The Next Page: How Kickstarter Bridged the Gap of Publishing Conferences

In publishing, the ability to network can make or break careers. Whether you’re an author looking for representation, an agent looking for the next big talent, or an editor extending their reach into different genres or styles, networking never really becomes an optional part of the job. Though digital solutions for networking exist in the form of social media or dedicated (often private) chat channels, they are not quite enough to eliminate the barrier for aspiring or incoming publishing professionals who are looking to join the workforce.

Most publishing professionals find themselves at industry conferences at least once a year, given the chance. Whether they’re keeping up on trends or looking for a new position, the ability to attend a conference can make or break someone’s career in publishing. Tautologically, they are also very difficult to attend in person without already having a job with a press- or a publishing-adjacent company that can facilitate attendance. Travel costs, lodging, and tickets themselves are extremely cost prohibitive to some people, and that’s provided the event isn’t by invitation- or industry-only. So how, then, are incoming professionals meant to find the connections and information that would grant them access to those events, or to the industry as a whole?

That’s a question that’s too large to have a single answer, but on May 11, 2019, Margot Atwell, Director of Publishing at the popular crowdfunding website Kickstarter, sought to find a solution with The Next Page, a publishing conference that had no precedent. Working under the belief that, despite huge gains in the past decade, publishing “is not representative of the world we live in,” Kickstarter partnered with Fireside Fiction to try and change it with their first ever two-part publishing conference.

The one-day event, held at Kickstarter HQ in New York City, hosted some of the brightest and most respected voices in publishing today, including Portland publisher Joe Biel and former Ooligan editorial professor Dongwon Song, to discuss the future of publishing in an ever-changing landscape. The panels, in almost every sense, were very close to other publishing conferences, each about an hour long and spanning an array of four different topics: finances, representation, technology, and community building. The panelists and moderators were vetted professionals not only in book publishing, but in magazine, comic book, and web spaces, providing a colorful and varied view into today’s current publishing climate, and a not-inconsiderable audience who attended the conference at the Kickstarter HQ in Brooklyn.

From left to right: Margot Atwell, Dongwon Song, Amy Stolls, Joe Biel, and Ruby sit on panel 'Paying the Way: Economic Sustainability in Publishing.'

From left to right: Margot Atwell, Dongwon Song, Amy Stolls, Joe Biel, and Ruby sit on the panel ‘Paying the Way: Economic Sustainability in Publishing.’

But what made The Next Page truly unique was its choice to livestream each panel for free to the public, requiring only an RSVP via the Kickstarter website. After following the livestream link to the Kickstarter YouTube channel, digital attendees could watch and participate in conversations through a live chat (which I was honored to be asked to moderate), send in their questions via chat or email for the panelists, and have the conference experience in pajamas in bed or sitting at their kitchen table. It didn’t require taking time off work for travel, finding lodging in an overwhelmingly crowded city, or handling all the little extra expenses that come with most out-of-town conferences.

Moreover, the addition of a digital format allowed The Next Page to truly address accessibility and the limitations barring so many people from joining the industry. Not only did they live-tweet parts of the panels, which is standard, they archived the videos for later viewing for those who could not attend, and, after reviewing concerns from participants, moderators, and attendees, ensured every video provided closed captioning for the hearing impaired. At a time when accessibility for panelists with mobility aids is often overlooked until it’s too late, Kickstarter didn’t shy away from the extra time or money it cost to ensure they were practicing what they preached.

So the real question is, why don’t more conferences do this? Whether for established professionals or those trying to find their footing, the concept of using technology to bridge gaps and lower accessibility barriers for audiences isn’t new for publishing. Having been a part of this conference, I can only think about how much stress I avoided not having to rush around a convention center, how much money I saved by participating from my home office, and how many connections I made through the live chat with participants despite being hundreds of miles away, including one that eventually landed me a gig. While I wouldn’t suggest industry-only conferences throw their doors open as free events, tools certainly exist to ensure the target audience is in attendance while also encouraging greater engagement. Digital solutions shouldn’t and do not have to be exclusive to those with the extreme financial flexibility that seems to be a prerequisite for a successful publishing career, and I hope that other conferences were watching closely.

With the outbreak of COVID-19, we saw an abrupt shift as the world moved their classrooms, conferences, and workdays all into a digital space. It’s unclear if Kickstarter will be hosting The Next Page sometime in 2020, but one thing is certain: this conference filled a gap where it was needed, a genuine way to uphold publishing by sharing information, knowledge, and community in an industry we feel strongly about, made all the better by the earnestness with which it attempted to level the playing field. And there’s no question at all that Kickstarter walked so the rest of us—publishers, editors, and writers alike—could run.

The Next Page 2019 archives can be found via their website, and I have it on good authority that it’s more enjoyable if you stay in your pajamas.

Crowdfunding: How Community Backing Is Making a Splash in Publishing

The ambition to write a book is shared among many people. Though the process of getting a manuscript accepted and ultimately published is challenging, there are alternatives to sending your manuscript to New York. As the publishing industry continues to grow and change, new forms of publishing begin to take place. Crowdfunding is taking the publishing industry by storm, proving to be the next big shift in the way we think about publishing books.

Crowdfunding platforms like Indiegogo and Kickstarter started gaining prominence in the early 2010’s. These websites are community based and allow people to pledge money to projects. Crowdfunding is particularly popular in publishing because it allows authors and publishers alike to propose projects to be funded. It works like this: A project is announced on the website with an initial monetary goal to be funded. Project creators will create pitches, videos, or explanations and plans for their project. Project creators create incentives or “perks” to encourage higher levels of donation and provide updates on the project. Some sites, like Kickstarter, are all-or-nothing and only allow the creator to collect money if their goal has been reached. Projects from community art to clothing design to movies can be found on crowdfunding sites.

From a publishing perspective, crowdfunding has a lot of benefits. For indie authors, it allows them to self-publish books. For publishers, it mitigates the risk involved with publishing a book that they’re not sure will sell. It allows publishers to gauge interest in a particular project and anticipate demand, and it creates its own word-of-mouth publicity. Projects are easily shared to potential backers over social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter. Once a project is fully funded, publishers receive money up front, making it easy to cover the cost of publishing a book. As crowdfunding continues to permeate publishing, industry-specific competitors to sites like Kickstarter have begun to gain prominence. Sites like Publaunch and Unbound allow allow authors to turn an idea into reality.

In 2016, publishing made its mark on crowdfunding. A children’s book called Rebel Girls made history when backers pledged over a million dollars. As backers began to pledge much more than authors Elena Favilli and Francesca Cavallo’s initial goal of forty thousand dollars, they began to offer more perks with the book, like posters and stickers. Rebel Girls exemplifies how community interest in a particular project can yield great results. In this case, a children’s book for middle grade girls with stories about one hundred famous women found a great deal of success after its intended audience enthusiastically backed it.

Crowdfunding poses an interesting dynamic. Instead of letting the traditional gatekeepers of large publishing houses decide what gets published, why not let the people decide what they want to read? As crowdfunding gains more traction in publishing, it makes way for more creativity, diversity, and risk-taking in the books we publish.

Interview with Ooligan Alum Laurel Boruck

Laurel Boruck graduated from the Portland State University publishing program in June 2014. In her first year with Ooligan Press, she worked on marketing for We Belong in History, The Ninth Day, and The Wax Bullet War. In her second year, she transitioned into the role of project manager for The Wax Bullet War. Now Boruck is a marketing coordinator at Zeal Books and DC Jacobson & Associates. She kindly spent a few hours after work answering questions about her time at Ooligan and what she’s been up to since she graduated.

What drew you to Portland State’s publishing program?

During my final year as an undergraduate at the University of Oregon, I took a class called Literary Editing, which I absolutely loved. I started looking into publishing programs—and there really aren’t too many—and discovered PSU’s program. After I graduated, I took a couple of years off and worked at Nike while I sorted through my grad school options. During that time, I visited the program so I could check things out. I was really impressed by how collaborative everything seemed. There was a strong sense of community among the students, all the instructors I met were open and engaged, and I appreciated the balance between classroom learning and the hands-on learning that happens at Ooligan Press. Of all the programs I looked at, PSU was the only one that incorporated the kind of tangible experience that Ooligan offers.

Did you want to specialize in sales and marketing when you began the program?

No—it was a complete accident! When I started, I was interested in editing (though not as dead set on it as some), and I was really interested in agenting. I hadn’t given a second thought to book marketing. In my first term, Abbey Gaterud put me in the now-defunct external promotions department, which did marketing for the press, and then I jumped over to the marketing department, which I co-managed for two terms. When I applied for summer internships, I applied to all kinds of departments, but the one I landed ended up being in marketing.

Once I started doing more marketing and publicity work, and as I got further along in my studies, I discovered that I really enjoyed it. And that’s still true! Book marketing is both creative and strategic; you have to be able to come up with out-of-the-box ideas, but you also have to be able to crunch numbers and think tactically. When I worked at Nike, my job involved a lot of spreadsheets and numbers, which wasn’t my favorite part of the job—but I was pretty good at it, and I learned a lot of skills that have served me well in publishing. As it turns out, I actually like working with numbers, strategy, and processes (especially when we’re talking about books!) as long as I get to do creative stuff too. And it’s tough to get bored, because you get to do such a variety of things and work on a huge variety of books.

You work with both a literary agent and a publisher. What are the similarities and differences between the two? What does a day in the life of Laurel typically look like?

My work is divided into two functions, but it all happens under one roof; the agency and the publishing company are separate but related entities. My boss, the president of the agency, pitched the book that is now Space at the Table to publishers, but each one reluctantly turned it down. He thought it was an important book though, so he started a publishing company to publish it (and any future books we decide on—we’re already working on the next one). In both capacities, my title is marketing coordinator.

On the publishing side, I do pretty typical marketing tasks: I solicit reviews, do media outreach, work on advertising, create marketing plans, and manage our social media. On the agency side, I do a variety of things. Ninety-some-odd percent of our authors are nonfiction, so most of our books are sold on proposal rather than on a full manuscript. I do a lot of proposal development. That’s part editorial and part marketing—it’s just that we’re marketing to publishers rather than consumers. I also sit in on marketing calls with our authors’ publishers so that I can step in and help when needed. It’s not typical for an agency to have a marketing person on staff, so it’s been fun to see how I can benefit both our authors and their publishers through the marketing process.

You worked with Zeal Books to Kickstart their first title, Space at the Table. What was that process like?

It was definitely a learning experience. None of us had ever run a Kickstarter campaign before, so there was a fair amount of “Well, the people on the internet say this is a good idea, so let’s try it” happening. Alan Scott Holley did a lot of the legwork on researching and implementing the campaign. We had really engaged authors, which was huge—the day we launched, they were in the office making calls to everyone they could think of in their networks who might be able to help support or share the campaign. We also just had a great response to the book and its message; we were constantly amazed by how many people came out of the woodwork to express their support. Now that the campaign is over (and successfully funded!), we’re planning to sit down and write up everything we learned so we don’t lose that knowledge.

What advice do you have for students just beginning the program at Portland State?

Try as many different things as you can, and don’t write something off until you’ve given it a go. Meet as many people as you can. If there’s someone doing work that you think is interesting, whether that’s someone at Ooligan, a conference, an internship, or anywhere else, just ask them about it! People are generally nice and love to hear that someone is interested in the things they’re interested in. Networking is so much easier if you think of it as expressing genuine curiosity rather than going for a cold sell. Cultivate relationships with your instructors and your classmates. Challenge yourself to do things that are just a bit beyond your comfort zone. And have fun!

You can find Laurel Boruck on her website, Twitter, LinkedIn, and Instagram.

Doing It Differently: The Pros & Pitfalls of Operating a Nonprofit

Last term, I found myself sitting in the boardroom of the PSU Foundation and discussing how to get a crowdfunding campaign up and running for one of our upcoming titles. After getting through all the technical mumbo jumbo, I inquired about the part of the campaign when donors receive gifts, and therein lay a problem. I was informed that because Ooligan Press operates as a nonprofit organization, we’re extremely limited in how we’re allowed to reward our donors—so limited, in fact, that it could mean serious trouble if we were to reward a donation with any object with a monetary value over $10. And when I say “trouble,” I’m talking IRS-knocking-at-the-door, full-out-audit trouble. This means our idea of rewarding donors with music-related prizes like concert tickets, music lessons, vinyl records, and CDs was a big fat no-can-do. Even giving out our own books as prizes was off limits.

This revelation made me realize that we’re operating under a different set of rules here at Ooligan, and it begged a question: what exactly does “nonprofit” mean for what the press can and cannot do? Because my first experience with these nonprofit regulations was one that severely limited our plans, I naturally assumed that the nonprofit tag was nothing but a pain in the neck—a necessary evil that we had to deal with. After doing more research, I realized my assumption couldn’t be further from the truth. Except for a few legal hindrances, the nonprofit tag allows Ooligan to exist in a way that really sets us apart from other publishers. Sure, the generally small profit margins and the necessary dependence on grants and fundraising aren’t ideal, but when you counter those issues with the many great opportunities that being a nonprofit makes available to us, it quickly becomes more than worth it.

Because we don’t have to constantly dwell on finances here at Ooligan, we have the freedom to truly stick to our mission statement and publish the books that we want to publish. Whereas most publishers strive to find a happy medium between the books they want to produce and the books that will sell, we’re lucky to be able to gamble on the titles that really speak to us. All of this freedom is quintessential to what we represent and strive to achieve as Oolies when, if we’re being perfectly honest, it wouldn’t be possible for us to do what we do under any different set of circumstances.

Rather than working as a quasi-intern at a press where the decisions are made above our heads and we’re left to simply follow orders, at Ooligan, we’re in charge of the process from beginning to end. This situation works great for students as well as the press—which employs students as staffers for virtually no out-of-pocket cost—and we get to participate in almost every aspect of the book production process. This symbiotic relationship continues into the partnership between the press and the university itself. As our publisher, Abbey Gaterud, explained it to me, Ooligan is “a business working within a place that is not a business.” This means that while we need to focus on putting out quality materials that we can be proud of, the more logistical worries faced by typical for-profit publishers—like electricity, computers, and rent—fall into the larger operations of Portland State. This is an understandable load off our shoulders, and one that simply wouldn’t be possible if we weren’t a nonprofit press.

Many things make Ooligan Press stand out from other publishing houses around the country. Being this unique sometimes comes at a price, but one that we’re gladly willing to pay in order to keep doing things our own different and very special way.

Know Your City Kiosk Kickstarter Campaign

Know Your City, the organization formerly known as The Dill Pickle Club, is planning to construct a bike-powered mobile bookstore and information kiosk for Old Town Portland. It will be located in the pedestrian area of SW Ankeny Alley, right next to Voodoo Doughnuts: the perfect place to target tourists and sell tickets to KYC events. Get some local knowledge with your iconic sugar bombs! To fund this project, KYC is running a Kickstarter campaign set to end on Thanksgiving (Thursday, November 28). As of writing this post, KYC was nearly halfway to its goal of $10,000. The way Kickstarter works is all or nothing; either an assortment of supporters pledge the full $10,000 or the entire project falls through.

To give the Kickstarter campaign an extra fuel injection, KYC held a fundraising party, “A Night in the Alley,” on November 12. Several of the bars and restaurants in Ankeny Alley participated with extended happy hours and specials, including a one-night-only Know Your City doughnut from Voodoo.

KYC doughnuts from Voodoo Doughnuts

Know Your City Doughnuts from Voodoo Doughnuts
Image from Know Your City Facebook page.

Ooligan Press has a special interest in seeing this kiosk built. Several of our titles delve into Oregon’s culture and history and are stocked by Know Your City, including Brew to Bikes: Portland’s Artisan Economy,by Charles Heying. Support for the KYC kiosk is support for Ooligan and our authors.

Know Your City had a successful publishing venture of their own with the Oregon History Comics, a colorful box set of minicomics written by Sarah Mirk and illustrated by local comic artists. Soon KYC will launch Comics For Change! Illustrated Stories From Oregon’s Front Lines, a series of ten minicomics about social activism celebrating Oregon’s outspoken heralds of justice. The release party for Comics for Change is scheduled for the evening of December 12 at Darcelle XV Showplace. Darcelle (Walter Cole) is one of the heroes featured in Comics for Change.

Kickstarter Pedal Powered: Marketing by Bike

After journeying around the world with her two young sons, Rebekah Tyler plunged into the world of self-publishing with a successful Kickstarter campaign for her memoir, Full Tilt. She popularized herself while traveling around northern New Zealand by bike, with a cart advertising her book trailing behind her. For those who are unfamiliar with New Zealand’s landscape, it is not flat, and dragging a trailer around must have taken immense energy and enthusiasm. I saw her adorable bicycle setup locked up outside Wordstock, and even had a chance to meet with her at her booth.
What made you decide on a Kickstarter and self-publishing? Did you consider traditional publishing?
I decided to write my book after returning to New Zealand following my eight-month adventure around the world. I was feeling depressed that I had come back to the same routine I wanted to escape from.
After sending my manuscript to about one hundred agents in New York and London, and receiving one hundred rejection letters, I knew I had to take things into my own hands. Living on the small island of New Zealand, I felt miles away from the action. Kickstarter gave me the opportunity for global exposure. During my Kickstarter campaign in New Zealand, I towed a promotional cart behind my bike and hit the streets of Auckland and Wellington. I achieved my $10,000 goal in the first two weeks, and raised $13,400 by the end of my thirty-three day campaign.
How was your self-publishing experience?
My self-publishing experience has been an emotional roller coaster! I wanted my book to be as professional as possible, so I hired a professional editor, typesetter, and cover designer, but I still felt that I was not being made aware of the choices that were available to me until it was too late. Changes were being made, but at my cost. I feel there is a need for self-publishing companies to clearly explain the in’s and out’s of the printing and publishing process.
Because my book is about traveling the world with a two year-old and a ten year-old as a single mom, I would like to get on the The Ellen Show for her Mothers’ Day episode. Perhaps I could give all of the pregnant moms a copy of my book, and have a golden ticket inside one with a free airplane ticket to New Zealand. I did try sending Ellen a gift box full of wonderful New Zealand souvenirs (including two pairs of possum fur nipple warmers) one for Ellen, and one for Portia, but then discovered they were both huge animal rights activists. Oops!
Why did you decide to market in the US and Portland in particular?
I had huge support from strangers on the West Coast. One supporter was a fellow author named Shasta Kearns. She suggested I attend Wordstock. I picked up the phone and was lucky enough to speak to the director, Katie Merritt. She said, “If you can get on a plane, we will have you!”
I found that trying to promote my book and sell it on the streets of Portland was tough, much tougher than back home. So I thought my days marketing my book on the cycle might be coming to an end. Everyone was busy and did not want to be disturbed. The manager of Powell’s was going to move on from me, but instead let me stay in the entrance way giving away free copies of my book. A girl’s gotta try!
After a not so great day trying to sell books at Wordstock, I decided to go to a local Piazza Italia restaurant in the Pearl to eat pasta and get a little drunk on red wine. I had shipped 600 books from Minnesota, but only sold about 50 during my time in Portland. I was now having to ship 550 back. I was feeling pretty despondent. Shortly after arriving at the restaurant, a group of five women walked in and I said to my partner, “Hey those are the type of ladies who would love my book!” Twenty minutes later I managed to get the manager of the restaurant to drive me back to my hotel, pick up a box of books, and drive me back to the restaurant where I spent the next hour handing out copies of Full Tilt for free to all the customers. I might not have made any money, but I sure had fun.