Unearthing Crowd-Funded Publishing

One of my side interests is archeology. I live close to the site of a Roman villa that boasts some incredibly well-preserved, and beautifully detailed, mosaics. I haven't been lucky enough to discover any artifacts myself, but I'm fascinated by the thought of similar riches hiding just inches beneath the soil in my garden.

As part of my interest, I regularly read In the Long Run, a blog written by Francis Pryor, an eminent field archeologist, writer, and TV presenter best known for discovering Flag Fen, a Bronze Age site in the east of England. Pryor's long, thoughtful blog posts are a pleasure to read. So it was no surprise to discover that he harbors ambitions to write fiction and has produced his first novel, which he describes as an "archaeological detective thriller."

Pryor is already a noted mainstream author, published by HarperCollins and Penguin. His nonfiction books have garnered glowing reviews: The Times (London) called Britain BC: Life in Britain and Ireland Before the Romans "successful and exciting ... lucid and engaging." So with an established reputation and a strong media profile, I was intrigued to discover that he has opted to release his first novel via the crowd-funded publisher Unbound.

The London-based Unbound describes itself as "both a funding platform and a publisher" and was launched in 2011 by the writers John Mitchinson (who has a background in mainstream publishing as marketing director of Waterstones), Dan Kieran, and Justin Pollard. 

They argue that the current publishing process is unnecessarily complex and has become both restrictive and prescriptive for authors-even best-selling ones. The end result, they say, is that interesting and challenging books with small print runs make less and less economic sense, and such runs are harder and harder to publish. In contrast, the company describes the Unbound model as "very straightforward: the author pitches an idea and if enough readers support it, the book goes ahead."

A target number of subscribers is set. If the target is not achieved within a predefined time frame, then all subscriptions are refunded. Unbound fulfills all the normal publishing functions, but it splits a book's net profit 50/50 with the author (compared to its estimate of up to 10% under the traditional model).

As Francis Pryor explains in his blog, "[T]he process of publishing with Unbound starts with a promotional video, which will give [readers] the opportunity to subscribe to the project starting at only £10 for an e-book edition, or £20 for the more conventional, if beautifully produced hardback, right up to £150 for two signed copies and two invitations to the splendid launch party." By mid-July, Pryor's book was 72% subscribed; by the end of August, 112% of the target had been achieved. Pledgers also gain access to the author's "shed"-a private area where pledgers can get progress updates, read drafts, and join discussions with the author and other subscribers. Unbound describes this as "a portal into a new community of writers and readers: a place to comment on and contribute to a work in progress."

Unbound is part of a rapidly evolving digital publishing ecosystem ranging from J. K. Rowling's Pottermore to various ebook self-publishing platforms. In August, The Bookseller, a British news magazine for the book publishing industry, launched its first monthly ebook ranking. The list is compiled from sales figures supplied by the U.K.'s major trade publishers, and The Bookseller stresses that for this reason it is described as a "ranking" rather than a definitive chart.

Not surprisingly, erotica and thrillers feature strongly in the first section of data (covering sales from June 2013), with Sylvia Day's Entwined With You coming in at No. 1, Dan Brown's Inferno at No. 2, and Gillian Flynn's Gone Girl at No. 3. Day's novel sold more than 368,000 copies in all formats during June, with 55% of sales from digital editions. 

For these Top 50 titles, ebooks sold 784,000 units out of nearly 2.1 million units across all editions, representing a digital market share of 37%. Fiction dominates the list-novels account for 3 in every 10 print books bought in the U.K. but almost 7 in 10 digital sales.

Given the rapidly evolving ecosystem, it's to be expected that not any one digital publishing model will rule the roost. But it's encouraging that experimentation is taking place, and I will be watching with interest to see who else joins the crowd-funding movement.