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Kickstart the Presses

In the past month, two friends of mine have undertaken major print projects. How are they covering the costs of what some might call a foolish endeavor? By going online for funding, of course.

Unless you’re a former Cabinet member or Charlie Sheen, publishing a book – an actual book printed on real paper -- these days doesn’t seem like the most lucrative business decision. Still, some brave people are able to look past the Borders “store closing” signs and ever-increasing Amazon Kindle sales numbers and decide that print is the most appropriate medium for their projects.

In the past month, two friends of mine have taken the print plunge. How are they covering the costs of what some might call a foolish endeavor? By going online for funding, of course.

Both Gavin Paul (one of several writer/photographers involved with Pop 'stache's concert coverage project This Must Be The Fan) and Scott Morrow (the music editor of Chicago’s ALARM Press, which is publishing Chromatic: The Crossroads of Color and Music) are using Kickstarter, a “crowdfunding” service, to make their print dreams reality – and they’re not the only ones.

Since Kickstarter launched in 2009, more than 5,000 projects have been created on the platform with over $35 million raised during that time (the site now raises $1 million a week in pledges from a pool of more than 600,000 supporters). The site allows any approved group to accept donations for projects for a particular period of time. If the stated fundraising goal isn’t reached by the stated date, no one pays anything. It’s like Groupon for passion projects – or actually, it’s like Groupon’s predecessor, The Point, which began as a way to raise money and awareness for causes, but has since expanded to include campaigns covering everything from art to technology.

Even without a billion-dollar company to back it, Kickstarter has taken the lead in the fundraising space, and most of its users are artists and other creative types. The site’s largest project to date, raising over $900,000, came from a design company with a plan to implant iPod Nanos into watch wristbands. Among the many other initiatives launched over the past few years are a Rod Blagojevich-themed art show and a couple pledging to photograph every Sizzler in the United States.

In other words, Kickstarter projects are the kind of project that previously would have relied solely upon the kindness of those in the creator’s personal network – and most likely failed in the end. Obviously, it’s not just Kickstarter that has enabled more of these types of projects to gain exposure – but it has been one of the more successful in recent years, and may be even more useful to aspiring artists than the MySpaces, Twitters and Facebooks that offer more exposure but not necessarily the means to obtaining the cold, hard cash that’s actually needed to make these projects a reality.

The people behind ALARM have been grappling with this necessity in one way or another for the last 15 years, during which the publication has grown from an amateur ‘zine to a print/online magazine to what it is now, a quarterly publisher of book-length collections of meditations on music. The move was made for reasons both economic – as founder/editor Chris Force told Chicago’s A.V. Club, books are funded by readers rather than corporate advertisers – and aesthetic. “I’ve always loved print,” says Force. “I’ve read books and zines that have changed my mood, my outlook on life. I’ve never had that reaction from a blog.”

Morrow sees Chromatic as a particularly good fit for the print medium, given its longer features and colorful design. “It might still look all right on an iPad, but there’s something to be said for seeing that flood of colors when you flip through it,” he says. “Also, it’s great to feel the pages; it’s a much more tactile experience, and that sort of goes hand in hand with the theme of interacting senses.”

Morrow and Force hope the promise of a sensory physical object will entice readers to donate to its Kickstarter campaign, which Alarm is running through 8 April. “I have a feeling that a web project would be less compelling [for the platform],” says Morrow. “We’re using Kickstarter as a means to offer a discounted pre-order. That’s been key to the success of a lot of campaigns.”

Discounts are just one of many methods that users have employed to maximize donations; other effective strategies (as noted in a recent Wired article) are to personalize the campaign and to keep backers involved and updated along the way. ALARM is doing this through the development of videos as well as sneak peeks of the final product (not to mention offering donors goodies like signed copies, posters and even a guitar signed by Kaki King). The magazine is also leveraging its existing online audience to help meet its $15,000 goal, with banner ads and other content driving visitors to the campaign page.

With but a few days to go (as of this writing), Chromatic has attracted 225 backers, raising nearly $12,000. Perhaps Gavin Paul and the team behind “This Must Be the Fan” can offer some advice for finishing strong, as they surpassed their goal of $3,000 with over two weeks left (thanks in part to my $7 donation).

Things might have been different had they gone with a $5,000 goal at the outset, as some team members wanted. But Gavin thought asking for less money – which served to fund a trip for ten to Austin to cover the annual South By Southwest music festival, the results of which will be published in a book later this year – would be the only fair thing to do, and they could always let potential donors know that anything raised beyond the goal would be put to good use.

Besides, they aren’t doing it solely for the money. Gavin likens his group’s DIY aesthetic to the bands who play SXSW even without the promise of a deal with a label. “It’s what we love to do, and those who support us appreciate our old-school philosophy,” he says, and he believes that buying in to Kickstarter’s community-driven approach is the way to have success on the platform. If you’re seen as only caring about the cash, he says, you’re unlikely to go very far. With that in mind, the team offered regular updates about its exploits in Austin through a backers-only Tumblr blog, and plans to keep users in the loop about the project’s progress, in addition to giveaways of prints, t-shirts and donor recognition in the eventual publication.

It’s that eventual product – a limited-run hardcover book that will be put together over the next couple of months – that gets Gavin most excited, even as he admits that it’s not the best business model. “Like many writers and photographers, I get a thrill from seeing my work in print,” he says, citing the medium’s permanence as a selling factor.

Gavin speaks from experience; he and I met while both writing for a Chicago entertainment website (of which I later became editor, and was subsequently laid off last year), and have witnessed its slow demise in recent months with no one at the helm. As a contributor to many publications (including ALARM – he wrote two unpaid pieces for Chromatic) over the last decade, he’s been a victim of the changes that have rocked the journalism world. In part, he’s pursued this project to assert his ability to produce something on his own, without being at the mercy of a publisher – a kind of “middle finger to the industry.”

That independent spirit is what drives many Kickstarter projects, as is the fearlessness to try new things – even if you know they fly in the face of common sense. The ability to pursue whatever project you like (as long as enough other people support it) is what makes the platform appealing. In a sense, Gavin and Scott are not all that different from the traditional newspaper, magazine and book publishers who are leveraging the power of the internet and its ever-evolving applications to keep the lights on and keep their presses running. The web is an important enabler, but it’s not necessarily the end game. Whether it’s a new-media technology or an old-media relic, all that matters is whether the crowd wants what you’re producing -- and whether Charlie Sheen endorses it, of course.

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