Apple-Obsessed Author Fella

John Hartness: Five Things I Learned Kickstarting A Novel

So, I’m not what you’d call “new” to publishing. Since putting out my first novel in 2009, I’ve published 39 book-length works, from novellas to novels to collections of novellas and short stories. And I learn something from every single one of them, whether it’s not to save the world in the first book of a long-running series (because how do you build from that) to something as simple as the fact that when IngramSpark tells you that your book can be 1,050 pages in hardcover, they really mean 1,048, because they’re going to add a page for a bar code in the very back and that counts toward your page count (and yes, it meant I reformatted one entire omnibus to cut another two pages).

But I’ve never Kickstarted a novel before now. And I didn’t set out to fund the production of this book when I wrote it. I honestly didn’t know what I wanted to do with it. I own a small press, so it’s not like I’m in danger of getting a rejection letter from everyone I send the book to. I am my own safety school, as it were. But The Seven: Unforgiven was a different type of book than I usually write. It’s a high fantasy, rather than the urban fantasy where I’ve made most of my sales and (limited) reputation. It’s less comedic and snarky than most of what I do, although there’s a fair bit of snark anyway. And it’s not immediately built for a series, although if sales are strong enough, I could certainly have a good time writing these characters again. So I thought I might shop it around to agents, try to get published by a bigger house, and do the whole “New York publishing thing.”

Except I’ve done it my way for 31 of my 39 published works, so listening to other people isn’t my strong suit. And getting a Big 5 (4?) contract is hard, even with a track record of selling decent numbers. Getting an agent is hard, even when there’s a dozen or so who are predisposed to answer your emails because you already publish clients of theirs. The book has to be the right fit for the agent, then the right fit for the editor, then the right fit for the season they’re looking to publish in, then the right fit for the distributor, then you get to try to sell the book to a human being. And I’m notoriously impatient, so I didn’t feel like waiting two to three years to see the book in print. It had already taken longer for me to write than any other book I’ve ever worked on, because it was written in the pandemic, and I’m not Brandon Sanderson, who whipped out four big chonky books in lockdown.

So when my buddy Darin Kennedy (Fugue & Fable) reached out to me about being part of a Kickstarter to fund not just the creation of my new book, but the first three books of his new nine-book series, I was intrigued. I’ve worked on Kickstarter projects before, all anthologies, and I knew that the more people you have boosting the signal, the better off you are. So when we both realized that our friend Patrick Dugan (The Darkest Storm) had a new book that he wasn’t sure what to do with, we looped him into the fold and started our New Year, New Books Kickstarter, which is running until February 1, and will fund five books from the three of us. But there were certainly some lessons learned along the way.

Lesson #1 – More stuff equals more stuff

Sounds like one of those stupidly obvious statements, right? Like “it is what it is.” Except there’s more to it than that. For each book there are a lot of options available, and all of them have to be listed. Do you want the ebook? Do you want the paperback? Do you want the hardcover? Do you want to pick up any of our backlist? Do you want a special reward, like a Tuckerization (when you pay extra to have your name used as one of the characters in the book)? All of these things have to be listed in the Rewards section, and the more books you have, the more crowded your rewards section is going to be. Right now, there are a BUNCH of possible rewards to choose from, ranging from a crisp high five and a thank you all the way up to having one of the books dedicated to you or someone else. And that means that people have to scroll a lot to find the reward they want. I think we have great rewards, and some of them are a great value (I’m offering up a full manuscript critique as a substantial discount from my normal editorial rates, for example). But there’s a lot, and it took Darin a lot of time to build all that into the project.

Lesson #2 – Beware the spam and the offers of help

Even before a Kickstarter is launched, the deluge of offers to help start. And these aren’t sincere offers from cool friends, like Chuck letting me hijack his blog or Jonathan Maberry giving us a shoutout on his social media. No, these are the professional “helpers,” the people who come out of the woodwork emailing you about your project offering to help you get more backers for the low, low price of (insert price here). We’ve gotten spam offers to buy social media posts, sell us newsletter placements, manage the project completely for us, or just to give us access to all their insider tips and tricks. While I’m sure there are some folks that do a good job shepherding crowdfunding campaigns to the finish line, I seriously doubt those folks need to email every shmuck who starts a Kickstarter. Just like I’m not selling my house to the goofball who calls me on the phone randomly (unless you want to pay my asking price, which is double whatever Zillow says the place is worth), I’m not buying a Kickstarter assistant from a spam email.

Lesson #3 – You can’t let your foot off the gas.

We started strong. We hit 1/3 of our $15,000 funding goal in the first couple days. That’s $5,000 dollars in maybe 48-72 hours. Pretty good for a trio of midlisters with mostly small press publication histories. But then the slowdown hit. The vast majority of Kickstarter money is pledged in the first two days, and the last two days. That leaves the other twenty-six days feeling like late Act II of your debut novel – it’s a little saggy in the middle. Add to that Darin and I attending a con right in the middle of the project, and we weren’t on social media promoting for several days (five for me, because there was some extra travel involved in my trip, then a plumbing thing because home ownership suuuuuucks). That doesn’t help. So we’re making a big push in the last half of the campaign to grab the last 40% of our funding.

Lesson #4 – People actually watch the videos!

I back a lot of Kickstarters. I have an unhealthy addiction to limited edition hardcovers and snazzy tabletop RPGs, so I end up with a bunch of Kickstarters in my life. I never, ever watch the videos that go with the projects I back, although the all have them (you kinda have to have one). But apparently a lot of people do watch them, based on the number of comments and messages I’ve gotten about my cats, both of whom make cameos in the video for our project. Now you’re all going to go watch the video. And you should, because my cats are friggin’ adorable. Also, because I want you to back the Kickstarter. But my cats are the cutest.

Lesson #5 – Joe Cocker was right

You really do get by with a little help from your friends. And I know The Beatles sang it first, but I love Joe Cocker. We have gotten so much love and support from our friends in the industry by sharing the posts, tweeting about the campaign (or whatever you do on social media apps that aren’t the bird thing), and giving us opportunities to share our projects with their audiences. Our friends understand, just like Patrick, Darin, and I do, that the writing business isn’t a competition, and a rising tide lifts all boats. If the three of us have a successful Kickstarter, then maybe other groups of authors can band together and produce awesome work on their own, and you’ll have more killer stories to tell. I know I’ll be happy to back more projects by more writers in the future (I just plunked down my money for the limited edition V.E. Schwab hardcover that Wraithmarked is kickstarting right now. I mentioned I have an addiction to limited editions, right?), and the more cross-promotion we all do, the better the landscape is for all of us. So in this time when budgets suck, editorial staffs are thinning, and it seems harder and harder to sell a book, finding the level of support that we’ve gotten from our friends in the industry has been incredible.

Those are a few of the things I’ve learned while working on this Kickstarter, and I’m sure there will be more to come, especially as I have to learn exactly what size boxes are best for shipping hardcovers. But please go give a look at the New Year, New Books campaign we’ve got running, and hit me up if you have questions about any of the books or the process of getting them out to you all!