Crowded House: Why I Crowd Funded My Book

Award-winning writer Alice Jolly explains why she took the crowd-funding route to publish her forthcoming memoir Dead Babies and Seaside Towns.

Yes, I crowd-funded a book. I have to repeat this phrase to myself often in order to believe it. Surely a person who crowd-funds a book is outgoing, modern, and has a talent for self-promotion? I’m more the lurk-behind-a-pillar-at-a party type myself.

But I did it; I raised £10,000 for the publication of my book. Was it worth it? Would I recommend the experience to other writers? With publication over a month away at the time of writing, the jury is still out. Overall, however, my experience with the crowd-funding publisher Unbound (“a new way to connect authors and readers”) has been positive. Not just positive, actually, but also fun, frightening and exciting.

How many people can say that about publishing? Let’s admit it: writers and publishers do tend to exist in an Eeyore-like state of gloom; everything is bad and it is always getting worse. Unbound was set up by three writers who were fed up with all the moaning.

My experience with the crowd-funded Unbound has been positive. Not just positive, actually, but also fun, frightening and exciting.

They were sure there must be another way of publishing books – and they found it. Their model is generally hailed as innovative and modern. In reality, what they have done is to use the internet to revive the ancient practice of publishing by subscription. This is the way that Dr Johnson published his Dictionary and it is also the way that many novels were published in the 18th and 19th centuries.

But enough of the history. If you want to publish with Unbound, how do you make it happen? Firstly, Unbound has to decide whether they want your book. It guards its gate as carefully as any traditional publishing house. Equally, however, it can afford to take a punt on a risky book in a way that other publishing houses often can’t.

This is because, before Unbound publishes, the writer has raised the money in subscriptions (in my case that £10,000) to cover the production costs of the book. Unbound might not always win but it can’t lose. Clever, isn’t it? The financial deal they offer to authors is also attractive: once the book is published, the author gets 50% of royalties.

So what’s the catch? Raising those subscriptions, of course. I needed approximately 500 people to each pledge £20 in order to raise the £10,000 required. In return, these subscribers will get a beautiful hardback copy of the book with their name in the back. People who contribute more money can get other benefits such as an invitation to the book launch or lunch with the author.

To help a writer raise the subscriptions, Unbound makes a video about you and your book, and sets up a web page with an extract from the book and a biography. After that, it’s over to you. I didn’t think it sounded very difficult to get 500 people to sign up. I was wrong.

Early on, I went along to read at a short story event with an audience of over 100 people. I reckoned I would get 10 subscriptions. I got two. It turned out to be impossible to predict who would sign up and who wouldn’t. Old school friends I hadn’t seen in 20 years piled in, as did former students. Some close friends never signed up.

It can be embarrassing emailing your friends and neighbours again and again. You have to become adept at using social media, and you need to go to any writing-related event to which you are invited and market yourself shamelessly. All this eats into the time that you should be spending on writing another book.

You have to become adept at using social media, and you need to go to any writing-related event to which you are invited and market yourself shamelessly.

The whole process is hard work – sometimes frustrating and sometimes bruising. You know exactly who has signed up and who hasn’t. You learn not to take it personally. (Note to Uncle Arnold: it is not sufficient to keep saying that you’ve signed up; you do actually have to do it.)

However, when people do sign up it can also be heart-warming and life-affirming. My memoir is partly about my stillborn daughter, Laura, and so I frequently received messages from people I didn’t know, with very sad stories to tell and huge enthusiasm for the book. Some of those people spent ages sending information around about the book and bringing in subscriptions. Never have I been so dependent on the kindness of strangers.

Also, the people who do sign up generally fall in love with the idea of crowd-funding. Unbound attracts book enthusiasts: people who don’t just want to read books but who also want to choose which books get published. They want to follow books through their production process, comment on covers, and see previews of the text. Unbound says that one of its main aims is to build relationships between writers and readers, and their model does certainly maximise the power of reader enthusiasm.

Once you get the subscriptions you need – in my case, it took six months of hard work – Unbound operates as any traditional publishing house would, dealing with editing, proofreading, cover design and publicity. I have worried a lot about the production process. “Do they know what they are doing?” I keep asking myself. This has more to do with my own angst than with the facts. The people I’m dealing with at Unbound are meticulous and have listened to my views. I have felt more involved than I ever did when my novels were published by a ‘traditional’ publishing house.

Unbound attracts book enthusiasts: people who don’t just want to read books but who also want to choose which books get published.

But, of course, just publishing a book isn’t the point. As we all know, anyone can now do that. The question is: how does Unbound go about selling the book to a wider audience? The news on that question is exciting. Unbound has recently signed a deal with Penguin Random House, who will now deal with the distribution of Unbound books. This is a huge coup. For Unbound writers, it means the possibility of a small, personal publishing service with access to big publisher distribution. Isn’t that what most writers would like?

Unbound has had some notable successes. It was shortlisted for The Independent Publisher of the Year Award in 2013 and 2014. It has had big commercial successes with Shaun Usher’s Letters of Note and Lists of Note. The Wake, by Paul Kingsnorth, made the 2014 Man Booker Prize longlist, and last week won the inaugural Book of the Year Award at The Bookseller magazine’s industry awards.

And don’t think that nobody goes down the Unbound route unless they don’t have any other option. Only recently, Danny Scheinmann became an Unbounder. His first book was an international bestseller so he certainly did not have to choose Unbound. But he, like many others, had reservations about the mainstream publishing industry and so decided to give crowd-funding a try.

Is Unbound just for one book or could it be for a career? I have to say that initially I thought of it as a fling; now I’m wondering – could it be marriage? My memoir Dead Babies and Seaside Towns is a book with a specific market and the proceeds are going to SANDS, the stillbirth and neonatal death charity. That helped to raise the subscriptions. Would my next book be so well supported? It’s rather like asking people to sponsor you for a charity run: people are happy to sponsor a one-off event, but would they do it again and again?

I have felt more involved than I ever did when my novels were published by a ‘traditional’ publishing house.

Unbound believes that its subscribers will keep pledging. It is now publishing the second books of some writers, and reports that those authors are finding it easier to raise the subscriptions a second time around. That should be true. After all, you already have an email list of all the people who signed up before.

I would now be loath to return to traditional publishing, even if I could. Unbound was there when I needed it, while the mainstream publishing industry certainly was not; it just didn’t have the nerve for my book. And I won’t forget that fact. Other than the question of raising the subscriptions, I can’t see any downside to the Unbound model at the moment. But I’ll keep you posted. Meanwhile, roll on the 2 July.

Top tips for crowd-funding a book

  • Think carefully about whether your book is suitable for the crowd-funding approach. Is there a particular group of people who will support it?
  • Consider whether you will be able to raise the necessary subscriptions. Do you already have a track record? Are you well-connected? Determined? Thick-skinned?
  • Work collaboratively: identify other authors who are crowd-funding and put the word out about their books. They will do the same for you.
  • Crowd-funding is about building a relationship with readers. Give them extracts from the book; an insight into the writing process; a preview of the cover.
  • Comfort yourself with the fact that you do need to do all this work anyway; you are just doing it before publication, instead of at and after publication.


© Alice Jolly 2015

Alice Jolly is a novelist and playwright. She teaches on the Masters in Creative Writing at Oxford University, and won the 2014 VS Pritchett Memorial Prize for her unpublished short story, Ray the Rottweiler.

“Dead Babies and Seaside Towns”, her compelling memoir of stillbirth, surrogacy and seaside towns will be published by Unbound on 2 July 2015.


Unbound: how it works

Unbound was founded in 2011 by three writers: Dan Kieran, Justin Pollard and John Mitchinson. Once accepted by Unbound, authors can pitch book ideas directly to readers via the Unbound website. Readers can then pledge their support from contributing as little as £10, to funding the whole book.