I can't remember how I came across Iain and Claire's travel blog Old World Wandering – but I was immediately impressed by the quality of the writing and the look and feel of the design. I love the fact that they are writing in-depth, thoughtful pieces of prose.

As I browsed around the site I spotted that they are trying to fund their next travel writing expedition – a trip from Shanghai to Cape Town - using Kickstarter. Basically they need a bunch of people to commit money to the venture. I have to admit I thought this was a brave thing to do – and like their blog, different. A constant theme on this blog is the challenge to make travel writing pay in this new world of the web – and here is an interesting new model. Which I have seen some people succeed with recently too.

So I asked if they’d like to talk some more about the project and the funding model. Here’s a really interesting guest post written by Iain.

"With only 10 days left to go, my Kickstarter project is still almost $30,000 away from its target. If I don’t raise the whole amount, I get nothing, and statistically my chances of success are slim. I’ll keep trying anyway, and I’ll also use Kickstarter again – if differently – because I believe it’s one part of a model that will eventually support writing of quality published online.

I've watched successful travel bloggers follow two paths: either they write to a narrow set of keywords and sell advertising or they build an audience around their personality, which leads to speaking engagements and endorsements. There is obviously overlap between the two, and there may be success stories I don't know about, but I believe that there is also a third business model slowly taking shape that will support long-form travel writing published independently.

I describe Old World Wandering, the travelogue I write with my partner, Claire, as an experiment. It began simply enough, in 2006, with updates for family and friends, but slowly – like a petulant child – our little travelogue has grown large and promising enough to take over our lives. That may sound familiar, and far from experimental, but 18 months ago, when we published Claire’s 3,500-word dispatch from Attukal Pongala, the largest gathering of women in the world, we started an experiment that has yet to produce a stable result. Claire’s article was picked up by The Browser, which curates “writing worth reading.” The traffic from that encouraged us to write even longer articles, like my three-part, 10,574-word epic about an Indian village cursed by tourism, and we were soon being featured by other curators of lengthy prose, like Longform and Longreads, which by collating links are also assembling a passionate community.

Claire and I write as well as we can, in as much detail as we can, but despite a measure of critical success and a growing list of subscribers, we're still a long way from making Old World Wandering financially sustainable. A 10,000-word article about a relatively abstract subject is going to see a lot less search-engine traffic than twenty highly specific 500-word articles, for a start. In-depth writing also takes time – 71 hours of carefully clocked work, in the case of the Chinese of Vientiane – and the growing long-form community is partly a response to established newspapers and magazines cutting their budgets for in-depth features, which tell stories that twenty 500-word articles just can’t.

In an interview, Graham Boynton – who was an editor at Conde Nast Traveler and travel editor of the Telegraph Group – described the problem succinctly:

I have no doubt that travel websites, blogs, and tweets are rapidly replacing conventional print travel journalism, but the problem is there is not enough money in it for the journalists to earn a decent living. If writers who want to specialise in travel lose the financial incentive to do so, then the gene pool of travel literature will be diminished. That, to my mind, is the greatest crisis facing travel writing – the dumbing down of the genre.

I think Kickstarter is a part of the solution to this crisis because it allows a relatively small group of passionate people to make something happen. Extremely successful campaigns often have surprisingly few backers: Matter – a journalism project we looked at closely – raised $140,202 from just 2,566 backers. It did that by emphasising a big issue – the low quality of science and technology reporting both on and offline – instead of speaking in too much detail about what Matter might actually do. We’ve tried to approach our campaign in the same way, by highlighting the importance of travel writing that connects past with present and community with place, instead of packaging destinations for visitors to consume, but we’ve also made too many mistakes. We haven’t spent enough time engaging with other travel writers, for instance. We worried that they might take our campaign as criticism of their own experiments, but what has actually happened is that other travel writers – who know how tricky all of this is – appreciate what we’re trying to achieve, and have given us genuine, unselfish support.

Our biggest mistake by far was underestimating how many people would see our campaign. We’ve worked hard at promoting it using social media, but no larger site has picked it up yet, and only 700 or so people have watched our video. Twenty two percent of them get through all four minutes, and almost exactly half of those people have backed us. If we can keep that ratio up, we only need to get 5,000 people to watch our video, and that helps me to believe that there is still enough time to save my Kickstarter project, and my travel writing experiment, with your support."

You can find out more and join up to back the project here: http://www.kickstarter.com/projects/oldworldwandering/old-world-wandering

12 thoughts on “Using Kickstarter to fund a travel writing project

  1. Congratulations to Ian & Claire for your creativity. Trying to figure out what this "third business model" looks like I took a look through the Kickstarter page and there's some interesting stuff in there. The 2nd largest pledge is effectively a guided tour of Istanbul; an innovative (but surprisingly unusual for bloggers) way of monetizing your local expertise & knowledge. But the *really* interesting piece is the ultimate pledge; for $2k you'll sell your audience engagement and influence -- I see this as the biggest growth area for genuinely effective travel bloggers and something that the blogging community & industry should be taking very seriously right now.
    Well done & good luck guys.

  2. Thank you Matthew. I think you've raised an important point, and I should probably have been faster to raise it myself: I am not looking for a handout.

    A few people have pointed out that $34,500 is a lot of money. It is, and I don't think we've done enough to explain the amount. A lot of it will go toward simple Kickstarter costs: printing books and photos, buying the custom made journals, the overheads in Istanbul, etc., along with 5% for Kickstarter, 3% for Amazon and taxes. What's left over - roughly 50% - will go towards paying for the trip.

    The amount has annoyed some people, who seem to think that we're impudent for aiming so high. I think the amount is honest, because we couldn't do the trip for less, but that isn't really the point, and this may well be a problem with using Kickstarter: in many cases, we're using it like a marketplace, to sell goods at a realistic price, but because that goes hand-in-hand for a plea for support, people see the total and think we're greedy. Next time, I'll need to handle that more carefully.

  3. Hi guys,

    Apologies for my abrupt responses via twitter today. Interesting project, kudos for innovating and thinking outside the box (hate that term! but using it anyway!).

    The pledges are quiet different, I think it'd be useful if it was a lot more straight forward. I agree with Matthew that the 2k option is the most interesting and it seems more viable to be pitching these projects towards travel companies rather than some of the smaller pledges that look like they are aimed at individuals.

    Personally I don't think the smaller pledges offer enough back for the individuals, but perhaps going down the route of sponsorship such as the 2k is the way to go.

  4. Been dwelling on this for a bit.

    Another approach?

    If all the awards + assciated fees cost $18k, then ditch any awards that cost money. Straight away you've halved what you need to raise.

    Yet another approach?

    Break it down into 18 kickstarter projects at 2K each running consecutively.

    For starters -- as you've now illustrated, you're capable of raising at least $4k, so this is doable.

    Secondly, assuming $2k would cover a far smaller trip you'd be more realistically able to give funders a framework of what it is they're funding -- this would be helpful + you've probably now developed a better idea of the type of copy required to get people on board in the first place.

    Then, launch each new project as you finish and deliver on the previous one. Assuming you're delivering material which people want and are willing to continue to support financially this approach allows you to build momentum nicely which you'd hope would see latter projects being over-funded.

  5. Stuart, that's exactly what I've been thinking. Somebody very kindly told me to get a job yesterday, as if fulfillment of the rewards was going to happen by magic. Before we launched, I spoke to Bobbie Johnson from Matter, which raised 140,000, and he said the rewards weren't important, because they didn't motivate people. Breaking the amount up into stages makes sense too, if Amanda Palmer is any indication of what works, because once once people understand and are plugged into Kickstarter, your job gets easier.

    The biggest thing, I think, is that you have to make sure you don't look or feel like you have a blog, and I think we may actually have had much more success if we'd tried to raise money for a book, while maybe offering the dispatches as a reward for backers

  6. I'm responding to Jeremy's comment on journalism projects on Kickstarter. One way to learn more about such journo projects is to search the journalism site of http://www.poynter.org/

    Through the Poynter site I found a link to a very interesting compilation of Kickstarter journo projects that have failed: http://www.thekickbackmachine.com/browse/unsuccessful/Publishing/Journalism/

    For those on a Kickstarter quest, it might be useful to examine these projects that didn't take flight.

  7. Sorry for the delayed response Stuart. I was on the Trans-Mongolian yesterday and for the first part of today. Just got online.

    I don't think having a blog is a problem, but asking people for money to do something that resembles blogging is definitely a problem. Received this from a Travelblather reader yesterday:

    "And pls don't start w/the "not a blog" thing. Many blogs are..well-written and well-respected (many are crap). Many bloggers are profl writers + journalists. You will alienate many pple w/that schtick."

    I might be wrong about this, but the logic seems to be that Old World Wandering feels like a blog, because it is published by two people and organised chronologically, so it is a blog, whether we spend 80 hours working on a single article or not. The label is fine with me, but not if the job (as in work for money) of "profl writers + journalists" must happen elsewhere.

  8. Hi guys
    I've been meaning to add my thoughts - sorry it's taken me a few days
    It's about you.
    I don't think you tell us enough about you and Claire. I think to be successful you propbably need people to empathise with you - to want to do the trip with you. 'Come along for the ride - see the world through our eyes' is the message - (isn't it?) I don't quite feel that with your pitch.
    And Stuart’s points about doing it in smaller steps definitely seem to make sense. You could say raise a couple of grand to get you to Moscow or wherever and then go back to your community and ask how they found the experience so far – tweak the pitch for the next step based on their feedback.
    It's about size of audience?
    I wonder if - developing that theme - there's an element of needing to develop your community more before you go for the Kickstarter option if you’re after the larger sum of money in one hit? Do you have to have built a certain size audience before it will work? Christine Gilbert has 40,000 or more followers on twitter for example. Maybe you needed more scale first? (She was succcessful with her video documentary project on kickstarter).
    Oddly(?) there was a feature in Time Magazine this month about Kickstarter (which shows it’s really making some waves I guess?). A key quote from there by an entrepreneur who was successful –
    ‘You don’t want to sell people a product – you want to sell them a dream’ I like that.
    One other interesting stat from that piece too - 'the typical project raises five grand and is supported by 85 people.'
    One other thing… – I love that map with the journey being traced out on it in the video – how did you do that? It’s cool!
    Fingers crossed for you... there are still quite a few days to go!

  9. Jeremy, yes, we do have a few days left, and miracles do sometimes happen. I have a few responses that might be of interest to somebody thinking about Kickstarter.

    First, Christine Gilbert's huge network must have helped a lot, and maybe it made the difference, but I think it also helped that she was raising money for a documentary. Films, like books, are finite, and I think they succeed more easily. I realised that our much much smaller network was going to be a problem, but I thought that the people who had regularly shared our writing - who have large networks - would also share this. I was wrong, and that's the lesson: don't expect people to react the same way as they normally do when you're asking for money.

    The second lesson is that a lot of people will make noise for you, sharing the video and saying how wonderful the project is while pledging nothing. Many of your most generous backers will be people who you don't know, who make no effort to share the project. That's been my experience
    at least.

    As for helping people to identify with us, I'd say it's a difficult balance. Some people have said the opposite, asking us how we can expect to raise so much money without a detailed plan. I think we struck a reasonable balance in the video.

    The map is a fake that was sold for a fortune recently, because it was supposedly drawn by the famous Chinese explorer
    Zheng He. I animated it using After Effects and Photoshop.

  10. Hello
    Really interesting - if not a bit heated - debate.
    One point I wanted to make was that my motivation for asking Iain if he'd like to write a guest post wasn't to hold their approach up to quite such intense scrutiny. (I suppose it was bound to happen... I hope - even if there have been a few bruises - it has been useful?)
    What I liked was the fact that the content was the priority with this model. The more typical revenue model for people travelling and using a blog (website, whatever else you want to call it!) to try and fund their travels is sponsored posts and other activities based on selling links. Frequently what ends up happening is the quality of the content really deteriorates. You end up with blogs full of pretty mundane crappy content just there to support links. Sometimes there's good stuff in between, but quite often not. The blog just becomes the mechanism for funding the travel and the focus on a readership/audience is replaced with a focus on the customer (ie an SEO agency) and the search engine.
    Even if you guys (I and C) need to rework the sums and the costings etc I like the fact that you're saying - "support us for the quality of our writing". Maybe at this stage that's not enough to justify the amount you hoped to raise, but you've managed over $12,000 which is not bad going at all. And... still 5 days to go.
    I'm still watching with interest

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