Gigaom

Unbound's Struggle to Crowdfund Books


Back in May, Unbound launched in London. Generally described as a “Kickstarter for books,” the innovative new publishing outfit 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 certain, however. Was there really space for further niche crowdfunding efforts? Was it better for prospective authors to opt for a bigger audience on a general site like Kickstarter or a more focused one such as 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 if 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,”I wrote. “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 after two months?

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 twice been forced to turn the clock back on its projects to give them more time to reach funding goals.

“Two Months and Two Resets”

“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 various arguments as to why this is the case. Perhaps no audience wants to fund books, although Kickstarter’s thriving book projects suggest this isn’t true. Is Unbound’s site too obscure? The venture has received plenty of press and recruited fairly big names on board. So what else could be the problem?

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

“The closer you look,” Hon 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).

“The biggest difference is its success rate,” Hon continues. “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 additional 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?” Hon asks. “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 Solicits More Than Money

Hon’s suggestion of a cargo cult is something I had also put forward in a tweet. In particular, I think there is a dangerous tendency to believe that crowdfunding is simply about tapping members of the public for cash. It’s really about communities choosing their own destinies. As with crowdsourcing before it, there needs to be a real sense of involvement and authenticity if projects are to be about more than just doing things inexpensively.

Bridle characterized crowdfunding 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, these are the early days for Unbound. There’s plenty of time for mistakes to be remedied. I tried to find out more about how the company sees things, but Unbound did not respond to my request for an interview. However, it’s clear that the site has already shown that it’s ready to shift to make things work: Unbound has already started making rewards more obvious, for example, and has lowered targets so projects can get funded more easily.

Ultimately, though, I hope Unbound’s struggle provides a lesson for anyone who is thinking about launching a Kickstarter-like model: 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.

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Johnson is a writer for the GigaOm Network

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