Featured Creator: Rich Burlew, creator of Order of the Stick
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Rich Burlew has been drawing his comedy-fantasy-adventure webcomic Order of the Stick since 2003, and gained a loyal following of readers who head to his site for their weekly dose of D&D-inspired humor. Hoping to reprint sold out physical copies of his webcomic, Rich launched a Kickstarter project that ended up a little bit bigger than he'd expected. How much bigger?
This much bigger:
Below, Rich talks about what the experience of scaling his project has been like and offers tips on building a community around your creative work. Oh, and time machines. He talks about time machines.
Your project hit its goal within 48 hours of launching! What were you thinking when your project blasted off, and were you at all prepared for how successful it would become?
No, I was tragically underprepared. I never thought we'd get anywhere near the response we've gotten, and it's been a daily struggle to keep up with the progress of the whole thing. What I was thinking when I hit the Launch Project button was something roughly analogous to, "I hope I'm not making a terrible mistake." As it turned out, I wasn't.
When your project ends, you'll officially have made it into the record books as one of Kickstarter's top-funded projects, and certainly the top-funded comic book project of all time. What impact do you think this will have on the comics industry?
That said, I'm sure that there were observers out there who thought there were hard limits on how much a comic can raise this way. And there are limits, I'm sure of it. It's just that no one has reached them yet. I have little doubt that by this time next year, some other project will have knocked me down to #2 in Comics (or lower), and I probably won't last six months in the Top Ten overall projects. I mean, in the time between when you asked me to do this interview and now, the Double Fine project has launched, funded, and soared past me by several hundred thousand dollars. So I think it's clear that this is one of the primary ways independent projects will be created now, and I just happened to be bobbing along on the leading edge of that wave.
Communication is such a huge part of running a Kickstarter project. With each update you post, you've done an incredible job of building up suspense with new benchmarks (who knew chart-based comics could be so exciting?). What's it been like talking with so many supporters, both on Kickstarter and on your own site?
Overwhelming. Humbling. I've always had a very active message board on my website, but I've learned that the reach of my comic goes far beyond the people who post their regularly. I've gotten some really touching emails from longtime fans about how the comic has affected them personally. And a lot of people thanking me for letting them give me money, which is sort of surreal. I've tried to avoid straight-up donation drives in the past because I'm a firm believer in offering concrete value for someone's hard-earned dollar, but using Kickstarter has allowed me to have it both ways. My drive isn't really so much about donating money to me as it is a massive pre-order plus buy-X-get-Y-free sale, but at the same time, people who have long wanted to pay me for the free entertainment I've supplied them since 2003 can do so.
You clearly have a very dedicated audience of readers, and a strong community built around your webcomic. Based on what you've learned over the years, do you have any advice for those out there wondering how best to build up an audience around a creative work?
Other than that, I would say focus on your strengths rather than obsessing about your weaknesses. Which is not to say that you should never try to improve at the things at which you might be bad. Rather, if you want to stand out among a sea of creators, I think it's better to utterly dominate in one aspect than be pretty good at everything. Moderation has never won a prize. Try to be the best at something, even if that something is as narrow as making a stick figure comedy-adventure webcomic with strong roleplaying game influences. Because once you have that audience that loves your work, they'll follow you to your next project. You'll always have time to quietly work on your flaws in the background if you have an audience supporting you out front.
Knowing what you know now, if you could do this whole Kickstarter thing again, is there anything you'd do differently?
Also, if I had a time machine, I would go back and slap myself for worrying whether or not the project would fund. You would not believe how many days I spent trying to work out numbers and just generally stressing out about it. Then, I would go back and slap myself for using a time machine for something as silly as slapping myself, which would probably set up a recursive loop and destroy the universe. So I think we can all agree that my lack of preparedness was actually the best thing for everyone.
What lies ahead for Order of the Stick? An animated series? World Domination?
For The Order of the Stick, I've got at least three or four years left of regular installments to the main story that's available on my website, GiantITP.com, before it really comes to a conclusion. So there's plenty of time left for it as a webcomic, not even counting the strong probability that there will be more exclusive-to-print books before then as well. An animated series would be fantastic, but it's a lot more work than I could pull off myself. I guess the better question, then, is what lies ahead for me. While I've been loving the process of writing and drawing OOTS, I have projects that have been waiting in the wings for much of the nine years I've been doing this. I'm hoping that some of the attention this is getting will give me the perfect opportunity to let a few of them fly. At least now I have no doubts that if I can get the creative work done, I have a fantastic tool ready to help me raise the money they would need.
(Editor's note: Since this interview, Order of the Stick has raised over $1 million, making him the third project in Kickstarter history to do so. Congrats to Rich and his over 12,000 backers!)