5. It calls into question the whole Kickstarter concept. What are the limits? Where is the accountability? Eventually someone will do a Kickstarter asking for $1 million to commit suicide on a streaming video. And I bet he or she will raise the money in a day. Hey that wouldn’t be a bad premise for a story.

    Comment by John Whalen - March 5, 2014 1:25 pm

  6. I’ve done 7 successful Kickstarters. The most successful was for $13K, and typically they are between $2K-$3K. Still, even at those levels each project can be a soul-sucking nightmare for the creator, especially the more folks you involve as the last three I’ve run have been under huge delays from artist friends who get paid and then no longer work on the art. People seem to think Kickstarter is a way to print money, but instead they quickly find out it is a way to lose money, especially when considering your time investment as a project creator. If you do a Kickstarter be sure you REALLY want to create what the project offers, and then PRAY you don’t go viral because if you do you are DONE when it comes to delivering on your promises.

    Comment by Scott Taylor - March 5, 2014 1:34 pm

  7. When I read this post from John late last night and was myself compelled to add a long comment, I expected it was going to generate some good discussion.

    @emcgargle: “There are such people – they’re called Mama and Daddy; they change diapers. I don’t think Mr. Campbell is going to find anyone willing to do that for him at this late date.” Good one — the sharp brevity of this point put me in mind of the witticisms of Ambrose Bierce.

    @Golgonooza: I think you’re onto something. The business-delivery format of a Kickstarter just may not be a healthy match for the temperament of certain artists.

    @Raechel Henderson: Exactly.

    @John Whalen: This new phenomenon of Kickstarter and Indiegogo “crowd funding” is ripe for a story with a premise such as you describe. When are you going to get started on it? (You could do a Kickstarter to raise funds to write it, taking it to the level of metafiction!)

    @Scott Taylor: Thank you for the cautionary words and the personal insight on this. As far as dealing with less-than-fully-motivated art teams, it seems like that is an issue at all levels: creator-owned comics publishers like Image are notorious for delays, usually exacerbated by artists who — since they own the material and their name is on the product — cannot be kicked off a title. Whereas with a DC or Marvel, if an artist does not meet deadlines, he/she is gone and another one is tagged from the “bullpen.”

    Comment by Nick Ozment - March 5, 2014 2:21 pm

  8. I’ll get right on it, chief.

    Comment by John Whalen - March 5, 2014 4:28 pm

  9. I am a big fan of a board game designer named Martin Wallace, he is hugely popular but a bad businessman. He has done two kickstarters, both immensely successful but also PITA due to the structure of KS and the way “stretch goals” are expected. He has published one of the two games, and due to the “stretch goal” of one project, he still has not shipped one game.

    He has walked away from the KS system now and has developed enough of a reputation that he now sells subscriptions to his games, send him x dollars and he ships you the next three games, signed and numbered by him. When he started his subscription service up again (this is the third or fourth time he has done it), I immediately signed up, got the automated “Thanks for rejoining us” email, and immediately replied with “Thank you for coming back”. All I want is the bleeding game/movie/socks, I don’t want many of these silly stretch goals, they just annoy me.

    tldr
    Kickstarter sucks (says the guy that has backed 77 projects) because it encourages the kind of behaviour in the artist and the patron that is destructive to both.

    Comment by JLB - March 5, 2014 6:44 pm

  10. Stop blaming Kickstarter for some people’s greed, laziness, and/or irresponsibility. Many great projects have come to fruition because of KS. Many more will come. More projects will flame out too. If you don’t like taking risks, don’t visit KS and stop worrying about it.

    Comment by Tyr - March 5, 2014 10:27 pm

  11. > I’ve parsed the words quoted above carefully, and the only sense one can take away from it is that all Campbell
    > wants is for people who will pay for his “living necessities,” food and shelter, with no expectation beyond that
    > he can “spend [his] life in a small room thinking,” i.e., he is asking for charity.

    Nick,

    Yeah — or a patron, in the old sense of the word. But as you note in the same paragraph:

    > Campbell had better be prepared to be disillusioned. Even Leonardo da Vinci couldn’t get away with that stunt —
    > being left alone to his genius without any expectation from his patrons.

    Precisely. Having a wealthy patron can have just as many pitfalls as an overambitious Kickstarter campaign.

    Comment by John ONeill - March 5, 2014 11:39 pm

  12. > There are such people – they’re called Mama and Daddy; they change diapers. I don’t think Mr. Campbell is going to
    > find anyone willing to do that for him at this late date.

    EMC,

    I’m with you — I’d be very surprised. On the other hand, I’m constantly astounded at the amount of money raised for some iffy projects on Kickstarter… so who knows?

    Comment by John ONeill - March 5, 2014 11:40 pm

  13. > This isn’t the first time (nor, I expect, will it be the last) that an artist has had a legitimate breakdown on Kickstarter.
    > I think there’s something about the pressure inherent in the format that can have a very real effect on one’s mental health.

    Golgonooza,

    Yes — Scott Taylor, a veteran of seven successful Kickstarters, did a very astute analysis of just how easy it is to sabotage yourself with unrealistic stretch goals and the like here:

    http://www.blackgate.com/2013/06/13/art-of-the-genre-kickstarter-it-really-shouldnt-be-about-the-stuff-we-all-get/

    Comment by John ONeill - March 5, 2014 11:43 pm

  14. > This… seems to point to someone who got burnt out communicating with backers. And if he’s the type that just
    > wants to do his art and not deal with the business-end of things I could see how even the most gentle and minor or inquiries
    > could be taken as demands that he not do anything else until he’s fulfilled the backer rewards.
    >
    > Not to justify his threats about burning the books, but it really does take a team of people to run a successful Kickstarter
    > campaign from start to finish (and finish meaning sending off the last backer reward) It can be brutal if you are
    > doing it alone. Especially if you aren’t used to being accountable to backers.

    Raechel,

    Precisely — I think this is the most insightful and sympathetic analysis I’ve yet seen. And I think you’re exactly right.

    I’m glad we were able to help you promote your own successful Kickstarter campaign in July. I’m sure that gave you perspective on this that the rest of us lack (except perhaps Scott Taylor).

    http://www.blackgate.com/2013/07/23/support-the-spellbound-and-spindles-kickstarter/

    Comment by John ONeill - March 5, 2014 11:49 pm

  15. > It calls into question the whole Kickstarter concept. What are the limits? Where is the accountability?

    John,

    Well, I’m not an expert, but there ARE limits. Kickstarter’s guidelines are pretty clear your campaign has to be a project, with an end product like an album or a book. You can’t fund jumping off a bridge, for example, or raise money for your medical expenses.

    https://www.kickstarter.com/help/guidelines

    However, other crowdfunding platforms (like Indiegogo) have no such limitations, so ultimately your question is still a valid one.

    Comment by John ONeill - March 5, 2014 11:54 pm

  16. > each project can be a soul-sucking nightmare for the creator, especially the more folks you involve as the last three
    > I’ve run have been under huge delays from artist friends who get paid and then no longer work on the art. People seem
    > to think Kickstarter is a way to print money, but instead they quickly find out it is a way to lose money, especially
    > when considering your time investment as a project creator.

    Scott,

    Well said. You’ve been warning against exactly this kind of creator self-sabotage in over ambitious campaigns for over a year.

    I still think Raechel’s advice is very sound: a successful Kickstarter project takes a team — especially if you’re not used to the kind of accountability to backers they demand.

    Comment by John ONeill - March 5, 2014 11:58 pm

  17. John,

    I’m running with it. Already got 2,000 words written. If I can’t find a market, I’ll self publish. Who needs crowdfunding?

    Comment by John Whalen - March 5, 2014 11:58 pm

  18. I’m torn between sympathy for an emotionally imploded individual and a desire to send him lots and lots of email.

    I’m a bad person.

    Comment by Jeff Stehman - March 6, 2014 5:27 pm

  19. [...] Kickstarter, and I don’t really know that much about it, but I sure wouldn’t handle it this way. I kept seeing posts about this, but most are just recaps. What I can’t get over is the sense [...]

    Pingback by Sharing the Wealth: 03/07/2014 | Story Arcs - March 7, 2014 5:31 pm

  20. [...] Another Crowdfunding Fail: John Campbell Self-Destructs on Kickstarter [...]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » The Top 50 Black Gate Posts in March - April 30, 2014 12:42 am

  21. [...] in the face of recent high-profile Kickstarter failures such as John Campbell’s notorious Sad Pictures for Children and Erik Chevalier’s The Doom That Came To Atlantic [...]

    Pingback by Black Gate » Blog Archive » Washington Attorney General Files Suit Against Ed Nash for Kickstarter Fraud - May 5, 2014 8:40 am


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