Funding an encyclopedia


One of my favourite Kickstarter campaigns is The Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes by Jess Nevins.

In 2013, Jess raised $15,671 from 444 backers to publish an encyclopedia. Imagine, for a moment, that this was part of a research program. It wasn’t, but it could very well be. Encyclopedia are collections of knowledge, and provide fundamental information that provide the building blocks for new discoveries.

If you are interested in funding your research through crowdfunding, there are some really good lessons that you can draw from the Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes campaign.

You don’t need to be fancy

A lot of people feel that they need a slick video for their crowdfunding campaign. You don’t. You need a clear idea, well expressed – just the same as with any other funding request.

Have a look at Jess Nevins’ video for the Encyclopedia of Golden Age Superheroes. Even though I love it, there is no way that I could call Jess’ video a slick pitch. He is standing in front of a tree, talking straight to camera. He doesn’t do anything except stand there and talk to you. With all the rich imagery of the Golden Age of comics to draw upon, he doesn’t include a single image in his video.

In part, that is why I love it – it has a very clear honesty about it. It hasn’t been produced by a communications unit or a video company. It has been produced by someone working on their own, with the skills and resources that they have to hand.

When I sent a draft of this post to Jess, he pointed out that:

“… Kickstarter is now seven years old — the sense I get from looking at Kickstarters now is that there’s a greater expectation on the audience’s part for slicker and better produced video pitches and Kickstarter presentations in general than there was in 2012. On the other hand, the conditions of my Kickstarter, in which I was pitching as a known authority on a subject to an audience already familiar with my work, are not the conditions under which a lot of Kickstarters operate, so your blog’s point, that you don’t need to go fancy with the pitch if you have authority and a clear idea, is probably still correct.”

You do need credibility

Jess requested $6,000. He raised that amount within 12 hours. By the time his campaign had finished, he had raised raised $15,671, 260% of his original request.

While he raised his target overnight, his success didn’t happen overnight. Jess had been working in this field for a long time, annotating comics and finding other ways to give to the community. He had already produced two similar encyclopedias: Fantastic Victoriana and Pulp Heroes. People respected his work and recognised his encyclopaedic knowledge of the area.

That meant that he had an audience, and he had credibility with that audience. They were grateful for his past work, and believed in his ability to produce the new encyclopedia. A lot of academics have credibility, but don’t necessarily have the audience. They have done good work, but it has only been meaningful to other academics. That doesn’t necessarily work for crowdfunding.

You can get fundamental work funded

In research terms, Jess was funding his data collection and his publication costs.

Data collection usually happens as part of a larger project, aimed at answering a research question. Research funding agencies like the answers to big questions – they don’t like data collection that happens without those answers. The Australian Research Council, for example,

“…does not support the production of … descriptive data compilations, catalogues or bibliographies…”

Grant Guidelines for the Discovery Program (2018), Australian Research Council.

Even though taxonomy is the building block of all research that comes after it, and encyclopedias represent the synthesis of all knowledge that has come before, the Australian Research Council won’t support their production unless they are the by-product of a bigger project.

Publication is another really difficult area to get funded, by itself. I often talk to academics who are seeking publication funds, particularly in areas like art and architecture where the costs can be very high. Unfortunately I have to tell them that philanthropic and government funders generally want to fund a whole program of work. They don’t want to fund the final bit of your project.

Crowdfunding isn’t like that. It works really well when you need a bit more funding to get a project finished. You can use it to fund things that other funders won’t touch, or that are too small to fit within their guidelines.

Plan for success and plan for contingencies

Jess, like a lot of other crowdfunding projects, ran into trouble trying to provide his supporters with the finished encyclopedia. Many projects run into trouble because they are too successful. Jess’ had a lot more supporters than he originally planned for. That would have meant printing more copies, sending out more PDFs and tracking a lot more information. It might have meant that the publication process was more complex and that the expectations were higher. Because everyone would have been expecting their material at the same time, it definitely meant that the pressure would have been higher.

Research projects, by definition, involve risk. You can’t know what will happen as your project progresses. You need to keep communicating with your supporters, letting them know both the good and the bad aspects of the project. Cindy Wu, the co-founder of the Experiment crowdfunding service, talks of this as ‘publishing in real time‘. It keeps your supporters informed, and it demystifies the research process.

There are a lot of reasons that successful crowdfunding projects have trouble delivering their promised rewards. It is difficult to accurately estimate production costs, shipping costs and the amount you need for unexpected contingencies. Many crowdfunding projects are a side-project, and extended timelines means that life moves on. People get sick, get married, change jobs, have kids, move house – life happens. So if you are planning to provide your supporters with tangible rewards, think about what happens if you have five times the number of supporters you expect, and it takes five times as long to complete your project.

It is also important to define the crowdfunding campaign so that it includes both the fund-raising period and the production period that comes afterwards. These are two parts to the whole. I see a lot of discussion of how to plan crowdfunding campaigns and how to conduct crowdfunding campaigns. I see comparatively little on how to deliver the product (or the research) that has been funded, and to provide feedback to the supporters. It is important that we plan for the crowdfunding experience as a whole, so that we can both raise funds and actually complete the research, in whatever form it takes.