‘The Unbounders’ solution is to use their website to cut out the middle men’
It was only when I sat and counted them last Friday that I discovered I’m now the proud author of 26 books. Some would call that a library. The first, Chaucer’s Knight, might never have found a publisher if I had not already made a name for myself as a Python. In the late 1970s it was rather tricky for a new writer to get a book published, especially on what was seen as an academic subject. As it happens, were it not for the launch of the publishers Unbound, my most recent collection, Evil Machines, might not have been published either.
Earlier this year I was approached by my old friend Justin Pollard, a writer for QI who, along with a couple of other writers, had the novel idea of getting books published by involving readers directly. They were frustrated by the way in which the publishing industry seems to have lurched towards the pile-‘em-high bestseller, leaving many books that don’t fit the mould on the slush pile, with brilliant yet quirky ideas never seeing the light of day. Worse still, it is getting increasingly harder for an author to survive on ever-dwindling commissions. UK authors on average earned just £4,000 from writing last year on royalty figures of less than 10%. That’s hardly enough to pay for all our fast cars, lavish houses and gold-plated fountain pens, let alone food and a mortgage.
The Unbounders’ solution is to use their website to cut out the middle men. They ask readers directly what books they would like to see funded and then politely suggest that they might like to put their money where their mouths are. By bringing readers and authors closer together, the publishing process can be demystified, even democratised. Authors can publish books that would not be commercially viable for a big publisher and receive 50% of the profits. How could I not be interested?
Justin wondered if I had ideas for a book that I could pitch directly to readers on their new website. As it turned out, I did. Sitting in my bottom drawer were the bones of Evil Machines, a project which had started life as a book of short stories about malevolent technology, but ended up getting adapted into my first opera. My original idea was for each of the stories to give the appearance of a stand-alone fable, but as you got to about half-way through the book, you suddenly realised each story fitted into an overall narrative. The short stories turned into a novel.
I changed the overall narrative for the opera, and always assumed I’d go back and rewrite the book to conform to the story in the opera, but I never got round to it. When Justin asked me if I had anything kicking around, I revisited Evil Machines, and thought Hey! The story works anyway. Why should the book have to be the same as the opera?
A book based on a libretto based on a book might be a tricky sell to most jaded marketing managers, but Unbound didn’t mind. Their books don’t have to fit any predetermined, genre. There are currently books on the website from a heavy metal-loving sociologist writing about big fish in small ponds, starting with The Best Water Skier in Luxembourg; Soviet defector Vitali Vitaliev’s anti-tourist guide to Italy; and a first novel by a Bristol schoolteacher, Jenny Pickup, who was challenged to writeUnbelievable by her students, the cheeky sods.
We launched Evil Machines and Unbound.co.uk at the Hay festival in May, where I pitched my idea for the book live to 500 readers and read “The Nice Bomb”, a story about a rather charming bomb which lands in the middle of the Johnson family’s living room during supper, and says: “You’re all very lucky! Normally my make and model go off 100% of the time!” Readers could ask me questions about the book, and decide whether they wanted to pledge their money to me, or to another author. The same day, my video pitch for the book went up on the Unbound website, along with the first story, “The Truthful Phone” (which relays what people think, not what they say).
Readers chose how much they wanted to contribute, with benefits ranging from an ebook for £10, a hardback copy (plus ebook) for £20, or even personal dedications and tickets to my launch party for those who were more generous. All the readers who pledged to make it happen would be credited with their name in the finished book. A lovely idea, although not actually a particularly new one. Dickens and Thackeray published some of their best works by subscription in the 19th century, and they seemed to do relatively well. My readers were also allowed into my “virtual writer’s shed”, where I posted further videos and stories from the book. They offered their support, opinions and even criticism. It’s refreshing to get such direct feedback. I just needed to rework Evil Machines for publication, but it’s interesting to think that readers might influence the direction a writer might take with their work. “No! Don’t let it happen! Don’t send him down that corridor! Let him live! Give him an eyepatch and a limp!” I’m not sure that I’ll ever write like this, but there will be someone out there who will.
After just three months on Unbound, occasionally checking to see that my funding pie-chart had crept round another few percent, Evil Machineswas 100% funded. The book was going to be published! And not just any book, but a properly made, cloth-bound, racing-green beauty of a book with Eric Gill lettering, illustrated endpapers and silver trim – a book produced how I wanted it to look, without a peep from Sales and Marketing to tell me where it would sit in the bookshop.
Last Friday, 30 years after Chaucer’s Knight, I had my first book launch party. I’m not a fan of parties, you see, but this one promised to be different. It was for my readers.
First I had lunch with my most generous supporters, who had pledged more than £250 each. Knowing my dislike of most parties, the Unbound team conveniently forgot to tell me about this when I signed up. As it happens we had a rather jolly afternoon. All these people were interested in me and my book! Then even more of my supporters arrived for drinks in the evening. Who’d have thought that my readers would turn out to be such an interesting and affable bunch of people? There was even a lady who had travelled all the way from St Petersburg to join us. I’m extremely thankful to her and to all my subscribers who made the publication of Evil Machines possible. It’s been the most interesting and enjoyable publishing experience I can remember.
Check the website at http://unbound.co.uk/