Art of the Genre: Kickstarter Landscape Early 2016

Art of the Genre: Kickstarter Landscape Early 2016

cancelledYou know, as much as I write about Kickstarter, there just always seems to be more to say. Just this week I was reading a blog post by Danny Capaccio entitled ‘The Myth of Kickstarter’ which certainly got my juices flowing to write more on the subject. You see, Danny was writing about his… I’ll use the word ‘concern,’ that Kickstarter isn’t what it’s billed to be. Danny had a Kickstarter campaign that was going to fail (and now has), and although he did manage nearly $10,000 in contributions for his game ‘#Storytags’, it didn’t really sniff the $17,000 he required for the campaign to fund.

Danny’s theory iss that successful Kickstarter companies now dominate the platform and drown out smaller companies and individuals who really need it. Sorry Danny, you are a few years late on this one as I tilted at the windmill with The Pillaging of Kickstarter here on Black Gate in early 2012, four years ago! Granted, Danny extends my rant with the caveat that once a company has success they should get out and run a business like normal, not Kickstart all their future projects.

The primary difference between Danny and I is that I’ve had fourteen successfully run and fulfilled Kickstarter campaigns since 2012, and had two before I even wrote my infamous ‘Pillaging’ article, while Danny’s only attempt has now failed. Still, I’m sure he’s getting the same ‘sour grapes’ jibes I did back in 2012, but nonetheless, I’m no longer convinced that my 2012 argument is sound, while Danny’s 2016 version is closer to the truth, and yet still is a ‘miss’ on the target.

In fact, the first thing I thought when I read Danny’s article was a quote I’d seen from a panel of writer’s a few months ago that offered a reply to a this question, ‘How do I create a money generating blog?’. The boldest of the writer’s leaned to the microphone and quite honestly replied, ‘Build a time machine and go back to 2007’.

photo-originalAnd there you have it, the genesis of the real problem with Danny’s failed Kickstarter campaign. SO much has changed since the heady days of Kickstarter’s true emergence into the mainstream in 2012. Seriously, in 2012 you could basically put a heaping pile of crap on the site and make money. Look at my first Kickstarter campaign video if you want proof! I cringe at it! At the time I’d recently seen Jeff Dee was doing a Kickstarter a couple months previous redoing some of his classic D&D images and thought ‘Hey, I know Jeff Easley, I bet I can sell a novel of mine by attaching him to my project and playing on gaming nostalgia just like Dee did.’ Presto! One second I was a no-name free blogger with a couple of odd art connections and then I was a novelist who featured a book with an Easley cover and illustrations. I’m not kidding. Check the video! I was sitting there in my in-laws house, washed out by too much light, with two horribly reproduced Easley paintings behind me and rambling for over 5 minutes about nothing. I remember filming it, having to turn on the camcorder and then move into frame, all the while worrying that their blind pug would awake and start barking for no good reason and ruin the take.

How this EVER got funded, let alone generating $8726 is a joke. Zero writing credits, zero industry clout, zero fanbase, two dozen Facebook friends. My only real talent here was hitting the crowdfunding wave at the right moment and plastering Easley all over my project, including shamelessly using his cover painting for the AD&D Unearthed Arcana as my Kickstarter banner. But you know what, it worked, so I’ll take it and be happy.

But we’ve come a long way from January 17th 2012. Kickstarter has evolved, the boom and bust have been weathered, and now the platform continues to churn our project after project like clockwork. However, that doesn’t mean that Kickstarter is still an easy money venue even for return success stories, so let me take a moment to show the hardships even ‘going back to the well’ creators are having these days. We may have a following, but we’ve got to work even harder to make projects happen, so in reality, it is simply harder now on Kickstarter than ever, and that isn’t anyone’s (like returning companies) fault, it just is the way of the market.

Before I go breaking down other folks, I’ll first do myself, that way you know I’m not ‘picking on people’, and also I’m not going big, but keeping things in the basic small creator marketplace, where Danny would have had his project fall.

Art of the Genre (me)
Projects: 14
Total Pledge Dollars: $108,718
Average $ per project: $7,765
Average % to Goal: 190
Average # of Backers: 292

When you look at things like that, it’s really pretty amazing considering who I was (or in this case wasn’t), but such is the ability of Kickstarter to ‘create the creator’.

Now, let me break down three other smaller creators, the aforementioned Jeff Dee, the gaming company Troll Lord Games (publishers of the OSR Castles & Crusades system), and comic artist Travis Hanson.

Jeff Dee
Projects: 20
Total Pledge Dollars: $90,779
Average $ per project: $4,539
Average % to Goal: 185
Average # of Backers: 82

Troll Lord Games (Stephen Chenault)
Projects: 13
Total Pledge Dollars: $305,277
Average $ per project: $23,482
Average % to Goal: 419
Average # of Backers: 279

Travis Hanson
Projects: 7
Total Pledge Dollars: $136,728
Average $ per project: $19,532
Average % to Goal: 250
Average # of Backers: 425

So, there you have some base numbers for three lower tier, but multiple project, creators. As you can see, we are all similar, with Stephen Chenault over at Troll Lord being our ‘big brother’ at over a quarter of a million in pledges.

To better understand these numbers, however, let me break them down within a paragraph each.

Projects: Obviously Dee has us all on sheer number, at 20, and to create and fulfill 20 campaigns in 5 years is stunning. In reality, it’s more like 4 years via launch dates, as his first was in December 2011, and his last ended in November 2015, so basically 5 a year. The stamina it takes to do that is crazy, and yet he keeps it up (although oddly none yet in 2016).

Total Pledge Dollars: Now first and foremost, remember, this isn’t apples to apples. Pledge dollars are what Kickstarter says you raised on your project which is VERY different from profit. If you are looking for profit, look someplace other than Kickstarter, I promise you that much. Just two weeks ago I got a note from my pledge to Order of the Stick (the Kickstarter that helped launch the 2012 gold rush) and although it did $1,254,120 in pledge dollars, Rich Burlew indicated all the money was gone, he was paying fulfillment for pledges out of proceeds from his reprint sales, and that he didn’t even get enough profit to pay for a new computer. If true, just let that sink in a bit. Anyway, our top biller here is Troll Lord with just a bit over $300,000, which looks great on paper. I’d have to wager, however, that Dee, with his $90,000, probably got more bang for his buck as he’s only really paying himself for his art, and his printing is minimal (other than his RPG Kickstarters which would have been more in-line with Troll Lord).

photo-originalAverage $ per project: This isn’t a telling statistic as much as it is a cool one. It doesn’t so much denote real value of money in the bank, but it does show the kind of scale you are working with per creator. Dee is our smallest entry, most of his campaigns taking in just a few thousand, while Troll Lord is the bully of the playground. Again, it doesn’t mean much, but it is a neat tracker.

Average % to Goal: This is one of my favorites, as it can have a number of meanings. Either you are much more successful than you ever think you are going to be, or you severely undercut your actual costs in hopes of going over and looking more successful (Trust me, that is a good tactic. Nothing will lose backers faster than a slow moving project, especially one staggering to meet a goal at finish). Dee, with his 185%, prefers to ‘go lean’, a number of his projects scrapping by at just over 100%, while Troll Lord has had some ridiculously low project goals that get knocked out of the park by 800%. Keep that in mind, because it will factor later.

Average # of Backers: This is the really important number here, how many backers you can pull into any one project, and can you make those numbers sustainable. Dee only averages an incredibly low 82 backers per project and that is ballooned by a single RPG project of his otherwise he’d be in the 60s. Hanson, on the other hand, has a staggering 425 backers per project, a number that any small publisher would be dying to get. Oddly, the well-established Troll Lord and the veritable no name Art of the Genre (me) have similar averages, them at 279 and me at 292. Trust me, if you can get 300 strangers to back your project, you’ll likely be in good shape.

After the above, I’m sure you’re asking, ‘So nice stats, but what does it all really mean about the Kickstarter platform in 2016 and double-dipping creators?

Well let me tell you, no, let me show you.

Art of the Genre (me)
Latest Kickstarter Project (Folio #7, Feb 2016)
Total Pledge Dollars: $6,002 (down $1,763 or 29%)
Average % to Goal: 120 (down 70%)
Average # of Backers: 251 (down 41 backers or 14%)

Jeff Dee
Latest Kickstarter Project (Re-creating my Art from the AD&D module A3, November 2015)
Total Pledge Dollars: $3,214 (down $1,325 or 41%)
Average % to Goal: 160 (down 25%)
Average # of Backers: 44 (down 38 backers or 46%)

Troll Lord
Latest Kickstarter Project (5th Edition: Familiars, etc, Feb 2016)
Total Pledge Dollars: $15,639 (down $7,843 or 50%)
Average % to Goal: 120 (down 299%)
Average # of Backers: 288 (up 9 backers or 3%)

Travis Hanson
Latest Kickstarter Project (No Mercy – A kitty versus Alien card game, March 2016*)
Total Pledge Dollars: $11,471 (down $8,061 or 70%)
Average % to Goal: 134 (down 116%)
Average # of Backers: 283 (down 142 backers or 33%)

Granted, numbers DO lie, at least in some cases as they can be ‘cooked’ differently. No single Kickstarter is the same, and when you’ve run so many, the variance will be large from ‘big’ project to ‘small’ project, but nonetheless, these numbers have to be troubling even for us ‘repeats’. Troll Lord, although up in backers by 9 in their latest endeavor, took a bath in every other category, and if you look more closely, they also had a project get cancelled in November 2015 as it had only taken in $3,834 on 80 backers on a $12,000 goal. Trust me when I tell you that there is no one at Troll Lord dancing a jig about a $12,000 campaign only getting to $15,639. That total $ just isn’t going to keep the lights on, and on top of a failed campaign before it… ouch! Travis Hanson, assuming his project trends like it is (its lost money three days of the campaign thus far) will be looking like mad for freelance gigs to supplement what he’s going to have to put into this game because $8,000 campaign costs isn’t a lot on a card game (remember Danny’s failed project wanted $17000 for cards without art) so I know he was planning on lots of stretch goals to make up the difference and turn a profit.

As for me, I spent 2015 building clients, my backers going from 373 to 371, then up to 442, and 453 before November (that dreaded Kickstarter month, or so it seems) started the decline to 430 and then a dreaded 251…

And the strange thing, we as small publishers are only getting better at what we do. Our products are only getting cooler, more rounded, better depth, better production, and yet 2016 is a bloodletting, and I can’t say exactly why. Maybe we are getting too experimental. Troll Lord’s latest project was billed 5th Edition D&D, which goes against their OSR Castles & Crusades fanbase. Travis Hanson jumped from comic art books to card games, and his followers didn’t follow. Art of the Genre jumped from 5th/1st Edition D&D mechanics to Savage Worlds and the lights went out, and perhaps at the end of the day Dee’s fans have helped him create just a little too much of his old TSR artwork. Who can tell, but one thing is clear, something will need to change and change fast, or all the hard work these creators have put in to make themselves viable using Kickstarter will have gone for naught.

Connectivity seems to be waning, and Facebook, once the place to propel an independent Kickstarter is a complete marketing joke. Did you realize that Facebook now limits your ‘vision’ of friends to 3%, and if you pay to advertise to them it jumps to 20%? That means of Jeff Dee’s 4,952 Facebook friends, only 148 will even see a post about a Kickstarter, assuming they are scrolling their entire feed daily and don’t simply miss it. My first Kickstarter generated a respectable 16% of total pledges from Facebook’s feed. My last one, even with nearly 2000 more friends, two dedicated Facebook Art of the Genre pages, and Pinnacle’s (Savage Worlds) page pushing me generated just 1% of my total pledges. 1%!!!!! Facebook is dead for Kickstarter, so close your doors if that is your plan to get the word out.

This means you are going to lean more heavily on your backer list, compiled from years of marketing your projects and former pledging. Thus, start your Kickstarter career in 2012, not 2016. My list comprises some 2000 individuals, but again, I only see an average of 292, roughly a 14% close rate and that is through direct email with the AotG newsletter. If you don’t already have those emails, like Danny, you’re probably hurting right out of the box.

Point is, Kickstarter is hard, and that’s not because I’ve run 14 Kickstarters, or InExile has run half a dozen or whatever, it’s because the platform is ever changing, backers are more frugal with their dollars, and your project better be really strong if you want to dive into these waters. Either that or you are a recent graduate with a degree in marketing and can find incredible ways to get to perspective backers (like Nord Games has done, they are killing it).

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Thanks for your perspective on this Scott. FYI, I first found about your Folio projects by visiting your website. I had just gotten back into RPGs and D&D and was searching the web for someone who appreciated the old TSR artwork as art to be appreciated on its own merits. I’ve since supported all your folio projects (I was too late for the first one but bought that one from your web store), even #7 without even knowing what Savage Worlds was. I was a bit skeptical with #7 (mainly because I doubt I’m going to play Savage Worlds anytime soon), almost passing, but then I saw some of the awesome art you were going to include in it and couldn’t pass it up. I guess you’ve got me hook, line, and sinker, since when I saw the Kickstarter for #8, I almost pledged until I remembered I had already bought a subscription 🙂

Sarah Avery

Here’s something I wish I’d realized about a November Kickstarter campaign: KS sends the money to the creator before the turn of the calendar year, but if that’s the money you’re planning to use to hire artists, editors, or whatever else, there may not be time for them to complete their parts of the process until January. So the creator is taxed on the KS funds as income, and won’t have the benefit of claiming the expenses as deductions until the following year.

That’s probably not an issue for a creator who’s doing multiple crowdfunded projects a year for several years running — everything has a chance to even out. But if someone who’d never done a campaign asked me if I had any tips s/he might not hear from the more seasoned KS veterans, I’d say, pull the trigger in the first six months of the year.

Sarah Avery

One friend got an unexpected promotion and a reimbursement for business expenses she’d forgotten she had filed, and decided the best thing to do with an influx of unasked-for cash was to be a patron of the arts to the tune of $1001. She figured 1001 was an auspicious number for a woman storyteller. That’s not the kind of event one can count on in a Kickstarter campaign — first time, second time, or ever.

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