Two years ago Mick Rooney at The Independent Publishing Magazine reviewed a British publishing outfit called Unbound, which is a new approach based on crowd-sourcing. That is: you go to their site, read about an author and a book that author is proposing to write, and if you really want to read it, you pony up some money. When the funding goal is met and the book is written, it goes to press and eventually you get a copy.
I vaguely remember reading about Unbound and wondering if it might actually work. Just today it came back to mind because Raphaela Weissman, a local author but someone I don’t know personally, emailed to say that she was launching a campaign through Unbound for her novel Monsters. Raphaela originally had an agent and got great feedback from publishers, but in the end nobody took Monsters on, and thus she decided to proceed with the help of Unbound. Her launch page is here. With all this in mind, I went back to find and re-read Rooney’s review of Unbound.
It’s going to take me a little while to figure out how I feel about Unbound and that needs to happen before I can commit to anything.
If I knew Raphaela personally I might be tempted to contribute to her crowd-sourcing of the novel just to be supportive of a friend. And that is probably Unbound’s major weakness when it comes to lesser known writers. Monsters may be a fantastic novel, but whether or not it ever sees the light of day depends on how well Raphaela can push the crowd-sourcing. She has about 90 days to hit the mark. The review at IPM summarizes:
Since Unbound was founded in 2011 [this article was written in 2014], it has successfully funded and published 54 books. There are currently 5 books funded by more than 50%, and 36 books below the 50% funding target. According to this article in the Telegraph UK, each funding project on Unbound needs the support of about 2,500 reader/patron pledges — ranging between £10 and £250. There are various levels of support depending on the amount of each pledge; typically, £10 would provide the reader with a digital copy and access to the author’s community ‘shed’; £20, an additional limited edition hardback; the reader’s name mentioned at the end of the book as a supporter; a signed hardback edition; tickets to the launch party; or a personal appearance by the author (about £750).
Unbound is interesting because it at least is honest about the way it operates. The author is responsible for raising the money necessary to get the book published. They estimate the cost for everything (except the author’s time, which is not calculated and no advances on royalties are paid), come up with a figure, help the author with the launch webpage, and then wait to see if s/he can make it happen. Once the author reaches a certain stage — somewhere about 70 percent of the estimated cost to publish — they step in.
Traditional publishers go about this from the other end. They never tell the author what they think it will cost to publish the book. Instead they offer an advance and assume the costs of publication up front. So for example they might estimate that it will cost them $25,000 to get a book into print and out into the marketplace (and don’t ask me to verify that number; I’m basing it on the numbers Unbound uses). They assume that cost and offer the author money as well, let’s say $20,000 advance on royalties (which in this day and age would be very good). So that’s about 45K the traditional publisher commits before hand. If the book flops, that’s money the publisher loses. The author is unlikely to ever sell another book to a traditional publisher, but that 20K advance doesn’t have to be paid back.
As soon as the author finished the book and hands it over, the pressure begins. Once public relations teams would take over at this point, but these days — unless you are already a superstar, in bookselling terms — you are expected to be directly and deeply involved in marketing through social media. If the book fails it may be because it wasn’t strong enough or the timing was bad, but it will also be because the publisher put no money into promoting the book. Without promotion, it’s almost impossible to for a novel from a new author to gain a readership. I’ve said before that I truly dislike and resent the way publishers burden writers with marketing and selling their work. For most of us it’s torture and generally not very effective — unless they are already widely read with a large, loyal readership. And then the whole enterprise is beside the point, anyway.
So I’m not sure what to think about Unbound. I have a large and loyal readership, but even so I find it hard to imagine that a minimum of 2,500 people would invest a minimum of $20 before I’ve ever finish writing the novel.*** Another thing: without an advance, how do I pay the bills while I’m writing the novel? The traditional publisher has that much confidence in me, at least. Of course, here’s where Unbound beats the traditional publisher. Penguin or FSG gives you somewhere between ten and fifteen percent of the amount the book sells for, but with Unbound you get 50 percent — an even split with the publisher.
Unbound is trying something different and attempting to move beyond a model of publishing that doesn’t really work anymore. For that they deserve credit. How well they are succeeding is something I can’t tell without investing a lot of time in reading more about them, their authors, and the individual case histories. Something I can’t afford to do because I have a contract, and a novel to finish.
In the meantime I wish Raphaela Weissman well and I truly hope that the Unbound approach works for her. I’m just not sure that I can climb on board at this point.
***NOTE: Please do not comment to tell me that I’m right or wrong about this; I’m not considering crowd-sourcing, and not looking for encouragement in that direction.