My debut novel, Johnny Ruin, is about a man who takes a road trip through his own mind with Jon Bon Jovi. It’s a sad, funny, literary exploration of heartbreak and mental health.
After receiving somewhere in the region of 16 rejections from traditional publishers, and still very much believing in the story we had to tell, my agent Cath Summerhayes and I decided we should try crowdfunding it with Unbound.
The book funded in just nine days – one of the fastest campaigns for a literary novel in Unbound history – and is scheduled for release in spring 2018. Here are a few things I learned about crowdfunding in the process.
1. Don’t rush in
The decision to publish with Unbound was one I didn’t take lightly. I thought about it for a few weeks, talked it over with my agent and friends. Crowdfunding isn’t for everyone. You need to know a few hundred people who will pledge their support. So having a big network is important, as is having an established platform. Crowdfunding is not for social media novices.
When my Unbound campaign launched on March 1st, it was more than a month in the making. I pulled together a campaign video, commissioned some poster art, and planned as much of the campaign as I could in advance.
My secret weapon was a spreadsheet. It had four columns. In the first I listed my “launch team”, the 25 or so close friends, family, and influencers I could count on to spread the word for me on launch day. I sent them an email well in advance with details of the launch, and another on the day with links to the campaign page, the video, suggested copy for tweets, posts, and emails, and sent images they could use on Instagram.
In the next three columns I listed 50-75 names in each, depending on their likelihood of pledging. Column 2 I filled with close friends and family outside the launch team. Column 3 was work colleagues and friends I hadn’t spoken to recently but I was on good terms with. Column 4 was for long shots, people I’d met didn’t really know, and people I used to know, but hadn’t spoken to in a long time. Once I launched I worked through the lists, sending individual emails to each person.
Crowdfunding is exciting. It’s tempting to get out there asap and make your book happen. But it’s more than worth taking that extra week to get your campaign together.
2. Don’t be shy
When you’ve spent a year or more in a room by yourself writing your book, it can be difficult to make the switch to full-on publicity mode. The smiles can feel forced, the tweets and emails and can-I-ask-a-favours will feel like overkill, the attempts to reignite long dead friendships will feel desperate. You’ll feel like a fraud, an imposter, a con-person. But all authors have to do publicity at some stage. The difference with a crowdfunding campaign is that the publicity effort starts sooner. And it’s more difficult in some ways. There isn’t a product to show. But you have to sell it all the same. And no one is going to hold your hand and do it for you.
Enthusiasm is basically a foreign language for me. But people can spot a shill. If you can’t be enthusiastic about your own book, if you can’t push yourself to tweet and Facebook and Instagram and email and email and email then you probably shouldn’t be crowdfunding. You need to literally shout your book into existence. Call in those favours, offer to help with someone else’s project (everybody has one) in return for a pledge. Hell, guilt them into supporting you, if that works. During my campaign, I was sending 15-20 emails every day, along with daily tweets and Facebook posts. You don’t have to be quite as aggressive as I was. But whatever you do, don’t be shy.
3) Don’t forget the story
When journalist and author Summer Brennan needed to do more research for her traditionally published book, The Parisian Sphinx, she found the publisher’s advance wouldn’t cover the travel costs. Instead, she turned to crowdfunding. Her Indiegogo campaign was a viral smash, and is now the fourth highest funded publishing project for a new book on the platform. As she told me in an email: "I think it helps that readers can trust that they will be getting a beautiful book the same as they would buy in their local bookstore, produced by a team of professional editors, copy editors, designers, etc. Other than that, I think it's simply a matter of storytelling. Do people want to find out more? Fortunately for me, the answer for many people was "yes"."
Simply asking people to pre-order your book isn’t enough. They need a story. For a non-fiction book like The Parisian Sphinx, the hook is the incredible untold tale of a 19th Century artist’s model. It’s a hell of a story, and it sent the campaign viral. For fiction it can be more difficult to identify that story hook, unless you’re writing about a particularly newsworthy issue. For my book, the campaign itself became the story. It had so much momentum that people were invested in making it happen. The question, “can we do this in two weeks?” became “can we do this in 10 days?” We did it in 9.
Books don’t go viral, stories do.
4) Don’t run out of content
A crowdfunding campaign is a marathon, even when it’s a sprint. It’s not enough to announce that it’s happening, get a few people to share it, and sit back. As anyone in marketing will tell you, content is king, and you’re competing with puppies and babies out there. Unless your book is about puppies and babies, you need to have plenty of interesting content actually related to your book ready to go, in order to draw in pledges.
I wrote a Medium post detailing my campaign, and why I was publishing with Unbound in the first place. I had poster art commissioned as a reward for my backers, which I shared on my social channels. Since I have some photoshop skills, I made images with quotes from my book, because images share better on social media than anything else. I run a weekly music newsletter, so I made sure to include a link to the campaign in there, and sent out a special edition on launch day. A few days after launch I wrote another Medium post. I had even planned a second video, but my book funded before I had chance to use it. New content keeps your campaign fresh, the more of it you have ready to drip feed throughout your campaign the better. I found that each different type of content I tried drove pledges from audiences who wouldn’t have seen the other posts. Don’t be afraid to try things. And if something works, keep doing it.
5) Don’t expect it to be quick
The average Unbound campaign takes three months. The fastest can finish in a matter of hours, often because the author has a big following on social media. For those campaigns that do take longer it can be tough to keep going. Writer and journalist Emily Hill, who is in the process of crowdfunding her short story collection, Bad Romance, with Unbound, told me: “I did not expect crowdfunding to be so emotional. When you attract a new pledge your mood soars and when you're stuck you can sink into despair, but it’s important to keep believing in the kindness of strangers who believe in your work”
Crowdfunding can be a lonely experience, especially if you’re the sole author of the project. Sitting at your laptop, day after day, shouting into the void. But there is help available. There are Facebook groups for crowdfunders to share tips and offer each other support. Before my campaign started, I got in touch with writers and friends who’ve done crowdfunding to ask their advice. And friends and family were invaluable to have on hand during the campaign itself, if only to have someone checking I was sleeping and feeding myself. Make sure you have someone doing the same for you.
6) Don’t ignore your supporters
As Georgia Odd, Campaigns Manager at Unbound, told me before I started: “People who back the campaign have to wait a year to get their hands on the finished product. They do it because they want to feel part of the journey.”
When someone pledges to your campaign, you’ve persuaded them that you are worth their time and money. Yes they get a beautifully designed book, but they’re investing in you. So say thank you. If you recognise someone from Twitter, @ them with your appreciation. Send an email. It shows you’re genuine, and it tells other people that your project is worth backing.
It’s also important to keep your supporters updated with regular blog posts, so they know their money is being put to good use. Use major milestones as a guide; the halfway mark, hitting fully funded status, delivering the manuscript, revealing the cover. These supporters aren’t just your backers for this book. These are hopefully your readers for life. The better you treat them now, the more books they’ll stick around to support.
7) Don’t forget to back your own horse
Author Nikesh Shukla, who successfully funded award-winning essay collection The Good Immigrant with Unbound in 2015, and just funded a second book of essays with the company, had this advice: “My friend Clotaire K, the great French-Lebanese rapper, once told me that it's important that you are the first customer of anything you do. The things you make, the projects you work on, you should always retain the idea of yourself as one of the audience members. I was the first person to pledge for the Rife book and for The Good Immigrant, because I am the first customer of anything I do.”
With Unbound, and many other crowdfunding platforms, the list of supporters of the project is publicly visible. You might feel silly pledging for your own book, but it’s important to show people that you believe in your work. If you wouldn’t buy it, why should they?
Dan Dalton's debut novel, Johnny Ruin, is out in Spring 2018. You can pre-order it here.