Alumna Helen Taylor’s debut novel, The Backstreets of Purgatory, has recently been published by Unbound, an innovative publisher who combines a crowdfunding platform with a traditional publishing model. At first glance the novel — full of art and Glaswegian banter — appears comic and slightly bizarre, but this strange tale of Caravaggio arriving in modern day Glasgow explores serious themes, including mental health, homelessness, addiction and abuse. The idea for the story came during Helen’s creative writing MA Creative Writing, (Distance Learning), 2013 and early chapters formed part of her degree portfolio. After the course, she presented the completed manuscript to agents and publishers at the inaugural Graduate Creative Writing fair at Manchester Metropolitan University. The Backstreets of Purgatory was snapped up by Unbound and, with their help, Helen embarked on a campaign to persuade nearly 400 people to pre-order the book.
‘The crowdfunding model is essentially the old model of subscription funding that Charles Dickens and Samuel Johnson used to publish their work transplanted to a modern platform. I found it hard to begin. I was very naïve when I started out — I had no web site and little social media presence — and at times it felt like I would never reach my target. But in the end, it was an extremely positive and rewarding experience thanks to the fantastic support from my backers.’
The initial supporters were Helen’s family and friends but this steadily expanded to include friends of friends, new social media contacts and eventually strangers. Six months after the campaign launched, the book was fully funded although it took several more months to go to print. It was published in July as a special edition for supporters and a trade edition for bookshops.
‘The marketing side of crowdfunding was not something that came naturally to me. However even the biggest publishers rarely have a large advertising budget for books unless the author is already well-known so I figured one way or another I’d have to do some marketing. The advantage of publishing this way is that on publication day we knew we already had audience of 400 invested readers.’
‘It is an absolute thrill to see my novel on the shelves of bookshops and libraries around the country. But this isn’t my achievement alone. I couldn’t have done it without the group of writers on my MA course. The most valuable part of the course was learning how to get the most out of the process of critiquing other people’s work and editing my own in response to their critiques. I learned so much from these interactions, from different writing styles within the group, from the incredible insights that some students brought to my work or that I gained from theirs. For a writer, a support group is vital. It is impossible to write anything of worth in a vacuum.’
The Backstreets of Purgatory is available as a hardback in all good bookshops (including the Lancaster University branch of Blackwells) and online as hardback or kindle editions. You can find Helen on Twitter @TaylorHelen_MBack to News