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Kickstarter Fail: Artist Raises $51K to Publish Books, Burns Them in Alley

By Alisa Hauser | March 5, 2014 12:37pm
 Artist John Campbell's "Sad Pictures for Children" Kickstarter campaign has ended, with a final update which included burning books made by the artist.
John Campbell
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WICKER PARK — A 30-year-old webcomics artist who raised more than $50,000 on Kickstarter has burned the books his donors paid for because, he says, he ran out of money to ship them.

In late February, John Campbell, who lives in Wicker Park, told his fans on the online crowdsourcing platform that "It's Over" and published a video of himself burning 127 copies of his book, "Sad Pictures for Children."

The book-burning coincided with Campbell's decision to remove 10 years of comics from his website, picturesforsadchildren.com, which is now a blank page.

"After a decade of putting personal work on the Internet in public for free and realizing I didn't have what I felt what I needed, my online persona committed suicide," Campbell said in an interview on Tuesday.

 Excerpts from "Sad Pictures for Children," John Campbell's second book.
Excerpts from "Sad Pictures for Children," John Campbell's second book.
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DNAinfo/Alisa Hauser

Campbell burned the books in response to more than 100 emails he received from backers wanting the books they had helped fund almost two years ago.

In May 2012, Campbell used Kickstarter to raise money to publish a book based on his online comic strip, "Pictures for Sad Children," which features two main characters who work in unfulfilling office jobs, "a ghost named Paul and a fella named Gary."

"I didn't expect it to be that successful," Campbell said of the campaign, which raised $51,615 from 1,073 backers in 14 days, exceeding his goal of $8,000 by 645 percent.

Before the campaign, Campbell said the most money he had made producing comics was $30,000 over the course of a year.

Money, to him, is "a huge terrible joke," he said.

Campbell said Kickstarter "gives you an old-school charitable feeling but there is no value created outside of the perceived value."

Campbell said he spent $30,000 of the Kickstarter money to print 2,000 copies of the 200-page hardback book and then spent more money to include a dead wasp inside of each book. Encased in plastic, the wasps were inserted into the inside back cover.

Campbell also said the "IRS watches Kickstarter" and took between $3,000 and $5,000 in back taxes from the donations.

Campbell said he successfully mailed 750 to 800 books, while another 150 were undeliverable and returned to him due to old addresses. He plans to burn the rest of the books that have been sitting in his apartment in boxes for over a year.

Two weeks ago, the stress of not being able to afford to mail the books prompted Campbell to burn 127 books behind a dumpster in an alley behind his apartment.

Campbell said burning the books was "like a weight lifted off of me."

One comic industry website has declared his campaign a "Kickstarter Fail."

Reactions from people who gave money to Campbell ranged from frustration to sympathy.

A backer named Jenny wrote on Campbell's Kickstarter page: "Well, I certainly feel like a chump now." Another donor, Jacob Weiss, has started a "Sad Pictures for Children" Book Club, where members can share a copy of the book received after giving a $35 donation to Campbell.

Weiss, an audio engineer based in Austin, Texas, has been a reader of Campbell's comics for six years.

"What I love about John's work is that it has always been much more to me than a dumb webcomic, which is what so many tend to be. It is not about cat jokes or pseudo-philosophical ideas. It is just really honest about anxieties, fears and bad feelings," Weiss said.

While some readers were disappointed in Campbell's failure to deliver on his promises, others were concerned about his mental health based on a rambling 4,500-word update that accompanies the video showing him burning the books.

Campbell said has refunded some money but he can't fund additional refunds to what he estimates to be 25 percent of his backers.

According to Kickstarter's terms, it is the project creator's responsibility to complete a project. While Kickstarter does not "guarantee projects or investigate a creator's ability to complete their project," it also requires creators to fulfill the promised rewards or refund any backer whose reward they do not or cannot fulfill.

A spokesman for Kickstarter declined to comment.

Campbell said that for those still wanting a book, he could sell more of his personal belongings to help pay for shipping. Or he could ask people for money for shipping, an option which he says he "refuses to do."

Though most of his readers are from out of state or the country, Campbell said he believes there are backers in the Chicago area that gave him $75 two years ago and have not received their copies of "Sad Pictures for Children."

When asked by a reporter if he would be willing to have the donors pick up the books, since he cannot afford to ship them, Campbell said he would "consider it" but the plan is to still burn the remaining books and produce another video.