Live Nude Authors: UK’s Unbound Lets A-listers, Aspirants Pitch for Cash to Publish

In Europe by Roger Tagholm

Can crowdsourced funding for books transform publishing as we know it? John Mitchinson, co-founder of UK company Unbound, thinks so.

By Roger Tagholm

John Mitchinson

John Mitchinson, co-founder, Unbound

LONDON: International bestselling novelist Kate Mosse and Man Booker-shortlisted comic novelist Tibor Fischer will join unknown writers and debut hopefuls at an unusual event in London’s Notting Hill on September 12 that demonstrates just how publishing is changing and how new models continue to emerge.

Called Unbound Live, the event is hosted by Unbound, the crowd-funded publishing house launched earlier this year that allows the public to pledge money for projects they would like to see published. The event will see Mosse and her fellow writers present pitches for books they would like to write to a paying audience who will pledge amounts for the proposals they most like. It will be like an auction house, only with everyone as a potential winner. If enough money is raised the books will be published and those who pledge even a small amount will see their names appear in the first editions.

“The idea for Unbound really came out of frustration with publishing as it is currently structured,” says co-founder John Mitchinson. “We thought there has to be a better way of getting books out. There are great ideas; why not let readers have a greater say in what gets published? It’s not that publishing is full of idiots, or bad people with no taste. It’s just that the fundamental problem with publishing is that it has evolved not to be in direct contact with readers. It’s evolved to be a service industry to the book retailers.”

Mosse’s involvement might seem strange, given that she is a global bestseller. But Mitchinson says she liked the idea from the outset and that her proposal is for a history of Chichester Festival Theatre, effectively a local history title, as she lives in the south coast town. “It isn’t going to affect her relationship with Orion in any way.”

Mitchinson’s name is well known in the UK book trade. He was at Waterstone’s in its golden years at the end of the ’80s, latterly as Marketing Director, and then left to run Harvill alongside Christopher MacLehose, for four years. At the end of ’90s, he spent three years in the Orion Group as MD of Cassell, before making what continues to be an extremely successful move into television. He is Director of Research for QI (‘Quite Interesting’), the BBC comedy panel show which is presented by the polymath, national treasure and unpaid Apple spokesman Stephen Fry. The programme has been so successful it has led to a number of spin-off titles from Faber, which Mitchinson has co-authored.

“Publishing is supposed to be about making something public,” he says. “The great thing now is that the tools to talk at low cost to millions of people simultaneously about what you are doing exist –- and, in a way, that’s much more significant than simply being able to produce a digital text. It’s the fact that you can be in contact –- you can build mailing lists inexpensively and build communities online. I think all of that is broadly very good news for the future of books and reading and publishing.

“But publishers are going to have to reconfigure themselves, and I suppose my interest in coming back was in trying to do something different. I can remember going to all those conferences and talking about new models –- well, why don’t you try something?”

Unbound is, as yet, very small with only 5,500 signed up at www.unbound.co.uk. But that’s in barely three months, which is –- impressive. It has two books funded already –- Evil Machines by Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, and a couple of Tibor Fischer short stories that it will publish “as a bijou Christmas gift,” says Mitchinson. Other proposals that are part-funded so far include Museum Without Walls, by the British writer on food and architecture, Jonathan Meades, and a new novel by Amy Jenkins, whose This Life TV series about a group of lawyers, was a huge hit in the UK in the ’90s.

There are several levels of support, each with different rewards. The basic £10 pledge will see your name in the e-book and include access to the author’s “shed” where you can check on work in progress and read exclusive extracts. A pledge of £250 will give you two invites to the launch party, lunch with the author and founders of Unbound at a restaurant of the author’s choice, two goodie bags, two signed and personally dedicated first editions and two e-books, each including the donor’s name, as well as access to the author’s shed.

The initiative is the latest in a number of new crowdsourcing schemes that are re-writing the publishing and bookselling industries (read more about crowdsourcing in publishing). Mitchinson is convinced that there will be many more. “It’s bound to happen. What you’ve almost got at the moment is a struggle to the death. Publishing has created Amazon, has allowed Amazon to grow. I’m a huge Amazon fan and I think they’ve probably done more for books than any other company in the history of publishing. But the thing I’m interested in is getting authors and readers closer together and building communities, and that’s something Amazon is pretty bad at. Nobody hangs around for the “craic” [that would be Irish for “fun”] on the Amazon site. It’s a pretty arid site environment for community

He observes that with authors like J.K. Rowling setting up their own operations, the pressure on publishers and retailers can only increase. “But that makes this the most interesting time in publishing since the early years of Waterstone’s. And, best of all, we’re having so much fun doing this –- and fun isn’t a word you hear often in publishing at the moment.”

Unbound Live takes place on 12 September at the Tabernacle Arts Centre in London. Full details are online here.

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About the Author

Roger Tagholm

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Roger Tagholm is based in London and has been writing about the book industry for more than 20 years. He is the former Deputy Editor of Publishing News and the author of Walking Literary London (New Holland) and Poems NOT on the Underground (Windrush Press).