Akbar to edit online literary magazine for Unbound

Akbar to edit online literary magazine for Unbound

Unbound is launching an editorially-independent online literary magazine dedicated to long-form writing, edited by former Independent literary editor Arifa Akbar, and titled Boundless.

Created in part to counter the diminishing space in traditional media, the magazine will launch this autumn as part of the Unbound website and will focus on "long, well-written pieces" (2,000 to 3,000 words) by authors and critics, covering a broad range of subjects.

Akbar has already commissioned Man Booker-longlisted author Fiona Mozley to write about fatal masculinity and the figure of the Goliath in fiction; author Monique Roffey to write about the history of the ménage à trois in fiction, and a piece by Neel Mukherjee on cooking and creativity. The site will also feature Q&As, interviews, and regular weekly reviews.

According to Akbar, Unbound's commissioning budget for the magazine is larger than the one she was given for the books pages in the Independent, a fact that Unbound co-founder Dan Kieran said he found "astonishing". "For us, investing in this magazine is a no-brainer," he said. "For how little it cost us, it’s a bargain."

Akbar said her brief is to commission pieces which encourage serious engagement with books and ideas in a way that newspapers are no longer able to do. "As sad as it is to see literary content shrinking on the physical pages of newspapers, I think digital coverage around books and ideas is opening and increasing in content and quality. We want to add to that," she said. 

She added that she was going to consciously review books by black, minority ethnic (BME) writers and use critics who share that background.

"The point is not to chase clicks with listicles etc, but to create high quality books content," she said. "The focus is on good writing and also diversity - so not just featuring work by white, middle-class, male writers. In the industry there’s constant conversation about indies finding it hard to survive, about the lack of BME writers, and about the lack of BME critics. I’m aware of the conversations going round and round and they never seem to be answered. I’m going to focus on reviewing books by BME writers and using BME critics, cause they’re out there and they’re fab. It’s about consciously trying to correct that imbalance."

The pieces will not be necessarily hooked onto forthcoming releases as Arifa argues that it is important to the magazine's creators that the writing is not used to sell books.

"It's quite refreshing to separate these pieces from the business of publishing and let writers write about topics they want to write about," Akbar said.

Discussing the decision to launch the website, Kieran said it was the publisher's plan to build a "self-contained literary ecosystem".

"We want Unbound to be a place where people are able to make books happen, to pledge for books, to read about books, to write about books. We don’t want to be reliant on third parties to help us access our audience", he said.

Kieran added that Unbound is willing to invest in such a literary magazine as it is an extension of the publisher's current work, and also because it will be filled with content "we'd want to read".

"Because of the business models journalism and long-form writing is reliant on, it's often not financially viable to invest in these types of pieces, but that's what we want to read so that’s why we’re investing in it", Kieran said. "We want to give authors a platform where they can write about things they might not otherwise get the opportuntity to write about. Not just to sell something."

Fellow Unbound co-founder John Mitchinson added that the idea sprang from the publisher considering how best to build on the success of the platform's recently-launched literary podcast Backlisted. 

"With Backlisted, we were trying to do something new", he said. "Publishers' podcasts were narrowly focused on new books coming out by their authors and were predictable and obvious. But as our tagline is 'breathing new life into old books', we wanted to do something different. We have authors - not just our authors - on the show, talking about books they feel need more attention. We've had 185,000 plays and now some bookshops even have a Backlisted section. If you have good content, people will come. So we were thinking how about how to take this to the next step, and we decided to create Boundless, a site for longform journalism, non fiction essays, and book-related pieces."

He added: "Boundless will be a magazine in its broadest sense, and will evolve in its own shape as it develops. Maybe audio and video, it’s very exciting. It might even become a print magazine if that's what people are asking for."

The Backlisted podcast will also be hosted on the Boundless website.

Earlier this week, The White Review literary journal launched a crowdfunding campaign to fund a move towards publishing reviews in reaction to the "current paucity of space for serious-minded literary and arts criticism" in the UK.

This followed The Bookseller's examination of decreasing space for book review coverage in the traditional press earlier this month, with the Press Association axing half of its book review output and many women's magazines scrapping their literary editor roles. 

Akbar said it was "fantastic" that The White Review was crowdfunding to be able to pay reviewers, and added that there would be no rivalry between the two. "Too many literary publications confuse the pleasure of reading with the professional job of writing reviews, and don't pay. There's no rivalry, if anything we need more of these platforms. It’s great that they’re doing it."

Boundless is due to launch in late September or early October. Publishers should send review copies three to six months in advance of publication addressed to Arifa Akbar at the Unbound address. She can also be reached on arifa@unbound.com.