Firmly in the ‘good’ side of the conference, we were delighted to welcome Joelle Owusu, editorial and publicity assistant at Unbound to talk about the brilliant work of the publisher, and their incredible essay anthology edited by Nikesh Shukla, The Good Immigrant.
Making quirky books that readers want.
Unbound are a unique crowdfounded publisher, founded five and a half years ago by Justin Pollard, John Mitchinson and Dan Kieren. They set out to make quirky books that readers wanted by using crowdfunding, and having authors shout about their own books. They aimed to push back against the publicity space celeb memoirs/titles often occupy. Unbound accept unsolicited submissions, and want a close relationship between the author and reader above all else.
So how do Unbound work? Creators pitch their idea for a book, if Unbound like it’ll launch on the site. Readers can pledge money, and all contributors towards crowdfunding are mentioned in the book. The creator will then begin writing and once project is funded it will be printed and published. Unbound edit and produce the titles, in a similar manner to other publishing houses. A title must hit 100% of target for the process to begin. Simple.
Crowdfunding makes the risk higher for the author as everyone can see how far a project is funded – it’s very public knowledge a book doesn’t get funded. Unbound split 50/50 profit with authors, which can be far higher than traditional contracts.
With a different model comes some misconceptions. They are not a self-publishing house, an imprint or Kickstarter. They have a trade deal with Penguin Random House but are not part of them. They are also not a scamming site, but an alternative method to publishing.
Unbound’s success doesn’t just come from approaching publishing a little differently, they have the quality books to back it up. They took 2016 by storm with their essay collection The Good Immigrant, a timely and essential piece of reading, that started the conversation on what it’s like to be ‘other’ in a country that doesn’t seem to want you.
The book combines stories of immigration, discussing fitting in with British culture, representing your own culture, racism, discrimination and opportunity. Contradictions are inherent in the writing as cultures clash, learn and adapt. Nikesh Shukla and Musa Okwonga originally envisioned the book when discussing being an immigrant and the ‘otherness’ they felt came with that.
The book kept on growing, as did the conversation.
Nikesh was tired of being on diversity panels, he wanted to be invited onto writing panels as an author. Many writers of colour struggle to publish their work, and struggle to interest agents, comparative to white writers. Non-white characters in books aren’t seen by mainstream publishing to be relatable ormarketable. White writers and characters is the default setting of Western Literature – Western readers will assume a character’s whiteness. There’s little interest in the work of BAME writers unless it is specifically about race/religion, and there’s especially less interest in BAME fiction.
Nikesh brought the proposal to Unbound, as it seemed the ideal platform to prove that there was a market for this type of book. He took the project with no writers attached yet and sought them out after Unbound’s Editor-at-Large gave the go-ahead. Unbound took The Good Immigrant on as a risk, but felt it was a special book. The title came from what they felt by what it means to be a ‘Good Immigrant’ – you must be exceptional in your field to be the right kind of immigrant – take Mo Farah in running, Nadiya Hussain in baking.
The campaign hit over 200% funded, crowdfunding proved that the readership was there, hungry for these writers to share their stories. It was funded in three days, prior to any work being written. Twitter hashtags helped a lot, as did Nikesh. When authors really want it and push it, Unbound books do really well.
The cover design was purposefully, unapologetically loud. This helped marketing – on Instagram alone almost 950 photos have been shared on channels not curated by Unbound. Additional publicity hits were Radio 4 book of the week October 2016, Nikesh on BBC Breakfast and Riz Ahmed reading in The Guardian. The book kept on growing, as did the conversation.
The Initial print run of 3k hardback sold out, and has been followed by seven reprints. Over 15k copies have sold with the paperback launching March 17th. The sales show a joint audience of BAME and white audience wanting to see other worldviews. Many white consumers wanted to challenge their own ignorance and expand their views.
The Good Immigrant created a positive message, receiving lots of affirmative feedback. Books Are In My Bag Award in particular voted The Good Immigrant the public’s favourite book in 2016.
After an enthralling look into the work of Unbound, we turn to audience questions. Joelle herself was put off from the industry – how would she attract BAME candidates into publishing? “I agree with ‘positive discrimination’ even though I hate the term,” she says. “I got into Unbound as I did a creative access internship. Loss of libraries is a travesty, attracting BAME individuals into publishing has to start young. A bit of everything can help, but we need more fiction, more non-fiction, more systems encouraging everyone to pursue paths they’d like. With positive discrimination, it just gives people a chance.”
How does marketing work with Unbound? “We’ve a strong marketing team that works on a small budget, but they dedicate the same time to each book. Loud authors do really help though. We use a mix of social media, proofs and authors. Anthologies are rarer than single titles, so having Nikesh and contributors plugging helped a lot.”
What criteria are used to judge what books to put on the website? “Quite a few. Unbound go through all projects, pick out from ideas and manuscripts,” she explains. “They also have scouts looking for quirky books and have actively sought writers for some anthologies. Books have to be of a calibre that people will care enough to spend £20+ on. Story has to be great, writing needs to be strong.”
A formula of great writing and putting the power in the reader’s hands. It’s a simple but powerful idea, and one Unbound have done – and will continue to do – brilliant things with.
Photos by Chris Scott