Written by Anne Miller


Fully Booked

Anne Miller meets John Mitchinson, co-founder of Unbound, an innovative publishing firm helping new authors and unusual ideas reach the market.

woman typing on a laptopCrowdfunding publisher Unbound is a truly 21st-century publishing venture, started after a conversation in the basement of a central London pub, between the three founders – former publisher John Mitchinson (who published Haruki Murakami, Alan Garner and The Beatles) and authors Justin Pollard (The Interesting Bits: The History You Might Have Missed) and Dan Kieran (Crap Towns: The 50 Worst Places To Live In The UK).

I met co-founder John Mitchinson in a Caffé Nero (well, it was during the day) to talk about the importance of merging old and new media and how to shake things up from a shed.

Keen to find a more creative way to publish books and to deal with the collapsing advances in the industry, they realised combining crowdfunding and publishing could lead to something exciting.

Authors pitch their ideas to Unbound and the best ones go live on the website. Readers can pledge at various levels – prices start at around £10 for an ebook and rise depending on the reward offered.

Pledgers to Stevyn Colgan’s comic novel A Murder to Die For can tour the locations from the book or name a character after themselves, while supporters of Sylvia Linsteadt and Rima Staines’ post-apocalyptic Tatterdemalion can spend a day “animal tracking and myth-making” in California.

“What? You, Terry Jones, of Monty Python, comic legend and god, can’t get a collection of your brilliant short stories published – this is insane!”

Those backing Sam Smit’s The Serendipity Foundation – about altruistic kidnappers – can find themselves at the Lost Gardens of Heligan “having kidnapped the author, as well as Tim Smit (co-founder of The Eden Project and Heligan) and other yet-to-be-confirmed kidnapped luminaries. There, over food, wine and lively debate, we will develop our own set of ransoms to secure our release – and imagine a better world in the process.”

Also key to Unbound are the authors’ ‘sheds’ – virtual spaces where their writers share stories and keep readers informed on the progress of their current project. When the company was launched at the 2011 Hay Festival they persuaded a shed company to lend them a real one for the event. (At the end of the festival it was sold to Philip Pullman.)

They launched with six titles, including a book of short stories by Terry Jones that had struggled to find a publisher. Mitchinson’s response was: “What? You, Terry Jones, of Monty Python, comic legend and god, can’t get a collection of your brilliant short stories published – this is insane!” This was the moment Unbound really took off, he says, as “that did make us feel that somebody needed to do something, and if it was going to be somebody, why not us?”

Unbound continue to innovate and in 2014 published The Wake by Paul Kingsnorth: a book about the Norman conquest of Britain which isn’t really written in English. Kingsnorth felt the story needed something stronger so “he set himself an amazing task; he tried to restrict himself to English that only used words of Anglo Saxon origin and adapted some words to come up with what he called a ‘shadow tongue.’”

The book took a year to fund and went on to sell 10,000 copies in hardback, was longlisted for the 2014 Man Booker Prize and the film rights have been sold to Mark Rylance.

On the same page: Unbound's founders (from left) Justin Pollard, John Mitchinson and Dan Kieran.

On the same page: Unbound’s founders (from left) Justin Pollard, John Mitchinson and Dan Kieran.

Unbound’s authors don’t receive advances but profits are split 50/50 between writer and publisher: “We think of each book as a joint venture and in a way that makes the relationship between publisher and author much better. We see ourselves as a platform, first and foremost, where people who are creative can find readers and supporters and patrons for their work.”

Subscribers pledge towards beautifully made special editions of the books. Mass-market versions may follow, published through Unbound’s partnership with Penguin Random House.

If you buy a book through Unbound you automatically also get a copy of the ebook, an idea Mitchinson thinks should be rolled out by more publishers: “Why do you make people choose? If you buy a novel you should get it in both forms,” although he does add that Unbound often have to remind people they have the ebook.

Mitchinson believes that physical books are here to stay and that Unbound is a way of harnessing technology to preserve them: “The philosophy of Unbound is that we’re using very sophisticated technology on our website, but using that to fund the most beautiful and long-lasting bit of information technology there is – which is the book. I think the attraction of the physical book is unlikely to disappear; there’s something too strong, too visceral.”

Explore Unbound’s website and pledge for books here.


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Written by Anne Miller

Anne is a QI Elf. She has two Blue Peter badges, reached the semi-finals of Only Connect and really likes puffins. @miller_anne