April 2016 update

Somehow, this annual April update skipped a year. It’s April 2016? Really? Are we sure about this?

Here we go then.

Family

When I wrote the last April update, our third child hadn’t yet been born. Nella Walsh-Smith burst into our lives on her due date, and has proceeded to dazzle us on many occasions with her unquenchable thirst for adventure, her indomitable love of life, and her blonde, blonde, blonde head of hair.

And just two months ago, Molly Walsh-Smith made her debut in the world, and is currently setting records for being the world’s easiest baby. Damn, jinxed it.

Annie is in Year One, and will own the world right on schedule. Liam is getting his first tastes of preschool this year, and it’s an experience that seems to have two speeds: awesome and traumatic. Nella is a big sister for the first time, and loves it. And every single one of these kids has a different relationship with every single other one. Keeping track of it is an amazingly rewarding challenge.

In addition to raising the children full-time, Katie is heavily involved in the school councils, and is president of a local women’s group. Busy seems to be a meaningless word when you’ve got a family this size, but it’s still a word that I think applies to her schedule quite well.

Me? I’m at the tail end of two and a half months off from work to celebrate Molly’s birth and reconnect with the family. It’s been pretty great. And I’m still writing (more on that in a moment).

Writing

Since the last update, I’ve run three Kickstarter campaigns, released four new books, and entered into creative collaborations with something like thirty other people. Two more of my books have been shortlisted for awards. I’ve attended a decent handful of comic/literary events, and sold books to a range of awesome people.

The Lesser Evil

More often than not, The Lesser Evil is still my best-selling book at conventions. Beyond that nugget of information, there’s not much news to impart.

Peaceful Tomorrows

Peaceful Tomorrows 2 did not win an Aurealis Award in 2014, but I’m still thrilled to have had it on that list of finalists, alongside juggernaut names like Tom Taylor.

The Game

The Game ended up being the inaugural title of Deeper Meanings Publishing, and was shortlisted for an Aurealis Award. It didn’t win (losing out to Tim Molloy), but again: honour to be nominated. For the second year running, I attended the ceremony, which was here in Canberra. Here’s me in the corner with my lovely wife, anxious as all-get-out and being as anti-social as humanly possible.


(Photo by Catriona Sparks)
(Photo by Catriona Sparks)

James Flamestar

James Flamestar finally got a proper release, also through Deeper Meanings. It’s my go-to title when punters need an age-appropriate title, and I’m thrilled to include it among my list of books. It doesn’t get the critical nod, the accolades, or the fan response that my other books get, and there are things I’d like to change about it, but overall, I think it’s on par with my other titles.

All The King’s Men

The Kickstarter campaign for All The King’s Men fell a long way short of meeting its target. Since then, I’ve blogged extensively about what this project taught me.

For a while, this project was shelved. It wasn’t going to get up without money, and I didn’t think a second campaign would raise what I needed. The entire project needed a bit of a rethink.

At some point, I decided to be the only artist in the book – at first this was a money saving measure, but the more I thought about it, the more it made sense. This is my first time at bat editing a project like this – if I stuff up, I’ll probably inconvenience the artist more than anyone else. If I’m the artist, I’m the one who bears the brunt of the last-minute rewrite. I can live with this.

In late 2015, I applied for a grant through ArtsACT to revive the project, and it was accepted. I was quite frankly stunned by this thrilling outcome. I now had $7,500 to make this book a reality.

People came from far and wide to investigate an opportunity to be paid for their writing. The anthology website received around 22,000 hits in six months, with an estimated 6,000 unique visitors. For someone at my level, those are big numbers. Lots of eyeballs. Plenty of people know my name now.

Submissions for the anthology closed on 31 March 2016, and in all, I received 175 pitches for the book. Sorting through those pitches to select just two dozen to work with was a daunting task, but immensely rewarding too. Next step: making the book. It’s going to be an awesome ride.

Undad

To this day, I have no idea where the idea for Undad came from. I can find the public forum where I first discussed the idea, but it’s one that popped into my head fully-formed. The elevator pitch for the story has barely changed since the day of its conception. That’s a particularly unusual first for one of my books.

It came together quickly. I used what I’d learned from my failed Kickstarter campaign to produce a campaign for Undad that was so successful, we ended up getting two additional issues made with the money raised. We bypassed the issue stage and released a trade paperback.

I thought that this was the end of it.

Then I noticed, totally by chance, that a grant opportunity was closing in a couple of days. This was the MATCH program, administered by Creative Partnerships Australia. Fresh off the success of the first Undad campaign, I knew I wanted to run another one at some point, but I didn’t have any particular ideas. Undad Season Two was born in a rough skeletal form out of this opportunity.

Not a particularly inspirational genesis, I’ll admit, but I contend that everything about the entire Undad endeavour came together so seamlessly that it was meant to happen this way.

Undad and Undad Season Two were both released in 2015, and quickly became a table favourite at conventions. The ten-second-sell almost always gets a laugh, and people really seem to dig the family-drama-zombie-horror genre that I’m on the fringes of here.

Undad was also shortlisted in the Australian Shadows Awards for best graphic novel. It didn’t win, but I’m thrilled it got some recognition. I’m really proud of this book.

Messar Dreams/Line in the Sand

Around the time I played Telltale’s The Walking Dead for the first time, I decided that I’d like to try my hand at writing a video game one day. A branching story that allowed players to choose their destiny. From this ambition and a single dangling thread in The Lesser Evil, the Messar Dreams project (later renamed) was born.

An early prototype got a decent response from players, and I ran a tumblr briefly that covered the period of its development.

I applied for a Screen Australia grant to fund its production, but alas: the application was not approved.

It’s a little too early to know what’ll become of this project. Suffice to say that I’ve put a lot of effort into planning it and designing it. I’ll need to train myself up in Unity to get it made properly, but I’m keen. I think it’ll be a blast, if I can carve some time out of my creative schedule once All The King’s Men is complete.

Projects going nowhere fast

Triumviratus: haven’t touched it in almost two years. I notice that I called this my level-up potential two years ago. Not sure what that says about my prospects. I’d still like to revisit this one day. It’d be cool to have some epic fantasy on my table.

The Tube: coming up on four years abandoned. Might be time to officially pronounce this one.

Conclusion

It’s hard to summarise two years in a way that truly captures how fulfilling this is. I’m so absorbed in each project, each event as it happens, that I can scarcely believe that all this can take place in just two short years.

It has been yet another massive couple of years, that’s for sure. And things are only going to get busier from here.

It’s gonna be awesome.

What I learned from my failed Kickstarter

In April/May of this year [this post was written in October 2014], I ran a Kickstarter campaign for a science fiction anthology entitled All The King’s Men. The project aimed to source artwork and writing from creative professionals around the world, and pay them fairly for their work. It had an ambitious goal of $11,000.

It failed, raising just 40% of its funding target.

In recent months, I’ve started putting together a second Kickstarter campaign, this time for a smaller project entitled Undad. And in the process, I’ve had to take a good hard look at what went wrong last time, and what I can do to mitigate the risk of history repeating itself.

Here’s a list of the eleven biggest mistakes I know I made with my previous campaign. While this article is tailored to my individual project, there’s bound to be some useful lessons here for all future project managers.

1. Not enough eyeballs

This is the biggest issue facing all Kickstarter projects. The majority of projects will not succeed unless the project manager can attract an audience outside of their friends and family. That usually means marketing, self-promotion, an investment of time and money. In the end, my All The King’s Men campaign was only viewed by around 327 people in the month it was live. Not enough for it to succeed, even with a stellar conversion rate. The reasons for this are myriad, and will be explored in greater detail in some of the points below.

2. Not enough promotion

My All The King’s Men marketing campaign was poorly planned. I’d caused a bit of a stir with the preliminary research I did, and figured that with just a few posts on Twitter and Facebook, that would be enough to help the project go viral. However, aside from the loyal social media boosts I received from stalwart friends, All The King’s Men failed to catch on. A rapid-fire reactionary press release submitted to a half dozen comics news sites got me an opportunity to write a post for Bleeding Cool, but beyond that, I was ill-prepared, and didn’t really get much of an audience beyond my social networks.

When it came time to prepare the Undad campaign, I prepared a much more extensive plan of attack. A much more thoroughly polished press release (developed in collaboration with some PR professionals), along with a significantly broader spread of outlets to send it to. Several appearances, articles and interviews on various blogs and websites. And a Google Adwords account, and a Twitter ad account to round things out. I’ve also planned a handful of blog entries for this site to aid with the visibility of the campaign.

3. Not enough content

All The King’s Men was still just a concept when I put it up on Kickstarter. I didn’t even have a potential creative team assembled until halfway through the campaign (this was ultimately an incredibly bad idea, and something I should have had sorted at launch. I think that this, more than any other example of my unpreparedness, is what cost me). All I had was a single short story which would be going at the start of the anthology… and I couldn’t even share that with backers, because I’d made that story the reward for $10 pledges. In short, I had nothing to share with backers to whet their appetites or ease their apprehension, no evidence that the book would be worth reading. I wouldn’t have pledged money to this campaign.

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For Undad, I’ve approached things entirely differently. By the time the project launched, I had already signed two artists to Undad, and commissioned no less than ten sample pieces of artwork. It required a significant upfront investment to secure all this artwork, but I think it will be worth the cost. In addition, I had already prepared the entire first issue and made it available to read for free. Even for a project that is not yet complete, there is an abundance of content for backers to peruse before they make their decision.

4. Unappealing timeline

Because All The King’s Men was still in the conceptual stage, it was still considerably more than a year from release. That’s okay if you’re making a game or a technically complex piece of machinery, but it’s less acceptable when you’re trying to fund a book. No one wanted to invest their money and then wait eighteen months for a book – when was the last time you pre-ordered a novel eighteen months in advance?

Even though issue 2 of Undad hasn’t yet been completed, I was determined to cut the wait time down as much as humanly possible. I’m aware that the estimated five months wait for Issue 2 is likely to be a liability; however, it’s still a big improvement over All The King’s Men. And I’ll be distributing as many of the rewards to backers as early as possible, hopefully well ahead of the May 2015 deadline.

5. Poorly priced reward tiers

One thing I noticed in recent months was that I’d be much more likely to back a campaign if there was a low-cost low-risk option to get the content digitally. Five dollars was the ideal price point, but I could occasionally be persuaded to go as high as ten if the product was obviously high quality.

But in the All The King’s Men campaign, all you got for ten dollars was a single story from the anthology. The cost of the digital book was locked in at $25, and $35 for a paperback copy, both of which are significantly higher than anyone would have to pay for them in the shops. In short, it was a very poorly thought out strategy, and was more a knee-jerk response to the high targeting goal than it was the result of careful and measured thinking.

For Undad, I’ve made sure to include those lower-cost tiers for casually interested backers, including the option to get both issues of the comic for a single pledge of $5, and I’ve made sure that, all the way along, backers are getting a discount off the RRP of the books and other rewards.

6. Unrealistic funding goal

Eleven thousand dollars is a lot of money to raise. I knew that much going in; it was an ambitious target, and probably too ambitious for a first project. Some post-mortem feedback I received suggested that the ambitious target actually dissuaded people from making a pledge where they otherwise might have. It made the project seem unrealistic and impossible to achieve.

With Undad, I set the target at just $3750, a third of the target for All The King’s Men. This much would allow me to produce one extra issue of Undad. I have implemented stretch goals to get the entire story told. But this staggered approach is unlikely to scare backers away the way it did for All The King’s Men, and allows the possibility of a partial success.

7. The wrong focus

The survey I conducted in late 2013 created quite a stir in artist circles. The matter of fair pay for professional work was a heated one, and I thought I could use that to generate interest in my Kickstarter campaign. But I was wrong. It turns out that, quite reasonably, backers expected me to pay more attention to what they wanted. They would have been happy to support a moral cause like ‘pay the artist’ if I had also attempted to understand what the backer wanted: reasonable rewards at a reasonable cost. I thought that by championing the fair pay banner, I’d get pledges and social media groundswell from other artists.

But what I should have done, and what I’m doing for Undad, is focusing entirely on the backers. How much value for money can I give them? How can I involve them in the process, and make them want to share the project with their networks? In the end, I implemented what I called a Transmission Scheme, a tiered reward system that allowed backers to achieve additional rewards by encouraging their friends and family to pledge to Undad as well. I will be implementing further measures as the time goes on, as well.

8. Not being active enough

Since the failure of All The King’s Men, I’ve been watching a number of successful Kickstarter campaigns. How active the creators are, doing interviews, posting content and updates, engaging with fans. I did a little of all this for All The King’s Men, but not nearly enough. I ran out of steam at about the same time the pledges started to dry up, and sadly never regained the momentum. Messaging backers with a personalised thank you is very important, but it can’t be the extent of it.

For Undad, I’ve planned a lengthy series of updates to the campaign. Sample images, blog posts, and other content to share with the Kickstarter community, even if there are no milestones in the project itself to celebrate. I’m not going to disappear from this project – I’ll be front and centre promoting and advocating for it for the whole 45 days.

9. Poor timing

One of the best things I could have done for All The King’s Men would have been to time it to coincide with a convention I was exhibiting at. Being able to promote my campaign and distribute flyers/postcards to comics fans outside my social circle could well have been invaluable. It certainly would have ensured the project was seen by more people. But I didn’t consider the timing at all when I launched it.

For Undad, I timed the launch to coincide with Halloween, as a little attention-seeking gimmick. And I ensured that I would be exhibiting at least once during the campaign’s duration. I will be handing out Undad information to punters at the 2014 OtakuFest here in Canberra. By doing this, I’ve taken some steps to ensure that I can personally get Undad out to some new eyes, even if my press releases and blog articles and interviews and guest posts don’t.

10. Overconfidence

In its first day, All The King’s Men raised over $800. Even though I knew that most of this came from friends and family, I let myself get overconfident. Over 7% funded in a single day? This thing will get funded in the remaining 29 days – piece of cake. So I eased off a little, took the pressure off, allowed myself to relax. This turned out to be a big mistake. Because I didn’t have a daily plan, this relaxation turned to inaction very quickly. That complacency cost me momentum that I should have utilised, and the project dwindled to a slow crawl after just a couple of days.

With Undad, I’m much better prepared, and tempered by failure. I don’t intend to make the same mistake again. Every dollar between here and the funding target is a dollar that must be actively raised. If I sit back and wait for the money to roll in, this campaign – and any others I approach with the same attitude – is doomed to failure.

11. Underestimating the workload

This is the one that surprised me most. I wasn’t ready for the sheer amount of work that would be demanded of me to maintain the All The King’s Men project, the ridiculous amount of time it demanded. There’s almost no way to describe it – it’s exhausting in a way that I genuinely wasn’t expecting. I got overwhelmed almost immediately, and things started to slip. Catching up became a chore, and in the end, I just let it all slide away. It reached the point where even logging into Kickstarter seemed like too much work. Part of this was the crushing weight of imminent failure, but undoubtedly a big part of this malaise was that I simply hadn’t prepared to run this marathon. I’d expected a quick sprint, followed by a leisurely victory lap, and I hadn’t done the right kind of training.

Even though Undad is a longer campaign, I’m prepared for it. I’ve got update and promotional content ready to go, and other content partially planned out. I’m prepared for a slow release of information, and a lengthy siege against my sanity. In short, I’ve trained for a marathon this time, and I’m ready.

Conclusion

All of this boils down to just a couple of salient points: preparation and consideration.

With All The King’s Men, I was underprepared and I didn’t offer backers the consideration they deserved. I’ve learned from these mistakes, and built a new campaign around rectifying them. Time will tell if it succeeds.

Editor’s note: All The King’s Men was eventually produced with the help of a generous grant, relaunched on Kickstarter in 2016, and reached its funding target.


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