How writers are turning over a new leaf as crowdfunding gains ground

As award-winning books go, it’s already one of the more important. When Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns won the PEN Ackerley Prize for memoir and autobiography this month, she was widely praised for her searingly honest, incredibly moving chronicle of the loss of a baby and surrogacy.  But it was also a watershed […]

As award-winning books go, it’s already one of the more important. When Alice Jolly’s Dead Babies and Seaside Towns won the PEN Ackerley Prize for memoir and autobiography this month, she was widely praised for her searingly honest, incredibly moving chronicle of the loss of a baby and surrogacy. 

But it was also a watershed moment for another reason. Even though Jolly had two previous novels published by Simon & Schuster, she was repeatedly told “stillbirths just don’t sell”, and couldn’t find a traditional, mainstream publisher.

She believed there was an audience for her book – but it took an unusual set of circumstances to prove her hunch correct. Most notably, she asked readers to “crowdfund” her work. 

Jolly’s PEN Ackerley acceptance speech said everything about how this new model of publishing is making genuine waves.

“It isn’t just my book, [it’s the book for all those people] who had the nerve to come forward with their money to say, ‘Yes, we believe in this book’,” she said. “People ask: ‘Is crowdfunding a serious way to fund a book?’ Well, clearly, it is.”

Crowdfunding, for the uninitiated, is an online platform where entrepreneurs, businesses and creatives – including authors – post details of projects or start-ups in the hope of attracting enough backing to get them started and make them financially viable.

Usually, the backers receive the first batch of the finished product, but they often also enjoy other added-value “perks” – T-shirts, for example, or personalised items – as well as the opportunity to communicate directly with the people they are backing.

The best-known crowdfunding site is Kickstarter; Indiegogo is another. They have helped creators raise cash for just about every conceivable project, from smartwatches to films – and books.

Jolly’s work was published by Unbound, a crowdfunding service specialising in books that was set up in 2010 to “bring authors and readers together”.

Unbound co-founder John Mitchinson makes no secret about the influence Kickstarter had on their business.

“It struck me that there was this brilliant match between Kickstarter and the 19th-­century model of authors advertising in newspapers for subscribers to their books,” he says. “What we realised is that crowdfunding was one thing – but it was also a matter of printing, designing and distributing books once they’d reached their target. That’s how we came up with our hybrid model.”

This essentially means Unbound is more choosy than most crowdfunding services – a would-be author has to be accepted onto the site rather than just knocking up a decent pitch and uploading it.

But because Unbound is not taking the financial risk – effectively authors are asking the site’s 100,000 active users for advance sales – it can take a chance on books from fresh voices that might not otherwise find a ­publisher. 

“For example, I’m really excited about a 1,000-page novel from Tot Taylor,” says Mitchinson. “I’m positive that a traditional publisher would have gone back and asked for 400 pages to be cut – but this is 20 years of his life, he’s thought about every detail and it’s both mad and brilliant. So why not try to make it work as he envisaged it?”

This is an attitude that resonates with writer and self-publishing expert Ben Galley. Authors regularly contact his publishing consultancy, Shelf-Help, asking whether crowdfunding is the right option for their work – and he says he has been struck by how it encourages completely different kinds of books.

“You don’t have board members or thousands of members of staff to worry about when you self-publish,” he says. “You can be more agile, switch direction, try new things – and I genuinely think that makes for fascinating work.

“Any story of success, such as Alice Jolly’s, is fantastic because it helps change these snobbish opinions of self-published books being riddled with mistakes – and it also encourages would-be authors to up their game.”

Galley says we have come a long way from self-publishing being a matter of amateurs uploading Microsoft Word files to Amazon, charging a pittance for their e-books (or giving them away for free) and waiting to see what happens – although, of course, that option still exists.

The root of his approach is always to make his clients’ books as indistinguishable as possible from those from traditional publishers. “If it looks self-published, you basically need to go back and do it again,” he says. “Professionalism is key.” 

Much like Unbound, therefore, Galley will suggest that authors work with freelance editors, book designers and typesetters. He’ll also advise whether crowdfunding is the best option for each individual author – he might even point them towards Unbound. However, there are caveats to that suggestion.

“To pull off crowdfunding, you do require a certain amount of reach and marketing knowledge,” he says. “If you look at Kickstarter or Indiegogo, there are plenty of projects that just don’t get funded.

“But I’ve got a client who has a fantastic blog following – she’s perfect for crowdfunding as she already has an audience committed to reading her work.”

One thing that this client’s work and Jolly’s book have in common is that they are non-fiction. Mitchinson also points out that a book called The Secret History of Mac Gaming raised its £20,000 (Dh97,184) target in just six hours this month.

It is much harder, however, to encourage people to back fiction novels based on a paragraph-long description – although another Unbound success story, Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake, which was longlisted for the Man Booker Prize, proved it is not impossible. 

His achievement encourages authors such as Chris Beanland. The London-based writer had Concrete Concept, a fascinating non-fiction book about brutalist architecture, released by a traditional publisher this year. But he says that a new writer trying to get fiction published is akin to “smashing your head against a door frame for about a week”.

So he turned to Unbound for his black comedy about “love, loss, sadness and the death of dreams and ideas”, because they “genuinely seemed to care, they are rigorous about who they select and they read and totally got what I wanted to achieve with The Wall in The Head“.

Beanland’s page on the Unbound site reveals he is “8 per cent funded”. A lot of hard work is clearly needed to reach the magic 100 per cent, but he’s ready for it. 

“I do like the idea of readers having a relationship with writers: each one is your patron and you share thoughts with them via the site,” he says.

“A brilliant friend of mine, James Taylor, is a director at the BBC and he helped me make a film about the book – you need those extra things. I also share other films and archive on the Unbound website page, which I think brings some elements of the book to life.”

It’ll be interesting to see how Beanland fares and, indeed, whether anyone takes him up on the offer of a lunch date (pledge £200 and you get just that, as well as a signed copy of Concrete Concept) – but it’s exactly this type of instant connection between readers and writers that points towards a whole new, more efficient – and perhaps more interesting type of publishing. 

“The exciting thing is, absolutely, that you involve readers much more directly,” says Unbound’s Mitchinson.

“It’s actually a sense of achievement for everyone when a book gets published – and anyone who backed Dead Babies and Seaside Towns will feel incredibly proud.”

Source: art & life

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