Publishers, authors, and other book- and comics-related businesses are turning to crowdfunding to raise money, communicate with their loyal consumers, and test new ideas. As of late June, there were 217 comic book projects and 377 other publishing projects live on the biggest crowdfunding platform, Kickstarter.

The idea behind reward-based crowdfunding (the type used for most creative projects) is to raise funds for an individual project by soliciting small contributions from many people. If contributions meet the predetermined financial goal, the sponsors produce the book; if not, pledges are returned. Fans who contribute receive an early copy of the book or other rewards tied to their level of giving.

ComixTribe, a comic book imprint and community, has put together 17 Kickstarter campaigns since 2012. Funds generated are nearing half a million dollars, collectively, according to publisher Tyler James, who also provides educational resources about crowdfunding.

ComixTribe’s first campaign involved a high-quality hardcover graphic novel anthology for which the then-new company needed $10,000 to produce. “We had no distribution deal with Diamond at that time, so our options were loans, high-interest credit cards, or Kickstarter,” James says. The campaign raised $26,000, well above its $8,500 goal. ComixTribe later launched C Is for Cthulhu: The Lovecraft Alphabet Board Book ($35,568 raised), followed by several spin-offs. “It’s not about charity. It’s a preorder mechanism. If you’re an author and have an audience, Kickstarter lets you maximize the revenue from that audience.”

One such author is Doug TenNapel, a writer of comic books, animated series, and video games. He has used crowdfunding to launch a graphic novel, Bigfoot Bill ($196,436 raised on the Indiegogo platform); a comic book featuring his classic character Earthworm Jim (more than $300,000); and one-of-a-kind art books. “It’s the economics of publishing that makes crowdfunding attractive,” TenNapel says.

Immedium, a publisher of picture books featuring diverse characters and themes, has crowdfunded four titles, with the three most recent ones reaching their funding goals. “Any time you sell 100 or more preorders, it can spell the difference between a title being profitable or not profitable,” owner Oliver Chin says.

Sesame Workshop turned to Kickstarter to launch an anti-bullying campaign tied to its “See Amazing in All Children” autism outreach. It raised $81,927 to create an enhanced digital storybook featuring the character Julia. “As a nonprofit, our social impact work relies on philanthropic support and this is just another component of that,” says Jeanette Betancourt, senior v-p, U.S. social impact. “We wanted to engage our customers to partner with us to bring these resources to life. We also wanted to strengthen our commitment to the autism community and show we can respond to its needs and make a difference.”

More Than Fundraising

The nonmonetary benefits of crowdfunding can be even more valuable than the financial ones. “I’ll use the profit, but the real value is having 1,500 to 1,600 customers who are really behind the book,” says Cassidy Clawson, who launched his first title, Super Sassy Book of Pop Out Earrings, on Kickstarter, generating $17,755.

“It’s useful to get the word out to people who would not necessarily go to the bookstore,” Chin adds.

Crowdfunding is not a place to build a fan base from scratch, however. “One mistake people make is to launch on Kickstarter to get Kickstarter backers,” James explains. “They’re not just a monolithic audience waiting for books to show up. Kickstarter is the venue, but you’re still in charge of the guest list.”

“It’s a bring-your-own audience kind of place,” agrees Clawson, who spent significant time before the campaign developing his Instagram and email lists and placing small ads. “I built a community of people ready to back my campaign on the first day.”

Virginia Freyermuth and Julie Steines, mother-daughter co-owners of Polly Parker Press, launched their first title featuring Steines’s rescue dog Norbert on Kickstarter (raising $8,050), as well as their third, a co-branded book featuring Norbert and another internet pet sensation, Lil Bub ($102,162). “You have to have a way to market or share your crowdfunding campaign,” Steines says. “You could have the best campaign in the world, but if no one sees it, what’s the point?”

Chin notes that one of the key differences between Immedium’s first campaign five years ago, which did not reach its funding goal, and its second three years ago, which did, was the social media activity by the books’ creator, Colombia-based studio Liberium Donum. “That really helped propel it,” Chin says. “It became a Kickstarter ‘Project We Love,’ and that was critical for making it searchable and getting page views.” Liberium Donum’s children’s books for Immedium include The Discovery of Ramen: The Asian Hall of Fame ($6,908 pledged) and The Discovery of Fireworks and Gunpowder: Asian Hall of Fame ($6,066). A third book in the series, on anime and manga, will debut this fall.

Brittany Murlas, CEO and founder of the subscription box Little Feminist Book Club, reports that 95% of the backers for her company’s first campaign, which supported an effort to get more diverse children’s books into classrooms and raised $40,988, were from its existing community. “There’s not this humongous number of people trolling Kickstarter to find places to put their money,” she says. “It’s mostly your people who are coming to your campaigns.”

Although it is a direct-to-consumer model, crowdfunding can have a positive impact on trade partners, as well, leading to ancillary sales of books or products at retail, or attracting interest from traditional publishers in the U.S. and abroad. The latter was the case for C Is for Cthulhu.

“We’re in four foreign languages now due to the success of the book on Kickstarter,” James says. He points out that crowdfunding also offers a chance to boost the backlist. “Launching plush toys gave us an opportunity to sell plush toys, but also to sell a lot more of the book,” he adds.

Testing and Tweaking

“Crowdfunding is an amazing testing ground,” Murlas says. “If your campaign fails, that’s a bummer, but it’s much better to have a failed campaign than putting your life savings into something people don’t want to buy.”

“As authors, we put a lot out in the world and hope and pray people are interested,” says Adam Gidwitz, cocreator of The Unicorn Rescue Society, a series of middle grade readers published by Dutton. Gidwitz and his partners created a Unicorn Rescue Society card game and launched it on Kickstarter this year, generating $11,700 in pledges. “We thought it would be nice to reverse the format. We can say to our fans, ‘We can make this, do you want it?’ ”

Fan feedback helped tailor the game’s features, as well. In the books to date, there is one mythical creature that is never found—the unicorn. Originally, the creators designed the game that way, as well. “From the feedback on Kickstarter, we found out that was the dumbest possible thing to do,” Gidwitz says. The game now features different creatures worth varying amounts of points, plus one unicorn card, which is the most valuable of all.

When TenNapel launched his Earthworm Jim comic, he hired an artist to create a new logo to replace the one he had designed back in the 1990s. The backers were not pleased. “I’ve never had more responses on anything, and they wanted the old logo,” he says.

“You’re having a direct conversation with the fans that’s not through an intermediary,” James says, noting that ComixTribe launches new products such as Cthulhu plush and puzzles based on what backers want.

“Using Kickstarter is unique in that it gives us direct contact with our readership,” agrees Elena Favilli, CEO of Timbuktu, whose Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls books comprise the most successful publishing franchise on Kickstarter to date. “If we published our content traditionally, we would not receive feedback in the same way. Because of this, we were really able to listen to our backers, understand their needs, and tweak our products to meet those needs.”

A benefit of crowdfunding for new authors is that they can use it to build a track record. “I was an industry outsider,” Clawson says. “I needed to do the legwork to see whether I could prove the economics [of the Pop Out Earrings] before approaching a publisher, and crowdfunding just seemed like the obvious path.”

What Works?

With C Is for Cthulhu, inspired by the work of H.P. Lovecraft, “I discovered the power on Kickstarter of a very niche product,” James says. “Nine out of 10 people don’t know Cthulhu, but the one in 10 who do will buy it and tell three of their friends.

Many of the most successful campaigns feature products that appeal to pop culture–savvy young men, such as tabletop, board, and card games and sci-fi and fantasy content. Comic books have a 57% success rate on Kickstarter, for example, vs. 32% for other types of publishing projects and 37% for the platform overall, according to the company. But initiatives beyond this sweet spot succeed as well.

“Our book was really the first of its kind,” Favilli says. “Projects that are pioneering and timely can become Kickstarter gold.” The brand has attracted more than $1.7 million in financial backing from fans in 75 countries across two volumes of stories and a guided journal.

No matter the project, being authentic is important. “The quality of the campaign page and video doesn’t have to be uber-high,” Murlas says. “If I’m in my office with books behind me, that says more than a professional video of me in front of the Golden Gate Bridge.”

Communication with backers and potential backers before, during, and after the campaign is essential to keep the audience engaged, address questions and complaints, and provide an incentive to share the campaign or increase their contribution. “I produce a YouTube show every day for my backers,” TenNapel reports. “They are paying an average of $60 to $100 per book, and they expect a certain level of intimacy.”

Best Practices

Experts say it is critical to set a financial goal high enough to move the project forward, but not too high. “I tell my students to set the goal at the bare minimum you’d need to produce a version you’d be happy with and your backers would be happy to have,” James says.

“You don’t need to hit the lottery,” Chin explains. “We want to make sure that the project breaks even sooner rather than later. Be realistic about the total amount that you need at the finish line.”

Once a campaign achieves its initial goal, the sponsor can add “stretch goals” to attract funding for additional features, such as more color or variant covers. Polly Parker’s Norbert & Lil Bub campaign featured several stretch goals. “They generated a lot of excitement in our campaign,” Freyermuth says. “As we attained each funding level, we added new goals and extra rewards, such as a downloadable coloring book. We could say, ‘If we reach this amount of dollars, this is what will happen.’ ”

One of the biggest challenges of crowdfunding comes after funding goals are met, when sponsors need to deliver books and rewards to their backers on time. “Getting funded is just the beginning,” James says. “Your campaign is not a success until you deliver everything you promise to your backers. A lot of unforced errors can happen.”

“With crowdfunding, people are giving their hard-earned money to your dream that they support,” Steines says. “It can be very stressful to manage it all when people are asking about their rewards and their books. You also need to keep your backers in the loop about where you are in the process.”

“You can’t take your backers for granted, and you can never let them down,” TenNapel says. “You need to take it very seriously, because you’re giving them your promise in return for their money.”

Users stress that crowdfunding is a business model like any other. “You have to have a certain amount of business acumen,” TenNapel says. “It opens doors, but it’s not magic.”