The Flaws of Kickstarter, part 2

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Part 1

by M.K. Reed

And a repetition of the disclaimer from Part 1 for skippers: before anyone gets offended: No one is a bad person for using Kickstarter. It’s a tool in our toolbox for these tough economic times, and it has genuinely helped a lot of creators get their work into print who otherwise might not have been able to do that. For groups working on a project together, even better! As mechanism for fundraising or pre-sales, when the money’s put in the right hands, we can all feel nice about it. Good for you if you’ve been able to make it work, I am genuinely happy for your success.

For artists, (and I mostly mean indie artists) Kickstarter is a blessing and a curse. The upsides for creators have been praised by plenty of others: hey, free money! The downsides mostly boil down to stunting your artistic growth and releasing a substandard product into an overcrowded marketplace. That’s not a practice limited to Kickstarter by any means, but it’s greatly enabled by risk-free money.

Firstly, for book production, or whatever it is that’s being produced, let us assume that one has actually produced material worthy of being published by any small press who would like to do so. Kickstarter give you the means to produce your work, but leaves the execution up to you. If it’s your first time working with a printer, there’s a pretty good chance you don’t know what you’re doing, in which case, your end product will likely suffer; it will not look as good as it possibly can, as a more experienced designer would avoid beginning’s mistakes. This creation ought to go out and compete in the marketplace. If it looks cruddy, it won’t sell. And what might have been good as a handmade mini will look awful as an epic graphic novel with 20 pages of extras section complete with character development sketches and secret back stories.

Any publisher worth their salt will have their designer put your book together correctly, put an isbn on it, get it properly distributed through whatever channels they can, ensure that it looks fantastic as a product, and do at least minimum of promotion in whatever avenues they can get. As an established producer of quality material with a previous reputation, they have better access than an individual. They might have a devoted person on staff who spends all day corresponding with media outlets, or a marketing budget, or a warehouse for storing books so they aren’t taking up all your closet space while you wait for orders to roll in, but at the very least, you get a second set of experienced eyes watch over you, and a small stamp of quality assurance when someone else puts out your book. You also aren’t burdened by repetitive tasks like order fulfillment, and can go on to create your next masterpiece. It takes a lot of effort to self-publish, and as an individual, you might not be ready for it.

But what if quality-wise, you’re not ready for publication? Well, you have the money, it’s a no-risk situation, let’s go for it! Regardless of if you’re actually ready to, even if the material is extremely niche, or a little wonky looking or plot-holey or really cliched, the gal who drew it is so nice, we really all want to support her. Never mind that another two years of struggling with her art will force her to make some breakthroughs that will greatly improve it. When you spend a few years paying your dues, you get better. You learn what not to do, what to be wary of, and how to conduct your business. Failure leads to growth, and then to success. Getting everything you ever wanted is not always the best thing that can happen to you, and can ruin a budding talent.

Friends don’t want to hurt you, and they’ll just say it’s nice to spare your feelings, or hit the like button, which is neither a helpful criticism or compliment. An editor will gently tear your work apart and help you rebuild it into the best work you’re capable of. They’ll encourage you to do the things you do best, and point out where you sparkle. An endless feedback loop of accolades delivered with an instant cash prize can stunt a young artist and prevent them from reaching their fullest potential, either as an artist or storyteller. This is bad for comics, even if we all feel good for the guy that got some money.

For the niche projects, it’s great that you can draw portraits of every Pokemon in an even more adorable way than their original IP manufacturer did, but if that becomes your only output, where is the motivation to create anything unique? (I pick on Pokemon as an example only because its very theme song is its own commercial that commands you to consume its entire line of product.) If you can’t create anything unique, at best you can hope to draw licensed characters for giant international corporations, and pray that they give you a fair deal for your work. It’s a decent way to earn a paycheck, but not entirely stable, and you can work a lifetime without building a body of work that you own if you’re a bad negotiator. And it’s a field that stagnating before our very eyes, as conglomerates dictate who are heroes are, what they wear, and how they’ll do their jobs. Going on your own with other people’s IP, you’ll get sued as soon as you try to make a dollar.

Part of building a career as an artist is figuring out how to sustain yourself on the money you make from your book and/or merchandise sales. Part of that meant storing up your nuts for winter, or dollars for your next printing. Learning good business practices is part of that, and how to build a back catalogue of work, and how to make money off of it. Sometimes working for the Big Two will be a part of that, and you can do what you love and earn a paycheck, and if you negotiate with them well you’ll even get to do something of your own you love.

But Kickstarter lets you to skip some crucial steps on that path, and there’s no training ground for artists under their system. Digital comics have made it easier and harder to make a living at the same time- it’s difficult to charge for content, regardless of whether you’re as talented as Jordan Crane and your gorgeous work of sequential art is debased by being referred to as “content.” The medium has more depth and breadth than it ever has, but we’ve been dealt a blow to our nurturing system, with fewer outlets for creators to work with a mentor who understands how to help them craft a good story. We don’t need Kickstarters, we need ten more Anne Koyamas.

[MK Reed is the author of the upcoming graphic novel Americus, and the webcomic About a Bull. The opinions expressed within do not necessarily reflect those of the Beat.]

Comments

  1. Although there are things I disagree with in your article, I infinitely agree with that very last line:
    “We don’t need Kickstarters, we need ten more Anne Koyamas.”

    :)

  2. I have to say that MOST Kickstarter campaigns that showcase a substandard comics product don’t tend to get fully funded. There are exceptions to be sure, but that is generally the rule: You have to at least have something cool to show in order to get any attention.

    The marketplace can sniff out substandard work, and react accordingly.

  3. Great article and yes, we do need more Annie Koyamas!

  4. Calvin Reid says:

    This is certainly a necessary article. But let’s be for-reals, I know for a fact that perfectly respectable conventional publishers have saddled comics and other works with bad design, horrible printing (I know of at least one instance where pages in a GN were published horribly out of sequence), and absolutely clueless marketing, especially when it involves graphic novels.

    Of course she’s right to point out that self-publishing is a huge amount of work and that submitting works to publishers is a useful and important step at getting professional feedback and understanding whats expected by the market. But really, while the creator published by a conventional house won’t have to fulfill sales orders, they probably will have to do a large measure of the promotion and marketing–thats the reality of publishing today and was so even before social media showed up.

    The problem here is that the reason why self-publishing is exploding everywhere is that conventional publishers actually don’t always do a very good job. And when they get the design and printing right, they can’t sell it anyway. The bad stuff she mentions about Kickstarter can happen at a conventional publisher. Obviously some publishers are better than others. But that doesn’t mean the good ones will publish your book, even its a good and well crafted book.

    Artists should always be careful and ruthlessly self-critical about their own work. Self-publishing (and Kickstarter, as Reed points out) has its advantages as does conventional publishing, if you can get a conventional publisher. Indeed a carefully crafted and well managed self-publishing venture can help a creator get published in the old fashioned way, if that’s what the creator wants.

  5. John McCarthy says:

    Damn, but you’re a smart woman. I agree wholeheartedly.
    In the broader sense, the same caveats apply to “publishing” on the Web in the first place. Since anyone can publish their art or writing with little barrier to entry, we have the largest slush pile in history on display for the world to see.
    On the one hand, I applaud the positive attitude and warm support of the Webcomics community for their own, as they encourage all their brethren to post their creations—no matter how primitive or poorly executed.
    On the other hand, much of it isn’t even worthy for the refrigerator door, let alone as a subscription online with a tip jar or worse: a POD on CreateSpace.
    I know many say, “let the market decide.” What’s good will sell and what sucks…won’t. But, as a lover of comics and cartooning for over 40 years, I’m put off when I see substandard comicking done by creators who—apparently—never even paid attention to the art form they claim to love. Bad layout/lettering/design, never mind about the story/gag/artwork.
    I can’t bring myself to recommend these comics. I just try to say nothing at all. But, where’s Simon Cowell when you need him?

  6. Great post by Calvin Reid. I agree that Kickstarter has a strong set of built-in advantages, perhaps the first and biggest (after the $$) being the publicity campaign that has to come together in order to get the book funded in the first place, via Kickstarter.

    I’ve seen several friends and acquaintances in the comics world have a book debut and hit the market with a dull thud, because there wasn’t enough marketing support from their big publishers, something big publishers are supposed to bring to the table. And I’ve seen plenty of books published without really being edited, another thing that’s supposed to be an advantage of traditional publishing houses, big or small.

    With Borders going away and Indie bookstores becoming more important again, maybe the same will be true of self-publishers or indie-publishers? The publishing world is going through yet another evolution and margins in publishing are very, very small. If Kickstarter allows the creator to keep more of those margins and helps the creator successfully promote and self-publish a project, it can’t be all bad.

    Though… I say the above with a caveat in mind. I must admit, some of the projects on Kickstarter leave a bad taste in my mouth. I find it discomfiting when publishers appeal to the crowd for money to publish their own projects, or to fund the publishing of a book they’d intended to publish anyway. That seems to run counter to the ( or just my?) idea of what Kickstarter is about.

  7. I rly like your article, it reminds me of The Ladders job site commercial( http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=WhqqAUh1VPU)
    in a way quality control. I wish I read this before I launched my Kickstarter.

    Earlier this summer I attempted to start a kickstarter for 3D(sculpture) comic adaptation of the Time Machine, but because I was ill prepared for settting it up(no video rly hurt it) it failed to get funded. reading this was an echo of my experiance where it seemed that Kickstarter is more for established yet unknown creators than total unknowns(like me), but I can say that just setting up the Kickstarter did get me noticed by a publisher and was a good learning experience through the failure.

  8. Leon Avelino says:

    Hi, Calvin! Keeping it for-reals, it seems to me that technology has made for the sudden explosion of self-published work, in the same way it makes the existence of boutique publishers possible. There are a limited number of opportunities for cartoonists to get their work published at houses large and small, and an unlimited number of opportunities for them to publish their own work. Your suggestion that there’s a boom in self-publishing because publishers are doing a bad job just sounds fishy to me.

    Bypassing editorial input is probably a mistake, no matter how self-critical the creator may be. If publishers don’t do enough to market their books, it would seem to be a dangerous proposition to leave that responsibility to the authors. While I have no idea what actual sales numbers are for Kickstarter-funded comics, with few exceptions, their presence in terms of press is pretty thin. I’m curious as to how many self-published books Publisher’s Weekly reviews. It doesn’t seem to be a very common occurrence that a self-published comic will register with reviewers of your caliber.

    Simply printing a book, as is the exclusive focus of nearly every comics Kickstarter project, is not enough. If Kickstarter can function as a support mechanism for cartoonists, having the support of an actual publisher might be that much better.

  9. Full Disclosure: I ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund the Reading With Pictures anthology in the Spring/Summer of 2010.

    Without Kickstarter, the “Reading With Pictures anthology” (which has received 2 Harvey nominations) wouldn’t have been possible. Without Kickstarter, our organization wouldn’t have the funding necessary to hire our first employee and begin actively developing tools to teach teachers how to teach with comics. Without Kickstarter, I wouldn’t have been hired to serve as Director of Publishing for Legendary Comics.

    Kickstarter is a powerful tool. One I’m certainly thankful was in my toolbox when I set out to create the “RWP anthology.” Like any tool, it can certainly be used improperly. But that doesn’t mean it’s Kickstarter’s fault – anymore than a hammer is responsible for a poorly designed house.

  10. Calvin Reid says:

    Leon, you’re absolutely right! Technology has given artists and creators incredible options for reaching an audience

  11. Calvin makes alot of great points about the publishing industry in general that completely capture why we opted for a self-published book through a successful Kickstarter campaign after plenty of publishing experience with real publishers. Our experience with legit publishing houses was inspirational in that it taught is exactly what needed to get done by observing what they were often either too disinterested to do. Kickstarter is just one of the options in a new and exciting paradigm that is legitimizing self-publishing in a real way. Like print on demand, web comics, and ebooks, it’s empowering for people who 10 years ago might not have been able to pull together the resources required to go at it on their own.

  12. Josh: That’s awesome! That’s exactly what I want to hear more of.

  13. MK makes a lot of good points in both articles. The fact is, lots of artists will take shortcuts if offered, no matter what it may be. Quite honestly, when book companies were throwing contracts at anyone with a pencil a few years ago, there were several cartoonists who hadn’t put in the work to be good enough to do something of any worth.

    For me, Kickstarter is ideal for those artists who have done the work who just need capitalization. For the small press, it can have a big impact on projects that a boutique publisher is willing to release but can’t afford to print. Case in point: Gay Genius, the anthology edited by Annie Murphy. Murphy is CCS-educated and already won a Xeric grant. Sparkplug was willing to publish this very interesting anthology but didn’t have the funds to do it the way she wanted (full color). Kickstarter bridged that gap, and the result is a beautiful book.

    At its heart, Kickstarter is a vanity fundraising effort, not a real strategy for establishing a career as an artist. At its best, it should be there to capitalize a finished product that a respectable boutique publisher can help with, or else providing money for a publishing format that would otherwise be out of reach.

    Maybe it hurts a cartoonist’s growth to get free money like this. But I’m not sure that the cartoonists it might hurt would be willing to do the work anyway. And they won’t be able to get Kickstarter projects funded indefinitely if they don’t get better, especially if they start asking for ridiculous amounts of money.

  14. Kat Kan says:

    I’ve been pretty careful about the Kickstarter projects I support; I did support Josh Elder’s campaign, and my students at school really enjoyed the book. And John Gallagher and friends are using Kickstarter – they’re self-publishers, and I already like their books (Buzzboy, Roboy Red, Leon), so for me it was a safe bet to support them. I think MK Reed (by the way, read Americus – my teen son thinks it’s fantastic) has made a lot of good points, all that I keep in mind before I support a project.

  15. Kat – I’m so glad your students enjoyed the anthology! There is more forthcoming – I promise!

    And to all – I think that Kickstarter is already starting to evolve and that, like with any new technology or sales channel, early adopters had huge advantages that will inevitably subside. Good projects (and savvy marketing) will always win the day in the end. Kickstarter is/will be no different.

  16. Interesting points, all, and thanks to Kat for the mention– Our current Kickstarter for a set of GN’s is just $650 shy of our goal– and Josh’s analogy is one of perfection.

    A few points:

    1. “Free Money.” As a creator asking for backing, I don’t see any money as free– Kickstarter is also pretty clear that rewards, or in this case, comics are expected for backers. As a creator, I feel a responsibility for the folks who are backing me– these are the very readers I am unable to reach through comics shops as an independent creator and publisher, so I take it very seriously. This isn’t a charity.

    2. As someone who has made their living as a web and graphic designer the last 20 years, in the tech industry, the idea of venture or angel support is common– with early adopters getting the best rewards– this is definitely the case with Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a project business plan. As in the tech industry, those who were cautious and invested wisely are still around, while those who were wasteful with their VC money are long gone.

    3. Finally, M.K., you have a book coming out from a respected and decent sized publisher, with a book that has great reviews, and based on what I have seen is very good. And you obviously worked hard to get where you are, without Kickstarter. And that’s why this seems more a case of “I had to suffer, so why shouldn’t they.” mentality.

    13 years ago, as I was just getting ready to publish for the first time, a well known comics creator joined a bunch of us fledgling creators on a message board and told us “there are already enough comics creators, so you should keep out.” Literally, this is what was stated. If I had listened, it would have been no big deal. But what about all the creators over the last 13 years who have shown up and proven there is always room for good stories.

    As you would probably agree, we don’t do comics because we want to make money, but because we need to make comics. Any tool that gets us there is important– including Kickstarter.

    Thanks again for some great thoughts.

  17. Torsten Adair says:

    Reading this second part, it seems to me that what is needed is a “Comics Publishing” course. What are the alternatives to Kickstarter? What are the alternatives to self-publishing? How can professional feedback be garnered?

    I’ve been collecting comics and studying the industry since 1984. I catalog product for Barnes & Noble, and I see an amazing amount of review copies come through the office. Yup, I grab every graphic novel or comic strip collection I can, but a lot never get read, just scanned. I am in awe of our staff in the Small Press department… the stuff they have to look at every day… I’d go crazy, or start a snarky blog.

    Are there freelance editors and designers? Do companies like Kablam! offer layout advice and tutorials? What of other Print-On-Demand publishers like Lulu, Lightning Source, and BookSurge/CreateSpace?

    Do any online universities offer courses? I’ve been lucky living in New York: NYU offers courses (and certificate programs) in writing and publishing. I can take a class for a semester, then claim the tuition on my income tax return. (Hmmm…. Kickstarter for college tuition?)

    I prefer the webcomic model for funding. Create on a regular schedule, receive immediate and frequent critiques, build a following, and fund the first printing from readers online. But whatever works… just make sure you have a business model, and, if time permits, a business degree. Learn as much as you can from everyone else, be it Jeff Smith, Colleen Doran, Donna Barr, or Paul Levitz.

  18. See: previous post on Part One.

    Lance Roger Axt
    The AudioComics Company

  19. Full disclosure for me – I’m currently running a Kickstarter campaign, although instead of putting together a comic, I’m putting together a board game.
    Initially, I may have agreed with the flaws cited. I have a pretty solid fanbase for my comic, and when we put out preorders we tend to get enough support from them that giving a cut to Kickstarter and a cut to amazon seemed silly. It became a cost decision for me – I didn’t see gaining enough of a new audience to cancel out the losses in capital. The more I followed the numbers and actually tracked out the numbers, and that initial gut feeling was clearly wrong.
    I also found out one key detail that made Kickstarter even more important – PayPal changed their terms of service, making it not kosher to take cash for a preorder that doesn’t deliver a product back FAST. I can’t remember what the time period is, but I want to say it’s about a month. So Kickstarter’s pledge system buys artists time. Noticeably, Kickstarter is addressing the time issue too, as they’re now starting to require those putting together rewards to list when those rewards will become available.

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