Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding

In October last year, I started a very exciting experiment with crowdfunding publishers Unbound. We had a target of £10,648, and an initial funding period of 90 days. Sadly for me and the 100+ people who pledged money for my book You Are What You Don’t, earlier this week we acknowleged that, despite raising around £2,400, this experiment should be catalogued under FAILURE.

The purpose of this post is to firstly say a huge thank you to everyone who has supported the book, and to everyone at Unbound who believed in the book and helped me throughout the process, particularly Jimmy and Georgia. Thank you!

Secondly, I hope to give you and any authors considering publishing with Unbound an insight into why we’ve gone our separate ways. Behind every lauded success are unheralded failures; behind every failure, important lessons – so let’s laud our failures too!

Unbound were 100% upfront and honest.

From writing the initial pitch and wracking brains for titles, to filming the book trailer and, above all, selling to friends and family, I have found precisely none of this process easy. The team at Unbound, however, were very clear from the outset. They told me that most of the fundraising leg-work would be done by the author, and they were correct. They told me that the majority of fundraising would come from existing friends and family, and they were correct. They told me that I’d have surprising successes and demoralising disappointments, and they were correct.

They also told me that Unbound was not the model for everyone, and they were correct. But that’s a lesson you have to learn for yourself.

Unbound is not the model for everyone.

Browsing the Unbound website, you can see that it’s a real mixed bag. Success stories vary from unknown authors who work every angle and every contact to scrape 101% funding after months of hard slogging (or get a pledge from JK Rowling!), to YouTube vlogging stars and BBC celebrity comedians who exceed the funding for their books in a matter of weeks.

It is clear that any author can make it with Unbound – but that does not mean every author will, even one with as gargantuan potential audience as Steven Gerrard, superstar footballer and former England and Liverpool captain. Steven has 3.9 million followers on Instagram, yet his Unbound page suffered the same anonymous fate as mine:  “Sorry but we are unable to find that book.”

Platforms sell books.

I do not have a celebrity profile or vast readership (319 followers on Twitter), but here we run into a very odd contradiction: if I did have a huge platform, then I wouldn’t need Unbound, or any other publisher.

This is a classic new author’s dilemma and Unbound didn’t seem to offer a route out for me. I have spoken to other mainstream publishers about You Are What You Don’t and, although genuinely interested in the content, they too have rejected it on the basis that I don’t have a sufficiently large platform to guarantee high enough sales to make the book profitable for them. Fair enough. But then where does the low-platform writer go with his book? The answer is, unfortunately, not very far.

Publishing is hard work…

Even if the book had been successful with Unbound, raising the first £10,648 is only half the battle. Informal reports from people who have succeeded in publishing with Unbound have been underwhelming. Yes, the book will be professionally published and be available for distribution across the country, but sales are far from guaranteed, and once again the promotional leg-work must be done by the author. This latter point is not directed solely at Unbound, by the way: this is the case for 99% of books published by anybody.

… for little reward.

Then we come to the question of incentives. The author takes home nothing from that initial £10,648. Only sales above 100% funding or after publication count towards the profit share for the author, split 50/50 with Unbound. A lot of my friends were baffled when I told them this, but publishing to a professional standard is an expensive business, even when you’re paying the author nothing.

Nevertheless, Unbound do represent good value for money.

From that initial £10,648, Unbound were to take a 10% platform charge, plus a £2,000 project management fee, meaning that over a quarter of the funding I raised would go directly to them, not the book. Hmm, I hear you grumble, but this actually represents good value for money. According to my calculations, Unbound raised about 40% of the pledges the book received, through browsing visitors to their website or promotional tools such as their mailing list. They pulled their weight.

The Unbound Equation.

However, despite their not-inconsiderable contribution, I found the workload of publishing with Unbound didn’t match the potential rewards of success. There are four parts to the Unbound Equation:

  • The author must take on a second full-time job hard-selling his or her crowdfunding campaign, for at least three months.
  • If successful, he or she stands to make £0. Yannick Hill, the unknown first novelist who heroically raised 101%, will get about £50 for his work, not only promoting the book, but writing the thing too!
  • Future book sales beyond the initial crowdfunding stage will probably be next to zero, without another huge push by the author. Most books sell very little without a marketing budget, which Unbound don’t really have, or unless the author already has a very large audience – low to medium sized audiences will already be exhausted by the crowdfunding push.
  • The only solid incentive for authors, therefore, is the lure of having your book professionally published by a company associated with Penguin/Random House. This shouldn’t be overlooked: with such an association comes at least the promise of a brighter future career.

Speculating over what kind of author would thrive on the Unbound platform, I’d suggest:

  • Someone with a decent, but not huge audience already: perhaps 5,000 regular followers on their blog, Twitter, YouTube or Instagram. Unbound will give these authors the platform and the extended reach needed to hit and perhaps exceed their target.
  • Someone without any interest in self-publishing. Unbound will cover all aspects of publication to an impressively high standard.

Unfortunately, the equation didn’t work for me. Frankly speaking, I found that, given my starting audience, the sheer amount of effort it would take to crowdfund £10,648 outstripped the benefits of having my book published by Unbound, particularly as I’m very interested in taking a more active role in the publication of my books.

So we called it a day.

Wait – I can actually do this myself!

But a failure is never wasted. Working with Unbound forced me into doing things that I never would have had the courage to do before – like actually telling people I was writing a book – and that has given me the tremendously liberating feeling that I can do this myself.

  • I created a promotional book trailer that, thanks to my awesome friends, wasn’t a complete disaster.
  • With the help of even more of my superb friends, I threw a very successful book launch, attended by around 50 people, who all seemed to enjoy the stories.
  • My wonderful friends, family and acquaintances put around £1,340 into the project. That’s more than I’ve ever earned for any of my other books, so thank you!

I’m sorry that you don’t have a book to read – if this was in my hands, the book would be published by now. I reckon £2,400 is plenty to get a book printed up and published. It might not have the fanciest cover or the nicest paper, but it’s the words that count, isn’t it?

So…

I am going to do this myself.

The book is 95% finished; it just needs to be proof-read and edited before I cycle across Europe this summer. When I get back (and after the play what I wrote is on at the Edinburgh Fringe), I shall be re-launching the book as a self-publishing project. The standard will be just as high, but the overheads will be lower, meaning you should be able to have a book in your hands by Christmas at the very latest. This is earlier than Unbound could have delivered even if we had been successful, so win-win!

If you did pledge on Unbound, then thanks a million! Your money has now been credited back to your Unbound account. Please note: the £££ does not go back onto your card automatically. Get a full refund by emailing support@unbound.co.uk or pledge to support another Unbound book.

Thank you so much for your support and, if you’re on the mailing list, I will be in touch again the second this book looks like it is emerging from the primordial slime and we’re ready to hit PRINT. Til then, ciao!

7 Replies to “Experiments in Publishing: Unbound Crowdfunding”

  1. Hello David Charles, and thanks for your well-considered blog on the curious world of Unbound. I too was drawn into their seductive crowdfunding route (Paul Timblick ‘No Lipstick in Lebanon’) and despite achieving a fully-funded project, my reservations about the Unbound publishing model are probably a good deal more negative than yours. I agree with everything you say, including the positive bits (yes, the Unbound bods seem to mean well most of the time) but I felt that a general trend of incompetence undermined the experience and possibly sabotaged any vague hope of decent publicity (and sales). Without going into details, the latter in particular was really poor, so even if you had reached your 100% target, the chances are that you would have seen your baby suffer a slow post-natal death, unless of course, your book was what I describe as a ‘pet project’. Certain titles – not mine of course! – benefited from better promotion than others, which seemed unfair. Unbound should be properly championing every book that is published. It’s such an obvious point and I hope things have moved on since then.

    It’s been over a year now since publication, and as you can probably gather, I’m still quite traumatised by the experience. OK, I’ve sold around 500 copies and I can use it as a platform for my next project, but on balance, I feel let down, while you, my friend, can feel a certain sense of satisfaction at having dodged a bullet. Well, we have to learn from our mistakes and adjust our strategies accordingly. I wish you good luck with future writing and your own strategies for success!

    1. Thanks for writing, Paul. Your story is very interesting – and I do feel like I’ve dodged a bullet to a certain extent. I actually spoke to another publisher recently who expressed surprise at the numbers that Unbound quote for the cost of publishing a book, which becomes the target for crowdfunding, of course. Unbound quoted me just over £10,000. This other publisher quoted £5,000. I suppose that Unbound need to offset the costs of all those failed books like mine (although I don’t know how much it does cost them considering I did most of the work), but even so that seems like a steep hike. I’d be interested to hear how your publishing strategy will change for your next project.

      No Lipstick in Lebanon sounds great (if harrowing) by the way: but I’m torn about whether to buy it in its current published for – I’d rather give you the money directly! Ah, the agonies of connecting writers to readers! (I will buy a copy anyway :))

      1. Hi David, and thanks for buying my book. I’m confident you’ll enjoy it – it seems to have gone down well with everyone, which is why it’s so frustrating that Unbound do not deliver on the promo front. So, here is the key point: Unbound are PUBLISHERS not PROMOTERS. The endpoint is a beautiful hardback book, legitimately published by a reputable publisher (attached to Penguin Random House), which is the dream of many thousands of writers. Unbound are effectively exploiting this dream with a risk-free approach that taps into modern day solutions, such as crowdfunding, social media and blogging (The Shed). If you strip away all of these, you are left with an upmarket vanity publisher with an excellent Penguin Random House relationship. And the book itself, as you will see, is indeed a lovely product, as it should be for £10,000.

        I think the evidence for my argument lies in the prescribed format of the book. It had to be (expensive) hardback, retailing at a price that is way above your average paperback. I asked Unbound about this policy and they said I could only have paperback if my sales reached a decent level (whatever that means!). It’s obvious that the endpoint is publication, not sales. OK, Unbound, thanks for publishing my work (at no cost to yourselves) but I’d like a lot of people to buy my book… is that too much to ask? Yes, it is.

        So next time, I’ll self-publish at very low cost and then pour my hard-earned savings, not into a publisher’s pocket, but into a publicist’s coffers. And a decent one, at that. Let’s get this baby out there, using someone who actually knows what they are doing and are – if necessary – being paid well to do that. Imagine the publicity you can buy for £10,000. If you are confident about your work, this is the route I would recommend.

        Right, with that off my chest, I better get back to Christmas – have a damned good one!

        Paul.

  2. Thanks for these interesting and frank comments. I have today received a copy of the book I helped to crowdfund on Unbound. It was so long ago I had forgotten about it!
    It looks good and I will be interested to see what happens to it.
    Its not a book I specially like. I chose it as an experiment to see what happens before I looked t using unbound myself. The time taken with this book and your comments have convinced me that Unbound is not fro me. I spent part of the money I have allocated to my book on a mentoring scheme with “Gold Dust” and that has been worth its weight in gold! It has been like going to University again, but with a private tutor. I have learned so much in rewriting the book from only one point of view.
    I live in Spain and its a book about about a group of British people living there, from the POV of a Spanish woman . I would love to get it translated into |Spanish but I cannot afford it. I am hoping the Gold Dust might come up with a link to an agent.
    Sometimes all I see are people out there wanting to take my money to feed my vanity. But that’s only on dark days!

    1. Hi Nina,

      Thanks for taking the time to write. I hadn’t heard of Gold Dust before – they certainly look great! Some of the mentors are big names as well (not that big names are necessarily great at mentoring, but it looks credible). From the conversations I’ve had with various people, it does seem that it’s well worth spending money on working with professionals to make the book the best it can be. At the very least, you’ll become a much better writer, which is always money well-spent! I wish you all the best with your book. If you don’t fancy Unbound, perhaps give Red Door Publishing a try – they have a different hybrid model that seems to support book sales more than Unbound. Good luck!

      1. Hi David and Nina

        I agree that money spent on mentoring/guidance is well-spent. I also followed that route with ‘No Lipstick’, which incidentally was how I became connected to Unbound (via my mentor). Indeed, anything that improves your writing and also increases your network of literary contacts must be considered. Maybe one day you two will be successful writers or publishers and will remember me…

        Best of luck!

        Paul.

  3. An interesting and frank post. Years ago I self-published (not the same thing as what you discuss here, I know) with Authorhouse and while I was happy enough with the results their reputation has since tanked. I fear it’s at the point where this field has so many sharks that it’s impossible to find the friendly fish.

    I continue to browse your blog.

What do you think?