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A screen grab of the home page of Unbound, the new British website that helps writers raise money to write a book.
A screen grab of the home page of Unbound, the new British website that helps writers raise money to write a book.

Russell Smith: On Culture

The author as entrepreneur, and the dangers this poses Add to ...

The British company Unbound offers a fundraising platform for authors who want to get started on their next book. It is basically a subscription model for the creation of art - something that was popular in previous centuries. It is somewhat like the U.S.-based site Kickstarter, which supports investment drives for all kinds of art forms, including movies; Unbound is purely for written works. It works like this: The author posts an idea for a book, and how much money she's going to need to write it. If you're interested in the idea, you subscribe. You pledge as little as £10 ($16) or as much as £250 ($400).

Previous columns by Russell Smith

Once the author has reached her target, she gets to work. Once she has finished, Unbound (which is backed by Faber and Faber) becomes a publishing company. Those who have pledged support get a copy of the book: Those who only pledged the minimum amount get an e-book. A little more gets you a signed, limited-edition hardcover, and the maximum amount gets you a dinner with the author. If the writer doesn't raise enough money or doesn't complete the project, you get your money back.

Mozart raised money for the writing of concertos in this way: The subscribers not only got to attend the premiere but received a copy of the score. Dickens funded some of his books in a similar way. Common to those great success stories, however, is existing success. Who is going to pledge money to read a book by someone she has never read before and with no reviews to illuminate her?

Indeed, Unbound is kicking off its life primarily with high-grossing authors: former Monty Python comedy-team member Terry Jones and TV writer Amy Jenkins have already signed up and are collecting money for their new projects. Prospective authors must apply and be accepted. Obviously you're going to need some kind of profile before those behind Unbound will invest their publicity machinery in you and grant you access to their audience. It's a selection process not unlike that of conventional publishers.

In other words, this is a great game for the famous. I can't see it working even for a "mid-list" author (that is to say, one who has published many books and received enough critical praise to continue doing so but who has never gathered enough of an audience to make his work consistently profitable). It also makes me nervous in a vaguer way. This is part of a trend, a general push from the culture to make writers start to think and feel like entrepreneurs, to make them conscious at all times of their commercial worth, their numbers.

We have seen this push particularly from the publishing industry, which encourages authors to market themselves by creating (and paying for) interactive websites, promotional videos, blogs, regular tweets and embarrassingly boastful Facebook updates. Publishers say it is necessary for writers to do this themselves because it is the personal element that's important in their relationship with readers.

This may well be true but it's problematic. I'm concerned about the slow and subtle shift in attitude that constant marketing may effect in writers. Once you are in charge of your own promotion and sales, you cannot but help think of your audience as a market, and a market must be pleased. Writers should never think about their audience - they should never worry that their ideal demographic (say, women over 45 living outside large cities) won't get the learned reference or will be nauseated by the torture scene. Art is not just a product like any other.

If we are in charge now not only of our own promotion but of finding private investment to even get the project off the ground, wow ... I am envisioning a sort of literary Dragons' Den, in which hard-nosed marketers grill every head-in-the-clouds poet on his project's bottom line before the learned writer is encouraged to begin canvassing banks and wealthy relatives as financial partners.

It's not so ridiculous, I know: I do know lots of people who want to write and direct films, and they spend half their time - no, more than half their time - raising money, not writing or directing. It hasn't killed that industry. They are still artists. But I always thought writers of books were privileged - they didn't have to do that. That thought seems absurdly indulgent these days.

 

Previous columns by Russell Smith

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