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Thrilling Tales – More Thoughts About the Future, and Crowdfunding

Filed under Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual, Works in Progress

Thrilling Tales: The Riddle of the Wrong BrainI’ve continued to think about the future of Thrilling Tales of the Downright Unusual since my last post about its troubled state. Well. When I say "its troubled state" I may be thinking about mine; but since the state of Thrilling Tales is dependent on my own state I guess that still works, whichever way you look at it.

Today I’m ignoring the question of serials and I’m looking instead at The Riddle of the Wrong Brain, Part Two of The Toaster With TWO BRAINS.

I’ve experimented with crowdfunding twice. The first time, I tried what I think is one of the worst Kickstarter pitches ever: "Give me money, and I’ll do what I was going to do anyway". Now that’s salesmanship. To my own surprise that fundraiser met its goal. But of course the goal was a fairly modest one.

The second time, earlier this year, I launched what I thought was a pretty good fundraiser, and its pitch, according to me, was perfect: "Give me enough money, and this thing will exist. If you don’t, it won’t." That drive was also, narrowly, successful, but I was surprised to find that it got some criticism because its rewards were almost completely limited to the object – a limited hardcover edition of The Lair of the Clockwork Book. There were pretty good reasons for that: the book itself was expensive to produce, I faced a minimum order to get even that price for my print run, and the cost of any other rewards would have come out of the money that was needed for the edition itself. Adding a bunch of other rewards would have drastically increased the amount I had to raise. So I didn’t add them.

What I found was that a kind of Kickstarter culture had been trained by big projects with stretch goals, bells, whistles and hoopla, all of which are brilliant and gamelike marketing strategies that have nothing to do with the core idea of a Kickstarter project, which is: "Give me enough money, and this thing will exist. If you don’t, it won’t."

While that second Kickstarter project was successful, it didn’t make any money for me. All of its funding was needed in order to create what I think is a really nice archival edition of the book. I wanted it to exist; it was too expensive to produce on my own; and now it exists. The backers and I made that happen. But no, it didn’t make me any income. In fact it may have cost me something because the people who backed the project might otherwise have bought the paperback edition, which does make me money. This explains something important about my business sense. It’s missing.

Thrilling Tales: The Riddle of the Wrong Brain

I don’t regret anything about that. I wanted this beautiful edition to exist, and now it does. For a lot of reasons I think more about legacy than I used to and this archival edition of The Lair of the Clockwork Book is a kind of legacy.

So my Kickstarter experience has been complicated and interesting. That first Thrilling Tales fundraiser was a terrible example ("Give me money and I’ll do what I was going to do anyway"). No one objected! The second project, I thought, was a very typical one because it was a simple pre-order for an edition that wouldn’t otherwise exist; but there were those who objected to it, in private correspondence and even in completely unrelated places on the web. It’s a funny old world. Once the hardcover Clockwork Book was out there I wasn’t too excited about trying crowdfunding again.

But I have been thinking about it lately, and here’s why. Unlike Kickstarter, IndieGoGo offers a flexible kind of funding that doesn’t follow the all-or-nothing Kickstarter model. A project isn’t required to meet its funding goal: if it uses the "Flexible" project type then its pledges are redeemed whether or not the project’s goal is met. That makes it possible to create a hybrid of my first Kickstarter project and my second, a project that would provide some funding for my ongoing work on Thrilling Tales, but which – only if the funding crosses a certain threshold – could also become the pre-order for an upcoming book.

Thrilling Tales: The Riddle of the Wrong Brain
This model would give me a lot more freedom in creating the rewards, which up to that threshold would offer only existing merchandise: there would be no risk to the backers. Up to the threshold, all rewards would be available immediately. Then if the threshold is crossed there would be additional rewards of the paperback edition of Part Two of The Toaster With TWO BRAINS, which would ship much later, of course. If we never met the threshold, the backers would get their rewards and I’d have a nest egg that would still help me to complete The Riddle of the Wrong Brain. If we did meet the threshold, well, I’d be able to complete that book in relative comfort and the backers who selected the new book as a reward would get it as soon as it was finished.

So we’d still be without an ongoing serial, but we’d be a lot more likely to see The Riddle of the Wrong Brain in the nearish future – around April or May of next year.

It’s an interesting idea. Now one problem is that all the rewards up to that stretch goal might be things that my existing readers already have (the paperback books, bookmarks, some of the prints or t-shirts, and so on) and that might make it all the more difficult to reach the stretch goal unless there was a pretty large influx of new readers. That happens, by the way: a crowdfunding drive is in itself a form of promotion. But it could make it more difficult. Still, since the project would not fail even if we missed the goal it could still be worth a try.

Crowdfunding projects can take an awful lot of time and work, and I wouldn’t start a new one casually. But: it’s a thought.

6 responses to “Thrilling Tales – More Thoughts About the Future, and Crowdfunding
Jay says:
October 3rd, 2012 at 10:26 am

I’ve bought a couple of things from you – most recently, two of the hardcover editions of “The Lair of the Clockwork Book”; one for myself and one as a birthday gift for a friend. It’s unfortunate you didn’t make any money there – one of the reasons I bought two instead of one (I would have bought the gift one in any case), was to help support someone who’s work I enjoy. In addition, everyone deserves to be paid for their labor.

I think your idea for using Indiegogo is an excellent one. I understand your dilemma of giving someone something they may already have and I have a suggestion: create some new artwork or perhaps use work you haven’t previously published as prizes that you intend to keep on selling as normal afterwards. This way, you avoid giving someone something that they may already have but you also avoid creating one-offs that are just for the campaign. I recently participated in the Tesla Museum fundraiser on Indigogo that the Oatmeal comic strip is running and I believe that the same is being done there. Just an idea.

As for those that complained that they wanted more, well, as one of my old boss’ used to say “what a bunch of needy, whiny, high-maintenance little girls”. You promised a very cool book with excellent artwork, story, and production values. You delivered. If someone doesn’t like it, to hell with ’em.

Bradley W. Schenck says:
October 3rd, 2012 at 1:09 pm

First off – no, first off would be to say “thanks!” – so second off, anyway, is that everybody who backed the hardcover book project did help me: you all helped me to make a book that I very much wanted to exist, but which I couldn’t make real on my own. I knew right out of the gate that it wasn’t going to turn a profit. I was all right with that.

I’m interested in what you say about offering rewards that I wouldn’t make available to the public at large for awhile, probably all the more so because I’m currently working on a new T-shirt design and a set of two prints. A few items like those would fit right into that idea of yours, and I’ll give it some thought.

Somebody once stared at me and said “Dude, you think way too much” and in that spirit I’ve continued to puzzle over what this kind of a business model is, if it even is a business model. You start with the popular (and unproven) idea that a creator makes a lot of content available for free in order to attract people who will buy something, after looking at the free stuff; then if the site doesn’t attract gigantic numbers of visitors you fall back on crowdsourced funding; then you continue to do that again and again. What you end up doing is trading on a small group of people who have to bear a disproportionate burden, compared to the much larger number of people who are grazing over the content for free. I guess there’s turnover within that group, so it’s not necessarily the same small group of people. You try to establish and maintain a kind of a tribe of patrons whose members may come and go, leaving the tribe an ongoing concern. A tribe of patrons.

That’s not completely different from what I did when I was a painter, I guess. Even then I traded on a small Patron Tribe. I sure didn’t do all sorts of crazy marketing and singing and dancing to maintain them… though, heck, maybe I should have. But if I imagine myself manufacturing causes for a couple of crowdfunding campaigns a year I end up seeing myself, and that tribe, growing paler and weaker while the campaigns drag on. The only way out of the cycle is if somehow along the line you manage to draw in a big enough public so that the site supports itself at last – which is hardly a given.

They say that a painter who starts framing his pictures ends up a picture framer. I’m sort of seeing myself as a carnival barker, somewhere along that route. There would always be this sneaky feeling that if the work were good enough it just wouldn’t need that constant shoring up.

But like I said: thinking too much, I’m sure.

Kevin Stacey says:
October 22nd, 2012 at 8:08 am

Hi Bradley, I have just smiled, chuckled and basically awesome’d my way through your online work. I love your style, it really captivates my inner child and translates me back many years, to where my imagination had less adult boundaries. Thank you.

I do hope you find a way to continue, there is now ‘fair’ pressure on me to translate the enjoyment I have had into some kind of payback. Always difficult on pay after concept. You will know if I overcome that human weakness after 31st Oct 2012 via PayPal and my email address attached to it. K.

David Burke says:
November 25th, 2012 at 12:52 pm

Bradley – I read your correspondences and am impressed with your funding efforts. I have one suggestion. In the goal of getting eyeballs (and the money from the pockets of the people attached to these eyeballs), there is only so much an average person can do, and it seems you have done them all. Going directly after huge numbers of fans with pedestrian means is, as you discovered, a very difficult and often fruitless quest.

When I started my (now defunct) cartoon website, one of the propelling notions was to avoid the countless early-morning pitches to the self-important, often-ornery cartoon industry execs who act as gate-keepers to the limited number of TV slots allocated for animation. My idea was to cut out the craven suits who stood in our way and offer our cartoons directly to the masses, the lumpen proletariat, the great unwashed…. But, it quickly became obvious that without the huge marketing budgets controlled by these craven suits, unless you produce a viral sensation, and are prepared to follow that up with many more viral sensations, attracting these unwashed masses to one’s site – when there are countless other such sites – was far more than simply daunting. Fact is, disturbingly, we creatives NEED the craven suits and the self-important, often-ornery execs who run the established media and have access to multi-million dollar marketing budgets, if we are to ever make significant sales.

Please forgive me if you’ve exhausted this direction, but I suggest that rather than try, on your own, to attract the quantity of people you need, maybe you should, instead, focus your search efforts on attracting the RIGHT people, those who have the means to reach the millions you need. Literary agents, artists agents, children’s book and comics publishers, etc. Sure, partners take their pound of flesh, but if anything gets taken, that’s good news, because it’s from a much larger carcass. These folks, themselves, might not be the retro-sci-fi devotees that I, and your other current fans are, but if even one simply recognizes the quality of your work, which is unavoidable, this person might just agree to arrange for their company to license and sell it, or, in the case of an agent, to represent you to those who would.

Sure ComiCon would be a great place to start, as most media development execs attend looking for great properties, but I know this is an expensive proposition. Tried to publish your work on Kindle? Also, as I suggested in an email, it might be worth it to create (or select) a strong central character or group of characters to highlight as the focus of your adventures; much easier to market (and own) an iconic character than a story title (or city name), and the merchandizing rewards for the owner of the rights to those characters can be significant.

Best of luck. As I’ve said many times, your work is terrific.
David Burke

Bradley W. Schenck says:
November 25th, 2012 at 2:06 pm

Hi, David –

There’s a lot to address there, but I’ll give it a shot.

As far as agents and similar creatures go I do have something in mind. It’s what was meant to be the next Thrilling Tales serial. It grew exponentially and then started to rip the roofs off the houses on my street. I wrote a bit about that here.

The short version is that while I have heard often from an editor at one of the significant publishers who’d like to do a project with me, after a couple of book proposals we still haven’t gotten anywhere; and so in the case of this new book I’m inclined to try the literary agents whenever it’s ready to be read. But getting it ready to be read would take me at least a couple of months, while seeing any income from it could take one to two years (or more!), and so at the moment I’ve shelved that book because I have to concentrate on projects that can provide me with income much sooner than that. You know, like “next week”.

I would argue that ComicCon is a terrible place to promote a project to agents or publishers. There’s just far too much going on. It’s a great place to cement a relationship or to follow up in person, if you can get a meeting there, but for an initial contact I think you’re much better off getting at them in some other way.

As far as what I think I have as a brand: my best model is Terry Pratchett’s Discworld. It’s not a single person, or a group of characters, or even a city. It’s a whole world that’s so open-ended that Pratchett has been able to tell many different kinds of stories within his framework, using characters and themes that come and go, and he’s managed to keep juggling all those many parts for twenty-five years or more. I’m certainly not claiming to be another Pratchett but that’s the kind of franchise I’d want to have.

It’s difficult to sell an agent or a publisher on “the first in a series”, though. The way to do it seems to be to offer them something as a standalone that they really like. If it’s successful you’ll start hearing about a series from them. And if it’s not successful… well, they probably won’t be taking your calls any more :). Either way it doesn’t really matter if you told them at the beginning that it was supposed to be a big, beautiful franchise. What they want is something that they think can sell. This might be surprising because we’re used to media conglomerates trying to launch tentpole franchises. But if you pay attention to what agents are saying, you’ll find that it’s true.

And thanks as always for the kind words!

David Burke says:
November 25th, 2012 at 7:22 pm

You’re probably right about your approach, especially since, as I guessed, you’ve tried most everything. My only remaining caveat is that the Discworld series was just that, a series: a defined, identifiable universe in which all the stories took place, and that could be marketed as that. But all that said, my experience was not in feature films or books, but mostly in TV, where one-off stories that were not part of a series of stories involving the same characters and in the same universe, have no chance. I can see that from a publisher’s point of view, selling ONE book might be the first step, and, as you say, something greater is might stem from that (or not). I also “get” the financial bind you’re in: not enough money to take a longer view. The problem-solver in me rebels at the idea that all options have been explored. It is a noble cause.

If a published “bought” a story/book, don’t they pay advances? And again, have you tried Kindle? Is it’s graphic capability adequate? Yes, ComicCon is overwhelming, and you’re probably right that deals are not made on the floor, but like in the game world, I made a number of contacts at E3 and various game developers conferences (in the lobby, not on the floor) that paid off. Shmoozing and networking is important, and you don’t have to pay for a booth for that (although the travel expenses can get you). Just your laptop to show your stuff over cheap hors d’oeuvres and even cheaper wine. I’ll stop the irritating suggestions, and concentrate on thinking if I have any connections that might help. I HAD a great William Morris literary connection, years ago, but that’s gone very stale. Maybe others.

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