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.