If you're thinking about using Kickstarter to fund your photobook, it's worthwhile to spend a little time looking at past book campaigns to see what worked and what didn't. Fortunately, Kickstarter keeps all of its campaigns online, regardless of the outcome, so there's a wealth of data on their website. Unfortunately, other than some basic statistics they don't make it easy to look at the details of their campaigns. You have to bring up each campaign page and harvest the data one record at a time. Since I love a challenge, that's what I decided to do.
As a quick reminder, anyone can start a Kickstarter funding campaign, and each campaign is self-managed. It's up to the individual to propose the project, set the funding goal and timeline for raising the money, market the campaign and interact with people who are interested. Anyone with access to a computer can pledge a donation toward any campaign. The trick is that Kickstarter uses an all-or-nothing funding model. If the total of all of the pledges meets or exceeds the funding goal, you get all of the funds (minus some administrative fees). If the campaign doesn't meet the goal, you get nothing – even if you had pledges for 99% of your goal. Tough love.
I started my quest by looking at the overall number for photography campaigns. The initial numbers are a bit daunting: as of the end of February 2016, Kickstarter reports that it had launched 8,730 photography projects (Kickstarter began in April, 2009). Unless Kickstarter comes through with some raw data (I've asked but have not heard back), it's going to take a while for me to dig through all of these records one at a time.
As a starting point, though, I wondered if there are any lessons to be learned by just looking at the successful campaigns. Kickstarter reports that 2,522 (or 29%) of their photography campaigns met or exceeded their funding goals, while 6,077 (or 71%) were not funded. The mathematicians out there will note that the total of these two numbers is less than the total campaigns that were launched (see above). That's because a small number of launched campaigns were ended by the photographer or by Kickstarter before they made it to the deadline. Still, the 8,599 campaigns that went through the full process is a lot to take on one at a time. To make it even more challenging, Kickstarter includes anything related to photography in this category, so in addition to books there are campaigns for new kinds of film, camera bags, lighting equipment, workshops, and a variety of other products and services.
This means the only way to look at just photobooks is to pull up their records one at a time and pick out the books from the rest of the campaigns. I decided to start with the top 100 most successful books (as defined by the total amount of dollars contributed) since this is a manageable number, and, by their inclusion in this group, these photographers must be doing something right when it comes to fundraising.
Without further ado, here's what the data behind the 100 most successful photobook campaigns on Kickstarter tells us. Keep in mind that all of these numbers are as of the end of February, 2016, and that some dollar amounts have been converted from foreign currency using the current exchange rate and not the rate that was in effect at the time of the campaign. This may skew some of the foreign dollar amounts, but overall these currency fluctuations don't substantially affect the individual amounts.
What Types of Books Make it in the Top 100?
As I looked through the books, I first subjectively categorized them into one of two types: documentary or fine art. This is the distinction I used: a documentary book includes both photographs and a substantial amount of text. The text may tell the photographer's or another person's story about the photographs, or it may be an essay or commentary on the subject matter. A fine art book relies primarily on the photographs for the subject matter. Sometimes a fine art book can be about a social issue, but it lets the images tell the story. Again, this is a subjective categorization, but I feel reasonably confident in assigning these categories based upon my many years of photo book research.
My numbers say this: 75% of the top 100 books were in the fine art category, and 25% were in the documentary category. I don't know at this time how this might compare with all successful photo books, and hopefully my future research will provide more insights into this topic.
What is the Most Popular Subject Matter?
The most popular subject matter in the Top 100 is current social issues, including war, poverty, immigration, diaspora, violence, and health. The next most popular category is culture, such as Native American life, urban societies, protests in the 70's, or the scene at Burning Man. The remaining categories are seen in the chart below. When a category had three or fewer books in it, I grouped it under the "various" segment. Some of the topics in this category include automobiles, environment, portraits, travel, and sports.
How Much Money did these Campaigns Raise?
Here's an interesting statistic: The top 100 photo book campaigns raised a total of $5.7 million dollars. That's an average of $56,708 per campaign. But – the total raised by these 100 campaigns is more than one-quarter of all dollars raised by the 8,599 photo book campaigns that have been successful so far. This gives a whole new meaning to the term "1%er", since this 1% of successful photographers raised 26% of all of the money raised for photobooks. They're either very good at what they do, very lucky, or both. I suspect it's the latter, although not necessarily at the same time.
How Long were the Funding Campaigns?
Most of the top 100 campaigns ran from 30 to 45 days, with the shortest campaign running 20 days and the longest 60 days. However, there does not seem to be any correlation between the length of the campaign and the amount of money raised. One campaign was enormously successful at 21 days, raising 852% of its goal. Yet half of the 60 day campaigns did not reach their goal until the final day of the campaign. Since well-run campaigns are time and labor intensive, it seems that 30 days is the sweet spot for the return on investment of your time and energy.
A Big Gender Imbalance
It's interesting to note that 75% of the top 100 photobooks were by men, with only 25% by women. I don't know yet how these numbers compare with all of the successful photobooks funded by Kickstarter, but there's a definite imbalance in genders at the top of the list. There doesn't seem to be an easy way of looking at the racial or ethnic diversity of the photographers other than making guesses from their names or visiting each one of their websites. Names alone are misleading – especially when an increasing number of people identify as more than one race – so until I'm able to do the individual research we'll have to wait for this statistic.
Remarks and Conclusions
There is some very useful information in this data set, but it's also a set that's skewed by two outliers. The highest funded campaign, Kirsty Mitchell's The Wonderland Book, raised $464,496 from a goal of $97,300. It's a gorgeous book without question, but to make it so she spent more than six years conceiving of the images, creating highly elaborate costumes and makeup, and photographing each scene with exquisite lighting and style. It's both a very personal story and an amazing fantasy, and with an online diary and a series of exhibitions across Europe she built a large following. By the time she launched the book she knew there already was a demand for it, and she crafted a strong marketing campaign based upon a known interest in the work. That's an ideal way to launch a Kickstarter campaign, and it's a great model to follow if you're in a position to do so.
Another outlier (and second overall in dollars raised) is Michael Stokes' campaign to publish two books: Always Loyal and Exhibition. Stokes, an LA-based fashion and fitness photographer, takes the genre of artistic male nudes to new level with his highly muscular bodies and sculptural lighting. It appears that he also brought an existing base of fans who were already familiar with his work, plus it doesn't hurt that his subjects are, shall we say, very easy on the eye. His campaign had a modest goal of $48,250 for both books, but he brought in a staggering $411,134. He also appears twice in the top 100: his third book, Bare Strength, came in at number 14, with $72,707 raised against a goal of $22,500. Stokes attracted the most backers of any projects, with 2,536 people contributing an average of $162 for the two-book campaign, and 607 people giving an average of $120 for his third book. Clearly he has a strong core of appreciative followers.
Coming in at number 3 on the list is Elliott Landy's Photographs of The Band. His goal was $65,000, and he brought in $193,626. Once again it seems that it's the subject as well the photographer that draws the money. The Band has a legendary group of fans, and Landy is well-known for his many photos of iconic 1960's musicians. Together the combination was irresistible to 882 people who gave an average of $220 each.
I'm sure each of the 100 books has a story that could be enlightening, but if there are conclusions to be drawn from this group of top performers it would seem to be these:
Kickstarter is a great platform to raise money for books. Yes, less than a third are fully funded, but based upon what I've seen so far that's mostly because people propose unrealistic or poorly conceived projects. Plus, you have to stay on top of your campaign from beginning to end. It's a lot of work to do it well, but one-in-three odds of being fully funded are a lot better than you'll get with other kinds of fundraising.
The book's subject is very important, but you don't have to pander to a broad audience. The breakdown by subject above shows that people will support a wide array of topics. Who would have thought that you might be able to raise $38,355 for a book on Soviet Bus Stops or $36,849 for Sweet Ruin, a book on an abandoned sugar refinery?
Take some time to build an audience before you launch your book. The more people who already know about you and your work, the easier it will be to meet or exceed your goal. It's Marketing 101, but you have to pay attention to this simple premise.
If you want to explore the data on your own, browse through my Photo Funds Database and filter the display to show only Kickstarter book. Then take some time to look through the photobooks on Kickstarter. Pay special attention to the incentives that the photographers offer and how much effort they make to interact with their supporters during the campaign. People become involved in projects they believe in, and by helping them stay involved you'll increase your chances of reaching your goal.
Several years ago Craig Mod put together a detailed record of his successful Kickstarter book campaign, and his insights and advice are still very relevant. His post is a great place to find out what the day-to-day activities of a campaign are like. [My thanks to Mary Virgina Swanson for this helpful tip.]
In the next few months I'll look further into the data, nuances and individuals of the Kickstarter photobook world, so stay tuned for more posts on this topic. Let me know if there's something in particular you'd like me to explore.