Why Kickstarters May Not Sell at Retail

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A couple of months ago, Brian Hibbs wrote a great column about the problems a retailer may have in deciding whether to stock a crowdfunded product.

it seems super-attractive to cut out the middleman and go directly to your patrons. The problem that I see is that the actual business model in comics (and probably all art in general, but I’m only certain about my specialty) is the long-game.

That is to say: the real benefit comes not from how many copies of your comic you sell today, upfront, this moment, but how many you sell tomorrow and next month, and next year and next decade. When we discuss actual success in comics, it seems to me that the measurement is best made in the long-game. “Hotness” is great, and you can make a whole lot of money upfront and fast in certain situations, but the amount of money that, say, Watchmen made as a serialized release utterly pales in comparison to the accumulation that has occurred over the decades that have followed.

Now, some people may only want that quick hit. They may not have or want a long-term plan. It depends on whether you want to make one book or have a career.

Kickstarter logo

Hibbs goes on to point out that stores have to make decisions about what they’ll put on their shelves in the limited space available. If a retailer thinks a product has already sold to the majority of their audience, during their Kickstarter period, then why invest in it?

my experiences with Kickstarters is that they suck all of the oxygen out of the room at the start — they’re drawing away much, if not all, of the 80% of dollars that the 20% most passionate customers can spend. That makes us significantly more gun-shy to try and support a work over the long- or even medium-haul. I will go so far as to say that I can not think of a single Kickstarted book that has gone on to be successful book for us — even when I supported the “retailer tier” style offers, and had access before the rest of the market.

Because the goal can’t just be “have enough material to make a book” — it also has to be “…and position that book for long-term sales with a variety of partners.” The more folks in retail you have stumping for you (or even simply tacitly supporting by passively racking), the more chances you have to expand your audience. A single spine of a single book won’t do very much for your career, but having three volumes of your ongoing work begins to make each book sell the other ones. The goal, as I see it, is to grow both your audience as well as your library, and throwing out the easiest market for a retailer (the initial sales interest) makes it harder to offer the resources to allow retailers to help you do those things.

Then there’s the big question — can crowdfunding be a continuing process for success?

Kickstarting project after project would seem to me to be very much against the intentions of the mechanism. Moreover, when I see a creator go back for the second and third (or more) books, I think “This is a person who doesn’t understand how business is meant to work” — getting capital is always the hardest part for any kind of start up business, but once you have that capital, you need to leverage it to build more capital on its own.

… this criticism absolutely extends to “real” publishers in a much stronger way. In theory there’s no reason that a publisher couldn’t generate some content using crowd-funding, but what the real-world impact is is that it makes it appear that you’re not a solvent or capable business. It is one thing if you’re picking up a Kickstarted work because that showed you that the creator(s) bring the “A Game” to promotion and craft, it is another thing we your turn to the crowd and say “We can’t (or won’t) afford to do this on our own.”

Brian Hibbs at Comix Experience

Hibbs is referring to the recent Archie debacle, where they tried to raise $350,000 to publish relaunches of their ongoing comic titles. That seems like a pretty basic function a publisher should be able to fulfill without begging for handouts, and Archie’s reward levels were kind of ridiculous. (A $10 pledge got you a digital copy of one of the comics. If you waited until after release, that would be $3 at usual pricing.) In spite of attempted publisher justification, after much backlash, the effort was canceled after four days. They didn’t seem to understand how to effectively use the platform and annoyed retailers by appearing to cut them out of the loop.

In comparison, Fantagraphics ran a successful Kickstarter without annoying their customers (comic stores) (more than they do anyway). And Digital Manga continues to run Kickstarters without yet exhausting the method, although they also had some high-profile failures.

In short, when you’re coming to regular people asking for money, they’re going to react to your request emotionally, and they’re going to expect transparency and reasonable rewards.

If you are a company the size of Archie (or even a Dark Horse, an IDW, a BOOM! or Avatar or Dynamite), you’re perceived as a viable content-producing business, and one that should be, for content alone, self-sustaining. If you wanted to go to the crowd for something that’s outside of your wheelhouse, something totally new to you, then maybe the public can support that — I don’t even know that I necessarily have a good example of what kind of product extension that might be — but when you’re talking about the core of your business, the thing you’re supposed to actually be competent and capable with? I have a hard time picturing the crowd embracing you. The crowd is happy to support a sad story, or if you’re momentarily down-on-your-luck, or otherwise blindsided by something unexpected. But ongoing aspects of your core business? Hard to see.

Hibbs concludes by saying “Kickstarter does not appear to be an additive business model generating new leads and business — it appears to be taking money from one pocket and moving it to another.” And he, understandably, doesn’t want that pocket taken from to be his.

In my case, sometimes Kickstarter acts as marketing, particularly in the case of a wildly successful effort. There have been crowdfunded projects I’ve only heard about after the pledging period has ended, so I’ve had to wait until they become available through comic shops (or at conventions) to get a copy. That’s not the most common experience, though. Most of the time, Hibbs is right — the guaranteed customers get their copies directly, and there’s no point in stores stocking the books, unless the publisher is very good at continued marketing and building new audiences. Crowdfunding works best if you have a large, long-standing fanbase, and you’re cutting out the middleman of the stores, so to continue selling, you need some way to reach those customers who don’t already know who you are.


  • Thank you so much for this wonderful response to the Brian Hibbs piece! I am a serial Kickstarter backer who loves physical copies of webcomics, so this conversation has been extremely interesting to me.

    I’d like to weigh in with my personal experience concerning Kickstarter projects in comic book stores. The store I spend the most time in is the Big Planet Comics branch on U Street in Washington DC, but what I’m about to write is far from specific to them. I love going into comic book stores to browse, and I have discovered some amazing books whose publication I later learned was funded through Kickstarter. However, the majority of prestige shelf space in these stores is devoted to the monthly releases of DC and Marvel comics, with a somewhat lesser emphasis on smaller outfits like Image and Boom! Studios. In addition, table displays tend to be new graphic novel releases. If you want to find zines, micro comics, and other independently published work – like Kickstarter projects – you really have to go digging around through awkward spin racks and unorganized shelves covered in piles of paper.

    Essentially, I suppose I’m laying part of the blame on the stores themselves. I don’t feel bad about this for two reasons. First, they already take all my money anyway. Second, I feel like I’ve been waiting years for even the tiniest shift away from superhero comics, but it’s been slow in coming. Ms. Marvel is great, and all, but why can’t we have Ms. Marvel and something like Johnny Wander sharing the same space?

    I will openly admit I know very little about the various issues at play, though. Is there something I’m missing?

  • In some cases through, the creators are doing something unique that won’t get the support it needs to exist if it was left to the traditional markets. A perfect example of this is Smut Peddler, an adults only (strike one) anthology (strike two) of porn stories aimed at women (strike three).

    Marketing through the direct market is a tough thing. You need to 1. Market to fans and 2. Market to retailers, trying to convince them those fans exist and will buy the book if they ordered it. A good way to do #2 is the convince fans to go to stores and pre-order the book (aka buy it sight unseen, not something every potential fan is willing to do) often months in advance. Then get those fans to go back to the store when the comic comes out and buy it. This sounds standard and normal for comic stores used to serving dedicated comic fans, but not so much to people doing comics for not dedicated comic fans.

    I’m not surprised that creators find it so much easier to market it directly to fans (via kickstarter) and sell it to them at the same time. Especially if they don’t have that much of a history within the traditional comics market, but are talented artists with their own not considered commercial creative voice.

  • A few notes:

    1. Brian’s assumption is that the comic store market adequately reaches all customers, which isn’t the case. Brian stocks widely in a very cosmopolitan city, but that doesn’t reach tens of thousands of people out there– it’s like questioning how much of digital edition sales cuts into store sales versus sales that can’t be made any other way. So it is with crowdfunding, people who run crowdfunding campaigns can often reach audiences that have little overlap with traditional comic markets.

    2. Some crowdfunding campaigns do try to bring retailers in, by offering bulk copies at retailer discounts. Kickstarter’s terms of services explicitly prohibit this, Indiegogo allows it.

    3. Depending on when the campaign is done, a publisher can use a crowdfunding campaign to determine if there’s sufficient interest to make producing the project worthwhile. Again, different sort of long game.

  • In the full column, which I obviously didn’t want to copy entirely, Brian briefly addresses the Kickstarter retailer level approach, so you may want to read that, Glenn. Although this is the first I’ve heard that that’s technically Kickstarter illegal.

  • You’ll also note that some campaigns on KS ignore the admonition against retailers, with varying levels of success– a few of them have been pulled.

    I can’t believe Brian’s statement, “I will go so far as to say that I can not think of a single Kickstarted book that has gone on to be successful book for us — even when I supported the “retailer tier” style offers, and had access before the rest of the market.” because I can’t believe he doesn’t sell decent numbers of Girl Genius, and couldn’t sell decent numbers of Menage a 3, Atomic Robo, Ava’s Demon, SMBC, and many many others.

    Perhaps the problem is that people who crowdfund find it difficult to get distributed to comic stores later? They do tend to be one-off and are less likely to have the infrastructure to support a publishing line.

    One other note: going by the campaign we’re currently running (Help Norm Breyfogle with the Whisper Campaign!) at least 25% of the orders are coming from overseas, so they probably weren’t going to be buying from Brian directly anyway.

  • Mike

    The Archie Kickstarter ended for reasons more complicated than represented here. 1) The campaign was not simply to fund the titles they wanted to put out because they couldn’t pay for it themselves. Archie had recently made a deal to place their books in retailers like Walmart and they wanted to release several new titles all at once. Having a major set of releases like that would have generated even more interest in their updated titles. 2) The campaign was not a failure financially; they were regularly getting backers. It was the uproar by people outside of Kickstarter, outside of the campaign, people who weren’t going to support it anyway, who complained about it and forced it to end. Archie was attempting to get positive buzz by experimenting with how Kickstarter worked, with their updated titles, and with the multiple releases. When they received flak from the Internet destruction machine, they ended the campaign to avoid making the issue snowball any bigger than it was. 3) The company offered many different levels of support and, given that there were many backers for their release, that means there were a lot of people who did NOT feel that these offerings were ridiculous.

    The purpose of Kickstarters is not necessarily to sell big through retailers. Often it is just to enable creators to get a sense of the market for their projects, to build upon pre-existing audiences built through Web comics, etc., to build a resume of projects they’ve completed and sold, to pay for the printing and shipping costs of the getting the project to interested customers, and most of all to get their stories out there. Getting books in retail stores–even just a few copies per store–can be an accomplishment for an artist breaking into the industry or into independent comics. These projects can become calling cards to get a creator’s foot in the door to get regular comic work.

    Hibbs states, “Kickstarter does not appear to be an additive business model generating new leads and business — it appears to be taking money from one pocket and moving it to another.” Isn’t that what a business model is, to generate sales? Frequently, Kickstarters and independent publishing are meant to bypass retailers altogether. Audiences are built and catered to, word of mouth builds within a community, and the savvy creator generates his/her own income without worrying about placing work in stores. I recently went to an authors’ seminar that included a horror writer (not in comics or using Kickstarter) whose Internet sales at times rival the biggest names in the genre. He told me he had no intention of going the typical retailer route because he was doing perfectly well with the Internet model he was following.

    In the past, retailers and publishers have acted as gatekeepers controlling whose work gets seen and sold. These platforms can offer viable alternatives for creators outside of that system.

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