Spotlight on Publishers: Unbound

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Is crowd-funding the future of publishing? Annabel talks to Unbound…

Before we get into our chat fully, could you explain briefly for those readers who don’t know you, how Unbound works?

Unbound is based on a crowd-funding subscription model. Authors upload their book proposal onto the Unbound site telling people about it with a video, written pitch and an extract. If people are interested in the project they can then pledge at various levels to support the book (and receive all kinds of extras) and get their name in the back of the book. When a project receives 100% funding the books is then written and produced, and once the books are printed we send them to supporters.

I recognise Unbound co-founder John Mitchinson from a behind the scenes at QI TV programme I saw – apologies to Dan and Justin, but Unbound does sound a quite QI-ish thing to do!  How did the three co-founders get together? Who does what between the three of you?

Dan Kieran and Justin Pollard were both friends and authors who had fallen out of love with the publishing industry, especially after realising that they had no idea exactly who their audience was. They decided to create a website where people could pay for a book and have it sent to them directly. They got in contact with their friend John Mitchinson, who used to work in publishing and swore he never would again, but he loved the idea so much he came on board. Dan is our CEO, John is our Publisher and Justin is our Creative Director.

I feel we should establish whether there is such a thing as a typical ‘Unbound’ book?  Before we get to see the authors’ pitches for funding, they will have been commissioned by you, so are there any specific niches you’re looking to fill, a house-style to consider, is it the more unusual proposals that catch your eyes – or just a great book that needs a publisher?

There’s not really a typical Unbound book apart from the fact that they are all great books. We’ve got books from an OCD memoir, to literary novels, to international best-seller Letters of Note.The great thing about Unbound is that we don’t have to answer to a sales team in the same way traditional publishing companies do, as it is the crowd who decides what will be published. This means we can definitely take risks in terms of unusual proposals as long as we think there will be an audience out there who want to get behind it. Currently the publishing industry has no budget for mid-list authors who deserve to be published, so they can come to us.

Having dipped my toe into subscription publishing via And Other Stories’ model, the appeal of getting your name printed in a book as a supporter is very alluring. I’ve now pledged to three Unbound titles, and can’t wait to get the first one in my hands (and check my name’s there before reading the book). How many pledges does the average book need to become fully funded, and what’s the gap between achieving the funding and publication.

A book will normally need around 400 subscribers. It’s fascinating that our average pledge ends up being around £35 which is roughly 7 times the price of a book on Amazon, yet people are happy to pay this higher price. I think that’s because people are paying for the experience, they’re paying for this connection with authors; they’re paying to have their name in the books they care about and to be patrons of the arts. Once a book is fully funded, and the final manuscript is in our hands, it takes approximately nine months to a year for it to be published.

Looking at your list of authors, I was surprised to see quite a few big names in there nestling amongst the new and unknown writers: Julie Burchill and Python, Terry Jones for instance. What’s the appeal of the Unbound model for these already established authors?

Authors realise that publishing with Unbound is a fairer deal for them, as all profits are split 50/50.  It’s a place for authors such as Francis Pryor (archaeologist and former Time Team regular) to break away from their ‘regular, tried and tested’ genres and write something different. Francis has just published his first novel through Unbound and he’s already writing his second. His previous publishers just couldn’t take the risk on something so far from his usual style.

Authors also have a lot more freedom and communication with us, which they appreciate. We have the data of who bought their book and, if they want to return to us for another book as Shaun Usher did with Lists of Note, the sequel to Letters of Note, they already have a network that they can access who bought their previous book. Of course authors can also communicate directly with their audience, share their writing experiences and ask for input directly from their readers.

Despite it not making the shortlist, the Man Booker Prize longlisting of Paul Kingsnorth’s novel The Wake must have been a terrific boost to you. How did that feel?

It was brilliant! We’re very proud to say The Wake was the first crowd-funded book ever to be on the Man Booker longlist. The original supporters should be very proud too as when every publisher turned the book down, because they thought it wouldn’t work, these Unbound readers proved them wrong. The nomination definitely shows the power of the crowd and indicates that readers want to be challenged – that they are adventurous and want something different. It’s a message to publishers that they don’t have to be bland or samey in their choices but should put more trust in their readers.

I’ve loved browsing some of the authors’ pitches on the Unbound site. They are as varied as the books being proposed. I notice that once a book achieves funding, you continue to accept pledges on it (while stating that names can no longer be printed in the back).  Would it not be easier to have a shop for all funded/published titles – or does this way of keeping the pitch alive generate more interest/sales?

We did have a bookshop section on the site but we ‘closed’ it because we found that once in the bookshop sales for these books trickled to a stop. The books sold via our website are special editions which aren’t available anywhere else. We do sell trade editions in bookshops but we keep a project live on the site for the experience that readers can’t find in bookshops or on Amazon; we can offer readers the chance to be part of a community and find new projects to support.

Some of the extras on offer for those who can afford to pledge larger sums are really fun – I was drawn to those on Sue Black’s page for Saving Bletchley Park offering a pair of ‘Enigma’ socks hand-knitted by the author and a private guided tour of Bletchley Park including lunch in Hut 4. Who thinks these up?  Those particular offers sold out so obviously worked!

The idea for these levels is usually a mix between the author and their editor. These extras help to add to the crowdfunding experience and is something you would never be able to get anywhere else. Readers love that they can have unique and exclusive items or experiences. Readers are able to connect with their favourite authors in a way that they didn’t have previously, such as going for lunch with them. That’s amazing.

Each author also has a ‘shed’ which is essentially a blog accompanying their pitch which can only be seen by those who have pledged.  That’s a neat way to keep pledgers in touch with their books in the run up to publication. What will happen to the sheds?

Many authors continue to update their sheds after their book is published, as they can continue to talk to their supporters. It also means if they launch a new book they can announce it through to the shed to their ready-made supporter base. I think it’s this connection and communication that is really at the heart of Unbound.

Finally, congratulations on achieving £1,000,000 of pledges in just over a year. What’s next for Unbound?

We’ve actually raised £1m over the three years we’ve been established, but it’s still an incredible achievement that is all thanks to our brilliant supporters. Next we’ll be growing, publishing more great books and, of course, leading the publishing revolution.

Thank you for talking to us.

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Annabel is one of the Shiny editors.