Fast Company

Unbound's Crowd-Financed, Spine-Tingling Effort To Reinvent Book Publishing

readingUnbound publishing, the Kickstarter for books, just had its very first success: It reached its target so that it could produce and then publish a new book by none other than Terry Jones, of Monty Python fame. Why is the tech and publishing world so excited about a single book from a lone, unheard-of, pint-sized publisher? Because the whole principle behind Unbound is to take the ancient, leather-bound business model of book publishing, rip out its crumbling pages, and replace it with crowd-funding, social interaction, and tandem digital publications and real hardback books. 

Here's the core of Unbound's idea: It proposes a new book on its website, and people choose to "donate" a small amount of money to it, in the hope that the book gets produced. The more money you donate, the more likely the target will be reached, and the bigger "treats" you get--right up to dinner with the author. When the target is reached, writing begins and people who've funded the book get special access to a back room at Unbound's website, where they can interact in limited form with the author as the book emerges. At the end, an e-text is published and distributed, but you can also choose to get a high-quality hardback edition, printed on good paper with cloth binding for people who like their books to be weighty, well-designed, and smell like traditional books.

Unbound (tagline: "Books Are Now In Your Hands") is most similar to Kickstarter, the crowd-sourced funding body that's been responsible for all sorts of interesting projects from iPod Nano wristwatches to a swimming pool. "We get a little bit of gyp from purists who say we're not opening the platform out as wide as Kickstarter," Unbound's cofounder John Mitchinson explained to Fast Company, "Which at the moment is definitely true."

Unbound promotes carefully selected books--from well-known names--to see if the crowd is keen to buy a final product, and that's definitely no Kickstarter. "We're managing the back end in a way that Kickstarter doesn't," says Mitchinson. "They're a pure fundraising platform." In comparison, Unbound takes on more of a traditional publisher role once the funding target is raised. "We're printing and distributing and finding the market for the books," says Mitchinson. 

Providing and mediating interaction between readers and authors is another differentiator; those who pledge money can not only interact with authors as the book is being written, they also have a chance--based on their financial commitment--to potential meet and hobnob with their favorite authors. "We love the idea of opening things up as far as possible and being transparent," Mitchinson says. On the flip side, that relationship needs to be managed and authors need a way to mediate the interactions so it doesn't get in the way of their writing. "We're there to act as an intermediary, hopefully offering readers far more contact than they'd get through the traditional route, which is going to a bookshop and buying a copy."

Is it working? You bet. Unbound's team was surprised at the size of the pledges: The average plede is about £30, which is a lot more than a new hardback book will set you back in a bricks-and-mortar store, and definitely more than you'd pay on Amazon. The percentage of users who choose a hard copy is running at about 40%. One driver is the rewards, Unbound thinks--it's more like a game to pay for a book like this, and you get better rewards if you choose a hard copy. Since writers can customize their rewards, those who donate, and the writer who produces the text, have the potential to form closer relationships than are typical between an author and his audience.

And that is unique to Unbound's topsy-turvy publishing model. "It isn't easy selling books in the traditional market at the moment," Mitchinson says. There are problems like choosing a book to promote, marketing it in the right way, having publishers jockeying for a key position in your store for the marquee display of their hottest new title, competing with cheap online booksellers, and turning a profit. It's such a thorny business that even huge chains like Borders (which was blamed for pushing many smaller independent bookstores out of business with its lower prices and massive bulk) have floundered.

The traditional process can be a drain on writers, too: You write a text, send it off to an agent, who touts it to publishers, who consider selling it, then come up with a marketing scheme, print it, send it off to bookstores, wait, and then destroy or discount unsold copies.

On the other hand, with Unbound the funding for the book--as well as the fan's approval process, which is very public--happens up front, and much more swiftly...and the marketing happens by word of mouth.

Going forward, Unbound is adapting and honing its business model, playing with the minimum funding level, and broadening the books on offer. A publisher with exciting growth plans, and a clear path into the future of both e-books and collectable printed editions? That's rare enough to make this a fascinating story all by itself.

[Image: Flickr user rachel sian]

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