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Reading Matters

Doug Wilhelm is a full-time writer and an independent publisher in Weybridge, Vemont. His newest book is the novel STREET OF STORYTELLERS (Rootstock, 2019). His 15 previous novels for young adults include THE REVEALERS (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2003), which has been the focus of reading-and-discussion projects in well over 1,000 middle schools.

Launching a kids' book with Kickstarter: What worked for us

An illustrator and I put up a Kickstarter campaign to fund publication of our new children’s book — and we've succeeded. So what have we learned?

I think this is a question worth answering. Kickstarter has become, so it says, the largest funder of creative projects in the world. Assuming this is true, it’s pretty revolutionary — because this is not a corporate funder, not Sony or Disney or Scholastic; it’s a crowd-sourcing funder. Almost anyone can now easily become a front-end contributor to the creative economy. You can pledge as little as $10 to support a project. And just about anyone with a creative project, like a new kids’ book, now has the chance to get it funded and launched.

But about three-quarters of Kickstarters fail. To give a campaign its best shot, Kickstarter itself gives you some good advice. Do a good, short, genuine video. Offer affordable rewards. Solicit good critical feedback, and tweak carefully before you launch. (You can find this advice and more by going to the very bottom of the home page and selecting Kickstarter School.)

So what can we add?

Briefly, on May 15, illustrator Sarah-Lee Terrat, a professional artist for several decades who is also my sister, and I put up our Kickstarter for Treasure Town, our “bridge into reading” chapter book for grades 1-3. There’s a big need for good, original early chapter books, and our story centers on three kids in a Florida beach town who are searching for the legendary buried treasure of Jean Lafitte, King of the Pirates in the 19th century Gulf of Mexico. Because Lafitte was real, and the glorious treasure he boasted of burying has never been found, we were able to infuse true pirate history and geography into a story that’s hilariously illustrated, that’s a lot of fun, and that we have found is very motivating for young emerging readers.

The goal we set was to raise $5,000 or more in Kickstarter pledges within 30 days. You can exceed your goal by any amount; but if you fall short, you don’t get a dime. We hit and passed our goal in the first 10 days. At this writing, we have 82 backers, who have pledged from $10 up to $1,000, mostly for one of our offered rewards — and with 12 days to go we’ve raised $6,325 that will go toward design, printing, and promotion of Treasure Town.

So. Here, beyond Kickstarter’s basic advice, is what I think we’ve learned:

1. Set a goal you can reach. We worked from August till May to prepare our project, doing a video we’re proud of (even though we were completely clueless at the start), that features second and third graders to whom I read Treasure Town last fall. You need to do that, you need to work hard — but if you set a very high goal, it’s pretty likely (sorry) that your investment will come to nothing. Better to set a goal you can achieve, even though, as we’ve seen, the frequency of pledging may slow down if you pass your goal early on. 

2. You have to work your own networks. Especially for a children’s book, the hope that your Kickstarter might go viral is almost surely a fantasy. There are many, many projects now seeking crowd-funding support — and the ones best-positioned to catch many random eyes tend to be the cool new consumer products. Maybe also movies and music. Kids’ books ... not so much. So we compiled long email lists of friends and potential supporters, and we sent out hundreds of individually targeted messages. This, for us, is what worked.

3. This is a new creative economy — and people like to be part of your project. We offered folks a fun, colorful t-shirt — but so far almost no one has wanted that. What they have wanted, along with signed copies of Treasure Town, is a way into the creative process. We’ve offered original sketches from the making of the book, and got a number of takers. We also promised to thank, by name, everyone who pledges at least $10 in the Acknowledgments at the back of Treasure Town.

For us, the most inspiring result of all this is that simply that people — 82 of them so far — have backed us. Creative work can be lonely, and you’re up against so much competition, so much likelihood of rejection and failure. Kickstarter, and other sites like it, offer the new opportunity to build on what we believe in: that original books, music, and movies matter. That people want to see the work we do — and that, given the chance, they will back it.

I’m not saying this is easy, or without risk. I am saying it’s a whole new world.

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