Patronage, Community and the Future of Publishing
by Jennifer Harvey Views: 3627
John Mitchinson is the Publisher and Co-founder of book crowd-funding platform Unbound and head of research for the British television panel game QI. For ten years he was a book publisher, running the Harvill Press, Cassell & Co and acting as Deputy Publisher of the Orion Group. Prior to that he spent six years as Marketing Director of the bookseller Waterstone’s. He is a Vice-President of the Hay Festival and a Fellow of the RSA.
Jennifer Harvey: John, can you please tell us how you started Unbound?
“How can we develop a better, more equitable way of sharing the money which flows into the publishing industry?”
The main issue we wanted to address was: how is anybody, particularly writers, ever going to be able to earn a living again from the written word?
Dan tells a great story of how, for ten years, he made a really good living as a writer. He hadn’t been to university and he didn’t have any particular qualifications. But he worked at The Idler Magazine and started writing books. Then suddenly all that disappeared and he found himself in a rat-infested basement doing a minimum wage job and thinking: for ten years, I sold hundreds of thousands of books and now I can’t get a book deal. He realised that he had no idea who all those people were who had bought his books over the years. No way to tap into that past success.
I know there is a lot of gloom about publishing at the moment, but there are also a huge number of new opportunities and to be honest, from where we sit, I think the industry has needed change and a shake up for a long time. It just seemed that the time was right for a different approach to the business of publishing.
Jen: Where do you think this crisis in publishing stems from—the low advances, the rise of genres and so on? Has the industry become more risk averse?
John: The real problem has been a systemic one over a period of time as the balance of power has moved in the direction of retailers, particularly with the advent of the internet and the dominance of Amazon. So margins in publishing houses have been under real threat. They’re fighting to keep going and they were never the most profitable sectors of industry to begin with. As a result, in the past ten years there have been a lot of takeovers and agglomerations of publishing houses—look at Penguin Random House for example—and that has led to risk aversion.
I think a lot of people in publishing would love to be less risk averse. But commissioning policies have become tighter and tighter in fiction. And it tends to be dominated by genre. The same trend can be seen in non-fiction, too. A few years ago long biographies were fashionable, whereas, now, it’s pretty much misery memoirs or celebrity memoirs. If you look at the best-seller lists, they have become increasingly dominated by a very narrow band of books—which make sense in the short term.
If you are putting your resources behind people who are already well known then you’re probably going to get a quicker return than if you try to build a new author. That’s the reason genre is so useful. If you are going to build a new author and you can build them within a genre it makes things easier.
Breaking a new author from scratch is very difficult. It’s expensive and high risk. Consequently the opportunities for new writers are becoming scarce.
The last twenty years also saw massive over-paying for authors, a process driven by agents. It’s great if you are a beneficiary of that but the truth is, when we started up back in 2011 only one in five books was earning back its advance. The days when a publisher would pay you an advance of thirty thousand pounds because that was the going rate for putting a book on the list has gone. The places where those cuts have been felt most are with marginal or mid-list authors.
While the best-selling authors are selling as much, if not more, and earning as much, if not more, a lot of authors are not even getting out of the starting gates because the investment appraisals of publishers mean there’s no point in publishers investing in them.
To an extent this has always happened but the difference now is that the gap between the haves and the have-nots is more pronounced. There’s that shocking statistic that the average author in the UK now gets paid thirteen thousand pounds a year. If you strip out the top 10% then that figure drops to well below five thousand, to something more like three.
That’s not a living wage.
We’re not unrealistic about any of this. It has always been difficult making a living from writing but at the same time as publishing has become tougher, journalism has become even tougher. Finding anyone to pay you to write for a newspaper, when you’ve got Huffington Post and everyone writing their own blogs, is a challenge.
So with Unbound we wanted to put our marker down early on and say to people: if you want something that is good then it has to be worth paying for.
And there are things which people are paying for which are as valuable to them as the book itself. Being part of a community, having a connection with the author, having access to things that they couldn’t easily access themselves elsewhere. These are things which can be developed and tapped into.
Jen: Why did you opt for a crowdfunding model?
John: Like all good ideas it was rooted in the past. The idea of getting readers to fund the writers they wanted to read was how it worked in the eighteenth century – subscription in advance. Dr Johnson and his dictionary, for example, was funded by a group of his rich patron friends. We were just applying the internet to that patronage model. We could see even five years ago when Kickstarter was just getting going that crowdfunding was a really interesting model.
I’ve always felt that there is a huge amount of value that hasn’t been unlocked by the traditional publishing industry and I think if you are a fan of a particular author then you will pay for stuff; it’s just that you’re not given enough opportunity to do so. The crowdfunding model provides our supporters with a sense that some of these books would not exist without their contribution. And I think this appeals to a different part of people’s brains than the simple, straightforward buying of things.
If you love, say, Phillip Pullman’s work, how do you show your love? You can go buy the books on Amazon or maybe go and see him at a literary festival but other than that, you can’t join the Phillip Pullman club.
My earliest reading experiences were formed by the Puffin Club which was this brilliant initiative that Kaye Webb started in the 1960s. As a kid you got a badge and a magazine and you got information on new books and you felt like you were part of something exciting. Without making it sound absurd, a Puffin Club for adults is what we’re trying to make Unbound feel like. It’s a place where people can mix with other readers and with writers. We’re talking at the moment about setting up a new fiction club, where for a nominal subscription we’d have supporters read the submissions coming in, almost like an online reading group so they’d read and discuss submissions and try and work out which are the ones that should go forward and get funded.
I can also see us having author subscription channels in the future, where people join to become part of the Jonathan Meades club or the Paul Kingsnorth club, which gives them perks such as early access to new books, priority booking for events that sort of thing.
Jen: How do writers submit to Unbound? Writers pitch an idea… so how do you decide what is a good fit with the Unbound community?
John: We have two criteria.
The first is: Is it an interesting idea which we think is worthy of publication? Somebody around the table has to like it and has to become a sponsor for the project.
The second criteria is: do we think it is fundable? Now this involves a different kind of conversation to the more traditional type of publishing conversation. Because it’s different than thinking: can we get this into the shops and sell enough?
The question we ask is more like: do we think we can get enough early adopters to make this feasible?
Of course no-one knows for sure; there are always so many variables in the end, but we know more than nothing. Our model enables readers to become involved at a much earlier stage, which is similar to market-testing an idea. The major variable for us is the degree to which an author is willing to work with us to find that first 30% of the funding. Over the 70% is when we stop being a funding platform and become the book’s publisher, so that’s when we would schedule it for a trade publication date and start commissioning jacket artwork and that sort of thing.
Jen: How difficult have writers found that? Has it been a steep learning curve?
John: Alice Jolly, one of our authors, wrote a great piece about this. She’s a published writer and teaches creative writing and she wrote very eloquently about how she found the experience incredibly energizing. Some writers find it very difficult to get past the idea of “I am asking for something”, but we are getting better at helping writers to understand that they are running a fundraising campaign to raise money for something they feel passionate about and want to share.
We say: tell us about your idea and let’s see if we can find enough readers between us to make it a worthwhile book. Then you can put the time and effort into writing it. Most writers love that they get the control, they love that they get half the profit, they love the feeling that they are getting published and getting editors and designers and support with marketing.
The difference between Unbound and all the other crowdfunding sites is that we bring skills and expertise to the process.
Jen: There is a mix of writers on Unbound: famous people, published authors and new writers. Is it more difficult for these new writers to break into the crowdfunding arena?
John: Undoubtedly, for all debut writers it’s difficult. ‘The average sale of a first novel in the UK is 400 copies.
Interestingly, we usually need about 400 copies to fund a book; the difference with us is that the writer knows those 400 people directly so when they write another book they can go back to them and say “Hey, I have something new here you may be interested in”.
That’s a hugely important aspect of our model. It’s a network you get to keep.
Jen: How influential has a book like “The Wake” been in getting the word out about Unbound?
“Letters of Note” was number one on Amazon and has sold nearly 100,000 copies in the UK; in partnership with Canongate we’ve sold it in 18 different languages.
“The Wake” is the perfect vindication of what we’re doing. It’s a book that obviously struggled to get through the traditional model but anyone who was interested in the subject could see it was an extraordinary book that deserved to be published and read.
As a result, it was longlisted for the Booker Prize, shortlisted for The Goldsmith’s Prize, longlisted for the Folio Prize and won the Gordon Burn Prize. It has sold 8,000 copies in hardback. It’s a remarkable masterpiece.
The success of “The Wake” is the perfect riposte to people who say “Oh, well it’s only friends and family who are going to fund” or “It’s a form of vanity publishing.”
Jen: How do you see Unbound in the future? Is it a stepping stone to a more traditional book deal? Or will this community become a strong reason for successful writers to stay at Unbound because they feel part of something which goes beyond their book?
John: Obviously we would prefer the latter, but we’re realistic. And I always say to authors, honestly, if you can get someone to give you £100,000, then that’s great. But you could then end up back at square one if that book doesn’t work—and truthfully most books don’t.
Take one of our new authors: his first book sold 400,000 copies, as it was a Richard and Judy book club choice. He’s come to us for his second novel because he’d had real problems with his original publisher. He saw that if he could transfer even a small portion of those 400,000 readers to Unbound, not only would he make more money, but also, he’d know who his fans and readers were.
I can see this model becoming an incredibly valuable thing for writers—new and best-selling—because it will be a place where they can monetize their intellectual property, be it writing, podcasts, films or whatever.
We see ourselves not as a publisher but as a community and a platform.
Jen: Finally, can you tell us a little about the Women In Print initiative?
John: Emily, our head of marketing, noticed that we were getting more submissions from men than women and this seemed really odd to us.
Then we discovered that this phenomenon is reproduced throughout the industry for reasons we can only speculate about—lack of time, lack of confidence perhaps. So we thought: right, this is an opportunity for us to say we want submissions from women. It’s a campaign, really, a way to get people talking and thinking about this issue.
It’s not that we’re advocating a quota; it’s more about raising awareness and making Unbound an obvious place to submit to if you are a woman. Because, you know, I believe in positive discrimination. I think it’s how you change things. And we have had an amazing response. Hundreds of really interesting submissions—in fact we probably had more than we can effectively launch. But it’s definitely something we may look at maintaining.
Jen: Many thanks to John for taking the time to talk to us at Mash Stories.
What do you think of this revolutionary approach to publishing? Let us know. Would this be something for you as a writer?
Jennifer is one of our judges at MASH. Her fiction has appeared in Carve Magazine and Stories For Homes anthology. Her radio drama won the 2001 European Regional Prize in the BBC World Service International Playwriting competition and a commendation in 2009. Her poetry has appeared in The Guardian as part of their poetry workshops series. Contact Jen via Twitter.