Why crowdfunding is a great way to finance photo projects – Amateur Photographer

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As many readers will know, crowdfunding is an effective way for people, businesses and charities to raise money. It works through individuals or organisations who invest in or donate to crowdfunding projects in return for a potential profit, product or reward.

The first incidence of modern crowdfunding is believed to be 1997, when British rock band Marillion raised money from their fans to fund their US tour. It came to prominence and popularity in the noughties with the refinement of internet technology and emergence of social media.

Crowdfunding platforms utilising the reach and immediacy of the internet exploded onto the scene: Indiegogo, Patreon, GoFundMe, Chuffed, ArtistShare, MightyCause, InKind, Crowdfunder and Unbound among many others. The king of crowdfunding, founded in 2009, is Kickstarter, a for-profit company obliged to consider the impact of their decisions on society.

The company’s stated mission is to ‘help bring creative projects to life,’ which has made it popular across the globe with photographers. The total amount pledged to Kickstarter projects is an astronomical five-and-a-half billion dollars from over 19 million backers making 69 million pledges. More than 12 thousand photography projects have been launched, successfully raising over 45 million dollars.

Kickstarter’s fee is 5% and payment processing fees between 3% and 5%. If funding isn’t successful, there are none.

Crowdfunding is very democratic. Basically, if you want to fund a project or produce and sell a product, choose your crowdfunding platform, a time frame to achieve your funding target, create a campaign page with tempting rewards and incentives, and press launch. If enough people want your idea to exist and pledge an amount, then it will.

Cameras, filters, camera bags, holsters, hand straps, lenses, scanners and enlargers have all been crowdfunded. Photography books are among the most popular, revolutionising the publishing industry.

Case studies
Photographer, sketcher and writer Len Grant is no stranger to photo-books having published over 25, many concentrating on Manchester where he’s lived most of his life. For Regeneration Manchester: 30 years of storytelling, he decided to give crowdfunding a first try.

‘I looked very closely at the different models. I went to Kickstarter, I read everything that’s on their site, all their blogs, all their advice on how to do it. Crowdfunding is about being able to build a campaign, to encourage people to pre-order the book. There are two aspects to it. One is to clearly have a product you think people are going to want to buy and also have a good campaign to get the word out there,’ explains Len.

May 1997. Nearly twelve months after the IRA bombing and most Manchester city centre buildings are swathed in plastic, with others in stages of demolition.

With Kickstarter, it’s all or nothing. You have a maximum of 60 days to reach your funding target. Len set his target at a modest £3,800 to be raised in 30 days, the length of time Kickstarter itself recommends. He reached it in ten days, going on to raise a total of £8,227.

The campaign doesn’t stop when you hit your target, so you carry on raising as much as you can. ‘The biggest piece of advice I got was to plan significantly ahead. It’s not a case of launching your campaign on day one and hoping something’s going to happen. ‘I had a 30-day Twitter campaign planned before I hit the button and made my crowdfunding live.

As soon as it was, every day I would promote one aspect of the book. I would send out five or six tweets a day, tagging people who were involved in the project so that they would retweet it or further promote it. I probably spent about two hours a day doing that. Social media got this book printed,’ adds Len.

July 1998. A demolition workers surveys what remains of Maxwell House during its transformation into The Printworks entertainment complex.

Len was prepared, thorough and methodical. He identified his audience and used the most effective ways to reach them. He treated the crowdfunding period as a full-time marketing task.

The cover of Len’s book

Howes to do it properly
London-based freelance photographer Wayne Howes took a different approach. During the coronavirus lockdown of 2020, he captured the deserted streets of the capital. ‘London in Lockdown was never supposed to be a work of art. It was a collection of images to show what I’m working through, something for the future, my day-to-day view walking the streets of London,’ reveals Wayne.

Just one of the striking images from Wayne’s project

After sharing the images on social media, friends and family suggested he publish a book. ‘I didn’t think a book was the best tool, I didn’t want to do it. I got pressurised into it. I said to people, if it’s something you think could go somewhere, I will launch a Kickstarter.’

Wayne’s knowledge of crowdfunding was as limited as his preparation. ‘I was probably a bit arrogant, a bit naive. I didn’t look at tutorials. I listed it with Kickstarter, got accepted and went from there. I didn’t do a great deal except share the links on social media. I dropped an email to a couple of magazines, it didn’t go anywhere. I quite literally didn’t do anything prior to the Kickstarter going live.’

Video stars
A video can make or break your campaign. Kickstarter pinpoints the video as the most important part. It can be shared across all social media. If a viewer sees nothing else, they’ll probably watch your video. ‘I ignored that. If I’m completely honest. It wasn’t something I wanted to do. It takes an enormous amount of time.’

Wayne set a 30-day target of £3,000, reaching it in 16 days, and went on to raise £3,752. The 98 backers enabled him to print 100 books and was the springboard to other publishing opportunities. “Nearly a year down the line, I’ve cleared a thousand copies and made some good money on it.’

Long haul
In very different ways, Len and Wayne raced to their funding targets. Stephen Leslie, a writer and photographer, took a different route to fund his book, Sparks: Adventures in Street Photography, a unique blend of fact and fiction, photographs, poems and short stories.

‘I’ve learnt through friends of mine who’ve done photography books on Kickstarter what they had to endure, and I thought I’d been very clever by finding Unbound and doing it with them. I didn’t feel I had a community of people that knew about my work. I think if I’d tried to do it through Kickstarter, I wouldn’t have had a book. Unbound has no time limit so you give yourself a better chance, especially if you’re coming at it from a standing start like me.’

Stephen spent £350 to make a promotional film for YouTube; the expense was factored into the total of £20,000 he was hoping to raise. He scheduled the launch of his campaign with a well-attended talk at the London Photography Symposium. ‘That gave it a really good boost at the start, then it became just torture.

You can only appeal for money to the same captive audience so many times. You run out of friends. It took me six months to raise the money for the book. Six months of actual begging.’

Just one of the great images from Sparks

Taking into account the time to prepare and deliver Sparks to the 367 people who supported the project, Stephen calculates the total time spent as two years. Working as his own funding PR, Stephen dug deep, emailing and cold calling. It paid off, he had a broadcast on BBC Radio London and an online gallery with The Guardian. He thought outside the box.

One of his campaign rewards for a pledge of £750 was: ‘A Unique Photograph and Story Combination,’ where Stephen would stalk you, try to photograph you without your knowledge and then write a story based on the resulting photograph. Plus a limited edition 12x8in fine art print from the book, signed first edition of the hardback, the ebook and name in the back of the book. Two backers chose this reward.

So you need to be sensible – limit your number of rewards so you don’t have to spend weeks fulfilling them. Make sure you can afford the rewards as this will come from the money you raise.

Brought to book
Crowdfunding has flung open the doors to book publishing for individuals. It has also helped traditional publishing houses. Following a disastrous Christmas in 2013, Bluecoat Press, a niche independent publisher founded by…

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