July 25, 2011

The madness of crowds? Crowd-sourcing publishing..


Terry Jones

“These are dark days for the book business,” an article in The Economist tells us, citing the shrinking retail space available to book buyers and sellers with the demise of Borders. “Yet the problem is not the supply: writers will still scribble for scraps. Nor demand: American book publishers reported growth across all platforms in 2010. It is just that no one is making money.” In other words, it’s as Mobylives put it in a commentary last week:  it’s not that fewer people want to buy books, it’s that fewer corporate retailers want to sell them.

Plus, “The business needs fresh ideas,” The Economist continues. “Enter Unbound, a British effort to ‘crowd-fund’ books. Visitors to its website can pledge money for a book that is only part-written. If enough money is raised, the author can afford to finish it—and the pledgers will get a copy.” In other words, it’s kickstarter.com for books. Just get rid of those pesky gatekeeper editors, and we’ll really get the books we all want! The motto of Unbound’s site is: “Books are now in your hands.”

That’s a big responsibility for readers. But the site seems to be featuring, and having success with, already famous people —writers among them. According to the Economist report, “Having launched in May, the firm announced its first success on July 18th. Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame, has secured the funds to finish a book of quirky stories.”

How it works:

“We can make books work at a much lower level of investment,” explains John Mitchinson, who co-founded Unbound with Dan Kieran and Justin Pollard. The site is like a curated slush pile. It features pitches and excerpts from a handful of established writers, such as Jonathan Meades and Amy Jenkins. Visitors can stump up £10 ($16) for an e-book and a nod in the afterword, or up to £250 for such treats as lunch with the author. Many fans want to sup with Mr Jones, despite the fact that he once exploded after eating a wafer-thin mint.

Over 3,000 pledges have come in, averaging £30 apiece. Authors see a new way to nurture fans and make money, even as publishing budgets dwindle. (Unbound’s profits are split 50-50.) Readers apparently enjoy feeling like part of the creative process. Most readers won’t pay £8.99 for an acclaimed book, yet some will splurge £50 for a signed unwritten one. In these digitally isolating times, the personal touch may work.

My question on reading all of this is: Monty Python’s Terry Jones really needed money to finish his book of short stories? Really?

Valerie Merians is the co-founder and co-publisher of Melville House.