For years, I’ve been a fan of illustrator Mark Ulriksen. Over the last several months, I received several emails from him seeking donations to his Kickstarter campaign for a new book. To find out the how and why, I spoke to him at his San Francisco studio.
Q: Mark, I know your work from years of New Yorker covers, celebrity portraits in Rolling Stone and Time, baseball paintings, the United “It’s Time to Fly” campaign. Tell me about the new book.
A: Dogs Rule, Nonchalantly is 65 dog paintings. Sixty of them were previously published in publications including The New Yorker, Newsweek, and The Washington Post, or were art commissions. I did the book because I didn’t want those paintings to languish and be forgotten. I wanted to give them another life.
Why does a well-known New Yorker cover illustrator need a fundraising campaign? Did you intend to self-publish the book?
No, I already had a publisher. We did a proposal and talked to Chronicle, Thames & Hudson, and Phaidon. I found the right publisher in Goff Books, part of ORO Editions, which produces coffee-table books on art, architecture, design and photography. Tom Walker, my college roommate, who produces and designs high-end illustrated books, was helping me create the book, and had suggested them. I’m a book-lover and wanted a fine-art publisher that would produce a high-end product with the best color reproduction on the best paper.
Is it an art book, or does it have a story, a narrative?
It’s a bit of both. I wanted to make a book that was more than just a collection of paintings of dogs. There are bits of narrative about my life, seen through the eyes and minds of the dogs in my life—who I am, where I live, who I’m married to, my kids. I wrote the book in first person, in my own handwriting, to drive that point home. There are also observations about dog behavior in general, from someone who’s been a “dog person” his whole life.
Gordon Goff, the publisher, virtually gave me carte blanche. Tom, my wife Leslie and I spent days and days color-correcting, making everything perfect. And Gordon wanted to make sure the text was a good read even without the visuals. Goff Books did a beautiful job. I’m really, really happy with the product. The book is 144 pages, 7 x 9, hardcover. It’s coming out September 9.
From the publisher:
“The book is a humorous waggling tale about the life of dogs, drawing from Mark’s personal observations of his own dogs over his lifetime. From early puppy training to dog walking to caring for aging dogs, Mark provides a light-hearted commentary about the bonding relationship between man and man’s best friend.”
Since you were already working with the right publisher, what was the purpose of the Kickstarter campaign?
To raise capital to hire an expert outside PR firm specializing in social media.
Really. These days, no matter who your publisher is, it’s up to the author to promote the book. A publisher will do some of the legwork to get the word out, but my past experience in this area has not been great. I’ve done two children’s books, both with Elizabeth Winthrop and published by Henry Holt. They came out and then they just died. As I said, I didn’t want my 20+ years of dog paintings to wither and die. This is especially true given the rising importance of social media. If you want to be successful, you’ve got to get out and promote the book yourself. So far, as a result of the Kickstarter campaign, we’ve heard from several store outlets and magazines that are interested in the book.
Excellent. How did you get the campaign started and manage it?
I started by doing research. I learned that Kickstarter campaigns can sometimes raise $100,000 and more for book projects. People like to support creative projects. Even venture capitalists are looking for new places to sink their money. To be successful on Kickstarter, you’ve got to tell a story. I started by making a video about the antics of our 11-year-old chocolate Lab, Henry, that emphasized the need to raise capital for a larger PR campaign than the publisher could provide. We also did a funny video starring my family members.
Getting the campaign going took two months of work, with Leslie and Tom and I working full-time. It’s like public television fundraising. Every donor who contributes to a campaign gets a gift, depending on their level of giving. We designed and produced note cards, coffee mugs, limited-edition prints. We dealt with shipping and with collecting and paying state sales tax. And I had to write updates and thank-you notes to everyone who donated.
Where did you find your donors?
Luckily, I already had an audience, 1000 fans on my Mailchimp mailing list, New Yorker readers and others. We spent the entire month of May researching past clients, colleagues and friends, and emailing all day long. Not mass emails, but personalized emails to every prospect. And of course we also had to have a Twitter feed and make a Facebook page.
Ninety percent of the pledges came from people I emailed. At the higher levels, donors get customized editions, for example, with drawings of their own dog, which I make from photos they supply, inside a signed book. More than 40 people had me draw their dogs. We even offered a print-on-demand version of the book, with the donor’s own dog on the cover, though we didn’t have any takers for the option.
How much money did you raise?
We had a goal of $25,000 and raised $46,216. Ten percent of the money always goes to Kickstarter and Amazon. The rest went to paying for the pledge gifts, and what was left went to hire the social-media specialist to manage the online campaign to parallel the other PR efforts we are doing with the publisher
What would you recommend to Imprint readers who’d like to start their own Kickstarter campaigns?
First, do your homework and find out if there is a real market for your product. Then research and find your audience. As I mentioned, I already had a decent-size fan base who helped to get the word out. Then make a business plan for the campaign: Figure out what you’ll offer at different pledge levels, your gifts, how you’ll do project updates on social media. It’s a lot of work, but if you work hard and have a bit of luck, you’ll be successful. And remember to write those updates and thank-you notes to donors!
A Kickstarter campaign is over after 30 days, but that doesn’t mean the project is over. For me, it was just the beginning. Now I’m working on the launch of Dogs Rule, Nonchalantly in early September and planning for other books down the line. It’s like childbirth, if you remember how painful it was, you’d probably never do it again. Now with this book about to be born, I’ve conveniently forgotten how much work it took to get us to this point.