A decade of Unbound
Here are ten things we’ve learned along the way
The old ideas can be the best ones
Like many of the best ideas, Unbound has its origins in a conversation three people had in a pub. Dan Kieran, John Mitchinson and Justin Pollard were all bestselling authors who, for different reasons, were feeling disillusioned with the publishing industry. Dan found his advances were diminishing the closer he came to writing the book he really wanted to write. John was working on QI and adamant that he didn’t want to go back to being a publisher. He and Justin, a historian and script consultant, were perfectly happy writing for TV. And then they all met for a pint… Dan had had it with publishing, he told them. He said, ‘I’ve got this book I want to write. Publishers are saying it’s brilliant but they can’t work out how to sell it. So I’m just going to do it myself. I’m going to put a video online and find people to give me some money, and if I can get enough money, then I’ll write it and I’ll send them a copy.’ And John, thinking about how Samuel Johnson, Voltaire and Fanny Burney did a very similar thing in the 1700s, said, ‘Well, that’s a great idea, but not just for you…’
‘Unbound is an eighteenth-century idea, powered by the internet.’ – John Mitchinson
The problem with traditional publishing is that it is necessarily risk-averse. The advance-and-royalties model makes it hard for debut writers to break into the system and hard for established writers to break out of their niche. One in five books never earn back their advance, 25 per cent of all printed books end up being pulped and hit factories dominate the publishing ecosystem. Dan, John and Justin wanted to bridge the gap between authors and their audiences, allow readers to have real input into the kind of books that get published, and treat the author–publisher relationship as a partnership.
Unlike many great ideas that emerge from conversations in pubs, this one became tangible when Justin said, ‘I bet Terry Jones would publish a book with us.’ And John said, ‘Oh shit, I’m going to have to do this now.’ Justin was right, and Evil Machines was published by Unbound in 2011. ‘It feels like the start of something big,’ Terry said. ‘It’s not often one finds oneself at the vanguard of a revolution, but that could just be the case here.’
Good things happen when authors and readers connect
Mark Vent, from Braintree in Essex, is Unbound’s most prolific pledger. He has supported 125 books with 137 pledges, which add up to nearly seven metres of Unbound books on his shelves. And yes, he has read and kept every single one.
Unbound’s founders were frustrated that publishers and booksellers were barriers between them and their readers. Meanwhile, book festivals were booming and audiences were paying good money to see their favourite authors live. ‘You work really hard to get an audience but you don’t own it and you don’t have any way of communicating with it,’ says Dan. Unbound was created to bring authors and their readers closer together and give them a means to communicate with each other, even after each book is funded and published.
‘It’s good to support those kinds of books, otherwise they would disappear and we would get the books that the accountants decide we should want to read.’ – Mark Vent, Unbound’s top pledger
‘You get to support the writer in the creation of their books,’ says Mark. ‘I like the fact that a lot of these books are either new authors or emerging topics… and also books that I guess a conventional publisher would see as very niche.’
Mark generally starts by pledging for the hardback book, and then increases his pledge as he has the money if the crowdfunding campaign goes on for a while. Over the years he’s attended launch parties for Stevyn Colgan, been a patron of Jessica Duchen’s Ghost Variations, bought a bust of Charles Darwin to support J. F. Derry’s The Dissent of Man and received a bottle of Tramontane Grenache with a copy of Richard W. H. Bray’s Salt & Old Vines. Apparently, ‘they accompanied each other very well’.
Unbound works for authors who are already household names…
‘It came about through friendship and I think that’s quite important,’ says Jonathan Meades. He was the author of two novels, sixty films and hundreds of pieces of journalism when, in 2011, his agent told him that – after only four days of trying – his new collection of writing hadn’t sold. He had known John for years and knew about crowdfunding from seeing it used in television, so publishing Museum Without Walls with Unbound felt like ‘an adventure’.
‘I also like that it’s to some extent saying up yours to corporate publishing.’ – Jonathan Meades, author of Museum Without Walls, Pidgin Snaps, Pompey, The Plagiarist in the Kitchen and Pedro & Ricky Come Again
For many successful authors, Unbound offers an enticing opportunity to exercise creative freedom. Tom Cox’s 21st-Century Yokel was ‘the restless, sometimes dark beast I could feel ferociously trying to punch its way out of my last cat book… I wanted it to be what I needed it to be, first and foremost, not what a sales team needed it to be.’ Raymond Briggs’s Notes from the Sofa ‘allowed him a new kind of freedom: to write about and draw whatever he wanted’. And where else could Andy Hamilton publish an entirely handwritten manuscript, Alys Fowler and Steve Benbow a beautifully illustrated book about bees, Patrick McCabe a 600-page, free-verse monologue or Vic Reeves a high-spec, multimedia art book with a haunted tea towel as a pledger reward? Jonathan has now published four books and a set of postcards with Unbound – something that ‘I don’t think any conventional publisher would have touched’. He says Unbound is ‘not so obsessed by genre as a lot of publishers are. In my new book I quote Jean-François Revel, who said, “There are no genres, there are only talents.” That’s something that Unbound instinctively recognises.’
… and it works for voices that aren’t being heard
Nikesh Shukla had published two novels and was relatively well known in literary circles when he decided to put together an anthology of writers exploring what it means to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic in Britain today. ‘I was finding myself constantly doing diversity chats instead of talking about my craft or other things that I was good at,’ he says, ‘and I was really despairing at the lack of writers of colour in Britain being published.’ But mainstream publishers were wary. They kept saying, ‘There’s no market for this.’ Nikesh, prophetically as it turned out, thought they were wrong, and brought the concept for The Good Immigrant to Unbound.
‘I thought back to getting really, really pissed with [Unbound’s Editor-at-Large] Rachael Kerr in Newcastle outside a pub late one night. So I approached Rachael with a back-of-a-fag-packet idea. She said, “Look, I want to work with you, and in two sentences you’ve summed up exactly what this needs to be. So let’s just go for it.” And so we went for it.’
‘We were a group of writers of colour working with the Unbound team on a very delicate project, and when we pushed back on things they were so incredibly supportive and understanding and willing to prioritise our concerns. Little things like that are really important and really do affect the experience of an author. We felt listened to.’ – Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant
Unbound is where authors go to redefine the mainstream. Our submissions are open, our commissioning editors read them all, and crowdfunding the publication costs of each book upfront de-risks the process for the publisher – so any writer with a great idea and a community of readers who really want that book on their shelves can find a route to publication.
The Good Immigrant reached the top ten in Amazon’s non-fiction chart, as did its US edition, and in 2016 it won the Books Are My Bag Readers’ Choice Award. ‘It’s a book that people are still talking about,’ says Nikesh. ’So much of its success is because the right writers at the right time and the right publishers just created an energy and momentum that’s unquantifiable and can’t be replicated… What I loved was the response to it from young people of colour: it was empowering to them to feel like their stories mattered and they were part of something. The book really resonated with them.’
A publisher–author relationship can be a collaboration
‘The fact that we were authors, I think that was really important,’ says Dan. ‘We just came at it from a position of thinking, “How do we make this better for authors?”’ Traditional publishing works well in many ways. It certainly works for Amazon, which had sales income of €44bn in Europe in 2020 but paid no corporation tax, and it works for shareholders in the big firms. Meanwhile, the median annual income of a professional author was £10,500 in 2018 – down 15 per cent since 2013 and by 42 per cent since 2005.
Unbound is yet to create its first millionaire author, but it regards its publishing as a joint enterprise – if authors don’t profit, neither do we. Unbound bring to the table years of collective experience and knowledge and a passion for publishing great writing really well; authors bring that writing and communities of people who want to read what they write. So the relationship is a partnership: profits are shared 50/50, and authors are given direct access to their own readers and the data they need to support an ongoing career. ‘For me, Unbound is all about risk-taking and supporting books which do not fit the traditional mould,’ says Alice Jolly, whose Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile was longlisted for the Ondaatje Prize 2019 and shortlisted for the Rathbones Folio Prize 2019. ‘Writers really need publishers who are courageous and are prepared to support unusual books.’
‘As publishers, Unbound really build partnerships with writers. They also produce beautiful, quality books. It is so important that we hear all the voices and Unbound are helping to make that possible.’ – Alice Jolly, author of Dead Babies and Seaside Towns, Between the Regions of Kindness and Mary Ann Sate, Imbecile
Alice is one of Unbound’s repeat authors, but by no means the most prolific. Thirty-seven writers have launched two books on the site; seven authors have launched three; five authors (Shaun Usher, Robert Llewellyn, Jonathan Meades, Jackie Morris and Tom Cox) have launched five books; and only the inestimable Stevyn Colgan has launched six. Curiously, no authors have launched four books, so stand by your keyboards, three-ers, Unbound will be in touch…
Sometimes it’s interesting to try and disrupt your own model
Not all books have the kind of following that Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note had when it launched for crowdfunding in 2011, but you don’t need to be a social media celebrity with an audience of millions to crowdfund and publish a book. So, in 2015, Unbound opened a ‘digital-first’ imprint, offering authors a lower crowdfunding target and a stripped-down publishing deal. The list remained open to submissions until 2020, published 175 books in all and launched many writing careers.
‘I was always clear that it was a commercial book and that what I wanted was for people to read it,’ says Natalie Fergie, whose novel The Sewing Machine has gone on to sell over 100,000 copies worldwide, many of them ebooks. ‘I didn’t care how they read it or listened to it or what format it was in; I just hoped it would be read. So I really wasn’t hung up on the whole bookshop thing, which was how I came to be on the digital list.’
‘You are part of the whole equation; you are not a passenger. You have instant contact with your readers, a real connection with the process and to some extent ownership of the outcome… and to me, that is empowering.’ – Natalie Fergie, author of The Sewing Machine
Natalie had about 3,000 Twitter followers when she signed up with Unbound, but she also had marketing nous, having run a successful dyeing business sending parcels of yarn and thread all over the world. ‘Most of those pledges … are there because I have spent ten years doing yarn shows and being a presence in the online knitting community and going to gatherings and having a stall at things. It was a network that I’d built up over ten years… not because I was going to write a book, but because I needed it for the business. But definitely it’s about bringing the community with you, whatever that community is.’
We really, really love anthologies
And why wouldn’t we, after The Good Immigrant turned out so well? Since then, Unbound has published Trans Britain, Repeal the 8th, Common People, Others, Rife, Stim, A Wild and Precious Life, 24 Stories, Cut from the Same Cloth, Gender Euphoria and many others in the anthology family, with several more on their way.
‘Common People did what it set out to do,’ says Kit de Waal, who edited that anthology. ‘It more than fulfilled its promise to highlight the amazing talent of working-class writers, several of whom have gone on to get book deals and get [their own books] published. And it’s still regularly talked about as a game-changer.’
‘I’d like to see Unbound publish more activist books – to be a more flag-waving, more activist, on-the-side-of-the-good-guys type of organisation where you go to effect social change through books.’ – Kit de Waal, editor of Common People
The Good Immigrant showed that audiences do exist for the writers and stories that mainstream publishing ignores: working-class voices, transgender writers, refugees, hijabi women and female philosophers are all welcome here. Anthologies are democratic, illuminating, fun, challenging and full of variety, allowing emerging writers to make their reputations alongside established names. Add to that a campaigning message and a community of supporters who really want to make a difference, and sometimes publishing can change the world, just a little bit.
Signing 5,512 books takes three days and seventy Sharpies
Success means different things to different authors… but sometimes it means a Sunday Times Top Ten chart position and selling tons of books. Literally, tons.
‘Writing is in my blood, alongside last night’s curry and an overly large amount of bilirubin. I think it’s what I’m meant to do. Considering you lot broke every Unbound record in under a day, I’m starting to think you agree.’ – Daniel Hardcastle, author of Fuck Yeah, Video Games, in an update to his pledgers on reaching his funding target
In 2018 Daniel Hardcastle and Rebecca Maughan broke Unbound records with their ‘love letter to the greatest hobby of them all (that doesn’t involve trains)’, Fuck Yeah, Video Games: The Life and Extra Lives of a Professional Nerd. The book funded in forty minutes, and at the time of writing has raised 1,926 per cent of its target. This was great news for Daniel’s bottom line but terrible for his RSI. He had to wear an arm brace for days two and three of signing subscriber copies, during which Daniel’s dad, Steve, and Unbound’s Customer Experience and Product Lead, Caitlin Harvey, unboxed, opened, passed along and re-boxed seven pallets full of books.
Everything goes better with gold leaf and tortilla lasagne
Unbound books are available in all good bookshops, online and bricks-and-mortar, as soon as they are published. But it’s during the crowdfunding process that the really interesting options are available. As well as signed copies, pledgers can buy a number of different ‘rewards’ for every book. The ideal reward is low-cost, high-value, unusual and exclusive, confirms the owner as part of the author’s club, and (crucially) is authentic to what fans really want.
‘I love the connection it gives each author to the readers, long before the book is a thing,’ says Jackie Morris, who has offered some of the most beautiful rewards in Unbound’s history, including an original gold leaf typed sheet with her latest book, Feather, Leaf, Bark & Stone. ‘For me, the success of the book relies on readers taking it to heart, and Unbound’s platform gives you this space if you wish to embrace it. Unbound unbind the imaginations of authors with their platform, taking the best of tradition and marrying it with innovation, to give both author and audience the best experience they can.’
‘Unbound is one of the weirdest families you could ever imagine, but if we all got together for a big supper, you would really want to be at that table.’ – Jackie Morris, author of The Unwinding, The Silent Unwinding, The Song of the Golden Hare, The Wild Swans, East of the Sun, West of the Moon and Feather, Leaf, Bark & Stone
The average value of a pledge on Unbound’s website is £43, compared to an average spend of £4.37 per book in a UK bookshop, because Unbound authors can offer their fans things they can’t buy anywhere else. This is how Unbound has ended up fulfilling a pair of socks hand-knitted by the author (£100) and ‘sausage & mash in Hut 4’ (£250) with Dr Sue Black’s Saving Bletchley Park; ‘a handwritten apology for having a shit ’pon your driveway’ (£350) with Vic Reeves Art Book by Jim Moir; a two-hour rugby training session from a former England captain (£500) with Catherine Spencer’s Mud, Maul, Mascara; Maxim Peter Griffin walking from his house in Louth in Lincolnshire to hand-deliver a copy of Field Notes to your home anywhere in mainland UK (£2,000); and an illustrated recipe for tortilla lasagne with Daniel Hardcastle’s Fuck Yeah, Video Games (£50, with 315 copies sold).
Authors are using Unbound to change publishing for the better
Musa Okwonga was a poet, sportswriter, broadcaster, musician, public relations consultant, commentator and the author of two books about football when his brilliant essay ‘The Ungrateful Country’ appeared in The Good Immigrant. He’s published two more books since then, but he returned to Unbound to publish his deeply personal One of Them: An Eton College Memoir because he knew Unbound could be trusted ‘to handle stories that were of great importance to their authors’. Unbound is not possessive of our authors; they can and do maintain other publishing contracts, and they can even use Unbound’s platform to contact their crowdfunding audience and tell them all about their other books.
‘In crowdfunding, the people who fund the book truly feel like part of a community. Your success is their success because this project would not have existed without them. That’s so special.’ – Musa Okwonga, author of One of Them
Unbound also offers ‘a rare amount of creative freedom’, says Musa. ‘It trusts the author to tell a story in substantially the same form that they imagine it. When you are telling sensitive stories, creative freedom is – for me at least – the most important consideration.’
In 2020, Unbound opened up its platform to other publishers, giving their authors the chance to use our system to build connections to their fans, and their readers the opportunity to get closer to their favourite authors. So far we’re working with publishers including Bloomsbury, Pan Macmillan, Canbury Press, Cambridge University Press and Wellbeck. With this system, writers can have more: a traditional publishing deal, with an advance; the chance to create books that they couldn’t create anywhere else; and the ability to contact and engage with their biggest fans.
We’re still learning…
In ten years, Unbound’s community of 286,387 people from 207 countries has pledged £10,272,862 to fund 587 projects… and counting. Despite the challenges of 2020, we had a record-breaking year, and 42 by Douglas Adams looks set to be our biggest crowdfunding campaign ever. But we want to do better. We’re still looking for restless, dark beasts by great writers, books that accountants wouldn’t expect to be bestsellers and authors whose voices are not being heard.
‘We always want to be a place where new writing can find an audience,’ says John. ‘And we want to go on disrupting our own model,’ says Dan, ‘so you can expect us to carry on doing new things.’ There are big ideas in the pipeline, and Unbound’s community will hear about them first.
When Dan, John and Justin sat in a pub and imagined Unbound a decade ago, they thought of it as an empty bookshelf, and their aim was to fill it with all the books that were not being read because the business model of publishing didn’t make it possible. Ten years on, there are 587 new books on that shelf (that would be about 32 metres, then) and our next bestseller could arrive in our inbox tomorrow. Could it be you?
‘Let’s think the unthinkable, let’s do the undoable. Let us prepare to grapple with the ineffable itself, and see if we may not eff it after all.’ – Douglas Adams, 1952–2001