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Kickstarter Fulfillment With Amazon: Saving Hundreds of Hours, Thousands of Dollars, and a Million Headaches

| July 28, 2014

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It’s several months after you’ve completed a successful Kickstarter campaign for a graphic novel project. The highs and lows of that crazy month-long fundraising drive have mostly faded from memory. That bank account, once flush with more project funds than you could have hoped for, has come back to reality, having been used to pay for all your printing and merchandise. Your books are printed, and now the real work begins…it’s time to fulfill all those promises that were so easy to make during that campaign.

Okay, you with me? Great. Now, I’m going to paint you two very different pictures…

Picture One: Please Don’t Run Over My Books!

“Okay, that was dumb,” you think as you pull a U-Haul truck loaded with your graphic novels to the side of the road.

You scramble around the back of the truck, and pray the traffic behind you is paying more attention than you were five minutes ago, when you unloaded six boxes of your graphic novel off at your apartment before heading to your recently rented storage locker…and forgot to shut the truck’s back door! At least you noticed when three of the 96 boxes of books it took you an hour to load into the truck this morning tumbled out of the back into the road.

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Pro-tip: Don’t forget to close the back door to the truck!

“My babies!” you screamed in horror.

3,000 over-sized hardcovers didn’t seem like all that many when it was in your Kickstarter planning spreadsheet.  But when actually faced with the prospect of picking them up at the port of Boston that morning, coming face to face with 2 tons of comics that you needed to move all by your lonesome, you wondered what the hell you were thinking.

Now, sure, you could have had these books delivered directly to your door, but it would of cost an extra $1,500 in shipping…and then you’d still have to move those books into storage, because there’s no way you’re fitting all of them in your three bedroom third floor apartment.  (Not if you have any hopes of actually turning your fiance into a wife, that is.) No, it was far cheaper to rent the U-haul truck for half a day (about $100), pay the dockage fees at pickup (about $200), and lug the books up to a storage locker (about $60 a month.)

Luckily, the traffic behind you stopped to let you save those dropped boxes, and this time you shut the door to the truck after loading them back inside. And after another hour of unloading the truck and filling up the storage locker with books, you are done.

Ha, no your aren’t! Just kidding!

What still lay ahead of you is another four weeks of packing and shipping some 400 packages to backers around the world. Half your living room will be filled with packing supplies for most of that time, and the office you share with your fiance will become a total disaster. You’ll make a half dozen trips back to the storage locker for more books, and be on a first name basis with the lady at your local post office thanks to your four-times-a-week visits for a month. The nails-on-a-chalkboard sound of the 13 rolls of shipping tape you’ll go through will wake up your fiance on several occasions, and the fact that this will all go on during the holidays…yeah, you’re lucky she doesn’t murder you in your sleep.

Okay, you’ve got that picture, right?  Now, imagine this one…

Picture Two: Two Hundred Books Shipped in the Time it Takes to Eat a Sandwich

It’s a little after noon on a Tuesday, and you’ve just picked up an Italian sub from the local deli. You take a bite out of the delicious sandwich at your desk at the office, and log onto your Amazon Seller Central account over your lunch break.  You got an email earlier in the day letting you know that your Fulfillment By Amazon (FBA) inbound shipment of your latest Kickstarter-funded graphic novel has arrived, and that they started checking the book into your inventory. You’re still tickled with the fact that you had the books shipped directly from your printer to three Amazon warehouses around the country using Amazon’s deeply-discounted shipping rates…about 1/3 of what it would cost to have the books shipped to your door.

The day before, you downloaded an Excel export report of your backers from Kickstarter, and also downloaded a special Amazon Multi-Channel Fulfillment Excel template.  You took about fifteen minutes to copy and paste information from the first form into the appropriate spots in Amazon’s template, and saved it as a flat-file.  (You didn’t know what a flat-file was, but Amazon’s step-by-step instructions were easy enough to follow.)

After another bite of that tasty sub, you click a button to manage your inventory, and then click a button to create a new fulfillment order. Then, you upload your flat-file containing backer shipping and order information. You’re not even half-way through your sandwich, and you’ve just shipped 250 hardcover graphic novels to backers all around the country.

At this point, Amazon takes over, and like Wolverine, they are the best in the world at what they do…and what they do is pack and ship stuff to people. In the three Amazon warehouses around the US, they pick, pack, and ship the graphic novels to backers for you. And they do it for CHEAPER than you could do it yourself!

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Now, you’re not entirely finished with Kickstarter fulfillment by the time the sandwich is finished. (They’re not that good.) Yes, they’ll ship your international orders for you (at an even bigger savings than domestic), but you can’t use a flat-file for those. You’ll have to cut and paste each international orders individually. And there are some countries they won’t ship to, so you’ll need to get a few boxes of books shipped to you from Amazon (again, at low shipping rates) to pack and ship. And of course, all of your non-book rewards, the signed stuff, the original art, the one-of-a-kind merch…yeah, you’ll still need to ship those, too. You’ll still become friendly with the lady at the post office.

But, thanks to Amazon, instead of a month of fulfillment time and dealing with all those books, you’re looking at about a week.

In the next day or two, your email box will start filling with hundreds of notifications from Amazon that your books have been shipped (with tracking) to backers all over the world. And as early as a day later, you’ll start to see happy backers posting pictures of your book on Twitter.

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And you’ll feel like an honest to God superhero. You are… Fulfillment Man! 

Gotcha! It Wasn’t You, It Was Me!

Of course, both of the fulfillment scenarios above are my true life Kickstarter fulfillment experiences. Picture 1 was my first turn around the Kickstarter merry-go-round, with the overachieving (and subsequently overburdening) Oxymoron campaign. And Picture 2 was just two weeks ago, as I begun fulfillment of THE RED TEN volume 1.

As great an experience as the Oxymoron campaign was, the thought, “NEVER AGAIN” came to mind all throughout the fulfillment phase. I love the printed comic book form as much as anyone, but it’s nearly impossible to haul around 2 tons of books a few times and not think, “Hey, maybe there’s something to that all-digital comics thing.” The Oxymoron campaign was a great learning experience, and I’m glad I did that all myself…once. I’ve earned my DIY fulfillent merit badge. Now I don’t feel bad at all saying that my time is better spent creating my next book than hauling, packing, and shipping my last one. I never want to take on a fulfillment project like Oxymoron again. Which is why working with Amazon fulfillment has been such a godsend.

Saving Hundreds of Hours…

Anyone who’s done a Kickstarter project will tell you that the fulfillment always takes a lot longer than you think it will. The Kickstarter projects I’ve been a part of have been modest in size, averaging about 425 backers per project. With an assembly line of workers, one might be able to knock out a shipping for a project like that in a few days. But by yourself…it takes forever!

Here’s what fulfillment by yourself entails:

  1. Have books shipped to you.
  2. Move boxes of books to storage/processing.
  3. Unpack books.
  4. Obtain proper packing material for books.
  5. Pack books.
  6. Create and apply shipping label to books.
  7. Take boxes of books to the post office.
  8. Wax and repeat until done.

Often the most popular reward for graphic novel Kickstarters is just the book itself, which is something that Amazon has been doing exceptionally well for more than a decade. Avoiding all of the above steps for hundreds (or in some cases thousands) of rewards, and letting Amazon do it instead can easily save Kickstarter project managers hundreds of hours.

Saving Thousands of Dollars…

Thousands of dollars? Really?  Yes, really.

ComixTribe has used Amazon on two Kickstarters now (SCAM and THE RED TEN) and we’ve saved over $1,000 doing so.  Here’s where the savings comes from:

  • Freight Cost from Printer – For most graphic novels, you’ll be printing overseas. (SCAM Ultimate Collection was printed in Korea, THE RED TEN Vol. 1 was printed in Taiwan.) The books will then be shipped to a warehouse in the US owned or controlled by the printer. And then from there, the books will be shipped to you, (or to a port near you, as in the Oxymoron example above.) Printers usually build the cost of shipping the book from overseas to their warehouse into the print quote, but will charge you to have the books shipped to the final destination (you.) And depending on how big a shipment it is, these shipping costs can easily be a thousand dollars or more. However, if you have the printers ship the books to an Amazon warehouse instead, you can use Amazon’s discounted shipping rates. And no one gets better shipping rates than ol’ penny pinchin’ Uncle Amazon.
  • Book Warehousing and Storage Fees – Now, if you happen to have a huge climate controlled space ready to store boxes upon boxes of graphic novels, you can ignore this one. But I sure didn’t. I had to rent a storage locker at $60/month to store my Oxymoron books. However, Amazon will happily store those books for you at a much cheaper rate. The exact cost for this service will depend on the amount of space your books take up, but because you’re only paying for that space, and not for an entire flat-rate locker, you’re guaranteed a better deal. Plus, as you sell through your books, the amount of space you’re books take up decreases, thus your storage costs goes down over time. And if you also happen to be selling a few books through Amazon.com, where your books will automatically be listed as for sale if you want, that’ll easily pay for any monthly storage fees that might accrue.
  • Domestic Shipping to Backers – Amazon will of course charge you for every book they ship to backers. Their charge factors in pick and pack (a flat fee) and shipping costs (variable, depending on weight.) But, again, because of the volume of shipping Amazon does on a daily basis, they’re shipping costs are rock bottom…far, far less than what it would cost you or I at our local post office. Likewise, they buy their shipping supplies in a bulk we couldn’t even fathom, so their packaging costs are far lower than yours. I had a back and forth on Twitter with Spike Trotman, a Kickstarter veteran (and author of a great comic on Kickstarter), who said she costed it out and found that USPS media mail shipping for US was cheaper than Amazon.com. That may be true, if your book is light enough. But for my hardcover books, Fulfillment By Amazon still beats Media Mail.

Ex: Shipping 1 copy of THE RED TEN Volume 1

Fulfillment by Amazon Cost (Includes picking, packing, postage, tracking)  – $3.40

DIY Shipping Costs:

Packaging (Uline White Easy-Fold Mailer (12.125 x 9.125) #S-342)              – $0.67
Shipping Tape (~40 inches)                                                                                              – $0.13
USPS Media Mail (2lb) Shipping (with Tracking)                                                     – $3.40

Total DIY Shipping                                                                                                                  – $4.20

So, you can see, I’m saving $0.80 a package by shipping this book with Amazon vs doing it myself. Multiply that times a few hundred packages, and we’re talking hundreds of dollars in savings. And if time is money, as they say, and you put a value on your time (even if you that value is minimum wage or less), letting Amazon do all that receiving, packing, & shipping work for you saves hundreds more.

  • International Shipping to Backers – And now we get to international shipping, the albatross that has crushed the once hopeful dreams of many a Kickstarter creator. Amazon can help with that, too.

Ex: Shipping 1 copy of THE RED TEN Volume 1

Fulfillment by Amazon Cost to the UK (Includes picking, packing, postage) – $18.65

DIY International Shipping Costs to the UK:

Packaging (Uline White Easy-Fold Mailer (12.125 x 9.125) #S-342)                              – $0.67
Shipping Tape (~40 inches)                                                                                                             – $0.13
USPS First Class (1 lb 12 oz) Int Package Shipping                                                                 – $20.07

Total DIY Shipping                                                                                                                       – $20.87

Here, I’m saving $2.22 per international package by using Amazon’s international shipping. Again, that quickly adds up to real money when shipping books to many international backers.

I should also mention that it’s possible to save EVEN MORE on International shipping if you set up separate fulfillment accounts with Amazon Canada and Amazon Europe. In these situations, you’ll ship your books to Amazon warehouses in those countries (again, using Amazon’s discounted rates) and then the books will ship within country or continent. Setting up a fulfillment network like this has allowed Jamey Stegmaier of Stonemaier games to actually offer FREE INTERNATIONAL SHIPPING on his Kickstarter board game projects, a HUGE draw for international backers.

The Kickstarters I’ve done haven’t been big enough to warrant the hoops jumping and extra work to set up this kind of distribution network…for less than 100 international backers, it’s not quite worth it. But between you and I, this is the next big thing I’m working on. I absolutely hate having to charge so much extra to international backers, and know that the cost of shipping does drive away potential pledges. Significantly driving down the cost of international shipping could have a HUGE impact on crowdfunding backing…so you know I’m working on this one.

Want to know more about DIY Comics and Graphic Novel Shipping? Be sure to check out my article “HOW TO SHIP LIKE A BOSS.

Saving Millions of Headaches…

Okay, so I don’t have any hard numbers or headache stats to back this one up. You’re just going to have to trust me. But the bigger your crowdfunding fulfillment project, the bigger the headache. I mentioned Spike Trotman (@iron_spike on Twitter) earlier. Her latest Kickstarter for Smutpeddler 2 did a whopping $185K in funding on Kickstarter, powered by more than 5,700 backers. You don’t get more DIY than Spike, and that is admirable, but to manage this fulfillment project, she’s had to rent her own warehouse space.

Capture_SpikeIf that picture alone doesn’t start to give you a headache (or backache, or neckache…) I don’t know what will. And even if your project isn’t so big as to need its own rented office space, turning your once happy home into Kickstarter fulfillment central, with boxes of books, packing materials, etc. everywhere can add a lot of stress to your relationships with everyone else in the house. Happy wife, happy life, right? Trust me, no significant other is thrilled about a month of screeching shipping tape and cardboard boxes everywhere.

LetItGoI get it though. It’s tough to give up control and put your trust in someone else to handle Kickstarter fulfillment. There is a sense of comfort that comes from having every single one of your books in your possession. And I’m not going to lie to you, there is work and a few headaches that come with getting set up with Amazon fulfillment. You’ll have to follow some step by step directions, read some fine print, and do most of it without ever talking to an actual human being on Amazon’s side. (Nearly everything is automated with Amazon.) It is a bit stressful to get set up.

But man, once you have that relationship in place… and you can call on Uncle Amazon to ship 50-75% of your packages for you, resulting in less time spent doing warehouse work and more time creating your next book, you’re going to be thrilled you set it up. Less headaches for you, your backers (who are getting the books faster), your significant others, and your bank account. It’s one of those wins all around situations that don’t happen nearly enough to us creative folks.

“Got a big Kickstarter project? You need to read this @ComixTribe article on using Amazon fulfillment.” (CLICK TO TWEET)

Some Things to Keep In Mind Before You to Become an AMAZON FULFILLMENT MAN

  • This article is a “Why-To” not a “How to.” Apologies if you were hoping for step-by-step instructions on how to set up a sellers relationship with Amazon in this piece.  Honestly, the process is just complicated enough, and Amazon has laid it out on their Seller Central site so completely, that I’d only be cutting and pasting, and worried that I’d miss a key piece and confuse you more than help. If you are looking for more hand-holding on getting started with the how-tos of using Amazon to fulfill your Kickstarter project, Games Without Strings is doing a nice series on just that. Part 1 is here, and part 2 is here, with two more parts coming soon. Bookmark ’em!
  • Reconsider the cost of a signed book. I would never charge a fan to sign a book I sold him or her at a convention. The thought of ever getting so big that I’d consider that makes me ill. After all, I already have the book in my possession or the fan brought it to me, so the only cost of a signature is the 2 seconds it takes for me to scribble out my John Hancock. However, for a Kickstarter campaign, there is a significant cost to signing a book, when you consider that signing the book means you must have the books shipped directly to you, sign it, pack it, and ship it to backers. When the alternative is having Amazon ship an unsigned book for you much faster and much cheaper, its clear that a signed book can be significantly more costly to YOU, the project creator, than an unsigned one. Make sure you factor that into your rewards BEFORE you run your campaign.
  • Splitting shipping may be worth it. But you might be thinking that signed or sketched books are highly desired items and can command larger pledges…and I’d agree. Which is why I’ve chosen with my latest Kickstarters to offer artist edition sketch plates that can be shipped separately from the book. Amazon will ship the hardcovers, and then I can ship the small, flat, 1 oz sketch plate with an original sketch and signatures from the creative team, separately in a small envelope at very low extra cost. Let Amazon deal with the heavy stuff, I can handle the rest.
LOVECRAFT_PledgeLevels_50

For a pledge like this, let Amazon receive and ship the bulk, heavy book, and you ship the Artist Edition sketch, button, and fold-up poster in a small, light envelope.

  • It’s worth starting to sell through Amazon before your next Kickstarter. Okay, maybe you’ve already done a Kickstarter and fulfilled it yourself. And maybe you still have a few boxes of books left over. I’d suggest you start an Amazon Sellers account and send a box of books to Amazon to sell on your behalf through FBA. Shouldn’t your books be sold on the biggest seller of books on the planet anyway?  That’s what I did with the Oxymoron books a few weeks after I fulfilled all backers pledges. They haven’t sold like gangbusters through Amazon or anything, but we have sold some. And by becoming familiar with the Amazon fulfillment process with Oxy, I was ready to take the next step and have them do the Multi-channel fulfillment (books I sold myself) for THE RED TEN Kickstarter and SCAM.
  • But I need books for conventions! Yeah, I do, too. Some 600 THE RED TEN hardcovers are sitting in three warehouses around the country, and hardly accessible for me with the Boston Comic Con coming up. But, all I need to do is create a removal order, and Amazon will ship as many books to me as I want. It takes about 2 weeks, and they’re going to charge me a few bucks for shipping, but again, it’ll still be cheaper than it would cost to store those books in a locker.
  • Opportunity cost and comparative advantage aren’t just economic theories…they’re real! One of the things people undervalue the most is their own time. Sure, it’s easy to plug hard costs for physical objects into a spreadsheet. But even more distressing to me, a comic creator, publisher, video game designer, husband and father already with far too much on my plate, is what would I be giving up to spend a month on fulfillment. What scripts aren’t getting written or books not promoted? No one will ever be on their deathbed lamenting that they didn’t spend enough time packing and shipping books. That’s the opportunity cost of DIY fulfillment. And as for comparative advantage, I firmly believe one of the keys to success is to spend as much of your time doing the things where you add the most value. For Amazon, that’s receiving, processing, packing, and shipping stuff to customers. Again, they’re the best in the world…they can do that faster, cheaper, and more accurately than anybody else. They’re certainly better at it than I am. As for where I DO add a lot of value…
  • Less Time on Fulfillment Means More Time for New Projects. Again, I’m not sure I would have done another Kickstarter project if every fulfillment effort would have been as daunting as the Oxymoron one. (Even if I managed NOT to spill books on the highway!) But partnering with Amazon enables me to focus more on the things I’m especially good at and add true value. (Hint: Not packaging books.) Things like putting projects teams together, keeping them on schedule, and then running great Kickstarter campaigns to get them funded.  So, when Jason Ciaramella brought the idea for C is for Cthulhu, a Lovecraft-themed alphabet board book to me, I knew just the right illustrator, a talented digital artist named Greg Murphy, to bring to that project. And now that the book is ready to go to print, I think I can help them get it crowdfunded on Kickstarter. Confident that Amazon can handle the lion-share of the shipping, it’s a project I’m actually looking forward to working on. (Of course, I encourage you to check it out, and back if it’s your thing.)

What About You?

1) Do you have Kickstarter fulfillment success stories or nightmares to share? What tips made it easier for you or lessons did you learn from mistakes made along the way?

2) Have you had any experiences (positive or negative) using Amazon fulfillment?

3) Have you partnered with any fulfillment companies other than Amazon for your crowdfunded projects? If so, how did that go?

Please share your thoughts in the ComixTribe Forum on Digital Webbing.

Keep Reading!

If you found this article useful, you may want to read one of these three articles next:

Kickstalling: 9 Things to Do During the “Dead Zone” of a Kickstarter Campaign

DIY Crowdfunding Fulfillment Part II – Ship Like a Boss

How NOT to Get Stretched by Kickstarter Stretch Goals

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Category: Comix Counsel

About the Author ()

Tyler James is a comics creator, game designer, educator, and publisher residing in Newburyport, MA. He is the writer and co-creator of THE RED TEN, a superhero murder mystery, EPIC, a superteen action comedy, and TEARS of the DRAGON, a swords and sorcery fantasy. Tyler is the publisher and co-creator of ComixTribe, which is both a new imprint of quality creator owned titles, and an online community where creators help creators make better comics. Follow him on Twitter @tylerjamescomics, or send him an email at [email protected]
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