Friday, 1 June 2012

In it Together: Writers' Collectives (1)

Writers' Collectives are fabulous for self-published writers. I'm going to be talking to one of the best new ones, Triskele Books, on these pages very soon. I'll also be sharing several years of my experience with Year Zero Writers, which I started up at the beginning of 2009. Collectives can do many things for their members and take many forms and I'll look at many of them in the months ahead as well as giving advice on how to go in with your eyes wide open.

But I wanted to share this for nostalgia. On January 2nd 2009, I posted a manifesto-cum-clarion-call "Can We Make 2009 Publishing's Year Zero?" which is where the Year Zero name came from. From that post, a group of 22 disgruntled writers of literary fiction from 8 countries came together and created something rather special.

Some of the post is outdated (see "point one" about printers; my avatar in which I'm a good 3 stone lighter than now, most of that gain down to added hair). Some is hopelessly rhetorical. But I'm surprised how much has stood the test of time and would still make sense today. So whilst we're at the starting-out-and-inspiring phase, I thought I'd post the whole thing in full. If you want to understand some of the ideology behind it, it's best read alongside the homepage of the LETS movement, LETS being a formalised barter system that is used the world over, but most relevantly for me in my old home town of Stroud. It's also the basis of, the fictitious charity group in the novel Songs from the Other Side of the Wall, which I'd just finished writing by the start of 2009. The charity is basically a matchmaking site between groups and individuals whoneed non-financial aid, and groups and individuals who can provide that aid (I still think that should be done more often in real life). Anyway, here it is, my original call to arms:

The Premise
The publishing industry stands in its current monolithic state because writers have bought into three myths.
Myth 1: An author needs a publisher
Fact: An author needs a printer. And customers.
Myth 2: A first-time author needs an agent
Fact: Getting a publisher is much, much easier if you have an agent. See myth 1
Myth 3: Writers are in direct competition with other writers for "slots" on the lists of a handful of publishers.
Fact: Books are in competition with other books for the attention of time- and cash-limited readers.
Writers believe that there are insurmountable obstacles to operating outside the strictures laid down by the publishing establishment. These perceived obstacles are: the impossibility of an inexpert individual with finite time and resources generating sufficient interest in his or her book to make it a viable source of income; and the perception that in readers' eyes the poor quality of print on demand books means that their book will not receive a reader's serious attention. It is my contention that these two obstacles are built on the false assumption of the truth of the third myth.
It is my contention that unpublished (and, indeed, published) writers stand the best chance of reaching an audience and making their writing viable by working with and not against other unpublished writers. It is my further contention that each additional writer committed to working with his or her fellow-writers increases the effectiveness of the group as a whole in the manner of a geometric and not and arithmetic progression. That is to say, three writers working together produce more effectiveness than three writers working separately. Furthermore, if this model is true, then each writer's maximum potential will be reached by cooperating with, and not competing against or reneging on, other writers.
What I am proposing is the viability of an entirely writer-led cooperative that would take projects through the entire process from the moment a first draft is finished to the moment the book is in the customer's hands. The whole process would be carried out "in house", using only the technical printing facility of a print on demand press.
The principle
  • A cooperative of writers working together to bring each of their books through from the first draft stage to the marketplace will be more effective than the same writers working separately. The more writers working together, the more their effectiveness will surpass that of individuals working alone.
  • Each person in the cooperative would offer the skills they have to other members, and take the skills they need from other members using a barter system
  • Marketing would focus not on books but on distinctive genre-specific imprints with recognisable formatting
  • Each book within the imprint would have individual exposure through an online catalogue consisting of cover, blurb, and first three chapters
The details
  • The system works on a barter principle, whereby every part of the process of taking a book to market is assigned a credit value.
  • Skills can be bought or sold for credits.
  • To ensure liquidity in the system, each member of the co-operative is assigned a number of credits equal to 1.5 times the number needed to complete every part of the "to market" process.
  • The "value" of the cooperative is divided into this number of credits, so that each member is initially an equal co-owner, and increased "ownership" can be acquired by carrying out more work on behalf of other writers.
  • Each new member is assigned the same number of credits so that they become notional equal stakeholders. To account for the inflation this causes, the credit value of each task will be reassessed at pre-agreed membership levels.
  • Members would advertise the skills they were offering in one place; those they were seeking in another.
  • Every skills provider would have a profile based on moderated feedback for previous tasks. All tasks would be performed under house rules, with an expected time frame and standard. Successful completion within these parameters would earn credits as well as being reflected in a member's profile
  • What would be covered: editing – writers would work together in a task-focused way to turn first drafts into the best manuscript possible; formatting and design – including cover art; marketing
  • What would not be covered: negotiations with publishers and agents – because everything is carried out in house
  • Meta-tasks: web design; negotiating with printers; production of house standards and standard operating procedures; moderation of tasks; management of the credit barter system;
  • Marketing would focus on imprints and the enterprise as a whole instead of individual books
  • Initial publicity would be based on the appeal to media of the size of the endeavour.
  • The target would be twofold: the media frequented by the most likely customers; and trade media for physical booksellers.
  • Follow-up campaigns for placement in specific stores would build on this initial public and trade awareness, as well as initially targeting the local stores of authors (where success would demonstrate to retailers the potential not just of the author but the whole imprint)
  • The main focus would be on new media – on marketing through web catalogues, and on sales of books in e-format
  • Once books are in print, cross-posting and rating by all writers of all books on online retailers sites would be encouraged, along with the generation of as many cross-links to similar books as possible
Quality Control
This is one of writing's big white elephants – that an individual book will fail because of its peers; that an inability to enforce quality control will be to the detriment of other works within an imprint. This is one of those situations where the positive (that success will be bred from being part of a successful imprint) is true whilst its negative corollary (that failure will be bred by being alongside lesser books) does not necessarily follow. It should be stated first:
  • The cooperative is not seen as a once for all alternative to the traditional publishing route. If a writer's work is absolutely suited to mainstream publication and in receipt of interest from mainstream publishers the route remains open. A book's place alongside others within an imprint is not at the expense of its place on a publisher's list.
An internet catalogue that gives the readers the first three chapters , blurb, and cover, will allow an informed choice of reading material, and prominence within the catalogue could be based upon recent sales so that marketability breeds market position.
My invitation
Please feel free to use the comments on this post to discuss the issues raised, or to express your interest in taking part in a group discussion if you would be interested in joining such a scheme.
These are just ideas. Obviously it would be great – and might even generate some publicity – to get hundreds of writers together to launch a scheme like this once the details have been thrashed out – maybe with an open letter to every media outlet we can find; but in practice these things tend to need a vanguard. So I'm considering the possibility of starting with ten or twenty writers whose books are very much in a similar vein to mine, and seeing if a single, contemporary fiction imprint, could be made to work along these lines as a standalone, with the benefits of a little but not a great big lot of scale on its side. Of course I have a list of names in mind of people working on similar projects to mine, whose work is at a similar stage, but I'll always welcome others.
What next?
If anyone's interested, let's spend January discussing, some of us maybe meet in February. In March we launch a website for a contemporary literary (and slightly quirky/experimental) imprint, putting up the intros and blurbs for the first raft of books, and inviting interest through a multimedia marketing push, with a blog to keep in touch with readers, and a timetable to take us through the editing, rewriting, and design process to the launch of the first books in summer


  1. Wow. Dan, you are so far ahead of me it isn't funny. I'll be coming back to this from time to time for ideas.

    One thing I think you've missed out on, though, which is very close to my heart at the moment, is the important of the chemistry within the group.

    I actually wrote a little about this yesterday on my personal blog. My mileage may differ because we are also trying to write collaboratively but I think the point remains.

  2. Yeah, this was before we actually got together as a group - it didn't take very long at all to learn how important chemistry was. We had some of the most almighty disagreements and bust-ups within Year Zero, and what's come out of the past few years is a community now, at eight cuts, where chemistry, support, friendships and a common creative goal are the basis of a wonderful group. Heading over to have a read of your post.

    I'll put a link there as well but this is the piece I wrote later in 2009 about collaborative writing - the comments in particular are interesting