Case study by Tim Dawson
“The books industry has been very poor at getting money off people who love its products”, says John Mitchinson, the founder of crowd-funded publisher Unbound. He promises to revolutionise both the financing of book production and the relationship between authors and readers; and over the past year has raised enough money from online pledges to turn 18 ideas into ‘beautifully produced volumes’.
The idea is simple. Author’s take their ideas to Unbound, which is run by Mitchinson, Dan Kieran and Justin Pollard, who between them have considerable track records in publishing, book selling and writing. Pitches for ideas that Unbound like are posted up on their website with an invitation to those who are interested to pledge financial support. This can range from £10, in return for a digital copy of the book with the supporters name listed in the back, to £20 for a hardback edition and a supporter listing, to £150 in return for a book, various goodies and a lunch with the author.
At the moment, the potential books featured – 50 have gone up so far – are by established writers, or people with a pre-existing profile. “Many are attracted to us because they have become so jaded with the traditional publisher/author relationship”, says Mitchinson. “Others want to pursue projects that are a bit left-field for their existing publishers”. At the point that a book is accepted costings are agreed for the production and marketing of the book, as well as the time that the author is willing to put into promotion. Once these costs are recovered, profit is split 50:50 between Unbound and author.
The appeal for writers – and Stephen Fry, Robert Llewellyn and Terry Jones are among those who have signed up – is that they get significantly more control of their end product. They are also able to develop a direct relationship with readers – indeed, some offer sponsors such opportunities as having characters in books named after them.
In the year since it launched, Unbound has attracted 24,000 registered users, around 70% of whom have pledged to support projects, with an average pledge value of £32. Although the typical time to fund books has been six months, not the expected three, Mitchinson says that his model is viable, and expects to be in profit in year two. “Its not quite a full-time job for us yet, we do need to work elsewhere to make a living but it pays us a small amount, and we have not fallen over so far”, he says. With proof-of-concept under their belts, the founders will be seeking further funding towards the end of the year.
Mitchinson’s hope is that, in time, it will be possible for unpublished authors to pitch on their site. For now, however, he thinks there is value in their ‘curation’ of the projects to which they give visibility, as well as the editing, designing and marketing familiar from traditional publishing houses.
Unbound has also diversified into live events where authors pitch in front of an actual crowd. Some have even deployed highly theatrical devices – one appeared in pajama bottoms and a gas mask to perform a wordless routine of aerial acrobatics. “I am painfully aware that there are some great authors who will never be comfortable in front of an audience”, Mitchinson accepts. “Some love it though and the events have worked very well in terms of brining in pledges”. Plans for ten further events will be unveiled in the next few weeks.
All of which amounts to a genuinely innovative boutique-approach to publishing that, in return for cash, promises reader and authors a richer experience. Quite possibly, in the remorseless shift to ebooks, the market for an enhanced-value reading opportunities will be considerable. Will history judge Unbound’s crowd-funding to be a paradigm shift that overtook publishing in the early years of twenty first century? As the Chinese communist leader Zhou Enlai is reputed to have said of the significance of the French Revolution, “It is too soon to say”.