John Mitchinson is a man who knows about books. He was Waterstones’ first marketing director, and MD at Harvill Press and Cassell. At the latter, he published The Beatles and Michael Palin along with such erstwhile titles as Knitting with Dog Hair.
For the past ten years he has been director of research for the TV show QI. Then, four years ago, he co-founded Unbound, an innovative literary crowdfunding site. Having worked with John at Cassell’s, I was intrigued to hear how he did it and how it works.
How did the idea of Unbound come about?
The idea of subscription in advance or funding a book before it is published goes back to the 18th century. For instance, when Alexander Pope wanted a new collection of poems published or Samuel Johnson his dictionary they would get patrons to commit in advance.
I had friends who were not getting book deals, authors who were earning less, and bookshops that seemed to be in terminal decline. Yet the audience at literary festivals was increasing every year.
There seemed to be a mismatch between what readers wanted and what the publishing industry was able to deliver. So my solution was Unbound.
We are both a crowdfunding platform and a publisher. We don’t just fund authors; authors come on the site and pitch ideas for books. If their book reaches a target amount, it is published.
We have a deal with Penguin Random House to ensure that our books to get into bookshops and on to Amazon.
How does it work?
To be published by Unbound means you get a group of fans that will fund your work, and it’s a 50/50 profit share with the authors. Everyone who pledges to support an Unbound book gets their name listed in the back of the book, just as [backers] did in Samuel Johnson’s dictionary.
The author gets to write the book he wants to and the reader feels they have made something happen that might otherwise not have happened.
The crucial thing is, it’s not self-publishing or vanity publishing; it’s putting an idea in front of an audience. We now have 65,000 active users on the site and if the idea flies and it funds, then we get them distributed in the bookshops.
We advertise through social media, Facebook and Twitter and our big challenge is to get our 65k users up to 250k users over the next three years. At that level we should be able to fund almost anything.
How did you fund Unbound?
I was lucky enough to meet Paul Birch from Bebo, who, when he heard our idea, gave us £50k to build the prototype of the website. We have since had two rounds of investments and have raised about two million pounds.
We are four years in and not quite profitable. We employ 20 staff and our user numbers and turnover are going up.
How much does it cost to publish a standard book?
It costs around £10k for a standard work of fiction, and about £30k for an illustrated work.
For our most successful book, Letters of Note, we had to raise more than £50k to publish but we actually raised nearly £130k. It has gone on to sell 200,000 copies and been translated into 18 languages.
How long does it take to raise the money?
On average about three months, but we had a book recently that funded in 11 hours and a few that have funded in less than a week.
John’s top three tips for starting a business in your fifties
1. Don’t work with arseholes. I think you have earned the right at 50 not to work with arseholes or negative people.
2. Always raise more money than you think you need.
3. If somebody else can do it better than you, employ them.
John’s biggest mistake at Unbound
We published a beautiful but very heavy book about Soho club culture and made the mistake of putting in free postage. This ended up wiping off about £25k. Not something we will repeat.
John’s biggest mistake in his career
My biggest mistake ever was in my Waterstones days, when I was in my twenties. We made a mail order catalogue that was over an inch too thick to go through the average letterbox.
Everyone got a card to collect a parcel from the post office and thought they were receiving a lovely gift. This was one of the reasons Waterstones ended up being bought by WH Smith.