Interview with Lightspeed Publisher John Joseph Adams

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Earlier this year, the digital science fiction and fantasy magazine, Lightspeed, ran a hugely successful campaign called “Women Destroy Science Fiction.” The original goal was set at $5,000 but the campaign raised over $50,000.

Although the issue is being completely edited by women, the Kickstarter campaign was primarily handled by Lightspeed’s publisher, John Joseph Adams.  Always intrigued by process, I asked John some questions about how the idea came about, what he’d do differently and everything in between.

How did idea of Women Destroy Science Fiction come about?

JJA: In September 2013, there was a review in a prominent genre publication that more or less complained that photo-mainwomen were destroying science fiction with their girl cooties. Naturally many people took offense at this notion, many of whom took to Twitter to share their outrage about it. After seeing the review, Lightspeed’s long-time assistant editor, Christie Yant, tweeted:

I’m in the mood to destroy science fiction some more today! Ladies, you with me? [tweet]

Her Tweet generated a lot of responses, as did those of other people discussing the review. I’ve always thought that the best way to combat things like that is to try to take a negative thing and turn it into a positive. So I said to Christie: Why don’t we do a special issue of Lightspeed—a “Women Destroy Science Fiction” issue? She thought it was a great idea, and we hashed some ideas back and forth. Then, once we agreed that it was a good idea and we were going to do it, we knew that we’d obviously need a guest editor at the helm. (You can’t very well do a special issue devoted to something like this and have a man edit it.) I asked Christie if she wanted to take the reins, not only because she’s been with the magazine since its inception, but also because her tweet is really what inspired the issue in the first place.

Once we decided to do the issue, we drew up a simple announcement with very little information; basically, we just announced the issue and gave folks an email address—iwanttodestroysf@lightspeedmagazine.com—and told them if they wanted more information about the issue, to send us an email and we’d make sure they were updated when we knew more. Well, within 24 hours, we were deluged with folks clamoring to be a part of it, whether it was to write stories for the issue, to volunteer to help put it together, or even just because they really, really wanted to read it.

It quickly became apparent that we were going to have a tough time including everyone who wanted to be a part of the issue, so we thought about ways in which we could involve as many women as possible in the project. Which lead us to doing a Kickstarter to fund making the special issue a special DOUBLE-SIZED issue. And then when we launched the campaign, that’s when things really went gangbusters.

There’s been a lot of debate about diversity in science fiction that generally holds to two schools thought: “here’s a great woman writer, read this book” versus “here’s a great book” (woman writer unsaid). Have you had any critics for taking the approach of featuring an all-women line-up?

JJA: Remarkably few, actually! We were bracing for detractors, but we saw very, very few people speaking out against the idea. Obviously if we did the special issue like this, but didn’t typically publish stories by women, then it would just be pandering. But I think that since Lightspeed has been committed to gender parity from the beginning, it was clear to most naysayers that although this special issue will be highlighting women exclusively, it’s always important to us to have women be a part of the magazine.

I think the other thing that helped stave off criticism was how inclusive our call for submissions was. In Christie’s guidelines, she spelled out who was allowed to submit (i.e., women), but then also spelled out what we mean by “women”: “A woman is any human being who identifies as one, to whatever degree that they do so.”

It looks like this was the first Kickstarter for Lightspeed. Had you or anyone on the team ever run a Kickstarter campaign?

JJA: In a way it’s Lightspeed’s first, but in a way it’s our third. When we launched Lightspeed’s sister-magazine, Nightmare, we announced the magazine but then did a Kickstarter to raise the funds to publish it, so that when the magazine debuted, it could do so with an existing fan- and subscriber-base right from the get-go. That one was in 2012.

Then in 2013 we did one for an anthology inspired by a Lightspeed story. Keffy R.M. Kehrli submitted a story to Lightspeed called “HELP FUND MY ROBOT ARMY!!!” which was told in the form of a fictional Kickstarter project pitch. I really liked the story and immediately thought after reading it that I could do a whole anthology of stories like that, and, naturally, it would have to be something I’d fund via Kickstarter. So we did that one in October 2013, and that was kind of a Lightspeed Kickstarter, but not really since it’s just going to be an anthology published by the same person who publishes Lightspeed (i.e., me).

I did both of those under my own name on Kickstarter, but for the Women Destroy Science Fiction campaign, I felt like it would be important to have Lightspeed be listed as the “project creator,” especially since Lightspeed is a publication that already exists and has a fanbase, and this is the first campaign I’ve done that was explicitly FOR Lightspeed (though obviously the other two had some tangential connections). And, honestly, I thought that it might look kind of funny to have a man as the “face” of the campaign for a special issue devoted to women. We thought about having Christie as the project creator, but ultimately I thought it just made the most sense to have Lightspeed itself listed there.

During the campaign, how much time did you find yourself putting into it daily? For example, updating the Kickstarter page, responding to comments, using social media, etc.

JJA: Any time you do a Kickstarter—if you’re doing it right—it kind of takes over your life for the duration of the campaign, and usually a couple weeks on either side of it. I don’t know how much time I was spending on it daily, but probably a couple hours every morning, and then it’s also kind of a constant distraction throughout the day because you’re excited about it doing well, so you go check on it, and then someone leaves a new comment, or something cool happens that you have to tweet about, etc.

One thing that I spent way too much time on—I say “too much” because it’s ridiculous—is reformatting all of the essays that we posted on Kickstarter during the campaign.

For folks who don’t know, one of the ways we decided to include more women in the project was that we commissioned a series of personal essays from women in which they talked about their experiences as a woman reading and writing science fiction; we posted those as project updates on the Kickstarter, and I think those really helped us spread the word far and wide and gave us an easy excuse to post about the campaign daily, because not only is our campaign live, but hey, we’ve got content to show off—that kind of thing.

But anyway: the reformatting. Fun fact: when you copy something out of Word and paste it into Kickstarter’s update WYSIWYG editor, it strips all of the formatting out of it. And not just italics either: paragraph breaks too! Eventually I figured out a half-assed hack to help me simplify the process of fixing the formatting for all 30+ essays, but that’s just one of the hidden ways something like this can have hidden timesinks. I didn’t resent the time I spent posting the essays at all, because I think the essays were really a great addition to the project, and, as I said, they did a lot to help us spread the word. But man alive that was needlessly complicated. I even reached out to some of my contacts and emailed with someone at Kickstarter, who seemed to think that there was an “edit HTML” option—which would be great, but there actually isn’t one.

And speaking of social media, how much or how little do you think it played into the success the campaign’s success?

JJA: It played a huge role. I would have said that based just on anecdotal evidence, having seen people talking about it on Twitter and Facebook, etc. But Kickstarter also shows you where your backers came from. In our case, the majority of our backers pledged via the following routes: 22% from Twitter, 9% from Facebook, 7% from io9, 23% from direct traffic (no referrer information), 19% from various Kickstarter pages. I shouldn’t be surprised that Twitter accounted for that large of a percentage given that that’s the social network we focused on using to spread the word, but still it seems kind of astonishing that that high a percentage of backers came right from Twitter.

The original goal was $5,000 but ended up at over $50,000. When you started, did you think you’d make it over the $5,000 mark? If so, what was your personal estimate?

JJA: Just given how much interest there was in the project when we first announced it—even with the extremely limited fanfare with which we initially did so—I had a strong suspicion that we’d make our goal and probably exceed it. But when we first started, I really had no idea that we’d ultimately exceed 1000% of our funding goal, or even that we’d not only fund but do so within like seven hours.

The really amazing thing is that the initial funding within seven hours—that was almost all just word of mouth and social networking; the campaign didn’t get covered by any media sites right out of the gate. The Mary Sue was the first big site (I think) to post about it, and then a couple of smaller venues posted about it, but the vast majority of the campaign’s success really does seem directly attributable to social networking in some form or another. In the last day or two of the campaign, io9 did a nice big post about it, and that sent a ton of people over (obviously, since io9 referrals ended up accounting for 7% of our total funding).

But getting back to your question, I don’t know that I really had any idea what to expect. I just asked Christie and she said she thought maybe we might raise around $15K or something like that.

Although it started out as Women Destroy Science Fiction, as the stretch goals were met, two additional special issues, Women Destroy Horror and Women Destroy Fantasy, were unlocked. How important is it to choose the right backer and stretch rewards? Do you have advice on how find the right mix?

JJA: That’s always the trick of it, isn’t it? It can be very easy to get yourself into trouble promising too much to backers, and then that can end up making you just break even or even lose money on your project. For us, I knew from the start that I wanted to keep the rewards all Lightspeed-based. After all, we’ve been around nearly four years now, so we have lots of back issues we can sell, as well as subscriptions. Once we unlocked our stretch goals, it made sense to add some additional rewards for folks who are more into fantasy or horror, so we added those. But I wanted to make sure that everything we were offering as rewards were directly relevant to the project at hand; i.e., I didn’t want to offer any of my anthologies, or any other items like that. Same goes for complicated-to-fulfill rewards like t-shirts or stickers or bookmarks.

I think finding the right stretch goals is the really trickiest thing, as that’s the easiest way to get yourself into trouble by promising too much. In this case, I think both of our big stretch goals—the Women Destroy Horror and Women Destroy Fantasy special issues—both ended up making us more money than they cost us, but also gave all of our supporters additional benefits for backing the project, which is what good stretch goals do. The Women Destroy Horror reward actually also had the excellent side-benefit for us of helping raise the profile of Nightmare, since WDH will be published as a special issue of that magazine.

But basically, when you’re selecting your rewards, you definitely want to think about how much work it’s going to take to fulfill those rewards, and factor that into your pledge amounts. And I think anything you can do to really reward people for backing a project while it’s in the Kickstarter stage is always great. For instance, Women Destroy Science Fiction backers all got some free back issues of Lightspeed thrown in with their pledges, and thanks to some other stretch goals we had, if you backed at a subscription or back issue tiers, you got TONS of bonus rewards, so I feel like we took pretty good care of our supporters, and they’ll feel like they got good value out of backing the project.

With almost 3,000 backers, what are the challenges of wrapping up a hugely successful Kickstarter?

JJA: Our ebookstore was developed by Adam Israel, and so he handled most of the fulfillment. So I asked him to answer this, and he said:

AI: Delivering rewards, particularly electronic ones, to that many users represented a technical challenge, especially in a way that would be efficient and relatively hassle-free. We had already built a store to handle selling and delivery of ebooks, loaded with all of the content included in the Kickstarter rewards. Creating accounts for all of the backers, spread across three magazines, and all the reward tiers was the big hurdle.

This required us to build a new tool, specifically for redeeming crowdfunded rewards. With that in place, we were able to streamline the process of fulfilling the rewards and deliver the bulk of them over the course of a day or two. The store itself needed to be refactored as well, to scale from hundreds to thousands of accounts.

Aside from the tools, communication is a key factor. After hitting stretch goals, it can be easy to get confused about which reward tier gets which content. We assembled a list of rewards by tier for use as a checklist of sorts during the fulfillment process, but the emails that were sent out weren’t specific to each tier.

That is our take-away lesson: take the extra time to make the message clear. There are always going to be things missed; fingers slip, emails go astray. Setting clear expectations up front will always make the customer experience smoother and decrease the number of requests after the fact.

JJA: In addition to what Adam says there, we’ve also got about 700 print editions to worry about as well. We’re still figuring out what the best way to print those will be, but once we do, I’m figuring we’ll just have a little shipping party here at Lightspeed HQ, and we’ll have the books all sent here and we’ll ship them out that way. That’ll be … fun?

The Kickstarter ended in February with the special issue due out in June. Is that a tight deadline to turnaround?

JJA: It’s a little tight, but not too bad. Given we’ve published nearly 50 issues of Lightspeed at this point, we’ve got a pretty good handle on it. And even though this team in particular hasn’t assembled an issue themselves before, naturally I’m helping out as needed. Mainly it’s our managing editor Wendy Wagner, though, who keeps us all on task.

Is there anything you would do differently?

 JJA: I probably would have tried to plan out the stretch goals and the initial rewards a little better. Some of the stretch goals made it all a little confusing, especially because Kickstarter won’t let you alter a reward’s description once anyone backs at that reward level. But otherwise I think pretty much everything went according to plan, so I think we’ll probably pretty much stick with the same plan with just some minor refinements.

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Brenda works in tech by day and as a geek, maker, STEM community builder by night. She uses her super hero powers for the good of all kind.

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