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Ain't that a Kick! Fantagraphics' Kickstarter Points Toward a New Model for Niche Businesses

Column by Rob Salkowitz

Published: 11/19/2013 02:50am
Fantagraphics Books pushes the envelope with a Kickstarter that might just set a new precedent for creative businesses of a certain size and personality.

Word went out on November 5 that legendary art-comics publisher Fantagraphics was launching a Kickstarter campaign--not for a single book or creator project, but for its entire 2014 spring season.

"2013 has been a particularly hard year for all of us at Fantagraphics Books," wrote publisher Gary Groth, noting the tragic death of co-publisher Kim Thompson and its disruptive effect on the company’s close-knit culture, publishing schedule and income.  He asked friends and admirers of Fantagraphics to help raise $150,000 to fund 39 original and archival graphic novels featuring the most accomplished figures in comics history, from past masters like Carl Barks, Charles Schultz and Wally Wood to contemporary creators like Gilbert and Jaime Hernandez, Peter Bagge and Eleanor Davis (see "Fantagraphics Financing Spring-Summer Line").

Supporters rose to the challenge, hitting the target in just over a week, with money still rolling in.  According to the site, contributions are coming at all levels, from nearly 50 pledging the minimum ($1) to four signing up at the highest award level of $2000.  Most of the awards amount to essentially pre-paying for books, although two brave contributors ponied up $800 for the "Groth Shooting Party," featuring an outing with the cantankerous publisher, several loaded weapons and “an assortment of household appliances."

More than just good will: Matt Wilson at Comic Alliance wrote last week that the Fantagraphics Kickstarter could be seen as analogous to the periodic pledge drives held by PBS and NPR, appealing to the good will of a niche audience.  As such, they may become a routine and expected part of the funding structure for arts-oriented publishers in the future.  Connoisseurs of the higher quality, less commercial output of presses like Fantagraphics will come to see these campaigns as part of the cost of keeping great work and great editions on the shelves as market forces make it more difficult to sustain them through traditional means.

That may be true. In the case of Fantagraphics, the shoe certainly fits.  But there’s more going on than that.

The (r)evolution of crowdfunding:  In its initial conception, Kickstarter was a way for creators to appeal directly to audiences to produce projects that might not see the light of day through traditional channels.  Soon, the purity of that mission became diluted by higher-profile projects cashing in on a large, eager fanbase to pre-fund work that would almost certainly have been seen as commercially viable anyway.

For these types of projects, the advantage of Kickstarter is that it removes the financial risk of upfront costs, assuming that the creative team has scoped those costs correctly.  More to the point, it shifts the project risk from the publisher ("will this project earn back the money we’ve sunk into it?") to the audience ("will the creators deliver what they promised now that I’ve pre-paid for it?").

That risk-shifting model is perilous for consumers because there are so few safeguards in the platform to protect investors, punish non-delivering creators, or weed out scammers (although a recent case involving cartoonist Alex Heberling and a bogus bidder seems to have been resolved adequately).  It’s also undependable as a funding source.  Comics projects have a 49% success rate, according to Kickstarter’s stats; games and other publishing are in the mid-30s.

Safety in numbers: The weak safeguards and the general unpredictability of crowdfunding are problematic if Kickstarter is used primarily as the launching pad for one-off projects, but they become less so as the platform evolves into a pre-sale channel for established businesses.  Any given Kickstarter campaign may seem like Russian Roulette to an individual creator, but from a publisher’s perspective, a 49% success rate over time looks pretty good if each of those projects is guaranteed to earn out before the first copy is ever printed.

This shift from individual to institutional crowdfunding also adds systemic stability and trust.  The more companies start to depend on the upfront revenues from crowdfunding, the more emphasis they will need to place on the reliability and quality of each delivered project to give people peace of mind when they are prepaying for the next item.  This attention to detail may pay off in higher sales beyond the Kickstarter project as well, creating a win-win for publishers, creators, consumers and retailers.

Kickstarter 2.0?  Fantagraphics may be the latest and most visible example of companies using Kickstarter as the cornerstone of their business, but there was an earlier precedent.  In 2012, game designer Jordan Weisman turned to Kickstarter to raise $400,000 to revive his fan-favorite gaming property Shadowrun as a turn-based RPG for tablets and mobile devices.  In a month, they blew through that goal to nearly $1.8 million--enough to fund not just a bunch of extra features and rewards, but an entire company (Harebrained Schemes).  The experience was successful enough that they went back to the well in October, 2013 for their next project, Golem Arcana, which exceeded its $500,000 target, albeit not by much.

Though they may seem different, both Fantagraphics and Harebrained Schemes share the characteristics of the kind of business that could use crowdfunding systematically, not just opportunistically:
  • They both benefit from a long legacy of fan support and reputation for uncompromising quality (Harebrained itself is a new company, but Weisman has been a fixture in the gaming industry since the 1980s).
  • They offer a mix of familiar properties to mobilize the existing fan base and new concepts to entice the adventurous.
  • They are small enough that the kind of money you can raise on Kickstarter at the very high end (typically mid-six figures) is sufficient to deliver a premium quality product to their audience.
There are plenty of companies in the pop culture space that potentially fit that description.  But if business are going to adopt this strategy as a first resort, not a desperate measure, sooner or later they will need a sturdier platform--something with features and standards built for business, not casual creators.

Is that Kickstarter 2.0 or something else?  Maybe someone should pitch a project to develop one.

-- Rob Salkowitz (@robsalk) is author of Comic-Con and the Business of Pop Culture and is working on a new project on the future of marketing and retail in the digital age.

The opinions expressed in this column are solely those of the writer, and do not necessarily reflect the views of the editorial staff of ICv2.com.
 
 
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