A couple of years ago, in a lengthy essay titled ‘From Papyrus to Pixels‘ that examined the past, present and future of the book, the Economist noted:
Publishers in the 17th and 18th centuries often sold books by “subscription”, which meant that consumers would agree in advance to buy a book after seeing a prospectus. It acted as a market test. If not enough people were interested, the project could be dropped.
In the 18th century another new model arose in Britain, tailored to the needs of a literate class that wanted to read more than it wanted to buy: “circulating libraries” sold annual memberships that allowed readers to always have a book on the go. The most powerful of them, Mudie’s, was the Amazon of its day in terms of market power, says Leah Price, a professor of English at Harvard University. It would often buy up as much as half of a book’s print run for its network of borrowers; if Mr Mudie chose not to stock an author’s book, it could become an immediate dud. The circulating libraries’ business model encouraged publishers to put out books in three volumes, so three people could be reading one book at once; novelists would write to the form, fleshing out their prose to fill the “triple-decker” format.
. . .
People with an idea for a book they cannot afford to take the time to write no longer have to go to a publisher. They can offer something like old-fashioned subscriptions to prospective readers, either on generalist crowdfunding sites, such as Indiegogo, or through specialist firms such as … Unbound. Many will not get funded; some will succeed beyond their dreams. In February a young woman raised $380,000 through Kickstarter for “Hello Ruby”, a children’s book that teaches programming skills.
Amazon’s Kindle Unlimited (KU) and other subscription lending libraries for e-books are, obviously, directly comparable to earlier subscription lending libraries such as Mudie’s. I was amused to compare KU’s terms of payment to Mudie’s popularization of the ‘three-decker’ novel. In opting to pay authors for the number of pages read, rather than the number of individual titles borrowed, KU is clearly taking a leaf out of Mudie’s book (you should pardon the expression) and encouraging authors financially to write books that meet the needs of both its business model and its readers.
I was intrigued by the concept of ‘crowdfunding’ a book, and by the existence of specialist book crowdfunding services. As an example, I looked at Unbound. Here’s how the Web site describes the process.
First, the author pitches an idea. Unbound allows you to listen to authors’ ideas for what they’d like to write before they even start. If you like their idea, you can pledge to support it. If we hit the target number of supporters, the author can go ahead and start writing.
If you like it you can make a pledge. There are several levels of support, each with different rewards. The higher your pledge, the greater the rewards you’ll receive, from your name in the back of the book to lunch with the author.
From there, you stay up to date. As soon as you make a pledge to support an Unbound project you gain access to the author’s private area, or ‘shed’. Here you can get updates on the book’s progress.
And then you get the book. After the book is written, designed, edited and printed, we send it to you, either as an ebook or a limited edition hardback or paperback.
For the first time, you will be able to hold in your hands a book that wouldn’t have existed without you.
I noted that Unbound doesn’t tell you how much each project is trying to raise, and offers levels of pledging that seem completely unrealistic compared to the value of the book in question. Nevertheless, it’s obviously working for some authors. I’ve sent them a few questions, and I’ll report back if they answer them.
The question is, how viable is the ‘crowdfunding’ or ‘subscription’ model for individual authors like ourselves? Could an indie author set up his or her own subscription model, or opt for a crowdfunding solution in order to free up the time necessary to write a high-quality book? I suspect that for new entrants in the field, the answer is probably ‘No’. However, once one has established a reputation and a readership, could such an option become viable? I confess I can’t answer that question on the basis of personal experience, but I’d like to throw it open to the other Mad Genius Club authors and our visitors. What do you think?
There’s another possible ‘subscription model’ that might work if we’ve built up a steady audience for our e-books. Let me use my own as an example. I charge $3.99 per e-book on Amazon.com. If I published (say) 3 books per year, and a regular reader bought them all, he’d pay $11.97 for them. I could offer an annual subscription (perhaps through my blog) for, say, $8 per year, payable in advance but guaranteeing a copy of every e-book I published that year to subscribers. I’d lose money compared to selling one book at a time, but have an ‘income in advance’ that might help me through lean times ‘in between’ books. In turn, the subscriber would get a 33% discount on those three e-books.
I have no idea whether or not such an approach would work, but it’s an interesting thought. How much of a regular readership (of one’s blog or Web site) would one need in order to make it work? How great a discount would have to be offered to make the subscription attractive? Would such a subscription contravene the ‘exclusivity’ terms of service of Amazon.com or other e-book publishing services? (Prima facie it doesn’t appear to – one’s selling a subscription, not a book – but I’m not a lawyer.) Your thoughts, readers?