Despite the pandemic, and the round of layoffs and buyouts it heralded, Kickstarter continues to be an important source of funding for independent comics creators, self-published prose authors, and small publishers. Since the crowdfunding platform launched back in 2009, the comics category has raised more than $127 million, according to the company. So far in 2020, the comics category has a 73% success rate and has raised more than $25 million (across more than 1,683 projects). The previous best year for comics was 2019, when it generated $16.9 million in donations across 1,598 projects.
But much like every business, Kickstarter was hammered by the pandemic and subsequent nationwide lockdowns, with new campaigns declining by as much as 40% in March and April. The resulting drop of revenue forced it to announce a round of 25 layoffs in May, in addition to 30 employee buyouts negotiated between management and Kickstarter United, the union representing Kickstarter employees that launched in February 2020.
“Kickstarter needed to be a smaller company to be sustainable,” said Margot Atwell, newly promoted to director of outreach and international after many years overseeing publishing and comics, in reference to the layoffs and buyouts. After the pandemic struck, “the number of projects launched on Kickstarter dropped substantially and became a problem for Kickstarter and for creators,” she added. The drop impacted the platform’s revenue: it draws a 5% fee from each successful campaign.
Atwell said Kickstarter currently has about 100 employees and is beginning to recover. The company announced the promotion of Oriana Leckert to the position of director of publishing and comics outreach, succeeding Atwell. Camilla Zhang, the former comics outreach lead, was among the staff laid off in May.
Kickstarter also launched two programs aimed at small publishers and individual artists that it hopes will encourage new projects. As it starts to increase the number of campaigns, Leckert said management is looking for projects that fit the times. “Everyone is stressed over illness and finances,” she said. “We asked ourselves, How do we help people? We’re trying to adapt to what people need.”
New initiatives include Lights On, an effort to encourage cultural spaces and indie businesses such as music venues, theaters, restaurants, bookstores, and art galleries to use Kickstarter to keep their spaces functioning during the pandemic, and Inside Voices, a direct appeal to creators stuck at home to organize Kickstarter campaigns to fund projects. In January Kickstarter will kickoff Make 100, an annual effort to celebrate small projects and help the creators start off the year.
Leckert pointed to a number of small publishers that have launched projects as a result of these initiatives, such as children’s press Enchanted Lion ($40,000 to support its 2021 list of story and picture books), Power & Magic Press ($75,000 to support the publication of Mañana: Latinx Comics from the 25th Century, an anthology of the works of 50 Latinx comics creators), Radix Media ($27,600 raised to support a graphic narrative project), and PM Press raised $13,000 to support the publication of Crossroads, a graphic nonfiction work about the courageous South African Women who fought to protect their homes in Cape Town in the 1970s (which is excerpted on the PW website.) She also emphasized that Kickstarter can still generate eye-popping levels of financial support, citing as a recent example the $270,000 raised by novelist and digital activist Cory Doctorow in October for a DRM-free audiobook version of his new novel, Attack Surface.
“For projects that do launch, the success rate is higher than ever,” Leckert said. “Backers have demonstrated that they really care about lending their financial support to creative ideas, and they are showing up in a big way for creators whose work they love.”
Indeed, despite a dramatic decline in the number of 2020 Kickstarter campaigns due to the pandemic, the platform has proven that it can continue to be an important source of funds for creatives. Since 2009, it has delivered more than $200 million in successful pledges in the publishing category, and it has generated more than $346 million in successful pledges in the publishing, comics, and journalism categories combined.
Corrections: the promotions of Atwell and Leckert, and the publisher of Mañana, were incorrectly noted in an earlier version of this story. In addition the pledge data on the comics category in 2020 has been updated.