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The webcomic Order of the Stick looks like it’s on track to raise about one million dollars via Kickstarter, to fund a new printing of its archives in paper form. Let that sink in if you haven’t already heard about this. There’s been lots of hype about it among comics industry watchers, but I haven’t seen any play for this story outside the comics blogosphere. It is worth noting that these guys didn’t ask for anything even close to a million smackers. They only asked for $57,750, which sounds like the right amount, more or less, to cover the expenses of a large-scale color book project.

Two questions spring to mind:

a). Why did people give money in the first place? Not every project succeeds.

b). Why have people kept giving money so outrageously far past the amount that the creators asked for, especially since the donors can, themselves, see that the goal has been met and overtaken many times over?

There’s a plague of blog posts out there that claim to give you “the formula” for a successful Kickstarter campaign. Bah to them. Humbug. There is no formula. The simplest observation applies here, though, and can stand in for a formula: The Order of the Stick was already popular before the Kickstarter campaign began. Being popular makes a lot of things easier, including Kickstarter campaigns. I’m sure you didn’t need for me to tell you this.

Here’s something you may not have thought about, though. One webcomic creator, whose primary business model is merchandise, and who for the purposes of this blog post has asked to remain nameless, once told me that “people are actually less interested in the t-shirt itself, and more interested in supporting what I’m doing. They want to give me money, even if they don’t fully know it in their minds. The t-shirt becomes their excuse.”

Kickstarter is just a different way to tap into that same impulse. And that’s the answer to both of my questions, above: people who like what you do are sometimes willing to give you money to help you keep doing it, especially if you give them an easy-to-understand immediate reason to fork over some cash, whether that’s a t-shirt to buy, or a book project to support. The more people there are, the more money there might be. Logic! In this particular case, the donors have gone far and above the call of duty, shooting this fairly unambitious book printing project into the funding stratosphere, precisely because they’re not really donating for the purpose of getting the book — or, anyway, not solely donating for that purpose. They’re really donating because they love the strip and its creator, and want to feel like they are an active part of the thing that they love. The book is bonus. Not logic! But still true!

I have long been on record saying that “begging is not a business model.” Since the rise of Kickstarter, some people have questioned me, wondering if I still believe what I said back then.

By the way. Let me be clear. This is all good. I can’t think of a time in the history of the popular arts when a creator could monetize his/her relationship with his/her audience in such a direct and mutually affectionate way. I’m fully in support of this.

But is it a business model? It is not.

I don’t know the creator of The Order of the Stick, but I suspect that he would also tell you that fundraising via Kickstarter is not, in and of itself, a business model, given the way he set up his Kickstarter project. His stated intention was to use the money raised as, appropriately enough, a kickstart — a source of investment funding, which would be used to create another thing, a physical product, which, in turn, will drive further revenue. The book is the business model. Kickstarter is a means to that end.

But if people are really just donating because they want to support the creator, you might ask, why does the creator need something like a book project before asking for money? If they’re not really investing — if they’re really just donating, under a thin veneer of investment — why not just do, say, a quarterly fund drive via Kickstarter, with the stated purpose of funding the creator’s ongoing creation of the webcomic/blog/podcast/novel/webserial/whatever directly, and let that be that? Like NPR or PBS?

NPR is not a business, though. PBS is not a business either. They’d be a little irritated with you if you said that they were. Am I splitting hairs? I probably am.

I also wonder if the same kind of excitement and level of generosity would be in play the fourth, fifth, or twenty-seventh time that any given creator set up a donation drive, especially if there wasn’t a product (an excuse, in other words) behind it. I don’t wonder much: I’m pretty sure that the same kind of excitement and generosity level would not be reached over and over and over again. The Law of Diminishing Returns is a harsh mistress. But I have no proof, other than my gut feeling.

What does your gut feel?