In conversation with Unbound

We chat to Phil Connor, a commissioning editor at Unbound, about how their unusual publishing model works, why he has a lot of enthusiasm for poetry anthologies, and how you might kick-start a career in publishing.

Thanks for talking to us about your work at Unbound, Phil. First of all, for those who might not have heard of it, could you just explain briefly what Unbound does, what your role is, and how its way of working differs from the more traditional publishing houses?

Unbound is the world’s first crowdfunding publisher. Authors pitch their ideas on our website and if enough readers like the concept, Unbound will publish the book. We make a beautiful special edition of the book for all the readers who crowdfunded it, and then we have a partnership with Penguin Random House who publish our books into bookshops. If a book project doesn’t get its full funding, everyone who has pledged gets their money back and the author, as always, retains copyright over their work so can pursue other means of publication if they’d like.

I am a commissioning editor at Unbound. My job is to find new books for the website, hone the pitch to readers and, once the book is funded, edit the text and guide it towards publication. Books come to us through all the usual sources, from literary agents to the submissions pile, and our first criteria for any book is quality, it’s really important to us to keep the quality of books we’re bringing to the Unbound community as high as possible.

Unbound has all the functions of a traditional publisher including editorial, design, production, publicity and foreign rights departments, so all of our books are produced to the highest possible standards, and in lots of ways we look just like a traditional publisher. The major way we differ from traditional publishers is we have a community of readers who pledge their support to the books our editorial team has chosen, and who ultimately help us pick which books to publish.

Crowdfunding campaigns have really taken off in a huge way over the past couple of years. Why do you think they’ve become so popular? And why do you think that this kind of funding platform works so well for book publishing?

I think people are interested in new ways of creating things, whether that’s investigative journalism or video games or t-shirts. I believe people want more agency in deciding what gets made and crowdfunding lets people feel closer to producers and creatives, and to help bring something they believe in to life.

In terms of books, crowdfunding is actually reminiscent of a much older form of publishing used by everyone from Voltaire to Dickens, subscription before publication. Patrons would fund the cost of publishing the author’s books so the general public could read it. The internet allows Unbound to do this in a much more effective way: instead of a few very wealthy patrons, you can have lots of smaller patrons who bring a book into the world. As well as a copy of the book, readers can choose between a variety of rewards from coming to the launch party, having lunch with the author or even naming a character in the book. Everyone who supports an Unbound book has his or her name printed in the back too.

Publishing can sometimes be a difficult place to be innovative or adventurous, and so crowdfunding can be a great way to bring quirky, unique or experimental books into the world, books that are a bit different or aren’t obvious bestsellers. It’s incredibly liberating as an editor to be able to just try things, to put books on the Unbound website that you believe in or have a hunch about and see what our community thinks. Readers constantly surprise us and it is so often the challenging or unusual books which are the most successful at crowdfunding, and that is so promising to see. No publisher can ever really guess what readers will think, but with crowdfunding it feels like a more immediate toe in the water or finger on the pulse of our readers.

I think in the poetry world we’re increasingly seeing an emphasis put on the importance of curating your public image as a poet – having a website, using social media to promote yourself and your work and maintain conversations with other people about poetry, etc. Obviously that’s an important part of what you ask your authors to do as part of their crowdfunding campaigns – they have to learn how to ‘pitch’ themselves and their book. Are these kinds of self-promotional skills easy to teach? And what happens if writers really aren’t used to (or aren’t confident) in presenting themselves in this way?

Online networks, like Twitter followers or newsletter subscribers, are great, but the truth is networks have existed long before the internet and often real life connections are much stronger than their online equivalent. It’s true that for crowdfunding you simply do need an community of people to tell about your book, and for some people that is Twitter or Facebook, but for other people it’s a public reading or meeting someone in a coffee shop. Social media and self-promotion either come naturally to you or they don’t, so I don’t think authors should do things like force themselves onto Twitter if it’s not for them. Readers can always tell if you’re faking it.

Unbound is also interested in publishing poetry and (excitingly) you have a growing list of poetry publications. I think a lot of us might think of poetry as something that only gets published by smaller presses with an exclusive poetry focus, so it’s great to also see it on the agenda of a more omnivorous publishing house like yourselves! Could you tell us a bit more about Brian Bilston’s collection ‘You Took the Last Bus Home’. How did that come about?

Yes we’re very much interested in publishing more poetry – there are a lot of passionate poetry fans out there and a whole host of exciting new poets looking to bring their work to a wider audience, and I hope Unbound can help with bring those two groups together.

Brian is in many ways the perfect Unbound author. He started sharing his work on Twitter and very quickly built up an audience for his work. Crucially for crowdfunding, Brian’s audience wasn’t just sizeable, it was also heavily engaged with him. They weren’t just following him, they were asking him questions, having conversations about his work, even writing poems inspired by him. Interestingly, all of Brian’s work was available for free on his Twitter, but people loved him so much they wanted a physical copy of his collected work and to get their name in the back of the book. It’s a really great case study for us actually, because Brian’s book has gone on to perform well in bookshops and sell really well – it just goes to show that if an author can build up an audience for your work, Unbound can help bring your book to the general public.

One of your current poetry projects is an anthology from London-based poetry collective Spit the Atom. Would you like to work with more poetry collectives/ profile more poetry anthologies in the future? And in some ways is it better when you have a multi-authored project, because there are more authors to promote the work?

Very much so. We recently had massive success with The Good Immigrant edited by Nikesh Shukla, an anthology of essays where fifteen writers explored what it means to be Black, Asian and Minority Ethnic in Britain today. It can definitely help to have fifteen rather than just one person shouting about the book, but at the same time I think you definitely do need that central person or two to provide the creative direction and really drive the project forward, and Nikesh was the perfect person to do that for The Good Immigrant. I’m sure there are plenty of timely and important poetry anthologies out there just waiting to be conceived and I always love to hear from anyone with an idea.

Lots of YPN-ers are really interested in the world of books and in finding out how you can kick-start a career in publishing and editing. What was your own path into working at Unbound?

Bookselling experience is a massive asset for any potential editor or publisher and I’d highly recommend anyone looking to work in the publishing industry to have a stint as a bookseller if they can. I worked at bookshops in Ireland, Australia and the UK before moving into publishing. I was fortunate enough to win a scholarship from Faber & Faber to study the MA in Publishing at UCL, and it was there I first heard Unbound’s co-founder and CEO Dan Kieran speak. I approached him after his talk and told him I simply had to work for him.

What kind of manuscript are you hoping will next land on your desk?

I’m looking for books that are quirky and unique, and authors that are passionate. Apart from poetry, I love literary novels and story-led non-fiction, but above any genre I value good writing. Things that are truly new and important rarely come obvious places, so I think Unbound are perfectly placed to find the exceptional manuscripts out there that might otherwise get missed.

Follow Unbound on Twitter and tweet them @unbounders

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