When I took my novel A Dark Nativity to a publisher of religious fiction, I wasn’t expecting a rapturous reception – as I say in the promotional video here, the genre is dominated by cute cathedral-close yarns, bonkers magic realism or conspiracy theories about an evil Church. I wanted to tell it as it is, with real people doing ordinary (as well as extraordinary and downright sinful) things.
But this publisher was different; a friend who was prepared to hear me out and was sympathetic about the existing market. After a little while she said this: “Your problem is that your book is too secular for the religious market and too religious for the secular.”
I was dead chuffed by that remark, because that’s the whole point of A Dark Nativity. I want the religious to meet the secular and vice versa. Otherwise neither makes much sense in my view.
The trouble is my publisher friend was entirely right. In today’s publishing market for fiction we have to fit an existing, provenly prosperous category or, with the squeaky tight margins in print and digital, publishers are just not going to take a punt on something different, let alone radically so.
So in my field it has to be bonking in the Close (funnily enough A Dark Nativity has some of that, though not of the Jilly Cooper variety) or medieval masonic rituals. Nope, not going there. My narrator, The Rev’d Natalie Cross, is a real person caught up in the very real horrors of this world.
What to do? The answer appears to be crowdfunding. I took A Dark Nativity to Unbound (which must have one of the nicest walks to an office, along the Grand Union Canal in north London), which takes the editorial judgement and markets into the retail trade through Penguin Random House.
This way, important edgy stuff gets published
The business model is a cool one. Books are effectively pre-sold (with rewards) so Unbound can test the market in advance of publication ans has initial costs of printing and sales covered. So it means that Unbound can take a riskier punt than other publishers on untested authors and new ideas, which are precisely the ones that the old publishers won’t touch these days. It also splits income 50/50 with authors, which is more than a tad more equitable than the 3-7% offered by the trad publishers (who, surprise, are struggling, which drives their barrier to entry even lower).
But the business model is only part of it. There are softer advantages to crowdfunding too. There is also the wisdom of The Crowd.
It’s not just that there’s a word-of-mouth sales campsign ahead of publication, though that's important. The Crowd are essentially co-publishers and there's something of the demos in that - the people's publishers are publishing what the people want published, rather than trad publishers telling them what they're allowed to read.
This way, important edgy stuff gets published (the jury's out on whether that's me or not). And it's also especially important in my case, because my primary source material came from The Crowd, in the sense of the Hebrew oral tradition, so there's something resonant and symmetrical about The Crowd publishing A Dark Nativity, I think.
What I think I mean by that is that the Christian tradition is about The Crowd – a crowd of witnesses if you like. A Dark Nativity isn’t about Christianity or The Church. It’s about a priest called Natalie Cross, out in the world, trying to make a decent fist of her life. And I hope that says a good deal about The Crowd that currently occupy that world.
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