I Wrote a Goddamn Novel and Now I Need Your Help
Adventures in publishing, crowdfunding, and getting dressed.
UPDATE: My debut novel, Johnny Ruin, met its funding target in just 9 days, and as of March 22, 2018, is available in all good bookshops. You can buy it here, or read about why I crowdfunded it below:
The Wednesday after Blue Monday — Blue Wednesday, if you will — I was having a typically somber pity party on the couch when my email pinged. My agent. “You’ve been offered a deal for your novel. In Germany.”
I paused Netflix, read it again. My agent is nothing like Estelle from Friends, but if it helps, picture Estelle from Friends, blue smoke, blue rinse, smoker’s larynx (Welsh accent), saying: “You got the part, kid.” Cough, splutter, grin.
The Germans — specifically the publishing house Hoffman und Campe — were offering an advance of €5,000, and planning to rush publication for autumn 2017 (in publishing, 9 months is basically tomorrow).
You’ve got to love the Germans. No really, you must. It’s in the contract.
I emailed back something terribly witty and debonair. Picture me in black and white, three piece suit, enjoying a cigar at my typewriter in 1927, shouting “FOR THE LOVE OF GOD, YES DO IT. DO IT!”
I cried, I celebrated. I called my mum. I showered. Being a special occasion –the shower, not the book deal – I used the fancy Molton Brown stuff.
I did have a follow up question for my nothing-like-Estelle-from-Friends agent, and that was this: Any news from the UK publishers yet?
I had in fact had news from UK publishers. Since my manuscript was submitted in the Autumn, my agent had been getting a steady stream of it. Mostly it was apologetic: Sorry, but this isn’t for us. Often, it was positively apologetic: We love this! But it’s not for us.
We collected rejections, somewhere in the region of 16. Not entirely unheard of, of course. Manuscripts are often sent out to a dozen or more publishers at once, and are rarely every editor’s cup of tea. You only need one yes.
In late January I got that yes from a publisher called Unbound.
I’m a big fan of Unbound (it’s in the contract). Last year they published a barnstorming book of essays called The Good Immigrant, and got a Booker nomination for Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake in 2014.
Unbound was founded in 2011 by three writers, Dan Kieran, Justin Pollard and John Mitchinson, who wanted to create a way for readers to have more of say in the kind of books that get published.
As such, Unbound operates in much the same way as a traditional publisher with one major difference: They crowd fund their publishing costs. The production, editing, design, publicity, etc.
See, publishing a book is expensive. And very risky. Especially when you’re giving an advance. Especially when the author in question is a debut with a weird book that isn’t a guaranteed slam dunk.
An advance is a bet by a publisher against future sales of the book. As with all bets, this is risky, and many authors never ‘earn-out’ their advance, that is, they never sell enough books to make back the value of their advance.
It’s complex, and because rates, advances and costs can vary from book to book, and between different authors and publishers, it’s difficult to pin down a ‘typical’ book deal. But the common understanding is that the average author can expect to make up to 10% of the cover price on each book.
Like I said, this varies, and can change if a book is discounted by a retailer, or becomes a bestseller. Lincoln Michel at Electric Literature wrote a great post explaining how authors make money via traditional publishers.
The common feature of every traditional book deal is risk. Unbound side-step some risk by asking readers to choose what books should be published.
They also don’t offer advances. They ask you to share the risk. If an author can do the crowd funding campaign, if they can build an audience and prove their book is marketable, they get a 50% share of profits.
My novel is called Johnny Ruin, and it’s about a guy who takes a road trip through his own mind with Jon Bon Jovi. I know, right?
It’s a novel that plays with genre and identity, and explores themes of heartbreak and mental health. The journey is a classic American road trip — from the redwood forests of California to the skyscrapers of New York — with a twist: each state is a different state of mind. Lust, anger, jealousy, etc.
The narrator’s memory changes things, creating an ever shifting landscape where fact and fiction rewrite each other. When his ex-girlfriend turns up, demanding she be allowed to leave his mind, he has to decide whether to fix himself, or let go of the one memory he’s clinging to.
Think of it as a bit like Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas meets Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind. It’s weird, it’s experimental, and it’s sad. It’s also pretty funny. But don’t take my word for it, read the opening chapter on Unbound.
Once the deal was agreed, I had to put on some pants and start getting my campaign together. I’ve never run a crowdfunder, and I rarely wear pants. It’s all pretty daunting. Luckily, Unbound are there to help with the former.
A few weeks ago I went to meet the team and have a chat with Georgia, the campaigns manager. It was very early, so coffee was involved. As were pants.
“It’s probably the most frustrating way to buy a book,” she told me. “People who back the campaign have to wait a year to get their hands on the finished product. They do it because they want to feel part of the journey,”
When a reader pledges to a book they get sent regular updates from the author on their progress, and authors a direct line to their patrons, not just for this book, but for the books after it.
There are easier ways to buy books. The pledge rewards, the name in the back of the book, supporting an emerging author — all these things are nice perks. But being part of the experience is really what sells it to readers. Guilt also helps, apparently.
I’d expected to work hard publicising my book. Even if, for some insane reason, I didn’t want to do everything in my power to help get my book in the hands of readers, it’s literally in the contract: “The author is expected to undertake reasonable efforts to publicise the book.”
Most contracts have some variation of this clause, and reasonable is a piece-of-string word in this instance. It means attending your book launch, doing readings and a festival or two. It most definitely means tweeting, blogging, and doing press. But there’s no minimum, or maximum, really.
If you work a full time job, or are raising a family, your definiton of reasonable will differ to mine, a man with no responsiblity and no trousers.
The difference with the Unbound model is that you have to start doing the publicity sooner. That’s all. The book won’t fund itself. And besides, the campaign is a great way to build buzz for the launch.
If you get especially lucky, and can fund it up to 200% or more — like The Good Immigrant and Letters of Note — it becomes part of the story when selling it into book shops: “Look how popular this is already.”
As great and as terrifying as 200% sounds, I’ll worry about that later.
First things first. At the other end of the scale are the books that never fund. Yes, a book can fund over 100%, but if it doesn’t get 100%, it gets nothing.
So here we are. After a few weeks of prep, my Unbound campaign launches today. A novel I dreamed up a decade ago, a manuscript I’ve been working on for 18 months, is one step closer to publication.
I’m feeling pretty good about it. That might just be the whisky. But designing the campaign and pulling all the pieces together has mostly been a fun distraction from worrying about the whole thing.
While getting ready for launch, I had a look at a few Unbound campaigns and found ones that get funded tend to have a wide variety of pledge levels and rewards. So I put together a fun list of things at a range of price points:
Want a signed copy? It’s yours.
Want to come to the launch? Go for it.
Want to join me at karaoke after? Even better.
I also had a movie-style poster made for backers. And if you subscribe to my weekly mix tape newsletter, you might like the bespoke playlist pledge, where I’ll make you a mix tape based on your favourite song.
For fans of my BuzzFeed work, you can get your hands on the infamous pop-up blanket fort I made. Same goes for the writing desk I built, and the scaffolding bookshelf (though that will cost you).
If you’re Jon Bon Jovi, there’s even a special pledge level for you.
Oh, and I made a video:
I don’t know if any of this is going to work. I‘m told it can take four months to fund a book. I don’t want to wait four months. My birthday is in two weeks. I’ll be 34. It sure would be swell if we could get in funded by then.
Hey, it’s worth a try.
My plan is to try lots of things — gifts, guilt trips, bribery, blackmail — see what works, and do more of that. The old trial and error method. A bit like getting undressed while drunk (the best way is not to get dressed to start).
If it works, then my book will be out in the UK next Spring. If it doesn’t, I’ll be back here telling you all about it. Hey, you can always read it in German.
Here’s where I ask a favour: Please support my book. If you like what you’ve heard so far, or you enjoyed the first chapter, chances are you’ll like the novel. The Germans bloody loved it. My mum did too, but she has to.
It’s in the contract.
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