Unbound: Seriously?Potential Scam
I’m going to start defensively: I have my Yahoo! email account set to show me the entertainment news when I log in instead of the real news because the real news is depressing. I do watch and read the real news but getting assailed with it every time I checked my email was getting me down. I’m sorry. Anyway, I was about to read about Justin Bieber denying that he fathered a child backstage at one of his concerts – OK, I did read it – and then I saw this:
Authors Pitch Book Ideas To Fans Online – Yahoo!.
Summary: There’s a website called Unbound where authors post a video in which they “pitch” a book they want to write and people can “pledge” funds to help them do it. The Yahoo! article describes it as “a cross between a literary Dragon’s Den and the X-Factor”. Because what literature really needs is to be more like The X-Factor.
I had several reactions to this in quick succession. My first thought was “Brilliant, putting power with the writers and connecting them directly with their audiences! It’s just like I dreamed it!” Then I thought “This sounds a lot like Authonomy, which kind of sucks.” Then I thought “Where’s the money?” I can’t remember where I read this, and I think it was something to do with (fictional) crime rather than dubious publishing schemes, but the basic principle – and I think it’s sound – is that you’ll properly understand something once you know how the money is being made and by whom.
Authonomy, for example, describes itself as “a unique online community that connects readers, writers and publishing professionals” and the idea is that you upload some or all of your literary masterpiece and a community of readers sorts the wheat from the chaff and supports its favourite books which then get put under the noses of editors at HarperCollins (whose website it is) and, hey presto, a star is born in a modern and democratic fashion. In practice – or so was the case when, in a spirit of enquiry, I experimented with it a couple of years ago – there are no readers in the community. The vast majority of users you’ll encounter are trying to promote and increase the ranking of their own books. They may well be nice enough to leave helpful and encouraging comments on your work and help to boost you a couple of steps up the (extraordinarily long) ladder, but it will be in the hope that you’ll do the same for them. In practice, the people who get to the top are the people who spend the most time feverishly exchanging favours with other users. It’s hardly the meritocracy I was getting excited about earlier in the week. It’s also extraordinarily difficult not to see it as a very cynical move by HarperCollins. I mean, even if you work your mouse hand to the bone and get your book to the “Editor’s Desk”, all they’ve promised to do is read it. That’s right, folks, people want to be published by HarperCollins so badly that they swarm to enter a social networking contest to win the chance to have an editor read their work. Actually, perhaps it’s Authonomy that’s like The X Factor. It takes raw desperation separates it into its component parts: stuff that’s entertainingly bad and stuff that will definitely recoup any investment you put into it because in making its way to the hallowed halls of your attention it picked up its own fanbase. HarperCollins, like Simon Cowell, have literally nothing to lose.
Anyway, as far as I can make out, Unbound is like that, only the readers have to put in money and the books don’t actually exist yet. I think it’s also worth pointing this out (quote from the Yahoo! article): “Investors do not share the profits, just the glory of perhaps spotting the next Stieg Larsson.”
Translation: You provide the author’s advance (like a publishing house would) and get precisely nothing in return (like a publishing house very definitely wouldn’t) except your name in the book and a digital copy of it. Oh, and lunch with the author if you pledge £250. This is not how investment works.
It was in the same good old spirit of enquiry, then, that I went to examine the Unbound website and learn more. My efforts were curtailed, however, by the fact that the website is either incompatible with my computer/browser or just borked. I don’t think I have the latest version of Firefox, though, so maybe that’s my fault.
Alright, so the links at the top are a mystery. I can, however, access “Company Information” from the bottom of the page, so let’s try that.
“The Unbound model is very straightforward: the author pitches an idea and if enough readers support it, the book goes ahead. Unbound is both a funding platform and a publisher, fulfilling all the normal publishing functions but also splitting a book’s net profit 50/50 with the author. Under the traditional model an author is lucky to earn 10% of the cover price, whereas retailers are regularly expecting discounts of over 60%, plus a contribution to the costs of display and marketing. This is why books with print runs of fewer than 5,000 copies make less and less economic sense – even though it is precisely these books that contain the most innovative and challenging ideas.
“Unbound will keep the process transparent and simple: a reader helps great ideas get published, and in return receives an insight into the writing process and has their name printed as a patron in that and every subsequent edition.”
So I guess I’ve found the money. I’m amazed that they’ve managed to write this so that “You give us money and then we create something which we sell to you for more money” sounds like a positive thing. That description of the “traditional model”? Yeah, that’s how business works. I’m not exactly Team TradPub (see also: all of my other posts) but this much does not strike me as at all unreasonable. When shelling out an advance to an author, your TradPub is taking a calculated risk, gambling that the book is going to sell well. In return for taking that risk, they expect to make a profit if all goes well. It’s not even a big profit. I mean, you can make more profit by investing in things other than books. For all its faults, the TradPub industry (like all creative industries) is full of people who just really want to make books and get them to readers, because people who don’t have that passion are busy selling more sensible things. Truly, Satan walks among us.
Thank goodness, then, for good, honest Unbound, here to keep things transparent by transferring all the risk over to the readers who either really love the idea or just got tired of hauling all that excess money around with them.They then sit back and wait for the already-popular manuscripts to roll in, sell copies and split the profits with the author. I suppose if they’ve got boxes of them sitting around waiting to be sold then they’re taking some risk (although still not as much as the Big Bad TradPub) but given that they’re charging £20 a book, I rather suspect it’s a print-on-demand thing. (I could be wrong.)
But hey, it’s good for authors, right? Well, yes and no. Obviously 50% is bigger than 10%, so that’s nice. Although, if I recall my primary school maths lessons correctly, 50% of not much is actually slightly less desirable than 10% of lots so until they start shifting serious numbers of copies (which won’t be for a while, if ever) it’s probably less lucrative than TradPub. But, I hear you cry, this isn’t about TradPub authors! It’s about new voices breaking through! Championing brilliant unknowns!
Well, no, it’s not. I think that’s probably the idea (or an idea) but if I might direct you to this juicy excerpt from the “Authors” page:
“Currently Unbound is commissioning most of its projects from published authors, although we will include proposals from first-time authors that are submitted through literary agents or writing websites like www.abctales.com. Unfortunately what we can’t do is promise to read all unsolicited submissions: there just aren’t enough of us to do that yet, but keep checking back as we’ve got a plan up our sleeves which we’ll be launching soon.“
You know who they’re publishing at the moment? Terry Jones. Ex-Monty-Python, wrote-Labyrinth Terry Jones. And I’m sure the model will work great for him, but that’s because he’s already famous. And even if it was (or becomes) an open platform… it’s going to be just like Authonomy. With videos. So now you have to be good at both social networking and vlogging. Oh, and writing. Although, given that you don’t actually have to produce any of that to get your money, I wouldn’t worry too much about it.
When I started writing this post, I was just kind of rolling my eyes about this. Now I’m angry. I’m fed up with people’s enthusiasm for books and the publishing industry being exploited like this. What’s really bad about it is that it’s so close to being something good, like maybe a charitable organisation that raises funds from people who want to be, as it were, patrons of the literary arts and then distributes them to potentially-brilliant writers who can use them to take time off work to focus on producing something great that we wouldn’t otherwise get to read. They could even still create videos to bid for this patronage if that’s the way the wind is blowing these days. Or a website that puts authors in touch with potential private patrons. The Yahoo! article says:
“Although it sounds revolutionary, schemes like this have been around since Charles Dickens’ time.
His work was often funded by “subscriptions”.”
I’m not sure what exactly they’re talking about here (fill me in in the comments if you are!) but I think it’s either that Dickens’ novels were published as serials so people had to keep buying copies of his magazine, thus funding him, which is selling people a product and not the same thing at all, or some kind of private patronage thing I don’t know about, like Chaucer and John of Gaunt (eff yeah, literature degree), which is still not the same thing.
In essence, if you’re going to part with your hard-earned cash in return for nothing but a warm, fuzzy feeling, there are so many better things you could be doing with it than giving it to Unbound.
One final thing just because I’m annoyed now: this is one of their “infrequently asked questions”.
Q – I’d like to buy a book that is deliberately marketed and designed to look just like a bestselling book from last year – even though has nothing to do with the original book. Is that something you can help me with?
A – No, you have us confused with a traditional publishing house.
Hur hur. I see what you guys did there. Buurrrrrn.
Let me know what you think about this in the comments and please pass it on to any readers or writers you know. Now that I’ve spent the last two hours getting increasingly worked up, I really want people to know about this!
This blog post suggests that it’s actually a scam. That might be taking it a bit far, but it’s worth taking a look at the fine print they’re referring to. In fact, it says that the authors don’t even get to keep the money they raise, like I thought, it’s only to cover printing costs. Going to look into this.
OK, still none the wiser at the moment. Not sure where that post got that information but, now that I’m looking for it, information about what the money is actually for is suspiciously hard to find on their website. Also, the video on their homepage says they print “special editions” of the books only. So that warm, fuzzy feeling you’re supposedly buying? Worthless. You haven’t helped a book become properly published, you’ve contributed to a limited printing of an otherwise still-obscure book.
By Isabella Tyler