Bloodied but Unbound: My route to crowdfunding

Steve Colgan has funded two books on Unbound. His latest, Why Did The Policeman Cross The Road, recently hit 100%.

Here he explains why he chose the crowdfunding route…

‘Noooo! Don’t do it!’ my friends all cried out in unison when, in 2011, I announced that I was going to crowd-fund my new book, Constable Colgan’s Connectoscope. My previous book, Joined-Up Thinking, had been published in 2008 by the more traditional route of an agent getting me a deal with an established publisher, namely Pan Macmillan. Why, they asked, was I chucking away that kind of security for something newfangled and pretty much untried?

What my friends hadn’t realised was that the whole landscape of publishing was undergoing seismic change at that time. Several well-known book shop chains had collapsed — Borders, Ottakars, Dillons and Books etc. chief among them — and book shops in general were disappearing in droves. In 2005, there were at least 4000 high street book shops in the UK but, by 2012, there were just 1,878. In February 2014, The Guardian reported that more than 500 independent book shops had closed since 2005. The simple and obvious reason for this was the rise of on-line purchasing from sites like Amazon, although the arrival of ebooks and instant downloads had also had an impact; in 2012, ebook sales rose by 134% on 2011 figures and represented more than 7% of book publishers’ total sales.

But the change in people’s buying behaviour went deeper than simply where they were buying books from. The range of books that people were buying was also shrinking. People shopping in book shops tend to browse and quite often discover a new author or a new title by chance. However, people buying from online sites tend to log in when they are going to buy a specific book. Occasionally, they might be seduced by suggestions of other books made by the website but, most of the time, they have a clear idea of what they’re after. And where do they learn about books if they don’t visit book shops? From adverts, mostly. Consequently, heavily publicised books tend to dominate. Staggeringly, at the peak of their popularity and hype, E L James’ Fifty Shades trilogy accounted for almost half of all novels sold in 2012.

And then there’s what the media likes to call ‘the cult of celebrity’. Another big change that occurred around 2011/12 was the rise of the celeb book. Autobiographies have always been around, of course; some of my favourite books, such as David Niven’s The Moon’s a Balloon and Oliver Postgate’s Seeing Things are autobiographical. However, the publishing industry went into overdrive around 2010/11 and suddenly celebrity biographies were everywhere. Now, I can’t blame publishers for this; celebs have fan bases and, therefore, a pretty much guaranteed book market and that was what publishers needed during a time of great uncertainty. TV tie-ins, particularly cookery books, were another string to the same bow. The market soon became awash with celebrities and this presented a serious problem for the non-celebrity writer because, all of a sudden, there was no more money left for advances.

If you don’t know how an advance works, let me explain (and if you do, look away now and skip this paragraph). Traditionally, an advance — as the name suggests — is a lump sum of money paid by the publisher to the writer to (a) secure exclusive rights to a book or several books, and (b) to give the author something to live on while they write the book. When the book is published and goes on sale, the publisher recoups the advance from the profits. Once that’s been done, the author will start to earn from sales of their book. But here’s the thing … rich celebs don’t need an advance in order to pay the bills but their status demands (or their agents do) that they are paid huge sums to secure a book deal.

Around the time that I was looking to publish my second book, there were some silly figures being bandied around. It was widely reported that Pippa Middleton had received a huge advance — reputedly £400,000 — for a book on party planning. And Little Brown Publishing paid out a whopping £350,000 to secure the biography of the winner of Britain’s Got Talent 2012. If you need reminding, that was Pudsey the dog. £350,000 for the biography of a dog, which could, instead, have been 35 advances of £10,000 to keep 35 writers afloat and put 35 wonderful new books on the bookshelves. Now just think of those kinds of sums multiplied by the number of sporting heroes, reality TV stars, soap actors, comedians and other sundry celebs all clamouring to produce a book. Not surprisingly, all of a sudden there was no pool of money left for the likes of writers like me and, accordingly, advances shrank to pitiful levels. The Society of Authors states that new writers could expect an average advance of £10,000 around 20 years ago, whereas now they’re ‘lucky’ to get between £1,000 and £3,000 which, frankly, won’t keep your head above water for even a couple of months while you work on your book. Life had become suddenly very tough for the jobbing writer. To be fair, it was never a bed of roses, but at least you had a chance. Now it was going to be very much harder to earn a living from writing unless you were a person in the public eye or already a firmly-established author with a large fan base.

In February 2015, many newspapers reported that 60% of Brits taking part in a YouGov poll had stated that their dream job was ‘author’. Which only goes to show, I suppose, how little the average Joe or Joanne knows about the life of a writer. I suspect that what that 60% really meant was that their dream job was being J K Rowling or E L James.

In 2012 the Authors’ Licensing and Collecting Society (ALCS), in conjunction with Bournemouth University and the Centre for Intellectual Property Policy and Management (CIPPM), surveyed 25,000 authors to ask them about their working lives. What it revealed (or, rather, reinforced) is that most authors struggle to survive. A typical UK author earns 33% less than the national average wage. Only the top 10% of writers reap any real rewards — it’s a ‘winner takes all’ market — and they earn more than 50% of total income from book sales. In other equally skilled professions the bottom 50% of workers earn nearly 40% of total income. Meanwhile, research by the Society of Authors shows that 75% of writers earn less than £20,000 a year and 46% earn less than £5,000. Only 20% of writers earn their income from writing; 60% of professional writers need another job to survive (I work part-time in a brewery, by the way).

In a recent article for The Guardian, bestselling author Ian Rankin wrote: ‘It’s easier than ever to get your stuff seen by people. But it’s harder than ever to make a living from it. Look at the money that publishers are paying for new writers … less than they paid 20 years ago. They know first novels don’t sell many copies and, if writers decide to sidestep the traditional publishing route and sell their stuff by themselves online, they’re having to sell it for virtually nothing — 99p.’ Rankin has made a plea for tax-breaks for writers. Rankin believes that a scheme modelled on the artists’ exemption arrangement in Ireland would invest in the next generation of creative talent. ‘If you want to give new writers a start, then a tax incentive is one thing you can do,’ he said. Under the 1997 Irish scheme, the first €40,000 (£33,000) of annual income earned by writers, composers or visual artists from the sale of their work is exempt from tax. As Rankin explained, the scheme was capped because some well-established names were ‘tempted to move to Ireland’ to avoid tax.

All of this was happening at around the time that I was looking to publish my second book. So perhaps you now can understand why I decided to try something new.

I chose to pitch my book to Unbound, an innovative new publisher that straddled the gap between traditional publishing and crowd funding. To explain why I chose them, let’s briefly look at the various routes by which a person who has no agent and who isn’t signed to a traditional publishing house might take to get their book in print.

Firstly, there is self-publishing. It’s never been easier to publish a book and there are many sites, such as Lulu, Smashwords, Createspace, Blurb, Cafepress, etc. where you can make an ebook or a print-on-demand physical copy available for purchase. It costs you nothing up-front as a proportion of all sales goes to the website hosting your book. You can also, of course, put an ebook directly on sale on Amazon. The disadvantage of self-publishing is that you pretty much have to do everything yourself; editing, proofreading, cover design, marketing, the lot. You are, quite literally, going it alone.

A second option is to submit it to an on-line publishing site. But do be careful — some of these kinds of sites will publish anything, regardless of quality or content, and will charge the author for doing so despite ding little or nothing to help (these are the sites that the derogative term ‘vanity publishing’ was aimed at). As such, they are no better than self-publishing and you’re out of pocket. However, there are a number of respectable ones; the whole Fifty Shades juggernaut began after the first book was picked up by an Australian on-line publisher, The Writer’s Coffee Shop, who released them as e-books and print-on-demand paperbacks. The advantage of these sites over self-publishing is that they do provide a degree of support in terms of editorial and design services etc. However they do, as mentioned above, charge for these services.

Your third option is to become the publisher yourself and crowd fund the book. This means simply that you raise enough money by public subscription to make the book a reality. Sites such as Kickstarter, Indiegogo, Rockethub etc. make it pretty easy to launch a project. Naturally, the amount you set out to raise will be dictated by what you aim to do; if you intend to do all the work yourself, your target is likely to be lower than if you plan to employ people to do things like design, typesetting and distribution, for example.

When crowd funding works, it really works well. My good friend, the artist Mr Bingo, recently ran a hugely successful campaign on Kickstarter to fund a deluxe book collection of his ‘Hate Mail’ postcard illustrations. He asked for £35,000. He raised over £135,000. However, it only worked as well as it did because he put the effort in; he created a rap video with very high production values to help sell the concept and devised some ingenious and hilarious reward levels to encourage people to invest. One of my favourites was the £75 ‘Dirty Queen’ level, where he promised to ‘draw a one-off pornographic drawing on an envelope of Queen Elizabeth II, incorporating the postage stamp as her head’ and ‘depending on the number of stamps, it may include more than one Queen, in a lesbian scene’. Another was the £200 level: ‘Meet me for a pint in five years’ time’. Both levels sold out, incidentally. He also doggedly promoted the book across every social media platform he could and made lots of personal appearances, giving talks, promoting the book and generally being very entertaining. And that, my friends, is the secret to successful crowd funding:

Innovation. Fun. Perseverence.