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

Arts & Entertainment
film

Arts & Entertainment
Don (John Hamm) and Megan (Jessica Paré) Draper are going their separate ways in the final series of ‘Mad Men’
tvReview: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
Arts & Entertainment
James Franco and Chris O'Dowd in Of Mice and Men on Broadway
theatre

Review: Of Mice and Men

Arts & Entertainment
art

By opportunistic local hoping to exhibit the work

VIDEO
Arts & Entertainment
Leonardo DiCaprio will star in an adaptation of Michael Punke's thriller 'The Revenant'
film

Fans will be hoping the role finally wins him an Oscar

Arts & Entertainment
Cody and Paul Walker pictured in 2003.
film

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?
Arts & Entertainment
Down to earth: Fern Britton presents 'The Big Allotment Challenge'
TV

Arts & Entertainment
The London Mozart Players is the longest-running chamber orchestra in the UK
musicThreatened orchestra plays on, managed by its own members
Arts & Entertainment
Seeing red: James Dean with Sal Mineo in 'Rebel without a Cause'
film

Arts & Entertainment
TV
Arts & Entertainment
Heads up: Andy Scott's The Kelpies in Falkirk
art

What do gigantic horse heads tell us about Falkirk?

Arts & Entertainment
artGraffiti legend posts picture of work – but no one knows where it is
Arts & Entertainment
A close-up of Tom of Finland's new Finnish stamp
art

Finnish Postal Service praises the 'self irony and humour' of the drawings

Arts & Entertainment
Pierce Brosnan as James Bond in 2002's Die Another Day
film

The actor has confessed to his own insecurities

Life & Style
Green fingers: a plot in East London
TV

Allotments are the focus of a new reality show

Arts & Entertainment
Myleene Klass attends the Olivier awards 2014

Oliviers 2014Theatre stars arrive at Britain's most prestigious theatre awards
Arts & Entertainment
Stars of The Book of Mormon by Trey Parker and Matt Stone of South Park

Oliviers 2014Blockbuster picked up Best Musical and Best Actor in a Musical
Arts & Entertainment
Lesley Manville with her Olivier for Best Actress for her role in 'Ghosts'

Oliviers 2014Actress thanked director Richard Eyre for a stunning production
Arts & Entertainment
Rory Kinnear in his Olivier-winning role as Iago in Othello

Oliviers 2014Actor beat Jude Law and Tom Hiddleston to take the award
Arts & Entertainment
Benedict Cumberbatch is best known for this roles in Sherlock and Star Trek
TV

Arts & Entertainment
theatreAll hail the temporary venue that has shaken things up at the National Theatre
Arts & Entertainment
musicShe is candid, comic and coming our way
Arts & Entertainment
booksHer new novel is about people seeking where they belong
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition iPad app?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail. If you think it's awful, then just don't watch it'

    Ricky Gervais: 'People are waiting for me to fail'

    As the second series of his divisive sitcom 'Derek' hits screens, the comedian tells James Rampton why he'll never bow to the critics who habitually circle his work
    Mad Men series 7, TV review: The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge

    Mad Men returns for a final fling

    The suits are still sharp, but Don Draper has lost his edge
    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground as there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit

    Google finds a lift into space will never get off the ground

    Technology giant’s scientists say there is no material strong enough for a cable from Earth into orbit
    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics

    Is sexual harassment a fact of gay life?

    Westminster is awash with tales of young men being sexually harassed - but it's far from being just a problem in politics
    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith: The man behind a British success story

    Moshi Monster creator Michael Acton Smith

    Acton Smith launched a world of virtual creatures who took the real world by storm
    Kim Jong-un's haircut: The Independent heads to Ealing to try out the dictator's do

    Our journalist tries out Kim Jong-un's haircut

    The North Korean embassy in London complained when M&M Hair Academy used Kim Jong-un's image in the window. Curious, Guy Pewsey heads to the hair salon and surrenders to the clippers
    A History of the First World War in 100 moments: A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part

    A History of the First World War in 100 moments

    A forgotten naval victory in which even Nature played a part
    Vespa rides on with launch of Primavera: Iconic Italian scooter still revving up millions of sales

    Vespa rides on with launch of the Primavera

    The Vespa has been a style icon since the 1950s and the release this month of its latest model confirms it has lost little of its lustre
    Record Store Day: Independent music shops can offer a tempting alternative to downloads

    Record Store Day celebrates independent music shops

    This Saturday sees a host of events around the country to champion the sellers of well-grooved wax
    Taunton's policy of putting philosophy at heart of its curriculum is one of secrets of its success

    Education: Secret of Taunton's success

    Taunton School, in Somerset, is one of the country's leading independent schools, says Richard Garner
    10 best smartphones

    10 best smartphones

    With a number of new smartphones on the market, we round up the best around, including some more established models
    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    Mickey Arthur: Aussie tells ECB to stick with Ashley Giles

    The former Australia coach on why England must keep to Plan A, about his shock at their collapse Down Under, why he sent players home from India and the agonies of losing his job
    Homelessness: Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Why is the supported lodgings lifeline under threat?

    Zubairi Sentongo swapped poverty in Uganda for homelessness in Britain. But a YMCA scheme connected him with a couple offering warmth and shelter
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    When the world’s biggest shed took over Regent’s Park
    The pain of IVF

    The pain of IVF

    As an Italian woman vows to keep the babies from someone else’s eggs, Julian Baggini ponders how the reality of childbirth is often messier than the natural ideal