Book publishing: Let me tell you a story...
A new website is hoping to help authors avoid the whims of sales-obsessed publishers by pitching their ideas directly to the people who really matter: the readers. Nick Duerden speaks to its founders
Ten years ago, Amy Jenkins, creator of TV's This Life, decided to try her hand at novel writing. Much was expected from her, a fact reflected in the size of her advance (lots of zeros). But her two published novels, Honeymoon and Funny Valentine, were unabashed chicklit, and consequently vilified by critics expecting something with a little more backbone, a little more like This Life. The books did not go on to perform as well as expected, and Jenkins was loathe to go through that particular mill again.
But, a decade on, now married and with a family, she wants to return to fiction, but craves this time an altogether different experience. She has found it with Unbound, an entirely new model for book publishing already likened to Dragons' Den, and accurately so: prospective writers pitch their book ideas, via cute little films on the Unbound website, direct to prospective readers. If people like what they hear, they pledge money, anything from £10 up (for which they will receive an e-book; £20 buys a hardback first edition). When enough money has been pledged by enough people, it becomes a commission, and the writer starts typing.
Jenkins wants to write a novel called The Art of Losing, about, she explains in her pitch, "trial and error, loss and faith, and how sometimes, just sometimes, heartbreak comes with a tiny dose of grace." She has to date been pledged just under a fifth of the funds required (it's early days yet). Another 84 per cent, and she'll be good to go.
It is, suggests its founders, a small but key revolution in the world of book publishing. And, as one of those founders, John Mitchinson, points out, "the industry needs one".
Unbound is the brainchild of Mitchinson and two friends, the author Dan Kieran and historical consultant Justin Pollard. Both Kieran and Pollard, each with successful books under their belts, had just had their own book proposals turned down by publishers who claimed they were "too intelligent".
Mitchinson smiles ruefully. "Publishing is full of such stories, lots of people trying to get really interesting and innovative works out to the reading public, but failing to do so because of the way the market is structured."
It is structured, he explains, around an increasingly tight formula that has a small but highly lucrative brace of authors writing mostly to type – crime or vampire fiction mostly, these days. Anything more esoteric is often summarily rejected.
Mitchinson, 47, has 20 years experience in the industry, as bookseller, publisher and bestselling author himself (he penned, with John Lloyd, the QI books). He and his co-conspirators believed that if they were able to develop a publishing enterprise that didn't require its stable to churn out mass-market airport thrillers by the truckload, then the reading public might well consider themselves spoiled again. And there is, he insists, an overwhelming appetite for such a scheme.
"It seems we're more seduced by reading than ever, and right now there exists an extraordinary culture of enthusiastic readers who attend literary festivals and salons, and reading groups. But the tremendous amount of energy they have isn't being properly harnessed by the industry as it is."
Which is where Unbound comes in. Launched at the Hay Literary Festival in May, it already boasts five and a half thousand signed-up supporters (pledging an average of £32 each), and its website – which is currently touting just seven writers and their pitches – receives close to 100,000 new hits a month. In other words, it's growing.
"What we've found so far," Mitchinson says, "is that readers really do have an appetite for something like this, something different."
He concedes it might not be an initiative that will make anyone rich quick – the average cost of producing a book is between £5000 to £8000, the advance is minimal, and they are more than prepared to sell, in some cases, just a few hundred copies (though any profits are split appealingly down the middle) – but it has already received considerable heavyweight literary support from the likes of Kate Mosse and Philip Pullman, the latter proclaiming Unbound, "an idea whose time has come." The publishers Faber & Faber, meanwhile, are so taken with it that they plan to partner up with the imprint, and distribute trade editions of selected titles.
The cult novelist Tibor Fischer is currently penning a book for them, as is no less a living legend than Monty Python's Terry Jones, who wanted to publish a collection of short stories commensurate to the way he had it imagined in his profoundly idiosyncratic head. Unbound had little difficulty offering him just that. Other publishers, Mitchinson suggests, "would have endlessly chipped away at it, and W H Smith would then have demanded a different book jacket and asked him why he couldn't have written a thriller instead." He laughs. "And Terry was also very taken, I think, with the 50-50 split."
Both authors received 100 per cent of funding within a matter of weeks, several readers pledging upwards of £250, a generosity rewarded not only with the handsomely bound, and signed, finished product, but goodie bags and also lunch with the authors.
Another Unbound writer is 39-year-old academic Keith Kahn-Harris. An expert, he says, on both heavy metal and Anglo Jewishness, Kahn-Harris is currently pitching his non-fiction book about big fish in small ponds, called The Best Waterskier in Luxembourg. He too has been the recipient of a £250 donation. And what will that particular philanthropist receive in return for their investment?
"Well, a postcard from Luxembourg at the very least," he jokes. "And if anybody wants to pledge even more, they can come to Luxembourg with me."
Two years ago, the writer Rupert Isaacson wrote a memoir called The Horse Boy, an account of his family's trek on horseback across Mongolia in search of a shamen to help alleviate their autistic son's suffering. The book, published by Penguin, became a global bestseller. Though he may well write its follow-up one day, Isaacson, an ardent fan of historical fiction, wanted next to pen a novel about, of all things, an Elizabethan horse whisperer. Publishers tend not to like their authors to switch genres quite so cavalierly, which is why he opted to go with Unbound.
"I've been friends with John for many years, and I do love his genius ideas," Isaacson says from his home in North Carolina. "I'm fascinated by the whole concept, and interacting direct with readers is rather thrilling." Agents and publishers, he complains, have agendas based purely on sales potentials, "which is why most book simply aren't worth reading. But people who do buy books regularly are intelligent, with great complexity, and they are perfectly happy to read whatever their favourite writers want to experiment with next. That at least is how I operate as a reader, and I can't be the only one, surely."
Next Monday evening at London's Tabernacle Arts Centre, Unbound will host its first ever live event, in which writers, among them Red Dwarf's Robert Llewellyn and Vitali Vitaliev ("the Russian Bill Bryson"), will pitch ideas for prospective new books direct to a crowd of Duncan Bannatynes, in the hope of raising sufficient funds there and then. A daunting prospect perhaps, writers being generally shy and retiring types who rarely leave their studies for good reason, but Mitchinson insists that, "ultimately, it's just a bit of light-hearted fun, and another way to get readers and writers interacting with each other."
Isaacson, who won't be at the event due to geographical reasons – North Carolina is quite a schlep from Notting Hill – nevertheless loves the idea, and is already anticipating meeting the people who will fund his book.
"I'm really intrigued to meet anyone who has the balls to sign up to one of my pledges," he says. A £250 pledge to him will buy you a horse-training lesson, while for £1000 he will teach you how to make a horse "dance".
"The way I see it, you are already asking the reader to take three or four days out of their life to engage with your story, right? I'd be a bit of a wanker if I wasn't then prepared to engage with them afterwards. And actually it could prove a valuable process. You often get really good feedback from readers, and they can make for terribly discerning editors. They point out stuff you need to hear."
As USPs go, Unbound's looks like a winning one.
Unbound Live, Tabernacle Arts Centre, London W11 (020 7221 9700) 12 September
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