It is rare to travel more than 1,000 miles to attend a book launch – and rarer still to pay £250 for the privilege. But when Kate Berova first learnt that Monty Python star Terry Jones was seeking backers for his latest book through the crowdfunding publisher Unbound, she wasted little time in taking up the highest level of subscription and planning her trip to London.
“It’s a lot of money for me but worth every penny,” says Ms Berova, an administrative director at a St Petersburg forestry company whose love of all things Python extends to her introducing herself as “a lumberjack”, in honour of the Python song. Paying out entitled her not only to attend the launch party last week but also to join 11 others in lunching with the writer.
For those not prepared to go so far, £10 buys an ebook and £20 an additional hardback, with extra goodies accruing incrementally. On average, subscribers to Mr Jones’s new book, Evil Machines, spent £30 and all 766, many of whom have signed up for multiple copies, are listed in its final pages. Further copies are available to the public through Unbound’s website, while an edition for bookshops is being distributed by Faber & Faber.
Evil Machines, a collection of gently absurdist tales exploring our relationship with technology, is the first title to be published by the six-month-old Unbound; four other writers have achieved full funding, and a further nine are still seeking enough backing.
The project upends traditional publishing. Writers pitch to the public and production of their books depends on sufficient support being achieved – “readers choosing what they want to read, instead of publishers doing it for them”, as Mr Jones puts it.
Unbound founders Dan Kieran, Justin Pollard and John Mitchinson admit Unbound is in still its infancy. But it is not the only sign of a shift in the relationship between writers and publishers.
Those confident in their ability to market their own work can claim royalties of 70 per cent by publishing ebooks through Amazon or Apple, a significant increase on the 10-15 per cent they would typically earn. The very biggest names have the option of bypassing intermediaries altogether, as JK Rowling has done with her Pottermore website.
Mr Mitchinson, a former managing director of the publisher Cassell & Co and co-founder of the company that makes the BBC television programme QI, starring Stephen Fry, cites a 2007 report showing that the average UK author earned £16,000 a year.
Stripping out the top 10 per cent, who account for more than 50 per cent of the total, put this average at just £4,000.
Unbound aims to improve the return for writers, splitting profits 50/50, but some book industry figures wonder whether it will in fact help only established names, such as Mr Jones. “I’m not a believer in the wisdom of crowds,” says Andrew Franklin, managing director of publisher Profile Books. “If you’re a complete unknown, it’s not going to work.”
Mr Pollard, a writer and historical consultant who also works on QI, concedes that those writers with a big online presence are more likely to succeed at this stage. But he says that this will change as the website’s membership of registered potential backers increases.
He points to the success of Jennifer Pickup, an unpublished novelist whose book Unbelievable this week became the fifth to attract the support necessary for publication to go ahead.
Given the novelty of Unbound’s model, it comes as some surprise to see the hardback copies of Evil Machines unveiled at the launch: cloth-bound in British racing green, with sewn-in bookmark ribbons and illustrated endpapers, they evoke a bygone era of publishing.
In one respect at least, the same can be said of the project as whole. “Dickens and Johnson were subscription-published to start with,” points out Mr Pollard. “It’s a very old idea.”