Tuesday, 31 May 2011

Would you pay for a book that Pat Kane and Terry Jones haven't written yet?

A couple of weeks or so ago I noticed a strange post on Pat Kane's Facebook page. Kane is a musician, writer, journalist, consultant and activist. Despite being utterly in the thrall of the SNP he's often worth listening to on media matters, which is why I befriended him on FB.
But the post in question really made me wonder.
Just to fill you in, Kane had a successful recording career with his band Hue and Cry. He's often in the public eye as a media and cultural critic and still plays live. He happens to live not so far away from me in Glasgow's West End and he is very interested and involved in social media.
Which is all fine and interesting. And my point, I guess, is that he's not starving in a garret somewhere.
Pat's latest project, some might say wheeze - and he 'launched' it in the traditional old fashioned papery Guardian - was to announce that he intends to write a book, Radical Animal, which would have an online social network element, and that he was looking for $10,000 (or £6K approx) to give him the time to write the MS.
Instead of getting a publisher to pay him an advance, he is offering the general public the chance to stump up for him instead. So if you are interested in reading Pat's as yet unwritten book, you could sponsor him to write it.
How many people out there, I asked myself, are so eager to hear Pat Kane's thoughts on a subject, any subject: eager enough to pay in advance for a man who tweets and appears regularly on traditional media outlets effectively for free?
Then the other day I saw a Tweet with a link to unbound.co.uk. This is another example of the net being used to democratise the book production process. This from their website: "What's different is that instead of waiting for them to publish their work, Unbound allows you to listen to their ideas for what they'd like to write before they even start. If you like their idea, you can pledge to support it. If we hit the target number of supporters, the author can go ahead and start writing..."
So Kane's pay up front idea is wider than just him (and I am sure there are other examples probably in the US: links welcome).
There is clearly something attractive about democratising publishing. Its appealing to think that we'll get the books we want if we remove these elitist publishers with their mad ideas about thrillers selling hundreds of thousands of copies and no one being interested in the poignant memoir of a 26-year-old former drama student who once did drugs at a party.
I don't think it's true, of course. Publishers bring more to the party than just a fancy cover and shelf space in Tesco, as important as those two elements are. But I can see why some people might get excited over the idea.
What puzzles me is how anyone thinks this pay-up-front model is at all viable. We live in a book economy in which publishers struggle to sell new paperbacks at half price through the megaonline marketplace of Amazon. Waterstones has just been sold to a Russian billionaire. Borders is gone. One key factor in their demise is over supply: too many books, depressed prices, consumers who want to spend less and less.
Then there is self-publishing. You can put your MS straight out into the marketplace on Kindle etc without a publisher getting involved. You reap the rewards yourself. But you don't get paid up front and the per unit price is necessarily low.
My question is: just who thinks there are enough readers out there with enough time and money to speculate on books - fiction, non fiction - which haven't been written yet?
A glance at the Unbound website tells me that each of their current offerings has a long way to go before they get funded. In fact, the best of them - a short story collection by Python legend Terry Jones - is 98 per cent short of its target, albeit with 48 days to go.
I wish Pat Kane good luck, I'll sit and watch the result with interest. Similarly with Unbound. But I don't see either of these schemes coming off. Not in any meaningful, sustainable way.
What do you think?

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