Unbound - a form of micro publishing?

At present I am in a situation where I have to listen to Radio 4 in order to understand the way in which my book is being published. Crowd funding is just so new that everyone, even those in the thick of the process, do not quite know what it is that they are doing.

So I was interested when I heard Paul Kingsnorth talking on the radio. His book 'The Wake' was published (crowd funded) by Unbound and became the first ever crowd funded book to finish up the Booker Long List. So what did he have to say about the experience?

The word he used was 'micro-publishing.' He employed that word to try to explain the difference between buying a book in a bookshop, or purchasing an e-book on-line, and subscribing (or pledging) to a book which has yet to be published through Unbound (or another crowd funding publisher).

So what is the difference? Well, on the face of it - very little. In both cases you finish up with a book. If you buy a book, or an e-book, in the normal way, you get it immediately. If you pledge / subscribe through Unbound you might wait nine months or longer for the book to be produced. But you do get your name in the back.

Does getting your name in the back make a difference? Paul Kingsnorth clearly thinks it does. He says everyone who puts their name in the back becomes a 'micro-publisher.' They haven't just bought a book, they have made a decision about whether a book should be published or not.

I know from talking to my subscribers that they like that experience, they like making a choice, deciding what to back and what not to back. Certainly I'm sure there are some people who signed up for 'The Wake' who are cheerfully telling friends in the pub. 'I signed up because I knew that would be a really amazing book' We all like to be part of success.

But what of the wider picture? I don't want to be disloyal to Unbound. I really like them and I like what they are doing. But is it right for the general public to decide which books are published? I just don't know.

What I do know is that 'quiet books' seem to be getting little chance anywhere. Every form of publishing is about 'the pitch,' or 'the sales hook.' Of course, to some degree that has always been the case.

But if I take the example of a writer I love - veteran American novelist James Salter - then I just wonder how he would have fared if he was starting his writing career now. The pitch for most of his books would read. 'Bunch of Americans you don't like lead pointless lives, behave selfishly and die.'

But somewhere in the prose there is something extra-ordinary, dazzling, which captures the essence of being alive. I can't help but think that the only way books like his can be published is by an editor who is going to back that book no matter how quiet and uncommercial it is.

But where are those editors? And how else can those quiet books be published? I'm assuming that independent publishing won't help those books but am I right? I'm aware that many of the people reading this blog have a lot of knowledge of independent publishing and would be genuinely grateful to hear their views.

The question matter to me because I want to read those quiet books.


Lee said…
I have no experience of independent publishing, but I too want to read those quiet books. Aren't you assuming they won't be written if they need to be self-published? Or at least won't be discovered and read? I suppose I'm asking whether a writer can continue to write quiet novels, excellent quiet novels, without making his living from it? And if so, how do we learn of them? The answer is obviously not a simple one, but there must be at least some Salters out there who are dogged enough to find the time, energy, and commitment to keep going without any conventional markers of success. I would like to think so. Perhaps this makes me rather naive.
With experience of trad and indie publishing and a LOT of experience of submitting via several agents, I think just possibly you've got it the wrong way round. Indie is pretty much the only way you are going to find your readers. I too like to read 'quiet' books, and a lot of what I write is quiet as well. But as somebody once said to me, if you want a big trad deal, they are now only looking for a 'stonking great story.' She went on to say that if it was well written, that was a bonus, but if it wasn't, they didn't care. It was the 'stonking great story' bit that mattered. There's a big problem with thinking that you need an editor who is going to back a book no matter how quiet and uncommercial. He or she won't have the authority to do so. In most large to medium sized publishing companies, sales and marketing have the final say, the tail wags the dog. And sales and marketing are selling to bookstores, not readers.The quiet novel will be rejected, using those very words: 'too quiet.' I'll bet many of us on Authors Electric have had those rejections, and they will inevitably be accompanied by 'I loved this book but I'm afraid I couldn't carry sales and marketing with me and in the current climate there is no way I can go it alone.' I'm quoting verbatim from the last rejection my last agent had from one of the big trad companies. Small independent publishing houses can and sometimes will take those risks, because the acquisitions editor is so frequently the boss as well. That's how The Physic Garden found a publisher. But I do think that there is a market for quiet books, just not a big enough market for big publishing. So I think the only way is to self publish or find a small indie publisher who will take the risk. But either way, you as the writer are going to have to try to find and build the market for your book or books - among readers. Which is (as Nick says above) easier said than done!
Jenny Alexander said…
Catherine's comment really chimes with me. I've had those editors who loved the book but couldn't get marketing on board because it was 'too quiet' on several occasions in recent years. Depressing for authors who enjoy writing and reading so-called 'quiet books' and also for editors who would love to publish them. I don't expect to earn much from self-publishing, but at least it means I can go on writing what I want to write. I haven't thought of crowd-funding, but I might in the future.
Kathleen Jones said…
My books have been 'too quiet' for commercial publishers recently. It's all about marketing rather than writing, so I second the comments above. Crowd funding is an interesting experiment - it used to be called 'subscription publishing' and people who were snobs liked to see their names in the back of the book alongside the great and the good. I'm happily subscribing to Alice's Unbound memoir because I've read her novels and know that she provides a b****y good read. The best reason to subscribe!
Kathleen Jones said…
PS I can think of lots of authors whose books wouldn't be published now - Barbara Pym (now a 20th c classic) would be high on the list. Margaret Forster would be on it too. Catherine Cookson (who wrote 10 books before she even got into paperback) would be another casualty.
Dennis Hamley said…
I'm intrigued by crowdfunding. I've been looking at www.crowdfunder.co.uk on the recommendation of a small publisher I met the other evening. It's interesting but, at first sight, a more difficult process than I had imagined. I shall think further about it. Nice comments on 'quiet books' and all too true. I always tried to write 'stonking great stories' but they kept coming out 'quiet.' It's amazing I got away with it for so long.
Kathleen, I'm sure you're right. Pym was dropped because she didn't fit in until she was 'rediscovered' but I think there would be plenty of other casualties. And yet we all know people, plenty of them, who love to read these supposedly 'quiet' books. I sometimes find myself wondering if the real problem is that the buyers for the big bookstores are simply not people who enjoy these books and they are more or less imposing their taste on everyone else, or at least - as we all do from time to time - assuming that everyone likes what we like. I think it may be easier to break through on a platform like Kindle. One could imagine, for example, Catherine Cookson being turned down in the current climate ('nobody wants sagas' they would say) publishing herself and as a really prolific author gradually finding her readers, getting into her stride and having the kind of success that trad pub would probably deny her now. I had an older but close friend who had had some success with sagas and historical fiction years before, but was dropped by her publisher. They were saying 'Nobody wants historical fiction' Her novels were excellent and I always regret that she died before the indie publishing movement really got going.
Alice said…
So sorry. I wanted to leave this comment last week but have been laid up with flu. All the comments here are so interesting. I realise I just don't know enough about independent publishing and who it is working for (and who it isn't). But I suppose even that question isn't straightforward. What does 'working' mean? It isn't all about book sales and money, I know. It is so great for a forum like this to exist where we can all find out from other writers and readers how all these new approaches work.

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