Smashing Targets and Preconceptions about Crowdfunding
Last weekend I finished something momentous. The crowdfunding campaign for my short story collection The Cartography of Others reached 101%. This means that the book – through the enthusiasm and investment of over one hundred and fifty readers – will be produced, distributed and marketed to the greater public by my publishers Unbound. Celebration! Anyone who has gone through crowdfunding will know this sensation of excitable calm, awash with stunned relief and clinking glasses.
Three months ago I was a crowdfunding virgin. My manuscript had been accepted, my contract nutted out, my author page on my publisher’s website bore a silly video interview and some fervent quotes. I’d heard the high and the low of it from others who’d travelled the same path, I felt exposed and ballsy at the same time. I had ninety days to raise the sum needed to produce the first edition. I honed my blurb, removing pushy language, tried not to excuse myself too many times. I started to check my author page, willing an increment every time I refreshed the screen. This would become the pattern for the next three months.
On the crowdfunding grapevine I’d heard tales. Don’t even contemplate it if you don’t have a broad social media base. Nonfiction fares better than fiction. Some legendary guy finished in nine days. If you fail, everyone gets their money back, but what an embarrassment! If you make it to 70% you’ll get there. Like many writers, I had unclear ideas about crowdfunding. Sure, I’d pledged for a friend’s book, but hadn’t really looked into it. I knew I believed in his work so I paid up.
In 2010 Unbound was founded by John Mitchinson, Justin Pollard and Dan Kieran with the idea of rewriting the economics of publishing by involving readers in the early stages of the creation of a book, rather than the narrowing focus of the publishing industry on selling books to retailers. Authors pitch an idea or manuscript and, if accepted, the crowdfunding campaign to finance the first edition is launched. If through reader support the target is smashed, Unbound kicks in to produce the trade edition, with the distribution reach and clout of a traditional publisher. Unbound’s books include bestsellers The Good Immigrant and Letters of Note, and the Man Booker long-listed The Wake, titles sidelined by traditional publishers.
My agent proposed my collection to Unbound after rejections from big publishers to the tune of: McNamara can write. Do think of us when this author has a novel. The Short Story Collection Wall. It didn’t matter that twenty stories had been published in literary reviews, some short-listed, two (minor) first prizes, a Pushcart nomination – they were written by an unknown author with no selling points or commercial history. Too risky. Not edgy enough. Lives in Italy anyway. I’d already gone with a small press for my collection Pelt and Other Stories, where I learned that promotion is a tinny one-man band. So we agreed Unbound might be a way to have the book produced beautifully (Unbound’s standards are high) and work on a reader base at the same time.
There were weeks when I didn’t campaign at all. Twice I gave it a break after an unkind reply knocked the wind out of me (in total there were four, with one explosive rant on the day before I closed). Early on I’d decided to concentrate on the positive and roll with the punches. One thing writers know, after years in this arena, is that words are powerful and take effect, that there are times when you require the thickest skin to proceed, that the rare moments of acknowledgement or mutual understanding make one feel human, whether elated or licking wounds.
The creation of a reader base is something I’ve thought about a lot. Whose books do I like to read? When I feel the frisson of selecting a book to take home from London, am I thinking of the small percentage that trickles back to the author? Not really. I’m thinking about what I can afford this month. As much as my shoe photographs on Instagram might say the opposite, I don’t have the disposable income that I would wish! But still I buy books. And when a writer reaches out to me, I can’t help wanting to share the enthusiasm and unburden that person of some of the trials of publication. These are the very sensations that drive crowdfunding. There are some of us who heed that call in this way. Others might offer to share or run an interview, or just a few uplifting words. But think how powerful this mass of energy is, driving the production of a story collection. One enters the publishing fray buoyant and – to a degree – already successful. This is a wondrous opportunity.
Would I crowdfund again? Not this year. Not unless Cartography does well. The deal with Unbound is unusual in that the author earns 50% of profits, rather than the regular miniscule share, so if a book does well there are real benefits for authors whose books are propelled by the forces of success – positive reviews and word of mouth. So I don’t know yet. We shall see.