Monday, June 06, 2011

The future of books is in your hands

I want all of you - yes, even you - to go and have a look at the Unbound website. I want you do this because I honestly believe that it represents a turning point in the future of publishing. I'm not just saying this because I'm friends with the people behind it (although I am) but because I wholeheartedly believe that it's the way forward.

Firstly, let me make it clear what Unbound is and isn't.

It isn't vanity publishing; there are plenty of ways to get that done elsewhere.

It is a crowd-funded publisher. By that I mean that the books it produces and distributes will be paid for by people who want to read them.

Publication won't rely on investment by the author or the whim of some accountant. With Unbound, the book is paid for before publication. And the pay-off for the investors is that they'll get the books they want to read. By helping to fund the book, pledgers will also get a mention in the book too. In fact, the more you pay the greater your involvement, including access to the author, attending the launch or even having lunch with them. It brings authors and their readers together in a way that doesn't happen usually.

There is a precedent for this. A few years ago, the band Marillion were dropped by their record label despite having shifted millions of albums over two decades. The decision wasn't taken because the band were writing bad songs or had become more unfashionable. Nor was it dictated by their popularity or placing in the charts. It was a decision based solely on projected income. So Marillion announced to their fans that there would be no more albums. And the fans said 'Sod that' and got the money together to get the next album made. The band were happy. The fans were happy. There is now a relationship between them that few recording artists and fans enjoy. Every album is now fan-funded. The band is no longer tied to corporate policy or the ebbs and flows of musical tastes and fashions. They will continue to make albums and go on tours for as long as the fans continue to like what they hear. Or they get too old.

And now, just a decade later, there are dedicated crowd-funding websites that do the same for any recording artist who wants to get an album out; PledgeMusic, for example. I'm a huge fan of Jim Moray and see him as a very important figure in the evolution of British folk music. However, his material is not what the industry would consider 'commercial'. As the result, he decided to use PledgeMusic and I'm delighted that he did. I happily paid out to help fund his most recent LP, In Modern History. It's wonderful - he got to fund his album and retain the rights to his music. I got a new Jim Moray album. I've also just done my bit for Emmy the Great's new album too. PledgeMusic and similar services offer musicians an opportunity to produce their work outside of corporate control. They allow us, the buyers, to get hold of the music we love. If it were left to the big music companies, a lot of the music I listen to would never have been committed to disc or download. I like the idea of a direct link between me and the artist without having to go through a corporate structure that advocates quick profits and throw-away talent rather than developing careers and uncovering great new music.

So what does this have to do with books? Well, what's been happening in the music industry is now happening in the book industry. Traditional publishers seem to sliding swiftly down the slippery chute to X Factor country.
I've been to the last few London Book Fairs and was left hugely depressed by all of them. It seemed to me that every major publisher was either hitching their cart to some celebrity horse or desperately seeking the next Dan Brown or the next J K Rowling without remembering just what a surprise their respective successes were. Both authors were, after all, turned down by publishers several times. Harry Potter is not the norm, he's the exception; most books will never sell in their millions. You can never predict what the next big thing will be, sadly. If we could, we'd all be rich.

This very lack of predictability should mean that publishers trust their instincts and publish the best books that authors can write. However, the accountants have taken over the asylum and in these fragile fiscal times, profit drives the deals. Whether we like it or not, celeb books and TV tie-ins make money. The Heat and OK! generation want to know everything about their Pop Idols and Strictly Come Dancers even if that interest is only transitory. Remember Nasty Nick? Or Alex Parks? Or B*Witched? Or Hear'Say? They were all big news just a few years ago. Now the charity shops are full of their annuals, CDs and unauthorised biographies. Meanwhile, there are authors out there who have been dropped after just one book without having had the chance to develop. I met Terry Pratchett last year and, while chatting, told him that I'd only read his first three books and they didn't really float my boat. His response was 'To be honest, I'm not surprised. They weren't very good. I was still learning. You'll find that I get much better as time goes on'. Had he been published in the current climate, he might have been dropped after one book.

Unbound isn't a guarantee of publication. If you want that, head for Blurb or CafePress or go and schmooze your local printers. What it does provide is an opportunity to get a book out there that the larger publishing houses won't bankroll because (a) it's not a dead-cert bestseller, (b) you're not Katie Price and (c) there's an element of risk in their investment. It means that you won't get an advance ... but the days of fat advances seem to be gone anyway, especially in this atmosphere of austerity. It also means that you'll have to do some work to sell the book to potential readers; you won't have the might of a publicity department behind you. But there has never been more opportunity to do this. We all have access to Facebook and Twitter and endless other ways to promote ourselves these days. As an example, I recently floated a few chapters of my new novel in front of people using DropBox and got a fantastic response from people wanting to read more. If you truly believe in your book, that it deserves to be published and that people will like it, then you can surely sell enough pledges to make the book a reality. I see people on Twitter funding film projects, art projects, charities and all kinds of other things. Jim Moray did it with his last album, Emmy the Great too. So why not your book?

For authors like me who sell a reasonable amount of books but not bestsellers, it offers an interesting alternative to traditional publishing. I got a large advance for my first book, Joined-Up Thinking. It was universally applauded by reviewers from The Daily Telegraph to Maxim to the New Zealand Herald. It was endorsed with a cover quote from Stephen Fry. It was touted by The Bookseller trade magazine as a top buy for Christmas 2008. But then the supermarkets and High Street retailers decided not to stock it in favour of celebrity books. Consequently, you could only find it in a 'proper' bookshop and they are now so under threat from Amazon etc. that they only promoted guaranteed sellers. The result was that my book did okay but sold well below the totals predicted. Consequently, despite being asked to 'go away and write Book Two' by the publishers, they turned it down once I had. I know there are people who want to read Book Two; people tell me almost every day on Twitter that they do. I have considered vanity publishing. Now, it seems, there is a third way.

At present, Unbound is only looking for established authors with an existing 'fan-base' in order to get up and running. But, if things go as well as I suspect they will, they'll soon be looking to expand and will be acccepting new work by new writers. Meanwhile, you can start pledging already on new work by Terry Jones, Jonathan Meades, Amy 'This Life' Jenkins and others. Unbound is good for the book reader; it's early days yet but soon you'll be logging in, making your pledges, discussing the book with the author as it evolves, seeing the book published in beautiful hardback or e-book form ... and all for less than the price of a takeaway. This is the kind of experience you'd simply never get from traditional publishing. You can all enoy the same level of involvement as Marillion fans do.

I really believe in this venture and nothing would give me greater pleasure than to look back on this blogpost in a year or so and say 'told you so'.

Illustrations copyright (c) Unbound

1 comment:

Paute said...

Ubound is such a great idea. I was reading some authors and is very interesting.
I know the site for Terry Jones' and is awesome be a part of his book, at least for me because I´m a huge fan.
When I save a little more money going to support Terry (10 £ isn´t enough).

¡Saludos! (Cheers!)