I ran my first crowdfunding effort during the last few weeks. It would be lazy to say that the experience was difficult but rewarding when in fact it was so much more complicated than that. The reality of running a crowdfunding campaign is already a daunting, nerve wracking prospect. What made this into an incomprehensible nightmare was the layers or complications that almost obscured what should have been an already difficult but straightforward task.
So what’s Inkshares?
I think the best way to describe Inkshares would be as the love-child of Kickstarter and any of the more reputable self-publishing houses. Whereas Kickstarter is great, if what you’re looking for is a pile of money to spend on your project, and self-publishers want to take that money to turn your project into a book (handling such things as design, layout, cover, distribution and all manners of editing) Inkshares combines the best of both.
You see, the problem with Kickstarter and other similar crowdfunding platforms is that they don’t solve the main problem writers encounter; handling all the tasks that aren’t writing. While there are plenty of companies that will gladly do all that for a fee, you still need to pay them a fair amount of dollars. The natural solution is to fund with the former and then hire the later. Inkshares skips ahead in that process by merging the two. However there’s another layer to it.
As far as I can tell, Inkshares isn’t simply trying to be the crowdfunded self-publishing company. They’re looking at being recognized as a legitimate publisher. This is an important distinction and one that I hope proves true (update: so far they have been extremely professional and demanding. Treating me almost as a valued employee rather then a customer. I am liking this.) because it means that funding campaigns aren’t just about amassing funds but also about gathering an audience and proving the project’s worth. This essentially turns the costly process of filtering through hundreds of submissions into a pre-ordering phase. You don’t need a slush pile if the entire platform is about determining which books can find readers.
The interesting thing is how this changes the dynamic for the author. This is a much more modern approach that both opens doors to writers but also puts much more demands on them. I’m conflicted about this because all I want to do is write my stories, but at the same time, as a student of new media and social network marketing, I realize that the modern author needs to be more then a writer of words and teller of stories. He or she needs to be able to communicate with an audience, preferably pre-built, and be comfortable handling all the ancillary tasks a writer will one day be asked to perform. A lot of that is acquiring and interacting with readers. One thing that’s clear about having run my campaign on Inkshares; to be successful on this platform you either bring an audience or you quickly learn how to build one. I know some of you will probably think that your success should only be dependant on the quality of your book and I’m sorry but you’re wrong. Few people hate self-promotion as much as I do but if you don’t believe in your product enough to show it off and get people interested in it, why should a publisher? The good news is that self-promotion is a skill and like any skill, it can be learned.
Where Inkshares shines though is that unlike self-publishing houses, they have a vested interest in your book being good. Once funded it is my hope that they treat you like a publisher woul. So far, so good. I’ve been given a publishing team and a production schedule and it seems I’ll be working with professionals who, I hope, don’t see me as a client but as a team member (satisfied so far on that point). Someone with whom they’ll work and be demanding of quality. This is important to me because Inkshares’ legitimacy as a publisher is directly linked to my own legitimacy as an author, which in turn has an influence on my career as a writer.
The Sword & Laser Collection Contest
I learned about Inkshares through an acquaintance (CJ Boat. Check out his project here) who had signed up for the Sword & Laser Collection Contest on the platform. I’ve been a listener of the Sword & Laser podcast for a couple of years but had been behind on episodes so I was not aware of this contest at first.
Sword & Laser is what I would consider a big deal. If it’s not that important in the publishing industry it is very relevant to me. As a fan of new media, science fiction and fantasy literature, it is a natural fit to my sensibilities. I enjoy the show, I like the hosts and the podcast is part of a media ecosystem in which I’m personally invested. Having my dream job be somehow associated with the Sword & Laser brand would not only be an important stepping stone in my career but a personal badge of honour. I had already tried my hand at getting into the Sword & Laser Anthology that was published last year but both the stories I submitted were rejected. To be fair they weren’t really good and out of roughly a thousand stories submitted, Sword & Laser published twenty. Even if my stories had been good that’s still only a 2% inclusion rate.
For this contest though, I didn’t have to hastily write anything. I already had a book ready and it was seeing some fairly good reviews. It was only a matter of verifying that I could enter the book in the contest, setting up and account and I was in.
The prizes for the contest are pretty amazing. The top five books with the most pre-orders would get published regardless of goal met. The authors of these books would also get some coaching advice from Gary Whitta, author of Star Wars: Rogue One. Not too shabby. On top of that, one of these finalists would be picked by Tom and Veronica of the Sword & Laser as the first book inducted into the Sword & Laser Collection on Inkshares and be interviewed on the podcast. Both a great honour and fantastic opportunity for exposure. Not to mention some serious validation.
It took a while to get to the point where being in the top five wasn’t the only benefit I could see from the campaign. I knew it was a long shot but being one of the finalists was the single goal of the effort in my eyes. Getting a publishing run as described on Inkshares’ website would run me between 5 000$ and 8 000$ at a self publishing house. I never really believed I had a chance at being selected for the grand prize (see my success with the Anthology above) so there was really only one bullseye to hit.
It’s towards the end of the contest that I realized a couple of things. The first was how much of a learning experience this was. Remember what I said about self-promotion being a skill? Well, it’s not a skill I had and in fact I’m probably still not very good at it, but y’know what? I’m a lot better at it today then I was on April 1st. I also got on board with Twitter and discovered a few things about how to approach people for help. The biggest lesson I can point to is that if you want something from someone, hinting is a bullshit way of going about it. Asking is the proper method and persistence the winning quality.
The second important lesson that I benefited from was about friendship. No, this isn’t a 1980s cartoon PSA. However, if you’re going to be plunging into self-promotion, you’re going to need all the help you can get. Now, you can obviously pay for help, but as I discovered, a lot of time that can be a waste of good money (of the few dollars I put into ads on podcasts I'd say I saw a 0$ return on investment). My best results came from asking old friends and making new ones. People are surprisingly willing to help a guy out when his cause is just and his requirements not too demanding. People came out of the woodwork to support my campaign and I made new friends out of people I reached out to. At the zero hour, I even made friends with the competition. This is very important because the moment you strip off the veil of competition from the contest, you reveal the cooperative nature of crowdfunding, especially in the publishing industry. Only the insane would not want to see other writers succeed because, normally, we’re not competing for readers but can in fact refer fans to one another. Which leads me to…
From the day I entered the contest up to Monday, June 1st at 3:30 am, I was a ball of nervous energy and felt ready to implode at any moment. Running a crowdfunding campaign can be a very demanding and stressful experience on it’s own, but it’s one I’m somewhat well adapted to. However, once you attach the competition component of the contest, it becomes a completely different animal. One with fangs, and spines and venom as I would later discover.
Normally, if this would have been only about crowdfunding, I would have reached out to the other authors early. We would have built a network to refer readers to one another. The hardest part of crowdfunding is finding new ‘markets’ in which to promote your campaign. Having access to each other’s network would have made the process a lot less lonely and significantly easier. We could have concentrated our efforts on the campaigns closer to finishing and referred one another to various media outlets. The contest, while being a fantastic opportunity also built walls, if not between all authors, at least between me and the rest of the participants. It made for a miserable and lonely experience. At certain points in the contest the margins between participants were so narrow and the benefits to winners so good that it was infuriating whenever another book got so much as a single pre-order, yet incredibly relieving when someone pre-ordered my book. I hated it. That malicious attitude is what led to…
So let’s get this out of the way: I won. I won really big. If you don’t already know I finished fourth in pre-orders and maybe third or fourth in unique readers. Not only am I getting published but I was also selected (along with Asteroid Made of Dragons) to be in the Sword & Laser Collection. It’s an incredible opportunity but it also means that I need to be somewhat careful about what I’m about to talk about.
Let me start off by saying; Inkshares is a very young company. This contest was the first event of it’s kind they ran and their goal was to generate a buzz about their services in the Science Fiction and Fantasy genre. Sword & Laser, while an older institution, isn’t that experienced with running this kind of contest either and their goal was to do something cool with their brand for the Science Fiction and Fantasy community because that is what they do. Both entities had nothing but good intentions and I think it’s very important to remember that going forward because these are two institutions which I believe will be very important in this market during the coming years.
The contest was well run, but there are some things that I suspect will be handled differently. Let me lay it out for you from my perspective and you’ll see what I mean.
About a week or two into the contest I managed, to my surprise, to squeeze into the top five. I hovered in fifth place I believe. At some point I was dethroned, so to speak, by another book who had a suspiciously low number of readers and had jumped by a surprising amount of books within minutes. So far I had been used to small, granular increases in my pre-orders so this rang all the alarms to me and I was ready to cry foul. The very next day, my friend Vincent ordered fifty copies of my book for his shop, catapulting me into third place. This created a grey area in my mind. On one hand, I had discovered that it was possible for someone to create a proxy account and buy his own book to go up in the rankings. On the other hand, I also knew that a sudden jump in pre-orders wasn’t necessarily a sign of malicious behaviour but, the seed of paranoia had been planted.
Let me go on a tangent here and explain the flaw in the system. Inkshares’ failing if you will. Why would someone buy his own book just to be in the top five? Why not just go to a self publisher instead? Well, aside from the coaching from Gary Whitta and the potential to be picked for the collection, there are strong economic incentives to ‘cheat’ that way. First, for each pre-order the author gets paid back 50% of the book price. So each book is actually half-price. This means an enterprising author might use this method to jump ahead in rankings while also building a stock of cheap books to sell at conventions or locally. Also, without going into too much detail, Inkshares had a system of credits that could be accumulated by signing up and referring books on social media. If an author was accumulating credits and using them to buy his own books, he was essentially setting up a situation where he would be paid to receive copies of his book which he could then sell at cons, locally, etc.
I was never tempted enough to even consider doing this, but could I blame someone else for doing it? Yes. I could understand their motivation however. The prizes at the end were that good.
This is where diplomacy stays my hand. Both because someone ignorant of my campaign’s behind the scenes could accuse me of this and because pointing fingers would hurt no one but me, I’m not going to name anyone, but I spent the last few days of the contest convinced several books were using the above technique or something similar to buy their way into the top five. Today however I give everyone the benefit of the doubt, including Inkshares who, I decided, must have run their own verifications and decided that everyone deserved their victory.
So how did I decide that some people cheated and that Inkshares would have acted if they found behaviour that was against what they would tolerate for the contest?
In the night from Sunday to Monday, I spent hours chatting on Twitter with Joseph Terzieva who is publishing Lost Generation, as we monitored, nervously, the progress of the campaign in the last few hours. Here’s where I get catty. A few hours before the conclusion of the contest, a book appeared in the top 10 out of nowhere. It had 50 readers and was accumulating pre-orders fast. Half an hour before the end, Awakened, the book in question, was still at 50 readers but had gone up a few hundred books and was in 8th place if I remember correctly. I know that a few other authors were losing their shit because there was something extremely irregular about the situation. A lot of the readers for Awakened seemed odd and I would wager were proxy accounts. I’m not saying this is what happened but here’s another little trick that could be done with this contest: If you have enough proxy accounts, you can use the referral link from one to buy books on another. This gives the account with the referral credit,s which it can then use to pre-order from the link of another proxy account, etc. Thus creating a chain of orders that cost no money (except to Inkshares) and generate pre-orders without affecting the number of readers. Now, I feel comfortable saying that the book in question was Awakened because no matter what was happening, Inkshares took action and removed a significant amount of the pre-orders from that book sending it back below the 10th position. I don’t know the facts behind what happened and there is a chance that it might have been a bug in the system or overzealous fans thinking they were helping out. That doesn’t matter. What matters is that while it was shown the system wasn’t perfect, Inkshares demonstrated the will to correct things where they could.
That’s very important I should note. One of my worries, above the possibility of being edged out by someone running a less than legitimate campaign was that a soiled contest would hurt the Inkshares platform and as I’ve stated above, I see a lot of potential for that company to be an important player not just for aspiring authors but in the publishing industry as a whole.
The book industry is changing and while we can see the major publishers slowly adapting to a certain degree, Inkshares is a completely new player that offers a model that fits perfectly into the current hole between new writers and their potential audience. They are a bridge that connects those with books that have the chops to get readers and the public they deserve. This contest was a trial for the writers who participated and a few really good books didn’t make it, but it was also a test for Inkshares as they made a land-grab for a larger audience. I can proudly say that I’ve brought over 200 new people into their ecosystem which is important. A crowdfunding service like this depends on readers becoming a community and browsing their site like they would a book store. Just a book store where most of the books aren’t available yet.
In the end, I’m glad I did this contest and I hope that The Life Engineered finds success at Inkshares. I would like to run another campaign for the sequel as soon as it’s ready. I’m eager to start work with the publishing team I was assigned and put the finishing touches on my book. I want to get it in the hands of my readers as soon as possible. Now, would I do a contest like this again? Knowing the stress and work it entails but not the results I might get? That’s a difficult question.
As a final note I want to say that a few really promising books did not make it into the final 6 (it was supposed to be 5 but Inkshares and Sword & Laser changed their minds. I support their decision). These books are still in their funding stages and they look amazing or, as I would have said a week ago; threatening. I highly recommend you go have a look at them and pre-order. These are the guys that will be my contemporaries and fellow authors in the coming years. I would appreciate if you showed them a little love.