Why Kickstarters May Not Sell at Retail
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.
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.”
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.