There have been a few reports circulating recently about Unbound; the crowd sourced publishing initiative that was announced to great fanfare at Hay. As a break from the traditional publishing model, it’s a project worth looking at in a bit more detail.
Unbound is the creation of three writers (two from QI and the guy who wrote Crap Towns) and has the support of Faber & Faber. Authors are filmed talking about writing projects that they want to start and the general public, if they like the idea, are invited to pledge their support to the project by donating anything from £10 up to £250, or more. In return supporters, depending on the amount donated, are gifted various rewards; their name in the book as a supporter, signed dedications, goodie bags, launch party invites etc, as well as given the chance to “get updates on the book’s progress, watch exclusive interviews, read draft chapters, find out information about the author’s backlist and join discussions with the author and other supporters” via a supporters only area, cutely named the ‘shed’.
A neat idea, and one that takes its lead from crowd funding projects such as Kickstarter (the inspiration behind the project) and IndieGoGo. Both crowd funding sites offer much the same deal as Unbound, though neither are literature specific.
There have already been a couple of sniffy blog posts about publishers getting the public to pay for books, and while I don’t automatically subscribe to this – I think any way of funding authors is a pretty great idea – here are my initial thoughts:
At present the writers that feature on Unbound tend to be very well established; Terry ‘Monty Python’ Jones has written more than a dozen books in the past, Amy Jenkins is a two book author and well received screenwriter, Jonathan Meades has ten books and lots of TV to his name, etc, etc.
Elliot Rose is the exception – a new writer with no track record. I can’t find anything about her on the internet, so no idea from where she sprung / how she was chosen.
That Unbound has launched with well known writers seems contrary to the spirit of a crowd-sourced publishing platform; if the crowd is funding a writer, the writer should be able to come from the crowd. Getting funds to little known authors is a much more exciting proposition (and I understand that this is the direction that Unbound will eventually take when it becomes more established).
While with unknown writers there is always the possibility that what you’re supporting turns out to be not worth the paper it’s written on, at least you’ve helped bring about something that may never have seen the light of day otherwise. With the writers featured at the moment I don’t get that feeling.
And this is the main problem I’m faced with. Everything that seems a negative about the site when you look at it with established authors becomes a positive when looking at it in conjunction with unknown writers.
A slightly less publicised part of the Unbound project is that should a donation target not be reached within the time limit:
So if the book sounds like a good’un anyway, it’ll still be published, even if the total donations aren’t reached. It is great that a new book won’t be dropped from publication just because a financial figure wasn’t reached, but it feels a little cheap that the donations received for a book aren’t essential to the publication of said book. It smacks of “if the public are willing to cover the cost of the whole thing then, woohoo, great, if not, well not to worry, we can publish it anyway”. When this is combined with well known writers this serves to devalue the whole Unbound enterprise, but when you’re talking about new writers who perhaps need that extra break , it becomes a bonus.
This positive/negative duality is compounded by the fact that Faber & Faber will:
With big named writers, as at the moment, the public are being asked to cover start-up costs while publishers then step in and scoop off some profits (a simplistic way of looking at it, I know), but flip this and talk instead about unknown writers and the fact that you, as an unknown writer, have Faber & Faber standing in the background, ready to give a helping hand, and it becomes great news, fantastic news.
But the big point, the main, huge, massive thing to take away from the whole project is that, regardless of whether you’re well known or just starting out:
This is where the Unbound publishing model really shines. Unbound quote the statistic that under the traditional publishing model an author is lucky to earn 10% of the cover price, and that £4,000 is the average annual writers’ earnings for all but the top 10% of writers in the UK – both these statistics I have no trouble believing.
50% royalties compared to 10% royalties, that’s a staggering difference.
A publishing platform like Unbound benefits the writer. And that can only be a good thing.
So, to draw some conclusions from this:
- I like the idea of Unbound, I like the fact that you can support writers, I really like that fact that writers are financially rewarded, I like that there is a quality control with the site, I like that it’s literature only crowd sourcing site, I like that Faber & Faber are backing the project.
- I don’t like that it’s been launched with already established writers, I don’t like that it initially seems a closed shop, with no way of knowing how to get on to the site as a new writer (other than submitting much as you would a normal publishers).
So yes, I like it. But only when the site is publicising unknown authors, and this won’t be done until the site’s established, and the site won’t become established until well known authors succeed on it, and I don’t think they will do very easily.
Anyway, maybe I’m wrong about the whole thing. Post your thoughts/comments below . . .
And here are a couple of other thoughts about the Unbound project that didn’t make it in to the article:
- The public are being asked to contribute money, something they didn’t have to do before, for little gain. There is an interactive sharing experience between author/audience that appears through the ‘shed’, but is it enough to persuade people to part with money? Perhaps, and going against everything I’ve just said, perhaps only if the author is well known and a favourite of the public’s.
- There’s no question that with the Unbound publishing platform what you get is a sense of quality control built in to the site, the standard of writing must be high enough to get featured.
- Money: It seems as though Unbound are asking for a lot of cash in the start up. Books that appear on Kickstarter generally request anything up to about $10,000. Taking Terry Jones’ pitch as a fair example of the site, at the time of writing Jones has 7% of the total donations required, the number of supporters needed for his project to become reality is listed as 2,546, and the minimum donation you can pledge is £10.
- 2,546 people x £10 donation = £25,460 – I’m assuming that this is the smallest amount needed for the project to go ahead as I’m unsure whether the ‘supports needed’ figure goes down as pledges are added.
For some explanation of the funding figure the Bookseller says that:
- Kickstarter: I like the way that here whoever’s asking for money can set the rates and set the rewards for each level. It makes the whole thing feel more original and gives each project it’s own unique dynamic.