Unbound’s struggle to build crowdfunding for books

Monty Python's Terry Jones talking to Unbound.co.ukBack in May, Unbound, an innovative new publishing outfit, launched in London. Generally described as a “Kickstarter for books,” it promised a lot: to take ideas by prospective authors, get them crowdfunded and then publish them.

The launch drew some adoring glances: His Dark Materials author Philip Pullman, for example, called it “an idea whose time has come.” I was less sure, however. Was there really space for more niche crowdfunding efforts? Was it better for prospective authors to opt for a bigger audience on a site like Kickstarter or a more focused one like Unbound?

In fact, when I realized that Unbound wasn’t an open platform but instead carefully selected the projects it put forward, I became unsure whether it was really crowdfunding at all:

Perhaps describing Unbound as a Kickstarter for books is misleading: maybe it’s better to think of it as a low-capital publisher. It seems that it does all of the traditional jobs (selecting authors, working with submissions, editing manuscripts, printing books) but mitigates financial risk by raising its authors’ advances from the public, rather than its own coffers.

So where are things two months in?

Not much further, apparently. James Bridle, a London-based publisher and technologist, pointed out recently that things weren’t looking great. Although Unbound had succeeded in getting one idea funded since launch, Evil Machines, its flagship book by Monty Python comedian Terry Jones, the rest were languishing in limbo. The site had been forced to turn the clock back on its projects twice to give them more time to reach their funding goals.

”After two months and two resets,” tweeted Bridle, “it appears nobody wants a new book by Tibor Fischer, Amy Jenkins or Jonathan Meades.”

There are different arguments as to why this is the case. Perhaps the audience simply doesn’t exist for funding books. But Kickstarter’s thriving book projects suggest that’s not true. Perhaps, then, the site is too obscure. Yet it has had plenty of press and fairly big names on board. So what else could it be?

A Kickstarter that isn’t actually a Kickstarter

Adrian Hon, who has worked with publishers like Penguin and has raised almost $5,000 on Kickstarter for his own website and book project, has taken a look. In a great piece on his blog, he explains how Unbound took the Kickstarter model and tweaked it without realizing the implications.

“The closer you look,” he writes, “the more differences you spot.” Those differences include transparency (Kickstarter is transparent for donors and creators alike, while Unbound is “bafflingly opaque”); the feeling that it’s not entirely authentic (creators seem to be successful authors who are raising money for projects they have already completed); and limited horizons (most of the authors are famous in Britain but are not internationally recognized):

But the biggest difference is its success rate. Of the six projects Unbound started with, it seems that one has been funded so far: Evil Machines by Terry Jones, and only by a gnat’s whisker at that, even though it’s by a Monty Python member with over 30,000 Twitter followers.

Four other books on the brink of failure have had their deadlines unexpectedly extended, hopefully long enough for the public to come to their senses and cough up more cash. Unbound isn’t some fly-by-night operation; it was heavily promoted at the Hay Festival, it’s received gushing praise across the media – yet it may end up with a one in six success rate.

So, why was Unbound set up in the first place? It’s because they constructed a cargo cult, believing that if they mimicked the superficial elements of successful crowdfunding, they could enjoy the same success as others – but perhaps even more, thanks to their relationships with publishers, agents, authors, and the media.

Crowdfunding isn’t just about the funding

That suggestion of a cargo cult was actually something I’d also put forward. In particular, I think there is a dangerous tendency to believe that crowdfunding is simply about tapping up members of the public for cash — whereas it is really about communities choosing their own destinies. Just like crowdsourcing before it, there needs to be a real sense of involvement and authenticity if projects are going to be more than just about doing things inexpensively.

Bridle characterized it perfectly as the difference between “being a part of the social web rather than just begging from it.” Successful crowdfunding projects grow out of communities; they aren’t forced upon them. And organic support can certainly work wonders in the book world, whether it’s through self-publishing or some other avenue.

Still, it’s in the early days for Unbound, and there’s plenty of time for these mistakes to be unpicked and turned around. I tried to find out more about the company’s thoughts on this, but Unbound did not respond to my request for an interview. However, it’s clear that the site has already shown it is ready to shift to make things work: So far it has already started making rewards more obvious and has lowered targets so that projects can get funded more easily, for example.

Ultimately, though I hope that Unbound’s struggle provides a lesson that anyone thinking about Kickstarter-like models should consider: Crowdfunding is as much about people as it is about money, and building a working community requires more than just a few big names and a nice idea.