Five things I learned crowdfunding with Unbound books

After 90 days of crowdfunding I am absolutely over the moon that my fantasy novel The End of Magic is now fully funded at Unbound Books and will be published most likely in early 2019!

My agent mentioned Unbound early on in the process, and the thing that really grabbed my attention was that I would be working with the editor Simon Spanton. Simon is a legend in science fiction and fantasy. I knew him from his time at Gollancz where he worked with the likes of Richard Morgan (Altered Carbon), Joe Abercrombie (The Blade Itself) and Scott Lynch (The Lies of Locke Lamora). The opportunity to work with Simon was too good to pass up.

“Let’s do it!” I said.
“There’s a catch,” my agent replied. “You have to raise about four grand… in ninety days…”
“Me?! I can barely scrape together my rail fare, how am I supposed to raise four grand?”
“You know lots of people, you’ll be fine.”

This is how Unbound works: by crowdfunding the production and editorial costs of every book they publish, not only does the book build its own readership, but it’s also profitable on the day of publication. Very few publishers can claim that these days.

All I had to do was raise £4000 (actually about five and a half grand before VAT) in 90 days.

Like most Brits I can be queasy when it comes to just talking about money, and like most Brits I am in danger of spontaneously combusting when it comes to asking another person for money. So I knew that I would find this whole process difficult, but I seem to have become this experimental author by accident so I figured what the hell and grasped the nettle.

So, dear reader, should you dare to venture on a similar quest here are a few of the things I learned from my Unbound Crowdfunding experience that you might find helpful…

1. It’s personal

You’re going to have to contact an awful lot of people, but you must avoid any blanket blind-copy-all emails. This needs a personal touch. You need to draw up a list of everyone you know, everyone you’ve ever emailed, everyone you know on Facebook, and put them on a pledge grid (a secure one in these days of GDPR!). I created columns for:

Name
email
Contacted?
Chased?
Pledged?
Signal boost?
Notes

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This will be your bible for the whole of the campaign. Save it on your desktop and open it every day, because this thing is going to take over your life a bit…

2. Set targets

After the initial flurry of pledges from close friends and family I had a first day total of 5% pledged. I reckoned that if I targeted myself 1% per day that I would make the total within the recommended 90 day period. I figured that it took an average of four or five pledges per day to make my target. Of course, not all pledges are equal (I had some options for £150, £250, £300) but the great majority would be for the paperback, so use that as your average pledge amount.

I referred to the pledge grid on a daily basis, working through the names and sending each individual a template email topped and tailed with personal details:

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Some stats:

38% of my pledges came direct to the site. That is, from links that I sent to people. Only 8% came from the mailings that Unbound send to over 40,000 people. The remainder were variations on mail referalls from Facebook and email links that I sent. It became clear very early on that this book wasn’t going to fund itself!

Oh, and have a cheerleader! Someone you can brag to about your daily total and celebrate the milestones with. In my case it was Simon…

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3. Polite persistence

If there’s anything worse than asking for money, it’s asking for it twice… or three times… or four. What started as crowdfunding became borderline harrasment.

Timing is key: if you’re writing to colleagues then don’t ask for money a week before payday when they’re skint… ask on payday when they’re flush!

And don’t be shy about asking for help when you’re close to a milestone. These were the most effective mailings and Tweets:

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And always remember to thank them when you hit those milestones…

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One problem that threw me was how some people struggled with the idea of crowdfunding. I’ve supported a few myself, so was already familiar with the concept, but quite a few people couldn’t get their heads around why I needed money to edit, produce and print a book (let alone write it and pay an artist and designer for the cover art). Make it clear how it works in a pithy way. Luckily, Unbound provided a handy page explaining it all.

4. Social media won’t do it alone

Very few of my Tweets or RTs resulted in direct pledges. However, there is an old marketing maxim that we have to see something at least seven times before we’re prompted to purchase, and I lost count of the number of times that people told me they were reminded to pledge after a Tweet or a Facebook update. This made their eventual pledge a combination of:

initial email + update + social = pledge.

My regular updates were key. I updated on the Unbound page, on my blog and social media and celebrated every milestone. This was a gentle way to remind those who hadn’t pledged that this thing was still a going concern. It also helped those who had already pledged to take ownership of the project: they were involved in something fun, they had skin in the game, and were as determined as I was to make it work as I work. This has been the most rewarding part of the project: having pledgers bang the drum. It’s a great feeling!

I did dabble with Facebook ads. Don’t bother. A complete waste of time and money. You’ll be better off spending that money pledging yourself!

Oh, and I have to confess that I did resort to this a couple of times. I knew that I would get a mailing from Unbound when I hit 50% and after a couple of days of non-activity I thought screw it and pledged for 5 copies (I can sign and sell them at events/conventions later). This nudged me to 50%, got me the mailing and gave the campaign a boost… Just don’t make a habit of it! It kind of defeats the object.

5. It’s not personal

Don’t be offended when people say no… Okay, allow yourself a moment a rage, but then get over yourself. Though, some of the excuses for not pledging did make me laugh:

Friend, “I don’t read fantasy fiction.”
Me, “You don’t have to read it, just gimme the money!”
Friend, “Hmm… Nah.”

Friend, “Sorry, I’m funding my own project.”
Me, “Cool. I had no idea. Let me have a link and we can pledge to each others’ projects. Let’s help each other out.”
Friend… <tumbleweed>

Friend, “Yeah, I promise to pledge!”
90 days later…  <tumbleweed>

Never forget that people have busy lives and it’s astonishing these days when money is tight that anyone hands over their money. Be grateful for every penny.

Once again, a huge thanks to everyone who pledged (some of them more than once, some of them to the tune of hundreds of pounds!), and those who spread the word, banged the drum, cornered strangers at parties, and wrote the theme tune and created a mini trailer that I used pretty much every day… okay that last one’s pretty specific, but thanks Dom!

A quick note on videos – you’re asked to produce one when you start with Unbound. I made mine with my kids and it was lots of fun, but it was only after I added subtitles that we started getting better engagement. Most people watch social media vids with the sound down, so it’s worth the extra effort…

What’s next? Well, edits, revisions, repeat and rinse, then copy edits, proofreading, choosing the cover art and then sending this baby out into the real world.

Oh, and you can keep pledging! More money means we can spend more on the cover art and finishes (spot laminate on the cover would be lovely, thank you) and of course you’ll get your name in the book. So pre-order now!

I hope you found that useful and if you have any further queries, then do please drop me a line below and I’ll do my best to answer them and good luck with your own project!

 

UPDATE: I got to speak to Unbound’s Head of Crowdfunding Jimmy Leach on the podcast, and it’s full of great info, so be sure to check it out here.

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A few notes on formatting screenplays

This week a friend of mine asked me to take a look at his first-ever screenplay. He’s a novelist, with a succesful historical fiction series at a major publisher, and he was adapting one his novels into a TV pilot. Story-wise it was all pretty ship-shape, but the formatting of his script was a bit skewy, and I thought I would share some of the notes I sent him as it covers a lot of the basics when it comes to formatting your screenplay. Some of the details have been changed to protect the innocent…

 

Formatting:

You’ll hear all sorts of dictatorial “rules” about how you should or shouldn’t format a screenplay, and there are certain people out there who make lots of money running expensive screenwriting courses who will tell you how your screenplay will be instantly rejected if you ever break one of these sacred rules…

This is, of course, bollocks. All that matters is clarity.

So, when reading what follows, always remember that these are not hard and fast rules. But there are some principles that you should observe if you want to set yourself apart from noob screenwriters.

Scene numbers: Don’t bother with these quite yet. They’re usually added by a line producer just prior to going into production. The screenplay is then locked and any subsequent scene number changes will need to be logged. For example, a scene that’s added between scene 27 and scene 28 will be logged as 27a. However, for the purposes of my feedback I’ll refer to them now, but you should probably delete them before you submit them to your agent or production companies.

Same goes for the (CONTINUED)s at the top and bottom of each page. Most people don’t bother with these, but some screenplay apps have them as a default, so it’s your call if you want to keep them (I find them clunky).

Scene 1. You’ve split LONDON 1792 over two lines. Any titles or subtitles should ideally be on one single line of text.

When introducing a character for the first time put their name in CAPS. This helps the production team identify when a new character appears in the script. It helps to remember that so much of what you put in a script is there to make the lives of the cast and crew easier. It’s also generally accepted that you should really only put the name in caps when the character first appears, and not all the way through the script.

Any sound effects should really be in caps, too. This helps the director, editor and sound designer note when noises will need to be added in post-production.

A note on Wrylies. These are the little bits of direction in parentheses…

ALFRED
(mutters in annoyance)
Bloody fool.

Lose ’em. All of ’em. Okay, maybe allow yourself one every ten pages. Writers put them there to give the actors on guidance on how to say a line, but actors generally hate being told how to act (especially by the writer!) and they should be used very, very sparingly and only when there’s a point of clarity to be made, usually when a line could be read as either straight or sarcastic. That’s why they’re called wrylies… he said wryly.

I can understand that in your case that you’re trying to preserve the intention in your novel. When writing dialogue in a novel you have far more control over how that line will be interpreted. But in film and TV you’re going to have to learn to trust the actor and director, and they’ll surprise you and will often bring something new and wonderful to the line that you might not have thought of.

Sluglines

Scenes 3, 4, 5 and more simply say CORRIDOR or STAIRWAY. Yes, these scenes follow on from one to the next, but remember that these are used as guides for the reader and the production team and will sometimes be read in isolation from the rest of the script. So maybe go with:

INT. CORRIDOR – CONTINUOUS

This lets the reader know that that the scene is set inside and continues from the previous scene.

However, with a pre-production draft I think it’s it’s fine to leave them off if you think it makes the script a faster, easier read. But when you go into production the sluglines will be made to work harder.

When I started out I found The Screenwriter’s Bible to be helpful on formatting, but to be honest why not just read a whole bunch of scripts for free? One of the best resources is the BBC Writers’ Room Script Library. Hundreds of free TV, film and radio scrips all available to download legally and freely. You’ll learn tons!

And, for variety, why not check out scripts by the likes of Tarantino or Wes Anderson. They ignore a lot of screenplay conventions and they seem to be doing pretty well for themselves.

Caveat: there are no rules, only principals, and what matters most is clarity. If you can, try and wangle a day on a film set. Watch how everyone works with the script, and when you’re next writing, try and put yourself in the shoes of the director, the actors, and the production team. Good luck!

 

While you’re here, check out my new grimfun fantasy novel The End of Magic

25 things I’ve learned from 25 years in books…

December 1992: Charles and Di announced their separation, the NET book agreement was still in place, Amazon was still just a river to most people, and a fresh-faced bookseller started a temporary Christmas placement at Waterstones in Dorking.

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Me and Horrid Henry before the TV and movie money changed him…

I’ve been selling books for 25 years (I only meant to stay for Christmas!) and I thought I could share a few of the things I’ve learned on the way, though I suspect the final tip is the only one of true practical use…

25 things I’ve learned from 25 years in books:

1. Be professional and courteous to everyone you meet and work with. It’s a small industry.
2. Amazon is all about the customer. Keep that in mind with every dealing you have with them.
3. Formats may change, genres will wax and wane, but people will always want good stories.
4. Never confuse ubiquity with popularity. I can’t tell you how many celeb biogs I’ve seen crash and burn just because publishers thought that being on the telly meant that people liked them.
5. Meeting your heroes can be awkward, but you’ll be fine if you keep it short and sweet. Don’t expect them to be your best friend and invite you on holiday. And remember that they have good days and bad days like everyone else.
6. Authors who have a clear idea of what kind of career they want tend to last longer.
7. Series characters that move with the times stay the course: Rebus, Noddy, Batman.
8. The best editors combine passion and integrity, but aren’t afraid to make a few quid.
9. A big advance can be a curse and a blessing. If you don’t earn out, you’re screwed.
10. Authors can’t sit back and leave it all to the publisher and agent. The successful ones get out there and make it happen.
11. Never respond to bad reviews. Just enjoy the good ones and screw the haters.
12. Never badmouth another author. We’re all in this together and we don’t need to be flinging shit at each other.
13. And be pleased for their successes. Bitterness helps no one.
14. Never stop learning. There have been more changes in this industry in the last ten years since the invention of the printing press.
15. Survival is one part cynicism, two parts optimism.
16. Be loyal to people, not companies.
17. Always make time for a proper lunch break.
18. Write for yourself. Not the market. Trends come and go. You’ll always be you.
19. Changing an author’s name or adding an initial rarely makes any difference to sales. The reading public only care if it’s a good book.
20. Don’t believe your own publicity. Publishing, like any creative medium, is great at creating monsters, and it always happens when the writer starts to believe it when people tell them they’re a genius.
21. Success is not a bestseller, it’s writing what you love… though the money would be nice.
22. Of course people judge a book by its cover. And its title. And its review average on Amazon.
23. Tenacity is everything: keep writing and you can only improve.
24. Balance modesty and confidence and don’t get cocky.
25. And finally, and this is really important, when confronted with a multi-storey car park, always park on the roof. You’ll never forget where you parked (five years on the road as a rep!).

Happy writing and have a splendid Christmas! Oh, and if you’re looking for something to read in the bleak midwinter then Back to Reality will brighten your day!

And if you want to support our work on the podcast, we now have a Patreon. Do please support us and we can keep it going.

Till next time, happy writing,

Mark

 

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The Bestseller Experiment launches today!

A simple proposition: write, edit, publish and market a self-published eBook and get it up the Kindle charts… in a year. Fifty-two weeks. Yeah, a doddle…

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Oh, and while you’re trying to achieve this, and on top of all the other crap you have going on in your life, you’ll also be helping run a weekly podcast where you interview folk from the industry and maybe a few authors? Maybe even a few bestselling, mega-million-household-name-type authors?

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And yet, here we are… Luckily, my cohort in this exercise in insanity is the super-driven entrepreneur and life coach Mark Desvaux who could convince the most devout nun to abandon her vows and take up pole dancing (don’t worry, he only uses his powers for good, not evil).

Mark is also that wannabe writer who’s started writing a novel a few times, but has never finished one. He still has that joyous naivety that all it takes is a bit of application and before you know it you’ve written Harry Potter And The Cash Cow Of Azkaban.

I, on the other hand, am a cynical sod who’s worked in bookselling and publishing for over twenty years and have seen more disasters than Donald Trump’s press office. There’s no way you can cynically take a dash of Dan Brown, add a smidgen of James Patterson, sprinkle it with EL James’s chutzpah and wait for the royalty cheques to come rolling in.

However, that’s not entirely our plan. While our book may end up the literary equivalent of the Hindenberg, we are totally convinced that there are writers out there who can beat us to it. Writers who might have a half-finished book in their bottom drawer, writers who just need a little guidance from the experts (that’s not us, let me make that absolutely clear!), and could get their work published and read by the masses.

So, if you think that’s you, or a buddy of yours, or you just like listening to fantastic interviews with the likes of Joanne Harris, Joe Abercrombie, Maria Semple, Michelle Paver, Scott Lynch, John Connolly, Michael Connelly and many more (yeah, we got some of those million-sellers recorded already, baby!), then join us. It might end in utter disaster, but it will be fun.

We launch today with three episodes, so you can really get your teeth into it, and they’re all fab. You can find the podcast on iTunes: http://bestsellerexperiment.com/itunes

Please subscribe so you don’t miss future episodes, and, if you like us, please, please, please leave a review and a rating on iTunes. I had no idea how important this stuff is to keeping your podcast alive. Apple use these as their major metric when it comes to making the podcast visible and easy to find! Without them, we wither and die… and I want this to fail because I was right, not because of some sodding metric!

If you’re not on iTunes, you can listen and download from our website: http://bestsellerexperiment.com/podcasts/

We’re also on Facebook and Twitter, Pinterest and Instagram, oh, and if you sign up to our newsletter you get a free eBook, The Writers’ Vault of Gold

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This really is aces. Updated every week it’s the highlights of our interviews, and by the time we’re done there will be about 80,000 words of advice from some of the best authors on the planet… For free! You’d be crazy not to.

Still not convinced? Then check out our trailer for a quick peek…

Like I said, this is going to be fun.

Oh, and to the chap who left a comment on our Facebook page bemoaning the whole exercise and declaring that Graham Greene would never have stooped to this… it’s called the Bestseller Experiment, not the Timeless Literary Classic Experiment.

That’s next year…

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At the foot of the mountain – starting a new writing project…

Jon Wright and I are just starting out on a new writing project, TOP SECRET PROJECT X. I know, catchy! This is immediately coming off the back of over a year’s solid work writing a script that we hope to get into production this year, and we wanted to have something ready to follow it up with (always helps to think ahead). So we’ve gone from hurtling at a hundred miles an hour, steering skilfully round familiar bends, to suddenly pushing a clapped-out old Vauxhall Viva uphill to the nearest garage.

Starting a new thing can be very daunting indeed.

It’s taken us about six months to get around to the actual writing bit. Time is great aid to fomenting ideas, and it’s a luxury a screenwriter doesn’t often get, but I would recommend using it whenever you can. Take any intriguing idea you have, jot it down, nurture it with seedling ideas and before you know it, new ideas will be presenting themselves to you at three in the morning, demanding that they be implemented immediately. Here’s one I made earlier…

Late night scribbles can produce surprising results...
Late night scribbles can produce surprising results…

This one started with lots of talking — initially with a conversation outside a pub — then continued with more chatting in places where tea is served, and then long phone conversations about situations and characters, and then we progressed to tentative emails. With each of these gently flirtatious stages we’ve been collating nuggets about characters and situations and themes, and now we’re at the stage where we’re putting together the actual building blocks of a story.

The nitty-gritty starts with character work. On our previous project we were adapting someone else’s script and didn’t feel that we had a good enough grip on the characters, so we wrote monologues for each of them, bouncing drafts back and forth between the two us, adding more interesting details and texture until we really knew who these people were. That was when we finally felt that we had taken ownership of them and the script, and our writing after that became a lot more instinctive: the sports car swerving round tight bends.

So, this is where we’ve decided to start with TOP SECRET PROJECT X: character monologues, like pieces to camera, confessional and candid and revealing, and it’s a great way to get a story that’s driven by characters and not set pieces. There are lots of blind alleys, things we’ll get wrong, but it’s worth it for the things that shine and excite and inspire. We’re off to a great start, but there’s still a very long way to go, that clapped-out Vauxhall Viva is still very heavy and the mountain is very steep. In the meantime, here’s a bit of Paul Weller to chivvy us along…

 

The painting above is The Wanderer Above the Sea of Fog, (Der Wanderer über dem Nebelmeer um) 1818 ~ by Caspar David Friedrich, and is how all writers should visualise themselves when embarking on a new project, and not hunched over a laptop wondering if they can have another chocolate Hobnob yet.

 

My Jazz Chord Theory of Creativity

I found myself with a free afternoon yesterday, not something that happens often these days as any spare time I have tends to be dedicated to writing, but I’m in a lull on one project and stuck on another, and so I found myself plugging my guitar into a pedal board and amp, and I started thrashing out a few chords.

Inspired by its inclusion on the GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY soundtrack, I thought I’d have a go at learning David Bowie’s splendid MOONAGE DAYDREAM and was surprised by how simple it was: lots of nice major/minor chords, a very easy riff and a straightforward melody.

And it got me thinking about a half-baked music analogy I have about creativity. When rock bands start out they begin with the simple stuff: twelve-bar blues, major chords dropping to minors, and a cool hook. Stuff that’s basic, but highly effective, hitting people right in the feels…

Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy.
Major chords. Easy peasy, lemon squeezy and making people feel totes emosh since the dawn of time.

But as an artist progresses in their career, they understandably want to try something more complex and challenging, and, if you’re a guitarist, this means that sooner or later your favourite band will start using complex jazz chords…

Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.
Jazz chords. Evil bastards. Not to be trusted.

Don’t get me wrong; I enjoy jazz, but in quite small doses. It just doesn’t engage me emotionally in the way that a big, stupid rock song does. Just as I prefer Bowie’s early stuff, I suspect that it’s songs like STARMAN and LIFE ON MARS that are paying the mortgage at chez Bowie, rather than anything he’s recorded in the last twenty years. It’s also why the musically straightforward 1970s-era Pink Floyd continue to sell more than the jazz odyssey stylings of their early Syd Barrett stuff or, say, Captain Beefheart…

Of course, this theory is full of holes: if anything, the Beatles’ songs became more straightforward as they progressed, Kate Bush’s stuff was always complex musically (though her early albums are arguably more tuneful), and it probably doesn’t apply to classical or opera, though Beethoven’s Fifth (Duh-Duh-Duh-Duuum!) is as rock n roll as classical gets.

But you get the idea: the simple stuff works. It will always have a greater reach, audience-wise, than the introverted, “clever” stuff.

And here comes the big, clanging, G-major analogy that I’ll be trying to apply to my writing: I won’t be putting too many jazz chords into my stories. I might think I’m being clever by killing the hero on page 35, or starting in the middle of my story and working backwards via flashforwards, but some poor producer has to pitch that idea to raise money, and nine out of ten of them will always go for the simple sell.

That’s not to dismiss “simple” as “easy”: keeping a story truthful, engaging and emotional is hard enough as it is. So why make life more difficult for yourself?

And so my creative aim in life is to hit the same simple and moving peak as Bowie who has Mick Ronson open a song with a big, fat D-major chord as he cries, “I’m an alligator!” There’s no greater achievement in art…