Sunday, July 27, 2014

The Light and Dark of Kickstarter

The past month and a half has been a roller-coaster of gratification highs and self-esteem lows, of future-dread and kindnesses, of having too much to do and not enough to do, of drinking and sobering up.

Kickstarter will do that to you. The folks who run the service suggest that you should not run a project longer than thirty days, because it “creates a sense of urgency.” I would go one step farther and say that you should keep it down to that length because by the time it reaches Day 40 you will be so profoundly sick of the thing that you would gladly give up all the proceeds just to be done with it.

Not that I’m giving up the proceeds at this point. 

Which brings me to the news, in case you hadn’t already heard, that the Kickstarter funding to pre-sell enough of my Tarot of the Zirkus M├Ągi decks to pay for its publication has ended on a positive note, and the deck will soon be produced. I’m actually over the moon about this, and have, I hope, been profuse enough in my thanks elsewhere … but this post isn’t about thanking the people who made it happen, it’s about the painful process of getting there, in case you or someone you know is thinking of launching a Kickstarter project themselves.

If you do take one on, the very first thing you need to know is: be emotionally prepared. Even in the best-case scenario, running a Kickstarter project is a fast way to drive yourself completely stark staring mad. 

If you have never exhibited signs of obsessive-compulsive behavior, don’t worry, you’ll get yours running a Kickstarter project. You will have to force yourself to stop checking the tote board, so to speak, every five minutes, and then you will have to fight despair when nothing happens for several days. You will start looking enviously at the other projects — the ones that succeed in the first five hours, or get 9,287 percent funded with two weeks left to go — and you will begin to wonder if they've sacrificed their firstborn children to Zarkon the Space God in order to get the results that seem to be escaping you. 

You, yes you. Kickstarter will rip what little self-esteem you have out of your bleeding chest, throw it on the ground and stomp on it — even while it is applying little daubs of salve provided by the kind and good people who go to the trouble of supporting your project. If you’re at all like me, even the ultimate success of the project will seem like a hollow victory, in part because of all the angst you’ve been through to get there.

Running a successful Kickstarter campaign, or so the pundits say, requires you to get out there and market. Market, market market! Shake those trees! Spam those blogs! Gather as many Facebook strangers as you can and blast them with marketing posts! What are you waiting for? MARKET!

But again, if you’re like me, you may be beyond uncomfortable with that whole marketing thing. And your discomfort may exist on many levels. First — you’re a consumer yourself. You’ve been marketed to and at and you know how annoying it is. And you don’t like to annoy people, do you? I don’t — well, at least not like this, under these circumstances. You’ll go through the motions and send out those press releases and shake those trees, but you’ll hate yourself the whole time you are doing it. The stress will start to exhaust you. You will want a drink at the end of the day, and if you already have a drinking problem that one drink will turn into twelve. Under the influence of alcohol you will feel more at ease with the whole marketing thing — but for Zarkon’s sake don’t market when you’re drunk! I did… and I made some enemies and lost some backers.

It’s a circle of humiliation: you hate yourself for what you are doing, so you drink yourself some courage and then you do things that make you hate yourself all the more. 

All this time spent on “marketing” means that you won’t have the time to get any actual work done. Whether it’s writing books or making music, whatever you do that got you to this point in the first place — all that will come to a screeching halt. And you will feel even worse about yourself, because a month and a half is going by and you will have no actual work to show for it.

The exact nanosecond that you launch a Kickstarter project, the waters around you will suddenly fill up with Kickstarter sharks. They all want to help you — for a price or a piece of the action. “Our focus on flash traffic.  We are a marketing firm that focuses on driving large waves of highly targeted traffic to your page.”

Even if all the claims from the Kickstarter sharks are true, which I doubt, you’d best think long and hard before you take on any “helpers.” Can they actually reach the specific audience that you need better than you can on your own? Can you even afford them? Keep in mind that Kickstarter / Amazon scoops a whopping ten percent off the top of your project if it is successful. Also keep in mind that at least six percent of your final backers will “error” or otherwise fail to come through on their “pledges.” Have you planned for that? Every service that you add on to make your life “easier” will slice another wedge out of your pie. That’s what happens when a service like Kickstarter is successful: a whole bunch of other “businesses” pop up around it, trying to figure out how they can get a piece of that action. Most of them are about as reliable as a drunk on a bad day.

Remember, the whole point of the thing is to help make your dream come true. You’re not in it to make other people’s financial dreams come true.

I dislike the basic terminology that Kickstarter uses and spent a lot of time trying to explain to people that I was approaching it from another direction. The Kickstarter terms “pledge” and “reward” make the whole thing sound like Public Broadcasting, which asks you to give them money for something that you’re going to get anyway. In my case, I was using Kickstarter to take pre-orders for a specific product, in order to make its publication possible. To my way of thinking, my customers were not “pledging” and “getting rewards” — or “backing” some potential project that might deliver only air… they were ordering a specific product or products and getting — or will get, as soon as it’s printed — what they pay for. The deck itself was actually offered at a discount price over what the final retail will be. 

I guess what I’m getting at here is that, by definition, the terms that Kickstarter uses are implicitly shady… and I was trying correct that. The Kickstarter terminology is appropriate for a percentage of the projects that run there, but not for a lot of them, and not for mine. 

Battling people’s perceptions like that becomes even harder when people get there for the first time and see some of the other projects that the service allows to run. The goofiest one that I saw in my latest month-and-a-half spent there was from some gaming nerd in England who had used up all his time in World of Warcraft — and wanted you to pony up money for him so that he could continue to play his game. Say what? Why is Kickstarter allowing dumb-ass “projects” like that to go up?

The one thing that I enjoyed about the process was something that I learned about from backing another project. I saw that the person running that project was using his own project updates, in part, to help promote other people’s projects that he found worthwhile. This seemed like a good and civil and polite thing to do, and it also allowed me to discover some pretty cool creations, a couple of which I backed myself. In my updates to my own supporters, I talked about other tarot-related projects, and about some Burning Man art pieces that looked fascinating and wonderful. It was nice, after all, to discover that at the heart of such a cynical and difficult money-raising process, there was a tiny core of citizenship and civility. I just followed the lead.

— Freder

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