Kickstarting Funding for a Freelance Project

August 20, 2010

Erin Siegal

Club members Erin Siegal and Erin Arvedlund recently took some time to talk about Siegal’s use of an innovative tool called Kickstarter.com to raise money for her book,  “Finding Fernanda,” due out in 2011. Siegal was a recipient of the club-affiliated Anne O’Hare McCormick Award scholarship in 2008.

Arvedlund: Tell us, why are you using Kickstarter?
Siegal: Last year, I graduated from Columbia University’s Graduate School of Journalism, and embarked on a quest to write a book based on my master’s thesis. It just didn’t seem like boiling my project down to a magazine or newspaper piece would do justice to the story. It just felt like a book.

I started querying agents, and signed with Farley Chase at Waxman Literary Agency. This past January, he negotiated a deal with Beacon Press for my book, “Finding Fernanda.” It’s the story of two very brave women, one American and one Guatemalan, whose lives are brought together by the same little girl, Fernanda.

I’ve been working in a timeframe of roughly eight months to finish reporting and write the actual book. Beacon Press is the oldest independent publisher in the U.S., but they’re a small operation with a tight budget. Unfortunately, my advance didn’t come close to covering my reporting and living expenses. It was a confusing and sad reality check: I didn’t have the money I needed to write the book I was so passionate about. It’s a story that needs to be told, both an expose of criminal wrongdoing and a powerful narrative about hope, love, and faith. Naively, I thought getting the book deal would be the hard part. I didn’t anticipate that fundraising would be the tricky part.

If the book was less timely, I could have tried to put in a few months of dedicated full-time fund-raising. Yet the issue, corruption in international adoption, is a pervasive problem. It needs to be talked about. At one point, my agent asked me if I realistically thought I could pull it off, given my small book advance. I told him yes without hesitation. I’m sort of stubborn.

Since then, I’ve been engaged in the process of fundraising, reporting, writing chapters, and trying to freelance on the side simultaneously. It gets overwhelming sometimes, but I’m still in my mid-twenties and have enthusiasm to spare.

Right now, I’m using Kickstarter to raise money for my final reporting trip to Guatemala City this August and September before my manuscript is due in October.

Arvedlund: How does it work?
Siegal: With Kickstarter, after creating a profile page for your project, you start spreading the word about it. At the beginning of the campaign, you set a target amount of money to raise, and the amount of time you think you need in order to raise it.

Then you create incentives! For Finding Fernanda, a donation of just $5 gets backers access to a private, behind-the-scenes reporting blog. It’s a fun blog, sort of a reporter’s diary with pictures, clips, and other fun things related to the story. For $100, backers get a free copy of the book, with a personalized inscription. For a donation of $500, I’ll include donor’s names in the printed acknowledgements section of the book.

A variety of creative projects are listed on Kickstarter. Musicians use the site to raise money for albums, authors use it for books, and lots of filmmakers use it for movie projects and documentaries. It’s really interesting to see what gets a person fired up, and subsequently, what the public feels is worthy of support.

If the target fundraising goal isn’t met by your deadline, then you get zero funding. It’s all or nothing.

Arvedlund: What alternatives did you consider?
Siegal: I’ve been applying to various grants and awards, yet the waiting period between application and decision can be long. Some foundations that give money to investigative reporting projects don’t support books. IRE (Investigative Reporters and Editors) awarded me a 2010 Freelance Fellowship Award, which was $1,000. The Schuster Institute for Investigative Journalism has also provided financial support. Director Florence George Graves and E.J. Graff have been very supportive, providing personal mentorship as well as material support like pro-bono legal counsel and remote research assistance. I don’t know what I’d do without E.J. and Florence. They’re very smart women, both amazing and experienced investigative journalists.

I’ve also gotten photo assignments from my agency in New York, Redux Pictures, here and there. Every job helps. A New York Times piece by Ginger Thompson to which I contributed reporting came out recently, printed as the lead story on A1! It was really exciting. The story is “After Haiti Quake, the Chaos of U.S. Adoptions.” Ginger and I are currently working on another investigative piece that will be a co-byline, also about adoption corruption.

It can be hard to find time for everything, in addition to ongoing grant applications.

I keep joking to my friends that after this, I’m going to take a few months off by finding a real job as a waitress.

Arvedlund: Why did you go with Kickstarter?
Siegal: Today, my manuscript deadline is less than two months away. I desperately needed to get back to Guatemala to finish reporting, and Kickstarter seemed like a great option to try. There was nothing to lose.

It turned out to be really encouraging as well as financially successful. It’s been great getting feedback about the book; people seem to feel that it’s as worthwhile as I do. Since book writing is such a solitary endeavor much of the time, it’s been very reassuring as well.

Arvedlund: Cost?
Siegal: There’s no cost for using Kickstarter.

As a freelancer, I’m used to doing things on a shoestring. To date, I’ve raised about half the total money needed for this project. The rest has come out of pocket. I’m still harboring hope that Finding Fernanda will break even, somehow. Where there’s a will, there’s a way!

Arvedlund: What’s the downside? Or what should other journos be aware of before signing on?
Siegal: I’m not sure yet if there’s a downside. My experience has been really positive. I guess one potential drawback would be attempting to fund a project that requires heightened sensitivity or confidentiality. Since Kickstarter is public, anyone can learn about your project online.

Arvedlund: The results?
Siegal: Within the first six days, Finding Fernanda met the goal of raising $3,000. It was a bare-bones goal, the very minimum I’d need to cover travel, living and reporting from Guatemala for almost two months. I initially wanted to set my goal at $5,000, but I was afraid of failing: $3,000 seemed doable.

To my delight, the goal was met in the first six days! It was incredible. I’m still trying to spread the word.

It would have been nice if an employer, foundation, or publisher gave me the money I needed to do this execute book project and investigation. It would have been such a luxury to simply focus on reporting and writing. But the media landscape today is difficult, and no one has money to sink into long-term, long-form investigative projects.

Arvedlund: Would you do anything differently?
Siegal: I don’t think so, but ask me again in a few months! I’m sure I’ll have a laundry list of those good old hindsight realizations. I’ve never written a book before, and I’m not a “real” writer. I’m doing the best I can. Determination and passion goes a long way.

So does the help of friends, colleagues, contacts, and total strangers. Words can’t express the gratitude I have for everyone who’s helped, both financially or just by sending along a note of encouragement. I’ve spoken to over 400 sources thus far, over the last two years, and I feel so deeply honored to be telling this powerful story.

— Erin E. Arvedlund

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