How We Crowdfunded $750,000 for a Giant Book about Keyboard History
At first sight, the idea of 1,216-page two-volume work on keyboards for $150 might seem like a heavy lift. But it was years in the making.
Yes, you can hire me as a crowdfunding consultant, book editor, or project manager. See this page for more details.
The book project Shift Happens raised over $750,000 via crowdfunding on Kickstarter in February 2023. Author Marcin Wichary hired me six years ago — first as editor and later adding the role of project manager — for this sprawling enterprise. People have asked us since: how did you raise such a huge sum for a book? A book on keyboards?! And it’s 1,216 pages long?!?
I should note that, technically, the “book” is two volumes, each 608 pages…and the campaign hit a stretch goal that added a third volume of extras, behind-the-scenes details, and a printed index, adding another 160 pages…so it’s really 1,376 pages. Plus it comes in a slipcase.
One factor is that we’re in the period of Kickstarter maturity, where raising $100,000 or more for a book project isn’t unusual. Kickstarter lists over 150 disparately themed projects that funded in its loosely defined publishing category, about 100 of which I would count as straight-up books or book sets. (The rest include printing projects, podcasts, and miscellany.)
In my experience, projects typically arrange to print an extra 25% to 100% books above what is to fulfill a campaign, and eventually sell those — sometimes within months, sometimes longer. This means many projects below $100,000 ultimately have passed that mark when figuring in post-campaign sales. (My $74,000 Tiny Type Museum project will finish out at around $140,000 in total revenue, with a good chunk of that later revenue coming from book sales.)
In earlier periods of crowdfunding, the totals raised were typically more modest, and authors, cartoonists, and other book creators looked to Kickstarter and similar sites to underwrite only their expenses and none of their personal labor. Now, a campaign can be successful enough to pay the writer or artist something beyond raw costs, keeping them less on the verge of financial ruin as they get a book printed and then start marketing to sell copies to pay their bills. This change is particularly useful in the current era, in which there are fewer opportunities to be paid well by book publishers, and the budgets for freelance writing, art, and photography at periodicals and websites have shrunk so much.
Shift Happens wasn’t without headwinds. Before the pandemic, we were sailing towards a potential 2021 launch but weren’t quite there. Once COVID hit, it was unclear whether people would be willing to pay the projected price — and if delivery services could get the books to doorsteps between lockdowns and shipping disruptions.
Early 2022 was more promising. But a spike in paper costs came along with paper and labor shortages, huge increases in transoceanic shipping container prices, a lack of response to requests from printers for price quotations (overwhelmed by re-shoring, with major publishers printing in the U.S. instead of abroad), and global inflation. Instead of tacking into that hard wind, we postponed the campaign — just before Russia invaded Ukraine, adding to global unease and financial woes. We thought 2023 might be less bumpy, and we guessed just right enough.
Is Kickstarter the only option? No—but without writing your own code or working within more limited constraints, it’s almost always the best solution for most campaigns. Kickstarter’s internal discovery and promotion of campaigns has added up to 20% to 33% of campaign pledge dollars for me. They also have the trust of millions of existing registered users.
Hop on the Carriage to Shift Happens
Shift Happens had an excellent genesis: already fascinated by keyboards from his childhood and through his work as a designer and programmer, my friend and colleague Marcin Wichary had written articles and delivered presentations about keys and keyboards and oddball issues that arise from historical choices, such as the “disappearing Polish Ś.”
Thus it made perfect sense that on a vacation day during a work trip in 2016, he found himself in the wrong place at the wrong time and wandered into one of the world’s greatest typewriter collections, in Figueres, Spain. It seemed almost as if his interest brought the technology history museum into existence for him. He posted photos of this magical-realism experience on Twitter in a long thread that went viral, was written up the world over, brought attention and renown to the Museu de la Tècnica de l’Empordà (website currently broken), and sparked in him the desire to write a full-length book about keyboards, from early typewriters to the present day.
The trouble? His first draft was well over 300,000 words long. What publisher would take a book that long, illustrate it with the photos he superbly captured, produce a design he could celebrate, and not chop it down to 25% of his intended length?
The answer, I whispered in his ear early on, was crowdfunding.
Marcin is a brilliant man, even if he blushes at me saying this publicly. He had never written a full-length book before nor designed one for an offset press. English is not the language he grew up speaking in Poland. He had never previously worked directly with a commercial lithographic offset printer on his own project. He wasn’t familiar with color screening or offset press technology. There were a long list of other “nevers,” too. He’s rarely daunted, and I’m an optimist — some might say a relentless juggernaut of an optimist! And I was on his side.
We had already corresponded when I was working on an Atlantic article about what seemed to be a trend towards less use of typographers’ or “curly” quotes online, and kept in touch as he progressed on drafting chapters. On 22 June 2017, I dropped him a fateful email, which read in part: “Odd question, but you’re not looking for any writing or editing help on your book?”
Just a few weeks later we started talking, and that led to what is now a six-year working relationship. Starting in 2018, with my initial input, he cut chapters and words, shrinking the book down to a more manageable though nowhere near 25%!—while also building the scaffolding for bringing it to fruition.
I have a history of suggesting myself as an editor. In 2012, after pitching Marco Arment on an article for his new The Magazine — an early app-only publication in Apple’s one-time Newsstand — I said, surely you will need an editor given demands on your time, and why not hire me? He did. Several months later, I purchased The Magazine from Marco, and ran it for its natural lifespan through the end of 2014 after Apple made the Newsstand and publication apps less and less accessible and attractive over successive iOS releases.
As I said, I started whispering crowdfunding from nearly the start because I thought it was the only way for Marcin to realize his vision. He could see that, but also had some sense of the overwhelming amount of additional work that would be required if he ran his own campaign — plus the uncertainty of having to hit goals to make it happen and bear personal financial risk for the outcome. Marcin told me that he also wondered if self-publishing might come off or feel to him like “failure.” He spent some time realistically exploring options to work with a publisher but never reached a point where he felt like it was the right fit.
All this preamble is part of the story: Marcin had a perfect hook for telling people about the book—his stumbling into the technology museum in Catalonia. With a little urging on my part, it became the book’s opening chapter. That story is also what led Marcin to start a newsletter, building on an audience already intrigued by his museum photos and his intense keyboard interest. The newsletter became probably the biggest tent pole to the project.
He’s a natural storyteller and spent years showing that ability to people, even as he gathered thousands of tiny stories and dozens of big ones to organize chapters around, and captured, collected, wheedled for, licensed, and commissioned photographs and images. The people most likely to back a book made by Marcin already knew he’d create a great book.
Let me just say that again, and bigger:
The people most likely to back a book made by Marcin already knew he’d create a great book.
A Time Machine Always Helps
The best time to start work on your crowdfunding campaign is five years ago. If you don’t have a convenient time machine, then you may need to think about the easier task of projecting forward in time, particularly if you don’t want to wait five years. As Brad Guigar — the co-host of the ComicLab podcast with my pal Dave Kellett — always says, “First comes the crowd, then comes the funding.”
ComicLab, despite being focused on the business of “making, and making a living from, webcomics,” is the single best generally useful creator-oriented podcast I have ever listened to about crowdfunding, Patreon, and social-media marketing and sales.
To build a crowd, you have to find the right people. Without precisely aiming for this result, Marcin made several smart choices, some of which persisted over years:
- Start a newsletter: Email is the most effective communication tool. It’s not throttled by social-networking algorithms to 1% of subscribers unless you pay high fees, though spam and other filtering can reduce reach slightly. On the success of his viral tweets about the technology museum, Marcin started a newsletter on 29 August 2017. (The Kickstarter campaign launched 5½ years later. Marcin said he thought he was launching the newsletter way too early, but a friend correctly advised him to.) Many creators of all sorts have lists with thousands — or even tens of thousands — of subscribers, letting them launch a project and hit targets quickly. I’d point as a solid example outside of crowdfunding to Alexander Rose’s Spionage newsletter. Rose has written many non-fiction books published by well-known conventional publishers, some of them bestsellers, and one made into an AMC series, but authors always need to hustle: his list helps him find his most dedicated readers — those most interested in the focus of his work, largely involving spycraft.
- Give people something, but don’t overwhelm them. Marcin described his newsletter as “low traffic.” People are inundated with newsletters, marketing emails, and many other kinds of messages. By being an occasional pleasure in someone’s inbox, Marcin’s Shift Happens newsletter became a treat people looked forward to. The format also didn’t constrain him: unlike a Patreon or a paid newsletter with an expectation of frequency, he could write at length and at his leisure. (Also, do people really want a weekly newsletter on keyboards? Only a small subset of folks, largely directly involved in making or modifying keyboards.)
- Come up with the right name early on. Shift Happens came to Marcin as a title before he launched his first newsletter. It’s a clever play on words, intrigues people, and carries just a touch of earthy humor. It’s hard to name things, but worth spending what might seem like an inordinate amount of time on it: whether as catchy as Shift Happens or not, it should be something people identify with you and your project and, when they search on it, they find you first or very close to the top. Marcin discarded Holy Shift early on, and wisely so. (This is why The Magazine’s name was amusing when the primary method to find it was via Apple’s Newsstand but simply ridiculous when trying to recruit readers from the broader internet.)
- Get to know your community. In researching his book, Marcin bought or borrowed hundreds of books and went to dozens of museums, libraries, and archives across several countries; contacted people all over the world for interviews and to obtain or contract for photos; and met with folks to see their personal collections. That was all great — but he also went into communities. He went to keyboard meet-up events, participated in Reddit and other forums, and attended meetings or conventions of people to get a sense of what people were doing with typewriters and keyboards today. That fed into the book, which describes various communities quite well, but also helped make those people his advocate and promoter when he launched the project — they knew him or knew of him, and appreciated that he had respect for what they were doing.
Marcin also made some particular decisions ahead of time that panned out extremely well:
- Launch a website early. This may not work in every case, but for Marcin, his Shift Happens website was a huge success. He had spent months working on the text and coding, including building out a 3D interactive preview, putting together image galleries, and programming games. This may be beyond a lot of people’s abilities or budgets, but the lesson is still solid: Marcin built a remarkable amount of anticipation for Shift Happens, the book, by putting up Shift Happens, the website, about a month before his Kickstarter launch. Even a modest site with lots of detail, a compelling story, and good photographic and other illustrations can draw people in. Marcin put a lot of himself into the site, too, so it didn’t feel like an impersonal technical account but an authentic journey of discovery. There’s a pre-internet adage that people have to hear about a book five times before they buy it; that isn’t true of books (or crowdfunding campaigns) today, but the more someone hears about a topic that might be of interest, the more inclined they are to remember it and take action.
- Create a separate announcement mailing list. Some people work very hard to keep their inbox clean. Marcin created a self-destructing mailing list at the same time he posted his website. He promised people that he would only email them when the book was available for order: he sent one email when the Kickstarter campaign launched and another when the pre-order site was ready to accept fresh orders. Then he deleted the list. (I think you could extend the concept and tell people you plan to email them a handful of times, at each stage of launch to completion. Somewhere between one and four is certainly ideal.)
Ah, It’s a Profit Deal, Takes the Pressure Off
While I advised on some of the above, particularly providing feedback during the website development and suggesting the separate announcement email list, my biggest role came in logistics, shipping costs, budgeting, and building reward levels and pricing. Here’s how I helped budget with Marcin.
Get Bids Early and From Many Sources
If you’re starting out in a particular kind of product manufacturing, the prices quoted to make the item will vary all over the board. That’s true if you’re getting an estimate on a book or other piece of media made in quantity, a handcrafted item you contract other people to produce, or some kind of static object or gadget that has to be designed, cast in some material, assembled, and packaged.
Your first and hardest part may be developing specifications that you can deliver to the parties you want bids from in order to get consistent pricing that you can compare among makers.
We started requesting printing bids in 2021, initially working with a printing consultant who had to drop out due to family emergencies, and spent over a year talking directly with printers in the United States, Canada, Europe, and Asia, as well as with a print broker that contracts for printing and oversees production. In the end, we picked a U.S. firm for logistics and quality reasons that offset and justified the higher end price to readers.
One of our biggest hurdles was just getting a response from printers, even ones to whom we had a personal referral. Because of a huge demand for new books in 2021 and 2022, coupled with global shipping disruption, supply-chain and labor shortages (from illness and death), and regular lockdowns, many printers were shorthanded, short of supplies, and overwhelmed. That eased in 2023.
At one point, we had serious conversations with a paper broker in the UK about them purchasing paper from a mill in Germany and having it ocean freighted to Maine due to a lack of paper choices from U.S. mills and ongoing shortages. Even in 2023, our printer had to use up most of their quota with a paper mill across three months to acquire all the paper for Marcin’s project.
North American printers may charge two to four times more than firms in Asia, partly due to disparities in labor costs, and can be somewhat more expensive than European printers. However, Chinese and other providers bring many project-management challenges — language, time zones, culture, contract enforcement, payment, shipping disruption, etc. — and make it difficult or impossible to go on site to check prototypes or be at the press during printing to make fast decisions or ask for changes.
For a high-value and high-quality item like Shift Happens, we were able to set a price for the book that made the budget work to provide more oversight and reduce the potential of delays and sudden spikes in expense. I’ve known or known of other crowdfunders who saw sudden massive shipping delays and/or huge increases in shipping costs over an ocean — often beyond the control of the manufacturer. One was even told by a manufacturing partner that the price was going to be higher than the estimate provided because their Kickstarter raised so much money!
Budget for Kickstarter, Uncollected Pledges, and Other Fees
Kickstarter collects 5% of your campaign; Stripe, the credit-card processing partner of the site, has an arrangement with Kickstarter where it charges 3% overall plus 20¢ per transaction (for U.S.-based campaigns), slightly different than the standard Stripe rate. For example, a $5,000 campaign with 250 backers at an average of $25 each would pay $450 in fees, netting $4,550; a $100,000 campaign with 1,000 backers at an average of $100 each would incur $8,200 in fees, netting $91,800 before any other expenses.
You’ll also find that Kickstarter won’t be able to collect from a small percentage of backers due to charging issues: Kickstarter validates a pledge with a new card or one on file at the time of the pledge, but when the actual charge happens a few weeks later, someone’s card may have been stolen and replaced, they hit their credit limit, or they closed their account or had it closed by their issuing bank. This number should turn out low or very low: for my Tiny Type Museum campaign, funds from only five backers (0.3% of total funds) weren’t collected; with Shift Happens, with substantially more backers, about 0.6% of transactions failed.
People can also cancel their pledge up to the final moment of the campaign, though I typically see cancellations well before the end.
Some scammers will privately message you with the offer of reciprocal campaign backing. Note, however, that nearly always their campaign ends before yours—they then cancel their pledge on yours before your campaign ends.
Whenever you’re creating spreadsheets or other budgets and estimates, subtract 9% to give yourself some leeway.
To take orders after a campaign, you’ll need to have some kind of post-Kickstarter store. While I recommend BackerKit, described at length below, its structure and fees are best suited as a follow up for a single crowdfunding project—not for setting up a general store. If you expect you’ll want to sell stuff from a campaign after it’s over plus other items, consider these two major platforms:
- Squarespace: I use Squarespace, which technically doesn’t support pre-orders but lets you set up items with correct disclosures to purchasers about the delivery schedule. I’ve fulfilled $10,000s of pre-orders this way, and a similar amount of in-stock orders after I had inventory. You need to subscribe at its plans for Business ($33/month plus 3% Squarespace fee on top of Stripe and PayPal transaction fees) or Commerce Basic ($36/month and no fee beyond transaction fees). There’s a 25% to 30% discount for yearly subscriptions, and look to podcasts for a coupon code to reduce the price of your first year of service.
- Shopify: Shopify has a one-size-fits-all Basic plan for $39/month (25% less yearly) with a total fee of 2.9% plus 30¢ per transaction if using Shopify Payments. Using other payment processors adds 0.5% to 2% per transaction.
Because neither service has direct Kickstarter integration, for a direct segue from a campaign into post-campaign sales, I recommend BackerKit.
Plan To Link to a Post-Campaign Partner
Kickstarter has significant limitations in running campaigns that I’ve noted throughout this article. You’ll want to connect your campaign to a post-campaign partner, an awkward term as these services fill an awkward gap: making up for missing pieces in Kickstarter for fulfillment.
BackerKit, a campaign-fulfillment system, fills in nearly all the gaps. In 2023, Kickstarter began to roll out PledgeManager by Kicktraq, the latter being a company Kickstarter acquired. I have used BackerKit and not yet tapped PledgeManager, so I can’t recommend the latter, but can discuss the tradeoffs.
Both services suck down all your Kickstarter data (PledgeManager has closer integration), automate collecting addresses and other information from backers, offer timed follow-ups to people who didn’t reply to a survey, and let backers add additional items to their pledge and pay directly. Both also let you set up a pre-order store for people who weren’t part of the campaign. You can set prices for items differently for backers adding stuff on — including things that weren’t in the campaign — and people who didn’t back the campaign.
When given a chance in a low-friction way, people who already support what you’re doing will spend more.
Both options come with a price tag that you should budget for.
BackerKit fees: BackerKit’s post-campaign tools cost at most 2% (or $5 per backer on campaigns with an average pledge of over $250) with a sliding scale down to 1.1% as the project size increases. For add-on and pre-order sales, they charge 3.5% in addition to the Stripe fee of 2.9% plus 30¢ per transaction, a bit more than Squarespace’s Business tier hosting option but about 20% less than the campaign and credit-card fees charged by Kickstarter. The examples below show scenarios of bringing in 20% to 50% above a Kickstarter campaign through BackerKit sales. For large campaigns, this can seem like a big check to write.
PledgeManager: Because of the business integration with PledgeManager, Kickstarter can afford to charge less to retain fees they would lose to BackerKit. (BackerKit also launched a crowdfunding initiative, becoming a small but significant competitor.) With PledgeManager, you pay no percentage-based fee. They charge 25¢ per backer, no matter the scale of the campaign. Any additional purchases are charged at a 5% fee plus Stripe fees of 2.99% plus 30¢ per transaction. With no campaign percentage, only a set fee per backer, PledgeManager comes in about 10% to 20% lower in my model cases. (See spreadsheet below; I didn’t include a bar chart as it looks nearly identical as BackerKit’s!)
Either service provides significant advantages over download spreadsheets and trying to build your own fulfillment system, leveraging a seamless transition between Kickstarter and post-campaign sales:
- You avoid the weeping and gnashing of teeth that comes with working with the Kickstarter backer interface. It’s truly terrible and hasn’t been much improved for years. (Kickstarter acquired Kicktraq as a bridge between its system and post-campaign pledge management.)
- The services don’t limit how many items someone orders, making it simple for your backers to add more of something in the campaign — another book, gadget, or download.
- You can set up a pre-order store without learning the ins and outs of Shopify or Squarespace. You can keep that store running indefinitely, after items are available for immediate order or download.
- The services manage delivering digital downloads.
- The services vary in how they remind people to provide shipping and other information. But both automatically and repeatedly send email to people who didn’t fill out the response survey for shipping or other details, resulting in a high rate of completion. (Using BackerKit, Shift Happens crossed 95% of surveys answered after four months, substantially better in my experience with self-run post-campaign management. We are 98% with campaign fulfillment nearly complete.)
- If you opt to charge backers a flat rate and tell them you’ll collect final shipping, sales tax, or other fees after a campaign, you can do so in BackerKit or PledgeManager. (See below for sales tax and related issues.) In fact, PledgeManager can calculate down to the receiving address, an advantage in states that have varying taxes by cities or other districts.
In my experience and that of many other crowdfunding regulars, the net revenue from BackerKit far exceeds the fees charged with relatively little work after initial setup; I’ll presume the same with PledgeManager. (BackerKit also has various launch and marketing support tools you can deploy during a campaign offered for different fees.)
Anticipate Income Tax and Sales Tax Issues
Unanticipated tax issues can kill a crowdfunding project. You’ll read a lot of bad advice out there about how taxes “take” a huge percentage of your Kickstater money. It’s not that simple!
I am not a lawyer nor am I an accountant. This isn’t legal or financial advice; rather, it’s guidance for research and questions to ask professionals.
With a properly set up business in many countries, you can deduct business expenses (like printing, shipping, contract labor, and the like) directly from income. You are taxed on net business income. In the United States, for instance, if you raise $100,000 and spend $80,000 on legitimate business expenses other than your labor (for simple business structures), you don’t pay federal tax on $100K — only on $20K. (Some states, like Washington, the one I reside in, charge a business tax on gross revenue with no deductions, but only levy it against sales delivered within the state.)
The big issues people face are twofold: first, if your campaign has revenue in one year and expenses in a subsequent one — you raise $100,000 in 2023 and have $80,000 in expenses in 2024 — you can wind up paying more tax than you intended, depending on your country:
- In the example above, that $100,000 in 2023 will be taxed as pure income. If you’re in the U.S. or another country with progressive marginal tax rates, you can wind up paying larger percentages of tax on some of that income.
- Higher income isn’t just more tax or a higher tax rate on some of it — you may lose certain deductions and credits that have an income test.
- In 2024, when you have all the expense, this will offset your 2024 income, letting you avoid prepaying tax and possibly receiving a substantial refund — but the refund wouldn’t come until you file in 2025. (Some U.S. businesses have to prepay quarterly estimated federal taxes for the current tax year.)
- You may not regain the full tax difference across two years because of the higher marginal rate and non-recoverable deductions/credits in the previous year.
Thus, I highly recommend having as much of your revenue and expense in the same tax year as a consequence. In some cases, you may be able to pay deposits against future work for designers, printers, manufacturers, and other partners in the year you do your fundraising.
Make sure the contract you sign with a partner for future work covers the deposit, and spells out how to reclaim it if you switch suppliers before or after work commences.
You don’t want to get lost in strawman transactions, in which you transfer money for tax purposes and then get it back: that imposes the jeopardy of civil and criminal jeopardy against both you and the other party.
The other big issue? Not registering your business as needed, such as setting up city, state, and national tax accounts and licenses, and not paying those bills on time.
Finally, sales tax for those operating within the United States and selling to others within the United States has become very complicated. Generally, you pay sales tax for digital and physical shipments to where you live and wherever your stuff is made. Marcin’s printer is in Maine with some operations in Massachusetts, and he lives in Illinois. Thus, he has to collect and remit sales tax in those three states.
Previously, I have “eaten” sales tax as part of my crowdfunding campaign, factoring in the relatively small percentage of Washington State residents participating and having their cost include sales tax, which I then reverse out from the final price they pay to send to my state’s tax agency. (Some states require you explicitly note if sales tax is included or not in the final price.) With Shift Happens, we opted for the same.
In the future, all my campaigns will inform backers that state sales tax will be collected after the campaign, alerting them which states I expect will require me to collect tax. When they provide their address, they will then be prompted to pay the required sales tax. Some people may miss those details and you should be prepared to refund them if they believe they weren’t properly informed. Kickstarter could make it easier by adding an option to enable sales tax on a state-by-state basis.
A reminder that the above is not accounting or legal advice. This 2014 article I wrote — last updated in 2022 — can provide some additional help plus links to tax resources, particularly for each U.S. state.
Consider Non-Domestic Custom and Tax Issues
It’s very hard for a small business of one to a few people to deal with the complexities of collecting the appropriate tax and then remitting it around the world. The European Union offers a streamlined method which you can integrate with online stores, like Shopify, but there’s no option at Kickstater or other crowdfunding platforms to hook in domestic or global tax rates and remittance. Kickstarter doesn’t let you collect U.S. state sales tax or international taxes as automatically calculated add-ons. Also, without being an export expert, it can be hard to figure out what the tariff is for each country you’re shipping to, or to generate the appropriate forms. The answer, generally, is to warn backers: import value-added tax or duties can be 0% to 30%, varying even among EU countries.
Typically, you can ship so that a buyer has to pay at the time of import: the shipper you use manages this process and collects the money; this is called delivered duty unpaid (DDU), and it’s almost always what you want.
The key exception? The UK. They stopped allowing this after Brexit and your goods could be returned instead of delivered. The simplest (ha) course of action is to apply to the UK HMRC for a VAT account. Books are “zero rated,” or taxed at 0%, allowing you to import them to the UK with documentation and your buyer to receive the item without extra taxes or shipper fees. It does require regular filings with the HMRC—even though you’re reporting £0 in taxes owed. The UK also has a very simple VAT structure for other goods, which is typically 20%.
I found it painful to apply for a VAT account in 2021, though I succeeded; Marcin applied through a seemingly easier process in early 2023 but waited over seven months for an obscure rejection he’s still working on; in the meantime, we’re sending books with a zero-rated VAT notice after advice from a UK consulting firm. (It’s worked so far.) He’s not alone, based on postings at the HMRC forums.
Get Fulfillment Estimates
Holy cow, but shipping is expensive now. If you haven’t shipped many items within your country or abroad, you need to start thinking about it as soon as you figure out what you are making. Although I budgeted $90 for outside-the-U.S. shipping and handling for my 10 lbs. (4.5 kg) Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule project in 2019, by the time I was shipping in 2020, I had concerns the USPS could actually deliver them. The international rate via UPS appeared to be $150 to $200.
Fortunately, that was their rack rate—their walk-up-to-the-counter retail price. In 2020/2021 via Stamps.com, and now more broadly through Pirate Ship and others, you can get a ridiculously discounted business rate: about 60% off retail. I wound up paying from $50 to $100 for global shipping including insurance, so it averaged out. All packages were received correctly.
Shift Happens is coincidentally just over 10 lbs. when packaged, and I spent a lot of time talking to fulfillment houses and studying shipping rates to advise Marcin on shipping and handling prices. In the end, Marcin set shipping and handling (the cost of picking, packing, and freighting books plus postage or parcel delivery) to $25 in the U.S., $40 in Canada and Europe excluding the UK, and $50 in the rest of the world.
We expected that those prices would provide us a budget from which to deal with unexpected rises in shipping, cover replacements due to damage, and so forth. However, we hit a snag that caused us to exceed our shipping budget—but which we’d planned for because we remembered to…
Expect the Unexpected
One last, critical thing to budget for: the bigger the project, the more likely something unexpected may happen that adds significant cost or delays. This is why I advocate ensuring you set pricing so that keep a margin well above the break-even point—whether you’re paying yourself for your labor or not—in case the unexpected happens.
It almost always does.
With Shift Happens, we were driving comfortably along the highway when we suddenly hit a brick wall. The “airbags” of our budgeting process, started in 2021, gave us the cushion for Marcin to walk away unscathed. I explain more below.
Shed Some Tiers
There’s a balance in setting rewards between the purity of a single reward that is the thing that the project makes happen — such as a book, ticket to a performance, or laser-cut iPhone stand — and a dozen or more that include increasingly complicated execution to deliver as the price of the reward goes up. Setting the right number of tiers and the correct pricing and timing can make or break a campaign, or make the difference between a modest one and a very successful one.
I have a few axioms about this:
- Let people give you the amount of money they would like to. Higher-priced tiers with special extras, some of them as simple as “you’re thanked in the book” or “you get a credit in the movie,” let people who want your project to fly provide you with an extra something to get there. It’s love as money, something that happens in capitalism and within families. Personal and performance options can be nice extras, too: an hour-long Zoom call, tickets to the world-premiere movie screening, a meal in a mutually agreed-upon city, a house concert—all these could be options depending on what your skills and interests are.
- Don’t make people think too hard about tiers. Too much choice means people don’t make a choice. Provide clear differentiation and don’t offer too many.
- Don’t pull an Amanda Palmer by including a very time-consuming object. Look, her 2012 campaign was incredible — I wrote about it for the Economist — but she admitted later that including tiers with custom-painted record turntables, some painted by others and some by her, turned out to be a vast time and energy suck relative to the reward — even relative to what her backers got out of it! This has since become a shorthand about that kind of hard-won knowledge. Evaluate the time for a high-value tier relative to the price. You also need to consider if you only get one person at a complicated tier that you don’t then lose money without the benefit of unit volume: Kickstarter doesn’t let you set minimums for tiers, only maximums.
As my benchmark rule, I think five tiers are ideal to avoid overburdening potential backers with choice:
- A low-dollar thank-you tier (often $1): People just want to be involved.
- A low-dollar digital-download tier ($5 or $10): For financial reasons, general interest, or shipping costs, an inexpensive digital item can be a way to get more people involved. (This could be higher priced if you’re offering a digital media version of something that’s primarily physical, like a book or vinyl LP.)
- A modest physical item with shipping charges ($10 to $30): It’s attractive to many people to get an actual thing associated with a campaign even if it’s not the campaign’s primary focus.
- The actual item, which might be $35 to $1,000, depending on the campaign: The price can vary wildly, as can the shipping!
- A high-dollar exclusive tier for backers who want to be more involved or supportive: To avoid leaving money on the table for those who want to help you, figure out some sort of higher tier.
There are exceptions: if you opt for an early-bird tier for your main item or a bundle of items, that will expire after a set period of time and rotate to the bottom of the rewards list as unavailable. If you have limited quantities of some items, particularly that cost more, those will be lower in the rewards and likewise be marked off when exhausted.
Depending on the campaign and the cost of the primary item (or items), lower-dollar tiers can add up, sometimes to 10% to 20% of the total campaign revenue.
With Shift Happens, Marcin and I wrestled with spreadsheets and conversations over literally years. He considered offering standard and deluxe editions of the book to provide a lower price point. However we ultimately thought we might wind up with the wrong product mix. Once we figured out the only viable printer, it meant that we needed to focus on a single “medium deluxe” version: one that had some of the higher-features Marcin wanted — such as a slipcase — but avoided some truly expensive features that would have required an extra tier without feeling like they offered enough that was different to backers.
His ultimate tiers (not including shipping) conformed fairly closely to my above ideal:
- $5: A font he’d created for the books (digital download)
- $20: A 32-page booklet with a cover adapting an essay ($10 as an add-on for book tiers)
- $125: Early bird slipcased book set
- $150: Regularly priced slipcased book set
- $275: Two copies of the slipcased book set
- $1,000: A premium tier with two copies of the book set, two booklets, a special keycap designed and produced only for this tier, and a custom, hand-made bookplate
The two-copies tier came about because a number of people wanted to ensure they could get two books (one to keep, one to give away) during the campaign. A number of people purchased additional copies via BackerKit after the campaign as well.
Avoid Being Just Successful Enough That You Fail
Setting the price combined with the Kickstarter funding goal was trickier than building rewards, and I’ve seen folks knot themselves into pretzels over this and sometimes get into a real budget situation if they guess wrong:
- You need to set an initial Kickstarter goal that raises the funds you need to execute the project regardless of what you might net out of it.
- Setting the goal too high can deter people from backing a project, assuming it will never reach the goal.
- Pricing reward tiers too high may put people off from backing.
- Setting reward prices too low coupled with a low goal can result in funding without the necessary money to complete the project. (This was a much more common occurrence in the first several years of Kickstarter.)
- Stretch goals are great but they must enhance a project (see below).
What I’ve seen happen to people many times is that limited-edition, higher-priced items have higher uptake than expected. In the right construction, selling a lot of a limited item should result in margins of 30% to 70% — you have to set the margins high in case you don’t have enough uptake. If you have a lot of uptake, the total can be considerable. Note in Shift Happens that 21 backers came in at the $1,000 tier, resulting in $21,000 or about 3% of the campaign total. (We offered that tier only during the active campaign.) For other projects, the premier tier could be 20% to 30% of funds raised, or even more.
If limited-edition items sell out too fast, that can accelerate progress towards the goal without the quantities needed to achieve economies of scale for manufactured items.
A common scenario goes like this: you have a standard and super-premium version of something, often a book, board game, album, or movie. The standard version benefits from volume for economies of scale in per-unit mass manufacture; the super premium version might cost 10 times or more as much as the standard version and includes something unique or handmade, such as a special pressing of a vinyl LP, unique letterpress printed components, or fancy handbinding for a book.
Let’s say you need to make a minimum 1,000 units of something mass produced that you’re offering for $40 to cover prototyping/proofing, contracted artists and other people, and the cost of production — $40,000 gives you a good margin to have 1,200 to 1,500 produced and break even on expenses, or to make almost exactly 1,000 and pay yourself for your labor.
You list your super-premium item at $400 and can only have 100 made for a combination of keeping it special and the difficulties or time involved in making them. (See the Amanda Palmer discussion above, too.) If you sell all 100, you have a margin of 30% or $12,000 (before Kickstarter and other fees).
If you set your goal at $40,000, you could just hit that target plus some extra and sell mostly super-premium items and just a few hundred units of your regular item, completely messing up your budget:
- You can’t make 1,000 (or 1,200 or 1,500) standard items without dipping into your non-campaign money, and the campaign demonstrated a lack of interest in the standard item.
- The money taken in (let’s say it’s $50,000, but $35,000 of that is standard editions) doesn’t cover all the costs of even making 500 standard units and the required number of premium versions.
To avoid that scenario, you can:
- Set your goal higher: A $60,000 goal for the above campaign is likely to hit the right mark for covering expenses to produce a net profit for labor, but it’s not assured.
- Release premium editions in tranches: Kickstarter lets you add items and rewards during a campaign (you can’t change any that people have pledged towards). You could keep your $40,000 goal and release just 50 special edition items with a note that after hitting $40,000, another 50 will be released.
- Offer a smaller quantity of premium items and charge more for them: While this might seem like a different path to failure, setting a higher price for something that’s more exclusive increases your margin and throws off additional net in case the mix of standard and premium are wrong.
This is how I structured my Tiny Type Museum & Time Capsule campaign, although somewhat in reverse: the primary item was expensive (the museum at $1,000), and a number of less-expensive rewards providing entry points for people. I had a minimum and maximum number of museums that could be made affordably (about 30 and 110, with the campaign limited to 100). With a $50,000 total, it seemed unlikely that the lower-dollar rewards would add up to enough to cause the campaign to fail through success. (In the actual event, I had 59 museum backers and raised just under $75,000.)
Sometimes it’s better to unlock “stretch” goals and add rewards when the basic project is funded rather than rely on the higher-value rewards to carry the project through and undermine viability.
It’s also critical to factor in the potential for price increases. With inflation still moving along at a good clip and the USPS and parcel shippers raising their rates along with it, plus unforeseen complications that always arise along the way, we needed to build in a buffer.
It’s seen as gauche to suggest that a crowdfunding campaign could actually pay a wage to the people directly involved in collecting the cash, as opposed to contractors who should always be paid fairly. But that time is clearly gone. Most people cannot afford to put months to years into a project that might yield them a nickel an hour for their time.
All of this factored into how we set the initial Kickstarter goal for Shift Happens and the reward tier pricing:
- Funding goal: We initially considered a $350,000 goal, the number we really wanted to hit and felt was possible, but we were concerned it might appear so ambitious that it could deter backers, who would wonder if it were even possible. Through advice from many experienced parties, we ultimately reduced it to the bare minimum: $150,000. At that level, Marcin could still make a book at the level he wanted, though it was close to the bone. Achieving the goal sooner makes people more confident in backing a campaign for the product itself; it can also, however, deter people backing to support you or your organization. (Marcin’s internal goal was 2,500 copies — at that point, it seemed to him it would pass from vanity self-publishing to “real” publishing.)
- Early bird pricing/limited quantities: If you’ve done the right things to build an audience who is anticipating the launch of your campaign, you want to reward them for jumping in right away. You can do that by setting a separate reward tier that expires after a certain number of hours (ours was 48 hours) or a tier with a limited number of either special items or items at a given price. With Shift Happens, the early-bird price was $125 plus shipping; the regular price was $150 plus shipping.
That gap between early bird and regular seemed to provide an incentive to people to get in fast: we blew past stretch goals before we could even announce them. The campaign crossed $150,000 within two hours and hit $350,000 in the first day or so. In the end, 60% of those who backed at the book level did so during the first 48 hours. (A contrary opinion: It’s possible some book buyers were deterred by seeing that they missed out on paying $25 less after 48 hours. But success is its own answer: it’s hard to imagine having done more than marginally better in any other scenario.)
Stretch Goals and Whether To Include Them
Stretch goals are not directly supported within Kickstarter’s infrastructure, but the company allows them. There’s a diversity of opinion about whether they make sense: surely, the funding goal is the real target and everything else is a distraction?
That can be the case for things with fixed or nearly fixed unit costs and limited quantities: hand-made items don’t typically get cheaper with scale (some elements may be cheaper but other costs are introduced), you only have so many seats to sell in an auditorium (though you might add additional screenings or shows), and so on.
For items made in such a way that increased quantities reduce per-unit costs, and in which some portion of the campaign covers fixed overhead that doesn’t increase or increase much with scale, you have the opportunity to open up more options to backers.
Stretch goals provide additional reasons for people to back a campaign: your 300-page book is now magically 400 pages without any additional cost — it’s a bump for those who already backed and more of an incentive for those who resisted or only arrive when the stretch goal was hit. For some kinds of items, you can add more features or improve aspects of quality and finish.
I recommend stretch goals only when you can articulate distinct elements or items that would be enhanced or added:
- Book upshifts from paperback to hardcover.
- Dress gets another pocket.
- Performance features six storyteller segments instead of four.
- The fee paid to participants in the project doubles.
- Instead of 40 pages of illustrations, there are now 60.
- A DVD adds a printed booklet with behind-the-scenes details.
- Instead of standard dice in a board game, backers now get custom molded ones themed with the game.
You can also use stretch goals as a way to add rewards, as noted above in advice for settings goals correctly: tell people that you’ll unlock new reward tiers or add-ons (which can be added at any reward level) after hitting certain stretch goals. Musician Julian Velard, a talented fellow I’ve heard perform live, set a basic goal for his new album; once hit, he unlocked a “vinyl LP” tier. This now provides a motivation for his existing backers to increase their pledge to add the vinyl.
Shift Happens proceeded like clockwork, by and large. We had built several extra weeks into our schedule so that, even if deadlines slipped, all books could be delivered by the end of 2023—and likely before Christmas, if not before Hanukah.
Then we hit two problems, neither of which we could predict.
First, the well-regarded slipcase maker contracted by our printer kept pushing their delivery schedule back. Because we had a series of gating items—book printing, then binding all the volumes, then delivering those to the slipcase maker, then them making a prototype—we couldn’t have them working ahead of that. They added about six weeks to our schedule for reasons they were never able to articulate, but we had rejiggered the calendar and thought we’d still hit our end of year mark.
The slipcases came out absolutely gorgeously, so at least they met the quality mark.
Then, when we finally started performing shipping tests on assembled book sets, Marcin and I received several copies in perfect condition, but about 40% had damage—some had slight imperfections, but a few were nearly destroyed! The books were packed into a slipcase, shrinkwrapped, and placed inside a heavy double-walled box that was itself placed inside another double-walled box. Both boxes were custom made and fit snugly.
Everyone involved was flummoxed: the slipcase maker, the makers of custom shipping boxes we’d had produced, the printers—and me, who had safely shipped 100 precious Tiny Type Museums, handmade wooden cases full of heavy lead and brass items, around the United States and the world.
It’s at this point we had to take a deep breath and pause. Marcin and I consulted dozens of people who routinely ship art books and weirder items, and our printers talked to suppliers, ordered new kinds of materials, and tested different methods of packing—all much more expensive. Our conclusion was that everything was snug but not immobile. That is, the two hardcover volumes, each weighing over four pounds, were acting like pistons. Every sharp movement would slide them back and forth—just a tiny amount, but given the kind of handling that UPS and USPS must engage in now, it was enough to add up.
Our printer had never seen anything like it, and other people have told us shipping damage is way up now over five years ago. An acquaintance who ships fine china had to give up on that part of their business after many years of successful deliveries.
We took a few weeks in which we and our printers spitballed, tried new things, shipped boxes, and came up with a working solution. The cost in labor, materials, and time was much higher than our estimate. But if you recall that I noted earlier to budget for the unexpected, well, here came our surprise—and the budget absorbed it.
The new packaging added padding between volumes and at the spine before being packaged in a plastic bag in which the slipcases had originally been individually delivered to the printer. Shrinkwrapping an item that large was also causing scuffing, it turned out. The central wrapped core is immobilized with padding in a custom-made box. We tried expanding form, large-cell bubblewrap, and styrofoam “Ezee” brand corners, and ultimately settled on the corners for materials consumed, cost of fulfillment, and safety.
Further, the new packaging method proved so shockingly invulnerable that the normal expected damaged-during-shipping rate of 0.3%–1% was beaten—it’s been nearly 0%. That means more books to sell instead of sending out as replacements. Two customers told us their packages had been left out in the driving rain for a full day by the post office—one said an inch of water was in the bottom of the shipping box when they opened it—but the books were dry as a bone when unpacked.
Because we had printed many more copies than our original optimistic projections, the per-unit cost went way down below our original estimates. Marcin made the decision to spend some of that freed-up cash on things like a third volume (a stretch goal we added in the Kickstarter), a fancier cover printing, and slipcase printed wrap, and in giving himself more freedom on press to tweak things, which added cost.
We kept backers from Kickstarter and later buyers on BackerKit informed at every step of delays in the fall, and asked people if they were planning to give the book as a Christmas gift or could wait. (We couldn’t guarantee Hanukah.) A few hundred people said it was intended as a gift, and our first large shipment went to those people, who helped us test the success of our revised packaging, too. At this writing, we’ve about to cross 50% of books shipped, and we’ll hit 80% in a couple more weeks.
While it seems like we had to spend “extra” money on shipping, it was inevitable: the only way to ship the set of books, given choices made, was at the cost it ultimately did. We could only estimate that final cost for something so big and unusual—but we did predict that we couldn’t predict everything, and set the price accordingly.
Because Marcin also had books left to sell and had considered raising the price, the increased costs meant he made the decision to do that: the books resumed sale at a higher price ($250) and with shipping that reflected his costs ($40 to $100). That and the lower shipping damage rate recovered about 60–80% of the unanticipated higher costs. (The 350 copies put on sales on a Tuesday sold out on Wednesday.)
Most importantly, it didn’t cost Marcin’s customers a penny.
Some Closing Miscellaneous Suggestions
After all that specific advice, I have a few oddments to add:
- Pick the right day of the week and time of day to start and end: Think about when you want to first get people excited enough to smash the Back This Campaign button! Is it Sunday at 3 pm, the long dark teatime of the soul? No, it’s Tuesday, Wednesday, or Thursday at 9 a.m. Pacific Time (or the right time zone outside of the U.S. that aligns with enough time zones that also fit into your marketing plan). Kickstarter lets you choose an exact number of days, where a campaign ends exactly at the same time of day as your launch, or a precise day and time.
- Pick the right time of the year: It’s not that you can’t launch a crowdfunding campaign in the summer for your hemisphere, but why would you? The best time of year is when people aren’t facing upcoming bills for holiday gifts or travel or out of the office or with their money tied up in summer travel. That makes early February through May ideal, but even May starts to shade in school vacations and thoughts of summer. Do I have data on this? No! This is surely my gut instinct, also based on multiple successful Kickstarters launched early in the year, including Shift Happens. But there’s a practical tax reason, too: if you’re planning to pay out most of the expense of a project within up to 10 months of your campaign end, launching in February means your revenue and your expense align, avoiding making it look like you had a big profit on paper one year and a big loss the next. If your project definitely requires more than one year, then precise timing in the first part of the year is less crucial but requires more tax planning; see above.
- Line up people to contact: I know the hardest thing most people do is ask other people for help, particularly in promoting their own work! It’s terrible. But most of us want to help lift other people up. If we have the bandwidth and like what they do, we’ll help. It’s important to build the biggest list you can of friends, family, acquaintances, colleagues, strangers you admire, and so forth because only a fraction of those people will have the time to do anything for you even if they absolutely want to. We wound up producing a special preview booklet using the material created during a press test — a way to test ink coverage, screening, image quality, and even the printer we chose — and sent out about 100 of those to people we liked.
- Email all your previous Kickstarter and other campaigns: Kickstarter lets you send updates to all previous campaigns. These are people who have signed on to your work in the past — give them the opportunity to support future projects. Kickstarter makes it easy as a backer to unsubscribe from update mailings. I’ve always emailed appropriate previous campaigns, sometimes offering people a bonus to thank them. With Shift Happens, I emailed a previous campaign of my own I thought was relevant, and I could track via Kickstarter referrals that a few dozen people backed Marcin’s campaign, too.
Changes I Want Kickstarter To Make (and How To Use BackerKit to Fill In)
It’s hard to write about crowdfunding without a laundry list of what Kickstarter should add to do. Here’s a partial list of pain points:
- Sales tax and other tax: Kickstarter’s PledgeManager post-campaign service can calculate sales tax down to the street address. (Some U.S. states have dozens to hundreds of unique taxing districts.) They should extend this backwards into pledges. People pledging would have to provide address information at the start, but it would be a big help.
- Allow more sophisticated rewards and combinations: Kickstarter has improved how you build and use rewards substantially over the last few years, most recently letting you add photos. When you create rewards, you start by building a list of physical, digital, and complimentary items you’ll offer (think: book, ebook, and a “thank you”). As you build rewards you check off which items are included in it. Kickstarter should allow rewards to specify multiples, perform more complicated shipping calculations (per shipment and per item), and bundle rewards (select more than one, although using add-ons can achieve a similar result). The company says it doesn’t want to be a pre-order store, so that informs some of its thinking. But it also lets you create rewards for 1, 2, 3, 4, 5, etc., of something, so that doesn’t exactly hold water.
- Allow post-campaign project annotation: Your campaign text is fixed in amber forever the second the project ends. You can change some details at the top, adding a background image, a foreground image, a little text, and a destination and text for a button. You can also post updates. It would be better if the main campaign text could be annotated — not edited — to provide additional details, perhaps with limits on the amount of text and highlighting to indicate it came after the campaign. Kickstarter staff might need to approve these additions, too. (Sometimes the facts of the campaign change and it would be better to have the campaign revised to note the change so people don’t have to read all the updates in sequence to figure it out.)
- Provide block tools without requiring recourse to Kickstarter: Kickstarter wants to make sure that scam artists don’t use its platform, and allowing anyone to back a campaign and leave comments can provide accountability for people who aren’t delivering or didn’t deliver. However, Kickstarter lacks an urgency and tools to manage abuse. If you have people you don’t want to do business with or who have been problematic or abusive in the past, preventing them from the get-go or being able to mark them as abusive and have Kickstarter quickly review (and then add them to your future blocklist) would reduce the stress for some project creators.
Glenn Fleishman is a long-time journalist and editor. He’s funded seven projects of his own on Kickstarter, ranging from a few thousand dollars to over $75,000, and consulted formally and informally on projects that have collectively raised millions. He’s available for consulting, editing, and project management. Drop him a line.
Thanks to Marcin Wichary for reviewing this essay and letting me share personal and professional details (and for his bottomless trust in having me edit and manage Shift Happens). Thank you to Jeff Carlson, who edited this article.