Is there anything better than a super pretentious title? Ah! Bask in it, people. Take it all in! I also have this nagging urge to play “Time of the Season” by The Zombies. Huh…maybe later.
So, back in my early college days, I took a course in cultural anthropology. My professor, a very learned gentleman who sounded like the older version of Agent Smith from The Matrix, called on me to define the word “reciprocity.” Without resorting to a direct quote from Webster’s Dictionary, reciprocity boils down to this: you do something for me, I, in return, do something for you. Common adages you might also associate with this would be “tit for tat” or “you scratch my back, I’ll scratch yours.” Take your pick. As a reward for defining reciprocity correctly, my professor awarded me a chocolate bunny (in the metaphorical sense, it’s not like the guy traveled with a box of Easter candy to be doled out at his whim).
Reciprocity, therefore, is inherently selfish. You’re basically doing something for someone with the expectation of getting something in return. This can lead into a rather dense philosophical debate over whether or not any decision can be made with altruistic intentions, but that’s not what I’m here to talk about. I’m here to talk about reciprocity as the cornerstone of Kickstarter and its crowdsource funding cousins by means of incentives.
Kickstarter, for those who don’t know, is a website that specifically targets artists and artistic entrepreneurs that want to produce a comic, album, film, etc. but lack the money to do so and, in many cases, the visibility to larger populations of people who might find an interest in the project. Kickstarter, as well as IndieGoGo, give these artists and creators the opportunity to present their idea to the public and ask for money to produce the project either entirely or just fund the printing and/or publishing – it very much depends on the type of project. It’s the job of the creator to set their monetary goal and the amount of time the campaign will have to meet that goal. If the amount of money desired isn’t met in the allotted time, then supporters of the project are not charged for trying to back the campaign. In this way, the motivation to get money for the project is tied up in getting people to want to fund the project, which the creators do by providing incentives or “rewards” for backing the project. The rewards are based on the amount of money the backer commits to – the more money you give, the greater the reward.
This then begs the question: Are we funding these projects because we care about artistic expression or because we want stuff in return? To be honest, it’s a little of both and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. While we’re engaged in what is an inherently selfish act, we are, in actuality, helping someone pursue a goal and create something that might not have seen the light of day had a great many people not given them money in exchange for stuff. Even at the lowest amount of money you can pledge, usually $1, the backer is promised a thank you of some sort or, at the least, the knowledge that they’ve helped someone.
I’ve only participated in two Kickstarter campaigns. One last year, the other more recently. The older project was Womanthology, arguably one of the most successful Kickstarter projects to come out of the website. Womanthology was an anthology of comics written and drawn entirely by women. The money, initially a pledged goal of $25,000 begun on July 7, 2011, was set to cover the printing and publishing of a limited amount of books to be distributed by IDW. By the close date of August 7, 2011, Womanthology had raised $109, 301 making it 437% funded by Kickstarter’s numbers. I was one of the book’s 2,001 backers, pledging $50 to get a copy of the book once it was printed and ready to ship. Why did I pledge the money? Did I want the book? Of course I did, but I also connected with the idea that a message needed to be sent to the comic book industry that there are plenty of female writers and artists (some experienced, some just starting out or trying to get their foot in the door) ready and willing to work in an industry that is largely populated by men. The incentive to give money had as much to do with supporting a cause as it did receiving the end product.
The second, more recent campaign, is the Thrilling Adventure Hour: The Graphic Novel…and Beyond. The pledged amount of $55,000 is so the writers and producers of The Thrilling Adventure Hour, “the new-time podcast in the style of old-time radio”, can publish a graphic novel anthology through Archaia based on the various segments featured in the stage show put on once a month in Los Angeles, California. The show has increased in popularity over the last eight years and with the podcast now featured in The Nerdist pantheon, the writers (Ben Acker and Ben Blacker) wanted to expand the reach of the show, first with the graphic novel and then with other projects should the amount of money exceed expectation. I am, unabashedly, a fan of this podcast, so I jumped at the chance to pledge money in order to receive not only the graphic novel, but a CD of songs featured in the show. In this case, I’m not so much taking a stand for a cause as I am supporting something I like and desire to see more of since I’m incapable of going to Los Angeles every month to see the show.
But why am I telling you this? What’s the point of pointing out the nature of “charitable” donations on Kickstarter? Well, it was brought to my attention that one Kickstarter campaign is trying something a bit different with the format, something that brings into account the idea of third party altruism.
The Time of Reflection is a comic short written by Alex Wilson with art by Silvio dB that won the Eagle Award for New Visionaries at London Comicon earlier this year. The short was entered in a contest held by MCM Expos and Universal Pictures to produce a dark fantasy short based around the film Snow White and The Huntsman. Wilson and dB won, but that did not ensure that their story would be massively distributed. The Kickstarter campaign is mainly to get the twelve page short printed as a standalone booklet. But here’s the thing, Wilson is offering something that’s unprecedented, as far as I know, as a reward for pledging money. For the low donation of $3, not only does the backer receive the booklet, but they can also choose a comic book retailer to receive a copy as well.
So what we have here is a scenario in which three parties are benefiting in very different ways. Wilson and dB receive the money and print the short, which gets their work out to the public and gives them plenty of exposure. It’s worth noting, however, that the campaign, which closes on October 23, has already exceeded their goal amount. The backer donates the money and gets the product and the retailer chosen by the backer gets the comic as well to do with as they wish. Wilson is very explicit in this regard, saying that the retailer doesn’t even have to sell the book for the retail amount. They can add it to a dollar bin, throw it at the heads of customers, use it as a coaster, whatever they want to do with it, they can. And while this might sound like a generous experiment in combining the retailer/customer models of Kickstarter, Wilson’s addenda to the $3 donation, which applies to all of the subsequent donations, is a cleverly beneficial bit of exposure for the book and its creators.
I don’t pretend to know how comic book retail works. I’m a buyer, not a seller. But I imagine it’s costly to order books in mass quantities when you’re not certain that they’ll sell. Even a small book like The Time of Reflection, if ordered in a large amount, will cost the retailer money if they don’t sell a certain amount. So, in letting the backer choose a store to send a free copy, the backer is essentially relieving the retailer of the cost and giving them at least one copy of something new, by previously unknown creators, to give away or sell to someone who might be interested but wouldn’t have known about the book otherwise. This approach is equally beneficial to the backer as it literally costs them nothing extra to send the copy. If you were already going to pledge $3, adding a retailer to receive a copy is just free publicity for the creators and gives your local comic book shop something new to put out that other shops might not have. Everybody wins, right?
In this case, kinda. As I mentioned before, the project has already exceeded the goal amount, now clocked at 863% funded, but in all fairness the amount desired was $450. This leads me to the slight hiccup in this model: the size of the campaign. Keep in mind, this is an experiment in uniting retailers, backers, and creators, but it’s a very small experiment. The booklet is a twelve-page short with the pages already completed. The money is essentially for printing and publishing. If you were to apply the same model to something like Womanthology or even a regular sized average graphic novel, could you accomplish the same goal? Maybe, but it would definitely cost the backer more to send the book to their retailer of choice.
And therein lies the rub. How much are you willing to spend? Even with all of the benefits and rewards, where does a backer draw the line at how much they’re willing to pledge? In the case of The Time of Reflection, $3 is very little but what if you had to pledge $50 or more in order to send a copy to a retailer for free when, say, pledging $30 ensures you get the finished product? We have to acknowledge that our generosity is very much tied to our wallets. Now, I don’t want to get all cynical about this. What Alex Wilson and Silvio dB are doing is very interesting and could be a new model other campaigns eventually copy. We just have to be cautious in looking at what they’re achieving and how they’re achieving it. I encourage you, however, to explore Kickstarter and pledge to your heart’s content. That’s the beauty of the site. Even if you can only contribute a little, it all adds up in the end.
Oh, and as promised…