Crowdfunding offers new opportunities to academic authors

Subscription models and self-publishing present ways for scholars to bring their work to the public

October 25, 2017
Crowdsurfing in a bubble
Source: Getty

Growing numbers of academics are exploring the option of crowdfunding their books.

Farah Mendlesohn, associate research fellow at Anglia Ruskin University, was commissioned to write a 70,000-word study of the science fiction writer Robert Heinlein for a US academic press. Ultimately, she delivered a manuscript two and a half times that length and was told that “they could not go above 110,000 words without the price becoming prohibitive”, she recalled, although “they had no suggestions for cuts”. She was reluctant to self-publish, because of the low prestige of that option, but was convinced that the book would appeal to Heinlein fans as well as to an academic readership.

A contact led her to the crowdfunding publisher Unbound, which publishes books on a subscription model, if and when they generate enough advance orders to be cost-effective. So they created a website, a video and a mechanism for payment. Such sales campaigns last up to six months, but energetic tweeting and other marketing efforts by Professor Mendlesohn and the company meant that this one reached its target of 500 copies within 10 days (and will continue taking orders until the book goes to press next summer).

Self-published books often struggle to get into bookshops, but Unbound distributes through the trade and pays royalties in the usual way. Professor Mendlesohn noted that it offered her “a more open and honest contract than any I have ever signed with an academic publisher. I have never before been sent the actual costings of a book.” Publishing with Unbound also enables her to “claim impact, because it has gone to a non-academic press and I can actually see who purchased it”.

Andrew Schrock, a postdoctoral fellow at Chapman University in California, went down a slightly different route. He self-published his Civic Tech: Making Technology for People “to tell the stories and histories of people using technology for the public good”, he explained, after a crowdfunding campaign that “received more than $10,000 (£7,600) in contributions, or more than 200 copies sold”. He was pleased to “retain complete creative control and a greater percentage of the proceeds”, despite the higher risks, but argued that while “many popular publishers like to see a successful crowdfunding strategy because it demonstrates public interest”, academic publishers are “still trying to understand how to capitalise on crowdfunding”.

Yet not all attempts by academics to crowdfund book projects come to fruition. Keith Kahn-Harris, an associate lecturer at Birkbeck, University of London, had long wanted to reach out beyond an academic audience and so put together a proposal, also for Unbound, called The Best Waterskier in Luxembourg: Tales of Big Fish in Small Ponds.

This, he told Times Higher Education, “involved a number of journeys to less-travelled places, and that meant it needed to raise a lot of money. The plan was to raise money for the first chapter as a proof of concept, before funding the rest of the book. That chapter was funded easily enough, but funding for the rest of the book stalled – probably because those who had already funded the first chapter had no desire to pay again. Nonetheless, the project was an enormous amount of fun, and I don’t regret it for a second.”

matthew.reisz@timeshighereducation.com

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