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The pleasure and pain of crowd funding

I’m stalled – there’s no other word for it – at 8% funded. After a promising start in which a steady trickle of supporters pledged towards my book, no one has signed up for over a week. The giddy hopes that accompanied the start of my project are being replaced with cold, hard reality.

That’s crowd-funding a book for you. Unless you are a household name or have a loyal following, it’s an insecure and even gut-wrenching business. However, my experience of crowd-funding has mainly been positive. Over the last year I’ve been working with Unbound, the crowd funding platform in which authors pitch their ideas directly to readers. Unlike other platforms, Unbound is not open to all and you have to submit your idea to them as you might do any other publishing company. If you’re picked up, Unbound kicks in a significant amount of money towards making a professional-quality pitch video and if the book gets funded, it’s published through their own imprint – so you’re not self-publishing.

My Unbound project, The Best Water Skier in Luxembourg: Tales of Big Fish in Small Ponds, is a travel book in which I set myself the challenge of meeting the unknown heroes of obscure small worlds. I was one of the first projects Unbound took on and I benefited from the wave of publicity that accompanied the launch of the company. We started cautiously, as while I have published academic books, this was my first trade non-fiction work. From September to December 2011 the first chapter of the book, in which I aimed to meet the best water skier in Luxembourg, was open for funding. A gratifying number of people supported the chapter (helped by some novel incentives such as a postcard from me from Luxembourg) and I raised enough to visit Luxembourg and investigate the water skiing scene.

So far so good, but the real challenge has been the full ‘phase two’ of the project, in which I need to raise a lot of money to visit Iceland, Malta, Alderney, Suriname and Botswana. Since the project went up in the start of July, it’s been noticeably tougher to get support for the book than was the case last year. Pledges come in fits and starts, without any real momentum.

Crowd funding a book through Unbound requires hard graft. If you’re a relative unknown like myself, you have to get out there and ‘sell’ the project. And I’ve done just that: I’ve blitzed my Twitter and Facebook followers, sent emails, written articles and blog posts, appeared at literary nights and followed up any conceivable lead. I’ve risked annoying my friends with not-so-subtle requests for their pledges.

There are three principle challenges to this. The first is that it’s almost impossible to know in advance what will work. Some literary nights have brought me new supporters and others have not. Some tweets get retweeted and others never do. An email to something called The Listserve – a giant email list for which one person gets chosen at random every day to post to the list – unexpectedly resulted in many new pledges.

The second challenge is in converting interest into pledges. Everywhere I’ve talked about the book, I’ve had people approach me to say how interesting it sounds. I give them a promotional postcard and often never hear from them again. There’s plenty of good will but this doesn’t necessarily translate into cash.

The third challenge is finding people who will pledge at a high level. My project has levels of support, going up from £10 to £2000, with incentives to match. While every pledge is precious, what I really need is a few ‘whales’ – people who will give larger sums of money without necessarily being motivated by what they will get in return. On phase one of my project, the generosity of a couple of people like this did much to get me funded.

This ‘upfront’ work to get the book published is nerve-racking. What will happen if I don’t get funded? Here there is a parallel with more traditional publishing models. Unless you’re a writer with a proven track record and a multi-book contract, you have to do a lot of work to get picked up by a publisher or agent. For those at the start of their writing careers, it can take years to hone a book or book proposal into a state in which it will be picked up – with absolutely no guarantee that there will be anything at all to show for it. At least with Unbound I didn’t have to go through the agonies of drafting and redrafting proposals and sample chapters. Once I have the funding, it will be full steam ahead.

I’m sure that many would argue that it would be ultimately more beneficial for one’s career as a writer to front-load the actual writing of the book rather than front-loading the publicity for thebook. Yet there is a hidden benefit. One thing that will console me if my book never gets funded is that much of the work of selling my book idea has not only been fun, it has been worthwhile for its own sake: I’ve spoken to people I would never have spoken to before, I’ve written for publications I’d never have written for before (such as this one!), I’ve forced myself to get out there on twitter not just for self-promotion, but to contribute to the vast ongoing discussion.

In a much quoted and retweeted article a few weeks ago, Ewan Morrison convincingly argued that social media was not an effective tool for promoting self-published and other books. This may be correct – although social media have brought me new supporters – but it also misses the point a bit. If the networking and publicity work that crowd funding and other new publishing models require is not seen as a means to an end but an end in itself, then perhaps frustrated authors should learn to enjoy the process more. The challenge then is to find modes of self-promotion that are satisfying even if they do not lead to sales. This is why literary nights, speaker events and festivals are so important. Even if they don’t ‘work’ as forms of publicity, they certainly do work in being fun to take part in and as a way of meeting and connecting with people.

So I’m frustrated at how my project seems to have stalled. But I haven’t given up hope. And I don’t regret the work I’ve put into it. It’s been a blast even if the dream of a book at the end of it might be deferred for a while.

Keith Kahn-Harris is a London-based writer and sociologist, and you can find out more about his Unbound project here.

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