If dog owners supposedly mimic the personalities and appearance of their canine companions, do Tarot deck makers look and act like their oracles? I think Doug Thornsjo validates this theory through his retro-styled circus deck, Tarot of the Zirkus Mågi. He has the demeanor of a sideshow barker from another era, a man transported from a different time and place. When I saw him interviewed on Christiana’s Psychic Cafe, he also had the feeling of the eccentric uncle who traveled the world in the 1920s bringing home ivory elephant tusks, exotic Moroccan spices and beaded Masai necklaces to adoring nieces and nephews. He even dresses as if he was the Earl of some long forgotten line of royalty who may still be received by the Queen.
The story of how this deck came about is also enchanting, the subtle whispers of a character in a fantasy novel, the manifestation of a psychic tool for an otherworldly fortune-teller named Mme Louiise Mågi in a work of fiction called See Them Dance. As he wrote the novel, he realized Mme Louiise would need her own cards. What started out as illustrations for the book evolved (with crowdfunding) into a fully functioning deck.
Tarot decks already have such a fascinating lineage, and Doug’s offering adds to the myth and magic of this evolving tradition. You can find out more about all of Doug’s projects on his website, but lets get back down to serious business here and talk about crowdfunding, which sounds like a Big Top show doesn’t it-is it an exciting spectacle or a shady slight-of-hand swindle-or both?
Doug has run two successful Kickstarter campaigns to bring the Tarot of the Zirkus Mågi to life. His first round in the winter of 2013 was for 300 sets of the twenty-two Major Arcana cards only, and his second campaign to print 500 of the entire 78-card deck finished July 25th, 2014 coming in at 118% funded. I spoke to Doug a few days after the campaign ended as he was in the midst of grieving a beloved cat, as well as recovering from crowdfunding exhaustion. I am a month and a half out from my own campaign and am just beginning to come back from the fatigue. Doug did a wonderful wrap up of his crowdfunding experience right after his campaign closed, and it is worth a read to hear his impressions fresh after his goal was reached.
The conversation started off with asking why he choose to do crowdfunding, and what was wonderful and challenging about the process. On the most basic level he chose this process because he needed the resources to print the decks, and by offering people pre-ordered copies he could cover the production costs and have a percentage of the run already sold. Doug feels crowdfunding is a necessary evil in the ever shifting landscape of publishing for independent artists, and it is a challenge to remain connected to the soul of your work without becoming merely a marketing machine.
On the more positive side, he was blown away by the level of support he received from strangers who championed the deck, going out of their way to promote it for him. That is one of the miracles of social media, the ease of sharing projects within our own networks. Doug has been working at his craft for years, writing novels and short stories as well as making decks, comic books, and zines. His two Zirkus Mågi campaigns were the first time he really saw a critical mass of people liking his work. From our conversation I had the sense this was still sinking in, how he was going to receive these new levels of love and support that were pouring in for his creations. This is actually an issue for artists who work in obscurity for years, and then finally get some recognition. How do you trust and open to this new-found appreciation for something you have put your blood, sweat, and tears into for decades with previously little external return.
Strategy wise, Doug felt doing two campaigns was a brilliant way to build an audience during the first round, and then expand that during the second wave. Since the deck came out of left field for him, the urgings of a fictional muse, doing the campaign in two stages also allowed him time to develop the deck fully. The first campaign was for the twenty-two Major Arcana cards only, and then the second run was six months later to print the entire 78-card Tarot deck. When doing a project, funding in stages is always an option, independent filmmakers do it regularly, breaking up the phases of development and filming from post-production costs.
The first campaign was thirty days, and the second was a month and a half long. Doug said he needed the extra time in the second round to fulfill the $9,000 goal he set. He also said it was totally exhausting, and by day forty you would do almost anything for it to be over. When we spoke five days after its successful completion, he said he would wake up in the morning, sitting in front of his computer and not know what to do. I compared it to being a race horse who is trying to amp down after a full-throttle run. Doug also struggled with the balance between marketing your work, and actually making the work. During crowdfunding, you are on full-time, and there is no space to make the creations that are your offerings in the first place. He said giving up a month and a half of your creative life is not insignificant.
The flow of the second campaign was not the usual pattern of early and late bursts of activity, with a major lag in the middle. His did not have the mid-way slump like many do, but interestingly it did sit at $400 short of funding for three days before its completion. He said this was very frustrating, and an angel donor had offered beforehand to makeup the difference if he got close to his goal. In choosing Kickstarter as his platform, he had to go with their all or nothing model. That means if Doug did not reach his target goal, no one would be charged for their pledges, and Doug would be assured that he was not trying to fulfill orders without the resources needed. This model makes a lot of sense, and for some the anxiety may be too much. Other platforms, including Indiegogo offer other options, including Indiegogo’s flexible funding where you receive all of the funds pledged, and simply pay a higher fee to the site for not making your goal.
As an incentive to pledge to the campaigns and not have customers wait until they were released, he designed the decks in each of the campaigns with special, limited edition cards making them more desirable for collectors. The Major Arcana only edition will remain a limited-edition run of 300 total, and has a unique Devil card created specifically to compliment to book. The full set of 78-cards is intended to be an unlimited run, but for the campaign he created a special publication of 500 decks, with different Devil and Moon cards, and unique back designs. These are some of the perks that help your campaign stand out, and draw people into the unique opportunities only available if they pledge during the campaign.
Central to the entire process was the Tarot maven Carrie Paris. She and Doug connected through Facebook, and have never met in person but struck up a wonderful artistic camaraderie, supporting each others emerging projects. Doug says the deck never would have come to life without her encouragement, moving it beyond simply illustrations for the novel. Marcus Katz of Tarot Professionals also really championed the project, posting on his and Tali Goodwin’s almost 13,000 member Facebook forum about the campaign, and offering a “secret circus” online workshop with Doug when the decks arrive. Doug also learned from another campaign about a very classy, pay-it-forward aspect of the crowdfunding world, and that is to share other people’s campaigns that you respect. It is a curatorial process that helps other campaigns access larger like-minded networks, and is an offering to your own audience by opening their world to great work they have missed in the torrent of information we are all flooded with.
We also discussed the changing landscape of publishing, and how self-publishing was once seen as subpar and the term “vanity press” summed up the overall stigma self-publishing previously had. Now with the advent of print on demand advancements with books, decks, CDs and videos there is a whole new world for unique and independent work to get out into the marketplace. The draw back to this revolution is a glut of products, and that is an ongoing question about crowdsourcing, how do you stand out to the crowd when people are being constantly bombarded with requests to fund their offerings. This is a major question to ask yourself before embarking on your own campaign. Read this previous blog post asking some key questions about viability and if you are ready to undertake this herculean task.
Doug’s previous experiences as an author sending proposals to publishers were frustrating, like “banging his head against a wall” as he said, meeting without any success. He sees the publishing world as a crumbling edifice that is trying to survive by making sequels and rip-offs of the last big successes, and no longer offering as many perks or support as they historically would. When working within the classic publishing system, authors receive a much smaller percentage of the profits from their work than with self-publishing, and the enticing infrastructure of marketing teams and funded book tours no longer exists unless you are a super star. There still is some cachet to being chosen by a publisher, but if you make fifty-cents to a dollar for your decks compared to self-publishing’s returns of half or more of the retail price, does it make sense? One does need to put more time and resources up front to be self-published, and there are portions of the equation that the big houses will still cover like the graphic design, editing, as well as their bigger distribution channels at this time, but with such easy access to print on demand models is it worth it?
Doug’s final vision for sharing your work with the world is to love it. Love what you are doing, and then do good work, and it will be something you are proud of and want to stand behind. This love will carry you through the “horrible business of becoming a marketer” as Doug said, and the heart of your project will shine through, helping you find the audience who loves and wants your own particular magic.
The Nuts & Bolts of the Campaigns
It ran from November 8th to December 8th, 2013.
The Initial goal was $1,900 and it raised $2,720-143% of the original target.
103 people contributed, with 115 twenty-two card Major Arcana sets sold for $18 each. 30 of those people also received a signed copy of the novel that inspired the deck, See Them Dance.
It ran from June 10th to July 25th, 2014.
The Initial goal was $9000 and it raised $10,649-118% of the funding target.
162 people contributed, with 167 full 78-card sets ordered, the bulk of those (88) at $45. Major Arcana only sets were chosen by 29 people, and 9 of The Pictorial Game of Golliwogg decks were pledged for. 4 people pledged $1to receive the PDF of the Little White Book, and 19 people pledged for the novel that inspired the deck, See Them Dance with deck combinations. The Circus Tarot Book that originally accompanied the majors only set also got 29 choices with deck combos. Neither of the books were chosen alone, people seem to want decks with their books.
To see the other interviews with Tarot deck creators in this series click on the links below: