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Does Kickstarter work as a platform for books?

December 31, 2012
by seth godin

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Those that have been following along have seen the Kickstarter posts I did here, here and here. Feel free to go catch up, I’ll wait…

THE THEORY: The hardest part of book publishing is getting the first 10,000 copies of a book read. After that, the book either resonates or it doesn’t. It’s talked about, handed from person to person, used as an example in a book group–or it’s not. Sure, you can add more hype, but at that point, you’re pushing water uphill. I’ve always focused on how my books do their second month on sale, not the first month. The first month is a testament to the author’s ability to self promote, which is far less interesting.

THE TACTIC: Kickstarter seems custom made to solve the 10,000 copy problem. The author with a tribe can reach out to her readers, activate them and make an offer: if enough of you agree to buy this book today, I’ll write it and send it to you just before a publisher puts it on sale…

Book publishers are smart enough to see the powerful marketing leverage that this creates. When the author has done the hard work of finding those readers in advance, the risk the publisher faces is significantly less. Sure, there’s the risk that the book itself might not be great, that the word might not spread beyond the first circle, but at least the first circle is secured. Most of what a publisher does (in terms of effort, cost and risk) is aimed at that first circle, after all.

IN PRACTICE: The Kickstarter platform is a bit of a nightmare for the independent author. I’m not sure I could find the intestinal fortitude to use it again. There are significant structural flaws in the way information is collected and used that virtually guarantee that 5% of the readers who use it will end up disappointed or need a lot of handholding. What should be consistent and coordinated ends up failing at both. And the cost of fulfillment and international shipping is high enough that it’s likely no money will be made (which is fine if the other elements fall into place).

The good news is that the enthusiasm and support that early adopters bring to the table is extraordinary. This is an untapped human need, and people (some people, anyway) really enjoy the role of patron and early supporter. Others, of course, magnify the impact of their investment and are hard to please, but I found that the vast majority of my readers fell into the first camp.

AND THE PUNCHLINE: The book goes on sale today. You can see the reviews that have been posted already–by readers who paid their money for the book months ago. And Barnes & Noble will be making the book easy to find, directly as a result of the fan base coordinated via Kickstarter.

But, it’s also clear that other books launched today without this pre-seeding are going to do far better in their early sales, because they are satisfying pent up demand, whereas my strategy exhausted pent up demand among those most likely to buy it instantly. And I think that’s a smart trade to make, or at least I hope it is.

I won’t be the last person to try this pre-coordination approach. I think it’s particularly attractive as we enter a digital-only world.

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