Drink A Glass Of Water: Greg Pak On ‘Kickstarter Secrets’ And How To Be Successful At Crowdfunding
To say that Greg Pak has had considerable success using Kickstarter over the past few years is putting it pretty mildly. Thanks to his collaborations with Jonathan Coulton --- a musician so successful that his fans can take over a cruise ship every year for a massive seafaring party --- Pak has been a part of some of the most successful Kickstarter campaigns in history. And now, he's looking to share some tips with the rest of us.
With his new project, Kickstarter Secrets, Pak is compiling advice and tips that he's learned from his experiences into a book that will be --- of course --- funded on Kickstarter. To find out more, ComicsAlliance spoke to Pak about why communicating with backers is key, why you should always drink a glass of water, and whether his advice is really applicable to those of us who aren't teaming up with superstar musicians.
ComicsAlliance: Greg, it seems like we only talk when you’ve got a Kickstarter going, but I guess that’s probably because you’ve been doing quite a few of them over the past few years.
Greg Pak: Yeah, I did one in 2013, two in 2015, and now this one. It's kinda becoming a thing, I guess!
CA: So what has that experience been like, as opposed to other things you’ve done? In addition to the Kickstarter-funded comics, you’ve worked for major publishers, and you’ve even done a book that you literally gave away for free, so you’ve published through a variety of avenues.
GP: Yep. I tend to jump on whatever opportunity arises that seems to offer the best chance of telling cool stories or working on great projects, so it's a thrill being able to write for Marvel and DC and I'm hugely grateful for that. At the same time, there are projects I'm hungry to do that fit better with indie publishers or through venues like Kickstarter, and on a business level, I think it's smart to have some diversity in the kinds of projects you're undertaking, too.
Kickstarter has been great for allowing me and my collaborators to get some projects out into the world in a very efficient way, reaching out directly to the people who want them the most and getting them from script to actual physical book in a pretty short amount of time.
CA: So with that in mind, how do you decide what goes where? What’s the difference that determines whether you pitch a project to a publisher or take it directly to the readers to be funded on Kickstarter?
GP: It involves weighing a lot of reasoned calculations and concrete numbers plus a bit of what you feel in your gut. Sometimes a project just seems too big or long-term for Kickstarter. I have some projects I really want to do as ongoing comic book series. That's a hard thing to make work as a Kickstarter for both budgetary and scheduling reasons.
And sometimes a project just screams to be done on Kickstarter. Code Monkey Save World felt like that. It was a graphic novel based on the songs of internet superstar musician Jonathan Coulton. Why go to a publisher when "internet superstar" is in your collaborator's name? Jonathan had direct contact with thousands of fans. The most efficient way to get that book done was to go directly to them. And I couldn't not do Kickstarter Secrets through Kickstarter. Right? I mean, how cowardly would I look if I didn't use Kickstarter to fund a book of Kickstarter tips?
I also like the idea of doing Kickstarter Secrets through Kickstarter because it means the book will be out pretty much as soon as it's written, which means its contents will be as timely as they can be. With a how-to book in the internet age, that feels critical.
CA: Well, you bring up something that I’m sure is a criticism you’re going to run into a lot. You’ve had Kickstarter success working with Jonathan Coulton, who already had a massive fanbase --- and even without him, you’re a well-known comics creator with a bunch of high-profile runs under your belt. How do you balance that out with giving practical advice for people who might be just starting out in their careers?
GP: That's totally a valid question. A few thoughts: Most of the advice in Kickstarter Secrets will apply to any project of any size. Whether you're an industry vet running a Kickstarter that's hitting six figures or a beginner trying to raise two grand, you're going to have to grapple with budgeting, planning rewards that make sense, coming up with concise, clear, compelling ways to talk about your project, and figuring out how to reach out to whatever network you have to get the word out without spamming.
Also, Kickstarter Secrets will provide very practical information and numbers to help folks wrap their heads around the costs of projects of different sizes so both beginners and veterans can figure out if their project makes sense given the support they can mobilize. Figuring out a project that's the right scale for you at whatever point you're at in your career is key. And the process of figuring that out is the same, regardless of what level you're at.
The actual Kickstarter for Kickstarter Secrets might even be a pretty good example of that. I was honestly and literally getting sweaty palmed about it this morning before I hit the big green launch button, because it's a different kind of book for me and I knew the potential audience for it would be considerably more niche than the audience for the children's books or JoCo projects I've done in the past. So I worked hard to scale it realistically and keep my budget as low as I could and still provide a great product in the end. My initial ask was $2000. That's tiny compared to the initial ask for Code Monkey, which was $39,000. But I think it was realistic.
And then there's the fact that although I absolutely have an advantage when it comes to Kickstarter because of the years I've spent making comics and building a reputation and contacts, I sure didn't start out that way. Like everyone, I had to build my audience and skills and reputation bit by bit over the years. So when I talk about promotion and publicity, I'll go over how I built up the networks over years and years that eventually became so helpful when I launched Kickstarters.
Hopefully that'll be helpful to folks. Part of the idea behind the book is that it's a good idea not to just think in terms of one Kickstarter campaign as a discrete thing, but to think of your entire career and how you're building your skills and audience and how this particular campaign fits into and contributes towards painting that big picture.
Finally --- and probably most importantly after all that yammering --- as stretch goals, I'm going to be doing interviews with some amazing creators who have had great Kickstarter experiences that are a little different from mine. And one of those people is Amy Chu, who's now writing Poison Ivy for DC. But she started out doing completely independent work and ran a couple of small Kickstarters that were critical in getting those books out into the world. So Kickstarter Secrets will include her perspective on coming up, which I think will be absolutely essential.
CA: That’s all good to know, but I do think it would be a pretty boss move if people got the book and the first page was “Step One: Write Superman.”
GP: Ha! Well, honestly, Step One is "Build the skills and audience necessary to get the support for the project you want to do." The trick is scaling that project to fit the skills and audience you have. So if your audience is small, start small. Aim for the realistic. And build from there.
CA: Was there a particular experience that you had on one of your previous Kickstarter projects that gave you the most useful information?
GP: Before we launched Code Monkey, I'd read about a number of Kickstarter horror stories in which creators miscalculated postage or some other costs and ended up with a horrible deficit. So we were incredibly paranoid about costs and numbers. Jonathan and I kept separate spread sheets to track costs and compared them constantly. And we did pretty darn well in terms of not goofing up --- partly because we always rounded up and added some buffer here and there.
But I made a couple of mistakes that stuck with me. I miscalculated the cost of shipping mugs, for one, by forgetting that you can't cram a mug and a book into a Priority Mail flat rate envelope. That's something I should have figured out much earlier --- because I should have packed a sample box and figured out exactly how to mail it. So that was a good lesson.
And then I made a pretty obvious scheduling mistake. I'd based our original delivery date on the idea that we were making a 60 page book. But after all the stretch goals were done, the book had expanded to 110 pages. That was awesome, of course. But it meant that we needed more time in the schedule to make all those pages.
And that also meant we hit the Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's holidays, which added even more days to the schedule. So we ended up mailing the books a couple months later than we originally promised, which isn't terrible when compared to many other Kickstarters, but which was pretty embarrassing to me. But one big thing we learned was that you just have to explain what's going on to your backers, apologize, and thank them so much for their support.
Communicating with backers is so key. They're awesome; they're rooting for you! But you have to let them know what's going on.
CA: So Step One is write Superman, Step Two is don’t try to fit a mug into an envelope, and Step Three is to say thanks. So far, we’re looking pretty solid.
GP: Yep, that's pretty much it. Step Four is, drink a glass of water.
CA: Now you’re getting into life advice territory.
GP: Step Five is there is no Step Five. It's all life advice, baby.
CA: Hearing you talk about communication with backers and scheduling problems makes me wonder, how much of this is drawn from your own experiences, and how much of it comes from looking at campaigns you’ve backed --- or even just seen --- and being frustrated with how they’re being run?
GP: Some of it comes from waiting for airplanes. Seriously. If your plane's delayed, you're gonna be annoyed. But if the folks at the terminal explain what's going on and give you an estimate of when you'll be on your way, and consistently update that estimate as time goes on, you'll be less annoyed. Information is key.
I haven't had that many bad experiences with projects I've backed, honestly. I think there are a few that took much longer to deliver than anticipated. But I've backed 103 projects, I think. I kind of expect five or six of them to not deliver right on time.
CA: Not to get you to spill all your secrets, but is there any other tip that you’d want to give to everyone, whether or not they check out the book?
GP: Hard to narrow it down to just one, but going with that theme of scale we were talking about before: When you're working on your budget and planning your rewards, make a chart of your rewards. Write down how many backers you realistically think you can get for each reward. Then do the math and see what number you come up with. If that number is way below your budget, it's time to rethink some stuff.
Also, I think it's smart to keep your goal as low as you can, but not so low that it doesn't cover the true cost of making your project. You really want the Kickstarter to cover the full cost of your project so you don't end up in debt and unable to deliver. This should make your dream come true, not create a nightmare. So if you need to scale that dream down a bit to make it work, that's probably a smart idea. Also, USPS postage goes up in January, so make sure you're accounting for that if you're budgeting in November. Also, drink a glass of water.