Campaign for Cash: Crowdfunding Tips for Writers

Gigi Rosenberg
From the March/April 2013 issue of
Poets & Writers Magazine

About nine years ago I tried raising money to attend a writing workshop with Spalding Gray. I mailed letters to seventy friends, family members, and colleagues, asking them to donate between ten and fifty dollars each so that I could pay to attend his workshop. It was more than a little embarrassing to ask my friends for money, but I really wanted to study with Gray, author of such classics as the Obie-winning monologue Swimming to Cambodia (Theatre Communications Group, 1985) and Gray’s Anatomy (Vintage Books, 1994). At the same time I was applying for a grant to attend the workshop (sponsored by the Omega Institute in Rhinebeck, New York), but I knew my application would be more competitive if I showed that I raised some funds on my own. 

I also had this crazy idea that my friends and family would enjoy helping me finance my study with Gray, considered the granddaddy of the autobiographical monologue and one of my favorite writers and performers. As it turned out, it wasn’t such a crazy idea after all.

Nowadays this type of fund-raising is known as crowdfunding, and it’s become much more sophisticated as writers and artists have turned to websites like Kickstarter and Indiegogo, which are designed to help raise money from individual donors. Since it was founded in 2009, Kickstarter has been used to raise $350 million from 2.5 million individuals for thirty thousand dance, film, video, art, and publishing projects, among other ventures.

If you want to raise money to pay for a research trip, attend a career-changing workshop, or publish a book—beyond the usual grants and fellowships for writers—crowdfunding may be the way to go. In addition to being a powerful tool for raising money, a crowdfunding campaign for a book is much like a prepublicity campaign, raising awareness for an upcoming project—which can be even more valuable than cash. 

Crowdfunding is not for the faint of heart; it takes a certain amount of chutzpah to ask your friends for money. But it’s also becoming so common in the arts community that it’s nearly a rite of passage. Nowadays, I receive a couple of donation requests in my inbox every week. The good news is that it’s less stigmatized than it used to be; the bad news is that you may not be the only writer asking your friends for money.

The most popular site for writers is Kickstarter, with Indiegogo coming in a close second. Although there are now many other sites that offer this service, these two are geared most directly toward artists. They are designed to help you organize and promote your project, connect to your social-media community, and raise funds. They can help connect you to individuals you don’t know, such as folks who surf these high-profile sites looking for compelling projects to fund, but it’s more likely that the money you raise will come from people who already know you and trust you and are fans of your work. 

The main difference between Kickstarter and Indiegogo is that Kickstarter only allows projects that culminate in the production of a product. If you’re fund-raising for the publication of a book, that’s fine, but if you want to fund an experience like attending a writer’s conference—even if that experience eventually produces a book—you’ll need to use a site like Indiegogo, which doesn’t have the same restrictions. The other major difference between these sites is that Kickstarter is an all-or-nothing proposition: If you don’t meet your stated goal, you don’t get any of the funds. With Indiegogo, you have the option of “flexible funding,” which means you keep any money you raise even if you don’t meet your goal.

Both Kickstarter and Indiegogo offer a page to showcase your project, with room to include your pitch to donors (also called backers), a video you create about your project, and a list of the different perks backers will receive depending on their level of giving (a signed copy of the published book, their name on the acknowledgments page of the book, access to private project-related websites, and so on). Any crowdfunding site you choose to work with will take a percentage of the funds you collect—between 4 and 9 percent. They also provide detailed analytics that track where your donors come from, so you know what’s working and what’s not. The sites also make it easy for you to send updates as you race to your fund-raising deadline. Kickstarter allows campaigns to last a maximum of sixty days; many are slated for just thirty days. (Sometimes having less time contributes to the urgency of a project and helps raise more money.) 

Author Ariel Gore had already published several books with traditional publishers both large and small when she decided to crowdfund a collection of flash essays, All the Pretty People: Tales of Carob, Shame, and Barbie-Envy. “A traditional publisher didn’t make much sense because the book was so short—almost a chapbook,” says Gore, who raised $3,062 from sixty-eight backers during her thirty-day campaign. She used the money to self-publish the book under her imprint, Lit Star Press, in 2011. 

Gore’s second Kickstarter project was for the anthology The People’s Apocalypse, coedited by Jenny Forrester and published last year, also by Lit Star. This time, Gore’s decision to use crowdfunding had to do with timing. “We had the collection ready to go, but a traditional publisher would have slowed things down and we wanted to put it out in 2012 to coincide with the rumored end of the Mayan calendar,” she says. For this project, Gore and Forrester raised $5,585 from eighty-eight backers during a thirty-day campaign.