Undertaking a crowdfunding campaign will give you a crash course in a ton of new subjects, not the least of which is becoming intimately familiar with the workings of your local post office. In the first part of my DIY Crowdfunding Fulfillment series, I talked about all the things you need to research prior to going live with your campaign. In this article, I want to do a much deeper dive on the ins and outs of shipping, and help you ship like a boss.
This column is going to focus heavily on the United States Postal Service‘s rules, prices, and intricacies, so my international readers may need to do their own due diligence to research how their postal systems operate. (BTW, congrats to all you ‘Tribers in Canada, Australia and New Zealand…Kickstarter is opening its doors to you!) Still, I think there’s a lot of valuable info for anyone considering running a crowdfunding campaign that will involve shipping physical rewards in this post.
Four Things to Factor with USPS Shipping
In Part I, I recommended you price the cost to ship all of your various rewards PRIOR to launching your campaign. Many a crowdfunder has learned the hard way that spitball estimates of shipping costs or “just looking at what other campaigns are charging” for reward pricing guidelines is a recipe for disaster. Luckily, doing these estimates is easy. All you need is:
- A mock-ed up reward (Crowdfunding a 32 page floppy? Then grab a comic from your stack, package it how you’d like to ship it, and use that as your stand in.)
- A scale (to weigh your mock-up reward)
- A ruler (to measure the dimensions of the packaging)
- The USPS Postage Calculator (an online tool to determine postage costs)
And really, those are the key drivers of the cost calculation: Service, Weight, Package Dimensions, and Distance Traveled.
The USPS offers a wide selection of services (ex. First-Class, Priority, Express, Priority Flat Rate, Media Mail, etc.) The key differences between service classes are delivery time, price, weight, and content restrictions. I could go through all the various classes, their pros and cons, but I’m not going to…because 99% of comic book crowdfunders are going to use only a few USPS services:
First class service may be the cheapest option for shipping your standard floppy comic domestically, and likely will be the cheapest option for shipping comics and graphic novels internationally. Some things to know:
- First Class Service in the US has a maximum weight capacity of just 13 ounces. In general, this is the best class to use for shipping 1-2 floppies.
- The weight maximum for First Class International service is 4 lbs. (BOOKMARK THIS! 4 lbs is an important threshold for international orders. Going above 4 lbs will cause you to spend significantly more on international shipping (at least 28%.)
- First Class Service in the US will be the same rate, regardless of zone. The traditional postage stamp is an example of first class service.
Media mail is a special service specifically for books and other media. There are special rules in place for media mail, and plenty of restrictions. Some things to note:
- Media mail is only available for shipping within the US.
- It is a flat, by the pound rate, throughout the US, regardless of distance traveled.
- Significant savings can be had when shipping graphic novels using media rate…50% or more verses Priority Mail.
- Media Mail is for books only, so adding stickers and prints and buttons and t-shirts will disqualify you from using this service. (Think about this when putting together your pledge packages.)
- Media Mail is subject to being inspected to ensure you’re complying with media mail requirements.
- It is the slowest delivery service (USPS says 2-8 days)…sometimes longer from my experience.
Priority Mail is a faster but more expensive shipping service. To keep your costs down, try to avoid it when other options are available. Some things to note:
- Priority Mail postage costs will fluxuate with the distance traveled. (Unless you’re using a flat rate envelope.) The farther the distance, the more the product will cost to ship.
- In most cases, using a Flat Rate Priority Mail envelope will be cheaper than using the regular Priority Mail service.
- Using Priority Mail service may be cheaper than the Medium Flat Rate Box Priority Service, depending on weight and distance. Run both options with your packages details to get the best price.
- Pro-Tip: Occasionally, it makes sense to ship two packages instead of one. For example, separating the shipping of graphic novels (media mail) and light weight t-shirts and buttons (first class in a light-weight packaging) may prove to be cheaper to the west coast than packaging them all together and shipping Priority Mail.
Priority Mail Flat-Rate
You’ve probably heard about the USPS’ flat rate shipping options. “If it fits, it ships” is a great marketing campaign, and in a lot of cases, a strong shipping option.
- USPS will give you flat rate packaging materials (boxes/envelopes) for free. However you must then use the priority service with that box.
- Delivery confirmation is free with flat rate service.
- For international, the threshold where it makes sense to go with the medium flat rate box option over Priority Mail, is around 8 lbs. Under that, and it’s cheaper to go Priority.
Three Shipping Investments You Need To Make If Your Project is a Big Success
Prior to the Oxymoron Kickstarter, I’d shipped my fair share of comic books. Shop.ComixTribe.com had been selling comics online for well over a year, and I’d also shipped thousands of books direct to retailers for several ComixTribe micro-distribution campaigns. As such, I ended up going down to the post-office 3-4 times a month, waiting in line, and letting my post-office professional handle the postage for me.
However, I had never faced the prospect of having 400 physical orders, a good portion of them international (re: those dreaded customs forms), all needing to go out in a short time. I wasn’t going to wait in line for all those. I knew I needed to upgrade my shipping capabilities so that I could quickly and easily do all the postage at home, and thus I put some of the Kickstarter funds to these three key purchases…and it was perhaps the best money spent in the entire campaign.
Digital Scale – I didn’t have one, and I didn’t want to have to run down to the post office to use theirs. So, I purchased a Dymo digital scale to accurately weigh all my packages at home. Honestly, in hindsight, I could have used this BEFORE I launched my campaign, to do even better shipping cost analysis.
Thermal Printer – Likewise, I wanted the simplest label/postage printing solution possible. I did the research, and what I came up with was the Dymo LabelWriter 4XL, a specialized thermal printer that never needs new ink, and prints out all-in-one labels, that include a backer’s address, paid postage, and delivery confirmation tracking….and not only that, but for international shipping, it also can include a built-in custom form. For my Oxymoron campaign, I had about 180 international packages. Not having to fill out and apply 180 individual custom forms by hand saved me from countless hours of tedium. And it makes for a damn professional looking package to boot!
Endicia Shipping Service – The service that integrated the digital scale, the thermal printer, and my MASSIVE shipping requirements, was Endecia. Endecia is a shipping service that works with the USPS system to allow for easy at home printing and managing of posting and shipping. They have a 30-day free trial, which I timed to coincide with the fulfillment of my Kickstarter. However, I’ve found the service so useful, that I’ve kept it.
Some of the features that I find most useful about Dymo-Endecia include:
- A dynamic price calculator that helps me quickly and easily compare postage prices for a number of options.
- It works with my Thermal Printer to print all-in-one labels, including those pesky international custom forms.
- Tracking management for shipped products, and free or discounted Delivery Confirmation.
- And stealth postage, hiding the actual cost of postage from the end-user. (This isn’t about trying to fool my customers, but rather on the rare cases when I either overcharge or undercharge for shipping, that’s probably not something you want your customers to be thinking about when they get the books.)
I had been looking at the Endecia service ever since I heard the Webcomics Weekly crew rave about it on a podcast years ago, but my shipping volume had not been such that I deemed it worth the investment. However, the 400 backers for my Kickstarter project changed that. If you’re looking at a big fulfillment project then I strongly recommend you check out the service.
Don’t Let USPS International Shipping Be a Buzz Kill
One of the best things about crowdfunding sites like Kickstarter is how passionately it has been embraced by international backers. Some 30-40% of the funds I raised for the Oxymoron campaign came from abroad, and that really blew my mind. As great as it is that overseas backers are out there, many a crowdfunded project has been derailed by international shipping. Here are a few tips to not become a statistic.
- Remember that 4 lb First Class International Weight Limit when adding those stretch goal incentives. One of the single best Kickstarter projects to study is the controversial Sullivan’s Sluggers campaign. Mark Andrew Smith did so many things right to build a wildly successful campaign, raising some $97K in funding…1627% of his original goal. And yet, the few things (okay, maybe more than a few) he did wrong, completely derailed that campaign, turning what should have been a massive creator owned success story into a cautionary tale. As the Sullivan’s campaign kept racking up thousands, Mark kept improving the book — adding pages, making it a hardcover, increasing its size, first to over-sized, then to omnibus sized, adding extra content, adding a slip-cover, and so on. Cleverly, Mark understood that at the print run size he was considering, each of these upgrades would only add a small marginal cost to the PRODUCTION of each book. However, he didn’t take into account what these changes would mean for SHIPPING of each package…like, at all. Now, domestically, this wasn’t a big problem. Shipping books via Media Mail, the cost difference of shipping a 4 lb package instead of a 2 lb package is less than a dollar. However, that same package will cost you about $14 more dollars when shipping internationally…and if that package happens to go over the 4 lb International First Class threshold (which I believe happened to Mark) you’re looking at least $53 to ship that package, a $32 jump from a 2 lb First Class International shipment. By only charging international backers a flat $10 extra, it’s easy to see how that project went sour fast, $97K or no.
- Build in Contingency for Postage Price Hikes. In 2013, the USPS prices for international shipping in some categories more than doubled! And the categories that were most affected were low weight First Class packaging that most comic book crowdfunders rely on. This was not good news for many Kickstarters, and especially troubling because you could have done everything right — done your math, rocked those spreadsheets — and STILL got burned here. But hey, these things happen and ignorance is not bliss, so you should build in some contingency in your campaign to cover this eventuality as well. The longer the gap between your campaign ending and your estimated shipping date, the higher the chances a rate hike will occur. (Yet another reason to wait to crowdfund until your project is as close to the finish line as possible.)
- Plan for Slow and Lost Packages. Man, is it just me or is this international shipping sounding more and more like a big pain? That’s just how it is. Very slow and very lost packages are going to happen. Plan on 3-5% never making it to their end user…which again, is costly to replace and reship. But, it’s the cost of doing business, so now that you know it, plan for it.
- Customs Slips! Every international package you ship needs a custom slip. Filling these out will become the bane of your existence…unless of course you use a service like Endecia.
Shipping Like a Boss
Whether you like it or not, you will be judged on your packaging and shipping. It’s a crucial aspect of the fulfillment of a crowdfunding project, and in many cases the last thing a backer is going to remember about that project. Unfortunately, I’ve definitely backed some projects where it was clear shipping was an after-thought, and not only did the packaging not reinforce or improve the shipper’s brand, it hardly protected the product shipped. In the past few years, I’ve shipped a lot of comics and graphic novels. Here’s my approach, which I believe is cost-effective, protects the merchandise, and looks professional.
How to Ship a Floppies Like a Boss
What you need
- Uline Self-Seal Stay Flats (9.75 x 12.25 in) #S-2665 ($0.39)
- Current Sized Polybag ($0.05)
- Small piece of Tape ($0.01)
- Dymo 4×6 Thermal Label ($0.05)
Total Cost of Packaging = $0.50
- Always fold the top of the Stay Flat down a half-inch further than the natural crease, to allow it to qualify as a “Flat Envelope” instead of a “Package” class. “Flat Envelopes” need to be under 12 in. The savings from this one simple move can be significant when shipping a lot of books.
- Use First Class Shipping Rates, as this packaging will be around 7 oz, which is well under the 13 oz weight limit.
- If you want to offer even more protection for international shipping, you may add a comic board, or even a double board. However, I’ve found the Stay Flat provides significant protection, even without the extra board.
How to Ship a Graphic Novel Like a Boss
- Uline White Easy-Fold Mailer (12.125 x 9.125) #S-342 ($0.67)
- 1 mil Polybag (12 x 18 in) ($0.01) (May be unnecessary if your book is shrink-wrapped.)
- Shipping Tape (~40 inches) ($0.13)
- Dymo 4×6 Thermal Label ($0.05)
Total Cost of Packaging = $0.86
- For domestic shipping, Media Mail is going to be your cheapest shipping option, and will provide significant shipping savings.
- For about $0.85 more per package, you could go with the Uline Deluxe Easy-Fold Mailer #S-6495, which comes with a peel off adhesive strip to close the carton, removing the need for all of that tape. (While the cost increase was not worth it to me, my wife, who had to listen to the sound of tape screeching at all hours of the night for several weeks, might argue differently.)
Okay, that’s my DIY shipping primer! If you have great shipping tips to share, or questions I haven’t addressed in this post, please add them in the comments below.
If you found this article useful, you may want to read one of these three articles next:
Category: Comix Counsel