Sunday, 12 August 2012

Kicking In?

Or my mixed feelings for Kickstarter.

Kickstarter, at least in concept, is a really great idea.

When I first heard about it, it seemed like this great device for putting the power of publishing into the hands of people who seldom get to wield it. The idea of Kickstarter to my liberal-ish mind immediately leads to this notion of crowd funding creators, especially new and marginalized ones, to finance projects that wouldn't otherwise get off the ground and to get new voices heard. Kickstarter would help break the creation monoploy of big publishers which would bring more variety of content, diversity of creators and a bigger audience to the world of comics (all of which it sorely needs). It would be a creative revolution. Power to the people man!

Kickstarter is also nifty from the perspective of how art gets made. I'm sure I'm oversimplifying the crap out of this, but from what I understand there are two prevailing and competing paradigms for publishing. One, the kind you'd associate with Marvel or DC, is this profit driven Ayn Randian approach that is about maximising the money the author/publisher receives from a project. The object of the art is to make money, essentially. The other model is more about getting the art out while ensuring the artists make a sufficient amount of money to fund the production of the artwork and to, you know, keep them alive and off the street and such. It's a model that's more about breaking even and keeping creators fed than turning huge profits. Think public radio. Historically this model of publishing has gotten by laregly from government subsidies and arts grants but Kickstarter, at least in theory, provides a new avenue for creators interested in pursuing this kind of publishing model.

(One could also add a third publishing strategy with straight up patronage... but until I am an eccentric billionaire it isn't super relevant to me.) 

So yeah, Kickstarter at first glance seems pretty rad.

And sometimes it is.

There are certainly a wide variety of worthy projects that are Kickstarted by generous (and sometimes insane) people. The world is richer for these projects, the generosity/avarice of the crowdsourcers, and honestly for Kickstarter. Despite any of my misgivings, I'm genuinely glad Kickstarter exists and that there are people inclined to Kickstart wicked cool projects.

Hell, after I started writing this as a Kickstart is crazy essay, I saw news that Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore  announced Leaving Megalopolis, a comic about people trying to survive superheroes gone crazy that would be thematically similar to the beloved and departed Secret Six. And well, THIS IS A THING I NEED and it is available exclusively via Kickstarter. So yeah, I'm helping to Kickstart this one at the $20 level which will get me a print copy of the book sent to Canada. I love these creators, know that they will produce a quality product, and believe that they will deliver this comic in a reasonable time frame. Gail Simone also seems like one of the nicest people alive so I'm confident that my money will not be stolen or squandered. The project has since been Kickstarted into existence.

It's also important to note that my Kickstarter experience is a pre-purchase for something I would buy anyways and can only get through the Kickstarter as opposed to generosity, patronage, investment or, you know, choice.

However, despite my participation, I still have some substantial misgivings about Kickstarter and how it's being applied.

My misgivings after the cut:

First of all, there are some pretty obvious and batshit things on the Kickstarter. Uber-successful media Kingdom Penny Arcade has  launched a Kickstarter that demands all-of-the-dollars to do away with advertisements and for-hire side projects for freedom from ads and vague promises of "other projects". This is 1) insane and 2) in my view a pretty blatant misuse of the Kickstarter vehicle. There are also things like Stack Soap (soap with a groove to stick the little soap remnant of previous bars in) that are just very strange ideas that have been well funded. Neither of these are particularly pertinent to this discussion of cool comics projects, but I feel that it bears mentioning that Kickstarter does have its abusers and plain ol' ridiculous internet shit.

A more salient problem is that I don't typically like buying untested media sight unseen. Basically, when buying something before it is even made, especially from someone without a solid track record for quality, you're taking a pretty big gamble on getting worthwhile media. This is especially true when buying something from an unknown creator and/or publisher who may be able to float a good looking proposal without being able to deliver the finished goods. In the case of my Kickstarting experience, I know Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore are super talented, so I'm less hesitant to ante up. Generally speaking, I purchase media on the strength of the creators previous work, a strong recommendation from a trusted source, or the ability to sample the media in question to my satisfaction prior to spending money on it. In most cases I'm not interested in prebuying work before it exists by unfamiliar creators. And being asked to do so is a barrier to participating in Kickstarter.

Another issue is cost. Simone and Calafiore's book is 80 pages long and for $20 ($15+$5 to ship to Canada) I get the book, it's PDF (which is kind of redundant with the book in hand), and a computer wallpaper (which... meh). That is pretty expensive for comics where $20 is usually good for ~120 pages of comics. But this is Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore, and is exclusive to Kickstarter so I'll deal with it for lack of an alternative (they also promise a longer book if they exceed their Kickstarter budget). But cost issues in Kickstarter are legion. Halloween Eve, a pretty great looking project from the very talented Amy Reeder and Brandon Montclare, is $10 for 40 pages of story and a halloween greeting card. Since I'm really only interested in the comic, that's a pretty steep dollars/page ratio. The Deadulus Two Kickstarter, by creators I've never heard of want $10 for a digital copy and $25 for a print edition (+$10 because I live in Canada). There is no mention of a page count. Golem: A Graphic Novel looks pretty swank and weighs in at 100 pages but it will cost $10 for the pdfs, and $30 for shipping a printed comic ($45 for Canada). For a guy whose blog is predicated on buying better print comics for less money this high cost of Kickstarting for a worthwhile reward is another barrier to participating.

This actually leads into issues with distribution. I suspect a not insignificant part of the cost associated with Kickstarted projects comes from printing and shipping the books to individual Kickstarters. I mean the fact I have to pay a pretty steep premium just to get a book in Canada is pretty good evidence for this. This high cost of making/sending me printed material really doesn't help with the restrictively high cost of Kickstarted projects. One of the advantages of working with a publisher, even the smaller indepent ones, is that they have streamlined production and established logistics. They have regular, highish print runs and ship to retailers instead of individuals both of which can hugely cut logistical costs. They can also ship to Canada without charging us a premium. I'm curious why such high profile creators as Simone and Calafiore went Kickstarter instead of publisher, although it might be due to a limitation imposed by Simone's contract with DC. I guess what I'm trying to say here is that from a consumer perspective it might be better if creators who have the option to use traditional publishing, you know, do it that way.

There is also the issue of accountability. Giving strangers money on their word they will do something without any mechanism for remuneration is risky and, for a guy without a lot of disposable income, pretty unsavory. In all other aspects of life it is unlikely I will hand money to an unknown party without a finished product to get instantly in exchange. I feel that to expect something completely different in Kickstarter is kind of crazy. But, you know, I trust Simone and Calafiore sufficiently to not worry about this so much. This lack of accountability, however, remains a huge problem with Kickstarter.

While I'm glad Kickstarter is bringing me a Gail Simone and Jim Calafiore project (which is already 100+% funded), I have some serious problems with how the system works. It is unlikely that I will fund very many Kickstarter projects, although the right creative teams can apparently entice me to participate.


  1. I don't understand why you think a simple improvement to bar soap is a "very stupid idea". Geez. Sometimes incremental improvements matter... especially if it legitimizes a behavior that people already engage in. You don't like industrial design?

    Sure Stack soap isn't cheap, but what about it is a "bad idea"? You of course realize that cost is a factor of production size... most things are expensive to produce initially and get cheaper as production ramps up.

    If you want to try a free package and live around Downtown Vancouver, let me know and you can try it out.

    1. "Very stupid" is admittedly a bit overtly provocative. It would be more accurate to say "something I personally do not see the point of in a practical sense"... but that's quite a mouthful and lacks some of the punch. Maybe "unnecessary" or "absurd" might be the word?

      I mean, sure adding a groove for the soap flake is a clever bit of design and it is very pretty looking soap, but I currently stick my soap flakes to the next bar without much trouble sans groove. It's a clever concept that personally I don't really feel like I need. But then again, I can understand why someone might see it on the shelf and buy it or why someone might think to make it (clearly there is demand for it). What I find perplexing about it is that a whole bunch of people felt the need to crowd fund it which goes beyond saying "I want this soap" and instead says "I want this soap TO EXIST". I find that leap in personal investment in groovy soap kind of crazy.

      Of course, I have difficulty picturing myself getting that excited about any soap, really. That said, Stack Soap has 1113 backers (as of today) so clearly a lot of people disagree with my opinion. I just can't fathom the process is all.

      As to cost: that was a criticism of comic book Kickstarters (which was the focus of my essay) that are essentially preselling comics to afford production, printing, and shipping many of which are "exclusive" to Kickstarter. This means that such comics are either just more expensive in the Farmers Market sense of ethical, artisanal stuff just costing more, or that the creators are kind of screwing their Kickstarters over to sell the book for cheaper later after the production costs are covered. Either way, $20 for an 80 page comic is a steep price and for me a barrier to Kickstarting.

      Thank you for the offer (I do live in Metro, and work in Van) but my sig-other has the most insane eczema on Earth and what we use now seems to not anger the beast (and it's cheap). And good luck with your product. Hopefully I'm just a jerk on the internet and you're very successful.

    2. I've edited it to "strange", since you're right, I can't completely defend the previous characterization of Stack Soap. Apologies.

  2. Thanks Michael. If you change your mind and would like to try it sometime, just drop me a line!