After years and years of giving his work away for free, Rich Burlew just raked in more than a million. That's the power of the crowd. Burlew started his Kickstarter campaign to raise money so he could reprint some of the physical collections of his popular webcomic series Order of the Stick (lovingly called OOTS). He met his goal of $57,750 in less than 48 hours, and the pledges just kept rolling in from there. When the OOTS project closed on February 21st it had raised $1,254,120 from 14,952 backers. It's only the third Kickstarter project to ever break the million dollar mark, the most money ever raised by a single person, and the most money ever raised without a new product to sell. I asked Mr. Burlew about his success in light of the growing potential of online art, see his answers below. The outrageous success of OOTS on Kickstarter hints at the enormous potential crowd-funding has for creative works, and serves as another example of the power the internet has to revolutionize an industry.
As those familiar with Kickstarter will know, the site serves as a sort of online marketplace for charitable giving. Browsing through their thousands of projects lets viewers find creative or commercial projects they like and give money to those projects securely, almost always in exchange for a reward. Burlew's project started by offering rewards mostly associated with the reprinted copies of past collections of OOTS. Thousands of people donated money in essentially what was pre-order sales for these comic books (the author says about 25,000 books were “sold”). However, Burlew offered a wide range of potential rewards, at 64 different funding levels! (Most Kickstarter projects have a dozen or two levels at most.) Burlew also had about 28 of those levels as limited exclusive offers – essentially first come first serve rewards that attracted a lot of attention (and funding) quickly. As the success of the project became clear, then absurdly gratuitous, Burlew also added more group rewards (things Burlew would give to all his backers), like a solid week of OOTS comic publishing, and even a “Mystery Prize”. The influx of backers begat larger and larger group rewards until the entire system got too unruly to really comprehend without a graph. Luckily, Burlew is a comic artist, so the graph appeared via an update. Not only does it show how many different new endeavors the Kickstarter project will enable, it also demonstrates how quickly (and endlessly) the project grew:
In his latest update, Burlew gave some insight into the hard numbers: $1,254,120 was pledged from 14,952 backers, about 0.32% (less than $4000) was not received due to errors on the part of backers, and $106,800 was given to Amazon Payments and Kickstarter in fees. That leaves Burlew with about $1,142,000 for the reprints and all the new goals he has for his webcomic.
$1.142 million! That's a lot of cash for a piece of art that's freely available to everyone online. Actually, that zero dollar pricetag may have been Burlew's secret weapon. The author credits raising a fan base over years with a high quality product at no cost to his readers as a key ingredient in his Kickstarter success. Another factor in OOTS success was undoubtedly Burlew's active role in the project as it evolved - answering emails for hours a day, responding to comments (17,000+), and offering new reward levels to drum up fan enthusiasm. In both the short and long term, Burlew spent a lot of time dedicated to creating something his followers really loved.
And now that love has flowed back to him with compound interest. Sure, a good chunk of the $1.142 million is essentially already spent as down payments on delivering the rewards to backers. Yet there's no doubt that Burlew is going to get a big boost out of this project, able to produce more of what he loves to create. He'll have more capital to keep growing OOTS, attracting more fans, and raising more money for the webcomic through book sales and other merchandise. It's a positive feedback system for the artist.
Really, that's the story behind Burlew and OOTS. Other Kickstarter projects have already surpassed, and will continue to surpass, his pledge records. Other webcomics make millions every year with merchandize sales and special events (Penny Arcade practically prints its own money). Order of the Stick, however, proves that the crowd is the modern form of the medieval patron. A creator like Burlew can offer all his art (or almost all, there are a few things you can't read online), for free and still get the money he needs to grow his art for the greater enjoyment of his fans. There will be many more comic projects on Kickstarter; some may even be bigger than OOTS. Each success, however, should have the same thing in common – the crowd doesn't simply fund the artist, it pushes him or her towards even greater creative ends. In turn, those successes should attract other artists into the crowd-patron system, giving all of us the opportunity to sample tons of free art and then help fund those we really love. Kickstarter, and all the other crowd-funding endeavors which are sure to arise in the years ahead, are re-shaping the creative process. Financial success doesn't have to be purely commercial. In a decade or two these forces may push comics, and many other forms of art, into an entirely new system – one that is more open, more personalized, and more egalitarian.
Or at least, that's my take on the situation. Burlew's take on the situation is a little more conservative nuanced. He was kind enough to answer the following questions for our Q&A. Enjoy:
Singularity Hub: Thank you Mr. Burlew for taking time to answer a few of our questions today. Your creation, Order of the Stick, is a stick-figure comic in a high tech medium. How has the internet fundamentally shaped your art, what has it made possible, and what are your current limitations?
Rich Burlew: Well, before we even get to the internet, the comic is produced using a very advanced vector illustration application whose full potential I am shamefully wasting by drawing stick figures. Creating the art that way instead of by hand has given me the power to produce consistent art over a range of production situations with relative ease (though it doesn't speed up my writing any, unfortunately). As far as the internet goes, there are certainly webcomics out there that make more use of its toolbox than I do; I pretty much put out a page at a time, and those pages are even shaped for eventual print release. I may have toyed with the Infinite Canvas once or twice, and I certainly appreciate the fact that the bottom half of a long strip is hidden when you first load the page, but I don't think I am really breaking new ground when it comes to comics online.
But the most overlooked way that the internet influences The Order of the Stick is that it allows for a much more complex storyline that makes frequent callbacks to prior events with little or no reiteration. If I'm working on comic #845 and I want to make a reference to something that happened in comic #294 (first posted six years prior), I can just do it. In a print comic, I would have to worry about how many readers would have read that six-year-old strip, but on my website I know that the entire archive is available. Further, if a reader doesn't remember the reference, they can ask about it on my message board and be reminded by other readers. That gives me a great amount of latitude in terms of my writing, and that in turn really shapes the story.
One of the biggest limitations has always been resolution, particularly with regard to text sizes. I tend to write a lot of dialogue, and I need to make sure that dialogue is readable on most computers. Advances in screen resolution have let me go a little smaller with the text in the current story arc, but I still can't go as small as I could if I were working directly in print. That leads to a lot of large word balloons and a less balanced page than I would like most of the time. I suppose I could write less words, but it's easier to blame it on the limitations of technology. Besides, when you're using stick figures, it's the words that give the characters their life (as well as most of the comedy). As technology advances and screens get sharper (and vector art becomes more of an option for display), I hope to be able to address some of these issues in the future.
SH: Has this fundraiser altered your business model or were pre-orders for the books (through the reward system) so dominant that you're in the same model, just on a larger scale?
RB: Definitely the latter. The fundraiser has been incredibly successful in generating sales (as well as wider interest in the comic) but ultimately, I can't run one of these every few months and expect to get another million dollars each time. The likelihood of me ever getting anything close to this response again is very low, so I'm treating it as a one-time opportunity. That's the main reason why I'm trying to use as much of the excess funding to make permanent improvements to my business—buying new equipment, upgrading the server, and so on. That way, when the attention dies down and I'm back to doing things the way I've always done them, there will be concrete long-term benefits to me and the readers.
SH: What was the secret to your success on Kickstarter, and how much do you think can be repeated by other projects in the future?
RB: The most obvious secret is to already have an audience to sell to. The best way to get that audience is to put out a product of reliable quality over a long enough period of time that potential backers have no doubts about your ability to pull off whatever it is you're promising to pull off. I've been drawing The Order of the Stick for almost nine years, and I've already printed and delivered seven books in that time. While some of them have had the sort of production delays you would expect from a small business, the fact is that I had a pretty good track record when it comes to self-publishing. So when I went out and said, "Hey, I need some funds up front if you want to get more books," no one thought that I wasn't capable of actually turning those funds into books. And because I've drawn well over a thousand pages of comics, most of them viewable for free, they also knew the exact quality level to expect for any additional stories that I threw in to sweeten the deal. That level of confidence is essential if you want a lot of people to give you money for something that doesn't exist yet.
Beyond that, if you start a Kickstarter project, tend to it constantly. I see a lot of projects that put up their initial pitch and then never touch it again until it closes—and then they wonder why it wasn't funded. Stay involved in your project: post frequent updates, respond to comments, and engage with your backers. Make your pledge drive an event that people want to be part of instead of just a purchase. When you sell a book, you're competing with every other book out there. When you sell an experience, it's always one-of-a-kind.
SH: If Kickstarter was around when Order of the Stick was just starting out, would you have pursued a fundraiser there immediately? In other words, do you think up-and-coming comics can accelerate their growth through Kickstarter?
RB: I may have, but I would have been wrong to do so and would have probably failed. I don't think Kickstarter is especially viable until your title (or you personally) have a certain critical mass of dedicated readers. I don't know what that magic number is for certain, but I've often heard it said that 1-2% of readers of a free product (like a webcomic) will purchase a given product, and certainly my experience has been in line with that. Before even considering using Kickstarter, therefore, a new comic would need to have a known audience at least fifty times as large as the number of backers they would need for their project to succeed if everyone pledged at the lowest level to get the main product. Yes, some fans will pledge more for special rewards, but you can't count on that. And you can't count on anyone finding you through the Kickstarter website, either. They have various tools to highlight certain projects, but at the end of the day, if you don't get lucky enough to be chosen as a Staff Pick, your pledge drive will be lost in a murky bog of related projects, findable only to those that you yourself send to it.
SH:Where do you think comics, and popular art in general, is headed in the next few years thanks to the disruptive influence of the internet? Is the future bright or troublesome?
RB: I think the main disruption the internet provides is to distribution rather than to the art itself. There aren't substantially more independent comics in existence today than there were in the 1980s; it's just that now, those comics are viewable by people around the world instead of the 10 people who buy a photocopied ashcan comic from an artist sitting at a local comic convention. The downside, of course, is that there is no easy method for finding those independent comics that really shine. It's like going to that convention and seeing half a million tables. Word-of-mouth (often through social media now) is still the only reliable way to find new work online.
What's more, the existence of free internet content is not going to overthrow and eliminate all concept of mainstream distribution, and to a certain point, that's a good thing. In order for us to have a meaningful cultural dialogue, we need to have some common points of reference when it comes to art. In fact, independent art often only gets its meaning by being opposed to the mainstream. Look at The Order of the Stick; a lot of its material is devoted to satirizing or deconstructing existing fantasy fiction. If there wasn't a known canon of fantasy literature, those jokes and observations would be meaningless to most of its potential readers.
What it really comes down to for an artist with distribution is the signal-to-noise ratio. There's a lot of noise on the internet, which makes it hard for your art to be seen and appreciated. Mainstream distribution has a very strong signal that reaches a lot of people—but you're going to have to sacrifice a lot to get your art glued to that signal, whether it be time, money, or editorial control. Both options should exist side by side, though, to ensure that we as an audience have common aesthetic ground while still being able to discover more obscure works that really speak to us as individuals. The best possible scenario is that the independent side is good enough and profitable enough to force the mainstream distributors to offer better contracts with more rights and more money to creators, so that the choice becomes one of the artist's personal taste rather than between success or failure.
[image credits: Order of the Stick/Rich Burlew]
[sources: Rich Burlew, Kickstarter]