As the world of publishing re-shapes itself in the digital age people tend to fall into two camps: those who believe that books in the old format will be wiped out by the challenges posed by e-reading, almost-free access to all media and the unfettered online publication industry; and those who think books (those objects made mainly of paper and text) will survive and thrive.
One company that is harnessing the power of online communications while continuing to believe in books in all formats is Unbound. Set up by three co-founders, all with experience in the publishing industry, they term their publishing house ‘a revolution’. Their premise is this: ‘Unbound puts the power of publishing in the hands of authors and readers. Authors pitch their book ideas directly to you. If you back a project before it reaches its funding target, you get your name printed in the back of every copy and immediate behind-the-scenes access to the author’s shed. If any project fails to hit its funding target, you get refunded in full.’
It’s an intriguing idea. But how does this concept actually play out for readers and authors? Unbound have had a year of being in business. In that period I have seen book-pitches appear and disappear from the site and also the time-lines for book pitches being extended and further extended. The official statement from the company is that there have been 33 pitches up on the site since May 2011 (including those up now). Of these 14 have been fully funded, 16 are being funded currently and 3 have failed. Judging by these statistics the ‘success rate’, if we take publication to be success, is higher than for the wider publishing industry.
For a complete unknown though, the chances remain as slender as in the traditional mode of business. Most of the writers pitching on the site already have a track record (Marie Phillips and Kate Mosse are two examples). Other writers have been through a selection process (more on that later) but still will encounter some difficulty in crowd-sourcing the funding for their projects. The 16 books that are ‘being currently funded’ are chalking up support in slow stages, a reflection again of the wider market where books are a non-essential expenditure for consumers. In Unbound’s case there are incentives offered, but my research has shown that these work in direct proportion to the profile of the writer.
However all new models in publishing are to be lauded and most authors would agree that new initiatives such as Unbound are to be welcomed. The questions writers have about the model are not necessarily answered in the public domain. The Unbound website, naturally, is aimed at people who love books and love to read; and also people who will be keen to support a book with hard cash, either because they adore the pitch or because they have been directed to the site by a featured author (usually the case).
To find out more about this publishing model from a writer’s viewpoint I have interviewed an Unbound subscriber; an author who pitched on the site; and the co-founders of the company.
But first let’s take a close look at one of the books published by Unbound. ‘Crushed Mexican Spiders’ by Tibor Fischer was featured heavily as one of the company’s debut releases a few months ago. It followed a book of short stories by Terry Jones, an ex-Python. Fischer possibly was Unbound’s first well-known literary author. His book is beautifully styled and produced but that does not disguise the fact that it is an anti-climatically slim volume within its lovely covers. It consists of two short stories that are absolutely Fischeresque in subject and flair, yet I felt that it would have been a more substantial book if it had contained at least five short stories. This would have meant losing the clever gimmick of two books in one. ‘Possibly Forty Ships’ is the flipside of this book, boasting its own cover artwork, frontispiece and title pages. Sandwiched between the two stories are eight pages listing the names of the subscribers who ensured this book was published by contributing to it in advance.
This book – a joy of design – cost its supporters a minimum of £10 for a hardback first edition. Several subscribers would have paid more: £50 for a personally dedicated copy; £150 to attend the launch party; or £250 to have lunch with the author. I would be happy to live in a world where a payment of £10 was the norm to read a short story, but for the purposes of this piece I must correlate this information to the existing market. Another new venture, Penguin Shorts, is pricing short stories/novellas/essays at £1.99 but it has to be said that this is for bite-sized e-books as opposed to striking hardbacks.
If you don’t count the extras that cannot be valued, and could be priceless, such as your name in the book and access to the writer’s shed (an online area where additional information is posted for supporters), then for your minimum £10 you have received two stories that for all their originality and wit don’t keep pace with the production. Both short stories incorporate pleasing flashes of word play, sour wit and a blackness at the core. Crushed Mexican Spiders, with an unreliable narrator, leaves the reader with a set of questions that they must answer themselves. Possibly Forty Ships is more fleshed out. This story, of a soldier who participated in the War on Troy giving up his secrets under torture, examines perceptions of truth, how versions of battles are recorded for history and how myths are made from sullied heroes. Its themes are as contemporary as those in the first story, which is set in present-day London.
Fischer’s philosophical quest for ‘the uncertain truth’ is nuanced in both stories but leaves something missing in Crushed Mexican Spiders. It could have been even more thought provoking than it turns out to be. Partly because hanging endings are not readers’ favourites. Often readers want to know what the ‘reality’ is of the story they’ve just finished; they are not necessarily comfortable drawing their own conclusions. I believe it is the writer’s prerogative to leave an unsettled ending if they so wish. My criticism of Crushed Mexican Spiders stems from the fact that Fischer sets up a notion that living in London turns a person into a negative character who cares not for others. But this introductory idea is not fulfilled. The question we are left to answer for ourselves is “what is really going on here”? That detracts somewhat from the deeper thesis of what living in London can do to your nature.
To return from content to form, this book’s production values are a good advertisement for Unbound, as are the number of people who supported Fischer in this publication venture. I heard that the pitch stayed online for a while longer than they had anticipated because actually raising the money took longer than the optimistic 90 day ‘package’ set out by Unbound.
Another recent offering from the publishing house was ‘How to Have an Almost Perfect Marriage’ by Mrs Stephen Fry. This book (in the humour genre) had a comparatively charmed history. Something to do with the large number of fans Stephen Fry has perhaps? Something to do with the fact that he has a huge media presence too?
I spoke to Alison Mordue, a voracious reader of books in all genres and a particular fan of Fry. She became an Unbound subscriber when ‘Mrs Stephen Fry’ promoted her new venture on Twitter and directed followers to Unbound. The company did well to link up with Stephen Fry because he undoubtedly brought several fans into their realm.
I asked Alison about her experience as a reader, particularly as she says she will remain an Unbound subscriber. She believes that if she sees a book pitch on the site that really appeals to her she is likely to support another book, even if it is from an author she has not heard of. Of course, like every subscriber, she was very happy to receive a beautiful hardback first edition of the book she’d supported (with her name in it) but she also spoke movingly and earnestly about her experience of being a ‘supporter’. She got a sense of directly enabling the writer and appreciated the interaction during the creative process. She also really enjoyed the extras, such as the author’s shed and receiving regular updates on the progress of the book. She felt as if she had a role to play in the publication of the book (which she did). This sense of affinity with the process, the publishing house and the writer were extremely worthwhile to her. Alison is, perhaps, the model reader and subscriber.
While I was looking at the site a couple of months back I made a pledge for a book that ended up being pulled from the site when it had not received enough funding in the relevant time-window. I asked the author, Jane Prowse, author of the Hattori Hachi teen novels, about her experiences with Unbound.
Jane approached them herself. She explains why: ‘Books one and two of Hattori Hachi were published by Piccadilly Press and have been gathering a loyal and enthusiastic readership. It had always been my plan to take the heroine, Hattie Jackson, to Japan, to her family's roots and the heart of the inter-family battle that takes over Hattie's life in the first two stories. Piccadilly Press are an independent children's publisher and they were concerned that Japan was not going to resonate with their younger readers. They were prepared to publish the third book if I set it in the UK, but this didn't work for what I wanted to do with the characters and the story. So, very amicably, we decided that if I wanted, I would take The Curse of the Diamond Daggers elsewhere… I offered Unbound all three books to present as a trilogy and they were extremely enthusiastic. We made a contract for the 90 day pledge period.’
Unfortunately for Jane she didn’t raise the funding required in those three months but didn’t want to extend her pitch time on the site because she was keen to bring Book Three to the market as soon as she could as she believes fans of the series were waiting for it.
She says of her experience: ‘What I love about Unbound is the way they put readers in touch with authors. I've had a lot of correspondence with my young readers before through the Hattori Hachi website (www.hattorihachi.com) and thought they might respond well to this.’ Pressed on why it didn’t work, she says that other than the time-scale problem there was the matter of pricing. ‘The price was high for teen books and although we were offering all three stories for the price of one, many of my readers already own books one and two.’
Jane has decided to take over publishing all three novels through her own company instead. Despite her disappointing result with Unbound’s model she says that she would try again with Unbound. She now believes their system is better for the germ of an idea that needs funding in order for the author to write it, rather than already written books which the author is keen to get published within a known time frame.
Although Jane Prowse decided to take control of her titles herself (as many authors are doing), it is important to note that she is a previously-published author as are all the others I have mentioned so far. I asked Justin Pollard, co-founder of Unbound, how an obscure unpublished writer could get a foot in the door. I am going to report fairly comprehensively on what he said to make this article as useful as it could possibly be for the readers of Writers’ Hub.
To start at the beginning, the ‘Submissions’ section of the Unbound website currently states that authors’ agents should get in touch. So do they actually accept writers through an open submission process? Here is what Justin said: ‘What we can't do at the moment is have a totally open submission process as we simply don't have staff to read thousands of manuscripts… As such most of our authors have been published before and have approached us either directly or via their agent. That doesn't mean to say we don't want to encourage new talent - the question is 'how can a small company with limited resources find great new writers'. Our approach currently is to go through writers’ websites like ABC Tales and Jottify where new writers can hone their skills and get practical critical analysis from their peers. We ask these sites who from their membership they rate most highly and see if we can't get them published through the Unbound model. So you might say we crowd-source new talent then crowd-fund their books.’
It seems to me that his sentence ‘we crowd-source new talent then crowd-fund their books’ is the ideal to which Unbound aspires. But it is a new company and still honing its offering and is still on a steep learning curve. I wondered about the marketing of the books once a writer’s pitch was featured on the site. Did the author have to do it all themselves? Did Unbound have a support system for those writers who were not celebrities or well-established?
When I asked Jane Prowse about this, she said: ‘I had some big ideas for marketing which Unbound loved, but hadn't yet had the time to implement. Being a start-up company they agree that things aren't yet moving as fast for all the writers as everyone would like. The celebrity books seem to be doing very well, which I think parallels the more traditional publishing routes, where celebrities who already have a big following often top the charts as soon as they release a title.’
Justin Pollard stated that the company retains a publishing PR firm to work with all their authors on major publicity (national newspapers, magazines, TV and radio). They also have an Author Champion programme whereby each author gets their own 'champion' to help with local publicity and advertising and to help find an online audience through blogs, Twitter and Facebook. The company arranges event appearances, produces publicity materials and ensures the writer’s project remains current online by posting updates, new chapters, and cover art. He added, ‘All crowd-funding begins with the person being funded so it's essential that our authors get involved, contact their fans and keep the online conversation going. With Unbound people want to feel they're supporting an author directly so some feedback from the writer is essential.’
For obvious reasons this is not an ideal platform for a reclusive author, especially an unknown one, but once again the basis of this model is ‘bringing readers and writers together’. For the subscribers it is great opportunity to be part of the publishing process and for most writers the level of marketing effort required is akin to what it would be in the more traditional routes. Lots of writers love to interact with their readers.
On the subject of distribution and retail, Justin was very forthcoming, remarking that he is keen to explore many different ways to market the books. Subscribers receive a first-edition copy as I mentioned before. In addition the site sells further editions and e-editions of the published works. Unbound also have a deal with Faber whereby some titles they believe to have good commercial potential are taken to the normal trade. These books are then issued in paperback and are available in shops or on Amazon. Unbound are looking into deals with bookstores and retailers to take specific titles suitable for their businesses or to take advantage of their scheme whereby their books can be virtually stocked without having to carry physical stock or pay overheads.
On to the million-dollar-question: can an author make money through this model? And how much money? Unbound couldn’t answer this because they haven't been through the entire cycle once yet - from funding to the production of the first edition to the production and distribution of a trade edition. Possibly they will have an answer at the end of the year.
On its website the company states that the net profit from Unbound editions is shared 50/50 with the author. This deal seems to be generous to writers and is a strong positive for the Unbound concept, but even the writers currently on the site are not sure how profitable it will turn out in reality. The money raised from subscribers goes towards the publication of a handsome book, produced to a much higher specification than trade publishers' offerings. These hardbacks have sown bindings, cloth, book ribbons and use good quality paper. They are part of that welcome new trend where old-fashioned books are once again objects of beauty, objects a reader would like to possess and treasure. These books are expensive to produce which is why a subscriber would need to be so enamoured of the idea that they would pledge £30 at least. A book may need between 600-1200 such pledges to be funded depending on its length and if it has pictures.
‘Net’ profits are worked out after the deduction of all costs. Justin explained that Unbound operates transparently with the author. ‘When we take a book we produce a spread sheet, which we give the author, showing all the costs associated with turning the idea into a finished, distributed book. The total on this sheet is normally the total we need to raise to make a book simply financially feasible. Once we have raised this the costs are covered and anything else is profit. The author then gets 50% of that.’
I suppose, more importantly, the author gets a fair print run of his/her book.
So what would be the downsides of experimenting with this model? I’m wondering if it knocks the confidence of a new writer if their pitch is accepted on to the site and then fails to find the funding.
Justin has a positive spin on this: ‘Most authors who haven't been successful come back to us with other projects. It’s never the author that has failed, simply that the idea for the book hasn't received the traction it needed to get made. We hope that Unbound is a way for authors to test new ideas -particularly those that are not in their normal remit - without having to go through the whole writing and publishing process before they find out if there's a market for it.’ That however, sounds like something suitable for established writers (as in the cases I discussed above) rather than newbies.
Would any writers be deterred by their funding status being visible to everyone at all times, particularly if they were not doing too well?
Justin replies: ‘How we display success is always problematic. If you use a percentage pie chart it can be great for getting people to fund that last 10% but can put people off when an author is only on 2% (and they all start at 0 of course). Time limits can also help at one level - 'only five days to go!' etc. but they are generally synthetic and it would be a shame to fail a project just to hit an arbitrary deadline. So do we need deadlines at all?’
Good question and one only the people at Unbound can answer once they’ve fine-tuned their system.
As for my advice – don’t be deterred by pie charts et al. If you are a good networker with a fantastic pitch and you can rally your troops give Unbound a try. If you want to hide away, whether in failure or success, or even while producing your work, this publishing model is not the best option for you.