Will Niche Crowdfunding Sites Cut out the Media?

Over the past couple of years, Kickstarter's growth as a source of disruption in the creative industries has been pretty hard to ignore. Om extolled the site's virtues just the other day, and the concept that anybody who has an idea can try to raise money to get it finished has become a big hit—allowing them to raise millions of dollars for gadgets, fashion, and even films. It's so successful, in fact, that investors are now jumping in to back projects that don't reach their target.

Kickstarter for Books?

Given Kickstarter's success, it's no surprise to see new services trying to piggyback on the idea of crowdfunding. So perhaps you shouldn't be surprised to say hello to Unbound, a British startup trying to apply the same model specifically to books.

Unbound operates in much the same way as its cousin. First, authors get their projects listed on the site. The authors then explain what it is they're working on, and if you're a fan you can pledge money to the cause. When enough money is raised, the author works on the book and then, when it's published, you get a lovely personal copy to thank you for your support. So far, so familiar.

The site, which is run by a trio of experienced British publishing hands, certainly taps into almost every buzzy idea in the industry right now: connecting creators directly to their audience, using what Kevin Kelly has called "1,000 True Fans" the disintermediation of traditional publishers, whether by Amazon or self-publishing outlets such as Lulu; and the move toward boutique or self-publishing as a way of bringing a greater share of revenue to authors themselves.

And it's got some early projects from good names: Monty Python member Terry Jones is pitching a comic book about the sinister side of machines, for example.Amy Jenkins, the writer behind seminal British TV series This Life, is pitching what sounds like a solid piece of women's fiction. Meanwhile the amazing Tibor Fischer, a brilliant author of dysfunctional novels, seems to be using it to publish a couple of new stories.

It looks like it could be fun. But I still can't help wondering: Do we really need a new way to help authors raise money for their books?

Paradox of Niche Crowdfunding

After all, Kickstarter already has a significant amount of activity around publishing. Looking at the site today, I can see dozens of open authorial projects in the fiction category alone, and a huge number have already reached their fundraising targets.Most have raised a sum in the hundreds or low thousands of dollars, but some have done very well—this version of Huckleberry Finn raised $30,000, for example.

Is it better to focus on niche opportunities, such as publishing, or take a broad church approach, like Kickstarter?

My concern is that niche crowdfunding websites have been around for quite a while, and they have never really made it big—if you want to raise significant funds, you need to have a big audience. Spot.us, a site for crowdfunded journalism, has been interesting to watch for those in the news industry—but although it's talked about, it hasn't ever really broken into the big leagues. Similarly Sellaband, a Dutch website that connected music fans to artists in a similar way to Unbound, looked like it could really work—until it went bust in 2010.It's still around today, just barely, after a German entrepreneur bought the company—but in falling over, it lost a lot of momentum and trust.

"Crowdfunding" Is Limiting

Perhaps the difference is that Unbound isn't just a crowdfunding site. It also takes steps into the breach as the publisher of those works. In fact, it's possible that it's actually misleading to think of Unbound as a crowdfunding site at all. On its author pages [http://unbound.co.uk/pages/authors], the founders explain what's really going on:

"Currently Unbound is commissioning most of its projects from published authors, although we will include proposals from first-time authors that are submitted through literary agents. Unfortunately what we can't do is promise to read unsolicited submissions: There just aren't enough of us to do that yet, but keep checking back as we've got a plan up our sleeves which we'll be launching soon."

So perhaps describing Unbound as a Kickstarter for books is misleading: Maybe it's better to think of it as a low-capital publisher. It seems that it does all the traditional jobs (selecting authors, working with submissions, editing manuscripts, printing books) but mitigates financial risk by raising its authors' advances from the public, rather than its own coffers.

The question remains, though, whether that model will give it a longer life, or let it have a greater impact, than everything that has gone before. Let's see what happens.

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