By Anna Urbanek
Were we surprised by the success of Herbalist’s Primer on Kickstarter? Of course!
But were we ready…?
It’s been over a month since the end of the Kickstarter campaign for Herbalist’s Primer; over a month since honestly the wildest time of my life – and I am somebody who has decided to completely uproot her life several times. The campaign, with its humble funding goal of $10,000 (just to cover the printing of 500 copies for me and my cats), has ended up with an astounding $814,000 raised by 18,725 backers (the cats and I not even included). And with the pre-order store now open, it still finds new future readers.
It has been a bit of a trip, not going to lie.
Let’s start at the beginning, though.
Pure peer pressure
I was rather sad in the quarantine of spring 2020, and I started drawing flowers to make myself feel better. As my freelancer brain doesn’t allow me to enjoy fun for the fun’s sake, I turned the drawings into an idea of a book, combining the things I love: botany, folklore, occult, 19th-century book design, and tabletop roleplaying. Then I put the mock-up spread on Twitter.
Poor wording aside (we all grow and learn), this tweet has ended up with such an overwhelming outpouring of interest and support, that I had practically no choice but to give in. Not that I objected – the dopamine-rich community support is literally what made this book possible, as these two pages carried a concept that ended up being a 360-page book, with over a 100 full-color illustrations by yours truly and about 120,000 words of deeply and thoroughly researched text.
But I digress, this is a story of the Kickstarter campaign, not of my writing process.
And yet, this is exactly where the Kickstarter story begins: in May 2020, literally at the moment where I have nothing more than two pages of a mock-up and a vague idea of a book. I wrote a message to Matt from Exalted Funeral, whom I already knew from my freelance work as a layout artist, and asked if they’d like to do fulfillment for a Kickstarter campaign for my book. They did.
Talk early, talk often
More times than I’d like to say I’ve been asked for advice on how to run a successful Kickstarter campaign. I wish I knew. But to not pretend I know nothing at all, I’m happy to share what I’ve managed to figure out.
We have started planning this campaign almost a year and a half ago. I’ve been talking about this book for almost a year and a half, sharing what I’ve written, what I’ve drawn, what cool things I’ve read, what are the current challenges, what joys and what problems I’ve encountered. As far as marketing campaigns go, this one was neither really planned nor thought-through; I just struggle to keep my attention on a single subject for a prolonged time, and sharing all the new things with the slowly growing group of my followers (from about 500 to current 4000-ish) was a way to keep me focused on the task.
Did it feel like talking into the void? Yeah, on many occasions. But in time, it built up the interest around the book, and I am absolutely sure that it was one of the main reasons for the success of this campaign.
(I understand that there are many reasons why you want to keep your new project under wraps; I’ve already started working on my next book, but I’m not going to announce anything for a while yet, in case I suddenly lose interest in the topic. But once I do announce it, it’ll be still about a year before the book is done, probably.)
We simply can’t drop a surprise release and expect people to discover it on their own. Building up a base for your book / game is vital, especially as it helps to get a good start on the launch day. And while many may scowl at the idea of talking about your followers / friends / mutuals as ‘a base’ (I can relate), as far as marketing goes… They are your primary support.
Also, as soon as you can, start a newsletter on your website. I wish I’ve figured it out earlier; I only started mine when the campaign was already almost over. Start it now if you don’t have it. If you’re on WordPress, MailPoet plugin is a cheap way to start – it’s free up to 1,000 subscribers. We use it.
(EDIT: This isn’t all that we did to build the audience. We have also started a Patreon the next day after that Twitter post, and from June 2020 onward, started producing monthly, smaller products, Globetrotter’s Guides and Wayfarer’s Decks – with a triple purpose of giving something tangible to our Patrons while I worked on the book, to put our name out there as game designers and writers, and to generate some extra income to allow me to take less commission work; the last one was the least successful, I still ended up working full time, sometimes 12-14 hours a day for weeks on end.)
Find your crowd
How to get more followers for your project on Twitter? (I don’t really use other social media, so can’t talk about them.) Make sure that you communicate how is your project useful to them. Does it solve a problem they might have, like lack of specific mechanics in other games? Does it enhance the experience for fans of particular playstyle? Does it fill a curious niche? Is it a pretty bunch of curiosities? Show how your project can bring value into your potential clients’ lives.
As far as Herbalist’s Primer goes, it wasn’t complicated: it’s a book applicable in any TTRPG system, with usefulness outside of the gaming tables, lots of plot hooks and adventure seeds, easily-accessible botany and herbalism inspirations, and always fashionable popular science and folklore. The decision to make it system-agnostic was a conscious one: universal appeal in the sea of D&D5e-specific plant-adjacent materials. Also, I’m rubbish at writing mechanics, so I preferred to play to my strengths: science, occult, visual design.
A disclaimer, though: I have started this project from a privileged position, on several accounts:
- I was already working in the tabletop industry for half a decade, and freelancing for about year and a half.
- I already had a working relationship with a publisher who does Kickstarter fulfillment as a part of their standard operation.
- I have years of experience as a graphic designer and layout artist, including intimate knowledge of the print processes. I also have an MA in librarianship and information, making the research part easy for me.
- I can write, illustrate, and lay out the book myself, severely reducing the costs of creating the book (if we discount a year and a half of my life, I have paid nothing to get this book done.) I have also spent almost three decades reading books on natural sciences, folklore, and the occult, assisting my gardener/botanist mother, etc.
Making this book was a natural thing for me. I hope you’ll find a project that will fit you just as well.
The set-up of the campaign
We have decided that we won’t start the campaign until most of the book is done, to reduce any potential delays in fulfillment, which was a great decision. It took over a year of near-constant work (on top of my full-time job as a graphic designer), but we’ve launched the campaign at the end of August 2021, after about two weeks of having the pre-launch page up on Kickstarter. For those looking for numbers, we’ve gathered about 2,400 followers on the pre-launch page. (EDIT: I believe the number here came mostly from my original bunch of followers, a couple friendly Big Accounts retweeting my promo tweets – again, privilege of of working with/for some of them in the past – plus Exalted Funeral’s newsletter, coming out every week to thousands of people.)
We didn’t share the campaign previews to get third-party opinions on the story; I wrote the text and did the illustrations myself. We’ve decided to keep the campaign as simple as possible, keeping in mind that all we’re selling is a single book. We have planned only two tiers: a digital and a physical one – or, more accurately, a digital and a digital+physical one, as the digital rewards are included in the latter.
We wanted the book and the campaign to be as accessible as we could make it – which is why not only the campaign page is mostly text and small alt-texted images (well, captioned; Kickstarter doesn’t give an option of providing alt text), but the digital version of the book consists a bookmarked, tagged, and alt-texted PDF, as well as MOBI and EPUB versions. We have also decided that all digital and physical stretch goals will be included in the respective pledges. Thanks to Vi Huntsman from Collabs Without Permission, we also had a short Kickstarter video, showcasing the book, because I sure as hell was not about to talk to people.
Re: marketing, of course we had marketing and paid ads. We used Backerkit to sort out ads on Facebook (mostly) and on Google & Instagram ads (much, much less). I’m not saying it couldn’t have been done without, but not to this point (see numbers below.)
We have launched the campaign at 19:00 Finland time, which I believe is 12:00 Eastern / 9:00 Pacific, as apparently, most people browse Kickstarter around breakfast/lunch, and we wanted to catch the US wave. We have given a one-hour warning about the launch, as I honestly forgot I was supposed to do that. Woe me, thankfully nothing bad has happened, but it was a sub-optimal choice.
We have reached our funding goal of $10,000 in 15 minutes, and unlocked all four announced stretch goals before I had the time to write the first update the following morning.
Did we expect it? Hell no. To quote a conversation we had pre-launch: “we’re aiming for 500 copies, but it would be of course much better if we could print 1000 for later retail.” Thankfully, Exalted Funeral is a company with good bones and infrastructure in place, which allowed us to scale the project without any trouble. Had I planned to do the fulfillment myself? I’d be in a lot, lot of hot water, due to the lack of a warehouse and my house being nowhere big enough to even store the number of copies.
Did we have to call the printers in the morning and have them recalculate all the quotes, to make sure they can provide the number of copies we’ll need? Yes, in a hurry and somewhat of a daze. We had to call them several times more during the campaign for the same, especially as the stories about paper and cardboard shortages started to appear more and more often.
The stretch goals
We had stretch goals planned, of course – a couple of them.
At $15,000, we had planned a raise for the editors, Fiona Maeve Geist and Jarrett Crader from the MoonRat Conspiracy. While we’ve started with a good rate for the editors ($0.08/word), which at 120,000 words is almost $10,000, I knew this is a specialist book, requiring a lot of effort in editing, from straightening my almost-English grammar to all the Latin I packed into the book. Hence, extra paychecks for the editors.
At $20,000, we could afford to cover science editing by an actual scientist, Rishi R. Masalia, with his PhD in plant biology. Was this the best decision I’ve ever made? No, but it is in Top 5, because Rishi’s comments have made this book exponentially better and alleviated so much of my anxiety over the scientific side of the book. I fully believe that Rishi should have quoted us at a higher rate, but he is free to set his own rates as he wants and I can’t force him to send a higher invoice; we’ve fixed it later with another stretch goal.
At $25,000, we’ve added the first stretch goal that actually went to the backers: a folded poster with a drop-die table of plants and plant generation tables. It’s pretty, sturdy, and useful – if the numbers from add-on purchases and pre-orders on the Backerkit are any indication, people find it a useful addition.
At $35,000, we’ve added something I have planned for a long time: Herbalist’s Notebook. It’s a spiral-bound notebook that can serve for creating a custom herbal (or a herbarium with dried plants). It is also an accessibility tool, but in a slightly different way – some people, me included, need something to do with their hands while playing a game. Hence, a notebook for drawing, coloring, sketching, and making notes. It comes in two versions, in case you feel like coloring the cover.
… And that’s where we ran out of stretch goals. Well, not entirely, but we ran out of stretch goals that we could provide here and there.
More stretch goals
By the end of the first 24 hours, we’ve reached $70,000 pledged in the Kickstarter campaign and have found ourselves in need of making some quick decisions. We needed stretch goals that:
- wouldn’t delay the fulfillment of the main product (so no extra content in the book)
- wouldn’t require me to split my attention from the book in the time before sending it to print (again, to avoid potential delays and to keep my autistic brain from getting overwhelmed)
- wouldn’t require hunting for contributors outside of our team (to streamline the fulfillment)
- wouldn’t generate potential problems in production (no long printing times, no deliveries across the globe from suppliers, no non-book-related paraphernalia like dice, pins)
- wouldn’t require lifetime support (no dedicated websites, apps, etc.)
And you know what? We still had to mostly depend on a kinda-new contributor, because if he didn’t step in, I don’t think we would be able to find anything. I was at capacity (still am). Thankfully (add that to the list of very-happy-circumstances), I live and work with a talented writer, who has been supporting me for over a year of my writing, knew all the cool things about plants already (I can’t not talk about stuff that interests me), and agreed to put aside his other projects to help me out. Yay for Jakub, my sun, moon, and stars. For reference, writer’s rate: $0.18/word – just because he’s my partner, doesn’t mean I’m entitled to his free labor.
That’s how we managed to come up with other stretch goals, often one at a time, as the numbers kept climbing:
At $100,000, a plant-based adventure written by Jakub and illustrated + laid out by me.
At $125,000, an upgrade to the book: better paper and a ribbon bookmark. Thanks to the higher numbers, we were able to negotiate better terms with the printer and get the book beyond ‘hardback standard.’ At that point, we started looking at the possibility of a limited, cloth-bound edition as the ‘Golden Goose’ final goal, but because of the [insert the standard comment about the supply chain issues and the need to double- and triple-check everything before you promise something to the backers], we’ve decided to not mention anything yet.
At $150,000, it became a viable option to print the adventure and add it to all physical pledges for free as a 24-page zine. Thanks to much shorter printing times on the zines vs. hardcover book, this worked with our original timeline, as I’ll be able to do the illustrations and layout while the book is already in production.
At $175,000, we again had to lean on Jakub to provide the content, writing 50 extra adventure seeds for the digital release. At $200,000, we added another 50, together covering all 100 plants included in the original book.
At $250,000, we’ve introduced something I had planned from the beginning, but the production costs were too high for us to pull it off (remember, we’re adding a free physical copy to each physical pledge – and we were around 10,000 backers at that point). The flash cards were a concept we’ve ran past our Patrons months ago, but with each copy of a 100-card deck costing about $4 in production… You can imagine it was a considerable ‘extra cost,’ only made possible by a high stretch goal.
Did we still want to make the limited edition? Sure! But the conversation with the printer around the availability of linen for the cover, costs, number of copies, etc., etc., were still ongoing.
At that point, our tiny team was entirely at capacity, and there was no way to keep adding extra content to the pledges without causing serious delays. After hitting $250,000, we (well, I – I can’t speak for Matt) stopped processing the numbers, just watched the shapes change and laughed. We’ve decided we’ve made bank already, and it’s high time to give back.
At $350,000, we made community copies available – there will be 100 digital and 100 physical copies available from Exalted Funeral later, after the campaign promises are fulfilled and the book is with the backers.
At $375,000, we gave a pay raise to the team, splitting the $25,000 between Fiona, Jarrett, Rishi, Jakub, and Vi, according to the work done.
And then we stopped doing stretch goals. Especially as our $40 pledge became this:
Around that time, we got the confirmation that we will be able to make the cloth-bound limited edition. We have decided to not make it a stretch goal. It has raised some questions – but honestly, at that point, telling people ‘you can have the shiny, but only if more people give us money’ felt unethical. So we just introduced the limited edition as a third pledge option and allowed people to switch their pledge to that. Some of them did, most of them didn’t – and that’s perfectly fine. At this point, it was much less about ‘funding the campaign’ and much more about ‘letting me work on the next book for a year, without having to work full-time.’
The lack of stretch goals
Our decision to not make any more stretch goals was generally met with support. We’ve announced that we will use any other funds raised to ensure the future of this project – specifically, to allow me to cut down on my day job of graphic design and focus on writing the next book in the series. The community response was mostly positive, coming up with topics for the next book and praising us (with a small but vocal group of dissenting voices talking about their disappointment) for not going overboard with stretch goals and risking delays or even tanking the project.
A month after the campaign, I still consider this idea brilliant – instead of struggling to keep the timeline intact, I’m simply working on the book every day, planning to finish writing soon. Thanks to the chapter structure, most of the book is already edited (both grammar-wise and science-wise). I’ll be finishing some illustrations in early November, when the book goes through proofreading, and we’re off to the printers in mid-November.
Meanwhile, Jakub is writing the adventure (it will be great, it has a hedgehog), switching to the adventure seeds when he’s done, I’m getting the flash cards laid out when the book is in print, then the adventure layout post editing, the poster, the notebook (all three with short production times), then the digital files… And then we’re done, probably by late December. I take a week off, and I’m starting on the new book in the new year. Delivery to EF warehouses hopefully mid-Q1 2022, shipping at the end of Q1 2022. Simple. Achievable. A minimum number of moving parts.
I can’t give you the exact numbers, as I don’t have them yet – we’re still running the quotes on production. But I can tell you that from $814,000 raised in the campaign, about $100,000 went for marketing alone. Worth it, sure: it brought about $300,000 in purchases. Expensive, but math doesn’t lie: for each dollar spent, we earned three, netting us about $2. With those costs payable after the campaign funds are released, it’s a viable option. I could never, obviously, front that money, neither would I ever ask my publisher for that. Total production costs are likely to work out upwards of $350,000, plus Kickstarter fees (around 7-8% of the amount gathered). Then shared with the publisher. Then taxes. Then some more taxes.
The campaign was a massive success, of course, and I will be taking home a considerable amount of money, easily funding my humble lifestyle for a long time – definitely enough to let me write the second book in peace, not worrying about the bills or mortgage. A giant privilege, again, and not what I have expected when starting this project.
We have struck gold, almost literally – a project that I have expected to only appeal to people who are interested in ALL of the topics (botany, folklore, occult, TTRPG) has ended up appealing to people interested in ANY of them. The campaign had a great start and amazing, sustained growth throughout the whole month (diagram from BiggerCake):
We’ve hit over 8000% of the funding goal, became Kickstarter’s Project We Love on Day 1 (which made KS feature and promote our campaign on their pages, which has impacted our numbers greatly), we’ve been within Top 10 of popular campaigns for most of the month, actually hogging the first place for days on end, even with much bigger campaigns launching after us (Tanares RPG, The Witcher’s comic book, Blackbirds).
Apologies if it sounds like I’m bragging – I am honestly stumped when it comes to ‘why’. I don’t know why we did as good as we did. There are many people working hard on their projects and pouring their souls into them. I’m not special. I think it’s a combination of a book topic that appealed to a very wide audience, trustworthy publisher with good rep, good timing (no other big releases on tabletop KS in our first week), lots of money pumped into marketing, my incessant talking about the project for a year and a half, and the extra discoverability of the Kickstarter’s internal promotion.
If I were to put my money on one thing, I’d say it’s mostly due to the universal appeal. This is a book you can give to your GM, to your favorite druid player, to your grandma, to your child interested in plants, to your friendly neighborhood witch, to a fellow gardener, to your dentist to keep in the waiting room as an eye-candy coffee table picture book.
The media, while we did appear in some, didn’t affect the outcome much, I think – at least there weren’t any big spikes in sales after the articles or podcasts, but I got to meet a bunch of wonderful people and get over my stage freight. There are links to all media appearances on the campaign page.
Will we manage to repeat this success? No idea whatsoever. We’ll try. I’ve started collecting the materials for a couple of possible books in the series, I’m checking if the one I’m planning to do next keeps my attention and interest long enough. I’m finishing the current book, then doing the stretch goals. Exalted Funeral is doing the distribution. We got this. This campaign has outgrown all of our expectations and hopes, but we know how to proceed, and we have all we need to get it fulfilled.
[Insert that disclaimer about the supply chains. But we’re as covered and organized as we can be at this point.]
That’s it, no more advice, no more know-how. I’m a graphic designer and a writer. Let me know if you have any questions, I will answer if I can and edit this post with extra info where applicable.