Why I chose to crowdfund my debut novel
Like many before me, I came to writing fiction because I spent my 20s as a journalist – specifically, a music journalist. After all those years of hanging around in rooms above pubs while indie bands gently bickered and wished I wasn’t there to interview them, I decided it was time to write for myself: no word counts, no editorial wrangles, no deadlines. So I began to write short stories, mostly for myself but with half an eye on publication. One of them was published in America and shortlisted for an award, so I concluded it must be alright. Legible, at least.
That story, which detailed the moment a Las Vegas stage magician’s white tiger leapt off the stage and mauled an audience member, felt so ripe for expanding that I couldn’t resist converting my lunch hour into my writing time. After 18 months, fuelled by pasta and pesto in Tupperware, I had a book: Bobby Denise Is Reigning Rampant. What would I do with it?
It won’t be a foreign process to many people reading this: submit to the literary agents who look most likely to fight for your book, gracefully receive your rejections, cast the net wider, gracefully receive your rejections, send it to basically anyone who can read, gracefully receive your rejections. And so it was for me. Among the impressive litany of ‘sorry it’s not more positive news’ emails I received were some nuggets of encouragement. You know: the odd ‘this is good, but I don’t know what we’d do with it’, an occasional ‘this idea is certainly original, but who’s going to read it?’ Enough to make me feel as if the book wasn’t dead quite yet.
Then, through Twitter, I learned about Unbound, who blend crowdfunding with the traditional elements of the publishing business. It works like this: rather than the publisher taking the financial hit on making a book, authors must attract funding to the project prior to its publication. Once the funding target is reached, the book goes into the usual publishing process (structural edits, line edits, cover design etc) and, thanks to an affiliation with Penguin Random House, stands a chance of making it into actual book shops. Everyone who supports the book gets a first-edition copy (with their name printed in the back as a valued supporter) and, depending on their pledging level and the author’s penchant for added value, all manner of extra rewards.
So, having decided my oddball fiction might just find its natural home on a list that is, by its very definition, full of oddballs, I submitted. I sent Unbound the complete manuscript of , all 76,000 words of it, and answered their questions. Those questions basically amount to ‘are you willing to absolutely flog your book to death until your friends and family are sick of you?’ and ‘how big are you on social media?’, but the process itself felt thorough and legitimate. Most importantly, there’s a palpable sense that the folk at Unbound are excited by the prospect of this book becoming a reality. I make no bones about it, and nor do Unbound: it’s up to the author to make sure this book gets funded. Put the effort in and it’ll happen. Pray for a viral miracle and you will be disappointed.
When my book initially launched on Unbound, the pledges flew in. Family, friends, colleagues, people I hadn’t heard from in years and then - this was genuinely heartening - total strangers chucked £10, £20, £40, even £100 into the pot. I’ve been traipsing around book clubs and writing groups to drum up pledges, and I even teamed up with three other Unbound authors to take over my local pub for a night to pitch our projects to total strangers. I’ve written for my local paper in exchange for book pledges, and left flyers in every pub in Peckham. People have come up to me and quietly forced a tenner into my hand saying, ‘for the book’. Almost every meaningful interaction around the project has been overwhelmingly, life-affirmingly positive.
The flipside of that euphoria is the despair of a day, even a week going past without any progress being made. The gnawing feeling that you were arrogant to try and publish a book in this way, with no traditional agent or publisher to reassure you that the public might one day enjoy your work. But the pain only lasts until a literarily intrepid stranger breaks the deadlock and takes a chance on your weird, dark book about an elderly magician because hey, why not, no-one else is publishing this kind of caper.
At the time of writing, I am around the halfway point. Two grand raised, another two grand to go. 88 people convinced that, yes, they would like to read a weird novel about the crippling sadness of chasing fame (with performing big cats), another 80 or so still to convince. What’s different about those people is that they are not merely punters: they are patrons, each of them with a built-in desire to see more of my work in the future, each of them part of a shady and inclusive little gang united by that weird novel.
If your novel is like mine, perhaps destined to fall between the cracks (too strange, not conventionally marketable, too many big cats), then Unbound could be your saviours. They do what all the best readers do: they take chances.