In November last year, I went through a horrific month of ups and down. Full-time job, that if successful, would end up paying very well. All I had to do to receive said financial reward was to put all my focus and energy into one project, cross my fingers and hope for best. The stakes were high and the result uncertain. It was a true emotional roller-coaster that kept me awake at nights.
Did I sell my soul to a corporate overlord? Have I been an undercover agent in mafia the whole time? Was smuggling drugs across the international borders the source of my stress and possible wealth?
I did a crowdfunding campaign for comics.
(The title of this article kinda gave it away, didn’t it…)
THE AUTHORIAL INTENT (AND LIMITS)
There’s something truly dreamy about creating art and having funds to support it from people who appreciate it for what it is. The taste of absolute control is seducing and well-deserved. The feeling of creating something that’s 100% you and being able to pay bills and maybe an occasional cinnamon macchiato with avocado-induced milk (when it comes to comics artists, our dreaming big is dreaming average).
Kickstarter, probably the most famous of all crowdfunding sites, launched in the year of 2009. Two years before, there had already been Indiegogo. GoFundMe followed in 2010. Soon after regional variations appeared, the Czech ones becoming active mostly around 2012.
MONEY FOR THE LITTLE GUY(S AND GIRLS)
Crowdfunding campaigns are at their best when supporting niche projects with an established fanbase, community ideas or larger than life ideas. Comics fits this perfectly and if you were around the comics industry in the past few years, you know well that it was impossible to hide from the long string of comics crowdfunding campaigns.
The over-saturation of the market wasn’t the only issue. The quality of the art went down significantly as the platform became more accessible. Crowdfunding went mainstream. Projects previously covered by grants and sponsors were suddenly asking for money online. Movies, board games, even start-ups were now all about building a digital community (that provided them with money). Opening an internet browser was equivalent to walking down a beggar's street.
Now the boom seems to have diminished a little. The question arises. Did the general interest in crowdfunded comics diminished with it?
Time to ask around!
INTO THE (FINANCIAL) WILD
Mikuláš Podprocký is Concept Artist first and Comics Artist second, but for our purposes, he is foremost the author of Wilderness, graphic novel about a post-apocalyptic world and its animal occupants (give it a read on the Nanits app!). The link to his campaign is still active, even though the time to donate has long expired. It’s been six years but the final 215% the campaign has reached is impressive nevertheless.
In the beginning, he wasn’t sure he wanted to publish it in the first place: ‘I was drawing it for no one particular, there was no ambition to push it further. Then a friend of mine referred me to the people who were just starting with the Startovač (Czech Kickstarter-like site). They needed more projects to kick it off so I took the risk and it paid back royally.’
Today, creating a crowdfunding campaign is somewhat an art. Or to be more precise, business. There are people you can hire for a percentage of whatever is raised. Putting it together is a team effort, one that is often structured and planned months in advance.
It wasn’t like that in 2013.
FULL-TIME JOB (THAT DOESN’T PAY)
‘I gave it two weekends in total.’ Mikuláš recalls. ‘In hindsight, the campaign probably wasn’t very well-prepared.’
Michael Petrus, another author with comics on Nanits app funded by dedicated backers, feels the same. The campaign for On the Coast of Dreams, an epic graphic novel about one man’s quest to save his daughter, launched in 2016.
‘There wasn’t much preparation beforehand. We had this idea that all that makes a successful crowdfunding campaign is a good video, interesting rewards and well-written text with enough previews. We thought Kickstarter would take care of the rest, but then it turned out unless you catch the hype real quick, there’s very little it does for you once it’s launched. There aren’t people just wondering around, waiting to find something to back, you need to get it in front of the faces of your targeted group.’
The campaigning month swiftly turned into an exercise in PR: ‘We soon learned that we have to contact bloggers, forums, websites, anything that could publish an article or get the word out there.’ The following weeks took a toll on him and his crew. He found himself working less and less and pouring all his time and energy into campaigning: ‘I was terribly nervous and tired. We weren’t one of those projects that you read articles about, those that hit 100% in the first few days and then rejoice at any extra money. We worked hard to earn those funds. There were constant updates, communication with backers never ceased and we did everything we could to let people know the comics exists.’
ALL ROADS LEAD TO… MARKETING
What Mikuláš and Michael both agree on, is that the crowdfunding is a huge PR opportunity.
‘Campaign becomes kind of a tool for marketing the comics to the wider public.’ Michael says. ‘It’s a well-structured platform where you can keep all the information about the project and an accessible way to legally and easily finance it.’
Mikuláš’s story has an extra happy ending: ‘I guess I was surprised that it actually worked. Not only that. It pretty much made my comics career.’ says Mikuláš. The average backers and everyday comics fans weren’t the only ones who took notice. ‘During the campaign I got a call from my favorite publishing house, asking me to publish the book with them! I was thrilled!’
He even thinks that reaching the fans is more important than the actual money. ‘The existence of the campaign alone was marketing. People got to know about the comics, about me.’ He provides an example to support his claim. Two years back, Wilderness follow up with a second book and this time, there was no crowdfunding campaign. Mikuláš is convinced that’s the reason there wasn’t the same fuzz. ‘I wasn’t able to manage the campaign for the other book and it showed. People simply didn’t know there was a sequel.’
Mikuláš is fairly optimistic, saying he would gladly do it again and that he plans to. Does he have a piece of advice for those who want to go where he has gone before?
‘There is still potential. But you need to do the math first.’ he was especially put off by all the packaging. ‘We had to do everything by hand. It was so much work. There were hundreds of packages, each with different rewards and bonuses. This kind of stuff needs to be covered financially as well.’ As for the supporting material? Nowadays it seems like you can’t make a campaign without a high-quality video featuring the artist. ‘Talking heads interest no one. Videos are overrated.’ says Mikuláš firmly. ‘Find a way to make your campaign special. Boredom doesn’t sell.’
Michael is not so quick to make a decision. ‘I think it’s still a viable option. Not the right one for me, at least not now.’ He thinks the turmoil was worth in the end. ‘I was happy to see the demand for Czech translation, even though we weren't ready for it back then. Fortunately, now you can find both Czech and English version on Nanits app!’
His advice for crowdfunding newbies is very grounded: ‘You have to be ready to face adversity. I recommend starting in advance: build a community, find influencers, explore forums, etc. Then launch.’ His overview is realistic, but he thinks the potential is still there: ‘It takes a lot of work, but it’s possible. If you have something worthwhile.’
THE TALE OF SURVIVAL
All of these were stories with happy endings, though some harder to reach than others. If you feel like you have realistic expectations and this article didn’t discourage you, I advise you to follow the path of success. One of them might be the artbook of Iraville, German watercolor painter, who raised $115,000 from what was originally $25,500 goal. On the Coast of Dreams and Wilderness can still both be found on their respectable crowdfunding sites, the first one raising $9,036 of $9,000 goal, the second reaching approximately $4,800 out of $2,200 Mikuláš asked for.
Check out the rewards, give a few minutes exploring the layout, watch the videos and go through the comments. Make it worthwhile for anyone who ends up clicking the link.
LAYDEEZ DO CROWDFUNDING
At the beginning of this article, I spoke from personal experience. While interviewing, I could see myself in all of these stories, especially the strong feeling of ‘I wish I knew this before’.
As the year 2018 was coming at a close, we launched a crowdfunding campaign for Czech Laydeez do Comics all-female anthology. Laydeez do Comics Prague has been active since 2015 when it was founded by Tereza Drahoňovská and me as a Czech branch of this international organization.
At first, we thought we would run a blog and nothing else. Our goal was to create a platform for Czech (and Slovak) female comics creators, so we wrote articles, reviews, interviews, and whatnot. The main focus was either the authors themselves or stories about women or covering similar topics. We wanted to explore female agendas in storytelling while showing that female comics artist isn’t a legendary unicorn that appears once or twice per century.
Before long, we were organizing symposiums, exhibitions and giving talks all around the country. It grew much faster and bigger than we expected or planned, so the next big step was obvious. To bring all the wonderful comics created during the three summer symposiums that we organized to the physical word and see it in print. We decided to go further. Why settle with comics only, when there’s a possibility to make something really unique: a publication that explores the history and the creative process of women in comics.
So, we went for it. And we truly had no idea what we are getting ourselves into.
PREPARING FOR THE UNKNOWN
Back in October, I thought that both of us are very cautious and level-headed people. Tereza was the manager, the PR girl, the journalist, the theorist. I was the artist, the presenter, the networker, the instructor. We were referred to a crowdfunding site which specialized in books. The company was already connected with print shops and had distribution handled, so all that was left was to get the money and get to work.
We thought the chances were in our favor. More than twenty people were involved in the book one way or another, we had a pre-existing fanbase and a long list of contacts. We came up with rewards we thought were charming and funny, wrote down everything we could think of being useful and showed off the best comics pages out of the sixty we had.
We launched and… the miracle didn’t happen.
Looking back, I think it was probably our unrealistic expectations that hindered us. Having very little idea of what it would actually take, we thought the project will take care of itself. That if we reach out to the names on our list, it will spread like wildfire. The percentage was rising, but not nearly fast enough. It didn’t help that on the first day the crowdfunding site crashed and it either showed completely wrong numbers or didn’t let people pay for the purchase.
We had a lot of support, which I am immensely thankful for. Every share counted, every share helped. We were a niche project after all. There aren’t that many people interested in comics AND feminist(-ish) point of view. Readers are also more invested in longer stories, anthologies have in general harder time capturing interest, apart from friends and family of each participant.
NOT PANICKING 101
Working our way through it, we wrote to more and more people, discovering platforms we had no idea existed. Fans were in it with us and everyone was doing their best, but somehow… it wasn’t enough. The rule of thumb says that the 30% mark needs to be crossed during the first week. I think we reached that with a few days delay, but then it slowed down significantly.
I found out much later that it’s fairly common for the campaign authors to chip in their own money. Not necessarily for it to reach the goal, it’s not about the last 5%. After the first week, it’s natural that the campaign hits a stop and it needs some fuel to kick it off again. Hopefully, the funds end up over 100% so that the authors can get their money back.
The backers and potential backers simply want to be part of something successful. If they see the possibility of a happy ending, they are glad to tag along. Harsh as it may sound, nobody sticks with the loser (or a future loser).
Another tip I received long after the campaign was over is that it’s always better to ask for less. What seems fairly obvious applies for the same reason as the previous advice. It’s easier to set the goal lower and over-fund it, reaching the original amount than lead with a higher number. Especially in the beginning, it might be what tips a backer over the edge. What is the probability of this project succeeding? They are not asking for much and they already have it going. Here, have my few dollars.
THE KNIGHT IN SHINING ARMOR (MADE OUT OF CASH)
I got sucked down the rabbit hole. I was frantic and honestly, panicking. The numbers might have not been that bad, but I was full on cave-woman survival mode. In a glimpse of genius (and despair), I wrote to my alma mater, Ladislav Sutnar Faculty of Design and Art. I was few months gone from school, but I have always had a good relationship with the bureaucratic side of the school, as I was one of the few who understood (and applied) for university issued grants.
And suddenly, the tables turned. Many artists present in the book in one way or another attended the university at a certain point in time, so the school was happy to chip in and buy what was, in fact, a school catalog.
Their contribution made all difference because suddenly we went up almost by another 30% and people started thinking: ‘hey, this might actually work out!’. We ended up raising quite a substantial amount, reaching 120% when the campaign was over.
I had a burn-out coming for this, but at that moment, I was finally at peace. We did it.
ALL’S WELL THAT ENDS WELL
We are a few days from seeing our book on paper. I can’t wait! It was hard work but it paid off. The campaign truly was a great PR and it would be much easier with more thorough preparations. But oh well. It’s all done.
Would I do it again? Not sure. Maybe one day. I still think that there’s something special about crowdfunding comics though. You do it with the fans for the fans and a single book can open many doors. Hopefully, those doors will lead to an office of a very welcoming editor.
Author: Štěpánka Jislová
Štěpánka Jislová is a Czech Illustrator and Comics artist. Born in 1992, she resides in Prague and apart from numerous illustrated books and two stand-alone graphic novels, she enjoys doing tattoo and cloths designs, teaches, writes and gives talks and presentations. She participated in the comics symposium The Superheroes of Eastern Bloc (2015) and was awarded a prestigious Getting to know Europe grant at Wilkinson College, CA. She’s a co-founder of the Czech branch of Laydeez do Comics. Main focus of her work is storytelling via symbolism and archetypes, which she explores through carefully crafted compositions and precise line-work.