Draw the Line: the Unbound years

This is a series of blog posts documenting Draw The Line, a project that brought together over 100 cartoonists from around the world, each depicting a positive political action. This is part five.

  • You can find part one, documenting the final product, here
  • then part two, which explains how the project was born
  • part three describes how we wrangled such a big group of artists
  • and part four talks about the launch of our website.

Now comes a more difficult section to write: this covers a move that resulted in a much longer delay than we’d intended in getting the book out into the world, and which was ultimately the wrong decision for this project.

The pitch

As I mentioned in the previous post, I’d spoken to another artist who’d just signed up with Unbound, to ask her whether she thought it would be a good fit for us, and she was broadly positive.

By coincidence, shortly after that, Unbound’s graphic novels specialist came down to talk to our local comics group, Cartoon County, about how the whole set-up worked.

Unbound describes itself as a unique hybrid between crowdfunders like Kickstarter, and traditional publishing houses, giving authors the benefits of both.

In subsequent years I’ve seen several more small publishers switch to the same model, and in fact this specialist has now left to set up their own (smaller and graphic novels-only) publishing house, which also works by crowdfunding.

But at this point, the whole concept was pretty new. It had been conceived and funded by one of the people behind the TV show QI, who had invested in good developers to make a web platform with all the functionality needed to promote and sell books in this innovative way.

What really appealed to me was that once the book was funded, Unbound would be doing all the heavy lifting of getting the printing organised, marketing it at comics fairs and into bookshops (“our titles go into the catalogues that shops like Waterstones pick their stock from”, they told me), and shipping it out.

All this would have required a steep learning curve and a completely new set of skills for me, and I’d been worrying about how we’d manage these logistics, so having the professionals take over that side was a weight off my mind.

Signing on the dotted line

Shop Local by Lucy Knisley
Shop Local by Lucy Knisley

Unbound’s Graphic Novels editor and I met up in a coffee shop the day after their talk in Brighton, to discuss their taking on Draw The Line. They were enthusiastic and it felt like a great fit: they’d do some maths and then get me the contract to sign.

Unbound works to an algorithm to figure out how much needs to be raised before your book is published: as you’d imagine, this takes into account the size of the book, the number of pages, and the number of copies to be produced. I asked that we also allow for a free copy for every participating artist, which may have been an error in terms of pushing the target higher, but which reflected a promise which we’d made to the artists from the beginning.

Of course, Unbound also make their own profit from each book, as any publishing house would – this, too is factored into the algorithm and is added to the target.

In return for their slice of the profits, they provided a page on their website (again, much like a Kickstarter page) with all the rewards laid out on it and a full description of the project, the ability to send out updates to all pledgers, and a backend where authors could see useful stats like the sum still to be raised, who had pledged how much, and where (down to the level of the precise tweet) people had arrived at the page from before making a pledge.

And so, we agreed the tier levels and the target needing to be raised, and our page went live.

During that initial chat, I was told the average sum that customers pledged on Unbound, based on a spread between those that pledge the lowest and those that go all out for the big tier rewards. It was a reassuring figure that allowed me to do some quick calculations to figure out our feasibility.

Because, remember that we had over 100 artists involved in the project. With every artist acting as a promoter for the book, we worked out that if each could bring just 2 or 3 pledges from their friends and family, not to mention the pledgers I assumed we’d gain from general marketing activities, those browsing the Unbound site, etc – well, we’d meet our target in no time.

Rewards all round

The price for the basic hardback first edition book was set at £20, with an eBook thrown in and the chance to have your name included in the back, as one of the people who helped bring it into being.

We were in a great position of being able to ask artists to provide extras, like comics, bespoke or original artwork, workshops and talks that you could add a few quid to your pledge for. There were bundles of multiple volumes for bookclubs and schools, etc, and comedian Joanna Neary even offered to perform a stand-up gig at the occasion of your choice.

Draw The Line artwork

We also added cheaper tiers, with add-ons such as bookplates and prints; and there was always the option of the eBook for a tenner, as well. So in theory, there was something for pretty much every purse.

Telling the world

Our rudimentary marketing machine went into action. We pushed the project on social media, wrote blog posts, and I gave talks anywhere that would have me, including podcasts, comic blogs, our local Sunday Assembly, LDComics, and a sprinkling of salons across the south coast.

We printed out hundreds of flyers and sent them to any of our artists who were willing to distribute them in their local area; at one point I even made badges for anyone brave enough to wear the message ‘ask me about Draw The Line‘ across their chest.

Ask me about Draw The Line

As with most crowdfunding campaigns, we went off to a strong start. Some extraordinarily generous pledges were made (we honoured these prime donors by printing their names more prominently in the back of the eventual book); and ingenious ways were found of adding to the coffers.

For example, Nye Wright made his own comic and donated proceeds; Rachael House ran a workshop in Helsinki and her fees came to us; and a wonderful lady in Hastings, upon hearing about the Raging Grannies, promptly set up her own chapter of this loose but outrageous affiliation of wayward women, then invited friends to a series of seven-course rainbow dinners (each course was a different colour of the spectrum) with a pledge being the entry fee.

Rachael Ball - Raging Grannies
Raging Grannies by Rachael Ball

But unfortunately, when it came to my own talks and interviews, they all had one thing in common: they would always be well received; people would always come up afterwards to say how much they liked the project; they would take a flyer… and it would result in, on average, somewhere between 0 and 1 pledges.

For anyone reading this and hoping to learn how to do it better: of course, the better route would have been to collect all these people’s email addresses so that we could have sent out regular updates to them, and we did start doing this eventually (but to only small effect).

Still – I was undaunted, because, as I say, we had this enormous network of artists to help share the crowdfunder.

Join The Party by Freya Harrison

Tumbleweed

That’s when I learned another important truth, though. Artists (in the main) like to make artwork, but they don’t necessarily want to be involved with a long, long marketing campaign.

As with every other aspect of the project, there were artists who were very keen and went above and beyond in their efforts to help spread the word; and continued to do so doggedly. And there were others who, quite understandably, having submitted their artwork and shared it on social media, moved on to their next project. Let me stress again that this is entirely reasonable and I am not criticising them for having other priorities!

One aspect of Unbound that differs from Kickstarter or any of the other crowdfunding platforms is that it does not set an end date on its fundraising. I don’t know what would have happened if we’d had a much shorter, much more intense, defined period – it is, after all, well known that lots of people make pledges only when the end is in sight. Psychologically this makes sense: it’s now or never, and you could miss out if you don’t pledge then and there; plus, when the end date is on the horizon, the book is going to be in your hands in a defined amount of time.

Anyway, once the first burst of pledges was over, that was it. Silence. Months went by when we’d see only a single pledge, or none at all.

It began to weigh heavy on my mind that we’d accepted payment from those early pledgers – in some cases, really quite substantial sums of money – and we hadn’t delivered them anything in return. I kept trying, kept giving talks, kept tweeting and Instagramming, but it was an uphill struggle when there was so little payback.

Each Monday, I’d get an automated email from Unbound to tell me how much we’d raised that week. Often, it was £0.

Clearly, I’m not a decisive person. This state of affairs ran on for two years before I finally thought, ‘that’s enough’. About which, more in the next post.

Footnote

I want to be clear that I’m not criticising Unbound or their model in this post: I am saying that it didn’t work for Draw The Line, and setting out the reasons why.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.