Although the term made it into dictionaries only in 2014, crowdfunding is big business. In 2013, more than $5 billion (£3.5 billion) was raised worldwide, with millions of people pitching in to fund everything from video games to drones.
Crowdfunding has, perhaps inevitably, begun to slowly make its mark in the academic world, with dedicated platforms being created to support scientific endeavours. But turning the general momentum of crowdfunding into viable academic funding has proved difficult.
Natalie Jonk, founder of the UK’s first scientific crowdfunding platform, Walacea, told me that progress is often slow, although they have had some big wins. The world’s first imaging study of the brain on LSD, which has since been published in a peer-reviewed journal despite failing to attract funding through traditional routes, earned £53,000: more than twice its original goal. She puts this down to some fortuitous media coverage, an enticing topic and the involvement of a renowned scientist, Imperial College London’s David Nutt.
Some academics, such as Australian scientist Mel Thomson, have successfully used crowdfunding to raise smaller amounts, supplementing existing projects or for conducting small studies. Thomson has garnered 470 pledges across three projects, raising about £18,000.
When I decided that I wanted to turn my silly blog, Academia Obscura, into a book, I turned to Twitter, where a couple of people suggested Unbound, a UK publisher using crowdfunding to produce beautiful books. After pledging to a couple of interesting non-fiction pitches, I proceeded to propose my own.
Having now hit my funding target (and delivered the precious first draft), I thought it would be a good time to reflect on what I’ve learned about the process.
1. Crowdfunding is not free money
I was often confronted with the perception that crowdfunded projects simply list on their site of choice and watch the money roll in, no doubt fuelled by a handful of highly successful projects (such as the smartwatch that recently raised £14.5 million or the guy who raised £40K to make a potato salad).
The reality is that on Kickstarter, perhaps the most well-known platform, only 36 per cent of projects end up getting funded, while 15 per cent finish without receiving a single pledge.
2. Crowdfunding is seriously hard work
I knew it would be hard, but I hadn’t realised just how tough it would be to convince people to part with their hard-earned cash to buy an as-yet-unpublished book (even where they are supportive of the project overall). I spent countless hours writing blog posts, tweeting and sending emails, but the pledges always trickle through much slower than you hope they will.
3. Crowdfunding is not (necessarily) about the crowd
OK, it is, but not as much as you might think. In the beginning I needed a daunting 450 people to make the average pledge to get funded.
A huge 20 per cent of the funding ultimately came from Scrivener, the company that makes the excellent software I was using to draft the book, while friends and family chipped in a sizeable chunk in the early days as I begged and pleaded for them to help me get the counter moving. Another significant tranche came from those who had been following the blog since the beginning. All in all, the “crowd” probably accounted for about 40 per cent of total pledges.
4. Personal connections still matter, a lot
I didn’t have many personal connections to pester, so I tweeted about the project relentlessly and upped my general level of social media activity. Yet only 18 per cent of pledges came directly from someone clicking on a tweet. Similarly, about 5 per cent came through Facebook.
Other fledgling authors going through the crowdfunding ordeal note how crucial personal connections have been for their campaigns. Lucy Crehan, who is writing Cleverlands, a book comparing global schooling systems, says that her pledges came from close contacts made with hundreds of people during her world tour of schools, as well as contacts and pitches made at conferences.
5. Get comfortable with relentless self-promotion
I found the idea of self-promotion cringeworthy, yet this seems to be one of the keys to successful crowdfunding. Every conversation, conference or chance meeting is an opportunity to sell a project that you believe in, and you have to be ready to make the most of those opportunities.
6. You need thick skin
Sure, we academics are already familiar with rejection, but crowdfunding is death by a thousand micro-rejections.
For example, I found that directly emailing people that I’d never met actually led to a lot of pledges, but occasionally I irritated people (sorry!). One irked academic responded: “Dear Glen, I never looked at your site, and I’m surely not going to help you. Cheers."
You need to plan everything meticulously in advance. All the blog posts, tweets, emails and so on should be planned, and preferably written and ready to go from day one. The time frame for the funding period needs to be well thought-out. I ended up running a campaign for a book about academia over the summer holidays – not smart.
Crowdfunding has the potential to allow academics to pursue their project and obtain funding that is much more flexible than traditional grants and funding options. Whether or not this is likely to ever be a significant source of funding (hint: it’s probably not) is a topic for another post.
I can only hope that all the work will be worth it, and that one day Academia Obscura will be on the shelves of PhDs and professors the world over, a reminder to all not to take it too seriously.