Interview with Order of the Stick creator about his record-breaking $1.2M Kickstarter campaign


On Singularity Hub, Aaron Saenz interviews Rich Burlew, creator of the D&D-oriented webcomic Order of the Stick, whose record-breaking Kickstarter project raised more than $1.2 million.

SH: Has this fundraiser altered your business model or were pre-orders for the books (through the reward system) so dominant that you’re in the same model, just on a larger scale?

RB: Definitely the latter. The fundraiser has been incredibly successful in generating sales (as well as wider interest in the comic) but ultimately, I can’t run one of these every few months and expect to get another million dollars each time. The likelihood of me ever getting anything close to this response again is very low, so I’m treating it as a one-time opportunity. That’s the main reason why I’m trying to use as much of the excess funding to make permanent improvements to my business—buying new equipment, upgrading the server, and so on. That way, when the attention dies down and I’m back to doing things the way I’ve always done them, there will be concrete long-term benefits to me and the readers.

SH: What was the secret to your success on Kickstarter, and how much do you think can be repeated by other projects in the future?

RB: The most obvious secret is to already have an audience to sell to. The best way to get that audience is to put out a product of reliable quality over a long enough period of time that potential backers have no doubts about your ability to pull off whatever it is you’re promising to pull off. I’ve been drawing The Order of the Stick for almost nine years, and I’ve already printed and delivered seven books in that time. While some of them have had the sort of production delays you would expect from a small business, the fact is that I had a pretty good track record when it comes to self-publishing. So when I went out and said, “Hey, I need some funds up front if you want to get more books,” no one thought that I wasn’t capable of actually turning those funds into books. And because I’ve drawn well over a thousand pages of comics, most of them viewable for free, they also knew the exact quality level to expect for any additional stories that I threw in to sweeten the deal. That level of confidence is essential if you want a lot of people to give you money for something that doesn’t exist yet.

Beyond that, if you start a Kickstarter project, tend to it constantly. I see a lot of projects that put up their initial pitch and then never touch it again until it closes—and then they wonder why it wasn’t funded. Stay involved in your project: post frequent updates, respond to comments, and engage with your backers. Make your pledge drive an event that people want to be part of instead of just a purchase. When you sell a book, you’re competing with every other book out there. When you sell an experience, it’s always one-of-a-kind.

One of the things that gets missed when we talk about the evolution of "business models" for creative labor is that the pre-Internet system made virtually no money for nearly everyone who tried it ("don't quit your day job"), returned something like a living for a small minority, and handed out lottery-ticket winnings to a statistically insignificant few. The Web's business models for creative endeavor make virtually no money for nearly everyone who tries them, return a precarious living to a small minority, and, as we see, deliver lottery-ticket dividends to a statistically insignificant few.

This is not to take away from Burlew's remarkable achievement, his preserverence, or his skill. But Burlew (and Amanda Hocking, and others) are no more proof that the Web "works" than all those people who grossed $1.08 on eight years' worth of Google AdSense are proof that it fails. As cool and awesome as Burlew's story is, it's the wrong metric for measuring the success of the Web as a creative medium.

Instead, we should ask ourself how many people got to try it out, how many audiences were served, how many creators reached audiences, and how diverse the gatekeepers between audiences and artists have become, so that one tastemaker's prejudices don't end up warping discourse and markets. I think on all of these metrics, the Web is doing very well by creators.

And yeah, it's handing out some lotto jackpots, too, and that's awesome.

The Crowd-Funding Phenomenon Continues – Comic Raises $1.2M on Kickstarter (+Q&A with Creator Rich Burlew)!

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  1. Speaking of successful Kickstarter campaigns, Tim Schafer’s proposal to make a point and click adventure game is over $3.2 million and closes in under an hour.

    1.  Wait…wait…wait…just a “proposal” has earned $3.2 M!?!? What is he giving away for that kind of scratch? I thought Kickstarter funds weren’t supposed to be used for living expenses. Surely all of that money isin’t going to go just to the game , is it?

      1. No the idea is the same behind any normal product. There still has to be profit made in order for it to be worth it. In answer to your original question, he’s selling a game and a lot of merch along with it (books, tshirts, etc.)

      2. Of course most of it will go on the game. Do you know how much cash goes into developing a mainstream game these days? This is but pocket change. Anyway, are you aware of who tim schafer is? It’s not like this is someone with no respected history in the business and according to him the budget for psychonauts was $13 million.

  2. This isn’t just a win for Burlew; it’s also a win for his fans. The ability to sidestep corporate forces, who would in the pre-internet era mediate the distribution of comics or money using some centralized decision making process, is obviously good for people who make things people want, but, from a utilitarian perspective, this is mostly good because of what it does for all the people who want things. That’s $1.2 million of AnCap democracy. And in a fucntioning democracy the real winners aren’t the candidates; they’re the voters.

  3. “The Web’s business models for creative endeavor make virtually no money for nearly everyone who tries them, return a precarious living to a small minority, and, as we see, deliver lottery-ticket dividends to a statistically insignificant few.”

    Amen, Cory! At least in the US folks are hung up by a lottery windfall mentality. “Overnight” millionaires are interesting and all, but I for one would love to hear more about the experiences of hundreds-of-thousandaires, or even the tens-of-thousandaires. 

  4. Err… Isn’t the “most fail, some make a living, and a very small number make it big” pattern pretty much true for any business, creative or otherwise?  And when you’re translating the business to the internet, you’re up against a LOT more competition.

    1.  Yeah, that’s the point–business models don’t change that much because they’re on the Internet.

      It’s true that you’re up against a lot more competition. It’s balanced by the fact that you have access to a lot more potential customers, in equal proportion.

  5. If Rich Burlew is happy, then I’m happy.  But Mr. Burlew didn’t run a Kickstarter for “Put 1.2 Million Dollars in Rich Burlew’s pocket.”  Which he deserves!  But he ran a Kickstarter to print books, and I’d suspect with the sudden onslaught of volume he’s not going to be keeping costs down by packaging and shipping them himself, so now he’ll likely have to tread carefully to come out with _some_ profit after all the pledge packages are honored.  Unless I’m very mistaken, Burlew’s “Jackpot” has netted him a huge win for his fans, as he says, a modest sum to bolster the infrastructure of his business…and maybe even a paycheck subsidy.  But that seems paltry in the face of a readership the size of his.

  6. Ah kickstarter, an easy way to gain funding for, well, anything.

    Want to appropriate another brand?  No problemo!  The folks at kickstarter don’t do any research on who you are,  where you’re from or whether the brand is already in use.

    I also have to wonder whether or not they’re filing CTR/SAR reports for income over 10k.

    1. Want to appropriate another brand?  No problemo!  The folks at kickstarter don’t do any research on who you are,  where you’re from or whether the brand is already in use.

      Has this actually been a problem or are you just looking for stuff to complain about?  (There are probably worse things going on the world, just sayin’.)

  7. “we should ask ourself how many people got to try it out, how many audiences were served, how many creators reached audiences, and how diverse the gatekeepers between audiences and artists have become, so that one tastemaker’s prejudices don’t end up warping discourse and markets. I think on all of these metrics, the Web is doing very well by creators.”

    Well, this is the long-tail argument writ large – if the aggregators of content prove they have a lucrative business model, then the serfs that create content for them should rejoice in having the privilege to participate in this. That’s hardly something to celebrate in my eBook. You listen to Jaron Lanier, he’s probably the only guy in tech who feels there needs to be some giveback written into the structure of all of these social media enterprises which profit from their audience’s participation. But believe me, this WILL change, as people begin to pull away and create their own networks that are collectively owned and operated. It’s happening now as we speak.

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