Kickstarter from a Jaundiced Eye
Let’s start with a warning that everyone reiterates, but that many people don’t often consider: When you back a Kickstarter project, you’re not necessarily buying a product. You’re funding an attempt. Even if the Kickstarter you’re backing achieves its funding goal, there’s no guarantee that everything will go as planned and result in the thing you want to receive.
Kickstarter is a great service. It lets creative forces bypass the greenlighting processes that would otherwise encumber them in more traditional publishing models. It lets them go directly to the customer instead of having to wet the beaks of enough middlemen to inflate the prices.
One of the things it does not do, however, is ensure that the person running the project has any production acumen. Let’s say you find a Kickstarter project that’s a great idea. Maybe it’s a game you want to play or a book you want to read or an artist’s portfolio you want to enjoy. But until that work is done, the thing you’re pledging to support doesn’t actually exist. I’m all for creatives getting paid — it’s certainly how I’ve built my career — but the warning flags for me go off when there’s no actual thing yet in existence. It’s a safer bet to back if some aspect of the project already exists, because that leaves fewer promises to be broken if the project makes its funding. It’s the difference between “I’m going to make a game if you give me enough money!” and “I’m going to print this game that exists if you give me enough money!” The first pitch is full of rainbows and unicorns and laser helicopters made of angel-berry treacle (unless Matt Forbeck is working on it, because that guy is a machine). The second pitch still deserves a hairy eyeball, but I at least know that the pitching team has some experience in assembling a project and has some skin in the game already.
I’ve got personal examples in the form of Onyx Path’s V20 material. In the case of the prestige editions of the Vampire titles that we’ve been publishing, those are books that are being developed for release in POD/ PDF format. Even if a Kickstarter fails for the prestige editions, those books will exist because we’ve written them; they’ll simply be available in non-prestige formats. In fact, they’ll exist before the Kickstarted prestige prints are complete, but as a perk for Kickstarter prestige backers, the release of the “unlimited” edition will follow the release of the prestige edition. Prestige backers get the fancier books, and they get them first. And if the Kickstarter project doesn’t meet its full backing, well, there’s still a book there, albeit in a different format than the prestige Kickstarter project intended to fund.
And that’s not the end of it. The reality of things is that it’s still really difficult to make all of the production logistics happen. The V20 Companion, for example, has existed now for nigh upon eight months. But the requirements of approving, printing, augmenting, and shipping a book has so many opportunities for things to go wrong that it’s impossible to ensure a smooth rollout. There’s an important word there: It’s not impossible to have a smooth rollout, but it’s impossible to ensure it. We’ve hit some snags with the Companion (we wanted them in players’ hands in April), but the process has moved inexorably forward (as you know if you’ve read Rich’s updates on the KS project). And Rich and I are guys who have over 25 years of cumulative experience printing books.
To be clear, as of this writing, the prestige editions of the V20 Companion are either on their way to the fulfillment house or at the fulfillment house. That’s a case in point. It took far longer to pull together and organize than was originally planned.
So the point here is that Kickstarter places you in the role of the venture capitalist, not that of a traditional customer. There’s no guarantee your project will hit its projected funding. There’s no guarantee that the final project will resemble the proposed project if it does make its projected funding. There’s not even a guarantee that there’ll be a final project. And even if everything does happen, there’s no guarantee it’ll happen as planned.
This isn’t to say that KS is full of hustlers. It’s full of people who now have a way to turn their wild ideas into actual creative endeavors. I backed Chris Engle’s map posters, for example, and they’re everything I’d hoped they’d be. I’m just saying that you have to know what you’re buying into.
I love Kickstarter. I’ve backed numerous projects that either wouldn’t have seen the light of day otherwise, or that I might not have heard about until it was too late. It’s a great way to add value to a project for the people who want it without holding the whole thing hostage for those who don’t care about the extra bells and whistles. I’ve used Kickstarter to help move the White Wolf business model from the publisher-distributor-retailer-player model of the previous century to the publisher-to-player model of the Internet era. It’s just important to know what Kickstarter is, and, just as importantly, what it isn’t. For me, the potential it offers is worth the unproven and nascent model, but key to that is knowing my relationship with the teams or individuals seeking backing.