Friday, July 29, 2011

Unbound: nothing new

I admit to some mystification about media excitement surrounding Unbound. See, for example, this Fast Company article, about Unbound's "crowd-financed, spine-tingling effort to reinvent book publishing":

...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.

What's new about this? Well, nothing really. It's just Kickstarter for books--but instead of the author getting all the profit, the publisher gets 50%. As co-founder Justin Pollard says rather magnanimously (here), "We never make more money than the author."

Many of today's traditional (I use the word loosely) publishers of course do make more money than the author--if a book is successful. If a book fails spectacularly, then the publisher eats the investment while the author keeps the advance. The author's risk and investment is their time and effort. The publisher's risk is their usual overhead (office space, salaries, utilities) and product-specific costs (author's guarantee against royalties, printing, shipping, co-op, advertising, etc.).

In business, it's usually accepted that whoever takes the greatest risk is likely to win the greatest reward (or take the biggest loss). Publishing has always been a little different because, to be blunt, most writers are not very focused on money. Some of us are so self-involved that we don't want to soil our pretty artistic hands with grubby commerce. Some of us are terrified of the real world and the people in it--especially the possibility of rejection. And some of us are so compulsive that we can only write helplessly and hope that some Nice Publisher comes along and fixes everything. (Seriously, I have met writers like this. They are willfully ignorant of reality: Special Snowflakes who believe the world will reconfigure itself around them and their precious talent.)

Unbound is smart: it gets to keep half the profit yet take no financial risk. It's basically a subscription model--similar to eighteenth and nineteenth century publishing: don't publish until you have the demand. It's good for authors who have some kind of platform, who are already well known. They might not be professional authors--they might not know how to access book sales channels without help--but they already have an audience. They exchange the non-writing work--the business of writing, the trade expertise--for 50% of the net.

Kickstarter, too, is based on the subscription model. It, too, has different reward levels, depending on 'donation'. It, too, can produce handsome print volumes and instant digital editions. Kickstarter won't automatically put your book into traditional sales channels, though. Kickstarter authors have to do that themselves. (They also have to design the book, design the sales pitch, make the video, sort the cover, get blurbs, wrestle with metadata...) But then they get to keep the profit.

Which is best for you? Depends on your appetite for risk and reward.

Kelley has reached the end of her 41 Days of Story in support of the Clarion West Writers Workshop. She ends on a high note with "Sound and Silence," a piece about love and music. It features Mars and Duncan, the main characters of her utterly genderqueer novella, "Dangerous Space":

Duncan and I weren’t speaking to each other, which meant we only talked in the studio, and even that was becoming harder. Lacerated hearts are what they are, but if we let them interfere with a new album, we would really be in trouble. And so everyone was worried.

Johnny said diffidently one night, as he was unplugging his guitar, “So you and Duncan…” He had a strategy of leaving questions unspoken, and most people can’t stand silence; they will rush to answer whatever they think they hear, which often means whatever question is loudest within them. And those moments can be so revealing. So astonishing. Sometimes so cruel.

But I’m an engineer, and I know better than anyone that music is silence as well as sound. I just raised a polite eyebrow. [more]

As Kelley says:

If you’ve enjoyed these pieces, please consider a donation to Clarion West to show your support. The Write-a-thon links will be active for several more days, and you can also always make a donation through our usual link.

Here’s all the work of the 41 days. You’ll also find these pieces cross-posted at Sterling Editing as incentive for writers to practice their editing and story-building skills.

I'll just add: these 41 pieces are fresh, untouched draft. They are fabulous. If you liked them, you should try her finished work. Treat yourself to her full collection of polished fiction, Dangerous Space.

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