Radical Books

The crowd-funded book: an eighteenth-century revival

In the eighteenth century they called it publishing by subscription, in the twenty-first century most people will say ‘crowd-funding’. One of the most exciting imprints today, the crowd-funded publishing company Unbound, has come up with a new business model that is based firmly in the eighteenth century.

A list of subscribers to Alexander Pope’s translation of The Iliad of Homer’ , 6 vols. (1715-20).

Here’s how the standard publishing model works. An author wishes to publish a book. Author manages to get a publisher; publisher takes the risk and bears the initial costs of printing and distribution. Although publishing is a business and must make a profit to survive, publishers used to accept that not all books would sell well. The big sellers subsidised the slow burners or the important book that was never going to be commercial at all.

But today’s marketing departments are not geared up for returns ten and twenty years hence; the bottom line is now. Enter Unbound. Working with authors, Unbound raises the funds for editing, printing and distribution by approaching readers directly and getting them to pledge – effectively, to buy – in advance. Readers act as patrons. When enough pledges have come in and the target is reached, the book goes into production in the usual way.

This model is essentially a revival of practices from the early eighteenth century, when commercial publishing exploded. Support for literature had traditionally been provided by wealthy patrons. The new publishing companies saw that profits could be made as literacy improved and readerships widened, but they were under-capitalised. The solution? Seek advance funding from a pool of subscribers.

The printer or publisher managed the subscription, while authors did their best to spread the word. The higher up the social scale they were able to go the better and names of subscribers were printed, in order of rank, as part of the book’s front matter. Subscribers paid half the price in advance and paid the other half when the book was delivered to them. It was a cumbersome business, requiring letters to-and-fro, visits, and pressure on second parties to rustle up third parties and activate their contacts. On good days, authors had the heady feeling that they were raising funds and widening their social circle; on bad days, there would be rebuffs. Alexander Pope took seven years to publish his translation of The Iliad by subscription in 1720, but earned enough from his endeavours to live decently as a leisured gentleman thereafter. In the process, he acquired many wealthy and aristocratic friends whose listed names added to his own and his book’s prestige.

The first woman poet to successfully publish a book by subscription was Mary Barber, whose Poems appeared in 1734. It took her a long time too. She was a Dublin linen-draper’s wife and some of her poems were about how ghastly it was to be stuck behind the counter ‘in smoaky Dublin pent’ when, as a poet, she surely should have been loitering in leafy glades by burbling streams. Letter-poems that addressed titled ladies, explaining why she couldn’t accept their invitations for country-house weekends, reinforced the impression given by the subscription list that she was a woman of merit and worthy of attention.

Earlier still, a female scholar, Elizabeth Elstob, had raised a subscription for her edition and translation of An English-Saxon Homily on the Birthday of St Gregory (1709). Elstob’s supporters included a remarkably high number of women: 116 of the 271 total. Many were local connections from Newcastle, Canterbury and Oxford; and there were also a number of antiquarians and scholars who admired Elstob’s talent and dedication to Anglo-Saxon in an era when women did not have access to university education and networks.

Elstob set a precedent for other women scholars. The celebrated bluestocking Elizabeth Carter had friends in high places in the church and it was a group of bishops who promoted the subscription for her translation of All the Works of Epictetus (1758). Almost a thousand subscribers put in a guinea apiece. Like Pope, Carter achieved a modest independence from this successful book.

Increasingly, however, publishing became professional and gathering subscriptions came to seem old-fashioned. Worse, it was associated with charity and with bad books. The term ‘vanity publishing’ – meaning books printed at the author’s expense and outside the boundary of a gate-keeping, standard-setting realm of editors – was dreadful to the ears of any seriously ambitious writer in the twentieth century. But new technologies bring new values as well as new practices. A blogger with a following may not need a publishing company: certainly, a blogger with a big following needs no help with marketing, and in fact the publishing company may be begging them to come inside the fold.

Unbound’s business model is made possible by digital technology, but differs very little from the old system of subscription. All the information about the book and the author is online on the Unbound site. Visitors to the page can subscribe to the proposed book by clicking on ‘pledge’. The author has a ‘dashboard’ and progress can be monitored as a percentage, in terms of the number of subscribers and how much money has been pledged.

As an author whose latest book – Not Speaking: A Family and a Quarrel – challenged marketing departments but was warmly enjoyed by editors, I have found a home at Unbound. Unbound allows me to by-pass marketing and reach out directly to readers. The unexpected element in all this is not how much work is involved – I’ve enjoyed that – but how sustaining it is to know that (at the present moment) 142 people have been interested enough to pledge for my book. Authors don’t usually get that pat on the back. Similarly, authors don’t usually know what’s going on with their book manuscript once it is in the publisher’s hands, and they aren’t privy to a publisher’s financial affairs. With Unbound, authors know exactly how much money is coming in for their book. It’s all on the dashboard. And, if the book should sell well, the cut in the takings is 50/50; a huge advance on the author’s usual share of under 10%.

Laetitia Pilkington (née Van Lewen) by Richard Purcell, mezzotint, published 1760. NPG D14539. © National Portrait Gallery, London

On the subject of how much work is involved: it mostly takes place at the computer. Updates and correspondence with subscribers can be sent out with ease because we are all now linked up in a great sociable network. When Laetitia Pilkington was gathering subscriptions for her memoir in the 1740s she did most of it on foot, trudging around London from one posh house to another in all weathers. She got some surprising people on board, including the Archbishop of Canterbury with whom she took tea at Lambeth Palace. Considering that Pilkington was a so-called ‘scandalous’ woman (accused of adultery by her clergyman husband and forced to fend for herself) and that her memoir was designed to point the finger of blame at others, her ability to enlist such support must testify to her charm as well as perseverance. However, she did not print a list of subscribers; she frankly acknowledged that most people made it a condition that their identities remain secret. Unbound follows standard eighteenth-century practice and prints subscribers’ names, but anybody who wishes to remain anonymous may do so.

I wrote about Laetitia Pilkington in Queen of the Wits: a Life of Laetitia Pilkington (Faber, 2008) but it’s only now that I’m also building my own subscription list that I properly appreciate her struggle. Do take a look at the Unbound site for my book Not Speaking and pledge if you are interested.


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