Kickstarting History


Anthony Clark is an independent historian.

If you have an idea for a book, article, monograph or other project but don’t have the institutional support, grants or personal funds to perform your research, consider crowdsourcing. The practice, defined as “the collection of relatively small amounts of capital from a large number of individuals to finance a new venture,” can be traced back several centuries to the use of subscriptions that funded the printing of books. Today, Kickstarter is the most popular online platform, followed by Indiegogo, RocketHub and many others. While each has different characteristics, they all share one goal: to raise money from a lot of people. Writers – especially historians – should be crowdfunding their work.*

As an independent writer, I’m on my own. Since 2003, I’ve self-financed dozens of trips to the federal presidential libraries for my book, The Last Campaign: How Presidents Rewrite History, Run for Posterity and Enshrine Their Legacies. I’m unable to continue doing so, and this month I launched a Kickstarter project to fund my final research trips to the libraries. As of this writing, we are just over fifty percent of the (relatively modest) goal of $7,500, and have two weeks left in the project.

I didn’t think it would take this long to complete the book. Five years ago – halfway through my research, as it turned out – I published an article here at History News Network about the obstacles I encountered trying to access the National Archives’ (NARA’s) own records about presidential libraries. My “going public” resulted in NARA eventually – after much reluctance, and many twists and turns – resolving the issue and releasing most of the records.

It also led to my appointment to the House Committee on Oversight and Government Reform, where I supervised hearings and investigations about NARA and the presidential libraries. Because of the conflict of interest this position and its authority posed with my personal work, I postponed my on-site research at NARA and the libraries for several years. To complete the book, I must now return to the five libraries that have made major changes since my appointment, and visit the newly-opened George W. Bush Library. Having spent my savings on the earlier trips – and on being unemployed these last nine months – I turned to crowdfunding.

On Kickstarter, project creators set a funding goal and deadline. If people like a project, they can pledge money to make it happen. This isn’t charity; everyone who backs the project gets a reward, which depend on the level of the pledge, and often include a copy of the item being produced. Backers of my project will receive rewards that range from my sincere, emailed thanks all the way up to my personal tour of the presidential library of their choice, and most of my rewards include a copy of The Last Campaign.

The platform’s format is all-or-nothing; if we don’t reach the goal by the morning of October 1, I get nothing and none of those who have pledged will be charged. This structure ensures that only projects that reach their goals will receive all of the funding they need, and backers’ pledges aren’t wasted in half-funded, never-completed efforts. Also, only those projects that receive widespread attention tend to attract enough backers to reach their goal.

I recommend crowdfunding – as long as you understand what you’re getting into, what will be expected of you, and you’re clear as to your reasons, your project, and your goal. It’s not simply a matter of posting a request for funds and sitting back to watch your money roll in. It’s hard work, in advance of launching and as well as while managing the time-limited project. I did so much preparatory work before I launched that I was surprised to discover it wasn’t a fraction of what I’ve had to do once the clock started ticking. It’s like sprinting as fast as you can for a few miles, only to hear the starter’s pistol and realize the real race has just begun. Make sure you have the time to devote both to plan and manage your project.

There are thousands of web sites with step-by-step advice on how to run a crowdfunding project, and Kickstarter provides you with a lot of good statistics on what has worked so far. The best suggestion I can offer is to view many – many – projects within your type and genre that have been successfully funded, make note of each unique aspect, and incorporate as many as you can into yours. The second-best is be prepared to manage the project on a daily basis: reach out to new constituencies, maintain a consistent presence on social media, post frequent, substantive updates, respond to every question as quickly as possible and thank everyone who pledges, recommends and/or spreads the word. Updates are especially important, as they not only reinforce your backers’ commitments to your project – they may add to, subtract from or retract their pledge until twenty-four hours before the deadline – but they generate the kind of enthusiasm that in turn generates positive word of mouth. Using my photographs, I have posted updates on the way the libraries tell the story of First Ladies, deal with controversies, discuss elections, and recreate rooms from the White House and other historic locations. Future updates will include concerns about access to presidential records, how we fund the libraries, and possible ways to reform the system. The important point is to attract and then keep your backers interested.

If you’ve ever been disappointed by your department’s lack of support for your work, bewildered by the decisions of grant-making committees or flabbergasted at what gets published by your colleagues, Kickstarter or similar platforms may be the way to see your work completed; they are well-matched to historical research and writing. Unlike some other creative endeavors that have made use – successful or otherwise – of these sites, scholarly research is perfect for crowdfunding. It’s specific, discrete, quantifiable, understandable, transferable and ripe for promotion.

Specific: you have to travel to an archive or library, or develop and administer a survey, or compile and analyze data. Potential backers can weigh what they believe that should cost – and whether they want to read it – with what you’ve set as your goal.

Discrete: you’re not creating a vague, open-ended art form – you’re performing research. People like limited projects that can be successful; remember – you not only have to raise the money, you then have to complete your project and send rewards to your backers.

Quantifiable: you need X number of days working with Y number of collections at Z dollars per day. You may find you need more time once you get there, but getting there (and back) is more than half the cost. Backers like to know where their money is going and how it relates to you completing your project. (When calculating your financial goal, include everything you need to complete your work, but be conservative, especially if you are using an all-or-nothing platform like Kickstarter; you want enough to do the work but not such a high goal that you won’t meet it. Also, factor in the fees associated with the platform and the cost of fulfilling the rewards.)

Understandable: people want to visualize easily what your project will look like when you’re done. You’re not inventing a new product or workshopping an experimental spoken word performance or postulating a new paradigm of the cosmological constant. You’re going to do research on topic X. To read about subject Y. To copy documents and photographs and data. To analyze and then write. People can “get” this.

Transferable: at the end of your research you will write a _____ – the thing you’re asking us to pledge money for so you can go research and then produce.

Ripe for promotion: Each of the five preceding items together make for a well-publicized project. Unless you have the absolutely, positively most dry, uninteresting, esoteric, intellectually-unreachable topic imaginable, you’ll find an audience (and even then, if your goal is modest, you probably will – given what projects have succeeded already).

When you use a crowdfunding platform, you’re not posting a paper notice on the History Department hallway bulletin board, relying on the few dozen people who pass it and who read it and who are liable to act on your request; you’re promoting your project to a significant fraction of the world – instantly. Even your Anti-Aesthetic Critique of Early 19th-Century Empire-Style Non-Brass Napoleonic Doorknobs, Vol. I will find backers. Maybe not $100,000 worth, but those fanatical philosophique connaisseurs de poignées de porte are out there. The trick is to get those good folks to your project site, and then convince them to pledge.

Use whatever you can: online outreach primarily; direct emails, certainly. Social media is extraordinarily helpful with crowdfunding, but only if you already have established your “online presence.” You can’t instantly create a Facebook author page, a Twitter feed, an Instagram portfolio, a Tumblr site and a prolific blog overnight – much less attract and retain the followers necessary for all of that work to pay off. Before you launch your crowdfunding efforts, carefully plan and establish yourself on the kind(s) of online platforms that will work best with your target audience.

Speaking of which: don’t assume that your crowdfunding backers will be limited to the people you already believe will want to read your finished product. Many platforms have established funders who will support well-designed and well-explained projects across a variety of disciplines; my project’s backers include those who have previously pledged to creators of artisanal foods, comics, computer and board games, and films, as well as books.

Reach out to family and friends – particularly in the early stage, when raising a good amount quickly is a key to success; Emily’s List’s slogan applies here, too: early money is like yeast: it helps raise the dough.

Don’t be shy about contacting the media directly. The broader the appeal of your subject matter, the more likely it is that news editors will want to tell your story. If it’s an against-the-odds situation, all the better. That I’m independent, that my research has taken me more than ten years, and the story of my long struggle with NARA are all good human-interest angles of which I’ve made good use. Send brief pitches, with only your most compelling facts, and target them to the right outlets. Contact national publications, but also your hometown paper, and any other kind of media with a connection to your topic or your personal story.

Once you get people to your project site, you have to convince them to pledge to your project. With Kickstarter, the two most important ways to do this are with your Project Video and how you write your Story. You don’t have to produce an award-winning short film, but you do have to be clear, sincere and passionate – and you must specifically ask people to pledge. I can’t tell you how many videos I’ve seen where the project creator fails to make a specific “ask.”

Make sure you are adequately lit and that we can hear what you have to say, but put more effort into crafting a tight, concise explanation of who you are, what you’re doing, what you need the money for and that you’d like people to pledge. It can be as simple as you speaking directly to the camera, or you can add visuals if you have them. Having a technical background, I was able to incorporate some digital video effects with photographs and titles, and royalty-free music.

When describing your work in your story, broaden its appeal to as wide an audience as you can. Besides those interested in the broader themes of history and politics, I have tried to include information that would attract, among others, open government advocates, museum curators, educators, and those concerned about federal spending. Do whatever works.

I understand that for some, such public, Please Look at Me! (to say nothing of Please Give Me Money!) positioning is distasteful. Many scholars avoid self-promotion (at least, the “pedestrian” kind; academic bragging? Another matter altogether). If you feel that way but you want to finish your research, well, get over it. As quickly as you can.

You’re trying to write something that people will read – no, something that people will buy, and then, we hope, read. You have to make it to the stage where it gets published, and in order to do so, you have to perform your research.

If you’re uncomfortable with the notion of putting it all out there and asking strangers for money, by all means, seek funding for your project elsewhere. But if those avenues are closed to you, drop your “pure artist” pretense and get to work raising money; you’ll have no problem spending it on airfare and hotels and restaurants and photocopying fees, so get used to the idea of raising it first.

Crowdfunding isn’t for every creative effort, and it’s not for everyone. But for the right project, and the right project creator – willing to devote the time and energy – it can be a successful way to complete your work. Just make sure that you not only have a great project, but that you get the word out, even if you have to be a little shameless.

Speaking of which: I hope you’ll review my Kickstarter project – for ideas, certainly – but more importantly, I hope you’ll consider making a pledge and joining The Last Campaign.

* By the term “work” I mean research, analysis – what you’ll need to write the book, article, etc. I do not recommend crowdfunding the self-publication of your work; while some believe strongly in that model, this article deals with raising the money for research, not publication.

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