Friday, 11 November 2011

Unbound books and the Man in the Shed

By Peter Stuart Smith (AKA Max Adams, James Barrington, James Becker and Jack Steel)

Actually, it isn't necessarily a man at all. It could just as well be a writer of the female persuasion, but men are traditionally supposed to own sheds. In fact, I've heard a number of people who claim to Know About These Things who believe that a shed can save a marriage, because it provides space between the two combatants, and gives the husband a place to which he can retire to pursue whatever solitary and sordid pursuits float his particular boat: model railways, smoking, or just viewing high quality porn.
            Unbound? Shed? I'm talking about what, exactly? Oddly enough, it's a brand-new venture in publishing. Instead of an author spending a few months or a few years writing a book and then trying to interest a publisher or literary agent into taking it on, with the attendant risk that the book might never be sold, in which case the author has wasted a year or so of his or her life, Unbound ( has come up with a novel – in the other sense of the word – idea.
Before the writer finishes the book, or even gets properly started on it, he or she can submit it to Unbound and, if the idea for the work is accepted by the website, details of the proposed book will be displayed and members of the public can then pledge money to the author, essentially providing sufficient funding to pay for the book to be written and then published.
            It's an interesting idea, because if the proposal stinks, and attracts no or very little attention, the author will presumably slink away, back to his or her garret, and try and come up with a better or more compelling plot. But if the core idea of the book attracts the public's attention, money will flood in and eventually the book will make it onto the shelves of Waterstones and W H Smith. So it is, in some ways, a mechanism for assessing the likely popularity – and hence potential sales – of a particular book without the author going through the tiresome process of actually writing the thing.
            And the people who agree to provide funding benefit in some small ways as well. The minimum contribution is a mere £10, and that produces a copy of the ebook edition of the work, prints the contributor's name at the back of the book, and provides access to the author's 'shed', of which more later. Contribution levels differ depending on the book, but typically rise through £20, £50, £75 and £150 to £250, which gets you two tickets to the book's launch party, one or two other bits and pieces, and lunch with the author, which is for some reason seen to be a Good Thing. But I suppose that does depend on the author.
If you've just won the lottery and feel like taking a punt, it's even possible to fund the entire work, which presumably means you effectively own the author for the duration of the project, and possibly acquire some of the headaches – coping with the looming deadline, tantrums, writer’s block and so on – as well.
            But – and with most ideas of this type there's always a 'but' somewhere – the bad news is that at the moment the site is mainly commissioning works from published authors, presumably because that way the finished product will hopefully be competently written and won't need weeks of editing to knock it into shape. So this certainly isn't a quick route to publication for somebody with no track record, and is really simply another avenue that published authors can explore. And that, I suppose, is either good or bad, or both, depending entirely upon which side of the publishing fence you're standing.
            And there's another tiny little niggle that I have, not with the idea of the site and its aims, but with that one word: 'shed'. It's probably just me, but to refer to the author's shed – which according to the site simply means the author's private area, which could be construed to have some slight sexual connotations as well – just seems a little dismissive. As if the author is simply an inconveniently eccentric family member who's dismissed to the garden shed to pursue his solitary vice away from the public gaze of the adults. Why couldn't they have called it the author's 'study' or 'office' or even 'workroom'?
            That aside, it’ll be interesting to see how the project fares. Currently, the site is displaying details of five books which have received 100% funding, including one by a first-time novelist named Jennifer Pickup, and nine other books to which money can be contributed, with the existing donation level displayed by each one. Every book remains on the site for a finite period of time, and at the end of that is presumably removed if it has not attracted sufficient support. Looking at the levels of contribution and the days remaining, my guess is that at least one of the books displayed will not make it into either the bookshops or the world of the ebook.
            So will it work? Probably. I suppose you could say that it's really not that different to conventional publishing. Normally, a commissioning editor will pitch a manuscript that he likes to his colleagues, and if enough of them agree with him, the book will be bought. What Unbound is doing is exactly the same, except that there is no commissioning editor, and the people who make the publishing decision are the kind of people who will ultimately be buying the book. So it's really a new slant rather than a brand-new idea.
            But it also means that a new expression has entered the world of books: welcome to 'crowd publishing'.

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