Crowdfunding books: Review of a new eBook publishing model

We catch-up with founder, Sam Rennie and investigate new crowdfunding model for books, Readership

“It is a ridiculously innovative idea,” I say to my friend Nick, in the Packhorse and Talbot pub in Chiswick, fresh from attending the London Book Fair Publishing for Digital Minds conference. “I reckon we should give it a bash…”

We’re talking about Readership, a crowdfunding platform for new authors which launched on 27th January. This allows wannabe novelists to upload two chapters of their completed manuscript, along with supporting promo material such as video and audio, so people can pledge money to have it published. One of the really creative parts is, this February, Readership announced that it will use computer game Minecraft to promote its books.

“Shall we whack our rubbish book on there then?” I ask Nick. “We’ve got nothing to lose…”

“Except our self-respect,” he replies ruefully taking a slurp of his pint.

Our co-written blog novel was serialised online in real-time over six months, several years back. We promoted it through social media and it gained a limited, but engaged, following. It told Greg Goode’s first person comedy uprising against low-fat food and uncomfortable trousers. The character – and his bizarre songs and poems - seemed to resonate. And Greg has even been back over the last 18 months charting his new found quest for political meaning in anti-fascist magazine, Searchlight…

Yet the complete novel is not without its glaring holes, and I wouldn’t recommend it to anyone.

“We can test the platform,” I say.

The Readership site is very easy to use. We upload some text, add some existing promo audio to SoundCloud and email the company so it can be added to the site. “What a brilliant piece of audio!” someone answers straight back, which is nice, although nobody else has added any audio - aside from the individual who popped up some unrelated music. There are a few videos on there.

The real problem at present is that the site is pretty unpopulated. Founder Sam Rennie confirms that my calculations are correct: There are 45 book extracts uploaded so far and £26.96 ($40.19) has been pledged across three books.  “We have around 300 readers,” he says and “new members are joining every day” at varying rates.

Rennie graduated with first class honours in English Literature with Creative Writing from Bath Spa University in 2012. Since then he has held a number of short-term positions in the book industry and spent just over a year as Production Manager with Legend Times. This independent publisher, launched by Tom Chalmers, includes a writer community, self-publishing and conventional publishing arms amongst other commercial avenues. You can see how this could be an ideal stepping stone into more innovative personal ventures.

The way Readership works in practice is that readers have to pledge a minimum of £0.99 ($1.48) based on reading up to two chapter samples and some marketing collateral. If a book reaches £500 ($745.40) the company will publish it on the site as an eBook and invest the money raised into production. The price of each eBook will then be set at a standard £3.98 ($5.98). Rennie explains “we'll create the eBooks and distribute them to every major eBook channel.” The writer will get 70% of the royalties.

Most of the money initially raised will go into the design of the book. This makes perfect sense. But the real challenge for authors not going through conventional publishers, is, of course, the marketing. I put this to Rennie:

“The entire setup to Readership is a way of working around that. Right now it seems people are far too preoccupied with getting their books seen in certain areas or spending a certain amount of money on marketing so they can appear on a bestseller list for a week,” he says. And even if people buy the book you can’t guarantee it has been read.

“So really with a lot of modern marketing you’re just relying on people to be impulsive buyers, rather than readers,” he continues. “So yeah I guess I don't like the current attitude of the industry, which seems to promote the idea that selling a copy of the book is the only goal. It isn't. As publishers we also need to facilitate a discussion around the book itself.”

This is an interesting point. More problematically though perhaps, the site does not plan to offer editing - although it is considering providing proofreading. As Rennie stated in a Digital Book World interview: “We considered [offering] editing but thought a book would have connected with enough people for a specific reason, and we don’t want to risk changing that”.

I must say, I’m not sure I agree. We managed to get people to read our book online in 57 twice weekly instalments – someone who wasn’t us even started a tiny Facebook fan page. But the raw text was riddled with typos and the only decent wider feedback we had on the whole document was when a reader from an established literary agency critiqued the first 100 pages several years after we finished the project.

“Surely readers won’t have read the whole book though and broad editing helps weed out inconsistences and tightens the plot. Do you think you run the risk of publishing unprofessional stories here?” I ask.

“I'm still open to the idea of course, and you're right that structural editing is vital,” he replies. “But on the other hand authors are still creators like any storyteller in other industries, and perhaps the responsibility of quality should still be in their hands - and I think a lot of authors would like that responsibility; others, of course, would much prefer to have that back and forth with an editor to make sure it's ready.” 

“I think we're living in an age where creators are more keen to do things on their own terms,” he says.

Although he adds: “The important thing is that the creators have a choice with how they want to treat their story, so we're certainly going to have it as a feature in some way.”

Again, these are interesting arguments but I do think it leads to some fundamental issues about the nature of publishing. Having a second professional opinion to improve quality is not about loss of control. Even 1000 word articles for IDG Connect often require a considerable amount of work both structurally and from a sub-editing perspective. And the majority of journalists we work with are generally happy and agree that the changes made improve the text. 100,000 words unchecked by anyone else are likely to contain errors - and friends and family are usually incapable of delivering any structural criticism or weeding out knotty grammatical issues.

Quality control aside though, the really striking thing about this venture is the fundamentally creative thinking behind it. The unusualness of this is highlighted by a report we produced last year, which showed 49% of respondents felt that publishers were the group which would hold back innovations in eBooks. 

“How is the Minecraft extension working?” I ask Rennie. “Very well!” he responds with some enthusiasm. “We should be releasing a video previewing this world in the coming weeks. Right now we're just building the different hubs for the books and leaving written extracts for users to find when our world is open.”

Crowdfunding may be old news now, but I do feel this does present a fresh new approach. However, overall I’m not fully convinced it will work in practice. There are so many reading communities online already… it will be hard to get people to take part. Unless, of course, the writers are marketing very hard to get external people to fund their book.

I nip back on the Readership platform for one last time and note the book with the most views has 301 - this is either the entire readership of the site or the authors and their friends are going back and forth quite a bit. £5.97 ($8.98 has been pledged). Ours incidentally comes in at 59 views (with no pledges) - I was pretty chuffed. Miles better than I expected for a whack-up with no external promotion.

Yet unfortunately this is the ultimate problem with any form of publishing. There are really only two things: quality of the content (which is an area up for debate) and marketing. This means any writer not going the conventional publisher route will inevitably have to spend some time canvasing for reads, spamming for crowdfunding pledges, or working to get themselves on a bestseller list. It will take some hard marketing graft to get their content noticed in a very noisy online space.

And then if they spend too much time doing that sort of stuff… maybe they’ll just end up skimping on the quality. It could be a difficult Catch-22. But I think, in the end, it is just the unescapable underside of all the exciting opportunities thrown up by digital disruption…


IDG Connect has also produced a range of material around eBooks:

Report: The Interactive eBooks Revolution - A Tristram Shandy approach to education, literature & publishing?

Infographic: The Future of eBooks



eBooks: Education, larger print & society

eBooks: Multiple tiers of half-hearted luddites