Case Study: Robin Sloan Writes a Book
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As I'm writing this, I have:
295 backers. 507 copies of the book spoken for. 46 days to finish the text.
Each one of those numbers is totally thrilling. (And okay, one is scary. Guess which one.)
Three weeks earlier, Robin had launched the project with a bold premise: a detective story “set halfway between San Francisco and the internet,” roughly novella-length, written completely over the course of the campaign—between August 26 and October 31. “I’ll design the book in the two weeks after that,” Robin had written in the original project description, “then get it printed, then send it winging your way.”
Writing a book in just 69 days would be hard enough, but simultaneously running a Kickstarter project tipped the whole endeavor into thrilling and scary territory. Would Robin and his supporters rise to the occasion?
Robin’s childhood near Detroit was filled with books. “I was always a library kid,” Robin remembers. “From the time I was in elementary school, I was just reading voraciously. And I always had a spirit of wanting to emulate these things I liked so much.”
Fast-forward a decade, and Robin found himself at Michigan State University. As a freshman in 1998, Robin “just happened to fall in with a bunch of literary guys” who all lived on the same floor of the same dorm. Together, they founded a literary magazine called Oats, and Robin recalls that their “not-even-concealed plan was that we were going to use it as a platform to publish our own stuff.”
As it turned out, though, it was “so much work to just run a magazine, we didn’t spend very much time writing. In the final analysis, I think that after three years—almost four years—of running this magazine, we probably all published one or two things each.”
Robin’s “one thing” was a short story, and the experience of publishing it was intoxicating. But as an Economics major, other interests and commitments pulled him back to reality. The impulse to write fiction went back into hibernation for another decade.
In 2002, Robin graduated from Michigan State University and moved down to St. Petersburg, Florida for a two-year fellowship at the Poynter Institute, a non-profit dedicated to excellence in journalism. Journalism in general, and writing for the web in particular, gave Robin the discipline to write fast and edit ruthlessly.
Poynter also gave Robin occasion to meet one of the other Naughton Fellows for Online Reporting and Writing, Matt Thompson. The two became fast friends, eating lunch together in the cafeteria most days. Lunchtime conversations soon shaded into collaboration. As Robin remembers it, in September 2003, “Matt appeared before me and said: ‘Let’s start a blog.’”
In the spring of 2004, as the fellowship at Poynter was winding down, Robin found himself thinking more and more about the digital cable channel Al Gore was planning to reboot as “an exciting television network for young men and women who want to know more about their world.” After thirty-one emails to the company's CEO and one cross-country road trip to meet him in San Francisco, Robin was hired into his first role as an interactive producer at the company that would become Current.
The Fiction Impulse Returns
Four years and five roles later, Robin and one of his Current colleagues, Andrew Fitzgerald, had settled into a ritual.
“We used to walk to Cento, the little coffee stand, all the time,” Robin recalls. The two would “talk about books we liked and fiction and comic books and stuff.” According to Robin, they both identified as “dudes who used to write fiction and still on some level think of themselves as fiction-writers but are not actually writing anything.”
Then one day, on their walk to Cento, Andrew dropped a bomb: “Hey, I’m doing National Novel Writing Month!” “Doing NaNoWriMo” meant that Andrew would be writing over a thousand words every day during November, working up to a novel.
By the end of the month, Andrew had his 50,000 words. Robin had another reaction entirely:
He finished it, and I was…blind with jealousy that he had written this thing. And so really, just out of pure jealousy—not out of spite, but more like “Aha! Two can play that game!” I [decided that I] was going to start writing again.
This jealousy was Force #1. Meanwhile, other forces were at work.
Force #2: a tweet. On November 15, 2008, Rachel Leow posted to Twitter:
just misread '24hr bookdrop' as '24hr bookshop'. the disappointment is beyond words.— rachel (@idlethink) November 15, 2008
As Robin recalls, “That’s the kind of phrase you copy and paste into your idea-file, if you’re smart.” So that’s exactly what he did.
Force #3: the Kindle. From the moment news of the Kindle (Amazon’s e-reader) first leaked in April 2007, Robin found it intriguing, if clunky. In February 2009, Amazon released the sleeker Kindle 2, and Robin promptly purchased one. The aesthetic of e-ink on a pale, flickering screen captivated him: “I was kind of obsessed with the Kindle and the way things looked on the Kindle,” he would later remember.
Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four Hour Bookstore
Midway through 2009, these three forces came together: on June 6, Robin published a 6,000-word short story titled “Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store” to the Kindle Store and on the web.
In many ways, writing the story was its own reward. Robin recalls:
I had the sense writing it that…some of this came from blogging, right? This sense of a fluency and a voice that I can draw on, it was really identical to the same voice and some of the same tools I was using for blogging, except I was telling a story.
Five years of writing for Snarkmarket had been better practice than he’d realized: writing fiction “felt like something I was good at, and had maybe been training for without realizing it.” Yet as gratifying as the process was in its own right, Robin acknowledges that reception mattered to him, too:
I do have to say, if I had released it and it had kind of gone “clunk”…I don’t know that I would have been discouraged, but I might not have been particularly compelled to do more in the future. I might have just said, “yep, tried that, that was fun, on to the next thing.”
But the story did not land with a thud. In fact, the opposite: within the first week, Robin sold 130 copies of “Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Bookstore” on Kindle, and it received over 10,000 web views.
People on bulletin boards were linking to it, it got some mention on some blogs and stuff, and I don’t know, it just felt like it got a warm response. I felt like people dug it. And bought it on their Kindles for 99 cents. And that kind of made me go: “Cool! People want to read this stuff! And I want to do it again!”
And so I started thinking about what else I could write. But it was definitely the mix of the intrinsic fact that it was just really fun to do, but also the extrinsic fact that I put it out there and—it worked! It got traction.
Kind of Bloop
Andy Baio was one of the people who linked to “Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Bookstore”; on June 11, 2009, he described it as “must-read short fiction on data visualization, Google book scanning, and immortality.” Robin remembers that Andy “definitely sent some nerds my way. I knew his deal, and I thought we were kinda in the same sphere.”
So when Robin learned about Andy’s Kickstarter project to commission an 8-bit tribute album to Miles Davis’s “Kind of Blue” (titled “Kind of Bloop”), he took note. On July 2, 2009, Robin posted a short note on Snarkmarket: “Kickstarter is quickly becoming one of my favorite things.”
A still-formless scheme was gathering momentum.
New Liberal Arts
To really trace the momentum back to its origins, though, you’d have to rewind to the beginning of 2009 and drop in on a blog post by Tim Carmody, the third of Snarkmarket’s three authors. The post's title posed a question: “What Are the New Liberal Arts?” Tim offered a preliminary list of ideas for what might constitute the emergent liberal arts (design, economics, and ecology among them), and invited suggestions from readers. The post garnered 42 comments, with the 24th comment being a new question from Robin himself: “Should we do a Snarkmarket pamphlet on the New Liberal Arts?”
Within a week, Robin wrote a new post announcing that it was on: Snarkmarket would publish a fictional course catalog on the “The New Liberal Arts,” to be written by Snarkmarket’s readers. Anyone was welcome to pitch course descriptions in the comment section. Ten days and 138 comments later, the pitches were in. Robin and Tim sifted through them and reached out to prospective contributors; by February 17, the first drafts had started to arrive. Robin wrote:
It’s been an exciting week as the entries have come rolling in. I wish you could see my Google Docs interface as I do right now: It’s a long list of smart collaborators (all fellow Snarkmarket readers!) whose names keep blinking to life beside their entries as they dip in to make changes, leaving funny time-stamps because they’re halfway across the world, or up all night.
Robin also mapped out the road ahead: first they would edit the entries, then they would design the book with friends at Revelator Press, and then they would move into printing. “I’ll keep you posted as production gets closer so you can pre-order,” he wrote, “and/or tell your nerdy friends about it.”
Three months later, on May 25, Robin posted an update:
The very final pieces have just now locked into place. There’s still a bit of work to be done — most of it involving moving atoms from place to place — but the New Liberal Arts book is coming very, very soon. And you’re going to love it.
On July 6, the physical books arrived.
Robin wrote a post announcing that 200 copies of New Liberal Arts would go on sale the next day:
A project that began earlier this year now bears fruit: slim, rectangular fruit…The idea is that after we sell those, we’ll release the PDF, so when you buy a book, you’re also buying a little slice of free for everybody. Or something like that.
On the morning of July 7, Robin wrote another post revealing the book’s cover and announcing that it was for sale. He included a request:
As it happens, I think we’ve got some really good ideas in here—but we do need your help selling them. And there is a lot you can do to pitch in. Blog this, tweet about it, Facebook-share it, or best of all, recommend it directly to a friend (or three) who you think might like it.
Together, we’ll sell these books, by hook or by crook, and then—here’s the fun part—together we’ll ask: What next?
Robin, Tim, and their readers didn’t have to wait long. Before the day was done, Robin posted an update to the book’s for-sale page:
Thank you, kind patrons! You ransomed this book in about eight hours flat.
The next day, Kevin Kelly learned of the experiment and the book’s already-sold-out run. He suggested on his blog:
The model is brilliant, if you have an audience. The scarce limited edition of the physical subsidizes the distribution of the unlimited free intangible.
On July 13, Tim published a follow-up post titled “Giving Things Away is a New Liberal Art.” On July 14, the books started to arrive at their destinations; the next day, Robin posted a roundup of people’s “unboxing” photos. The cycle was complete.
As Robin would later remember, completing the process of physical production and distribution on New Liberal Arts was the final piece of the puzzle.
That was a little experiment of making a physical book, and it was super-fun. And that was kind of the realization: “We can do this! It can be done!” And it was almost like, at the moment that project finished, the clock started ticking for a Kickstarter project of some kind.
On Thursday, August 20, 2009 at 11:55am, Robin sent an email to Andy Baio:
Subject: Kickstarter idea: a book project
Hey Andy --
So, an idea for a Kickstarter project occurred to me yesterday -- don’t know why it didn’t sooner. Let me run it by you.
The project, briefly:
Write a book (novella-length) in collaboration w/ a group of Kickstarter supporters.
I actually have a premise in mind -- it takes place in the same “world" as Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four Hour Book Store (the same exaggerated San Francisco) but hinges on a stronger central character. A detective.
BUT the idea would be to develop many of the story elements as I go, working w/ my group of supporters. And chronicling the whole process for them, too. […]
Anyway, I could go on, b/c I’m full of ideas about how this would play out, but let me know if you think it sounds like a plausible project & a good fit.
Andy and Robin exchanged a few emails, and by the time the weekend rolled around, Robin was all-in.
The first order of business would be filming the project video. As Robin recalls, “I think it took two days…to figure out what I wanted to say, record it, edit it, kinda just figure everything out.”
Robin filmed the video at home, on a Nikon D90 camera. He moved lamps around his apartment to make sure there was plenty of light. In particular, he positioned one desk lamp behind the camera itself, covered by a taped-on sheet of printer paper with a single hole punched through it, to try to get a dot of light shining in his eyes— “There’s gonna be a twinkle in my eye,” he remembers resolving, “And it took some contortion to achieve it! But I got it.”
Robin’s approach to the video was informed by everything he’d learned from his time at Current TV, “watching people make video, and talking about video, and what made video good, and what made video bad.” He remembers,
I had a feeling…it’s got to be super-snappy, it’s got to have tons of energy. One of the things I remember learning from TV people was, if you’re coming through a camera, you have to put out way more energy than you think you normally would…You need to dial it up, because you lose some in the transmission, and in the fact that they don’t know who you are—you’re just a weird head floating on the screen.
And so before a take, before I would hit record and start talking, I would sort of dial it up a little bit, and try to be like, Okay, yes, excited. You’re excited. You’re really excited. And…go! “I’m writing a book, I’m writing a book, I’M WRITING A BOOK!”
After two days of filming and editing, Robin was ready to move on to the next stage: scheduling and budgeting.
Time and Money
From the beginning, Robin envisioned his Kickstarter campaign ending on Halloween— “I did it that way because it seemed symbolic and spooky,” he remembers. So, October 31 was always the end date he had in mind; working backwards, that would mean running a 60+ day campaign.
In his first email to Andy Baio, Robin had also tossed out the number he had in mind for the pledge level that would get backers a physical copy of the book: $9. When Andy asked why he’d chosen $9, Robin remembers responding “Because…it’s not very much money and I think people will give it to me?” At $9, he knew he could take the project forward. He’d recently printed copies of New Liberal Arts on Lulu, a self-publishing site, and been able to sell them for $8.99 apiece without losing money, so that served as his baseline.
Nine dollars wasn’t the end of the story, though. As Robin plotted his reward tiers, he added rewards with the potential to raise the average number of dollars he received per book and increase the total number of copies sold.
Backers would be able to pledge $3 to receive a PDF, $19 to receive a signed copy, $29 to get their name (or “secret code-name”) listed in the acknowledgments, or $39 to receive four copies of the book. And in the end, he decided to price the baseline physical book tier at $11 instead of $9—still a suitably occult number—to account for shipping costs.
With his video complete, his reward tiers plotted, and the final date set, Robin was ready to go. He submitted his project proposal to Kickstarter for approval, received the go-ahead, and prepared for liftoff.
On the night of Tuesday, August 25, 2009—just before midnight on the West Coast, just after midnight on the East Coast, and less than a week after coming up with the idea for the campaign in the first place—he launched his project: Robin writes a book (and you get a copy).
Robin’s first act as a Kickstarter creator was to write a backers-only project update; at the time he wrote it, the project had zero backers, but anyone who pledged would be able to go back and see it.
Update #1: Just launched the project
And I begin, right now, with about 4,500 words down in the Google doc. Which are almost certainly not in the order they need to be in. But, 4,500 is a lot better than zero.
His second act was to send a note to his old literary friends from Michigan State University. In acknowledgment of their days working together on Oats, their mailing list was called “The Mag Seven.”
From: Robin Sloan
Date: Tue, Aug 25, 2009 at 11:06 PM
Subject: Writing a book, the new-fashioned way
To: The Mag Seven
Thought I'd give you fellows the inside scoop:
I'm going to blog about it Wed or Thursday, but you know, if somebody
wanted to sneak in and become backer #1 or #2... that might be cool... […]
[When] I consider the (very very small) victories this year, of New Liberal Arts & my short stories -- this stuff has been like a clear bell ringing in the fog. An anti-foghorn. A thing that draws you TOWARDS the rocks instead of away from them.
So, expect to see lots more from me in this direction -- equally in terms of my own writing and in terms of organizing & editing the writing of others. I’m not quite reay to make a Larry Lessig-style “the next ten years will be spent doing XYZ!” pronouncement, but I’m definitely feeling a tidal sort of shift.
In spite of all his preparation, launching was not easy. A few days later, when a friend asked what it felt like to launch the project, Robin replied:
On the night I launched the project, even though I am really not prone to pessimism about this sort of thing, I was absolutely gripped with that what-kind-of-dumb-thing-have-I-just-announced fear. Deeper than any I have known in a long time.
He went to sleep, woke up the next morning, and wrote a post to put up on Snarkmarket:
I’m Writing a Book (With Your Help)
I’m not going to make this a splashy, OH-MY-GOD-CLICK-THIS-NOW post because you’re going to be hearing a lot about it over the course of the next two months. No, like seriously: a lot.
But, building on the terrific experiences of Mr. Penumbra’s Twenty-Four-Hour Book Store and New Liberal Arts, I’m writing a book! And I’m using Kickstarter as the funding and community platform to do it.
Later that day, Robin wrote a second project update:
Update #2: Clearly, occult forces are at work here
It's basically half a day in, and the book is 40% funded. This is amazing!
My favorite part is that it's totally a mix of DIGITAL PACK and SUPER OCCULT VALUE PACK, and of people I know & people I don't.
I can't say thanks enough to all of you who have jumped in immediately. It's kinda like an election: any endorsement is good, but an early endorsement is extra-good, because it takes courage. Thank you.
Between the email to The Mag Seven, the Snarkmarket post, and announcing the project on Twitter, Robin ended the first day of the campaign with $1,911 raised from 58 backers—54% of his $3,500 goal.
On Sunday, August 30, Robin sent his third project update, setting expectations for what future updates would contain. He also reflected on the project’s progress so far:
I launched my project on Tuesday night, around 11 p.m. As of right now, Sunday afternoon—not quite five days later—I've raised 92% of my goal. That is, in a word, stunning. Thank you.
I can't tell you how much fun it is to scroll through my list of backers, full of old friends, new friends, colleagues and mentors, as well as people I've never met before. It's like a surprise Justice League. A personal Algonquin Round Table. (We're gonna need more silverware.)
I gotta say: I feel deeply motivated to make something cool for all of you.
The next morning, Robin awoke to find the project fully funded. He celebrated with a quick post to Snarkmarket:
Amazing! My Kickstarter project hit 100% sometime after I went to sleep but before I woke up. What a thrill.
By the end of the day on Monday, August 31—less than a week after the project’s launch—the project was 111% funded by 131 backers. Robin ended the month of August with the knowledge that he could move forward with the book.
After the project hit its funding goal on the last day of August, Robin was able to turn his full extracurricular attention to two tasks: writing, and writing about writing. As he remembers,
I definitely had the very specific sense that over the course of [the campaign], I needed to do—I don’t know, “stunt” isn’t quite the right word—I needed to do things that were independently interesting. […]
Those backer updates, I remember thinking of them very specifically as blog posts. I was like, “if this is a good blog post, if this is something that a person would link to and read—just on its own weird merits—that’s a good thing, ‘cause it’ll bring people here. And it’s a blog post with a big green “Back this project” button next to it.
In his third update, Robin had promised to send at least one and at most three updates per week for the rest of the campaign. And as he teased at the end of that update, he already had one “independently interesting” idea in the works: statistical character naming.
Statistical Character Naming
In the next update, sent on September 1, Robin revealed what he had been up to:
Update #4: Naming characters with Google AdWords
So, I have a name in mind for this character, and I was looking for a meaningful way to test it out—without giving it away.
That's where AdWords comes in.
Here's what I did:
Created a campaign attached to a bundle of search terms: mystery, detective story, sherlock holmes, noir, and more like those.
Came up with a whole set of names, basically wide variations on a theme. One was my original pick, but I liked all of them. Then, I created an ad for each one, all with the same body text but each with a different name swapped in for the headline.
Allocated a small budget ($40, to be exact) and kicked off the campaign. And wow there are a lot of people searching for stuff on Google. Over the span of 24 hours, my ads made about 100,000 impressions.
Robin went on to share the shape of the results of the experiment, without actually sharing the names themselves; the next day, he posted a link to the update on Snarkmarket, so that more people would have a chance to see it. (This matched Robin’s understanding of a project update as “a blog post with a big green ‘Back this project’ button next to it.”)
Backers dove right in, leaving 16 comments on the post beyond Robin’s own. Jack Cheng commented: “I see what's going on here. This is the old bait and switch, right? Make us think it's a sci-fi book when It's really going to be a book about how write and market a book in the 21st century ;)”
The update on statistical character naming would prove to be a tough act to follow; Robin waited a little over a week to send his next one. He prefaced the backers-only update, sent on September 9, with an acknowledgment of that difficulty:
That last update was pretty cool, so I've been reticent to post a new one, because I don't have anything quite that interesting (yet).
Then I realized whoah, danger, that is exactly the wrong attitude, and if I succumb to it here in the Kickstarter updates, it might leak into the book-writing, too.
He then drifted into a riff on the challenges of editing your own work ruthlessly, then slid into a description of the playlist he’d gotten hooked on for writing. “If I could somehow perfectly cross-breed The Knife and Bonobo,” he wrote, “the result would be the soundtrack to my book’s San Francisco. Techno-creepy-jazzy dance tracks with robot vocals and the Norse god Loki on drums. (FYI the Norse god Loki totally plays brushes. I mean come on.)”
He also linked to a track he loved by Boy Eats Drum Machine—”it’s the sharp drums vs. spooky wails that get me.” He closed with a teaser—”Next update: a Mr. Rogers-style visit to the printer”—and a few more representative tracks. After he sent the update, he jumped over to Snarkmarket to reflect on the experience:
I just wrote a quick update over at Kickstarter, accessible to my project backers only, and I have to say, it was an interesting experience. It felt different; more than usual, I could picture somewhat specifically who I was writing for.
First Glimpse of Fog City
On September 22, Robin posted an update that included a video of him reading a passage from his working draft. “After I recorded this,” he wrote, “I remembered that I hate listening to writers read their stuff. And in my case, I definitely write for the eyes, not for the, uh, mouth.”
But the first commenter offered encouragement: “you may hate to listen to writers read their work, but I’d really be interested in an audio book version of this… really enjoyed your delivery.”
I Need Your Brain
Just two days later, on September 24, Robin sent out his next update:
Update #9: Will you be my outboard brain?
Okay, this one's quick, but important. I need your brain!
There are two questions in this survey, and it should take you all of 45 seconds to complete. Technically, this is a micro-spoiler; it hints at an element of the story. But really, it's quite micro, and I think the benefits of creativity and collaboration outweigh the cost of spoilage in this case.
This is a brainstorming exercise, so shake your hands out and make some weird faces into your screen and get loose. Then, go for it.
“Go for it” linked to a Google Forms survey:
Later that day, in a comment on the update, Robin added: “@All: WOW. That worked great. You should see this Google spreadsheet; these ideas are insanely good. And it’s all stuff I could never have come up with. Awesome awesome awesome.”
On September 28, Robin sent his next update, titled “The evolution of an illustration.” The update was short—Robin posted most of the images, created in Processing, over on his personal blog—but he did include one picture:
I’m not just writing the words for this book; I’m doing the illustrations, too. So I thought I’d give you a peek at my process—from idea to sketch to code (!) to finished image.
A week later, on October 5, Robin posted his eleventh update. Along with a bunch of what he referred to as “meat-and-potatoes” news, Robin issued a challenge:
So here's the pitch: If we get to $10K before midnight PST on Tuesday, I'll do the world's first digital/occult (super) short-story throw-down in the sky. Five hours, 2,500 miles—so let's make it 2,500 words. I'll write and edit the story entirely on the plane and post it as soon as I land.
So, if you are interested in a special in-flight snack to stave off hunger while we all wait for October 31 to arrive: tell a friend (or pitch in, if you're just discovering this project) and give me something to do up there.
Three days later, the deed was done; in Robin’s twelfth update, he shared the story’s “cover”:
Semi-ridiculous, I know, but I feel like everything has to have a cover to count as a media object these days. And, I’ll admit it, I was taken with the romance of photoshopping at 30,000 feet.
The entire story was written on the flight, and Robin “spent every minute of the flight writing and editing, minus 20-30 minutes for the cover.” He admitted that “as we were approaching New York I was silently wishing for a bonus loop around Boston; I had to rush to finish the end.”
One backer commented, “You are doing an excellent job of making this project exciting to follow. I hope you’re having twice as much fun.”
Her Name in Motion
On October 16, Robin wrote an email to Jon, the artist behind Boy Eats Drum Machine.
From: Robin Sloan
Date: Fri, Oct 16, 2009 at 1:51 PM
Subject: Using a BEDM track in a book trailer
I've been a fan of yours for a while, and I'm writing to see if I
could use one of your tracks in a project I'm working on right now.
The project is here:
One of the things I'm doing is making a lot of media to surround &
support the book -- and one of the pieces is a "book trailer." Don't
know if you've ever seen one of these; the idea is to make a short
video that teases a book the same way a movie trailer teases a movie.
So, I've got a vision for a basic book trailer, and as I was poking
around for a soundtrack, I thought of three of your tracks.
Robin went on to name and annotate the three tracks he had in mind, and ask whether he could use part of one of them in his book trailer. Twenty-two minutes later, Jon replied with his permission.
On October 21, Robin posted the result in his fourteenth project update:
So yesterday afternoon I set out to make a book trailer, but it sort of turned into something else—an animated book cover? The big sell is that it reveals my detective's name—which (I love this) some of you have already uncovered with a bit of Google sleuthing—but it also delivers a dose of atmosphere. Check it out:
Her name? Annabel Scheme.
Annabel Scheme was slated to be Robin’s longest piece of writing ever, and so he approached the entire process thoughtfully. As he soon discovered, the time left over outside of his day job as Current’s vice president of strategy was simply not sufficient to do the project justice:
Frankly, even if your job's not that hard, or you're not totally up against the wall, just the simple fact of going into an office and doing the…minimum daily rituals of a job, is a big chunk of time. And I was like, if that part of the day is chopped off and not available, there just does not exist enough time for me to finish this. […]
Especially the combination of writing the project and running the project, it became really clear that those were both really important elements. And this sense of producing the blog posts and chronicling the stuff wasn't free. It took time to do that, but I enjoyed it, and I also had this sense that it was effective. And so I was like, I'm gonna do that. I'm gonna write this, and sleep and eat…like, that's it. That's all the hours.
As a consequence of this realization, Robin decided he had to give notice at Current; September 11, 2009 was his last day. His Snarkmarket post, written to mark the occasion, traced his history with Current and the wild road trip that had taken him to California five years before. He ended it with a plan:
Here’s the agenda:…Spend the next fifty days absolutely jamming on this book. On one level, this is just simple necessity. I sort of set a trap for myself here, didn’t I? On another level, I had an epiphany the other day: There is nothing in the entire world I would rather do for the next two months than work my ass off to create something wonderful for the people on this list. Not sure I’ve ever had quite that level of clarity before. Gotta say: I like it.
Four days later, Robin shared the news in his seventh project update—the same update in which he announced that he had 46 days to finish the text, a number that was both thrilling and scary:
For the next 46 days, I am a full-time writer. […]
Why go full-time? Because I'm not dumb. I know this is a special opportunity. I know this kind of support, for this kind of project, is exceptional, extraordinary, preternatural. (Frankly I blame both the digital and the occult.) So I'm going to take the hint and take a chance.
Establishing a Routine
Once Robin left Current, whole days opened up. He developed a routine:
I’d write in the morning—really, whatever time it was, as early as I could. And I would usually keep writing through lunch, I’d go to my little Café La Flore and get lunch or whatever…Everyone has their point at which they get wrung out—you know, like, uggh, no more words today—at least not that kind of words—and for me that ended up being sometime in the afternoon.
After he hit that point in the afternoon, he’d turn his attention to something else—penning a backer update, or creating an illustration in Processing, or crafting an animated book cover.
But transitioning between modes wasn’t always so seamless. At the end of the writing process, Robin reflected:
I did discover that I don’t know when to quit. There are diminishing returns to any stretch of writing, at least for me, and I’d find myself, six hours in, just sort of dinking around—re-reading grafs, fiddling with words—when it would have been much smarter to close the file, work on something else, and come back the next day.
Robin’s plan from the beginning had been to lock down the text by the stroke of midnight on Halloween. “I wanted to not just be done with the draft, but be done done, like done with the text, and move immediately into production on the 31st.”
On October 5, he reported that he was closing in on the goal:
I'm at 25,000 words, which means I'm right on schedule. (Whew.) There's only one section that is entirely undrafted—the very end. The rest has had the benefit of several coats of paint. The urgent and exciting next step is to share this rough draft with some first readers, which I'm doing this week.
Just over two weeks later, on Friday, October 21, Robin finished the manuscript. He shared the news in his October 26 update:
I FINISHED THE MANUSCRIPT ON FRIDAY. This doesn't mean it's 100% done. What it means is that, for the first time, I had a coherent draft, start to finish, with no gaps. I burned through an inkjet cartridge and delivered copies in gold envelopes to my friends (and trusted first readers) Aaron, Andrew, Kiyash, and Matt. It looked like this:
True to form, Robin’s trusted friends responded with thorough feedback. Marked-up manuscripts in hand, Robin sifted through which suggestions he’d be able to take in the time remaining, and which he had to let go. "More than anything else," Robin remembers, "[it] was the ending that had a lot of feedback that seemed big. And the first version of the ending just didn't make any sense, and so it was clear—okay, that's pretty critical, strong feedback from everybody, I gotta change that. And, can I do it?"
The Finish Line
He could do it, and he did. In his October 30 update, Robin shared news of the results:
Whew—I can't even tell you how much better the story is today than it was a week ago. Almost every graf has been touched. Every chapter has been improved. Some sections have been completely rewritten.
And the ending! is! totally! different!
Now the clock is running down. It hits zero at midnight tomorrow (yes, Halloween, naturally) but there's not a ton of drama to it. Thanks to you—backers and patrons and ultimate ninjas alike—this project has been a huge, amazing success.
There's still a lot of work to do... work that involves, like, paper and paint and postage. But the essential core—the part where I, you know, write a book—is now complete.
He also shared a glimpse of the marked-up manuscripts he’d received back from each reader:
And he closed the update on a note of gratitude, captured in a video. “You're not going to hear from me again before the clock hits zero,” he wrote, “so again: Thank you. There is great fun ahead."
On October 31, 2009, Robin writes a book (and you get a copy) closed at 398% of its original funding goal, with 570 backers and $13,942 pledged.
“I’m pretty sure I was up late finishing it on October 31st, and crossing the t’s and dotting the i’s and making sure I was happy with what I had made,” Robin recalls.
I felt a sense of real accomplishment—not so much for having funded the project at that point, because in some ways I had celebrated that already…But the real triumph, the new feeling then was the feeling of having completed the writing. Because it was at the time by far the longest story I'd ever written. The longest thing I'd ever put together. And so, yeah, I definitely had a sense like: well, damn! I can do this!
You know, you never know, really. At every stage along the way you wonder. You're like, is this beyond me? Is this just not what I was cut out to do? Or have I not learned enough to pull this off?…And to actually do it, and finish it, you're like: Huh. I can do that. Nice. So, I would call it quiet triumph.
Visions of the finished product glinted even in Robin’s original project description:
Now, the goal of this project is to put a book in your hands. And the cool thing about books is that they enjoy tremendous economies of scale. So here's the opportunity: as more people reserve books, everybody's book gets better, because a bigger print run means everything is cheaper.
If I can get 300 backers, the book will be really nice: perfect-bound with a crisp color cover. If I can get 600 backers, suddenly we're talking better materials, more colors... maybe even hardcover?
And more than 600...? Why, it'll be made of PURE GOLD.
The challenge would be to give those visions form and substance.
A Hybrid Approach
The sixth project update—sent on September 11, Robin’s last day at Current—documented a visit to the local printer to investigate the possibilities:
So this afternoon, I walked over to a lauded local printer here in SF—the one that everybody says is the absolute best—and I was all set to do a little Mr. Rogers-style tour of the facility. But I hit a roadblock right away.
I was sitting with Marco, the Guy Who Helps You Figure Things Out, and sketching the basics of the project. Such-and-such size, this many copies, etc. And the first thing Marco Helped Me Figure Out was that it was going to be way too expensive to do it with this printer.
The original plan to work with a bespoke local printer quickly proved to be a dead end, but over the course of 22 comments on the update, backers helped Robin brainstorm solutions and alternatives. A week and a half later, he received an email from Sean McDonald, a professional editor and longtime Snarkmarket reader, offering help in procuring some leads on book production. Robin replied:
I’m trying to brainstorm a sort of hybrid approach where some of the main elements are manufactured – the text block? – but then I can gather this group of enthusiastic (local) backers to do some extra manufacturing steps, by hand, that really distinguish it. Binding it into a cover made out of some weird material, doing some sort of screen-printing, stenciling, etc. I don’t want it to be too precious or rough-hewn, but I think there’s an opportunity there.
Economies of Scale
As Robin rapidly discovered, for the purposes of printing “the text block,” the contrast between Lulu and the high-end print shops he’d talked to couldn’t be starker:
Many of printing places I looked at—including some that I called and had conversations with—were very much in that old model of like, "print out this form, write your name and what you want, and fax it to us. We'll call ya back!" Like, that very just old model—"we'll work something out!" And I was like, "I don't want to work anything out! I want a spreadsheet that I can fiddle with.”
And so, that was actually one of the things that pushed the most strongly to Lulu, was that it was so structured, and all the variables were right there. They weren't hidden in some sales rep's head or something.
Robin was also taken with the size of the discounts he could get by ordering in bulk—as he fiddled with the numbers and changed the assumptions, ”it was almost intoxicating.” The fact that Robin was already familiar with Lulu from the experience of printing New Liberal Arts was another point in their favor. Soon, he made up his mind: he would print the book with Lulu after all.
But the hybrid idea continued to simmer, and on October 14, Robin announced in an update that “The shape of the final package—the thing you’ll get in the mail—has crystallized in my mind, and I’ve placed my first orders for materials.”
Robin’s vision, from the beginning, was to write, design, illustrate, and ship the book himself. Reflecting on that decision, Robin would later say:
In retrospect, I would perhaps not have done everything myself. At the time, I was really intent on this idea of "total authorship." I was just very compelled by—writing the words, drawing the pictures, creating those illustrations, designing the whole book, picking the font—the whole thing.
So as soon as the project closed on October 31, Robin began to design the book in earnest:
It was a real crash course—my Google search history at the time would be like, "book design, book layout, ratio of page to book pages, pacing," you know…like, "I need the formula!"—and basically learning how to do that, and putting it together.
On November 6, Robin sent his seventeenth update:
The design is done! […]
I got my proof copy in the mail literally moments ago. It looks great! Though of course there are a few things I want to tweak—so I'm going to tweak away and then place the final order tomorrow. And shipments of other materials are also en route. It should all converge in San Francisco in about a week and a half...
On November 18, all the books arrived in San Francisco. But Robin wasn’t in San Francisco; he was at an airport in New York.
Knowing he wouldn’t be at home to receive them, Robin had arranged for the boxes to be sent to his old office at Current. His former co-worker Melody received them, and posted a tweet along with a picture:
Robin took the opportunity to send an update:
So, there you go. You've seen exactly as much as I have, through exactly the same window that I have. That's kinda cool. I'll be back in San Francisco next Tuesday, and I'll go pick the books up and start getting them ready to ship.
Well—I guess it's not true that you've seen exactly as much as I have. After all: I know what the cover looks like ;-)
Upon Robin’s return to San Francisco, a mountain of boxes greeted him. His plans to make the finished product unique hinged on a number of component parts–which meant, of course, that those parts would have to be assembled. “I remember,” Robin said,
I actually did the math. I was like, okay: so if it takes me about four minutes to pack one of these books…and there's a thousand…and that's four thousand…holy shit, that's like, three days. A normal human being doesn't often have to grapple with that simple scale.
Keying off of his earlier idea of a “book binding party,” Robin invited a couple of friends over to help with the assembly process. They showed up, and the group worked together for a few hours over pizza. But his friends couldn’t stay forever, and after a few hours Robin was on his own again. “I can’t remember if it was a single day, or if it was a couple sort of painful days,” he said. “I do remember it was painful, I don’t remember exactly how long it took.”
Beyond the sheer quantity of time required, the pressure also got to Robin:
Man, that was by far the least pleasant part of the whole thing. Just, both the simple physical action of it and also the paranoia that I was screwing something up. That like, a whole sheet of labels was gonna slip under the couch. Or like, I would get off by one in my checking off the names and two hours later I'd be like, "oh nooo!!! It's all wrong!"
Reflecting on the experience, Robin said:
If I ever did another project like this, I would somehow automate that—or hire, like, twenty TaskRabbits—or a company, a fulfillment service or something. That would be so not me in a room with a pizza and a couple sad, sad friends! […]
But it's kind of a rite of passage, isn't it? I feel like so many Kickstarter projects, especially first-timers or surprising successes, have that—that scene of the group of people around the table, like a little Henry Ford assembly line.
By December 4, 2009, the books had started to go out in the mail; Robin sent an update to let backers know they were on the way.
Many books have shipped. Domestic U.S. Super Occult Value Packs shipped yesterday. International SOVPs [Super Occult Value Packs, each containing four copies] shipped today. I prioritized these because I know some people are planning on giving their bonus copies as gifts. (That's so cool!) Single copies, both domestic and international, will ship next week on Tuesday and Wednesday.
A few weeks later, just before Christmas, Yancey Strickler shared photos of the finished book on the Kickstarter blog:
Thanks to Robin’s excellent project updates, we’ve been highly anticipating the arrival of his novel Annabel Scheme, and the packaging and delivery are even better than we imagined.
In the end, Robin realized his vision of a “hybrid version” by printing the book itself on Lulu with a cover he designed himself, adding fictitious warning stickers from Annabel Scheme’s universe, and packing the whole thing in sleek, sinister plastic sheaths and matte black envelopes. “I was so hot to trot on weird materials,” he remembers.
I was like, "Yeah, the cover of these books are actually from recycled circuit boards, it's kind of been flattened into, like, a pulp-like material." That was my sort of absurd vision. And, of course, that…was not possible. But the way that they were packaged, like the fact that they were then delivered in those staticy bags and all that stuff, that was kinda how I ended up scratching that itch.
Backers were delighted by the result. On December 15, Joseph Rhodes left a comment on Robin’s update announcing that the books were in the mail:
I got my copy in the mail today right before work and have been reading it every chance I've had since then. I've greatly enjoyed it so far and love the world you've built, as well as our main characters. So glad I was able to contribute to making this book possible. :)
On January 11, 2010, Robin sent his final update. In it, he invited backers to join his personal mailing list and took a moment to say goodbye:
Thanks again for your support. Thanks for reading. I don't know about you, but September 2009 feels about a million years away now, and 2010 is all laid out like a strange new city—dark, unmapped, not entirely unscary, but mostly exciting. There must be banana boxes about, because it's flickering fast through a million possibilities and permutations, a million worlds all available—a million worlds we might still build!
In June 2011, Robin shared some exciting news on his personal blog:
So! My first novel, Mr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore, is going to be published by Farrar, Straus and Giroux. […]
Thanks to the Kickstarter project and a mutual friend, I met Sarah Burnes, an agent at the Gernert Company. We sat and we schemed and we decided that there was a bigger story waiting in Penumbra’s shadowy shelves.
Robin’s editor at Farrar, Straus and Giroux? Sean McDonald—the very same Sean McDonald who’d emailed Robin with an offer to help procure book production leads.
In July 2011, following the announcement of his contract with FSG, Robin returned to the Kickstarter blog to answer the question: Did the Kickstarter project help you get published?
The answer is: Yes, it did, and yes, there is a vital connection — but it’s not what you think it is…The most important thing I got from Kickstarter was declaration and validation. […]
A successful Kickstarter project has, I think, two parts. First, there’s declaration, the part where you’re forced to say, out in public—there’s no such thing as a private Kickstarter project!—you’re forced to say very clearly: This is what I am, and this is what I want to do. Then, there’s validation, the part where it flips around and your posse replies, in unison, and again out in public: Yep, sounds about right.
And that's when you feel like a writer.
- Annabel Scheme, the book itself
- Bill Couch's photographs of the finished product
- "Creator's Guide to Video," Robin's guest post on the Kickstarter blog
- "Mr. Penumbra's Twenty-Four-Hour Bookstore," the short story that started it all
- Essays by Robin
- Sign up for Robin's mailing list to be notified when his novel comes out in the fall
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