Pioneering publishing site Unbound has celebrated its first year of empowering readers and giving creative control back to writers.
The website's innovative approach aims to help writers publish works not seen as 'commercially viable' by the publishing industry - a problem that the founders of the site understand all too well. As authors themselves, Dan Kieran, Justin Pollard and John Mitchinson wanted to make the process of publication more rewarding for both writers and readers. “Publishing needs to evolve,” explains Dan, “and we wanted to put more power into the hands of the only people in the process who really matter – authors and readers.”
Under the traditional publishing model, authors with ideas that might appeal to a handful of readers stand little chance of getting their book published. In the Unbound model, authors pitch their ideas on the website for free, for potential readers to then pledge money towards the book’s production. They receive updates and gifts ranging from an eBook to lunch with the author, depending on how much money they donate. If the idea finds enough supporters the author begins writing, knowing they have a readership large enough to make the book worthwhile.
If the book fails to meet its funding target, those who pledged support can choose to transfer their money to another author, or to receive a refund. This guaranteed audience allows Unbound to spend more on the book’s production, leading to better quality hardbacks, which contain a list of contributors, and to give writers a higher percentage of the profits, which they split 50/50 with the company.
Known as crowdfunding, this subscription-style service has been used before, most famously on the American website Kickstarter. But, as Dan points out: “they only help you raise the money. Unbound is different because we still perform all the essential functions of a traditional publisher…we curate, edit, design, typeset and proofread the manuscript before it gets printed.” They also help publicize the book through live events, book launches and social media. This subscription method is much older than these websites. The three founders took a Victorian idea and modernized it through the internet: “So despite the 'future of publishing' tag that's been applied to us, it's actually a very established process – we've just magnified the effect by using the web.”
On its website, Unbound currently lists 17 books which have been successfully funded and are available to order. These include works from Monty Python writer Terry Jones, bestseller Kate Mosse and blogger Mrs Stephen Fry. While this proves that the model can result in publication, there are some who have raised doubts. One accusation leveled at the company is that far from offering struggling authors the chance to get published in a literary world obsessed with commercial value, they are helping writers who already have a level of success to produce substandard works. The first book Unbound published, Terry Jones’ Evil Machines, has been labelled as disappointing by some reviewers, who found the novel about rebellious domestic appliances to be childish and below the standard of Jones’ previous work.
In some ways, this criticism unwittingly identifies the core of Unbound, a company who aim to please readers with specific tastes. The point of the works, after all, is the quality of the ideas rather than the quantity of readers. Readers who purchased Evil Machines also noted the difference from Jones’ other work, but praised the giddy humour that resulted from this creative freedom. The thrill of having contributed to the book’s publication also resonates with readers; Dan comments that “Lots of people are so pleased when their books arrive that they immediately tweet pictures showing their name printed in the back of the book.”
Another Unbound publication to benefit from crowdfunding is Graham Smith’s We Can Be Heroes. A collection of photographs and interviews collected by Smith and accompanied by text from Chris Sullivan, it is a record of 1980s London’s vibrant underground club scene. While the book will not be released to non-members until 27 September, it has been well-received by critics. Praising the authors’ understanding of their topic, reviewers have also noted that mainstream publishers would have avoided a project which resembles previous commercial failures.
It seems that Unbound has achieved what it set out to do - that is to connect writers with readers who share their interest in specific topics. Further publications are also targeting niche markets, including Kate Mosse’s affectionate tribute, Chichester Festival Theatre At Fifty, which was released on 8 June; Warhorses of Letters, a book version of a popular BBC Radio 4 comedy, out on 30 August, and Smoking with Crohn’s - a collection of poetry from George Chopping, appearing on 2 August.
While the formula originated to help books with a small but dedicated readership, some ideas currently being pitched on the website have the potential to attract more mainstream audiences. In a direct appeal to Olympic fever, Katherine Green has photographed and interviewed some of the athletes who competed in the 1948 London Olympic Games. Meanwhile, television presenter and former Celebrity MasterChef finalist Hardeep Singh Kohli is proposing the company’s first cookbook, A Month of Sundays. Whether or not these books reach their targets, this suggests that this new approach to publishing is finding increasing support from writers of all specialties seeking an audience.
So what lies ahead for this modern take on Victorian publishing? Boasting 20,000 subscribers, an award for ‘Best Start Up’ from the 2011 FutureBook Digital Innovation Awards, and a further 70 books in various stages of launching, Unbound has promised “massive plans” for the future.
Visit Unbound's website.