Interview: Greg Stolze on Kickstarter, ransoming, and writing |

Interview: Greg Stolze on Kickstarter, ransoming, and writing


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We've posted here before about the Kickstarter process. So we thought we'd talk with one of its artists about going from traditional publishing to ransoming.

Greg Stolze is a contributor to several role-playing games for White Wolf and Atlas Games and the co-creator of Unknown Armies. He is also the author of many novels and short stories, some of which he has been releasing through Kickstarter under Creative Commons licenses.

How did ransoming, this "product of Greg Stolze's mad brain," as Daniel Solis puts it, come about? What are the advantages?
If necessity is the mother of invention, laziness is invention's deadbeat dad. I'm a writer and I like to write, and it's about the only job at which I've surpassed "mediocre." Some things I'm not good at and don't like include: Hustling, organizing, ingratiating myself to people in positions of authority and software coding. Honestly, I've never even tried software coding.

So I had an idea with a small but fervent potential audience, an idea that no sensible publisher would touch with a ten foot stick because the incredibly excited fan who buys your magazine has no greater financial leverage than the guy who needs something to read on the train and buys your magazine on a whim. I thought, "Why not let the people who want it decide how much they want it?" The fans pay what they think it's worth, or what they're willing to risk. The whim-readers don't have to pay anything. I either get what I think it's worth or nobody gets the article. There's risk, sure, but nobody has to gamble outside their comfort zone.

The other key ingredient to the ransom was my unwillingness to deal with piracy. This idea came around about the time of the napster fiasco, and watching the record companies' personal Vietnam convinced me I did not want to be in the rice paddies with them. I was too lazy to attempt to protect my work from bittorrent and other file swappers.

You know what else I was too lazy to do? Advertise. I'm not good at ad copy, I hate writing it and I'm sure people who read it can tell. I feel the best advertisement for my work is my work. Word of mouth has been a good ally to me, but you know who really excels at word of mouth? Those pirates on the file-swap boards. So the pieces fell into place. The best advertising (as I saw it) was to let people who wanted to spread the word do it. Getting paid first and then releasing a piece for everyone to spread around sure sounded easier than trying to chase down the very people who are reading my stuff and saying "No, you have to retroactively pay for that! I'm glad you like my writing but you're a DIRTY THIEF!" Kind of a mixed message there, y'know?

Having tried it a few times, do you have any thoughts on what makes one thing or another more successful at being ransomed? Is it all dependent on the whims of word-of-mouth?
It works best on things that people want, and that they KNOW they want. My most successful ransoms have been supplements for REIGN, a tabletop roleplaying game. The setup with that is, I sell the main rules of it as a big 300+ page book, and all the supplements come out as 10,000 word articles, ransomed for a thousand bucks a pop. Each supplement typically had a focus, and people who were most interested in that focus supported it with more cash.

It's not at all dependent on word of mouth, in my experience. As long as you have a pool of potential interested donors, all you have to do is tell them and let the interested ones pay in. I don't think there were big viral bursts of support for the REIGN stuff. Towards the end, if a ransom is lagging, word of mouth tends to be a bigger factor as the supporters egg other fans off the fence.

For REIGN, the fast moving rocket ransoms were (1) the do-it-yourself type rules that let people expand on the mechanics themselves and (2) the rules that arose from me asking people, "So, what should I write next?" The written-to-spec package worked because people knew what they wanted, asked for it, and got it. Once they knew I'd listened, the motivation to contribute wasn't just "Whoa, my order's up!" but also, I suspect, an element of "I'd better put my money where my mouth is or I'm going to lose the potential to have input like this in the future." Common sense, really. If you advise someone to do X, it's because you want X to happen. Therefore you're going to do what you can to help X happen.

As for the do-it-yourself rules, that was a little bit painful, if you look at it through the lens of avarice. From that perspective, it was me saying "Hey, who wants to pay me to make myself obsolete?" But the whole point of tabletop RPGs is that they put the power to design and create in the hands of the people. You can't stop 'em, so you might as well enable 'em. It's the same thing as with the file sharing. You either get on the train and shovel coal, or you're lying down on the tracks.

Some people probably imagine Kickstarter is for people who can't get running any other way. But you've been successful through traditional publishing methods. So what led you to using it?
Laziness and greed. (As a caveat, I don't agree that "Kickstarter is for people who can't get running any other way." There are plenty of people who won't get going with Kickstarter either. It's fickle. Like anything involving money, people and the internet, there are no guarantees. I thought the current story I have up for ransom was a no-brainer, but the donations have stalled hard and I'm looking failure in the face again. It is a far, far better tool for confirming demand than for creating it.)

But back to laziness and greed. I've submitted stories to magazines and internet sites and, by and large, it takes a couple months to hear back from them. At least. If I'm not careful, I can actually forget that I submitted a story until I get the rejection notice. If I was a spry, optimistic, go-getter of a morning person, I'd set up some kind of chart where I could track all the stories I've submitted, but I'd rather write a story than spend a year sending it to four or five different magazines, trying to find just the right one, trying to figure out what the editors like, sending those tentative "...haven't heard from you, you did get it right?" emails... It's part of the job, but that doesn't stop me hating it. At least with Kickstarter, I can log on, check how it's doing, and get emails when it has a boost.

Most of my professional publication has started with personal connections. I still have to do the work and exhibit the craft and hit the deadlines, but the cold letter has something like a 1% success rate for me. I really ought to be going to conventions and meeting agents and editors and buying drinks and schmoozing. It's unforgiveable, my neglect of the schmooze. But I'd rather swing my browser by than go out of town for a weekend. Certainly it's less expensive.

That brings us to the question of money, of course. The greed element. I find I'm willing to pay myself rates significantly higher than those any editor has offered, even the ones that like me. This works because I'm not paying for an illustrator, layout guy, publicist, printer and delivery service. The fans get what they pay for and nothing extraneous. I get paid for what I do and no more.

There are limits to the greed potential of ransoming, of course. It does not lend itself to the "Twilight" style breakout hit. Once you hit your set ransom, that's it, that's all you're going to make. But I think that's a more sustainable model for a one-man-band like me. After all, publishers have to constantly chase the unpredictable big hit. For the record companies, one Nirvana pays to carry a dozen other bands that never earned out their investment. Similarly, J.K. Rowling pays for a lot of unsold mid-list paperbacks that wind up returned and pulped.

Why did you decide to start using Creative Commons licenses?
What else was I going to do? Try and hold on to rights in an atmosphere where enforcement is laughable? In traditional publishing, unless you're the one-in-a-million lotto winner who breaks wide and gets turned into a movie, I don't think those rights do you much good. First publication rights are what the magazines really value, but once you've sold those off, second helping are less likely, less profitable, and it's a slope of diminishing returns. You might get lucky to sell a story once to a magazine, then again to an anthology, but after that second trip, the well is probably dry. Rather than hope for an unlikely return from stinginess, I decided to go with a strategy of generosity. Hey, people paid for it? Great, party hearty, go nuts, tell your friends, create derivative works. I got for the "noncommercial/attribution" license. Why not? I don't think people are going to try and rip off my short stories for profit because there's little enough money publishing short fiction legitimately. Mostly, my works are toys. People play with them, they don't try to make a buck off them.

If you'd like to try giving Greg a kick, you can find him at


About the author

Ruth Suehle - Ruth Suehle is the community leadership manager for Red Hat's Open Source and Standards team. She's co-author of Raspberry Pi Hacks (O'Reilly, December 2013) and a senior editor at GeekMom, a site for those who find their joy in both geekery and...