How authors are earning $50k+ on Kickstarter
By charging $100+ per book.
There are two ways a book can earn $100,000: An author can sell 10,000 copies for $10 or 1,000 copies for $100. The former is what big publishing is trying to make happen, the latter is what’s happening on Kickstarter.
When I was deciding how to publish my utopian novel Oblivion, I knew I would be more likely to reach a 1,000-person market than I would be to reach a 10,000-person market. I also knew I wanted to do more than write a book. So I was enticed when I learned that, on Kickstarter, 663 publishing projects have earned more than $50,000 from only a few thousand backers.
When I asked, the company even sent me a spreadsheet of every single project that earned more than $50,000, which I then spent way too much time filling with links and backer counts, calculating the earnings per backer for each project, and ranking the whole sheet by dollars earned so I could analyze exactly what made each of those authors so successful (it’s available for paid subscribers at the bottom of this post).
As I started poring over that spreadsheet, I realized there were a few authors with repeat successes, like Joshua O’Neill, founder of Beehive Books, who has earned $2.5 million across 14 Kickstarter campaigns. I reached out to him to learn more about how authors are finding backers, developing collectible books, and earning $50,000+ on Kickstarter.
Here’s what I learned.
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Finding 1,000+ backers
The first thing I noticed about that spreadsheet is that, despite the fact that all of the campaigns on it earned more than $50,000, most of them achieved that with only a couple thousand backers. Only 10 projects had more than 10,000 backers, 24 had between 5,000 and 10,000 backers, 99 had between 2,000 and 5,000 backers. The other 530 projects had less than 2,000 backers. Altogether, these campaigns averaged 1,626 backers at $109 earned per backer—can you imagine earning $177,236 from only 1,626 people??
There are definitely outliers: Six publishing campaigns earned more than $1 million on Kickstarter, and two of them are by Brandon Sanderson. The fantasy author’s record-breaking campaign earned more than any other Kickstarter campaign with 185,341 backers and $41,754,153. The second-highest publishing campaign was the leatherbound edition of his The Way of Kings with 29,778 backers and $6,788,517. These were definitely the anomalies.
“Authors with any size audience can find success on Kickstarter, so long as their expectations match their reach,” Oriana Leckert, the director of publishing and comics outreach at Kickstarter, told me. “To raise, say, six figures and beyond, an author would likely need to have a large existing fanbase to leverage; however an emerging writer with a small but dedicated community can handily fund a campaign in the thousands or even tens of thousands.”
The fantasy author Michael J. Sullivan is a great example of this. He’s run 11 Kickstarter campaigns between 2014-2022 at a pace of about once per year—sometimes two. And though he started small, here’s how his campaigns have grown over time:
Hollow World raised $30,857 from 861 backers (April 2013)
Blackguards raised $38,631 from 1,237 backers (September 2014)
The Death of Dulgath raised $73,163 from 1,750 backers (July 2015)
The Death of Dulgath graphic novel raised $37,116 from 801 backers (November 2016)
Disappearance of Winter's Daughter raised $80,332 from 2,075 backers (October 2017)
Age of Legend raised $110,865 from 2,553 backers (March 2019)
Age of Death raised $119,337 from 3,120 backers (September 2019)
Age of Empyre raised $136,387 from 3,574 backers (February 2020)
Legends of the First Empire Slipcase raised $65,473 from 822 backers (July 2020)
Nolyn raised $169,727 from 3,692 backers (February 2021)
Farilane raised $200,627 from 3,733 backers (March 2022)
Sullivan built a following over time, earning $30,00 from his first Kickstarter but gradually working up to $100,000+ per campaign. In 2021, Sullivan told me he had 20,000 newsletter subscribers that he promoted his campaigns to—but that’s only after running nine campaigns over eight years. And he always self-publishes the books on Amazon after the fact, earning an additional $8,000/month from his Kindle back catalog.
“Running a Kickstarter can be a very effective way for authors to keep building their fanbase, as it gives them a direct line to both the audience they have and the audience they're trying to court,” Leckert told me. “Project success rate, number of backers, and total funds raised tend to go up significantly campaign by campaign because once readers have seen and been delighted by an author's work, they're that much likelier to become early backers and be eager to share new projects with their own communities.”
This trend is only poised to continue as fandom communities become easier to assemble online. “The category continues to expand overall: we've seen significant year-over-year growth in dollars raised, projects launched, and backers pledging since 2019. Not even halfway through 2022, creators in the publishing category have raised more than $50 million from 264,000 backers, whereas in all of 2021, creators raised $31 million from 329,000 backers,” Lechert says. “And my very favorite stat: The current success rate for projects with at least 25 backers in the publishing category is an unbelievable 82 percent!”
In other words: it only takes a very small fanbase for authors to make really good money, and that is becoming more and more of a thing. It’s definitely worked for Beehive Books, which raises hundreds of thousands of dollars with each campaign, from only about 1,000 fans. It all started when Joshua O’Neill, who owned a small bookshop in West Philadelphia, had an idea to create a number of dreamscapes inspired by the artist Winsor McCay called Little Nemo: Dream Another Dream.
“Winsor McCay was an early animator and illustrator and cartoonist and designer and he made this insane weekly comic strip called Little Nemo in Slumberland. They're super psychedelic and gorgeously illustrated, and they're unbelievable pieces of art,” O’Neill says. “So we did this project that was a tribute to Little Nemo in Slumberland, where we had different cartoonists doing their own version. We republished it in the full size of a broadsheet newspaper page. It's like, almost two-thirds as tall as I am. It was this crazy, gigantic book and had all these great artists in it. But when we talked to bookstores, people were like, ‘I don't have anywhere to put this.’”
So O’Neill launched a Kickstarter. “Our goal was $50,000 and we raised $150,000.”
From only 1,087 backers.
O’Neill kept his bookstore afloat from 2009 to 2016, but by the time he launched his first Kickstarter, the business was something of a slog. “I was so tired of running it and just trying to keep it alive and trying to keep all the bills paid and trying to keep all the reorders coming in for free. So I was like ‘alright, maybe we can follow this path. And instead of doing one book like this, what if we do five books like this a year—that would be enough money to make a living from.’”
In partnership with Maëlle Doliveux, who plays the editorial director/art director to his strategy mind, O’Neill launched Beehive Books. At the time, they thought Kickstarter might allow them to do expansive things with their art, things traditional publishing could never do. “Can we do stuff that's really impractical, really unusual, and a bit quixotic? Like stuff that wouldn’t work elsewhere,” O’Neill wondered? “It’s kind of not fun unless someone thinks you can't do it. The stuff that makes it hard to market through traditional mechanisms is the stuff that makes it easy to market through crowdfunding mechanisms.”
That’s exactly what they did. Since 2016, Beehive Books has launched 14 books this way, raising a total of $2.5 million across 14 crowdfunds:
The Temple of Silence: Forgotten Worlds of Herbert Crowley raised $96,772 from 740 backers (November, 2016)
Illustrated Classics by Pope, Shimizu & Sienkiewicz raised $169,468 from 886 backers (June, 2017)
LAAB. An art mag on black representation in sci-fi & culture raised $34,178 from 817 backers (November, 2017)
MADNESS IN CROWDS: The Teeming Mind of Harrison Cady raised $79,577 from 507 backers (June, 2018)
I WILL LIVE FOREVER: Papercraft Comics by Maëlle Doliveux raised $79,044 from 918 backers (October, 2018)
Classic Books, Reimagined Through Illustration raised $179,901 from 650 backers (March, 2019)
LAAB: The Art Newspaper Powered by the Radical Imagination raised $35,570 from 873 backers (July, 2019)
Artemisia: The Original Painter of Women in Power raised $33,977 from 657 backers (September, 2019)
DRACULA: The Evidence raised $224,579 from 680 backers (November, 2019)
BOTANICA: A Tarot Deck about the Language of Flowers raised $731,111 from 9,627 backers (May, 2020)
LAAB: An Art Newspaper Powered by the Radical Imagination raised $43,187 from 1,109 backers (September, 2020)
DRACULA: THE EVIDENCE Hardcover Edition raised $378,201 from $1,238 backers (December, 2020
ILLUMINATED EDITIONS: Modern Artists Reinvent Classic Books raised $342,247 from 1,024 backers (February, 2021)
GRATUITOUS NINJA: A Stealth Epic by Ronald Wimberly raised $96,170 from 743 backers (April, 2022)
O’Neill told me he had 7,000 newsletter subscribers when Beehive launched their first campaign, largely from the bookstore he ran. Even still, it was his first Kickstarter campaign that actually grew his audience. More than 120 artists contributed to the project, and each of them shared the project with their followers online, causing the project to go viral. “Kickstarter itself was very supportive of the project and they put us on their big mailing list, which is always a great way of getting customers for us. That became a big success and it was the first publishing thing we made really decent money off of,” O’Neill says. “We were able to pay the artists well and we were able to pay ourselves pretty well.
“The Little Nemo book had 1,000 backers or something. So that was a big influx of people. And those people are all people who are able to spend $100 on a book, and are willing to spend $100 on a book, and are into the type of art that we do. So that was kind of the core. Like that Little Nemo audience, which was self-generated by the artists who were in the book, those people became our readers, and they became the core that we were building on and building on.”
Since then, Beehive’s newsletter list has grown to 30,000 subscribers—about half of which came from the Botanica campaign they ran in 2020 (more on that in a minute). Interestingly, despite the fact that his free audience has grown over time, his paid group hasn’t. “Our first project had 1,000 customers and that's still what we have six years later and hundreds of thousands of copies sold.”
This is actually a common phenomenon among Kickstarter campaigns. By design, campaigns only attract a very small group of people, usually in the thousands. Even among the top publishing campaigns on Kickstarter, the average backer count is only 1,626. Because O’Neill knows he’ll have about 1,000 backers, no matter the project, he goes into each campaign knowing exactly how much he’ll earn. “You can gauge how well our projects will do by how expensive they are because we have a pretty stable number of customers. Usually, if a book is $20 we'll raise $20,000; if it's $100 we'll raise $100,000; or in the case of our Dracula book which is $400, we raised $400,000—with the same number of customers.”
Botanica was the outlier—the project was for a $40 Tarot deck. “We thought it was going to make $30,000. But when we launched, it was way bigger than we expected from day one. We were at $100,000 after a day or two.”
Botanica raised $731,111. O’Neill says more of his Beehive customers purchased than usual, and the project made it into Kickstarter’s newsletter which helped, but mostly he contributes the campaign’s success to ads he ran on Facebook and Instagram. “It was ungodly successful. For every dollar we were spending [on ads] we were getting $4 in sales. We started with a $200 campaign and it was massively successful, then we tried a $1,000 campaign. By the last day of our Botanical campaign, we spent $80,000 on advertising in one day and that drove $300,000 in sales. I think if we had another day we would have gone over $1 million.”
O’Neill ran those ads through BackerKit, a third-party company that specializes in helping creators earn more from their campaigns. One of the things they offer is Facebook and Instagram ads directly targeted at promoting Kickstarter campaigns. It worked for Beehive. According to my research, a lot of the Kickstarter campaigns on the $50,000+ spreadsheet also happen to have accounts on BackerKit, so it must have worked for them too!
Developing a $100+ product
If you’ve ever taken a marketing class, you’ve probably heard of the $500 haircut. The idea is that when a professor asks students whether they would pay $500 for a haircut, most say no. But when the professor elaborates, telling them that the haircut includes valet parking downstairs, a greeting with a glass of champagne and a piece of cake, an hour-long massage while you wait, and the hairstylist is a trained psychologist who can counsel while they cut, students think again.
This is exactly how Kickstarter works. It’s not about charging a lot of money for something, it’s about adding a lot of value to something. A $100 book is not just a book—it’s a collector’s item. Almost every publishing project on Kickstarter is a highly collectible, highly beautiful, piece of art. You might think it’s ridiculous to spend $400 on a copy of Dracula, for example, but LOOK AT THIS COPY OF DRACULA—I want it more than life itself.
Many authors add value by offering signed copies, merchandise, even input into the book. Sanderson, for example, had 23,103 backers spend $500 on a tier that included ebooks, audiobooks, unsigned hardcover copies, and eight swag boxes. The author Sherilyn Kenyon had 14 backers spend $2,000 on a tier that gave them the ability to name a character in an upcoming wedding scene. Many fiction authors on this list have higher-tiered, print editions in the $150-$500 range.
Thornwillow Press has run 34 Kickstarter campaigns reprinting classic works of fiction—a fine press edition to celebrate the Centennial of James Joyce's literary masterpiece Ulysses raised $241,603 from only 281 backers (that’s an average of $860 earned per backer! )!!! The highest-priced tier was for a four-volume boxed set bound in premium teal leather—13 people purchased the set at $3,540. Here’s what they looked like:
A half-leather version had 23 backers at $2,380. Here’s what they looked like:
Nonfiction authors have been able to drive up their earnings per backer by throwing in in-person meetings with the author. Eric Reis’ Leadership Guide had $5,000 tiers to have lunch with him and another founder (three purchased) or go skiing in Switzerland with another founder (one purchased), plus a $10,000 corporate sponsorship tier in which companies could get their name printed in the book and sponsor the book’s launch party in San Francisco (four purchased)—that’s $60,000 raised from only five backers!
The Kickstarter project with the highest earnings per backer was a skincare book that had only 42 backers but earned $52,021. That’s $1,239 per backer!!!!! In this case, the author offered personalized consultations and a mini spa day at a spa in Florida (2 purchased at $1,000), advertisements in the book and at the launch party (1 purchased at $1,700), and more premium advertisements in the book and during the launch campaign (2 purchased at $5,200). Lesson learned: find a way to get companies involved!
In O’Neill’s case, it’s all about making an incredibly collectible print product. “Most projects we do sell between 1,000 and 2,000 copies, which is very tiny—but a lot of them are fairly expensive,” he says. “If we can sell 1,000 copies of a $100 book ($100,000 from only 1,000 customers) we can afford to pay the artists pretty well and we can afford to pay ourselves well enough. Then we’ll do more high-end editions where the book is $1,000 and we only do 26 copies ($26,000 from only 26 customers). And then we'll do a slightly less $300-$500 version that is limited to 250 copies ($75,000 to $125,000 from only 250 customers).”
O’Neill’s Dracula project had a $2,000 version that was limited to 26 copies—it sold out. “I feel like we should do a $10,000 book and see if people will buy it the same way,” he said.
This kind of low-volume, high-dollar sale is what makes crowdfunding so lucrative, but it’s also what makes the products so expensive to produce. O’Neill budgets to spend about 80% of his Kickstarter earnings on printing, with the remaining 20% split between the author and Beehive. He’ll typically plan for a 2,500-copy print run, sell a third of that through Kickstarter, and sell the rest on Beehive Books’ website after the fact.
“Part of the idea is we will sell these for years. We've just sold out of one of our high-end books and are reprinting it now. That was an example of one where we probably sold 600 through Kickstarter, and then we sold another 1,900 over the last five years. And that slowly is becoming enough money to pay for our overhead and pay for our office and pay for some of our employees and stuff.”
When he first started out he would run the Kickstarter, then start work on the printing once he knew it was a go, but it took him about two years to get a printed product into a customer’s hands. Now he waits until the project is nearly done to run the crowdfund, so it only takes a year. “Our model originally was we would fund the project and then do the project. Now that we have money coming in regularly from our ongoing sales, the model is more like we do the project and then we save the Kickstarter for when we're ready to print.”
I happened to discover one of the utopian novels we are studying this year in his backlist—Margaret Cavendish’s The Blazing World—I immediately purchased it for myself! LOOK HOW GORGEOUS!!! 🤩
Some of the projects have been more expensive than anticipated. That beautiful Dracula project, for instance, had more supply chain problems than he was anticipating, and now he’s not sure if he’ll earn a profit on that one. Another book took more time to design than he and his partner realized, which means it’s still not finished three years after funding. For this reason, he thinks it’s really important for authors to do their due diligence and make a budget before making any kind of Kickstarter. “Make sure you price everything out,” he advises me. “Build in extra money for shipping, assume prices of things are going to change, like, plan for the worst.”
Even in my own tiny case, that proved true. When I published my first book via Substack, 23 people opted to purchase the collector’s edition for $200—that’s $4,600 from only 23 collectors! But I also spent:
$2,186 printing 25 copies of Obscurity
$500 in graphic design for Obscurity
$829 printing 25 copies of the magazine
$700 in graphic design for the magazine
$124 in shipping from the printer
$207 shipping books to collectors
Printing costs went up between when I set my prices and when I printed my books. Graphic design cost more than I anticipated, so did shipping. Though I earned $4,600 from my print books, I spent $4,546 printing them—that’s a profit of $54. Not that I needed to earn a profit the first time around—what I wanted more than anything was to hold a copy of my book in my hands and it was a huge bonus that 23 other people wanted copies too! Still, I learned what I needed to factor into my collector’s tier going forward.
I used Edition One Books to print my books and they turned out beautiful! O’Neill also recommends Bookmobile or Regent Publishing Services.
Earning $50,000+ from books
Earning $50,000+ for a book project requires some napkin math. Knowing that backers will spend about $100 to support a project they’re interested in, it’s reasonable to assume that an author can earn $50,000 from a Kickstarter crowdfund by attracting about 500 backers and providing pricing tiers that average out to at least $100 in earnings per backer.
And Substack is a great place to develop an audience for a project. I started this Substack two years ago as a way to build a following before I published my first book. Now, I have 8,500+ newsletter subscribers and 250+ paid subscribers as I publish my second. It might be within my realm of possibility to earn $25,000 to $30,000 from 200 to 300 backers as part of my first Kickstarter campaign. Maybe I could raise closer to $50,000 if I added value to higher-priced priced tiers that edged up my “earnings per backer” rate or if I took advantage of tools like BackerKit to get my backer count closer to 500.
When I first started researching all of this in the summer of 2022, I thought that was how I was going to publish my second book, a utopian novel called Oblivion. I was excited about what Kickstarter would allow me to do as an artist and I had dreams of printing hardcover copies, creating a vinyl album of the musical score by, designing leatherbound boxed sets, allowing top-tier subscribers to write the introduction to my books, and hosting in-person pop-up parties and weekend retreats—I still hope to do all of those things. The only reason I didn’t press publish on my campaign is that I was stressed out about delivering things that were still so far away, and for a book I hadn’t even written yet.
Sullivan crowdfunds his books upfront, then writes them, so it can be worth it for authors who want to take that route. But I like how Substack allows my utopian vision to unfold naturally—it allows me to experiment and iterate and see what it might become rather than having to decide what it’s all going to turn out to be upfront. I may be figuring it all out in real-time, and building it all in public, but the subscription model allows me the time and space to do that, whereas Kickstarter is more transactional—campaign backers are buying something that must be delivered.
And there’s definitely something to the subscription model. “I collect a lot of these antiquarian editions of beautifully illustrated books that have gorgeous bindings, and a lot of them were printed by subscription,” O’Neill says. “Presses would have a subscriber base of maybe 1,000 people, maybe less, who would buy everything they put out or everything that they put out in a specific series. They knew the money was there so they were able to spend it on making something really, really gorgeous. And for me, I was like, ‘Oh, like this is just something that works. We’ve found a way to do it in the tech world, but it worked 150 years ago. It's the same thing.’”
Isn’t that exciting?! Here, I’m writing a utopian novel and a collection of essays imagining a more beautiful future. When I’m done, I plan to print the project into three collector’s edition copies for my paying subscribers at the collector’s tier—a collection of utopian fiction, a collection of essays imagining a more beautiful future, and a collection of utopian philosophy—and the subscription model allows me to do that. Amanda Nogales even designed what they will look like:
Become a collector to receive the print editions as they come out (one copy per year of subscription) ✨
I may still choose to run a Kickstarter when I want to gauge interest in things like boxed sets, vinyl albums, and in-person gatherings. Or I might figure out a way to do all of that here on Substack. Whatever the case, there can be no doubt that these platforms are providing phenomenal opportunities for artists to do incredible things with their art, all by allowing backers to support it, and Kickstarter is a great example of how we can do that.
Thank you for reading and supporting my newsletter! It means the world to me that you’re here.
P.S. Use the code NOVELLEIST at beehivebooks.com to get a 5% discount!
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The spreadsheet of every publishing campaign that earned $50k+ on Kickstarter
Here’s the spreadsheet with every single publishing campaign that has earned $50,000+ on Kickstarter—with links to all of their campaigns for further study! Shout out to Kickstarter for giving me enough information to get this thing going. It was a lot of fun to research every project, analyze all the data, and click through the projects that were so successful!