26 Fruits



This week’s guest blogger is John Mitchinson. He’s a good friend who was originally a client 25 years ago at Waterstone’s. He then went into publishing and commissioned my first book We, me, them & it. More recently he’s the man behind QI and Unbound, and one of the 15 Dark Angels who collectively wrote KeepingMum. Which brings us to his subject today….

A Tale of Two Novels

keeping mum0012LowResIt’s been an interesting 10 days. Unbound, the crowd-funding publisher I helped to found three years ago learnt that one of our books had been long-listed for the Man Booker Prize for Fiction: The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth. Amazing news, but somewhat tempered by the discovery that another one of our books – Keeping Mum, the collective novel written by 15 Dark Angels, including me – had sold 87 copies in the five weeks since publication.

Even by publishing’s low standards, this is a spectacularly small number.

As I’m only fifteenth of the authorial function, I’m going to set aside the usual modesty and say that Keeping Mum is a terrific book. The 9 five star reviews on Amazon call it ‘a uniquely interesting reading experience’, a ‘compelling narrative’ and ‘a pitch-perfect choir of distinctly vivid, well-orchestrated voices’. Every one I know who has read it – and there are many because I had persuaded a lot of friends and colleagues to help us fund it through Unbound – has loved the book.

So, what went wrong? Actually, nothing. Amazingly enough, the average sale of a first novel in the UK is fewer than 400 copies. It’s one of the reasons the average earnings of UK authors continues to sink. In a survey published last month, the annual income had reached £11,000, down from £16,000 in 2007. Of course, it has never been easy to make a living by the pen – it’s part of the Grub Street mythology we were all brought up on – but it is getting much worse.

This is why we started Unbound – to plug authors into the real energy source in the industry: readers. I spend a large part of my year attending literary festivals – there are more than 150 in the UK now. They are full of enthusiastic, highly literate audiences of people keen for new stories and bold ideas. It seemed to us if authors stood any chance of making a living out of telling stories, it would be by getting readers to fund them directly. And the good news is, it seems to be working. With 112 projects launched, 64 funded, 37 published, an average spend of £35 and an annual turnover of just under a million, Unbound feels like a real business.

Just like our Man Booker novel, The Wake, Keeping Mum found its 400 early adopters and raised £12,000 before publication. And in both cases, that is just the start of the process. In the coming weeks each of us will do all we can to contact local bookshops, and to gradually start the mysterious process that is word of mouth. Events, blog posts, tweets and customer reviews all have a part to play: no one buys what they can’t see. And as we writers pool our collective resources, we will have learnt at least one important lesson: that without the wisdom of the crowd, and the generosity and faith of readers, two excellent novels would never have seen the light of day. www.unbound.co.uk

John Mitchinson

4 Responses

  1. Ouch.

    I’ll get busy promoting…

  2. Lucille Grant says:

    Why it is so difficult to get new books into the public eye now? How did publishers manage to do encourage readers to buy books before they had marketing departments?

    How did Evelyn Waugh, Somerset Maugham, Daphne du Maurier and other 20th century popular fiction writers reach their audience long before Twitter, Facebook etc became methods of communication?

  3. Gareth says:

    In response to Lucille, I think with fewer channels of information, and clear authority, people clamoured for information so one review would be read by hundreds, if not hundreds of thousands. Now we have info overload. Who to trust?

  4. Irene Lofthouse says:

    I’ve read Keeping Mum and think it’s brilliant. The concept of bringing a group of writers together to devise an outline novel – and to produce one where the ‘voice’ is so consistent all the way through is a fantastic achievement.

    I’m an avid devourer of books but know from experience as a former publisher (self-financed) how hard it is to get a ‘name’, the slog of marketing something/somebody new that/who has no track record and how hard it is to get an audience to look at the wares.
    It’s why many many writers are now on the Lit Fest trail to boost numbers and to bring their name to audiences who’ve never heard of them. Like me.

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