A few years ago, I was talking to some people at a local convention and mentioned that I was joining a publishing co-op run by writers. Most said polite versions of “Oh, that sounds interesting,” but one laughed.
I said, “Why are you laughing?”
“Publishing? Run by writers? That’s like trying to put cats on a hamster wheel.”
I mentioned it on an email list, and got a private note from someone saying basically, “Run as fast as you can! I give it a year, and then some bullying alpha will try a takeover, and it will splinter, just like every writers’ group I’ve ever been part of.”
And a third summed up private misgivings by pointing out that writers would all want their books published, but would not find the time to work on anyone else’s.
Well, that was true for a few people, and others came and went for various other reasons, but in spite of those bumps, the publishing co-op of 2008 has evolved into a publisher with one Nebula finalist (the first of its kind), a steadily growing presence in international sales, contracts from Audible (and steady sales), a fast-growing list of libraries asking for the catalogue . . . and it is still run by writers.
“Publishing is a business. Writing may be art, but publishing, when all is said and done, comes down to dollars.”
Substitute ‘labor’ for dollars, and that sums up the small publisher experience.
The original idea was to get backlist books, whose contracts had been written before anyone thought of e-books, into e-form. These books, having once been published, had already been edited and proofed so get them scanned, format them, use the old cover or dummy a new one, and offer them on a blog site. This should be easy-peasy, right?
In future posts I will get more deeply into formatting, cover art, and e-store issues, which are many, and start with what a lot of people seem to be more interested in if conversations about Book View Café are anything to go by.
That is, getting the books before the readership when the co-op had a PR budget of $0.00.
In 2008, reading on phones was still a couple years off. The strategy was twofold: freebies offered on a web page that changed each week, and what was called the “dowry” system. The co-op recognized early that not every writer was going to read all the books offered—people wrote in different genres, and even if they wrote in the same genre, they might not necessarily be writing for the same audience.
The solution was the “dowry post,” a blurb written either by the author or by volunteers, that everyone agreed to post wherever they could.
At first the inevitable repeats seen on popular social media were deemed a feature, general wisdom being that it takes several mentions of a given product to stick in the mind. But by the time I entered the group in 2010, it was becoming clear that repeats of the dowry posts were beginning to be regarded as spam.
We even had a couple of potential members decide against joining because they objected to the dowry, and the practice faded out.
At the same time, though our front page gradually began to appear more professional, thanks to the hours of volunteer labor put in a small group of members, the pace of Internet sites had morphed so much in two years that once-a-week changes seemed static.
Some members had all their backlist up. Okay, what next? Disenchanted with the slowness of response times of agents and the Big Six, among other issues, some chose to publish original novels through BVC, which gave them control of the process—and the profits.
The Joomla system for online publishing was so labyrinthine that members began insisting that the co-op was due for a change, from the noun by which it was to be designated (co-op? Consortium? Publisher?) to how the books were put together, published—and promoted.
The co-op wasn’t just evolving, it metamorphosed.
“Publishing a book is like stuffing a note into a bottle and hurling it into the sea. Some bottles drown, some come safe to land, where the notes are read and then possibly cherished, or else misinterpreted, or else understood all too well by those who hate the message. You never know who your readers might be.”
To people who ask how BVC works, we answer that we make decisions by consensus. Sounds simple, right?
Well, first we had to define consensus. . .
. . . aaaand we are still trying to define it, four years later.
I’ll close this post with one of the questions I get asked most often: how we choose the books we are going to publish. (The second most frequent question usually concerning PR.)
We all agreed that we wanted to publish books. Then the buts started in. But we did not want a big boss, or even a head committee deciding who gets to publish what. We must have a board of directors because of legal requirements for incorporation, but the Board has no powers beyond those of the membership at large.
We realized that rough first drafts going out under the BVC umbrella might tank, but those in turn would tarnish the BVC imprint.
The idea that we are all professionals and know the difference between a good and a bad book sounds good in theory. In practice? Readers will have to decide what’s good and what’s bad, because we will never be able to set a standard that pleases all. But what we decide to put up has to be gone over as well as we can.
It took a solid year of discussion via the e-mail list, via various discussion threads on the BVC private forum, and endless emails and conversations negotiating and compromising to come up with something everyone could live with, the beta read system: since only geniuses have it right from the first draft, each book has to have at least one beta reader. Preferably also a copyeditor and a proofreader, ideally not the same person for each.
The author still is in the pilot’s seat, making final revisions and decisions. The final arbiter for its success or failure is the readership Out There, but the book will go out looking as professional as we can make it.
In future installments, the nitty-gritty on how to set up a bookstore, the pitfalls of covers and formatting, and the on-going problem of PR on an empty-pockets budget.