Kicking off: Kickstarter's Margot Atwell on the platform's publishing success

Kicking off: Kickstarter's Margot Atwell on the platform's publishing success

In the past month, Kickstarter surpassed $110m in pledges worldwide for publishing and book-related projects; the crowdfunding platform only launched in 2009. It’s also impressive because in the wider public imagination Kickstarter is known as a breeding ground for tech (such as the Pebble Time smartwatch, which at $20.3m is far and away its highest-funded project), music (hip-hop and R&B legends De La Soul and TLC are currently seeking finance for new releases) and film (Spike Lee, “Scrubs” star Zach Braff, and, um, ex-MP George Galloway are among the many filmmakers who have been able to fund projects through the masses).

Yet it is interesting to note that publishing is Kickstarter’s third most-popular category, with almost 10,700 projects funded to date. And the number that reach their targets is growing year on year, says the company’s head of publishing Margot Atwell; in the UK, the number of funded publishing projects jumped 7.2% in 2016.

There are a variety of reasons for the rise of publishing on the platform and one of the main ones, Atwell says, is a sort of “bedding in” of crowdfunding within the book trade. She explains, “Early on, there was a bit of resistance from some in the industry because it was a new model. It was seen as solely about self-publishers trying to avoid traditional routes to market. We were viewed, quite frankly, as a threat—like e-books and social media were initially. But that perception has evolved, and more and more publishers, indies in particular, are using Kickstarter as a way to support individual books or series, an author’s tour, an individual event, a transla- tion programme, and so on.”

Atwell wheels out a number of recent examples, such as Minneapolis indie Milkweed Editions getting more than $40,000 to open a bricks-and-mortar bookshop (it had a $25,000 goal) and Peckham-based Tezeta Press raising more than £9,000 to fund Belly Full, a cookbook series on Afro-Caribbean cuisine in the UK. “Indie publishers can be quite successful [on Kickstarter] because most of them are quite well connected to their customers, especially on social media,” says Atwell. “They know their readers. They know their community.”

Atwell will be speaking at the fair today (14th March), with Arts Council England relationship manager Gemma Seltzer, in a seminar dealing with how small and medium-sized companies can attract extra funding. Atwell’s experience in the publishing industry has helped inform how she has gone about her job at Kickstarter. After beginning her book-trade career at Irene Skolnick Literary Agency in 2006, she moved to Beaufort Books, working in various roles at the New York firm for six years.

Incidentally, during her time at Beaufort it published If I Did It, O J Simpson’s (and ghostwriter Pablo Fenjves’) “hypothetical” recreation of the murders of Simpson’s ex-wife Nicole and Ron Goldman. The book was famously first published by HarperCollins, which ended up dropping it and pulping 400,000 copies, owing to the controversy surrounding publication. Beaufort later gave the book’s proceeds to Goldman’s family.

One thing that Atwell may underscore at the seminar is that Kickstarter is not an assured rainbow path to a pot of gold. Since launch, 70% of publishing projects have not reached their targets; a sobering 18% (6,500 out of the 35,500+ to date) did not receive a single pledge. It is worth noting that the platform has an “all or nothing” model: if you don’t reach your goal, you don’t receive a penny. “You have to do the research [to reach a crowd- funding target] and think about how you present your project, how you attract your community,” Atwell says. “Admittedly, certain genres work better—comics, illustrated titles, things with a compelling visual element. Anthologies tend to do really well, which is interesting as in traditional publishing they are often a difficult sell.”

Atwell’s firm is not the only game in town anymore, with the sector an increasingly, ahem, crowded field, from Indiegogo to the hybrid model of Unbound. So why should authors and publishers still look to Kickstarter? She says: “I like what Unbound is doing but it’s a different model—it is solely author-focused, has an editorial stake and it is limited to the book itself. We are far more flexible: it’s about projects, not just a book. And compared to the other platforms we have a greater reach, a broader community. We’re on a different scale.”