Monday, March 8, 2021

Zine Quest 3 Post-Mortem: The Drain

I ran my first ever Kickstarter this year for Zine Quest 3. My project, a Mothership RPG adventure called The Drain, received over 1,400 backers and $15,000 in funding. In this post, I will attempt to convey everything I've learned through the process and share all associated costs and statistics. I hope to paint an honest portrait of running a Kickstarter for the first time. We'll start by jumping into the meatiest statistics, then settle into a host of lessons and tips. But first, a little context.

A Brief Project Overview

The Drain is a 16-page zine, priced for Kickstarter at $5 digital and $10 physical (+ digital). It's a DCC-style funnel adventure where each player runs multiple characters through a meat grinder—the first of its kind for the Mothership system.

I brought on several prominent RPG creators to work with me on the project, including Sean McCoy as an illustrator, Christian Kessler for layout, Fiona Geist for editing, then later Evlyn Moreau and Dirk Leichty as stretch goal artists. I ended up listing and funding 7 stretch goals. I wrote campaign updates almost every day. I partnered with Exalted Funeral, the Melsonian Arts Council, and Monkey's Paw Games for distribution. I approached my Kickstarter with an "all-in" philosophy: I put everything I had into making it as polished and successful as possible. I believe it paid off.

From the boneboxchant blog: Most backed zines from ZQ3

If you'd like even more context, check out this post from last month on my experiences in my first year trying to make it as an RPG designer.

How Much Money Did I Really Make?

What most of you probably want to know is:
How much will I as author and publisher get to keep of the $15k funding total?

I spent two months working part time to write and develop my zine, I spent another two months working full time to prepare and run the Kickstarter, and I'll spend the next several months managing my project and creating stretch goal content to fulfillment. Adding that all up and estimating future efforts, we'll probably end up with about 5 total months of full time RPG work. If I got to keep the full $15k, that might be pretty solid compensation. But I don't. Here's a rough look at my total costs:

Campaign Costs

  • Art Commissions: $2000
  • Printing (& print run shipping): $2000
  • Kickstarter cut + payment processing fees: $1500
  • Design, Editing, & Writing Commissions: $1000
  • Campaign Page & Video Production + Sound Design: $1000
  • Credit Card Errors: $400*
  • PledgeManager: $350
*I expect to be able to resolve some of these dropped backers through my pledge manager, but for now I'm chalking them up as a loss.

Totals

Funding: $15,510
Costs: $8250
Profit: $7250

Hidden Costs

Certain uncertain and potentially costly factors have yet to play out—namely shipping. Though I've done everything possible to mitigate shipping issues (working with multiple international distributors, waiting till fulfillment to collect shipping), there could still be some variance between what I collect and what I actually pay for shipping. There's also bound to be some number of lost packages given the current state of things, and shipping out replacements will come out of my pocket.

I really have no stats from which to estimate unforeseen shipping costs, but let's budget a clean and arbitrary $1000. 

Revised Totals

Funding: $15,510
Costs: $9250
Profit: $6250

Future Sales

Kickstarter is just the beginning for The Drain. I plan to continue selling it and associated products funded through the Kickstarter through all available avenues, and use it to build sustainable passive income.

The Drain is currently live for pre-orders and add-ons on PledgeManager. I bungled the pledge manager launch slightly by waiting to add a potentially popular add-on until most backers had already checked out, but I've still turned a modest profit there. Between about a couple dozen pre-orders and a handful of add-ons, I've netted myself an additional $500 profit from PledgeManager so far. By the time I close the PledgeManager after fulfilling in June, let's estimate that number will be about doubled ($1000).

After my campaign ended, I quickly reached out to retailers for wholesale orders so I could start estimating my total print run size. Tuesday Knight Games is taking the largest share for the official Mothership web store, and between all interested retailers I have around 400 retail copies lined up. I plan to increase my zine's cost from the $10 Kickstarter price to $12 retail ($6 wholesale). That's another $2400 in almost pure profit coming my way (with offset printing, additional printing costs to cover retail are marginal).

After backers have their copies, I intend to list The Drain on my DriveThruRPG and Itch.io store pages for digital sale. It's difficult to gauge just how well it'll do there as my other offerings vary wildly in sales numbers, so let's err on the conservative side. 200 digital sales at $5 each (around $3.50 after store cuts) is another $700.

Though my stretch goals are costing me thousands of dollars and great effort to produce, they're far from a total loss. Their affect on my Kickstarter's success aside, some of the goals represent entire products I'll be able to sell separately once produced—notably two pamphlet adventures. Through digital sales, the pamphlets will contribute to my long term passive income. I may even end up printing some for pledge manager add-ons and retail sales if the timing and logistics work out. $300 per pamphlet is a reasonable estimate if we assume 50/50 odds of their eventually seeing a print run (less if not, more if so).

Post-Campaign Totals

PledgeManager add-ons and pre-orders: $1000
Retailer wholesales: $2400
Digital sales: $700
Stretch goal content sales: $600
Total: $4700

Grand total estimated 2021 profits: ~$11,000


All this starts to add up, and we're only talking about sales from this year. I hope to restock retailers with secondary print runs and beyond, and I expect to see a long tail on digital sales as my back catalogue and Mothership's popularity grows. I can't expect to live on this zine alone, but it's a very reasonable start for about half a year's work.

Hot Statistics



Project Followers

Gaining and converting project followers is key to a successful Kickstarter campaign. Followers receive emails when your campaign first launches, when it hits 48 hours remaining, and sometimes also 8 hours remaining (though I'm not sure what triggers that bonus email).
  • Immediately before launch, I had a little over 400 followers.
  • My follower conversion rate a few hours after launch hit 30%.
  • I grew my follower count to 1,100 by the final few days of my campaign.
  • Going into 48-hours remaining, I still had 30% conversion. 
  • By the end of the campaign, I had 47% follower conversion.
The follower count decreased slightly post-campaign

Backers by Region

By partnering with multiple international distributors, I reduced international shipping costs by over half for Canada, the UK, and EU. This had a notable effect on the quantity of international physical backers—I've heard 10-20% non-US as a typical rate.
  • Total Backers: 1402
  • Total Physical Backers: 1104
    • US: 832
    • Europe: 97
    • UK: 90
    • Canada: 47
    • International: 38
  • Non-US backers comprised 25% of all physical backers

Marketing Finds

I didn't start using custom referral links to track my marketing efforts until well into my campaign, so I missed out on a lot of critical data about my earliest and most impactful strategies. Still, there's a ton we can glean from perusing the respectable (mine has 79 different entries) referral list provided by Kickstarter on my creator dashboard.
  • The vast majority of pledges come from internal Kickstarter referrers: Kickstarter emails, site discovery and browsing, etc. 65% of my funding total came from Kickstarter.
  • Most of the externally referred backers have no associated referral data (this amorphous blob of cash is the single largest funding source for me at 17%).
  • Kickstarter's reminder emails are all-important. The "email" entry that I think is the launch notification message netted me 95 backers. The last chance reminder email that goes out at 48 hours gained me another 69.
  • Marketing works. The associated efforts of my marketing made a significant impact on my funding total. Even ignoring the huge impact of marketing to build followers, direct referrals from my marketing posts make up over 10% of my funding total. Probably a good chunk of the 17% no-data external backers came from these sources as well. Here's a more granular breakdown:
    • Reddit: 62 backers
    • Twitter: 56 backers
    • Facebook: 11 backers
    • My own blog: 7 backers
    • RPG forums: 4 backers
    • My itch.io page: 3 backers
    • A second reminder email to my DTRPG customers: 3 backers (don't do this)
    • Day-1 announcement emails to my DTRPG and Itch customers: Unknown (no referral links)
  • Promotion from other sources can also make a significant difference:
Bonus stat! Does anyone know if 34% plays completed is good?


Estimating My Work

Let's take a rough look at the total effort I put into this campaign:

RPG Writing

  • Zine: 4000 words
  • Stretch goal content: ~2000 words
  • Custom content for backers: ~4000 words

Copy Writing

  • Main campaign page: 1200 words
  • 12 campaign updates: 6000 words
  • Sundry tweets, reddit, and other social media posts: ~3000 words

Project Management

I spent the last 2 months doing little else but prepping my campaign and sorting project logistics. Countless hours went into learning how to run a Kickstarter for the first time, figuring out how pledge managers work, researching international tax law (curse you, Brexit), talking to distributors, coordinating collaborators, and much, much more.
  • Project management work to date: 240 hours
  • Future project management work: ~240 hours

Totals

  • 10,000 words RPG design
  • 10,000 words marketing copy
  • 480 hours project management work

At 10 cents/word (the RPG writing standard) and $15/hr (minimum wage where I live), we hit $9200. If my earlier $11,000 total profit estimate is correct, I will have successfully paid myself marginally more than minimum rates and wage.

Zine Quest Advice




Participating in Zine Quest

If I had a penny for everyone I saw asking how to join Zine Quest, I'd be rich. Kickstarter posts diminishingly informative pages on the event each year, and this year they entirely neglected to inform creators how to participate. If you don't know, Zine Quest is really just the "Zine Quest" search tag they apply to participating campaigns—allowing Kickstarter users to see all participating projects. Some campaigns receive the tag automatically after submitting their page to Kickstarter for approval, and the rest of us had to reach out to Kickstarter's game division email to get it.

Beyond that, Zine Quest is a loose series of suggestions for how to make an appropriately zine-y zine. Despite some (to put it nicely) zine format sticklers raising a stink about projects breaking Kickstarter's "rules", to my knowledge not a single zine was forbidden from the event based on format.

I plan to organize with other indie creators to get the word out about Zine Quest participation and rules for next year to help alleviate first time creator confusion and anxiety. I've also talked to some other creators about staging a non-Kickstarter crowdfunding event on Itch.io with the aim of opening up new viable avenues for indie RPG funding. I expect 2021 and 2022 to see more community organization and empowerment when it comes to indie RPG crowdfunding.

Start Planning Now

Do you know what you're doing for Zine Quest 4? You should. Coming to the table with your project 90% done is enormously beneficial: You have more art and content to show off on your page, your short fulfilment estimate earns backer trust, and you give yourself fewer opportunities for things to go wrong under the watchful eye of your backers. 

If you experience a delay or setback when quietly working on the project pre-KS, no one knows or cares. You can always adjust your own timelines and set your own pace. But once you launch that Kickstarter, you're on the clock and beholden to your backers' ire. Long term customer goodwill is enormously important if you want to continue working in RPGs. Backers have some tolerance for delayed projects (within limits) if given honest communication, but the longer your estimated turnaround the greater risk of becoming a Kickstarter horror story.

Note that this practice isn't economically viable for everyone. If you can't afford to work in advance and need an upfront payday, don't skip Kickstarter altogether. With economical use of time spent marketing, you can still run a very successful campaign.

Apply for Kickstarter Approval Early, But Not Too Early

Kickstarter suggests you budget a few weeks to go through their financial verification and project approval process. Add at least an extra couple weeks if you can—their approval process can be as quick as a single day or leave you hanging for weeks. You want to leave yourself plenty of leadup to your campaign so you can start marketing your pre-launch page and accumulating followers. 

You can apply for approval as soon as your campaign page has all essential information and pretty it up with art and graphics later, but I suggest you not do that. When you submit your project for approval, you want it as appealing and professional as you can make it to give yourself a shot at Kickstarter's "Project We Love" badge.

Include a Writing Sample 

Particularly if you're a brand new or lesser known creator, demonstrating your writing and design chops is a great way to win backer confidence. During my Kickstarter, I made my best selling Mothership adventure Moonbase Blues free and included a link to its itch.io page in my campaign. I can't say exactly what impact doing so had on the campaign as the data is a little nebulous, but my Itch traffic shot up massively. At the very least, it boosted the sales of my other RPG content and netted me a ton of new Itch followers. Moonbase saw thousands of downloads during the campaign, and its sales numbers have returned to normal now that it's back to $2. Some campaigns (particularly new systems) put out ashcan or sample versions of their zines as well.

Consider using a pledge manager. I could and might in fact write an entire blog post on pledge managers, but I'll just give you the highlights here. Pledge managers (most famously Backerkit) load your backers into a 3rd party website where you can sell them add-ons, take pre-orders, collect shipping costs, and generally manage your project to completion. I sought out a pledge manager after hearing nightmare stories about fluctuation shipping prices and huge Kickstarter losses from sudden spikes. 

I went with a company called PledgeManager (who also run the KS stats site "Kicktraq") and I've been very happy with the decision. I've sold about $500 worth of add-ons and pre-orders after a couple weeks and I can rest easy knowing I'll collect accurate shipping costs at the time of fulfillment. PledgeManager does cost money—they take a flat rate for each backer loaded in and they take a cut of all sales there (about the same as Kickstarter's), but it's very worth it to me. The company I went with built out a custom page for my campaign and have been extremely helpful getting me up to speed.

Expect Cancelled Pledges and Dropped Backers

If you track backer activity on your project page, you'll see a number of ugly red notifications telling you a backer cancelled their pledge or adjusted to a lower tier. All told, I had over 50 reduced pledges and cancellations on my campaign. My advice: don't look at the backer activity during your campaign. You don't need the added stress.

Some number of backers will have payment processing issues after your campaign concludes and Kickstarter goes to charge them. Immediately after my campaign ended, about 3% of my backers had payment errors. When you see this, don't panic. Kickstarter will keep trying to charge your backers and most errors should resolve themselves. After the two week payment collection period, my number of dropped backers reduced from 40 to 6.

Learn from My Mistakes

I'm proud of how much I managed to get right for my first Kickstarter, but a whole slew of things fell through the cracks. Learn from my failures.


Use Referral Links! 

Once you've launched your campaign, you can create custom referral links that track pledges from that link. With this tool, you can track the success of each marketing effort and strategy. Post to reddit? Referral link. Go on a podcast? Referral link for their show notes. I fucked this up and didn't start using them till the last third of my campaign. Don't be like me. If you intend to use Kickstarter in the future, use unique referral links for every single marketing source from the very beginning. Next time, you'll know which sites to skip and where to focus your efforts. Seriously—use referral links.

Plan your Stretch Goals for success. I thought I'd carefully planned out my stretch goals, then my campaign blew past my first two goals day 1. Afterwards I scrambled to keep up, underpriced the cost for new goals, and perpetually scrounged for new ideas. Don't do this. You want your stretch goals (if you're doing any), to boost your dreaded mid-campaign slump. If you hit a bunch of goals in the first few days, you're drowning new and exciting announcements in your already feverous launch buzz. Backers can only absorb so much information, so space things out and give them time to digest. Wait a day or two to announce a new goal. Save your sexiest announcements for halfway through your campaign.

Give Your Backers Something to Spend $20-$40 On!

I made a pretty significant error only offering pledges at the very low $10 price for a zine and very high $80 for a customized poster. Despite netting a huge number of backers, I saw much lower total funding than many other campaigns. You want to offer something in that ~$30 premium-but-not-absurd price range if possible.

Don't Kickstart Small Books!* 

*If you're trying to make money.

Kickstarter is a huge amount of effort. If you haven't run one, raise your expectations on the work involved then double it. The massive logistical, marketing, customer support, and misc. non-creative work involved remains nearly constant whether you're funding a $10, 16-page zine like me or a $50, 200-page hardback. The worth-it-ness of running a Kickstarter tails off when applying that constant block of effort to smaller and cheaper projects. I'm glad I ran this Kickstarter as it's helped me get my name out there a bit more, but in the future I might look to direct-to-retail options for projects of this size and reserve Kickstarter for larger game.

Link Your Social Media Pages!

Don't be afraid to post your account of choice on your campaign page or ask your backers to help spread the word. Kickstarter is a great opportunity to gain long term supporters via social media. Even neglecting to link my twitter on my campaign page, my follower counts there jumped by hundreds. In your very first update (the one where you thank your backers for funding you in 12 minutes), link all your socials and ask for help promoting the campaign. It can't hurt, and it very well might help.

[Probably] Use a "Funded in 15 Picoseconds" Banner!

I agonizingly debated with myself and friends about this before my campaign. I didn't end up using one, but I regret that decision. I've seen a lot of conflicting advice and no useful data, but every damn successful campaign includes one so you might as well too. I've heard it annoys Kickstarter but who cares. If these bother you (I don't particularly like them myself), I'm sorry. The war is lost.


This is what I mean


Make Your Campaign Page Accessible! 

On RPG twitter I noticed a few people calling out campaigns that included important info as images rather than text. I am regretfully an offender in that regard. Next campaign, I intend to include plain text versions of my fancy graphics (possibly in a separate google doc linked on the page) for those relying on screen readers or similar. You should too.

The Valley of Uncertainty

I've noted a few things that I'm not confident enough to posit as advice, but you might want to think about as you plan your Zine Quest 4 project.


Taxes?

You should do them, probably. I've heard some terms like "sole proprietorship" and "LCC" thrown around. I'm in the process of figuring these things out for myself, but I am as yet not an expert so will stop at advising you to do your own research.

Kickstarter Perks?

No one asked me about it and it didn't seem to be a big deal for the other ZQ campaigns, but there's some assumption that backing a project on Kickstarter gets you something A: cheaper / B: earlier / C: exclusive / D: some or all of the above. I plan to get backers their copies before anyone else, I'm going to raise prices for retail, and I have some KS-exclusive content. I didn't make that very explicit in my campaign, but I thought about doing so. I ended up thinking it might feel a little crass, but there's probably a way to do that tactfully? Maybe you can figure it out.

Retailer Tiers?

I've heard a variety of advice on this point. Some campaigns see 0 retailer action, other campaigns sell out quickly. I personally decided against it because I was already working with a few retailers for distrobution—but in forgoing the tier I may have missed out on business from other stores. You have a fair bit to gain from including one, and only slightly complicating your pledge tier scheme as a drawback. I know Exalted Funeral went on a big retailer-tier buying spree this ZQ. It seems like an OK thing to do? Probably?

Adding Pledge Tiers After Launch?

Say you're like me and realized you messed up by not offering a mid-price pledge tier, or you have a sweet idea for a t-shirt that you're just dying to put up. Should you add a new tier a week into the campaign, or ride it out with your initial offerings and decisions? I don't know and I suspect the answer might haunt me.

Social Media Stretch Goals?

I've seen these on million dollar board and video game Kickstarters but never on smaller indie RPG ones. These are the things where hitting certain follower or retweet counts instead of $ earns new content. Could this work for smaller Kickstarters? Is it too gauche? No clue.

The Human Cost


Friends valiantly attempting to save me from myself

Much has been said about the strategy, logistics, and numbers around running Kickstarters, but those paint only a small picture of what's involved. What you don't see is the stress. Behind every Zine Quest success hides gallons of blood, sweat, and tears.

A Kickstarter campaign consumes your life. Updates, marketing, questions, stats, an endless sea of unforeseen problems and tasks. You open a customer support business for all your backers, on the hook for their issues and concerns 24/7. And you're producing your project on top of it all. You adopt a completely different mindset in "Kickstarter mode"—become a different person. Weeks later, I'm still recovering from the shift in lifestyle.

Then there's the pressure. The numbers and goalposts always shifting, the dropped pledges, the other campaigns. Even if logically you don't see the other ZQ projects as competition and you wish everyone the best as I do, you can't help but compare. There's always something you could have done better, always another project one step ahead. I blew past even my longest shot goals with my project in a few days, and by the end of the campaign the accumulated pressure made it feel a hollow victory.

Prepare for post-campaign depression. Coming down from that adrenaline high and sustained stress load will hit you like a truck. As Sean McCoy once said to me, the daily dopamine rush from watching those Kickstarters numbers climb feels like gambling. And then when your project ends, it's like leaving a casino after spinning slots for a month. If this is your first time running a major project, the sudden crash in mood might catch you off guard. 

After your campaign, deadlines loom and the work continues. Your Kickstarter might drop out of the driver's seat of your life, but it hops into the back and watches you. Always. Until you fulfill, anyway.

Surviving the Kick

Sound scary? It should. I strongly advise anyone considering trying out Zine Quest next year to factor the stress cost into their lives and budget. Assign an actual dollar amount to the stress and add it to your printing costs and commissions.

The single best thing you can do to alleviate Kickstarter stress is to work with a partner. Someone to share the work and responsibility, write an update or two, let you take a day off here and there. I aim to never do another Kickstarter totally alone if I can avoid it.

Another tip which I didn't follow: Take time off after your campaign. After you get everything settled and backers know what to expect next, just relax for a week or two and don't think about the Kickstarter at all. Lingering adrenaline might trick your brain into thinking you're fired up and ready to dive into your project, but it's lying to you. Continuing the grind will only make the post-campaign depression hit harder and tax your physical health more. Break out of the Kickstarter cage and let yourself be a person again. You will thank yourself.

Finally, this might sound trite, but take each misstep as a learning experience. You will fuck up, you will lie awake at night realizing that thing you should have done two weeks ago, but don't worry about any of that. Future you won't make those mistakes (particularly if you write them down). Each screwup is an investment in your industry knowledge. 

Conclusion

If you came to this post looking for answers about whether you should hop into Zine Quest next year, the best answer I can give you is "maybe". The key to winning Kickstarter is playing the game on your own terms. Can you stomach the stress of pushing your campaign to the limit and revolving your entire life around your project? By all means, shoot for the stars. Do you just want to fund a personal project without all the hubbub? Put out a simple, low maintenance campaign and be pleasantly surprised at the love that comes your way.

I can't wait to read other people's stories and dig into stat breakdowns from Zine Quest 3. If you ran a project this year, please share what you learned in articles like this one! The more info we get out into the world, the better we can empower people to participate successfully in the future.

There's a lot more I wanted to say here, but this post is already long enough to fill its own book. Keep an eye out for future posts from me focusing on marketing strategy and collective action in RPG communities. For further reading on Kickstarter management, check out these posts I wrote for ZQ3 on writing up your campaign page and posting updates:


If you're interested in my project discussed in this post, the pre-order page is live here:


Till next time, and thanks for reading. 

2 comments:

  1. Thanks for writing this! Very detailed and insightful

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  2. Thanks, Ian for this detailed post mortem and for the blueprints. And congrats on your successful Kickstarter. I bought the zine via the pledge manager, looking forward to reading it. What you anticipate about the more experienced creators sharing their thoughts about Kickstarter is super encouraging, as well as generous. I am already starting to plan for the 2022 Zinequest, that would be my absolute first Kickstarter, and these kind of resources, like this post, are immensely useful. If there's a discussion starting somewhere about the itch.io crowdfunding event I'd love to be a part of it. Cheers. Iko

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