Rich Burlew on the Record-Breaking Success of the ‘Order of the Stick’ Kickstarter [Interview]
Last week, I wrote about the Kickstarter drive at Order of the Stick that shattered records by raising $250,000 in just 8 days in order to get the collections of the stick-figure fantasy webcomic back into print. In the week since that article went up, the amount of money raised has doubled to over half a million dollars, raising enough money to reprint the entire OOTS library and securing its place as the most funded creative work in Kickstarter history. It's nothing short of a phenomenon, which is why we spoke to OOTS creator Rich Burlew about his incredible success.
ComicsAlliance: You originally started the Kickstarter drive to raise money to reprint a single book. How did you expect it to play out?
Rich Burlew: I thought there were three basic scenarios that could play out. One, nobody pledged a thing and it failed miserably, but at least I would have something to tell people when they asked me why it wasn't in print anymore.Two, there would be some response from the most loyal fans, and it would just barely succeed in such a way that I would end up spending more money on shipping and taxes than I brought in, leaving me in the hole. Or three, I would push the readers as hard as I could and get two books reprinted before it all petered out. That was my best-case scenario. I thought the second option was the most likely, though. Clearly, I am terrible at projections.
CA: Clearly! As of right now, you're at almost ten times your initial goal, and you're officially the most funded creative work in Kickstarter history.
RB: Yeah, it's sort of insane. What's really surprised me has been the number of people who have never bought an Order of the Stick book before that have decided to buy the entire line of seven books in one go. I didn't see that coming. I thought I was going to mostly be appealing to the people who had bought maybe three or four of them but were missing the odd volume. But even if you had told me that was what was going to happen, I still wouldn't have grasped how successful this thing would be. I think it's ungraspable.
CA: That's one of the things that I thought was really interesting, though: how you geared the rewards so that they'd be things that would appeal to people who had all the books as well as the readers that had never picked them up. As a fan of the strip, the bonus stories in particular were what hooked me.
RB: And that was sort of serendipitous, because I planned it that way largely because I thought there would be only limited response to the actual reprinting of the book. I figured that I needed something that would grab the attention of people who either had all of the books or didn't want them. And I thought that the one thing I know everyone who reads the comic would like is...more comic! I had some ideas bumping around that I thought were good but not long enough to form a book on their own, so I decided, hey, I'll just draw those.
I think it's to my unintentional benefit that OOTS has such a continuous, interconnected plot that people want to find out more about the minor characters and what they did before they intersected with the main story. I'm not sure I would be able to get people interested in bonus stories if the strip was a more traditional "gag-a-day" comic.
CA: Considering the initial response, people were obviously pretty excited about that first set of rewards. Why did you decide to keep adding to it as the drive went on?
RB: I kept hitting more goals! And every time I hit a goal that allowed a book to be reprinted, everyone wanted to be able to add that book into their rewards. So I would put it up. And then, I started getting requests from longtime readers who already owned every book and wanted to help out with the drive. They basically started asking me for more ways to send me money to help out! This blew me away. So I started adding more and more options for rewards, and for every possible permutation of the existing rewards, until the reward column is the lengthy mess it is today. If Kickstarter allowed "á la carte" reward options, it would be half the length it is now.
CA: You've mentioned in the updates that you've included a few stats just for the gamers in the audience, and given that Order of the Stick is about RPGs, I started thinking of it as the rewards you get for leveling up, only with money instead of XP.
RB: Oh, absolutely. I think my particular readership is very responsive to charts and graphs. The allure of the rising red line cannot be underestimated!
CA: Did you ever feel like there was pressure to keep up? Even when you know exactly where it's going, half a million dollars can be pretty overwhelming.
RB: There's enormous pressure, sure. I've been more or less glued to the computer since this began. Every day, I've come up with a new goal with the belief that I would have enough time to price vendors or draw a piece of art needed to promote it, only to find that the fans have broken that goal and the next one while I was doing so! But it's not a bad kind of pressure; it's actually very exciting, as long as I ignore the dread in the pit of my stomach about how much work to which I've already committed. Oh, and my email inbox is a swirling eldritch nightmare that threatens to burst the fragile digital bonds that restrain it from devouring me in my sleep. Other than that, though, it's all going very well.
CA: Has it changed the way you see your readers at all? I know you've always had a pretty active community around the strip through the forums on your site.
RB: Yes, definitely. I think it's shown me that there are a lot more people enjoying the strip out there than are giving me feedback. Which doesn't mean that I should ignore what direct response I do get on my forums or in my mail, but I think I need to always remember that there's a quasi-silent majority out there who enjoys what I'm writing, at least enough to make a pledge. And I've gotten more direct statements from people expressing how much they've loved the strip for all these nine years than I have in a very long time. It's good for my morale, which is good for the strip.
CA: There are obviously a lot of small donations that have been adding up, but there were also a few really big numbers that helped with the initial push. You had at least one person throw in $5,000 to get your top reward.
RB: Again: did not see that coming. I mostly threw that in there at the last minute just so I could have a crazy top-shelf prize to make the other ones seem more reasonable. I never expected anyone to spend money on a cameo in the comc. I think that was maybe my first sign that something was Going To Happen. That said, I wouldn't have put it up there if I hadn't had some idea of how I would work someone into the comic in a way that even the people who hadn't shelled out the money could appreciate.
CA: It sets a pretty good precedent for the next time you go to a con and someone asks you to draw their character, too. Just tell them how you usually get five grand for it, but they can have the friend price of $2500.
RB: Actually, I'm drawing people's characters for $600 for a party of 6, so $100 only for one. The $5000 is to appear in the actual online comic and get a crayon drawing of the character.
CA: I asked what you expected when you started, but right now, you have a little more than two weeks still left in the drive, and the line is still going up at a pretty sharp rate. I mean, even if it stops cold now, you've demolished your original goal and set a record at Kickstarter. Not to jinx it or anything, but is there anything you expect out of it from here to the end?
RB: Well, I have at least one idea for a new product that I'd like to try to fund at the same time, and I have some plans to add some promotional rewards for retailers who might want to hop on board with this. I mean, the main reason I wanted to reprint in the first place was to get the books back into comic and games shops. Even with this generous outpouring of support, there are still a lot of OOTS readers out there who would rather walk into a store and buy a copy. Other than that, I really don't know. I'm sort of making this up as I go along. What I really want to avoid is the temptation to make the next goal, "Buy Rich a Cintaq" or something. I want to keep the goals focused on either creating more products or rewarding the backers. And I think that's why it's become this self-perpetuating cycle: they give me money, so I announce more rewards for them, so they give me more money. Lather, rinse, repeat.
CA: As someone who's had a huge success, do you have any advice for anyone else looking to fund comics on Kickstarter? Other than "spend nine years building a dedicated audience," I mean.
RB: Heh, yeah, that part's the old cliché about overnight success. I had no idea that this far into my comic's lifespan, I would have an opportunity to reach a new height of exposure like this, but it still ultimately comes down to the fact that I've been doing this for so long. I don't update as consistently as some webcomics, my art isn't as polished, but I've still churned out over a thousand pages in a single story.
Apart from that, I would say that the best thing is to have a way of marketing yourself away from the Kickstarter site. Don't rely on people browsing to find you. Go somewhere else and find a way to get people from that other place to go to Kickstarter just for you. Because Kickstarter is only a tool that helps you collect money, it's not an end unto itself. You need to identify who the potential backer for your project is before you start, and if you can't do that, it's probably not going to succeed.
CA: Last question: Have you considered converting the Kickstarter money into gold pieces before you have the books reprinted?
RB: Being somewhat old school, I'm leaning toward electrum pieces myself. Though the encumbrance will be harsh, so I haven't decided.
The Order of the Stick reprint drive is going until February 21, with new rewards going up every time a goal is reached. Check it out, and if you're not familiar with OOTS itself, there are over eight hundred strips of one of my favorite comics of the 21st century available for free at Burlew's website.