Traditional publishing meets crowdfunding

You can’t find a traditional publisher because they don't believe that you have an audience who are worth their time. You can’t self-publish because you don’t have the time, skill or money to undertake and underwrite the process.

The British publisher Unbound have stepped into this space with an innovative business model where traditional publishing builds off crowdfunding.  

“We get people who feel like traditional publishing is this thing they can’t get anywhere near. Our only rule is, we will put up anything if it’s good enough. It has to reach a threshold of quality,” says Unbound CEO Dan Kieran. 

You get to prove that your book is wanted by readers by crowdfunding the production costs on the Unbound platform. They give you all the support and quality control of a traditional publisher - editing, proofreading, professional design and production, marketing and publicity, rights sales staff and distribution into bookshops.  And they give you a better royalty deal, 50% rather than the traditional 10%. 

Several adventurers have turned to Unbound to publish their books. You can read this in-depth profile with Angolan river adventurer Oscar Scafidi, about how he is bringing his book to print with Unbound.  

Why is traditional publishing failing adventure authors? How does the Unbound model work? How can an adventurer make the most of their offer?

how traditional publishing has changed

Our average pledge is £35, seven times more than the average price paid for a book in a shop… Three hundred people need to pledge to raise £10,000.

“You’ve got a marketplace deciding what is published and that marketplace is bookshops and Amazon. John Mitchinson [an Unbound co-founder] likens traditional publishing to agri-business. There are five crops that they farm. TV-ties, genre fiction, popular science, celebrity memoirs. If you fit into one of those categories, they get great yield from those crops. They are incredibly well versed and rehearsed in how to extract the most value.”

Author and Unbound CEO Dan Kieran spoke to Charlie Gladstone on The Mavericks podcast about the Unbound model.  Dan used to make a living as a writer himself. “I got between £20,000 and £50,000 advance for a book. They were good days!” He is acutely aware of how the publishing space has changed. “Publishers stopped paying advances to authors like me who were selling between ten and twenty thousand copies of a book. And they became much more risk averse than they already were. 

“Amazon depressed the value of the written word by bringing prices down. That was obviously good for readers but it was calamitous for authors. The average author earns £10,000 a year. If you take out the top ten percent, the JK Rowlings of the world, it falls to £4,000. So its a profession in profound crisis. It’s not something you can do to raise a family on.”

Unbound in contrast is selling a book pitch direct to the interested readers. “Anyone can come to Unbound and if they are successful they can go through to all that publishing offers you. They can end up winning awards or selling the film rights or being published in twenty countries.”

And they are able to get more money from those readers, thanks to the tiered offering model of crowdfunding. “Our average pledge is £35, which is seven times more than the average price paid for a book in a shop… Three hundred people on average need to pledge £35 to raise £10,000 on average, which is the amount of money we need to produce a book to professional standards.”

Once that money is raised, Dan says, “we then kick into gear in the same way any publisher would. The difference is the first stage. We don’t have to worry about risk so much, we can take anything. And then it is the audience that decides if that book goes through to the next stage of being published in bookshops.”

The other key difference with Unbound is how much you make on royalties. “Its a 50/50 profit share,” says Dan, “so we never make more from an author’s book than the author makes.” 

He explains that “lots of people don’t really understand the economics of book shops. If a £10 book is sold in a shop, the bookshop gets £6, the publisher gets £4 and the author usually gets about 40p…. And that goes against the advance of £20,000, or whatever. You have to sell a whole lot of books before you out-earn your advance. Meanwhile the publisher is making £3 a copy.”

If you aren’t getting an advance, and very few authors now are, but you are still getting the traditional small royalty, you are going to find your book depressingly unprofitable. 

it would be better to get a job in Starbucks rather than write in Starbucks

why adventure authors find it so hard to make money

Successful climber and author Andy Kirkpatrick, who has worked with both traditional publishers and with Kickstarter crowdfunding for his books, wrote a recent blog post about the pricing of his new book, Unknown Pleasures (published by the small UK adventure publisher Vertebrate Publishing). He highlighted how tough the market now is for adventure authors. It’s mandatory reading for any adventure writer with aspirations in the book space.

He notes that although big publishers “ were behind some of the best in climbing writing… they see no money in it anymore, focusing instead on boys own books about survival, ghostwritten celeb adventure holiday yarns, stuff that’s formulaic, can sell over Christmas then knocked down by 75% come easter.” 

And even in the good times, adventure authors don’t sell in big quantities. “Most climbing books have very short runs, most at max being less than 4000, the first 1000 or so going out when the book is published, then the rest drip fed for the next ten years.”

He points out that the author royalty is further reduced as the agent takes 20% and tax another 20%. “If you’re lucky you might make 50p a book, but often far less, meaning investing months or sometimes years of work into a book like Cold Wars or Psychovertical when all you’ll make is £4000 (spread over many years), is not a sound investment in time or effort (I always joke it would be better to get a job in Starbucks rather than write in Starbucks).”

Successful authors are “people exploiting an audience that they’ve already got.”  

what makes for crowdfunding success as an author

Unbound’s model does not save you from the truth that you need to have an audience in place already, and they need to be ready to put up their money to support your book. 

I spoke to Mathew Clayton, Unbound’s Head of Publishing and he told me that about 35% of their books don’t reach their funding targets. He identifies three things as being crucial to success for crowdfunding a book. 

  1. How dynamic is the author?
    How happy are they to self-promote? How comfortable are they with the idea of crowdfunding.
  2. How interesting is the book?
    Is it distinctive, original, well-written, has a good title. Is it easy to convey the idea of the book simply? 
  3. How big is the author's network?
    Are they active on social media? Have they build up a newsletter or an email mailing list? Are they happy doing that? 

Mathew points out that network numbers aren’t everything. "It also depends how engaged they are with their network. If they are simply broadcasting rather than having conversations, then sheer numbers aren’t helpful."  He is clear that Unbound is not a way for an author to find an audience. Their successful authors are “people exploiting an audience that they’ve already got.”  

That being said, they do what they can to boost their potential authors. “I wouldn’t want to overestimate how much we can offer. It is very much driven by the author. But we do have a number of things we can do. We have 20,000 followers on our Twitter feed. We’ve got a newsletter that goes out to 60,000 people. We’re on Facebook and various other places.”

why not crowdfund yourself on kickstarter?

If you are an adventurer with an audience, why not stick with traditional crowdfunding, like Kickstarter, and keep 100% of the sales money?

Angolan adventurer and Unbound author Oscar Scafidi was quite clear about his reasoning. “I toyed with the idea of self-publishing briefly… but in the end it was a financial risk I was not willing to take.” He believes Unbound is “a great business model because there is no risk: if you get the funding, great, you publish. If you don't, no worries, nobody is ever losing any money.”
[Oscar's funding page on Unbound.]

Oscar Scafidi working on his Kayak the Kwanza book.  Read about his writing, editing and publishing process here . 

Oscar Scafidi working on his Kayak the Kwanza book. Read about his writing, editing and publishing process here

Mathew Clayton points out that Unbound offers various advantages over Kickstarter. You have the support of their team in working out your target. “If its a black and white book, maybe with plate section and hardback, the target is likely to be around £13,000. Our average pledge is £35 so the typical author would need between 350 and 500 pledges.

“Our digital list has a far lower target, around £4,500. It’s an ebook list but there is a paperback version that can be made available through Amazon, and so the author can have some copies. And if the author’s local bookshop wants to order some, they can do that as well.”

Unbound avoids the all-or-nothing commitment of Kickstarter. “Unlike Kickstarter, which is an all or nothing thing - if you don’t raise all the money, you don’t get any of it, we take the money at the point that people pledge. That means that there is a tiny bit of leeway in terms of the target. If a book is very close to the target, we’ll probably just go ahead with it. Or we’ll keep it up for a bit longer.”

Generally their books take two to three months to fund, although a few have extended to 18 months. “There isn’t an exact cut-off point, we look at each book on an individual basis.”

Mathew acknowledges that their model lacks the closing date drama of Kickstarter, which always drives a last-minute upsurge in pledges. “Our books have traditionally funded over a longer period time. Some of our most successful books have taken 18 months to fund. So we have shied away from doing [a cut-off date]. There is a moment where it is the last chance to get your name in the back of the book and that always leads to a 10 or 15 percent hike.”

It’s been a very long time and I have been angry and felt like I’ve have been robbed... You had one job and that was to do what you promised.

Many authors finish an exciting and successful Kickstarter and then find themselves overwhelmed by the time, cost and work involved in completing the writing of the manuscript, getting it edited, designed, printed and then finally distributed. Authors have vanished from sight, keeping the money and never producing the book. 

To quote one disillusioned backer of an abandoned adventure book project on Kickstarter: “I've waited patiently for updates on this project. It's been a very long time and I have been angry and felt like I've have been robbed. Unfortunately, projects like this makes it hard for others and myself to give freely from heart. You had one job and that was to do what you promised.”

Doing what you promised is a lot easier with a team of professionals behind you.  Once the target is reached, they offer you all the services of a traditional publisher and they help you fulfil the pledge offers you made to your funders. Some adventurers like the idea of total control over their text - you can say exactly what you want! Most readers appreciate the vast improvement in quality that a trained editor and a professional proof-reader bring to a story. 

Unbound will also help you cope with unanticipated success. If enough people support your book, Unbound will print a trade edition, done in conjunction with Penguin Random House, which will be distributed to book shops. Book awards, foreign rights sales, film rights sales are all available, if your book attracts enough interest.  

Unbound publishing model.jpg
nothing improves writing like a re-write

why professional input makes for better books

John Dowie, stand-up comedian and go-slow cycle-tourer, successfully funded his book The Freewheeling John Dowie on Unbound over a six month period (April to December 2016). It is now in production. In his blog posts updates he shares some insights into the improvements that professionals can bring to an author’s beloved vision. 

4 April 2017: I'm pleased to say that an editor has been appointed to work on my book who, apparently, is a "very experienced, non-fiction specialist, particularly good on narrative and voice, who is assessing it from a development and structural perspective, and will respond with an annotated manuscript and a set of general notes, observations and suggestions". Which is excellent news, especially given my belief that nothing improves writing like a re-write.

24 May 2017: I am pleased to say that the editor that Unbound assigned me delivered an impressive series of incisive thoughts. The manuscript has been massively improved. It's now in the hands of a copy editor meaning, I hope, that unwanted apostrophe's, spelling erors, meaningless  commas; semi-colons, and stray and unwanted punctuation; will all be ruthlessly excised?!!!!

11 October 2017: My idea for a cover was to parody the Bob Dylan album of a similar title, only instead of Bob and his then muse Suzie Rotolo strolling through the streets of Greenwich Village, it would be me (photoshopped presumably) pushing my bike through the same streets. I mentioned this idea to Unbound. 

Unbound shook its collective head before leading me gently from the room and commissioning the artist Neil Gower, whose work you not only see here, but also on the cover of every Bill Bryson book ever published, so I am in good company at last.

Unbound have chosen April the 5th as the publication date for the trade edition. All those who pledged towards the book will receive a copy around February, which is also the time I will be performing extracts from the book for those brave enough to have commissioned one. 

Of course, the downside of the traditional publishing model is the very long wait from completing your manuscript to eventual publication. For a perspective from an adventure author who self-published and loved it, this podcast interview between adventurer Anna McNuff and self-publishing guru Joanna Penn is worth reading / listening to. 

tips for success on unbound

how to pitch

Matthew Clayton, Head of Publishing, has invited adventurers can send their proposals direct to him at (They are happy to look at submissions from non-UK authors but they are a UK based business focused on the UK market.)

Your pitch should be brief, uncomplicated yet compelling. Answer three questions:

  • What is the book about?
  • Who will read and support it?
  • Why have you written this book?

Provide a detailed description of your book and a sample of what you've written so far. (Word, Pages or OpenOffice files preferred). 

Expect to wait up to 8 week before receiving an email reply. (They will reply!) 


You want them to be cheap, easy to deliver, unique and fun. 

  • Find a way to include supporters in the book (list names in the back or the front)
  • Offer extra stuff (prints of photographs from the adventure)
  • Offer a real-life experience they can do with you 

HUSTLE FOR PLEDGES! six top tips from unbound

1. Have a plan and tackle it with enthusiasm

“A detailed campaign plan will help a great deal. If, as the author, you aren't obviously engaged and enthusiastic about your campaign, it will be very hard to convince anyone else to be.”

2. Target people one at a time

“One-to-one is the way forward... Emailing people on an individual basis is, statistically-speaking, usually the driver of pledges.... A personalised email has a greater impact, as there’s a greater exposure, and people feel they can’t get away with not pledging!”

3. Methodically build momentum and share success

“tart with your closest network first, e.g. family and friends, and work outwards towards colleagues, acquaintances etc.... Once other people see your project’s percentage steadily going up, they will be more inclined to pledge.”

4. Reconnect at milestone moments

“Email at 50%, 75% to thank them for supporting so far, to remind/ask them to pledge if they haven’t yet and to share the campaign with their own networks.”

5. Ask for support and pledges, rather than money

“Be mindful of your language - ask for support and pledges rather than money or donations. This way, people are reminded that they are investing in a book and become a patron of the creative arts, rather than donating to charity.”

6. Don’t let your momentum falter!

“Remember that kickstarting a campaign which has hit a standstill can be difficult, so keep working on it to keep momentum for a project going.”

More ideas from Unbound on how to find your pledges here