Crowdfunding As An Antidote To Vanity Publishing: Colborne and Pubslush Join Forces

iStock / ruivalesousa
iStock / ruivalesousa

‘All The Backend Experience’

“The conversation was along the lines of ‘Pubslush has the marketing smarts that Colborne needs, and Colborne has all the backend experience that Pubslush is short on.’”

Greg Ioannou
Greg Ioannou

Toronto’s Greg Ioannou was one of the very few people not surprised last week, as news got around that his company and author-crowdfunder Pubslush would be joining forces.

“This deal, in some form or other, has been on my wish list for about 18 months.”

Because an email went out to Pubslush’s subscription list first, many thought that the New York-based company was a goner. Certainly its key players, Hellen and Amanda Barbara have long been valued and welcome members of the independent writers’ community and publishing conference-going set.

And while many campaigns in crowdfunding don’t succeed, Pubslush was hardly without successes. For example, when Orna Ross, director of the Alliance of Independent Authors (ALLi) wrote about her new W.B. Yeats Secret Rose project at The FutureBook, she mentioned that she’d used Pubslush to fund it with £7,890 ($12,157) in contributions from 49 backers.

What Ioannou’s Colborne Communications didn’t have was a way for authors and publishers to try to fund their projects. Now, with Pubslush, it’s getting that.

“It’s a bit like we had each built half a company,” Ioannou says. “I’ve finally joined the two halves together. ”

If that sounds like Platonic Pubslush is at hand, the development of Colborne as its new destination follows a pathway almost organically reflective of the development of the modern writer’s independence.  And in an interview with Ioannou, he stakes out the stations of the cross his business — along with the writing community — has checked into along the way.

‘Our US Customers Found It Quaint’

Colborne Communications — not especially widely known to many in the US market — is positioned as a provider of broadening menu of services not only for authors but also for publishers and for corporate and government entities that are becoming publishers for various purposes of public and internal messaging.

One of the more robust elements of the digital dynamic’s “everybody can publish” energy lies in corporate and government settings that — like people who think of themselves as authors — can now publish their own work. The problems for large organizations can be quite similar to those of writers: they may have content but be completely new to the ways and means of professional publication. Colborne, in a sense, has grown into this development from what was, originally, a far more focused offering.

“You don’t really want to get your friend who is kind of into cars to do a brake job for you. But so many authors think that, say, having untrained beta readers go over their books is a substitute for professional editing.”
Greg Ioannou, Colborne Communications

“Colborne was formed September 1977,” Ioannou tells me. “For many years it was called ‘The Editorial Centre’ but we changed that in the early 1990s when the range of services we offered moved well beyond editing. Not to mention our US customers found it quaint. We were on Colborne Street at the time, and my lawyer suggested that using the street name would sound ‘corporate.’

“Our first service directly aimed at individuals was this.” He shows me a manuscript evaluation service offering.

Today, Ioannou says (he pronounces it You-AH-noo), “I try to keep our business balanced, so when I’m doing sales/marketing I tend to go after what we don’t have enough of at the moment. It’s always a mix of four client groups: governments, corporations, publishers, and individuals.”

Initially, though, “I started doing evaluations in 1982 or ’83, and soon after began giving workshops on how to do them properly. The focus at first was how to get the manuscript good enough that it would stand a strong chance with a traditional agent or publisher. Now, it’s more like a very sophisticated beta-reading service.

“By the early 1990s, we were doing ghostwriting, editing and such directly for authors, but the focus was still getting the book ready for a traditional publisher. This was one of the first of those projects.” He refers me to Boost Your Business in Any Economy by Bill Gibson. “We finished it in 1990 or ’91, and it came out in 1993.”

The proliferation of services has led to a collection of a la carte offerings that can mesh or be pulled apart, according to a client’s needs.

An In-House Engine For Seed Money

What has attracted Ioannou to Pubslush as part of that collection is its potential to be an enabler to the rest.

“Say an author comes in to Colborne with a good manuscript to self-publish and says, ‘What can you do for me for $250?’ The honest answer to that is, ‘Probably nothing that really helps you all that much.’

“But Pubslush lets me answer, ‘Let me look at it and tell you what it needs to be a good, professional publication — editing, design, distribution, marketing. I’ll give you a budget and a schedule, and then we’ll put it on Pubslush to raise the money. If it works, great. If it falls short, maybe it isn’t really a marketable project the way you’re currently thinking of it.’

“If you really want to spend that $250 wisely on your book, use it to pay for Pubslush Prep to get your project launched properly.”

And if that’s how an author might leverage the Colborne-plus-Pubslush combo, what of other operations that might ask for help?

“I want all of people’s publishing activities to be funded by selling books to people who will read them. I have no interest in…vanity publishing.”
Greg Ioannou, Colborne Communications

“Look at it from the viewpoint of a publishing consultant,” Ioannou says, “or freelance editor or designer or agent who has an author with a great project. But they only do, say, editing. We can help them provide the parts of the process they can’t do themselves through Colborne. Or, better, we can build a team for them from Pubslush’s various publishing partners.

“I’m saying ‘better’ because I want the partners using each other’s services — so, say, an editor gets design services from some partners and provides editing services to others.”

Put it all together this way:

“Not too far in the future, the author comes to the Pubslush site,” Ioannou says, “gets a checklist of the steps that the book needs; gets to choose an editor who has lots of experience with that kind of book or a young editor just starting out who will do the work more cheaply; sees samples of the work of a lot of cover designers and picks one; sees an array of publishers who might be interested in publishing the book — or gets various options to self-publish; and gets help to pay for it all” with crowdfunding “or can just pay for it all on the spot if that option appeals more.”

‘An Organic, Humanized Company’

Hellen Barbara
Hellen Barbara

Update: 1st September: I’m glad to have caught up with Pubslush’s Hellen Barbara, for her comments on the new development with Colborne.

When I asked her how her and Amanda Barbara’s vision for their crowdfunding operation meshes with that of Ioannou, it was clear that Toronto and New York are very close to each other on this one. Hellen Barbara talks of getting things down to a human scale for writers, easing the tension and pressure:

Our motivation has always been to genuinely help authors — to provide the assistance and resources that would make the process of publishing less intimidating and overwhelming. It has brought Amanda, myself, and my team tremendous joy in watching book after book come alive — a reality that would not have been possible to so many had it not been for Pubslush.

The goal of Pubslush has always been to be an organic, humanized company- relating to authors and publishing professionals and listening, understanding and reacting to the industry needs. The merging of our two companies takes this role a step further and will allow countless opportunities for so many people.

While not alluding to specific hurdles that may have contributed to the decision to merge with Colborne, Barbara refers to a retrograde context in some parts of the industry that might have made Ioannou’s concept especially welcome. She says:

Unfortunately over the past few years we have found that many people within this industry are dinosaurs — and lack the vision and creative edge to move forward with unique ideas to grow their business and meet the true needs of the vibrant writing community. Instead, they remain stagnant and go about business the safe, old fashioned way, providing services but not really solutions to those who need it most.

Greg is an optimum partner for Pubslush because he is a forward thinker who shares our vision. He sees the potential and realizes the opportunities.

And Barbara sounds confident and enthusiastic about the direction ahead, losing the independence of Pubslush, perhaps, but for the benefit of supportive collaboration.

“We are proud and enthusiastic about this partnership,” she tells me, “and look forward to dramatic positive changes in the publishing industry. We are molding the traditional with the innovative with the integrity of good people behind it. To me this is a home run — actually a grand slam.”

The Comparison With Unbound

When issues of books-specific crowdfunding arise, it’s not unusual to hear Unbound mentioned. It’s the much-acclaimed standard now, its reputation well-earned over years of steady growth and considerable investment interest.

London’s Unbound was founded by writers (Dan Kieran, Justin Pollard, and the irrepressible John Mitchinson) to enable other writers but under highly controlled conditions. Its projects, for example, are usually agented. And while crowdfunding is the pivotal component, sales and promotional elements — and especially elegant production on the publication end — have become hallmarks of what is sometimes seen as a celebrity route because many well-known figures have used it to platform book projects.

It’s not an all-campaigns-welcome approach, but a program that curates its offerings and partners very closely with its authors. Here’s the Unbound site’s statement of its process:

The Unbound model is very straightforward: the author pitches an idea and if enough readers support it, the book goes ahead. Unbound is both a funding platform and a publisher, fulfilling all the normal publishing functions but also splitting a book’s net profit 50/50 with the author. Under the traditional model an author is lucky to earn 10% of the cover price, whereas retailers are regularly expecting discounts of over 60%, plus a contribution to the costs of display and marketing. This is why books with print runs of fewer than 5,000 copies make less and less economic sense – even though it is precisely these books that contain the most innovative and challenging ideas.

Unbound will keep the process transparent and simple: a reader helps great ideas get published, and in return receives an insight into the writing process and has their name printed as a patron in that and every subsequent edition. The current process is much more complicated.

While Pubslush never had the same curatorial aspect that Unbound had relied on, it did initially arrive with more publishing support than it would continue to offer over the years. As Writer Beware’s Victoria Strauss had written since Pubslush was founded (2011), changes had taken place that concentrated the offer there on crowdfunding. In July 2013, Strauss wrote: “Pubslush’s business model has been re-worked—it is now a crowdfunding site, a la Kickstarter, and has de-emphasized the publishing program.”

And there was nothing wrong with this, of course. The Pubslush offer had become a near pure play in terms of crowdfunding. While Ioannou’s vision — he will act as president of the newly partnered entity — also differs from Unbound’s, that funding arm is what he says he has needed:

“Unbound is still built on a very traditional model,” he says. “They gatekeep, they choose their authors. We let the marketplace do the gatekeeping for us. Unbound uses large print runs, does traditional warehousing and distribution to bookstores, accepts returns, and so on. We’re all online and print on demand. No returns, ever.”

Mind you, Ioannou is at pains to make it clear that he’s not criticizing Unbound: “I’ve learned a lot from watching Unbound — they really are brilliantly good at what they do — but I think we have a lot of pieces of the puzzle in place that they don’t.”

I, Imprint

One of the services Ioannou provides is the creation of a self-branded imprint that stand on his own platform for its capabilities. He calls it the Build Your Own Publisher (BYOP) service:

Want to be a publisher? I can set up Porter Anderson Books really cheaply, with the entire back end in place for you. You do the parts of the process you know how to, and we do the rest for you. BYOP’s projects vary from people who send us raw manuscripts that need everything to people who send us market-ready books to put into the distribution system for them. And yes, we’d love to set up a lot of Pubslush’s partners as publishers.

Oh, and more than half of the customers for BYOP are the government departments, corporations, and associations that don’t look like they’re really part of the big picture. Many corporations “publish” workbooks and manuals and such and don’t have a clue how to produce and distribute them cost-effectively.

‘Without Grabbing Your Savings’

Overall, then, the new Pubslush-Colborne arrangement is one to watch.

When I ask about the overall success rate of crowdfunding campaigns — only some 37 percent of Kickstarter campaigns actually make their goal — Ioannou sees this as a helpful reality.

“I don’t think that’s necessarily a bad thing,” he says. “Crowdfunding sorts the financially viable ideas from the ones that don’t really have a market.”

And with many author services struggling today to escape the stigma of old-world vanity publishing, he takes care to clarify that the Pubslush liaison gives him a way to do that, funding without gouging. Ioannou tells me:

One of the toughest things for me to learn in publishing was that “good” books and “marketable” books aren’t at all the same thing. I’ve seen brilliant, wonderful books sell poorly or not ever get published…One of the “best” books I’ve ever posted on Pubslush had exactly two people contribute to it: the author and me. I really don’t know which books will do well in the marketplace. And traditional publishing has pretty much proven that nobody knows.

I see crowdfunding for books as just one of the services that writers need. You don’t go into a car dealership to talk to the leasing guy. You go there to check out the cars, and if you find one you like, then you have the conversation about how to finance the purchase. Similarly, I want the conversation with authors to be “here’s what you need for a professionally produced book that has a chance in the marketplace. If, like most people, you need help paying for it, we can crowdfund it for you.”

That gets me closer to my real goal with this. I want all of people’s publishing activities to be funded by selling books to people who will read them. I have no interest in…vanity publishing.

The Barbaras, Ioannou says, “will have an ownership stake and remain engaged” in Pubslush’s operation, which will be good news to those who have enjoyed working with them. And what he’s hoping the combination of their crowdfunding with his editorial and production capabilities means is that writers might be better able to afford professional quality:

As with almost anything else, you get what you pay for. You don’t really want to get your friend who is kind of into cars to do a brake job for you. But so many authors think that, say, having untrained beta readers go over their books is a substitute for professional editing, and having your cousin who likes to play with Photoshop do your book cover will result in something professional-looking.

Details of the merger still are being worked out. But if things come together as expected, says Greg Ioannou, “We’re going to serve the full range of writers. If you want to go with beta readers and cousins, so be it. We can still provide services that will help you. But you’ll probably get a book you’re more proud of if you get it done professionally.

“And we can make that happen for you without grabbing your savings.” TC mark

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