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Crowdfunding A Novel

Author Dan Brotzel presents a case study, sharing his experiences of crowdfunding a novel with a publisher called Unbound

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Introduction by Chris Fielden

Dan Brotzel is the co-author of a comic novel called Kitten on a Fatberg. The book is currently crowdfunding with Unbound, a publisher whose ethos is to liberate ideas and bring them to life.

Unbound, Liberating Ideas

Dan wrote to me and asked if I'd be interested in him writing about his experiences of working with Unbound. He thought it might be of interest to my readers, as crowdfunding is a relatively new alternative to traditional publishing.

I said, "Yes please, good sir," and proceeded to stipulate a long list of information that I'd like Dan to cover in his post, including details of how he went about working in collaboration with other authors to write the book. Thankfully, Dan wasn't put off and agreed.

At the time of writing, Dan and his co-authors are just over halfway to crowdfunding their book, Kitten on a Fatberg. This post covers the pros and cons he and his friends have experienced so far, as well as information about how they approached writing a novel as a three man team.

Kitten on a Fatberg

Dan has agreed to write a follow-up article, once the book has been published. In that, he will share details of what happened once the book was released and the marketing efforts used to generate ongoing sales. But that is yet to happen...

For now, please enjoy Dan's candid post, in which he openly shares details of the amount of work involved when you try to crowdfund a book.

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Crowdfunding a Novel with Unbound, by Dan Brotzel

Introduction

Kitten on a Fatberg is a novel-in-emails about an eccentric writers’ group called Crawley Writers. I wrote it with two pals from my real-life writer’s group, Alex Woolf and Martin Jenkins.

Our real-life group is based in north London. It's a critique group that meets every fortnight. We have a core of five members, and another four or five who drop in and out. I've written about the group in this Unbound article, if you'd like to know more.

Alex Woolf, Dan Brotzel and Martin Jenkins

Authors, Alex Woolf, Dan Brotzel and Martin Jenkins

It took us about two-and-a-half years to write Kitten on a Fatberg. A sort of cross between The Detectorists and Tom Sharpe, it’s got feuds, affairs and pathos – but also a cosplay stalker, an alien mothership invasion, and a deeply symbolic bowl of olives. The tagline is:

They’ve all got a book in them, unfortunately.

Soon after joining my group, I had the idea that a fictional writers’ group would actually be a fun set-up for a novel – all those fragile egos, all those weird and wonderful personalities, all the different sorts of writers and writing (from epic verse to steampunk, in our case). I imagined a motley crew of lonely characters, desperate to be published, moving through a story with lots of potential for rivalry and romance, jealousy and intrigue, self-deception and the ache of unrequited ambition.

Dan Brotzel

The side of Dan Brotzel's head – you can see the front of him in other pics on this page

Originally, I’d thought the idea might make an interesting short story, but over time – as my friendship with Alex and Martin grew – I started to think how much more fun it would be if we wrote something longer, together. Between us, we had all met lots of writers, experienced lots of different writing groups, and shared a typically British, self-mocking sense of humour. So, when I put the idea for my novel to them, they seized on it at once.

After a few meetings in our local pub, we had thrashed out a set of characters and a broad structure. We knew it would be a novel in emails, building to some sort of explosive climax, and that was enough to get us started.

Collaboration and Creativity

There are many reasons why collaborating on a novel shouldn’t work. Writers are basically egotists. They’re used to being their own bosses and making their own decisions. Would writing together lead to clashes and tantrums? Then there were the practical issues. For example:

  • How would we manage the actual writing process?
  • What if someone didn’t pull their weight?
  • Who would be responsible for the editing?
  • In the case of differences of editorial opinion, whose feedback would trump whose?

Writing Collaboration

As it happened, we stumbled on a process that worked for all of us. We decided that each of us would take on 2 or 3 characters, and that the story would be told entirely by email, in a flow of messages that would recount what the group got up to over the course of about a year’s worth of meetings.

We set up a Gmail account and devised a fluid structure where each character could fire in messages at will. This suited the various pressures of day jobs and parenting that each of us had to juggle.

Gmail logo

There was a fun, blind element to this process: I’d get a message to say that ‘Keith’s been in’ (Alex) or ‘Blue’s emailed’ (Martin), and then I’d check the inbox to see what that character had to say about the goings-on at the latest meeting, and how that moved the story on. Inevitably, there would be something in the message about some silly or nasty thing that one of my characters had been up to, so I’d email a reply from the PoV of my character, trying to explain or justify what had happened, moving the story on further – and also, of course, taking great delight in dropping one of Martin or Alex’s characters in it.

Using a cloud-based platform like this meant we could all write messages whenever suited us, and – as with emails in real life – there was no need for people to write in strict sequence. As the writing progressed, we moved from a completely blind approach to sending each other hints about future developments. We also met regularly to discuss the characters and the emerging shape and structure of the narrative overall. Those regular check-ins helped us to stay on track and stay motivated too. At one point, I noticed that we had all grown beards.

Alex Woolf

Alex Woolf, pre beard

It was a pleasure from start to finish, and there were benefits to collaboration too. When we put our three heads together, unexpected ideas, plot twists and characters emerged that none of us could have come up with on our own. Collaboration generated a healthy competitiveness that drove us all to try and write more, and better. It created its own internal momentum that sustained us as a team when, as individuals, we might have flagged.

In time, the direction of the story became clearer, and we starting meeting to shape the narrative to its conclusion in a more conscious way. The final part of the process was an intensive edit, in which each of us went through the MS one after another, adding tweaks and resolving comments, until we were all happy. The whole experience was hard work, complicated at times, but always great fun.

Because the characters were all so different and very voice-led, we would give each other occasional notes if we could see something that needed tweaking or we spotted a plot inconsistency, but it was generally left to the original creator to do the rework. As we got further into the project, however, there were points where we actually wrote in each other’s voices as we had got to know all the characters so well.

Kitten on a Fatberg front cover

Kitten on a Fatberg book cover

Co-writing Kitten on a Fatberg has been one of the most satisfying experiences of my writing career so far. Creatively, the whole is definitely greater than the sum of its parts, and it’s wonderful to see how much richer our book became for having three brains working on it rather than one. We’ve always seen the book as ours, as a shared enterprise – and that team glow is rare for fiction writers.

If you want to get a better understanding of how the book turned out, you can read an excerpt here.

In summary to this section, collaboration can be great if you like the idea of:

  • partner(s) to bounce off creatively
  • a fiction buddy to help keep you motivated and get that draft done
  • receiving (sometimes surprising) prompts from a creative partner
  • more minds on a project adding greater depth of characterisation, more material, more life experience to draw on
  • working with a writer(s) you admire, who push you to do your best work

Collaboration may not be for you if you're worried about:

  • losing (or sharing) creative control
  • having to nag someone else who isn't pulling their weight
  • how to promote your book if one of you is much better known than the other
  • disagreements about who has the final say when it comes to plotting or editing
  • sharing the credit
  • falling out with a friend

I would add that our experience was 100% positive and none of the negatives above happened. But they might have. I've certainly experienced several of these situations before, in other attempted collaborations.

Enter Unbound

Once we’d turned the MS into a more coherent and polished whole, I sent it off – almost for a laugh really – to Unbound.

Unbound uses a different model to that of a traditional publisher in certain key ways, but is similar in others. It’s still not easy to get your book accepted, and Unbound still handles the production and the post-publication publicity and distribution. What’s different is the bit in between.

Unbound blue single U logo

Instead of an advance that you have to work off against sales, you take on the job of covering the cost of producing the book by securing an agreed amount through pre-sales. This means you have to do some of the legwork up front, but the deal after that is better for the author: a 50:50 profit-share rather than the typical 10% of the cover price and no advance to work off.

This approach ideally allows Unbound to be more eclectic in its choices, since no book is produced which hasn’t already covered its costs. The crowdfunding phase also gives the publisher a chance to see the demand and likely market for the book. Some books (with well-known authors) can get funded in days, while others run into years!

It was a simple online submission process, as part of which I sent on the full MS. The next week I got an email from an editor called Beth Lewis:

Hi Dan,

Thanks so much for sending Kitten on a Fatberg to Unbound. Just wanted to send you a quick note to say I am loving it so far and the title is brilliant. I'll finish up reading over the weekend and get back to you next week.

Thanks for your patience!

Beth Lewis

Beth Lewis, Commissioning Editor at Unbound Publishing

It was amazing to receive this and to be thanked for my patience (like most would-be writers, I have extensive experience of being ignored by publishers and agents for months on end), especially as I'd only submitted the MS a couple of weeks before.

Hi Dan,

Sorry for the quiet last week, had a last-minute project which took all my time but I finished reading Fatberg on Friday afternoon. I love it! I would love to publish it too. I think with your platforms, it could do really well on our site. Are you London-based? Would be great to have a chat or, if not, maybe a call this week to chat next steps?

All the best,

Beth

Incredibly, within two weeks, we had been officially accepted! About a month after that, the title was up on the Unbound site, in full pledging mode.

One of the fun parts at the start is planning your pledge levels. These range, in our case, from ordering a digital book (£10) up to becoming a patron of the project (£1,000). We devised lots of levels in-between that were customised to the funny habits of some of our characters – you can see a full list of all our pledges here.

On the Unbound site, you can see all sorts of quirky gifts that that authors have come up with to go with different pledge levels, from jars of homemade jam to an offer to attend your dinner party as a guest (from comedy writer Andy Hamilton).

Doing the Crowdfund Dance

At a crowdfunding workshop run by Unbound, we learnt that there are two key segments of your target audience of people to approach about your book:

  1. The people who are interested in you, such as your family, friends and co-workers
  2. People who may be interested in the project, but may not know you at all

The latter is a harder group to reach and to educate, so to start with, at least, the focus of our efforts was the first group – family and friends.

Crowdfunding Ideas

We were shown lots of samples of different emails asking for support, and advised to send the emails out only a few at a time, with a personalised message each time.

At first, the process was encouraging and fantastically positive. We were blown away by the generosity of our nearest and dearest, and our project dashboard started to tick over very nicely. Then, after a while, we started to reach out to slightly less close contacts. This can be a tricky phase because inevitably you end up contacting some people that you haven’t spoken to for a while or perhaps haven’t worked hard enough to keep in touch with.

As the circle widens, it became harder to find ways to contact people without them feeling that they are being ‘tapped up’ for a sale. It’s a delicate art, and we probably didn’t always get it right. The best way, I decided eventually, was to be up front about not having been in touch for a while, then share the excitement of getting a book published and ask for help in spreading the word rather than trying to make a sale. (Another thing we learnt at the workshop is not to frame your messages as requests for donations – essentially you are not asking for a handout but selling a product.)

Some people understandably ignored our messages, while others were only too happy to pre-order a copy. Some old friendships were revived and there were some wonderful surprises – an order from a next-door neighbour of 20 years ago, another from my first boss of 30 years ago!

The Social Dimension

At the same time as we were directly approaching people, we also began raising awareness of the book via social channels. Word of the book spread on Facebook where, to my delight, several old contacts got in touch and were happy to make a pledge, and on LinkedIn, where some of my co-workers got wind of the project and helped spread the word too.

Social Media Icons

On Twitter, many editors of literary magazines that I follow, or have contributed to, were only too happy to help, and several writer pals that I know through sharing and reading each other’s stories very kindly weighed in too.

Having a flow of different things to say – links to articles, audio and video etc. – really helps here.

We had a fun promo video that Unbound made:

We had snippets from the first episode of a podcast version of the book to share. You can hear an audio excerpt here.

This opening sequence, of what we hope will become a full podcast, introduces all the characters, voiced by professional actors. It's edited and produced under the direction of BAFTA-winning producer, Richard Webb. That came about because Alex's sister is an actor and she and some fellow thespians / mates decided to do the audio. Richard is a friend of theirs.

We started a separate, fictional Twitter account for the writing group the characters of the book belong to, so they could post eccentric selections from their words to help whet people’s appetite.

This has caused a bit of confusion. Some people thought it was a real writing group at first, which was quite funny and not unwelcome. But we still get people who think that Crawley Writers Group are the real-life authors of the book... To be clear, the Crawley group is a completely made-up entity. The authors of their story just happen to be members of a real-life writers' group too.

Via the Unbound site, we can also send out updates to all our supporters whenever we have some interesting news or we hit a funding milestone, and these are always well received. We have several supporters who always share and advocate for the book wherever they can, and we secured some funding from a tech investor who’s a fan of the business model too.

PR and Media

We’ve written lots of articles (like this one) to spread the word about the book, both locally and on writers’ sites and forums. We’ve also written quite a selection of articles on related topics such as getting more humour into your writing, how to collaborate, a history of novels in email etc. – many of them for US outlets. Where there’s a fee for the article, that gets kicked into the Fatberg pot too.

You can see some example articles here:

We’ve printed flyers to put up in local cafes, bookshops and libraries. We’ve dabbled with display advertising in a few niche magazines, and even with Google ads, though the jury’s still out on that as an avenue for us.

Kitten on a Fatberg Google Ad

I've also joined a load of writing-related Facebook groups, which brought a small flurry of interest/pledges.

We've started doing reciprocal pledges with other authors (for example, I did one with Chris – he pledged and I pre-ordered a copy of his new book), which is a nice way to support each other and helps grow the supporter list. Some of the articles have generated a few pledges. But ultimately it's working your own extended network – whether by email or Facebook – that has helped us the most.

A couple of weeks back, Alex and I gave a talk at a content agency whose staff have just started a writer’s group. It’s hard to know exactly how or when these efforts will translate into pledges, but everything hopefully adds to the drip-drip accumulation of awareness that is the prerequisite of all successful marketing activity.

A Marathon, Not a Sprint

Six months in to our crowdfund campaign, we’re currently just over 50% funded. We’ve learnt that you need patience and stamina to make this work – there will be days when you get flurries of interest, especially near the beginning, but also days when nothing happens, despite your best efforts. But it’s great fun if you don’t mind the shameless promotion (or the wait), and you learn a great deal about selling and marketing fiction along the way. And, of course, at the back of our minds, we all look forward to that amazing feeling of hitting the 100% mark…

…and the start of a new project. Working with my two pals, Martin and Alex, was a pleasure from start to finish. We lucked into a process and a partnership that seemed to work for all of us, and we’re already starting our next book, the story of a harmless, ageing UFO cult that’s down to its last handful of members.

To finish, here's an example of that shameless promotion I mentioned earlier. As a reader of this blog, you can pre-order Kitten on a Fatberg for a 10% discount – just quote promo code:

KITTEN10

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Dan Brotzel's Biography

Dan Brotzel

Dan is a writer from London. His writing competition shortlists include Flash 500, Sunderland University/Waterstones, Wimbledon BookFest, Fish, Dorset Writers Award, To Hull And Back and Retreat West. His work has appeared in Cabinet of Heed, Bending Genres, The Esthetic Apostle, Spelk, Ginger Collect, Fiction Pool, Ellipsis and more.

His first collection of short stories, Hotel du Jack, is scheduled for publication in early 2020. Dan is also co-author of Kitten on a Fatberg, soon to be published by Unbound.

You can follow Dan on Twitter: @brotzel_fiction

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Big Thanks To Dan

I'd like to thank Dan for this fascinating read. It's great to gain insights like this, based on the real-life experience of authors who are going through what they're writing about.

As Dan mentioned in his post, I pledged a few quid to his crowdfunding project. Once they hit the 100% mark, the book will be published and we can look forward to lots more juicy info from Dan and his writing team, about their future experiences.

If you are able to, please support the project and help them get there. And if you're reading this post in the future, after the book has been published, why not buy a copy? :-)

Short Story Writing Course

If you have a case study you would be prepared to share with my readers, please review my submissions guidelines and then get in touch.

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Nigel L
Thank you, I found this really interesting. A question. Would you say you have put more time into writing your book, or marketing it? I just wondered if the crowdfunding element of the project was more time consuming than writing the book in the first place. Thanks.

Dan B
Thanks for reading Nigel! At this point I'd still say the writing took longer but there's no doubt that crowdfunding is quite time-consuming. At the same time, I think that even if you are able to go down the traditional publishing route, publishers increasingly expect you to play a big part in the marketing hustle anyway...

Alan D
Hello Chris, thank you very much for this – incidentally, I’ve thanked you on Facebook as well, especially as Mr. Zuckerberg seems upset about my lack of recent posts – very good of you to swing by and give me a ready-made topic!

I'm always intrigued by what other writers are doing and how they work together, (never tried it – working for one editor, to a deadline, yes, but what these guys undertook is clearly something else).

Chris Fielden
No problem, thanks Alan. Yes, this is a mighty project. I'll be interested to see how Dan and Co get on once they've funded the book.

That’s great re Facebook too, thank you, although I haven’t received a notification about it. I guess I might not be tagged, so that could be why. The joys of social media… :-)

Phil C
An interesting article. How much does it cost to get your book published?

Dan B
Thanks for reading Phil! The cost varies, but in our case it's a number in the low five figures. But of course, you're not paying to have a book made so much as securing advance orders up to a figure that covers the cost of production, promotion, project management etc.

Chris Fielden
Thanks, Dan and Phil.

I think it's worth adding that Unbound's crowdfunding business model is not like that of a 'pay to be published' vanity publisher. There is quality control involved and authors receive royalties. It's just the way the projects are funded that's innovative.

You can find a lot of honest information about the definition and the pros and cons of vanity publishing on this website. I've found it useful in the past. I hope it's of interest to other readers too.

Dan B
Thanks for adding that explanation, Chris! I should just add that Unbound don't talk about royalties but rather a profit-share agreement. (Sorry to be pedantic!)

Chris Fielden
No problem, thanks Dan :-)

Lilia R
Hi Dan. Great post, thank you. How long do you anticipate until you get all your funding? I just wondered if you had any idea how long the whole process might take now you're over half way. Can you give an estimate? And do Unbound advise you on how long it might take?

Dan B
Thanks for reading Lilia! It can apparently take between a matter of minutes (in one famous and exceptional case) to over 2 years. In our case I'd love to get it done in a year - from now that means about 10% a month!