The humble Kickstarter has done a lot for self-published and small press ebook projects, by allowing people to finance a decent-sized launch of their project rather than just throwing it on the ebook sites and hoping. But it’s not a magic bullet. You can’t just throw something up on Kickstarter and automatically make a go of it. A case in point is the book Tempus Fugit by Lawrence Lee Rowe Jr., now to be known as The Founding Fathers Return.
This book came out about ten years ago—just a month or so before I started writing for TeleRead—and I reviewed it on my own blog at the time. I even interviewed its author on my podcast. The book had an intriguing science-fictional (or at least science-fantastic) concept: some unknown agency plucked three of the Founding Fathers out of their places in the timeline a short time before they died, and set them down in present-day America with $100,000 in cash each. (My father enjoyed it enough to give it three stars, though he thought there were far too many historical errors and linguistic anachronisms. While flipping through my copy which I’d loaned to him, I came across an index card he left in the book, filled on both sides with a list of penciled notations of errors by page number.)
The book followed the adventures and misadventures of these Founders as they learned about the new world and its advances, and ended on a sort of semi-cliffhanger as they boarded a bus for Washington, DC. A sequel had been supposed to come out the next year, but it never materialized. Nor did an ebook version of Tempus Fugit—not too surprising given that it came out shortly before Amazon revolutionized self-publishing with the Kindle. That meant it would make a great test-case to try out the Czurtek book scanner David Rothman sent me, when I get around to it.
The idea led me to check out Tempus Fugit on Amazon, just in case it had been released electronically after all and I wouldn’t have to. When I did, I came across a notation on the Amazon page that it is an “obsolete version of the upcoming novel The Founding Fathers Return,” which would be published in Fall 2016. Then a bit of further Google searching led me to a Kickstarter to publish a print edition of that new version of the book. A Kickstarter which is, frankly, rather sad.
When I found it, the Kickstarter had only 10 days left to go, with a $25,000 goal…and it had managed to raise all of $41 in pledges from one backer.
In the “Risks and challenges” section of the Kickstarter pitch, Rowe writes:
The main challenge would be an unexpected amount of backers. I have planned for this scenario. No matter how many people pledge, everyone will get their books quickly.
Given how the Kickstarter has done so far, I don’t think he needs to worry about that. Unless by “unexpected,” he means “unexpectedly low.”
The question is, why? In January, 2015, Melville House noted that publishing projects were the third-most common project funded on Kickstarter in 2014, with $22 million in overall pledges. Why should The Founding Fathers Return do so badly? Bearing in mind that I’m not a successful Kickstarter project runner (or even an unsuccessful Kickstarter project runner) myself (though I have, at least, backed a lot of Kickstarters—something that Rowe hasn’t, according to his own Kickstarter page), I have a few guesses. A few of them might be obvious to you, too, especially if you read Thomas Umstattd’s post on Author Media about common self-publishing Kickstarter mistakes.
First of all, the description isn’t all that great. It looks at the book from a philosophical and political perspective. What would it be like if the Founding Fathers were dropped into the modern era? Golly, wouldn’t that be interesting? It casts it largely as political commentary:
Do you know the tax system our Founders intended? Why Jefferson feared banks more than standing armies? Why Washington was petrified of entangling alliances? Hanging out with the Founders will enlighten you and change your view of America.
I can only imagine the average reader’s reaction to this. “Uh, yeah. That’s…really interesting, Mr. Rowe.” Accompanied by sidelong glances as he slowly backs away.
Having read the original book, I can affirm that it’s a lot more interesting than that. It’s an exciting adventure, following three intelligent and thoughtful people from another era as they find themselves in the present day. It’s a great chance to learn more about these three famous historic figures, given how badly most history classes portray them. Tempus Fugit is one of the few books I’ve read that paints them as actual living people, fully believable in their imperfections. And more than that, even leaving aside the history, it was exciting seeing how they would cope with finding themselves 300 years in the future.
But the Kickstarter description barely even gives lip service to this, adding “It’s damn entertaining!” as a postscript at the very end. I think that’s what Rowe should have started with, rather than ending with. The Kickstarter description reads like he’s trying to sell the book to political science majors—but he should have aimed it more at general readers, who want to be excited before they want to be educated. What would the experience of finding themselves in the modern world be like to these strangers in a strange land? How would they ever figure it all out? That’s the way he should have gone with it.
Another problem has to do with the Kickstarter rewards offered. The reward tiers start at $25, which gets you the hardcover book, or $35 for an autographed hardcover. $50 would get two books, $60 two autographed books, and so on, all the way up to $200 for 10 books.
That means that anyone who was interested…would have to kick in at least $25 to get anything out of the Kickstarter. Not going to happen. Heck, I loved Tempus Fugit, and I wouldn’t kick in $25. A Kickstarter with such a high minimum pledge is simply a non-starter. Even Kickstarter itself recognizes this. One of the tips from its Creator Handbook is to offer a wide range of rewards—including low-dollar rewards.
Then there are the stretch goals, which are a whole other thing. These include an additional free copy at 50,000 backers (plus “[key] x 14,” whatever that means), a free audiobook at 100,000 backers (plus “[key] x 16”), and a free ebook version at 250,000 backers (and “[key] x 18”). Given that most self-published titles are lucky to move only a few hundred copies, and relatively few books—even among those that are professionally-published—manage to move six digits’ worth of copies, that kind of stretch goal seems more than a little out of touch.
If it were me, I’d have started with a $1 reward offering “sincere thanks,” perhaps including getting your name on a thank-you page on Rowe’s web site as a donor (which could also be included as an appendix in an ebook version). From there, go up to $5 or $10 for an ebook edition, and perhaps a “special” ebook edition with some kind of bonus content for another $5 on top of that. Ebooks don’t have marginal manufacturing costs, so they make great Kickstarter rewards. But Rowe was only going to come out with one if he got 250,000 backers? Seriously?
Another possibility would be an audiobook edition for $20 or $30. That would also mean he could have added additional pledge levels for hardcover plus ebook, hardcover plus ebook plus audiobook, and so on. Of course, that would necessitate producing the audiobook version, which I suppose Rowe wasn’t going to do unless he got 100,000 backers. (But that’s still a lot fewer backers than it would have taken for a free ebook version! Why? If it’s in digital text form already, from being written on a computer, the ebook is just a few button-pushes away! But perhaps Rowe simply isn’t used to thinking in terms of ebooks?)
A related matter to the question of reward levels is the question of Kickstarter budget. There was no budgetary breakdown provided for what that $25,000 would be going for. Why do you need 25 grand to print a book in this day and age? A recent price comparison of a dozen print-on-demand services shows that even the most expensive of them only requires just under $3,000 in setup costs. If you’re going to ask for that much money to print a book, tell us why you need it—in detail. Otherwise, set your goal lower. And your stretch goals, too.
$5,000 would have been ample to get it set up on CreateSpace, plus provide a buffer of however much you need to arrange an order of enough $25 copies to fulfil all your Kickstarter purchases and leave something left over for other expenses. Plus, then you’d have the book ready to sell to any future purchasers via Amazon or wherever. But given that Rowe self-published Tempus Fugit as a hardcover in the first place, he should already know all about the necessary expenses involved—and should have been better able to articulate them in the Kickstarter’s description.
Finally, coming out with a Kickstarter isn’t your endgame when it comes to self-publishing a book: it’s the beginning. Once the Kickstarter’s launched, promoting it should be your full-time job. All the best, most successful Kickstarters have that in common. Just look at what Joel Hodgson did to raise $6.3 million for the return of MST3K—he was everywhere while that promotion was going on.
If you’re going to have a successful Kickstarter, you need to tweet, you need to Facebook, you need to blog, you need to do as many podcasts as will talk to you—you have to raise awareness. Your Kickstarter isn’t going to Kickstart itself. But when I google “The Founding Fathers Return” plus “Kickstarter” I see…well…nothing. There’s the Kickstarter itself, and Rowe’s own blog, and links on a couple of pages that seem to specialize in just aggregating links to Kickstarters they turn up in a search engine watch. That’s all there is. If Rowe did any self-promotion at all, it surely ought to turn up in Google, but there’s nothing there. Small wonder it only got one pledge from a single backer! (This makes the Kickstarter video, with stentorian-voiced narrator calling it “the most talked-about novel of the year,” a whole new level of ironic.)
I wouldn’t even have known about it if I hadn’t been moved by curiosity to go looking right at this particular moment, and I loved the original book. Plenty of other people loved the original book, too, given that it averages 4 stars on Amazon with 27 reviews, and 4.2 stars with 9 reviews on Goodreads—more than many self-published books get these days. How many of those readers might have pledged something if they only knew about it?
I have one more problem with the project—really, so minor by comparison that I left it for a postscript. And that’s that I simply don’t like the new title of the book. The Founding Fathers Return doesn’t have any punch. There’s no intrigue or mystery. It’s not interesting. While Tempus Fugit didn’t reveal anything about the content of the book, it was at least intriguing and mysterious. If you’re going to try to sell a book based on a title and a ten-page sample of text, the title should at least be interesting.
In any event, I still know next to nothing about the “new” version of the book. Did Rowe update it to take into account the ten years that have passed since it was written? (Given that the Kickstarter video incorporates images of Barrack Obama and Edward Snowden, I’m guessing the answer would be “yes.”) Will it incorporate material that would have been in the never-published sequel? Will it have fewer split infinitives? It’s a mystery. It’s also unclear what Rowe will do when the Kickstarter inevitably fails—will he go ahead and self-publish it as an ebook, or as a hardcover the way he did the first one? I emailed him some questions the day before yesterday, but he hadn’t responded by the time I was ready to post this.
I do hope Rowe goes ahead and self-publishes the book, even without benefit of the Kickstarter—especially if the new version tells what happens next, or if he’s ready to publish the sequel next. But I suppose we’ll just have to wait and see what happens. Meanwhile, if you’re interested in reading the original version, you can still buy it for a penny plus shipping from Amazon.