Crowdfunding: freedom, frustration or fantasy?

Posted on September 24, 2015


Crowdfunding in archaeology is something I am interested in and have blogged about a couple of times (see Tracing Finds: A Case Study in Crowdfunding Archaeology, Are Crowdfunding Platforms Worth it?, Fairy Godmothers Do Exist- Crowdfunding Archaeology, You mustn’t be afraid to dream a little bigger! The Money of Crowdfunding Archaeology and Heritage, Crowdfunding Archaeology- a view from the trenches, Crowdfunding Archaeology some Data, Finally!). I have also interviewed the DigVentures Crew for the CRM podcast.  I was lucky enough to have Francis Pryor volunteer to discuss some of his experiences with crowdfunding publications. Francis is currently in the process of crowdfunding a book- The Way, The Truth and The Dead. and he is 81% towards his goal- hint, hint, nudge, nudge. Without further delay Francis’ thoughts and experiences with crowdfunding:


Crowd-funding: freedom, frustration or fantasy?

It’s funny I should be writing a post on crowd-funding just a few days  before my new book for Penguin comes out as an old-fashioned ink, glue and wood-pulp paperback (on October 1st). Of course it’s also available as an e-book in various formats, too. But that’s not the point. As some readers might know, I’ve written quite a few conventional books, so why on earth, you might ask, have I decided to go down the road of crowd-funding? And to be completely fair to him, my agent wondered precisely the same thing, when I told him what I’d planned. Still, it has been a voyage of discovery for me, and for him, too – and I now think we’re both a bit wiser and better-informed.

Essentially it’s a case of horses-for-courses. The great thing about the modern digital world is its flexibility: it allows you to do far more than was ever possible in the past, when one’s options were limited to a very few publishers and journals. And all of these had fixed ideas about what they wanted, which more often than not did not fit in with my own plans. Still, one muddled through, somehow – even though the process was unbelievably tedious and oh-so-extended.

In the Beginning

I got into crowd-funding about five years ago when I happened to bump into an old friend, Justin Pollard, who had just set-up a crowd-funding publishing house, along with two other author friends, which they called Unbound. I knew Justin, when he worked on the production side at Time Team a few years previously. He had set-up a small stand at the Hay-on-Wye Festival to promote the new business. I had just given a talk and book-signing session there, and was desperate to get to the bar. But Justin collared me and started telling me all about crowd-funding, which I soon persuaded him to do over a drink. I learned there that Unbound was set up for authors by authors. A couple of beers later, he gave me a smart, freshly-printed business-card and we went our separate ways, rejoicing. I drove home and thought no more about it for a year.

In the meantime I had unwittingly started to write a novel. Now I knew I was no Charles Dickens: I was aware of my limitations, but the fact is, I have always read voraciously and quite a high proportion of my non-archaeological reading has always been crime fiction. My favourite authors in this genre are Ian Rankin, Dorothy Sayers and more recently the amazing but sadly no longer with us, Steig Larsson (of the stunning trilogy that includes The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo). Of course I knew I’d never be as good as any of them, but I could at least give it a go. Nothing venture…

So that was why I started what I like to think of as my life in crime, which coincided with the last two series of Time Team where I had a lot to do. This meant that it was impossible to write the sort of heavy-duty non-fiction that I had done up until then. That sort of writing demands stretches of peace and tranquillity. But my crime novel was different: I carried the plot in my head everywhere I went, and I could rapidly add a few paragraphs here and there on the laptop I carried with me in my rucksack when we were filming. In retrospect, of course, this wasn’t ideal, which is probably why it took me the best part of a year, and about a dozen re-writes, to get the story anything near good enough to publish. But eventually I did, and the result is my first Alan Cadbury mystery, The Lifers’ Club.

Then I thought about publication. First and foremost I didn’t want to get sucked into the world of professional crime-writing, with all that goes with it: three-book deals, constant pressure etc., etc. I wanted to appeal to the readers of my non-fiction, but also to a younger audience who might be thinking about getting involved in archaeology.

The New Way of Archaeology

In the past, archaeology was very much a world of them and us. ‘They’ were the great unwashed who we allowed to visit ‘our’ museums and we, of course, were the guardians of that heritage and our rite-of-passage was an archaeology or ancient history degree (our bishops were Fellows of the Society of Antiquaries; our saints were Professors at Oxbridge). OK, I exaggerate a little, but believe me, in the 1950s and ‘early 1960s, not much. Then as time passed, social changes kicked-in and these were reinforced by the digital revolution (for that surely is what it is proving to be). The result was that old barriers began to break down. Of course new ones soon replaced them: the rise of professionalism in archaeology, which I did my bit to foster, meant that amateurs were no longer allowed on commercial sites. Insurance and ‘commercial confidentiality’ were blamed, but as we all know, they were only a small part of the story. So the enthusiasts (I detest the patronising term ‘amateurs’), decided to take matters into their own hands.

At about the turn of the century, magazines like Current Archaeology were featuring fewer and fewer digs where volunteers were welcome. But very gradually, and particularly after the bankers’ bubble of 2007/8, things began to improve. High quality, often long-term projects were set up by and for enthusiasts, many of whom did actually have archaeological qualifications, but had chosen to work elsewhere – in the real world. I always recall that many of the production staff at Time Team knew as much about archaeology as those of us who flaunted our egos to the public through their lenses. Then we saw the appearance of training and research excavations that used the internet to reach-out to a wider audience with regular, lively blogs and newsletters. And of course their various funding bodies loved it. Today a good dig director should know how to direct a video camera or webcam, as much as a trowel.

All of these changes coincided with what was happening to my own career – If I may use that word to describe my chaotic drift through life. While I was writing and assembling the big English Heritage Archaeological Report on Flag Fen, between 1997 and 2000 (it was published in 2001), I realised that it was time I withdrew from full-time professional excavation. Apart from anything else, I wanted other, younger people to have a go. I’d had my treat. So I made a conscious decision to focus on my Fenland sheep farm, my garden, and on what had become my new passion: writing. The result was Seahenge, the first of five books I wrote for HarperCollins. These books were about the archaeology of Britain and were aimed at the general reader. I covered prehistory in Britain BC and didn’t find the move into historic periods particularly painful when I wrote Britain AD, about early post-Roman and Saxon times – largely because I had always been fascinated by these periods, thanks mostly to the great Brian Hope-Taylor, of Yeavering fame, who had been an inspirational teacher at Cambridge.

Many friends and colleagues helped me slide into the Middle Ages and the post-Medieval/Industrial era for the final two books of the what has become known as the Britain series. But then I made the biggest transition of all, away from archaeology sensu stricto, into landscape history, with The Making of the British Landscape (Penguin). Two prehistorian reviewers loathed it, but the rest of the world, including people like Margret Drabble, Adam Nicolson and A.M. Wilson, whose opinions I actually value, loved it. And best of all, despite its great length, it sold! My most recent book HOME (also for Penguin), which I mentioned at the start of this post, is another move away from academic archaeology pure and simple, into a more personal perspective where I draw parallels with the building of my own home with family life in the remote past. And to my absolute delight, it has been well received.

I hope it’s clear by now that my venture into crime fiction was in many ways an extension of what I was doing already in my ‘serious’ books. Yes, The Lifers’ Club is about archaeology, but it’s also about the principal actor, Alan Cadbury and his various interests, obsessions and relationships. The other people on the dig also play a major role, as do the folk they are actually excavating. I didn’t realise it at the time, but The Lifers’ Club is about the place of an excavation in the lives of everyone involved with it. So when I was thinking about publication I needed to find a publisher where I could take the book to an audience that would understand what I was trying to do. In other words, I needed to retain control of the marketing of the book, because it was essential that my readers should understand what I was trying to achieve. If they ‘got it’ they would tell their friends and word would spread – which it seems is what is happening.

Crowd-funding Books

As I’m sure followers of Doug’s Archaeology will be aware, crowd-funding is a process which raises money from subscribers to fund the publication of a book, a film or a video – or indeed an excavation, as my friends at DigVentures are doing so successfully at Leiston Abbey. And they’re using a huge variety of new approaches: everything from gaming and blogging to digital mapping. So it’s a medium that’s ideal for many archaeological projects, both large and small. I now know that many larger organisations within the sector are thinking of getting involved with crowd-funding, which makes particular sense, given our subject’s broad public appeal. And I’d stress, there’s no need to ‘dumb down’ anything: many people are happy to subscribe to an academic volume, even if they didn’t understand the technical details of everything within it. They know that publication is what matters and they are happy to be a part of that process. I remember discovering my great-grandfather’s name in the list of subscribers to the Glastonbury Lake Villages report; he was a geologist, not an archaeologist and even though academic writing in those days involved punctuation and avoided jargon, I’m sure he would only have understood some of what Bulleid and Gray had to say. No, he was a good man and he subscribed because he knew what publication signified. In effect, it marked the creation of new knowledge.

Part of the process of crowd-funding is to come up with original marketing ideas. These are great because they bring the author into direct contact with his or her readers. My readers can be very frank (and why not: they’ve paid good money!). They tell me what they like and dislike about my books, which helps me stay grounded. If ever I had literary pretensions, they vanished after talks with readers, most of whom read crime fiction for its firm grip on reality. And I rather enjoy writing about daily life in our own times and I hope one day an archaeologist or a social historian might glance briefly at a book like The Lifers’ Club to see how the less settled and well-off members of early 21st Century British society spent their lives.

Unbound has become something of a social club and over the past two years I’ve got to meet and have become friendly with many authors there. And none of them are archaeologists! We all try to help each other out in various ways. All authors at Unbound do e-books, hardbacks and signed copies. For larger contributions, most authors include a publication party and some even suggest that subscribers can name characters, although I’m not too happy with that: names resonate and add atmosphere; for me they are too important to farm out. Just imagine if Sherlock Holmes had been named Charles Jones. For The Lifers’ Club, I included tours of Flag Fen (which proved a big hit and which I, at least, enjoyed hugely!). For my second book, The Way, The Truth and The Dead, I’ve included tours of Seahenge, which now occupies a large part of King’s Lynn Museum (that level costs £100) and a free ticket to my garden opening next September. This will include a special guided tour and a free tea-and-cakes; this level is as cheap as chips at just £80.

This is where you can/must subscribe (hint, hint):

We only started the garden tour level a week ago and already we have two subscribers. The Seahenge tour has sold out twice and has had to be re-scheduled for a third time. So believe me, these higher-level ideas pay off. And they’re also fun to do. I need hardly add that the people I show around the Museum or the garden get personally signed copies of the hardback, too. If they ask nicely they might receive a manly handshake or a shy peck on the cheek. But that’s where I draw the line!

There were times when I never thought I’d live to see it, but thanks to the digital world, archaeology is rapidly becoming less elitist. And that’s great, because it isn’t, nor was it ever, something outside normal, everyday experience. It should never have been put on a pedestal, as a lofty ideal somehow beyond mere ordinary life. And why? The answer to that is simple: because archaeology is life.


Buy SeahengeBuy Britain BCBuy The Making of the British LandscapeHome: A Time Traveller's Tales from Britain's PrehistoryLifers' Club

Click on the images to see some of Francis’ books.

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