Thursday, March 21, 2013

Write the Future

Welcome back to another Kickstarter Conversation!  Today I am joined from across the pond by Tom Hunter who is talking to us about his “Write the Future” Kickstarter project.  Thank you for joining us today Tom!

Thank you for the opportunity. One of the main things that first drew me into Kickstarter was the sense of a shared experience linking all of these cool people and projects together, and it’s great to see that conversation extending out to the blogosphere as well.

Plus reading the Kickstarter Conversation blog introduced me to a whole load more cool stuff, so it really is a pleasure to be invited to chat here with you.

Your main title seems to leave out one of the biggest things, in my opinion, about your project.  That being your project is organised by the Arthur C. Clarke Award for science fiction literature and taking place at the Royal Society in London!  Sure that’d be hard to put in the title but those are kind of big deals!  Tell us more about what this is all about.  

You’re right, being invited to do organise an event like this at the Royal Society is definitely a big deal, and they’ve been great (and very trusting) in letting us in to use their space in this way.

It started out with the Royal Society approaching us to host the main ceremony event for the Clarke Award, which is taking place on the same evening as Write The Future. That’s always been an invite only event, which makes sense for an award ceremony, but both I and they wanted to see if we could push that a bit, and since we’ve got the space in the evening and it’s basically the same set-up - chairs, a screen, a lectern etc etc - we just thought maybe we could use the space in the day as well and organise something a little different.

In that way Write The Future is very much an experimental event for both us and the Royal Society, and we wanted to reflect that in the programming where we’re deliberately bringing different disciplines together, and also in the way we went about promoting the event. So we’re going to have science fiction authors talking alongside technologists and futurists, social media and marketing experts and Royal Society Fellows conducting the kind of amazing cutting edge research that ought to be enough to inspire an entire next generation of Sci-Fi authors.

From the sounds of things on your Kickstarter page this all happened rather suddenly.  From my experience conventions and the like take months of planning, how long has this been in the works?
Absolutely. We proposed the idea in theory towards the end of 2012, but at that point it was very much a ‘what if?’ type idea that started gaining traction.

One of the areas I was really interested in addressing in some way for the Clarke Award was the changing state of the publishing industry what with the rise of ebooks and the indie publishing scene and so on, and so I always had this idea that we might turn to Kickstarter with some project or other, and when Write The Future suddenly started looking like it might actually happen, things started clicking into place.

I also had a real sense that if we were going to talk about change and the future and new technology and business models and so on, we really needed to be out there putting that theory into practice, and Kickstarter seemed to be a great way to reach out to audiences who would innately get that and want to be a part of actually making the event happen, so precisely the people we’d want to be there on the day.

Of course, it was also a way of testing if there was any interest out there at all, and given the short time frame we didn’t really have the luxury of getting the programme sorted, setting up a website and so on before we started letting people know they really needed to save the date for May 1st because something awesome was coming.

How did you get dragged into all of this?  What’s your connection to the Arthur C. Clarke Award?  

I’m the current director of the Clarke Award, which is the UK’s premier prize for science fiction literature, and this is actually my seventh year of being involved in its organisation. I have a co-director, Andrew M. Butler, who is responsible for the actual judging of the award, managing our jury, getting submissions in, picking a shortlist and a winner and so on, and that leaves me doing the promotion and running with the ball when the Royal Society suddenly say yes and so on. Andrew makes sure that when we open the winner’s envelope on ceremony night, that there’s a decision waiting inside. My part of the equation is to get out there and find creative new ways to talk about the prize and generally bang the drum for the science fiction genre. As I mentioned before, events like Write The Future are something of an experiment in that area, and if it works on the day I see similar events and partnerships being a big part of the Clarke Award’s own future in the years to come.  

Based off the reward tiers this is mostly a “Ticket Pre-sale” isn’t it?  I don’t see any non-physical rewards beyond the £10 one.   Especially for those of us from across the pond who’d like to see the event! No DVD? No Video Streams?  

We did have a few other options for reward tiers initially with friends of the award, but again it was all down to timing and when those weren’t quite coming together we had to decide whether to wait and get things right or press the launch button and just get out there and see what happened.
We pressed the launch button, and so far it’s been a great experience.

I’m glad you asked about video though, because we do have plans to film at least parts of the event and we’re working on that at the moment. It didn’t seem right though to make that a reward tier when we weren’t quite sure of the arrangements, so if we make it work we’ll aim to make that available to everyone.

I love that you put up some kind of video, even if it’s an iPhone video.  Did you come up with that at the last minute?  

There’s a line in one of my favourite William Gibson short stories, Johnny Mnemonic, which goes, “if they think you’re crude, go technical; if they think you’re technical, go crude.”

I’m a big William Gibson fan. So I decided to get as crude as possible.

Also, the Kickstarter team go out of their way to keep advising you that projects with video do way better on average than those without, so we had to do something. Again, we could have cut something more stylish together given time but the event really was locked in for May 1st and no other day so we had to move.

The advantage of video is that you can say something much more quickly and clearly than you can in copy on the page, so it made sense in the end to run with something simple that just explained what we were up t and why we hoped people would be as excited as we were.

I’m not sure I’d recommend that approach to everyone because the Clarke Award does have a network already so in some senses we were hoping they’d trust us enough already we could cut a few corners on production values and use the low-tech approach to our advantage.

What’s confirmed for the “micro-conference” right now?  Can you announce any of the guests or just some of the discussion topics?  

Absolutely. While we have had to move quickly on this, that doesn’t mean to say we didn’t have anything at all in place, and I can definitely give you a taste of what we have lined up.

For instance, we’re really lucky that the event coincides with a UK visit for author Lauren Beukes, who won the 25th Arthur C. Clarke Award with her novel Zoo City in 2011, so that’s a great place to start.

We’ve also been working closely with the team behind ARC magazine, the new digital quarterly from New Scientist, so they’ll be a major feature of the afternoon too. Check out for more info on them.

On the tech and futures side we have design scientist and futurist Melissa Sterry from talking about the Bionic City of the Future, and also Matt Webb from design consultancy BERG talking about the future of the internet and a new interconnected place he’s calling Botworld.

Basically it’s a real hybrid event pulling together experts from lots of different disciplines. The audience might have to think fast to keep up with all the different ideas, but I definitely think it’s going to be something really inspirational for everyone involved.

How did you land a booking at the Royal Society?  I would think that’d be a hard place to book!

This is definitely a co-production rather than a booking. I’ve been involved with some other events they’ve organised at the Royal Society over the past few years via the Clarke Award’s connection with the SFI-FI-LONDON film festival, so we got to know each other a bit first before going ahead with this.

How did you discover Kickstarter?

I’m really interested in crowd-sourcing and crowd-funding and alternative digital models anyway, so I’d been watching it with interest for a while, but it was a Kickstarter project for a book called Bait Dog, by an author I really like called Chuck Wendig that first got me into pledging.

I enjoyed it so much I ended up blogging about that experience for the Huffington Post here

and I think it’s definitely important to support the projects you’re passionate about as much as possible. For instance with other projects I’ve supported since I’ve made sure to email back and offer support to the organisers, even if just a hello and loving your project, when they’ve updated that things are delayed or similar.

Kickstarter is part of a creative community, not an online shopping trip, and while you can get some great events or things in the post at the end of it, I think that for me at least it’s the experience of being part of making something new that’s key to its success

A key part of successful Kickstarters is backer participation and how to convert a potential backer into a full backer.   How are you engaging your backers?  What kinds of things do you have planned for updates to give notice to those who just hit the “remind me” button and surf on?  Interviews?  Videos?  Stories from the project?

You know, this was the one bit I didn’t really plan out so far in advance as I wasn’t sure what kind of reaction we’d get, and also I was conscious that not everyone was going to want to pledge if they weren’t able to come to the actual event.
You mentioned video earlier and we also thought about some kind of ebook write up or similar for people who couldn’t make it, and that’s still something I’d like to do anyway, but when we launched that represented a time commitment we weren’t quite sure how to fulfil properly, so we shelved it temporarily.

I was also conscious that some people have reported a sort of Kickstarter Update fatigue from projects that post endlessly, so really this was just a case of seeing what happened and judging accordingly.

What kind of media attention have you received with your project?  How are you spreading the word?  Facebook?  Twitter?  Google+? Youtube?  Advertising?  Are you using Kicktraq to track your progress?  

Basically we’ve promoted this via Twitter as the main channel, which has always been a major channel for the Clarke Award, and we managed to hit target through that alone, so now I’m lying though there for a bit and figuring out what to do for a big push in our final week. We may have hit target, but this is a pre-ticket sale project so we’d like to see as many people as possible getting in on the action while the prices are at their best.

Having said that, I also had lots of plans for reaching out to different groups I know and asking individuals to give us more support and a signal boost if we weren’t going so well. Basically I had a lot of Plan B’s in my back pocket if needed.

I hadn’t heard of Kicktraq until just now, but quickly checking it out it looks really useful. What I’d love to see on there or directly on Kickstarter are stats on the overall number of visitors to your page. I can track that partially by using links and so on, but it would be great to see the total number of people viewing the page so we could calculate how well we’re doing against total visits and see if any of our actions caused particular spikes and so on.

Do you have any tips/advice would you give to anyone looking to start a Kickstarter?

The main thing I did before getting using Kickstarter myself was to support other projects. I did this anyway because it was fun, but it was invaluable experience as well to see what other people did and to feel part of their triumphs and frustrations and to see how they handled it all.

I looked at lots of people’s pages though, not just those I was supporting, and tried to get a sense of what they were doing that was working, or at least worked for me. That’s everything from the type and number of reward tiers they were offering through to how much copy they included and how much this was broken up and the type of language being used.

I’d also recommend thinking about various different ways things might play out. What happens if things go better than expected? What happens if things start out well then stall before the final leg? Who might you turn to for extra help? That kind of thing. It doesn’t hurt to pay things forward and spend some time helping actively support other people’s projects before launching your own either.

Thank you for spending your time with us!  Do you have any final thoughts for our readers?

I think the main thing is not to underestimate the support a good project can gather, and to respect that as much as possible. For me the best Kickstarter projects come from those people who’ve taken time to build up networks before they start asking for support on a specific new venture, and it really makes a difference if you’re passionate about giving something to your supporters - whether it’s a cool new event, gadget, book or game etc - rather than simply hoping people will get behind what you want to do and give you cash to do it. If you’re passionate about creating a Kickstarter project for other people first, I think you’ll be pleasantly surprised at how many people you’ll be able to inspire!

Thanks again and I hope to hear good things from your Kickstarter!

Thank you

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