Leader: The power of the role model
‘You can’t be what you can’t see’
John Mitchinson is facing a dilemma shared by, in all probability, no other tech startup founder. He’s mulling over whether or not to kill his ageing pig, Buster.
‘He’s the only pig I’ve ever named, but he’s getting to that age… I’m really torn about it.’
The ethics of rearing and eating animals aside, his other concerns are more typical: doubling his company’s customer base, meeting investors’ targets, keeping his staff happy, finding an unoccupied meeting room.
Mitchinson is co-founder of Unbound, widely considered to be the most exciting thing to happen to the publishing industry for decades. When it launched in 2011, Unbound unveiled a radical new model which combined crowdfunding with traditional publishing services.
The startup made its name by backing the projects other publishers might turn away; one of its biggest successes, The Good Immigrant, a book of essays by writers of colour, was published shortly after the 2016 referendum and has sold over 70,000 copies to date.
Unbound puts authors in direct contact with readers, and ensures books have a market before being published. Internally too, it strays from convention by hiring editors from news media as well as books publishing and, more recently, employing a wellbeing officer. It has created an alternative ecosystem in publishing. Trade turnover almost tripled last year, and total turnover – which includes the crowdfunding sales – hit £3.5m.
‘It’s had a really shockwave-y impact on the industry,’ says Natasha Onwuemezi, reporter at The Bookseller. ‘It’s a publishing company people definitely want to work for.’
Unbound is surrounded by a remarkable degree of enthusiasm, excitement and positivity. Its many fans say it’s changing the industry for the better – supporting good authors and good books, cutting out most of the middle-men, championing a truly diverse range of voices, and letting people vote with their wallets for what they want to read. It’s a startup that readers, authors, investors and employees really, really want to do well.
Perhaps surprisingly for those not in it, the books business is not always such a happy place. ‘The emotional climate of publishing is often one of hostility and suspicion and fear,’ says Mitchinson, who has been working in the sector since 1989, with stints as marketing director of Waterstones, managing director of Harvill Press and deputy publisher at Orion.
Publishers, squeezed by Amazon, are increasingly focusing their attention on a very small band of authors and taking fewer punts on unknown writers. ‘Publishing houses are turning into hit factories, all about building and making bestsellers,’ says Mitchinson. ‘They’re increasingly trying to fill slots for retailers – not readers.’
Unbound’s model changes those dynamics; profits are split 50/50 between publisher and author, meaning it’s in the interest of both to help the book do well. ‘Because it’s a joint venture, suddenly the nature of the conversation changes: What can we do? Can we do this? Try this?’ says Mitchinson. It also means that books which aren’t everyone’s cup of tea – but are enough people’s – make it onto shelves. ‘We care about books and writers, and we care about the long tail,’ he adds.
It’s not all about the business model, though. This willingness to experiment, think creatively and act with generosity are clearly traits that stem from Mitchinson and his co-founder Dan Kieran.
‘They really care,’ says Nikesh Shukla, editor of The Good Immigrant. ‘If I ever had a problem with anything, then John would be on the phone to me. And I think that level of care and engagement with their authors makes them [really special].’
Such a culture of consideration seems to extend throughout the company.
‘I would say more by instinct [than] discussion, Dan and I have evolved a management philosophy based on simple things like respect and listening to people and making sure people get praise for things they do well,’ says Mitchinson. ‘None of it seems like rocket science, and of course some of it doesn’t always work.
‘Most of the time I’m in the office I spend talking to people, rather than sitting here answering emails,’ adds Mitchinson, who commutes into the canal-side Islington office from a small village in Oxfordshire four days a week. ‘I’m a great believer in face-to-face – five minutes, sit down, make a cup of coffee, what’s the problem?
‘My fundamental management philosophy is to walk towards the sound of gunfire.’
What fire-fighting there has been is fairly typical of a growing company: a few bad hires, some grumpy agents, realising there was only two weeks’ cash left in the bank.
Notably, unlike so many businesses that are playing catch-up on issues such as diversity and staff wellbeing, Unbound seems to have those at its core.
‘There is a friendliness here which is really interesting,’ says Mitchinson. ‘At a lot of places I’ve worked there was a culture of fear. The real fear is that if the fear stopped, everybody would stop doing [their jobs]. I just think that’s not fit for purpose any more.
‘It’s tough enough for a group of mostly millennials, getting paid insufficient amounts of money to buy houses. If you’re going to treat them like shit when they’re at work and expect them to be productive, you’re just not going to retain good people.’
For Arifa Akbar, former literary editor of the Independent and one of Unbound’s most recent hires, the company is a refreshing change from the newsrooms where she’s spent most of her career. ‘It’s visibly different,’ she says. ‘It’s not all white.
‘Dan and John have a mature view of what inclusion means – not because it looks good and ticks boxes. They think, London’s multicultural, so let’s have a workforce that reflects who we are as a city.’
Importantly, she thinks the same is true of the writers Unbound backs – a far less homogenous bunch than those on most publishers’ lists. It’s become, in many ways, a haven for under-represented voices.
‘Diversity is coming to the forefront of the industry, changing the way people publish and do business. Unbound is leading that charge,’ says Onwuezemi.
Call them diversity advocates, tech visionaries or management gurus, but at heart Mitchinson, Kieran and third co-founder, Justin Pollard, are three men who just really love books. ‘I guess the usual thing is to get an entrepreneur and a money person and a tech guy, and we didn’t fit that bill at all,’ says Mitchinson, who is older than the stereotypical startup founder, with a beard that is more Father Christmas than hipster. ‘We’re three ideas guys really.’
As the company has grown, Kieran ‘discovered quite quickly that he’s really good at raising money and pitching the business’. Mitchinson, for his part, is more interested in the ‘softer sides’ of culture and content.
‘My fundamental management philosophy is to walk towards the sound of gunfire.’
‘I don’t want to be the person who runs a business – that’s not my skillset. I can inspire people, I can sell things, I can make an environment for people that makes them feel supported, secure, happy and, I hope, challenged enough to do good work.’
At Unbound, that manifests in flexible working hours, a flat hierarchy, acknowledging each other’s successes, discouraging gossip, yoga lessons, endless cups of tea, and a shared devotion to books and ideas. It feels, staff and authors say, like family.
‘I’ve never enjoyed working at any of the jobs I’ve done more than this,’ says Mitchinson, who admits he was at first
wary of returning to office life after creating and running comedy TV show QI for a decade. ‘It’s lovely writing at home, but actually having a team of really brilliant people, and feeling like you’re making a difference [is exciting].
Working with people comes naturally to Mitchinson. His challenge over the next year is to maintain relationships at scale and more than double Unbound’s user base.
So far, 180,000 people have pledged money on Unbound. ‘We thought we would sign up many more people more quickly than we actually have done,’ says Mitchinson.
‘I’ve always thought when we get to half a million active users, we ought to be able to sell more or less anything,’ he adds.
At that point, Mitchinson reckons the site will be seen by enough people interested in subjects as varied as Mac gaming, lidos, or Iranian teenage freedom fighters (three of the works currently seeking funds) for almost all books to raise enough money to get published.
Last year Unbound revealed its audience-expansion plan. In December, it launched Boundless, a new site for free, long-form writing – into a media landscape where clickbait rules and readers’ attention spans are supposedly dropping off.
‘It could be madness,’ says Akbar, editor of Boundless and Unbound’s head of content. ‘But in this climate, maybe it’s the perfect time.’
Akbar’s remit is to commission writers – from novelist Ali Smith to journalist Boyd Tonkin – to write the unexpected. ‘It’s going to be stuff you don’t often read about, or if you do, with a new angle,’ she says.
‘You could characterise it as an indulgence, but that’s not how we see it,’ argues Mitchinson, whose fortnightly podcast about semi-forgotten books, Backlisted, is a regular feature on Boundless. It has 25,000 monthly listeners.
‘The DNA of what we’re doing is ideas and stories,’ he says. ‘We’re prepared to take a risk to demonstrate there is a way to make money.’
Squaring loss-making moves with investors, which include Draper Esprit and IQ Capital, hasn’t been hard so far, says Mitchinson. ‘We basically say, trust us. We’ve taken the business this far. We are hitting our targets. It’s an experiment; we’ll see.’
Unsurprisingly, Boundless is not a purely artistic move. It’s a data-mining exercise, and a content-marketing strategy. ‘Boundless is a way of enlarging our data set, with relatively minimal investment. It could potentially pay for itself quite quickly,’ Mitchinson says.
Better understanding its audience’s reading behaviours would give Unbound a huge advantage over traditional publishers, which are almost entirely disconnected from readers.
Unbound is also working on a programme which will enable it to assess potential authors and, based on their social media profiles, work out whether a book might be able to raise the necessary money, Mitchinson explains. ‘That’s our big strategic play.’
He’s also been musing about how Unbound can better leverage the origin stories of its books – ‘the story behind the story’. It’s a product marketing strategy that’s working for food and fashion brands, and could help Unbound’s books stand out.
It will be a decisive year for Unbound – growing its community, investing in marketing for the first time, promoting Boundless, employing data, expanding to the US and potentially restructuring its distribution model (currently run in partnership with the UK’s biggest publisher, Penguin Random House). Its influence could extend beyond books, too.
‘They see themselves more as a media company,’ says Onwuemezi. ‘Not just books – all sorts of mediums. They could be very big.’
‘We want to be the most data-driven publisher on the planet,’ laughs Mitchinson. ‘That’s our small, modest aim.’
If he can achieve that, it will make quite some story.
Authors pitch to Unbound editors, ‘gatekeepers who open the gate a lot wider’, as Mitchinson refers to them. Editors, who cover around 10 categories from literary fiction to sci-fi and anthologies, are also increasingly ‘micro-targeting’ writers of all kinds. Unbound avoids mainstream genres like crime and chick lit.
Successful books are crowdfunded on the site. Unbound acts as ‘matchmaker’ between its community of readers and authors. Authors are encouraged to self-promote through their personal networks and social channels. If they hit their target, books’ production costs are covered, ‘taking a massive amount of risk out of the equation’. There is no time limit on funding campaigns; 40% of books get funded after three months. The average transaction value on the site is £37.
Books pass through the traditional editorial and design stages. Authors do not get advances; industry-wide, only 20% of books earn back their advances. In 2017, Unbound published 50 books, and has 110 titles on the list for 2018.
Subscriber editions are sent directly to readers. Trade editions are distributed to bookshops and online retailers through a deal with Penguin Random House. Some books are only available digitally; this is the fastest-growing area of the business. Unbound plans to take more distribution in-house: ‘We need to own those relationships; that’s key for us. It’s crazy we don’t control pricing of our ebooks.’
Profits are split 50/50 between Unbound and the author. When books are sold through retailers, the author’s cut reduces to around 33%. (With traditional publishers, it’s closer to 10%.) The ideal scenario is for Unbound to sell as many books as possible direct to customers.