6 Lessons We Can Learn from the Archie Kickstarter

If you're reading this post, odds are you've heard about the Archie Kickstarter project. It's likely you've also seen a lot of the backlash online. You might even be one of the people upset with the project, and contributing to that backlash.

Wherever you fall, there are lessons to be learned from a project like this - regardless of whether it succeeds or fails. And while I'd usually refrain from commenting on a topic like this, I wanted to share some of my takeaways and try to communicate some of the nuance that I don't think is being adequately explored.


A Brief Moment of Clarity

Despite, or perhaps as a result, of the way conversation surrounding the Kickstarter has consumed the comics internet I think a lot of people are misunderstanding the purpose of the Archie project.

Now, only so much is actually clear based off the information Archie has relayed via Kickstarter updates and interviews - a problem I'll discuss later - but here's what we know so far:

  • A few months ago, Archie had an opportunity to set up rack space at Target and Walmart.
  • They seized the opportunity, stocking the shelves with their digests at Walmart in March and in Target last week (May).
  • In order to do so, they invested resources (financially and in terms of manpower) that would've otherwise been spent on producing the titles they are now crowdfunding
  • As a result, the titles would come out more gradually and not in a timeframe where Archie felt they could adequately capitalize on the momentum they assume will come with the release of Archie #1
  • So, they turned to Kickstarter to fund the printing, production, advertising and creation of the launch arcs (6 issues) of these 3 books: Jughead, Betty and Veronica, and Life With Kevin.
  • If the Kickstarter does not succeed these titles will not be canceled, but they may not be released as quickly or in the format they're being released in the campaign.
  • The self-reported goal of the Kickstarter is to put these titles on an accelerated timeline to capitalize on the expected Archie relaunch momentum and get the titles into comic shops more quickly.
  • UPDATE: 5 days after launching their campaign (12 hours after the publication of this post), Archie cancelled its Kickstarter, releasing this statement to its backers.

Now, this is an overview of what they've said. I have listed the three sources I used below, so that you can read them in full, but for our purposes this is enough context to get started.

Resources


Merits & Failings of the Archie Kickstarter

One of the biggest questions surrounding the Archie Kickstarter is whether or not they should even be using the crowdfunding platform to begin with.

I don't have a good answer for this. In fact, I don't think anyone does. They're not the first publisher to use crowdfunding and I doubt they'll be the last. More importantly, if Kickstart itself allowed the project and it's now currently running - debating whether it should be running serves little purpose. It's equally as useless to be outraged, and denounce Archie with little additional consideration.

What does serve a purpose is trying to extrapolate lessons from their Kickstarter project. We can do this by examining and discussing the project's merits and failings.

Many creators, like Colleen Doran for example, have approached the topic in this way. They questioned decisions and shared their perspectives in a constructive way, as opposed to simply denouncing the company.

I don't have a clear answer as to whether the Archie Kickstarter is right or wrong. I don't know whether it should or shouldn't exist. What I do know, is that thanks to the constructive segments of the conversation surrounding the controversy I've been reminded of the importance of certain aspects of making comics.

The Importance of Communication

Communication is important when you're making comics, but it's especially important when you're crowdfunding. Not only are you making yourself accountable to your backers by promising them rewards, but you're asking them to trust you to trust you with a collective sum of a significant size for no immediate return. This all adds up to making clear communication with your audience extremely important. Especially when you're perceived to have your own resources, and are subject to the additional scrutiny that accompanies being a publishing company.

The Archie Kickstarter definitely failed in effectively communicating the purpose of their Kickstarter & in being sufficiently transparent to demonstrate a clear purpose why they needed the $350,000 they asked for. Here's what we can learn from both of these mistakes:

Communication & Clarity of Purpose

I can't make a judgement on whether the $350,000 is justified or not. Plenty of people have commented on it - see Jannelle Asselin's tweets for one example - but for my purposes, it's irrelevant whether or not the sum is reasonable.

What is relevant is the confusion and lack of clarity surrounding how Archie intends to use the money. The confusion surrounding the interplay between Archie's Walmart and Target opportunities and the subsequent Kickstarter contributed to a lot of the backlash I witnessed.

If people better understood the reasoning behind the Kickstarter from the get go - as opposed to having it clarified later - I think some of the negative reaction could have been mitigated.

Lesson #1: When launching a project, be crystal clear in explaining why you're pursuing Kickstarter, especially if you're in a position where people assume you have other options available to you.

Transparency & Trust

The value of transparency lies in the trust that it can build. The less transparent you are, the more inclined people will be to assume that you're hiding something. After all, why wouldn't you be transparent unless you were worried that sharing your plan would make people not want to support the project.

On the other hand, if you are transparent there's much less room for people to make their own conclusions and it makes backers more comfortable donating to you.

This gets more important as the sum you're trying to raise increases. People are much more suspicious about $350,000 than $35,000. It's a lot more money and a lot more potential decisions for people to disagree with.

Archie did not make this clear at launch and has yet to do so even in light of all the backlash. It's not surprising to me people are wondering how the money is being spent. They could've avoided all of this, by showing a general breakdown of the way they've planned to spend the money.

Lesson #2: When running a project be very clear about how you intend to spend the sum you raise, in order to make potential backers more comfortable with supporting your project. If you aren't, people will make their own conclusions.

The Importance of a Good Campaign

One of the other issues I've seen discussed is the actual structuring of Archie's campaign.

It's become typical of comic Kickstarter projects for the rewards to cost more than they would in a regular retail campaign. The tradeoff is that you're helping make the project happen. Unfortunately, for Archie - their Kickstarter has a couple flaws here:

  • Their rewards cost more than what's standard, even relative to Kickstarter's already-high prices.
  • The incentive for backers isn't as high because the projects will happen anyways. Archie's betting on backer's eagerness and desire to read the comics sooner. This is not as compelling a desire when the existence of the books is not on the line.

There's also the simple issue of how high the goal is. If funded they would be the 7th most-funded comic Kickstarter project of all time. That alone, doesn't seem untenable, but when you start comparing it to pre-existing Kickstarter projects, it's easy to wonder whether the project was going to face difficulties from the get-go, backlash aside.

Using their current standing - which at the time of this writing is $34,139 with 628 backers - then we can conclude each backer is contributing an average of $54. Keeping this in mind, their project would need 6,482 backers total to meet their goal. That's 5,854 more backers than they have currently.

Now, these backer levels have been reached before. I counted 6 projects that reached comparable numbers (5 were beyond the 6,482 and one reached 6,466 which I felt was close enough). These projects had an average pledge of: $38, $40, $43, $58, $71, $83. All taken together, this comes down to a collective average pledge of $56.

This is surprisingly on par with what the Archie Kickstarter is looking for. The difference is that all but one of these comparable projects - the Penny Arcade Kickstarter - have goals below $100k! In fact, they're all below $60k!

Project performance like that is indicative of a passionate audience actually demonstrating demand, rather than a company expecting a certain level of demand with little evidence of it existing.

This doesn't even consider that 4 of these projects were to fund collections that wouldn't otherwise exist and therefore provided a stronger incentives for backers to pledge to the project.

If we want to take this analysis further, we can look at other projects that have had comparable goals. It's also important to note that the Archie Kickstarter has the highest goal of any serious comic project (the next one in line is Penny Arcade with a goal of 250k) ever. This kind of success would be unprecedented. There are 37 projects with goals beyond 100k. Of these only 3 have been successful. None of these 3 had goals at or above 350k.

Now, I will allow that trying to judge their performance based on other Kickstarter projects is a reductive view, but I don't think it's unfair. Archie stumbled here by structuring a project that caused people not only to balk at the goal they set for themselves, but also at the cost for the rewards they were providing.

Before we move on, I do want to give Archie its due credit for being responsive throughout the campaign. They listened to feedback from backers and didn't just add reward tiers, but edited certain tiers to provide greater value to their supporters.

Lesson #3: When you're launching a Kickstarter campaign, learn from other comparable projects and don't deviate too far without a great reason. Backers are likely more comfortable pledging to projects that have a structure similar to the other campaigns they've supported.

The Importance of a Nuanced Opinion

Speaking with respect to the Archie Kickstarter, Tom Spurgeon tweeted, "If you can't make it work without soaking your fans, maybe it's time to find another line of work..." And while I might not be so vehement, I do understand the sentiment.

However, it seems to me that Archie is making it work - Kickstarter failings aside. The crowdfunding project seems to be a strategy to make it possible for them to get the best of both worlds: stocking comics in Target & Walmart while still relaunching the Archie line in the way they originally intended.

It's not the first crowdfunding project I've seen meant simply to accelerate the progress of a project - though it's definitely the most high profile. And the fact that it isn't an absolute "make or break" scenario - in that we'll still see these books even if the Kickstarter fails - should be a good thing, right?

In any other circumstance, I think we'd be excited that these books are being made. These are new, interesting comics by a 75-year old publisher continuing a new trend of revitalizing their iconic brand. And that's a great thing.

We may not agree with the "why and how" of the project, we may be frustrated with the lack of transparency or failure to communicate, and we may not like how the campaign is structured. However, these aren't reasons to condemn Archie or denounce them entirely. Rather, they're great reasons to discuss the nuances of the Kickstarter, and try to learn as much as we can from the project.

If we resort to outrage then we have no chance to learn from what they've done. Anger stops a conversation from taking place and conversations like these push the industry forward.

The market will be the ultimate arbiter of the project's success or failure. Anger contributes nothing constructive to the conversation.

Lesson #4: Instead of being outraged, explore the nuance of controversies and seek out the lessons you can learn from others' mistakes. There's good and bad to everything. It serves nobody to operate in absolutes and obfuscate a nuanced situation with anger.

The Importance of Competing

I've already discussed my feelings about the criticism that's been levied at the Archie Kickstarter. While I've seen outrage, I've also seen plenty of worthwhile critiques. However, I do want to draw attention to two criticisms I've heard that I find problematic:

  • Kickstarter projects by high-profile companies or creators take attention away from independent creators that actually need crowdfunding.
  • Kickstarter projects by big publishers take money away from smaller campaigns

My problem with these criticisms is twofold. One, they indicate zero-sum thinking and I don't believe crowdfunding is zero-sum.

As Kickstarter statistics - the very ones published by Kickstarter - have shown, 30% of backers become repeat backers and they go on to pledge, on average, to 4 other projects beyond their first. So if a high profile creator is able to bring their audience to Kickstarter, then roughly a third of their backers will go on to back other projects. If you're delivering on your end, one of those projects may be your own. Rather than take money away from smaller creators, the high-profile Kickstarter projects are actually positive for the ecosystem and increasing your chances of getting funded.

Two, more important than whether the criticisms are fair is understanding that business will not always be fair. Once you recognize that, the next step is learning how to take it in stride.

The comics industry is a business and in business, there's always competition. Sometimes your competition is a heavyweight like Archie - or in some cases a sumo like Marvel or DC - while you're still a featherweight independent creator. We don't control who enters the ring, and we don't get to control when they do, either. If the playing ground is uneven, it's up to you to compensate for your disadvantages by over-delivering and finding ways to outperform your competition.

To use Archie as an example, their advantage is their iconic brand. The reason they're getting a lot of press - regardless of the nature of that press - is because the Archie brand carries weight.

Archie has earned the coverage they're getting on their own merit with over 75 years of publishing. That longevity is what makes them notable. If you're not getting press, it's probably because your project isn't notable. However you do it, it's up to you to make sure your project is worth covering on its own merit.

The same holds true with the money complaint. Archie has earned its backers over those same 75 years of publishing. They built an audience over multiple generations and earned their trust. They came to the platform with a preexisting fanbase and if you don't you're going to be at a disadvantage.

Most people don't aggressively seek out Kickstarter projects to back - especially now that we're several years into Kickstarter's life. They're backing Archie because they care about the property and are excited about the upcoming books. If Archie didn't launch their project, their supporters wouldn't seek to support your Kickstarter. Not unless you gave them a reason to care about your project or made them your own fans.

If you look at the campaigns that are live on Kickstarter right now, plenty of projects experiencing success despite the Archie Kickstarter. They're not making excuses. They earned their success by their own merit.

Lesson #5: Business isn't inherently fair. When you're competing against stronger contenders, the only way to win is to work harder.

The Importance of Experimentation

Whether projects like the Archie Kickstarter succeed or fail, we should be encouraging this kind of experimentation. If we trust in the shifting marketplace to regulate projects, then we lose nothing from a project like this.

Sure, there's a chance that a high-profile campaign might fail to deliver and the burned backers will hesitate to return to the platform, but progress always has an associated risk.

The business of comics is changing. Because of the increase in comic sales and the second "Golden Age" we're currently experiencing, most of the comic industry is in a comfortable position, and remaining static. It's easy to experiment when what you're doing isn't working; it's hard to invest in risk when you're experiencing success. But it's necessary.

We need comics to progress. Trade paperbacks, webcomics, digital comics, they're all products of experimentation. Some advances take and lead to great change and innovation, like crowdfunding for example. Others, like motion comics, have more difficulty catching on and don't pan out as intended.

We should relish and celebrate the people willing to try something different - even if the experiments are problematic and even if some of us wish for the experiments to fail.

Every failure is a learning opportunity and if we respond to the experiments we don't like with outrage and anger, the market will stagnate. People will be less inclined to try something different if they expect the kind of backlash you can find throughout the "comics web" in any given week.

Archie tried something new. That's a great thing. It's just as important to know which roads to take as it is to know which roads to avoid.

Lesson #6: Every inch of progress carries a risk. Every experiment will be met with its share of backlash. Justified or not, it comes with the territory. But those who are brave enough to embrace the uncertainty, risk failure, and forge ahead despite criticism are the people who will lead the industry forward.


The next step

I think it's extremely important to always do our best to learn from projects like Archie's Kickstarter. And the learning here doesn't just stop at 6 Lessons. In fact, I think there's plenty more we can learn from the project. 

So, I decided to put together "Lessons from Archie."

lessons-from-archie

It's a PDF presentation meant to dive deeper into the merits & failings of the Archie Kickstarter in order to extrapolate as many lessons as possible. It includes: 

  • An explanation of the Archie Kickstarter & the controversy surrounding it
  • A bonus lesson in light of the cancellation of the project
  • An alternate Kickstarter strategy: How Archie could've put together a successful campaign, based off Kickstarter best practices.
  • A post-mortem, discussing what might come next from Archie and where they could go from here

If you'd like, you can download the entire 72-page eBook for free by pressing the button below. It'll also get you signed up for the awesome Creator At Large Newsletter.