Saturday, 2 July 2011

The Writing Room Gets Crowded

Unbound, a new crowd-funded publishing company that gets readers involved the writing of books, was unveiled at this year's Hay Festival, the an annual literature festival held in Hay-on-Wye, the famous town of books in the Welsh county of Powys.

Unbound, the new face of crowd-funded
publishing
On the web site, each author's page has an extract from their book and a video pitch of their book idea. People who like what they see can pledge a certain amount to fund the book, from £10 to £250, with goodies that commensurate with the pledged amount. Pledgers will have their names printed in the final version of the book.

Half the profits on successful titles go to the author. If a book fails to launch, pledges can be transferred to other titles, or be refunded.

So why should people participate? Because, according to Unbound, "For the first time, you will be able to hold in your hands a book that wouldn't have existed without you."

"We are really trying to involve the readers at an earlier stage of the process which could be transformative as authors will have better visibility of how their ideas are being received by their target audience as they write," explained John Mitchinson, one of the company's founders, in the Guardian. The others are British historian, television producer and writer Justin Pollard, and author and editor, Dan Kieran.

Several authors have signed on to Unbound, including best-selling authors Terry Jones, Booker-shortlisted novelist Tibor Fischer and cloudspotter Gavin Pretor-Pinney.

In the fading, cash-strapped world of book publishing, crowd-funding can be one way out of oblivion. But will any kind of book be successfully Unbound?

Crowd-funding, I feel, works best for works of non-fiction, particularly coffee table books and directories for people and places of interest: historical sites, hidden foodie haunts, unique communities, and such. Nothing galvanises the public more than a worthy cause, and they can contribute more than just money. From this simplistic point of view, I don't think the initiative is all that novel.

One of the founders appears to concur. "In many ways it's a very old idea – there are a lot of 19th century cases where books were published by subscription," said Justin Pollard. "Because of the internet we have crowdfunding, so we can combine the old idea of subscription with finding your audience on the internet, and get the best of both worlds."

Perhaps. After all, books aren't solo endeavours; historical novels, for instance, require research, which volunteers can pitch in with.

Thing is, I'm less sure about crowd-funding working for fiction.

With regards to the novel as an art form, however, crowd-sourcing can be burdensome. Imagine Leonardo da Vinci's patrons - the highest-paying ones - being granted the privilege of sitting around the artist and providing input as he paints the Mona Lisa.

"The nose needs to be sharper."

"No, a finer bridge."

"CLEAVAGE!"

"Why is the backdrop so dull? The Florentine cityscape would look nicer."

"Why not her room?"

"Don't want people to know where the apartment is located."

"Point."

"CLEAVAGE!"

"Her forehead's too damn high."

"G*d she looks like a man. Longer eyelashes?"

"Redder, shinier lips, maybe."

"More colourful robes."

"MORE CLEAVAGE!"

"Like he said."

"Yes, that'll work."

Leo would probably snap his paintbrush in two and stalk off after a few days of input.

Regardless of the amount, there is little to deter patrons from going overboard with their ideas. The author, meanwhile, will inevitably feel swamped by all the contributions, wondering perhaps if he'll offend certain patrons (such as the high-paying ones) by rejecting their ideas. Then there's the question of money compromising artistic vision... .

I'm certain some authors would not welcome such complications to their creative processes.

Still, it's not a bad idea, and G*d knows the publishing industry is gasping for fresh ideas, a lifeline out of oblivion brought on by the digital age. Perhaps Unbound can be another launchpad for the careers of new authors, and a new arena the established ones can explore or play in.

Some members of the latter category sound enthusiastic. Jones reportedly said the "brilliant" crowd-funding idea was "just what publishing needs". Philip Pullman and Noam Chomsky are similarly enthusiastic.

Such a web portal can also help bridge the gap between authors and their supporters and the public - kind of like JK Rowling's Pottermore. The buzz surrounding an upcoming project can whip up a degree of interest in it, ensuring a ready market for new products.

Chick-lit author Amy Jenkins, another Unbound participant, is particularly excited by the notion of being surrounded by supporters ("Writing is a really lonely occupation", she reportedly stated) and not having to do much marketing.

So I suppose, yes, this startup might be worth keeping an eye on.

"The hero needs to be blonde."

"Why did you kill him off here? Do it earlier."

"Later."

"SEX!"

"This scene needs to be longer."

"Shorter."

"China in 1891 is still under the Qing Dynasty."

"SEX!"

"There are no piranhas in Africa."

"They're imported."

"Dude, this is fiction. Lighten up."

"LOTS OF STEAMY, SWEATY SEX!"

"Like he said."

"Yes, that'll work."

...Along with the myriad challenges it poses.

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