p u l p i t h e n r y j e f f r e y s
Blowing My Own Trumpet
It never fails to amaze me how prevalent the notion is that publishers and writers live in one Georgian square in Islington and hand out lucrative publishing deals to each other over glasses of dry sherry. Last year there was an interview in The Guardian with a young writer called Samantha Shannon, whom Bloomsbury had signed for a vast sum of money. In it she mentioned that her agent knew a friend of her father’s and that she had met her editor-to-be at a party. This was taken by many in the comments section on the website as evidence of nepotism. As if publishers hand out six-figure advances to their friends. I only wish it were so.
Five years ago I had a book idea, an agent and some time on my hands, having been made redundant from my job in publishing. My idea was to write a history of the British Empire told through booze. It would look at how one of the consequences of Britain uniting and becoming a great power was the creation of a lot of delicious drinks. Scratch the surface of almost any drink – port, sherry, champagne, rum – and there’s a story about Britain. Everyone I spoke to thought it was a splendid idea. My agent was talking not about whether it would get picked up but for how much. Two editors I knew read the proposal and said they could see it as a book (though they didn’t actually put any money down, which should have rung alarm bells). After much tweaking it went out in 2011 and then… silence. Eventually word trickled back, like rumours of a defeat. They all said the same thing: ‘This is just the kind of book we would have published ten years/five years/six months ago, but the market…’ Editors weren’t taking on unknown writers, no matter how often they’d got drunk with them at the British Book Awards.
I went back to my moderately successful career in publishing. I was also appointed wine columnist for The Lady magazine by Rachel Johnson (that was pure nepotism). My new role meant that at parties people treated me like a character from a P G Wodehouse novel, but I also learned a lot about wine and the book took shape in my mind. I thought about raising money through Kickstarter and then self-publishing. This has been the model for some successful food and wine books. Then I heard about Unbound. They raise money for publishing through the pledges of individuals, but they’re also a proper publisher so do all the boring things that publishers do – editing, production, arranging distribution and so on. Whereas most publishers don’t accept submissions from unrepresented authors, anyone can submit a proposal to Unbound, even those who don’t live in Islington. Once they have accepted an author’s proposal (they take on about 10 per cent of submissions), they make a video, put a sample chapter from the book online and then solicit money from readers. You can simply pledge for a book or an e-book or you can put more in and have the author as your personal butler for a week or some such. If enough money is raised the book gets released in the conventional way. Pledgers get a special numbered first edition with their name inside and a warm feeling at having helped the cause of literature. It removes the element of risk for the publisher – books are only published if the demand is there – and the author gains since the royalty rate is much better than the standard.
Unbound have an advantage over conventional publishers in that they deal directly with their readers. Most publishers know nothing about this mysterious group of people and, due to the fragmentation of the media, the decline of bookshops, the rise of the internet and whatnot, find them increasingly hard to reach. Gone are the days when a few good reviews and prominent display at Waterstones could make a book. Unbound know who their readers are, where they live, what they like to read and how effective their marketing and publicity have been. The books that work best for this model are either those with a strong, easy-to-grasp concept, such as Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note, which was a bestseller at Christmas, or those by writers with a committed fan base, such as Jonathan Meades or Julie Burchill. I’m hoping my book fits into the former group. The model is particularly effective for marketing follow-up books because you then have the contact details of your readers. It ’s proved so successful that Unbound are now opening up their site to conventional publishers so that they can test the waters with a book before committing to publication.
But there are embarrassing elements. The onus is very much on the author to drum up support. It ’s as though you’re trying to raise money for charity, except the charity is you. I spoke with an aunt last week and she very sweetly told me that she had told her husband to pledge £50 towards the book. She then asked me whether my book was being published by one of those companies who advertise ‘author wanted’ in the back of the Sunday Telegraph. Something like that, I replied. As my publishing day job is in the publicity department, you would think that I wouldn’t find it difficult to get attention for Empire of Booze, but it is harder when it ’s your own trumpet you’re blowing rather than someone else’s. Also, it puts me in the odd position of trying to publicise a book that has not yet been written. At the moment I’m trying to do enough to make sure the book is funded but not so much that, when the book is actually published, everyone feels that it ’s an old story. But these are just teething troubles. Crowd-sourcing for books will soon be commonplace. It ’s at roughly the stage that online dating was three years ago: it was once thought to be a bit embarrassing, but now why wouldn’t you meet your wife or husband or live-in lover online? I’ve seen the future of publishing and it seems to work. Prepare for a deluge of emails from your author friends. r m a y 2 0 1 4 | Literary Review 1