Unbound: The Crowdfunding Cargo Cult

(This piece may be appearing in The Telegraph, but I felt it would be useful to have it up soon given the recent interest in Unbound from places like The Economist).

The Southwest Pacific islands of Melanesia are some of the most remote places on the planet. Until the Second World War, its inhabitants had few encounters with technology or war, let alone planes and tanks. When Japanese and American soldiers arrived to set up bases, the Melanesians would have been astonished to see planes setting down on their newly-cleared runways disgorging massive amounts of materiel, medicine, food, weapons and clothing.

It would have been difficult for the Melanesians to grasp the reasons why the soldiers were there, or the vast and complex logistics chains that produced the planes and the weapons that moved the supplies around. And so when the soldiers left, taking their supplies with them, the Melanesians did what made perfect sense to them – they imitated the US soldiers by clearing the forest, building wooden control towers, carving headphones, and they fruitlessly waited for planes to arrive with cargo.

Today, we call the Melanesians’ behaviour a ‘cargo cult’ and use the term to describe anyone else who imitates superficial features of a system (in this case, military logistics) and hopes to replicate the original’s success, without any thought or understanding of the intrinsic workings of the system.

Though the cargo cult story is fairly well known, it’s hard to believe that anyone could be short-sighted enough to repeat their mistakes – yet there are countless examples of cargo cult thinking from the small to the massive, all showing how tempting it is to believe that the success of others can be copied as easily as an MP3.

One website that’s succumbed to cargo cult thinking is Unbound. Unbound is a new kind of book publisher that invites readers to help authors write books by buying them in advance. Each book has a target amount it needs to raise, and if that target is met, the author will finish the book and supporters will receive a copy. The venture has been described as a new and innovative way of harnessing the crowd to fund books that traditional publishers might otherwise shy away from.

But there’s another way of looking at Unbound, and that’s as a cargo cult version Kickstarter. Kickstarter is a crowdfunding site that helps creators to fund projects via pledges, for everything from documentary films to book, games, toys, and exhibitions. Most of the pledges aren’t donations but advance purchases of products or tickets, and over the past two years its has raised over $40 million for 8000 projects (including hundreds of books,
one by me), and so when Unbound launched, it was immediately labelled as a ‘Kickstarter for books‘.

On first glance, it’s easy to see why: Unbound has a very similar layout and format to Kickstarter. So far, so good. But the closer you look, the more differences you spot.

Instead of having a clear fundraising goal (e.g. £20,000), Unbound only has a target number of supporters (e.g. 2000). Since 2,000 people pledging £10 each raises much less than 2000 people pledging £250 each, this has caused some confusion. It later emerged that only a quarter of people would be allowed to pledge at the lowest £10 level and that fundraising targets could be ‘adjusted’ at any time.

Where Kickstarter is transparent, Unbound is bafflingly opaque – although this coyness may stem from publishers’ reluctance to talk about hard numbers even when they’re raising all their money from the public. Transparency also applies to creators; on Kickstarter, they write their own project descriptions and film their own videos, allowing their personality, experience, and trustworthiness (or lack thereof) to shine through, and from the earnest amateurishness of some efforts actually helps convey how much they could use the money.

Unbound writes project descriptions for their authors. They’re slick, but they’re also soulless (which is odd, since if anyone ought to be able to write well, it’s authors) and distancing. This leads to another issue – do successful authors like Terry Jones even need the money? After all, they’re asking for a lot – £10,000 at a minimum, and much, much higher in most cases – so you want to be sure it’s being used wisely.

In fact, Terry Jones has already written a big chunk of his book and Tibor Fischer’s Possibly Forty Ships (on Amazon) is already published. I wonder whether these books would be published one way or another even if they don’t meet their targets.

These questions would be less important if pledges weren’t so expensive at £10 for eBooks and £20 for hardbacks. Higher level rewards are also frustratingly vague, talking about ‘goodie bags’ for pledging over £150; again, in contrast to the often more specific and highly-imaginative rewards that many Kickstarter creators offer. There’s a reason why Kickstarter’s average pledge is £44 – it’s because people look forward to getting something really special.

I could go on – Unbound doesn’t have a wide enough selection, it’s too UK-centric, Gavin Pretor-Pinney’s Clouds iPad app vanished without a trace (although with only 2 per cent raised after a few weeks, it’s easy to speculate why).

But the biggest difference is its success rate. Of the six projects Unbound started with, it seems that one has been funded so far: Evil Machines by Terry Jones, and only by a gnat’s whisker at that, even though it’s by a Monty Python member with over 30,000 Twitter followers. Four other books on the brink of failure have had their deadlines unexpectedly extended, hopefully long enough for the public to come to their senses and cough up more cash. Unbound isn’t some fly-by-night operation; it was heavily promoted at the Hay Festival, it’s received gushing praise across the media – yet it may end up with a one in six success rate.

So, why was Unbound set up in the first place? It’s because they constructed a cargo cult, believing that if they mimicked the superficial elements of successful crowdfunding, they could enjoy the same success as others – but perhaps even more, thanks to their relationships with publishers, agents, authors, and the media.

Unbound are learning. Unlike Kickstarter, they’ll refund supporters’ money if the books aren’t delivered, and their newest author, Rupert Isaacson, has more specific rewards and a more realistic (i.e. lower) fundraising goal. Yet with a such a low target, you wonder whether a small publisher or Kickstarter might be a better choice.

I genuinely admire the sentiment behind Unbound, but there’s been a real lack of understanding of what makes for successful crowdfunding. I hope they can fix it soon.

Kickstarter isn’t the only success to attract cargo cults. Mere months after the iPhone was announced in 2007, a parade of competitors built their own cargo cults around it, hoping that by mimicking the iPhone’s design and its characteristic ‘apps’ they’d attract customers who don’t know any better, even if their phones didn’t have the same range of apps as Apple, or weren’t as fast.

Cargo cult thinking in technology products might have worked in the past, when customers really didn’t know any better and you could overwhelm them with slick marketing campaigns, but things are different now, thanks to online reviews and word-of-mouth. Yet they still try, wasting millions and millions on modern-day equivalents of wooden radar towers, or rather, yet more iPhone and iPad imitators.

Cargo cults abound in governance as well. The institutions that underpin western liberal democracy – universal suffrage and free and fair elections – are so strong and have produced such comparative stability and growth that you see other organisations and countries erect their own cargo cults, hoping that the illusion of elections will quell the people and produce similarly positive results. The sham of the FIFA voting scandal and recent ‘elections’ in countries such as Egypt and Iran have put paid to such craven hopes.

In our own country, the events of the last few weeks have shown that the Press Complaints Commission has been another cargo cult. With its Code of Practice, power to impose sanctions, rules on conflicts of interest, we thought it could deliver the goods, but we didn’t understand what really made for effective commissions, like functional and financial independence and an actual desire to challenge power.

Someone once said, “Insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.” A cargo cult is copying the most superficial parts of a success and expecting the same results. It comes from our desperate desire for quick success and power. It’s magical, childish thinking made more seductive now that it’s so easy to copy things, both online and in the real world. We forget that the beautiful and apt verse by Ecclesiastes:

I returned, and saw under the sun, that the race is not to the swift, nor the battle to the strong, neither yet bread to the wise, nor yet riches to men of understanding, nor yet favour to men of skill; but time and chance happeneth to them all.

Success is rarely as simple or straightforward as we hope it to be. Just ask the Melanesians.