Crowdfunding an Academic Book: Robert Heinlein by Farah Mendlesohn
In our first guest post, Farah Mendlesohn takes us through the process of crowdfunding her close reading of Robert Heinlein’s work. The campaign was a spectacular success, reaching 100% funding in only ten days. Farah is donating her entire author’s royalty to two charities, Con or Bust and America’s Blood Centers. You can learn more, and get your own copy, at Unbound.
In 2015 I was commissioned to write a 60,000 word book about the science fiction author Robert A. Heinlein for a series called the Masters of Science Fiction for Illinois Press. Robert Heinlein is one of the giants of the field: he wrote 129 texts (short stories, novels for teens, essays, novels) between 1940 and 1987. It took me a year. The writing took me two more. It was 156,000 words long. My publisher and I agreed, very amicably, to part company.
Before you think “are they mad?” I need to explain about academic publishing. The unit cost of academic publishing can be very high because sales can be very low. An academic book can be brilliant, by the leading light of the field, but sell as few as fifty copies if the field it deals with is small. Academic publishers depend on library orders and they don’t have many big sellers that can subsidise the others. This why academic books can be so expensive. It’s a careful calculation and adding twenty pages to a book can push up the price. My book was going to be double the usual size.
Of all the comments made, the one that made me think was, “You could split it into two: one for academics, one for the fan market.” It was a daft idea for two reasons: first I wasn’t going to rewrite the book, and second and this was the key… while I’m respected as an academic I am really popular among the more critic oriented fan community. By academic standards I’m a best seller with sales in the thousands for all but two of my books. And you don’t do that on academic sales. Furthermore, Heinlein? One of the biggest sellers in the field. Not so popular now, but there are plenty of fans over 40 who still love him.
I already knew about Unbound, the crowdfunding publisher, because an sf editor I’ve known for years moved to work there. I bumped into him at the Edinburgh book festival and mentioned it to him and he said he’d look.
Why Unbound instead of self-publishing? This is about what it is publishers do. You can self-publish and I’ve done it. You have to design it yourself, typset it, construct any paratext such as copyright, index, get it copy edited, and hope you are actually a good critic of your own work. It’s all doable but the book needs to be quite slim and straightforward (see my book Rejected Essays). I suspect it works best with fiction or potentially with advice books, and crucially where your market expectations match what you can produce. My market is academics and the kind of fans who buy serious non-fiction and they expect things to look right. Once Unbound have finished crowdfunding, they take over much of this detail.“Most of all, what publishers do is publish. […] Right or wrong, they provide me with legitimacy.”
But most of all, what publishers do is publish. Not print, that’s printers. Look in the copy right page, and you will almost always find in tiny letters the name of the printer. What a publisher is, is a marketing and distributing house.
To start with Unbound provide me a platform, a web site with a lovely video, and nicely laid out prose advertising my book. They make sure all the links and information go out in their newsletter, and in their social media feeds. I then use the same material for mine. When the book is funded, they put it into their catalogue and take it to book stores and persuade buyers to take it. That bit I definitely can’t do. The final thing that having a publisher does is make you reviewable. Most outlets don’t review e-copy only. Unbound will send out review copies to all the right places and with the kind of cover letters that only a publisher can really provide. Right or wrong, they provide me with legitimacy.
I had two overlapping markets; my fan base and Robert Heinlein’s fan base. And key is that those fan bases are congruent: the person I sell myself as, fits the profile of the people I’m selling to. My forthcoming LGBTQ+ novel would never crowdfund because although I know there will be a curiosity factor, its demographic does not overlap with my basic fan base. Had it not been picked up (unexpectedly) by a small press, I’d have self published.
For all I am an academic, I sound on that video like someone who loves my thing. And if you don’t love it, why should the customer?
Working with Charities
Interestingly, my assumption that my decision to donate my royalties to charity would boost sales has not proved true. Most people haven’t even noticed. I think that this is because the details of this are at the bottom of the page. One of my actions this week is to have that moved to the top.
My charities are Con or Bust, which helps send fans of colour to science fiction conventions and is needs based, and America’s Blood Centers which was a cause dear to my subject’s heart in both senses. Heinlein was a rare blood group and depended on donors when he was sick, and as a thank offering he organised blood drives at science fiction conventions.
We had to produce a video. Don’t worry if you hate making videos, no one says you have to watch it. I really do not like the way I look, so I sent it to a friend to check and sign off.
We had to produce copy but no one knows a book the way an author does and no one knows the market like the publisher—except in this case I probably did know it better than they did so I helped write the copy and checked their corrections. If you look at my author copy and the blurb it’s written, again, to capture two markets.
I got an acceptance fast (I already knew it was a good book, but that isn’t actually enough: the world is full of fantastic unpublished books). Then the work began.
We put pledges together though the truth is I always knew that what I had to sell was 487 hard back copies or the equivalent. The pledges help, but only a few people will do that. We sold 340, with enough e-books to make the difference.
Then we went live: I pushed the book at the end of my keynote at a conference, I wrote at least four tweets a day.
“While it would be nice if you
could buy it, what I really need is the signal boost.”
Once it reached 80% funding I went through the list of people who had bought it and then wrote to everyone else I knew who buys this kind of book and hadn’t but what I wrote was “while it would be nice if you could buy it, what I really need is the signal boost”. That’s where key people make a difference: Unbound lets you see who has an effect, ie the routes people come through. I think eight key people signal boosted for me. Five of those people may have brought in as many as 150 sales direct, and from purchasers then boosting that effect was doubled.
I also had a rule to only write once. You don’t nag and it’s ok for people to ignore you.
Every single boost matters because it creates an atmosphere of excitement. Around 60 people tried to be the person who took me over the 100%.
I also needed (and need) materials for updates. This is where new audiences are a factor. I could write things myself (and did for national poetry day) but if I ask famous writer x to run a Q&A with me then his or her fans will come on over to take a look. Again, I chose writers whose market was on the same arc as Heinlein: no point bringing in their fans if they will hate what I do.