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On Margins, a podcast by Craig Mod about books and book-shaped things!

On Margins is a podcast about making books and book-shaped things, hosted by Craig Mod.

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The Shape of Design - cover


The new golden age of bookmaking

Frank Chimero

The Shape of Design

Designer and author Frank Chimero discusses the process behind his seminal design book, "The Shape of Design." We dig into the normalization of paying creative people to make things via crowd funding and patronage platforms, and why there's never been a better time to make books.


Craig Mod: You’re listening to On Margins.

I’m Craig Mod and this is episode 002.

Something has happened in the last few years and this is going to sound really obvious when I say it, but, nevertheless, a transformative change for independent creatives around the world — people like myself and many of my friends — has been underway. And this change is the normalization of paying for stuff.

See, I told you it was gonna sound ridiculous.

And I’m not even talking about micro payments like the 99 cent apps around the world. But I’m talking about big bucks. $30, $40, $100 payments for books or behind the scenes looks at films or music albums.

We are truly in the era of being able to leverage and build off of what Kevin Kelly calls the thousand true fans.

Thanks to the work of crowdfunding and patronage platforms, this act of giving money to an independent producer has gone from esoteric and quite frankly really tough 10 years ago, to downright banal.

Today, I’m talking with good friend, old buddy, partner in writing retreats. The designer, illustrator, visualist, and author, Frank Chimero. Frank was one of the first creatives to really capitalize on the rise of crowdfunding way back in 2011 with his seminal design book, The Shape of Design. We’re talking today about how Kickstarter and similar platforms have changed. What we’d like to see added to them and why we feel like there’s never been a better time to be a creative person than today. We hope you’ll join us.

We are talking today about books on Kickstarter. And Frank you did a book on Kickstarter back in 2011 called The Shape of Design.

Frank Chimero: True.

Craig Mod: That was a pretty incredible project for a number of reasons. Not the least of which you managed to pull in $112,000, this is back in 2011, with 2,109 backers which, at the time, was incredible. Even today $100,000 for a book is incredible, but at the time it was really incredible. What prompted you, first of all, to do the Kickstarter and why that book, then?

Frank Chimero: Well, I had been looking at Kickstarter for about a year.

Came across the service because of you and your book, Art Space Tokyo, our mutual friend Robin Sloan, who also used Kickstarter for a book that he wanted to produce. What was interesting is that I felt at least in the community that I had access to. Sort of the designs community, the web community. Everybody knew about Kickstarter, and had maybe backed one maybe two projects. But it didn’t necessarily feel like at that sort of like critical, cultural inflection point, anyone from our community had actually used it for anything. So, that’s what got me interested in doing it.

The other thing was, I had just given this talk at a conference in Belfast, Northern Ireland, called Build, and I named that talk The Shape of Design. And basically it was just talking about design from a very high level about the format the work takes, the influence of clients, what client relationships look like, what design does when it’s out in the world, all that kind of stuff.

Based off of my experience teaching and the response to that talk was so warm that I was like, well, let’s turn it into a book. Thinking that a 40-minute talk could translate into maybe 140 page book, something like that, if you go through and illustrate it. And so that was the original inspiration behind it was I got this thing. I’d like to put a little bit more meat on the bones. I think it makes sense to live in a book format.

So let’s go ahead and do it. Doubly so because I was writing more and I wanted to take on a new bigger challenge from a writing perspective, and I had worked before in designing books, so I knew how to handle the production. So I walk into it with the goal of, I don’t remember exactly what it was, it was like 22,000 or something like that. Thinking that I’ll probably sell 300- 400 books and I would just order a pizza and me and a bunch of friends would sit in my apartment and stuff envelopes and that would be like the new experience for me.

It would be like writing the book and then doing a little bit of the production of it was something that I had already had experience doing. So it didn’t necessarily seem too intimidating to make a first book off of a talk that you’ve already written. Going into a process of producing that you’ve already done a few times in your career.

Craig Mod: Right, so you kind of understand the parameters of what you were getting into in terms of production at least?

Frank Chimero: Yeah exactly and I had had some experience with pretty much all of the facets of running a Kickstarter project because I had sold art prints through my website and done order fulfillment through that. I designed books before and I just naively thought that writing a book would just sort of be like writing an essay. You just do it 10 or 12 times. It’s not quite that simple. But [LAUGH]yeah, once I got into it.

Craig Mod: When you say it wasn’t quite that simple, what did you find to be not so simple about it?

Frank Chimero: The segues and just sort of scoping the ideas, so that they’re paced and ordered in a particular fashion where everything builds on top of one another. It took a lot of time to find the form of the book, honestly. Because whenever I just sat down was like step one is just transcribing the talk, every word that I say in this video I’m going to type that word to use as a starting point. And I typeset it like I had this size that I kinda thought I might want the book and it was 27 pages,

Craig Mod: That can be great, but that can be amazing, right? Did you feel that there was just wasn’t enough stuff?

Frank Chimero: Yeah, I had a thought in my head about what a book was, right? A lot of stuff on my cutting room that didn’t make it into the talk, because I had 40 minutes, right? And there was a few videos in the talk and some other things. So I was trying to figure out ways to integrate that into it, as well. I was just kinda very anxious to take the pose of a writer to just sort of step into this and say this will be a very writerly book. And I don’t think that I would go down that path necessarily at this point. I would probably just sort of say I’m a designer and a writer so it’s going to look like there’s a person who cares a lot about images and can make images working on this book in addition to somebody who writes.

Craig Mod: I had a very intimate kind of relationship with the making of this book.

You were sending me drafts of it when I was in California. And some of the things that I loved about the earlier versions kind of fell away. When you tighten things up, when you take prose and you polish sometimes, you lose that funny folksy weird blogginess. Blogginess is all about unpolished pros kind of un-type pros in some ways. It’s what we love when we read great bloggers connecting to this kind of intimate buddy tone. I remember one of the early drafts that you sent me I think I was like on the first page. I remember I got cut out of the final edition.

Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]

Craig Mod: I was very sad about that. That tone too is like in and of itself really wonderful. Openness and vulnerability that some of the earlier drafts had was really kind of special. I thought that was very cool.

Frank Chimero: So some of those early drafts they took on Contrapuntal structure, right? So sort of like Grapes of Wrath.

Craig Mod: What does that mean?

Frank Chimero: It kind of means where you’ve got two different kinds of chapters. It’s like you’ve got two different stories going, or two different themes throughout the book. So, let’s say all your odd chapters are just sort of like random stories that stand on their own. Which was what the first draft of the book was. It would be like a folktale or a small experience that I had. And then all the even numbered chapters would maybe be more theory-based, or more directly related to the topic at hand, which is design. So the early drafts were like that.

And as I sort of lived with it longer, I became more interested in trying to integrate those two things. Whereas very early on I was quite satisfied with just sort of saying, here’s the thing, and then letting it stand on its own and then jumping into something fundamentally different. And then sorta trusting that the reader would be able to make the connections between those two things. And sometimes it worked and it was really satisfying for people, and other times I swung big and missed.

So I think, to a large extent, integrating those things and cutting out some of the folksiness and really polishing it, I think it was a hugely educational experience for me. So what it actually did was, I was working with my editor on this book, Mandy Brown. What happened was some of the really rough and probably ultimately embarrassing and regrettable stuff got edited out. And it might have also shaved off a little bit of the spunk as well.

I think in the long-term, it probably makes it a little bit of a more valuable and readable book, but it definitely makes it less chatty. And that’s something that I kinda think about continually as I’m sitting down to write now. Is trying to dial in that tone, because there is a tone.

There is a austerity to the tone of the book which I think probably speaks to more than likely just the experience of a first time writer for something of that length. We think that books are these big monolithic presences in our lives, right? Like you never get to write your first book more than once. But, you think it’s gonna be the shadow over you, but it isn’t. You just have to talk about it until the next one is done. And then you get to talk about the next one.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, you kind of lose the, not necessarily the ambition. But more of the assumptions that you think that a book needs to be, you can sort of deflate it a little bit and make it more approachable.

Craig Mod: Yeah, well and for you, how much is visual a core part of the writing process, when you’re working on one of your visual essays online. Do you start with the words? Do you start with a set of images? Do you start with just an idea and some words and some images? Is there a process there, or is it a big soup of chaos that then evolves into something coherent and scrawling?

Frank Chimero: It’s a big soup. So for me, there’s the wall. I have almost like this murder wall-

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]

Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]In my apartment. With like photos, or like little pronouncive quotes or things, just sort of stuck up on the wall. And I’m trying to arrange things in groups.

Craig Mod: How big is that wall?

Frank Chimero: It’s not too big. It’s probably, gosh, about the side of a chalkboard.

Craig Mod: Okay.

Frank Chimero: Just like a normal chalkboard that you would wheel into a room. So,

Craig Mod: And is it like corkboard that you have pins stuck into it? Or, what’s the situation there?

Frank Chimero: No it’s just literally the wall in my apartment.

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]Okay.

Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]And then I buy blue painter tape, and I’ve got a bunch of index cards. And just stray print outs from my crappy little inkjet printer, and I just sort of go to town on it. And sometimes it’s up on the wall, other times I like spread it out on the floor on a table and I’m just trying to sort out these notecards.

Because I have this loosely, blurry idea on my head and I’m trying to find the patterns and all of these things that I’ve been collecting that seem like they’re related somehow. So, the meaning emerges out of that. So, after that, I actually, maybe write a little bit in just like a text editor but I actually go into Keynote. Because what it allows me to do is to get all the images and the quotes arranged in a specific order. And also, I can nest them, I can sort of create a little hierarchy.

So, it becomes almost like a visual outline for me instead of a text outline that you would do in Google Docs or Word or something like that. And that works really well for me, because I can just sort of push things around and type up a quote or I can do a speaker commentary. There’s presenter notes inside of Keynotes so I can just write a full paragraph.

And then once I have a form there that I think works really well, then I sit down and I actually write out the thing in whole.

And sometimes that turns into the presentation at the conference, or the event, or the lecture, whatever I’m doing. And then that also gets turned into the website.

Craig Mod: Keynote really does kind of turn things into objects in a way that text editors don’t. That sort of invite you to move things around in a way that, even in like Google Docs for example can click and drag on images. But I hate doing it, [LAUGH]like it doesn’t feel good to do it. Keynote I’m constantly shuffling stuff. The nesting works so well with tabs and shift tabs to unnest stuff. Apple really nailed something about tactility in Keynote. To me it feels the closest to like having a wall on the computer, in the same way you can move notecards around on a blackboard or whatever.

And so when you have the Keynote kind of outline set, what software do you write in?

Frank Chimero: It doesn’t matter. Sometimes it’s TextEdit. Sometimes like I’m in Sublime Text. Something that I write code in. Sometimes I just sit down and right just need a monoless font. And then I pasted over in Pages or something like that to do a quick grammar check or to make sure that I didn’t misspell a word.

Craig Mod: Right, well I was just asking cuz I was wondering, are you bringing the images in while you’re writing as well, are they stuck into the document? Or if you’re using Sublime Text I guess you can’t do that.

Frank Chimero: No, I can’t, I can’t do that so. Yeah, it’s sort of interesting. Because I have the Keynote. I understand how the text kind of fits into the presentation. So I think all writers read their work out loud. So for me, a lot of times after I write the two, three paragraphs that I need for this particular idea on the slide, I’ll just paste it into the presenter notes. And then launch the Keynote presentation in Presenter mode, and sort of read it out loud that way. So I think that that’s maybe one of the reasons why these visual essays that I’ve done have such a probably different tone than what I had in the book.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: Right? Cuz I’m working with different ingredients and different tools and I wrote most of the book and I wrote it in Pages because we wanted to be able to track edits and things like that. And it yielded a certain outcome. It was actually a lot easier to write words then to try to get images into it. And if I step into Keynote or if I just keep things off the computer as long as possible and write things out by hand or shift things around on the wall.

It’s a lot easier for me to switch between images and words, because if you’re holding a pencil you can draw a cat or write the word cat just as easily with either one. And if I have Keynote open, I can pull in a photo of a cat really easily, and just as easily as making a slide that says the word cat. And you can’t do that, necessarily, in something like Word or Pages or like a plain text editor.

Craig Mod: I think sometimes people get too obsessed with finding one piece of software that Allows you to do everything. And it’s nice to hear that you have this kind of messy process that involves so many different moving parts.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, I mean it’s nice. The other good thing about, I guess, having so many of the reference points or ideas about the thing that you’re working on around you in the physical space is that you just sort of get to sit in it. And it’s very difficult to reproduce that inside of a digital environment as well.

Craig Mod: It is. It’s so hard to come close, in any way, to replicating what you get with a wall. And I felt that, I was doing a residency in Virginia in November, December last year. And one of the features of my studio was this giant wall. It was a 20 foot long wall that I could just use the whole thing and 30 feet high. It was just this huge wall. And when I came back to Japan, I realized immediately I need a wall [LAUGH]in my life. And all the apartments I had lived in before were too austere to have a wall at that size. And so when I was working on big projects, I’d have to go to friend’s design studios and kind of borrow their floors and stuff. But having that wall and having a thing covered in ideas that you are forced to walk past or confront every day is so powerful.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, I don’t feel like I’m actually working in an interesting or a good direction unless I look like a crazy character in a David Finch film.

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]Right.

Frank Chimero: Everybody who works in a David Finch film, they just have their work spread all around them. And they look absolutely manic because the film camera can’t pick it up because you can’t see it. And that’s the same problem with the computer. It’s like well, if I’m kinda pacing around my studio, or I’m at my apartment, and I’ve got this stuff up, I can see it whether I want to look at it or not. I don’t need to have the will to pull it up. It’s just there.

Craig Mod: Well and it’s not only just there, but it’s also inviting you to remix it in a way that digital stuff. That feels like there’s a weird friction because you can’t see the macro view of a lot of things at the same time. You can’t see all of your slides and keynotes simultaneously. So moving a bunch of slides from the top to the bottom is actually ,it’s kind of onerous, right? It’s a big deal. Whereas, if you’ve got your board, you can make a mess in a way that you understand how the mess has been made. That I think invites you to make more of a mess and it’s in making that mess that you come up with your most interesting connections and ideas.

Frank Chimero: Yeah absolutely 100% agree with that.

Craig Mod: Getting back to Kickstarter book stuff, you said that Robin was kind of an inspiration for the shape of design. And I was going back through the last few years, really the last eight years I guess of books on Kickstarter. And I was shocked to see that Robin’s was so early and so long ago now. It’s August 2009 that he launched his Robin writes a book campaign.

Frank Chimero: That was eight years ago, yeah.

Craig Mod: And what I love about it is it’s like Robin writes a book. He does a little Kickstarter eight years ago. This is when Kickstarter was in its total infancy. You had to email Kickstarter. And send a proposal in, which was editing a text file and beg to be allowed to put a campaign up on the site. And they would bless you and allow you to put the thing up there. And even with all of the weird friction between wanting to do it and doing it, Robin put this thing up there. And no one really knew what Kickstarter was then, but he managed to get 570 people to pledge $14,000 for Robin to write a book.

Robin Sloan: I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book. I’m writing a book.

[MUSIC] So I’ve had a few really great experiences when it comes to books and publishing this year.

First of all, there were the short stories that I published for the Kindle and for the web that got just a really warm, encouraging response.

And then, of course, there was new liberal arts, the collaborative project that I did with a bunch of other people over at Snarkmarket. And both of these were so much fun and just so gratifying that I’ve figured it was time to take the next step. And I think that’s to write a book, a short book, because I think that’s reasonable for me to write and also reasonable for you to read. I have this nightmare of finishing some 500 page tome that even my parents can’t get through.

Craig Mod: Well, it’s incredible to think that, that was eight years ago.

Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]

Craig Mod: Right, and it’s so endearing, but it’s also interesting to see that drums as music for Kickstarter videos is a thing and it’s been a thing for eight years. [LAUGH]

Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]

Craig Mod: I remember seeing this video and just going, and I had never met Rob and I met Robin maybe a year and a half after we put this thing up. And I remember seeing this and am just being like who is this dude, and like wow men, what guts it takes to put this thing out there.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, absolutely. But that video is completely Robin, right?

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]

Frank Chimero: Just enormously cheerful, very smart and funny, and completely one of the most affable people that you’ll ever meet. And I think the charming thing about it is that he’s not really even talking to people that he doesn’t know. Right?. So he doesn’t even introduce himself [LAUGH]He’s just like here’s a guy and he sort of pops up from the bottom of the frame. And he says I’m making a book.

And that’s kind of enough for the people who already knew about Robin, and like the couple of things that he mentions in the video. Yeah, Kickstarter is a lot different now, because people are trying to also speak to people that they don’t know. But it’s nice that the core of it, the heart of it, has pretty much always been there.

Craig Mod: It’s just so gutsy. Right? I mean this is 2009. No one’s really done a book on this thing before. And to just go, I’m gonna write a book guys. And it wasn’t even done. Yeah, I mean, that’s He was in the middle of writing it. It’s the ultimate gutsiness. Now, and then I love the, kind of the looking back at the history of Robin now. It’s like okay, he does this in 2009. And then he has an international bestseller come out a few years later. [LAUGH]

Frank Chimero: Yeah exactly, exactly. The book that follows me around, that I always kinda smile whenever I see it at a bookstore in an airport or on the font table at the Indie book shop. Yeah, it’s amazing. And then I think later on this year a second novel is coming. Well, a second published novel by a big name publisher, so.

Craig Mod: Sourdough. It’s coming out-

Frank Chimero: Sourdough from FSG, yeah.

Craig Mod: I’ve read it. It is so much fun. It is just pure Robin fun. And he’s also the most San Francisco positive writer working today. It feels that to me, I don’t read much about San Francisco outside of tech news, and it’s always dollar, really kind of grim. And then I want to go to the San Francisco and Robin’s books. I feel like Robin was secretly a consultant on Big Hero Six or Big Hero Five, what was the name of that movie?

Frank Chimero: Yeah, that sounds right. I didn’t see it.

Craig Mod: Big Hero something, where it’s like San Francisco and Tokyo melded together. In the most awesome possible way. Just looking back at this project, it was just a shock to see that it was eight years ago, and that it did as well as it did. And actually the number of people is really impressive. 570 people is a lot of people to get to pledge to something. And then after Robin, in my mind it’d come a lot later, but actually it was just like a month later. Scott Thomas launched the Designing Obama book. Which then, at that time, raised $84,000, which was just unthinkable.

Frank Chimero: Right, [LAUGH]I mean, it was just-

Craig Mod: Astronomical, right? What, you could get $80,000 for an indie book prepublished on Kickstarter from a bunch of people you don’t know? 1,312 backers for that one, that was, I feel like that was the first design book to come out of Kickstarter.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, I have work in Designing Obama, that’s why I got a copy of it.

Craig Mod: There you go.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, so I actually didn’t back it. [LAUGH]I should have, but I got a copy because I had a couple of posters in there.

Craig Mod: Yeah, that was huge, because I think people didn’t really quite understand like the range of possibilities with crowdfunding at that point.

Frank Chimero: To actually have a dollar sign associated with it actually made it more impressive. So it was just sort of playing on the Obama gravy train, and just sort of like every, we’re just gonna ride this cloud and this rainbow into infinity of pure bliss.

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]

Frank Chimero: Publishing is different, we can make these amazing giant books filled with graphic design and posters,. and raising $80,000, and whee [LAUGH]

Craig Mod: Yeah, and I think around that time, literally if I just saw the word Obama, I started shooting money out of my pockets at it.

Frank Chimero: [LAUGH]

Craig Mod: But this is an incredible book, and it’s sad that money legitimizes stuff. But it felt like this really legitimized Kickstarter, the platform, as a place to do serious, big books. I mean, this is a book that Taschen could have put out, but Scott Thomas decided, I’m gonna do this on my own, I guess in the spirit of the campaign, in a certain way. This is around the time that I applied to be able to do Art Space Tokyo on the platform. So, between applying it and actually launching Artspace Tokyo, we took about eight months. We applied, we got accepted, and then we didn’t launch for eight months.

We were just trying to get everything ready for that, prepared for that, but this was when Kickstarter really hit my radar. After having done indie books on my own as a co-publisher for six or seven years, and going, my God. This makes so much more sense than hoping your distribution channel is going to sell these books that year, kind of producing on a prayer here. And it just felt like it made a lot of sense economically. It made a lot of sense in terms of the ecosystem, in a way that no other funding platform had done before.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, and before this, it was difficult because you were putting a lot of money at risk..

Craig Mod: That’s what I mean [LAUGH]

Frank Chimero: Even to get the presses started, it’s one of those things where, if you want to let’s say, what was this? This was 2008, was that the year?

Craig Mod: 2009.

Frank Chimero: 2009, if you wanted to say make a film, or a short film, you could go recruit friends, ask for favors, shoot it on a DSLR. And the cost of production will be pretty much zero because at that point you can find different places to distribute that video,

Craig Mod: But you had YouTube, right?

Frank Chimero: Yeah, you could stick it on YouTube, and it can vary, you could put it on video and it could get featured. But with indie books, one of the issues was, if you wanted it to take a physical form, like people expect a book to do most of the time.

It was pretty expensive at that time to actually get the presses started. You needed at least several thousand dollars to get going. And if you wanted to produce something that seemed to be a special artifact, like, say, a big art book about Obama. Or a very-well constructed and considered precious smaller book, like Art Space Tokyo. That takes coin, and it’s really risky to put your own money out for something like that. Especially when the audience is so speculative.

Craig Mod: Well, especially considering, for a lot of books to reach a really big audience in the bookstore universe, you had to be out on the front table. If you weren’t on that front table, you basically didn’t exist, and that also costs money. And to get on the table, you had to have a relationship with Barnes and Noble. And that required being part of a big publishing network or having a big distributor. The Perseus sales rep had to go in there and fight for you, so you had to convince the Perseus sales reps that you were worthwhile. There were so many hurdles between producing the book you wanted to produce. And then getting it to the people you thought might like it, and doing it in a mildly efficient way. And the amount of costs required to be put up front for that to happen, and then not even knowing if anyone’s gonna buy it in the end.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, exactly, doing all of that and still not being sure if there’s an audience that are interested in this thing you may have just spent years of your life working on.

Craig Mod: Right, and possibly $100,000, depending on how many you made, or how big it was, or how complicated it was, and how much promotion you bought from the bookstores. I mean, the amount of money up front could be bananas. Whereas on Kickstarter, Designing Obama as kind of this first example of doing a risky book in a way that there is no risk, a risk-free risky book. And then 2011 you do your book, you raise $100,000. And then last year, in 2016, I think one of the most amazing things to come out of Kickstarter. Which was the confluence of normalization of the platform, normalization of crowdfunding. This idea of crowdfunding as being a thing that, yeah, you just kinda do those GoFundMe campaigns and there’s Indiegogo campaigns, and you kinda see it all over the place. That all coming together, plus the production of books being easier to do, and distribution through Amazon and all those other channels being easier to access. Coming together as Good Night Stories for Rebel Girls by Francesca and Elena over at Timbuktu Labs, that was incredible to see that happen. This kind of thing that rode a tidal wave of promotion to a million dollars in sales on crowdfunding, [LAUGH] it was just incredible to see that..

Frank Chimero: That total is flabbergasting [LAUGH]

Craig Mod: It’s unbelievable, I mean, they raised $675,000 in the Kickstarter campaign, and then transitioned to Indiegogo, where they went over a million. And they announced last month, they’ve now sold over 500,000 copies around the world, which is just a bonkers number.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, that would totally obliterate anything on the New York Times’ bestseller list.

Craig Mod: I don’t think it would have sold as well had it not been crowdfunded. There’s something that happens between the buyers and the sellers. There’s an intimacy that happens here that makes you wanna get out and fight for the thing. In a way that just like hearing hey, Random House is publishing this progressive book of bedtime stories for girls. You kinda hear that and you go, yeah, that’s kinda cool, but seeing Elena and Francesca, and I think this is where the power of a good Kickstarter video comes in. Seeing them fight for this book, stand in front of you, and go, we think this should exist in this world, and doing so in this really beautifully unpolished way.

The launch videos for this book are quite raw, but they’re so endearing. Seeing that makes you want to get out there and scream and buy 15 copies of it. And buy it for everyone you know who has a daughter, and send links to everyone you know who might be interested in this thing, buy it for libraries. And there’s an activation that happens on crowdfunding that I don’t think it’d happen in big publishing, which is really fascinating.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, it feels like you’re making a choice for yourself. Right? By participating in helping this thing to exist, you love it more.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: Like no matter what it is, you now have a bond to that thing. And it’s just impossible to have a personal story attached to any kind of product that you buy in a normal, commercial fashion. And that’s kind of a really interesting experience that I’ve had backing Kickstarter campaigns. Because by the time this thing actually shows up, hopefully that person has been sort of trickling news about working on the thing.

Or one of the cool things about backing publishing projects on Kickstarter is the excited press check backer update.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: That’s probably one of my favorite modes of writing. Because, one honestly the people who are there are tired, but so excited to actually go make this thing real.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: The other is sometimes those people have no experience being on press. So maybe there’s this set of really helpful people who work at the print house helping them actually make their book a reality.

And then the third is that I like it a lot, too, because it sort of exposes the process of producing a book at probably its most interesting point. Where you’re putting ink on paper and it’s kind of being flown through this machine at a million miles an hour to make a few thousand of whatever you’re doing.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: So, just having pictures of things like that, that kind of work, floating around the Internet, possibly being shown to people who would never want to look at that. Unless it was attached to this object and the story and sort of this little mini-movement that they’re participating in. That’s really exciting to me, as a person who sometimes designs books, and works as a designer all the time.

Craig Mod: Do you think there’s anything Kickstarter can do to crank up the intimacy? Are there features that are being left on the floor now that you think if this existed, or if this was part of the follow-up, it would allow even more connection or conversation between the backers and the producers?

Frank Chimero: I think that there’s a whole experience once the project’s finished. Being able to maintain the relationship once the project is through, I think is pretty important. And it feels a little awkward to, whenever somebody launches something new, whether it’s through Kickstarter or not, to get a message from that person that’s tethered to the project that you backed. So there’s that, I think there’s also the possibility of building out tools to help people share the campaigns once they’re over. It’s those people are interested in continuing to sell the thing that they’ve got funded. And I think that that’s particularly important with publishing.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: Because if I’ve raised this money and now I’m gonna go write this book, and I’ve got a pretty good hunch that it’s gonna take me four to six months to write this book. And I’ve secured the money that I need to do the print run that I need to fulfill the orders of my backers. Then why wouldn’t I just keep on selling it, right? Because the cost of adding another few hundred to the print run and pre-selling those, and getting a little bit more cash in the bank, there’s no reason not to do that. Because at that point the risk is pretty much gone.

Craig Mod: Yeah. Well, and also books begin once they’re done. Like that’s when-

Frank Chimero: Exactly.

Craig Mod: That’s when the real conversation starts. And it feels like Kickstarter’s over-optimized for beginning the thing. And then once the thing is real or once the campaign is done, it feels like all the tools suddenly disappear, they drop off. For me with doing Koya Bound last year it was just so weird to have Indiegogo reach out and contact me and say, hey we’ve cloned your Kickstarter project.

And the second your Kickstarter ends, we will put it up live for you, and you can just keep selling over here. We did that, because that was the easiest way to just keep selling the book, to keep going. And it just felt in some ways like we were cheating on Kickstarter. [LAUGH]It was like I wanna keep giving Kickstarter my money, their cut of these sales, but, yeah, it felt really unfortunate. And then that bifurcates where the conversation can happen and where information’s being consolidated. And where background information’s being consolidated. And it just feels like that would be nice if it was all under the same hood.

Frank Chimero: And there’s one more thing, so like there is sort of key two points, there is like two points that are very critical, the first is, whenever the thing gets funded, right? Whenever the campaign ends, if it’s successful, that’s what we’re talking about right now. There is another one which is when the thing ships.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: Right, so if it’s, like I don’t know, if you spent 8 bucks to get a cooler, or whatever that ridiculous cooler was was on Kickstarter. Your experience after that is like, okay, cool, I got this cooler.

Craig Mod: [LAUGH] But in publishing, everybody who backs it gets the same book at around the same time, and that is like a de facto book club.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: Right? So why is there so little around the experience of enjoying the things that you’ve backed together? If you’ll enjoy the experience of backing it together, is there the possibility of producing ways to allow people to enjoy that thing together?

Craig Mod: I suppose this is an argument for doing a book-specific Kickstarter. Like a startup that is just focused on helping people make books. Although, I think the market cap for that is probably too low to get funding, and you’re gonna be competing with Kickstarter. But it’d be great if Kickstarter had maybe three or four different post-funded modes. So you have something post-book, something post-tech product, something post-industrial design. And the follow-up and the tools for the follow-up were different for each of those different spaces. And, in the case of a book, like you said, it should be book club time. There should be kind of like a forum space for people to be able to talk about what was in the book, the topics of the book.

Allow the author to communicate with those people, and sort of begin this conversation, which is what, in the best case scenario, a book is great at doing, right? Starting a conversation.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, it’s weird because physical books, they are these enormously social things that exist in space. Like a good bookstore is, it’s a social space.

Craig Mod: Totally.

Frank Chimero: It’s like you can walk in there and buy the books. But the point of the bookstore is to chat up the people behind the counter, and see what they’re reading. And maybe mention this thing that you were reading that you enjoyed, to see if they have anything else that might be worth your time or just to sort of like stumble in. The book store a couple blocks from me, they have like a children’s book reading every day on Saturday morning like around 10 or 10:30, something like that. So, it’s like a communal space, and there’s readings and those kinds of things. And you can do that in physical space, but I feel like that’s maybe something that has been pretty lackluster online.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: Goodreads doesn’t feel like a community, it feels like Yelp.

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]Does it? I don’t know what it feels like. I mean it’s like-

Frank Chimero: It’s like a lot of very angry people complaining about books.

Craig Mod: It’s a place I don’t want to spend time for whatever reason.

Frank Chimero: Yeah.

Craig Mod: It doesn’t feel like a nourishing, positive place to spend time online.

Frank Chimero: Yeah and I think that there’s actually, there must be a way to get people together through the Internet to enjoy books together, right?

Craig Mod: Well and I think that’s why your point about Kickstarter providing the space is so powerful, because everyone has opted in. Everyone wants this book to succeed if they’ve backed it.

Everyone is there, operating from a positive point of view.

And to be able to capitalize on that to have great conversations feels like a huge opportunity.

Frank Chimero: Yeah, and I think another thing that it does is it very easily creates value for the people who are putting on the project.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: With no work from them. So what you can then do is if you want, you can then raise your pledge levels a little bit. Tack on a few more dollars because one of the perks is that Now you can participate in the book club.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: Because you were one of the original backers.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: You can have like this cool space for you to talk about the book. And we’ll do like a little AMA with the author or something like that.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: Two or three weeks after the book ships. So that as you have questions about the text or whatever we can just sort of hang out and chat about with things we’re finding interesting about. What we’re all enjoying together.

Craig Mod: Yeah, if it feels like there’s a lot of opportunity there. Closing loops for projects can be difficult. And I think kickstarters optimize around, focus on just getting the money to make the thing real in the world. But I think that’s great, but Kickstarter has been around for eight or nine years now.

Frank Chimero: Mm-hm.

Craig Mod: And that it doesn’t feel like it has evolved beyond that initial focus for better for worse. And so then you end up with Indiegogo or you end up with backer kit. Or you end up with these other spinoffs, picking up the baton once the thing is done in a way that feels overly complicated. It would just be nice to keep it all in the same place. [CROSSTALK]

Frank Chimero: Yeah, yeah. Exactly.

Craig Mod: In a positive way.

Frank Chimero: Exactly, exactly. And that happens with a lot of online platforms. They eventually figure out that a way both this thing and people are using it. And one of the main ways that we can add values to the people on our platform to make their lives easier. And for our company to make a bit more money is to actually step into seller services or building out features help the people who are actually succeeding using the thing that we made.

So this is people like Etsy or Shopify making shipping features and postings a lot easier for people, or inventory management or whatever. Right. And yeah, it seems kind of crazy that Kickstarter hasn’t gone too far down that road yet.

Craig Mod: Yeah, I mean I realize it’s really complicated obviously, and focus is good. But it’s kind of at the point now where we’re ready for those features on the platform. And we kind of you know we understand the core of what’s there now and it wouldn’t confuse us. And I think it would just bring more positivity and benefit to the community. But what’s fascinating about now as a time for doing these things is just how totally normalized doing books on Kickstarter is. And how normalized it is to get $100,000 [LAUGH]for a book now. Designers in books is such a cool,

Frank Chimero: Mm-hm.

Craig Mod: Group done two books in the last year. Which have both raised over $100,000. One of the books, The Bolted Book Facsimile, an exact copy of Depero Futurista $250,000. That’s pretty amazing for this kind of reproduction of an old design classic. And then just a few months ago, earlier in 2017 Jan Chipchase, the field study handbook raising over $300,000. It’s so amazing that all of these systems of crowd funding becoming normalized, people being willing to put in big amounts of money.

Trusting that they’re gonna get the thing that’s being presented to them. People understanding how to frame projects now in way that maybe we didn’t know how to do it six years ago. And also understanding what point in the process to launch the project, right.

Frank Chimero: Right.

Craig Mod: So like Jan launching when the thing was totally done. And just saying, look as soon as this campaign ends you’re gonna have a book in two weeks, that’s pretty powerful. But all of these systems and distribution systems and Amazon fulfillment becoming more and more of an easily accessible thing. It’s just like everything is in place now for people to produce great books, beautiful books without having to go through the rigmarole of hoping that a publisher takes them on.

And waiting years for the thing to get produced. Yeah, and it feels like maybe right now we’re at sort of another inflection point.

Frank Chimero: Mm-hm.

Craig Mod: Because crowdfunding is so normalized.

Frank Chimero: Yeah. I was kind of, we had on the calendar that the two of us were gonna talk. And I got interested in Patreon.

Craig Mod: Great.

Frank Chimero: So I was like clicking around Patreon, right? And they have models on Patreon where you just send people money that you’re supporting every single month and they don’t necessarily have to do anything.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: Which is kind of amazing.

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]

Frank Chimero: Because it becomes so normalized that you’re just sort of like, I’m just gonna send this person who makes things that I like $3 a month.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: And they do have things where it’s like you pay them every time that they ship something,

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: Like they release a new video or there’s a new comic strip or something like that. But I think it just speaks to how normalized this whole mode of support and then commerce has become that. Essentially the transaction in that case it’s almost like a retroactive thank you.

Craig Mod: Yup.

Frank Chimero: Or it’s just sort of like an investment in a person. And it’s completely removed from the idea of producing a particular project, or artifact, or anything.

Craig Mod: The specificity of output becomes irrelevant.

Frank Chimero: Right, exactly, exactly. It’s like they’re gonna do something interesting. Or I think that it sort of common knowledge that there’s high possibility of a Kickstarter campaign turning into a burden.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: For a lot of people at this points. So now what’s sort of happening is people are taking on strategies to try to avoid that, right. So like Jan essentially doing everything before starting a Kickstarter campaign. We’re possibly producing these modes of being able to offer support. And just sort of completely dissolving the connection between a product and the financial backing is interesting. Not everybody can do that, and not everybody is willing to do that, but it’s interesting that it exists. And that there’s enough people on both sides of that equation who find that acceptable.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: It’s really cool.

Craig Mod: Yeah, it is kind of amazing. And the Patrion model is fascinating for me. Because, I think it also speaks to the fact that we’ve normalized the acknowledgment that making stuff requires money. It requires time, it requires support. I think we’ve seen this in newspaper pledges because of political stuff, so people subscribing to a New York Times or Washington to post for whatever. But also just more generally, people subscribing to the New Yorker because they wanna see the New Yorker continue to make New Yorker stuff forever. And then scaling that down to the individual producer like the guy who does Every Frame A Painting. Every time the Every Frame a Painting Guy,

Frank Chimero: Tony.

Craig Mod: Every time Tony puts out a video he gets $8,000.

Frank Chimero: Yeah and he hasn’t done one for, I was looking through my user subscriptions.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: Because I wanted to watch like a new Every Frame a Painting.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: And I’ve got like a couple of other subscriptions on YouTube that are sort of in that similar genre. I know he is, I think it’s been at least six or seven months since he’s put one out.

Craig Mod: Yeah.

Frank Chimero: But that’s fine.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: He’s doing other stuff. I think, I feel like, I subscribe to FilmStruck. It’s like a streaming service from Turner Classic Movies and The Criterion Collection. And they have bonus features in a lot of the films that they have, and there’s one I swear it’s him.

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]

Frank Chimero: I don’t know if it’s him but I swear it’s him. Like the editing looks a lot like what he would do.

Craig Mod: Right.

Frank Chimero: And the voice sounds very similar.

Craig Mod: Mm-hm.

Frank Chimero: I swear it’s him. I think he’s moonlighting man. [LAUGH]

Craig Mod: Pretty yeah, he’s cheating on us. I’m a Patrion backer.

Frank Chimero: Yeah.

Craig Mod: Come on Tony we’re waiting for you. No, but being able to reliably get $8,000 every time you produce something that takes an incredible amount of time and effort, that’s an amazing situation for a creative person to be in. That ten years ago was impossible to imagine, because the normalization of supporting someone [LAUGH]it’s like, intellectually.

I think this is the important point, intellectually we’ve always understood that it takes money to make stuff. But what’s happened from these systems and from Kickstarter and GoFundMe and Indiegogo is that they’ve normalized the experience. So it’s no longer just this intellectual activity of thinking I need to give money to things for things to exist. It’s doing it once, doing it twice, doing it three times, doing it ten times. That becoming embedded in your psyche as, yeah, it is required to give money to make a great thing in the world. And then Patreon kinda coming along and saying, hey let’s generalize that for people who are doing a whole bunch of different kinds of creative activities which may or may not result in an object that you can buy. And,

Frank Chimero: Mm-hm, yeah.

Craig Mod: It’s, it’s really exiting, I think it’s really exiting, really inspiring time to be making this stuff, right now especially books.

Frank Chimero: Especially books because movies are cool, but books are the best.

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]Books you could be an introvert hermit and make them. Movies require collaboration most of the time. You have to talk to human being. Which is not, always at the top of list of things people wanna do.

Frank Chimero: Unless it’s a podcast.

Craig Mod: Unless, yeah [LAUGH]it is two introverts talking about book stuff on a podcast.

Well, thank you Frank for taking that time, it was great to share and hope to see you soon in New York city.

Frank Chimero: Of course, come see me. We’ll buy some books and see some movies.

Craig Mod: And eat some pizza.

Pizza. [MUSIC]

Today we’re talking with Frank Chimero. [MUSIC]

Whose middle name rhymes with Ford Escalade.

No I just wanted to use the dramatic piano. Hi, Frank..

Frank Chimero: Really? [LAUGH]Hi, Craig [LAUGH]

Craig Mod: [LAUGH]

Frank Chimero: Please put that in, like maybe just do that as a bumper at the end or something.

Craig Mod: [MUSIC] We’re done.

On Margins, a podcast about making books and book-shaped things!

On Margins is a podcast about making books, hosted by Craig Mod.

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