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John Mitchinson

Small independent presses: interview with John Mitchinson

In the latest blog post Norah Myers interviews John Mitchinson. John is a writer and publisher and the co-founder of Unbound, the award-winning crowdfunding platform for books. He helped to create the award-winning BBCTV show QI and co-wrote the best-selling series of QI books. He is co-host of Unbound’s books podcast Backlisted (@BacklistedPod) and a Vice-President of the Hay Festival of Arts & Literature.

1. When establishing Unbound, why was it important for you to use a crowd funding model?

We felt the connection between reader and author had too many steps in it – that vital connection which you got naturally at festivals and events – the energy which drives people to discover new ideas and stories – was being lost.

Also traditional publishing was wasteful – even if an author made it thorough the tiring obstacle course of getting published – only one in five books earned their advance. Crowd funding is putting the power back in readers hands – readers get the excitement of backing books they like the sound of – authors get to write the books they really want to write.

Plus, it’s an old idea. In the 18th and 19th century – prestigious authors would advertise their intention to write a new book and ask for subscriptions in advance of the writing process – Dr Johnso, Alexander Pope, Voltaire and Fanny Burney all ‘crowd-funded’ their work.

2. What is it about crowd funding that has helped make Unbound successful?

Pledging to support someone’s idea or story is not the same as ‘buying’ a book. It’s establishing an emotional connection – like a cross between donation and putting on a bet. That means people will commit much higher sums than they would if they were just shopping. Our average transaction value is £38 – seven times that of the average price paid for a book in a bookshop. Also we know who we’re selling too – most publishers don’t because the retailers don’t tell them. We know where they live, what they read, how much they spend, when they like to pledge. This data is the currency of the future.

3. You actively look to publish under-represented authors. How has this contributed to your success?

When we started many traditional publishers told us confidently that we would struggle because all the really ‘good’ books were already being published. 155 published books and several prizes later, we would beg to differ. In a society that becomes ever more diverse and complex, with social media and digital technology that make us all potentially creators as well as consumers of content, there are unprecedented opportunities to engage new audiences. So the under-represented authors we publish DO have audiences – and they are growing audiences. The Good Immigrant’s success might have been a surprise to many inside publishing but not to the hundreds of thousands of people who feel their experiences had not yet found their way into mainstream books. This is an exciting moment to be a publisher who is in direct contact with readers.

4. Where do you see Unbound developing in the next few years?

I think you will see us expanding our publishing in two areas. At the one end, we will continue to develop books created out of people with large engaged networks (like Letters of Note and Tom Cox) and campaigning books like The Good Immigrant and our working class anthology, Common People, edited by Kit de Waal. At the other end, we will scale up our digital and paperback list to fulfil our core mission to democratise publishing and become the first choice for anyone wanting to be published, anywhere in the world.

5. What advice would you give other publishers who might want to use crowd funding?

Remember size isn’t everything. The real secret of successful funding is an engaged network – quality rather than size. It isn’t hard to have a good idea; it’s much harder to persuade other people to invest in it. Be clear about the services you offer, and what the author has to do themselves. When it comes together it’s a wonderful experience for both sides: satisfying and empowering for the author, gratifying and exciting for the publisher. And the reader feels they’ve helped make something important, that wouldn’t have happened without them.

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