Insurgent Creative: The Kickstarter Bulk Reward Ban

There’s been a discussion recently, centered around a new project guideline enacted by Kickstarter, which now prohibits “rewards in bulk quantities.” Since a lot of projects in the hobby games industry had special “retailer tiers”, whereby local game stores could get in on a Kickstarter, there’s been a lot of push-back on this new prohibition. Those of us who had successful, relatively high-profile Kickstarter projects have been asked for our opinions, or asked to sign a petition against the policy.

I won’t be signing, because I whole-heartedly agree with the policy.

Kickstarter is a method of crowd-funding creative efforts — and, in my opinion, shouldn’t be turned into a wholesale distribution network for retail. It should be about creators directly connecting with people who are backing ideas they love. That appears to have been the intention of the site all along, and this policy reinforces that.

The cry from retailers and their supporters is that this just another direct-to-consumer model which cuts the retailers out of the loop. To which I say: yes, it is, and I don’t have any problem with that.

Insurgent CreativeI used to be a games retailer. From 1988 to 1990, I worked for Titan Games and Comics in Atlanta. From 1993-1995, I worked as the games manager at T&T Comic Market in Lawrence KS. So it’s not as if I don’t have any sympathy for people working in retail — but the simple fact of the matter is: Things are changing. Direct-to-consumer is the model that works best for Creatives, and the tools exist to do that. Shoe-horning retail into that relationship is a nice gesture, but it’s a temporary fix at best — that effort would be better spent in figuring out ways that retail can change, to offer something unique themselves.

Also, bluntly, there are huge issues of entitlement at work here. Retailers have complained when publishers started offering direct sales from their own websites. Retailers have complained when publishers offered digital sales — that this move was somehow an effort to “cut them out.” And now, retailers are complaining about Kickstarter. The ironic part of all of this is that these efforts (direct sales, digital sales, crowdfunding) have grown as a direct response to a lack of support from retail, the majority of whom stock shallowly and only from the largest producers.

I offered a retail tier on the Kickstarter we did for Far West. 5 copies of the game at wholesale, with the option to increase that order. Only 8 retailers took advantage of that, despite widespread promotion (including coverage on i09). Not a lot, but hey — we made the effort, and are happy to serve those store owners who joined us. Of course, after the Kickstarter ended, and Far West started getting attention and discussion due to the amount we raised, etc. — I was contacted by many more retailers, complaining that we were “cutting them out” by doing a Kickstarter. Some vowed to never order any product from us. Some asked to be let in on the deal after the deadline, and raged when I said that the limited edition was Kickstarter-exclusive, but that they’d have the opportunity to order a retail edition in the future. That wasn’t good enough.

At the ICV2 Conference on Comics and Digital before the New York Comic Con in 2010, Mark Waid said: “We cannot allow ourselves to be held hostage by two thousand retail accounts.” (referring to the total estimated number of dedicated comic book retailers in the United States.) There are even fewer of those accounts that sell games. We’ve tried for years to make them happy, to acquiesce to their demands, even when those demands were to be let in on something that had grown out of their own short-sightedness. We made sure not to under-price them when we sold direct, via website or at Conventions. We made efforts to develop ways that they could earn money on digital sales (and, speaking personally, that was a multi-year effort at inclusion that still hasn’t been widely adopted, and you still see retailers complain about digital, despite those efforts to include them).

Enough. Not everything is about you, or should be.

I’m sorry that the business model is shifting beneath your feet, I really am — but in a question of whether to do something to benefit the creative, or to benefit retail, I’m going to side with the creative, every time.

Kickstarter is about connecting the creative with a consumer — a community-building effort that creates a fanbase, and (when it works as intended) that creates an ongoing relationship. Efforts to include retail in that equation were a move away from that focus, and I think that Kickstarter is right to pull focus back where it belongs.

Update, 8:12pm: Kickstarter has responded to the controversy by clarifying what they mean by ‘bulk.’

“As of today, we’re defining “bulk quantity” as a reward that offers more than ten of a single item. We feel that a limit of ten will prevent bulk commercial transactions while still allowing independent stores (the most frequent backers of these rewards) to back projects and share them with their communities. Projects are welcome to offer rewards intended for stores so long as they are in quantities of ten or less.”


Insurgent Creative: Required Reading – Patton Oswalt

Comedian, writer and actor Patton Oswalt (Ratatouille, United States of Tara, Young Adult, etc.) was the keynote address for the 2012 Montreal Just For Laughs — the largest comedy festival in the world.

His keynote took the form of two letters: One written to his fellow comedians, and one written to the gatekeepers: the studios, the record labels, etc. Anyone looking to make a living as an independent creative, whether in writing, art, music, film, or yes– comedy, should take a moment to read the letters.

In his letter to his fellow performers, he spoke about his career, about how he was lucky to have done X, and that he was given the opportunity to do Y. Those phrases struck again and again — Lucky, and Being Given. He then says:

“The days about luck and being given are about to end. They’re about to go away.

Not totally. There are always comedians who will work hard and get noticed by agents and managers and record labels. There will always be an element of that. And they deserve their success. And there’s always going to be people who benefit from that.

What I mean is: Not being lucky and not being given are no longer going to define your career as a comedian and as an artist.”

He spoke of the earlier generation of comedians, whose success was entirely hinged on crafting a perfect five-minute set, with the goal of attracting the attention of Johnny Carson, doing The Tonight Show, and using that as a launch pad for television, movies, etc. When Carson retired, he says:

“And in one night, all of them were wrong. And not just wrong, they were unmoored. They were drifting. A lot of these bulletproof comics I’d opened for, whose careers seemed pre-destined, a lot of them never recovered from that night. You’ll never hear their names. They had been sharks in a man-made pond and had been drained. They decided their time had passed.

Keep that in mind for later. They had decided their time had passed.”

Insurgent CreativeHe points out that things have changed again, in a similar way. The old rules are crumbling… and the only person who can decide that your time has passed is yourself. He spoke of a self-funded tour he did with a number of other comedians, which was filmed as a documentary and released on Netflix. This led to other opportunities, stemming from that effort. He says it left him exhausted and in debt, but expanded his fan base — and it was self-built, from the ground up. The lesson he learned from this, he says, was:

“I need to decide more career stuff for myself and make it happen for myself, and I need to stop waiting to luck out and be given. I need to unlearn those muscles.”

…which is true of all of us in the creative fields. The tools exist for us to self-build, to stop waiting for luck or for the opportunity to be handed to us from on high. This is something that will come naturally to those creatives that come after us, who developed in an age where this was normal. But for those of us who grew up conditioned to look for our Golden Ticket, for the Official Blessing from a gatekeeper than meant that we were a Real Writer/Artist/Musician/etc., this is difficult. As Oswalt says, we have to unlearn those muscles.

If he had stopped there, Oswalt’s keynote would be a great lesson for any Insurgent Creative. Just For Laughs, though, is like the Sundance of comedy — there are many folks in attendance from the labels, networks and studios, looking for the next big thing. So he presented a second letter, which he directed to those gatekeepers.

He doesn’t excoriate them, mock them for being “The Man”, but instead asks them to change their approach for their own survival:

“Our careers don’t hinge on somebody in a plush office deciding to aim a little luck in our direction. There are no gates. They’re gone. The model for success as a comedian in the ’70s and ’80s? That was middle school. Remember, they’d hand you a worksheet, fill in the blanks on the worksheet, hand it in, you’ll get your little points.

And that doesn’t prepare you for college. College is the 21st century. Show up if you want to, there’s an essay, there’s a paper, and there’s a final. And you decide how well you do on them, and that’s it. And then after you’re done with that, you get even more autonomy whether you want it or not because you’re an adult now.

Comedians are getting more and more comfortable with the idea that if we’re not successful, it’s not because we haven’t gotten our foot in the door, or nobody’s given us a hand up. We can do that ourselves now. Every single day we can do more and more without you and depend on you less and less.”

He urges them to become fans, to partner with creatives because they are genuinely enthusiastic about the material. To be excited about getting that material out there, because the truth is that the creatives can now just walk away from gatekeepers who are stuck in the old way of doing things. He holds up his iPhone, and points out that this is what allows creatives to do it:

“In my hand right now I’m holding more filmmaking technology than Orsen Welles had when he filmed Citizen Kane.

I’m holding almost the same amount of cinematography, post-editing, sound editing, and broadcast capabilities as you have at your tv network.

In a couple of years it’s going to be fucking equal. I see what’s fucking coming. This isn’t a threat, this is an offer. We like to create. We’re the ones who love to make shit all the time. You’re the ones who like to discover it and patronize it support it and nurture it and broadcast it. Just get out of our way when we do it.”

As amazing as the opportunities are for the Insurgent Creative today, just imagine what’s still to come.

Insurgent Creative: Required Reading – Mark Waid

I first met Mark Waid at the ICV2 Conference on Comics and Digital, held immediately preceding the 2010 New York Comic Con. At the time, he was with BOOM! Studios, and was getting a lot of flack for his vocal support of moving comics towards digital. “As an industry, we cannot allow ourselves to be held hostage by two thousand retail accounts”, was the quote that I most remember.

Since then, he’s left BOOM! and started a digital comics platform, Thrillbent, with Leverage creator (and comics writer)John Rogers.

The Onion AV Club (source of the great Louis C.K. interview I posted a link to here last week) has a pre-SDCC interview with Waid, where he talks, among other things, about his views on the digital future of comics, and the current state of the industry.

Insurgent CreativeWaid on the bizarre contradiction, where superheroes are more popular than ever, yet comics themselves are not:

“We have over the past 50 years very, very successfully taken what used to be a mass medium and successfully turned it into a niche market. Which is crazy, the idea that comics are a destination point now, that I can’t find them anywhere. If I’m in the middle of the country, I have to get in a phonebook and see if there’s a store within 100 miles of me that even carries comics.”

Transitioning from that reality to digital makes sense:

“The beauty of digital, the beauty of the iPad, the beauty of mobile devices is that that’s the new newsstand. That gives us the potential to reach out to people and give them comics on a platform that is as ubiquitous to them as convenience stores were to you and me when we were growing up. That doesn’t mean they’ll automatically find comics. It doesn’t mean that is an automatic fix. I’m not saying that because we sold a million iPads today means that there’s a million other people going to read comics next week. But at least there’s a fighting chance. There’s a much better chance to reach them through the iPad than through comics stores.”

And his view of the future of comics, of particular interest to Insurgent Creatives:

“Self-publishing on the web, covering production costs through inexpensive downloads and/or donations, then aggregating in print along with special bonus features for those fans who want a physical object to put on their shelves. Skirting around the big players like DC and Marvel, and realizing that with social media being the power it is now, if you’re willing to put the time and effort into it and your work is good, you can build a self-sustaining fan base that may not kick in enough to buy you a new BMW every year, but can at least make your enterprise profitable, where you’re making a decent living doing what you love.”

…and that’s it, right there. The key to it all, regardless of if you’re a writer, an artist, a musician… the tools exist that enable you to do it yourself, and sure, you might not get rich — but you’ll get a decent living. If you were offered the opportunity to create for a living, and told that you probably will not get wealthy or famous, but that you will be able to survive on what you create — wouldn’t you take that opportunity?

So, why haven’t you?