Publishing, the Cooperative Way

[Originally published in the magazine Romance Writers Report, November 2013.]

What’s your idea of Publishing Heaven?  For me, the answer was simple – a publisher who understood what it was like to be an author, and who helped me be the best author I could be, creating the finest books I could create.  My ideal publisher produced beautiful finished works, providing professional editing services and pricing my books fairly in a competitive marketplace.  My dream publisher promoted my work in traditional and novel ways, getting the word out to a broad variety of readers and potential fans.

And the best thing about my dream publisher?  It actually exists.  It’s Book View Café Publishing Cooperative, and I’m a member.  Our experience over the past five years can provide guidance to any group of authors considering forming a similar cooperative venture.

Book View Café is an author-run publisher.  We’ve released over 200 books (both backlist and new), written by our more than forty members.  Our authors include New York Times and USA Today bestsellers, along with Hugo and Nebula Award winners.  We published our first New York Times bestseller in February 2013.  Many of our authors work or have worked as writing-related professionals – including editors, graphic designers, and publicists – and others have worked as lawyers or accountants. We were incorporated under the laws of the State of New Mexico earlier this year.

The Mists of Time – Five Years Back

Book View Café grew out of a conversation among a group of science fiction and fantasy authors.  In 2008, during the ancient days of electronic publishing, a group of women joined forces to cross-promote each other’s work.

The first Book View Café website was a site for free online fiction, along with a group blog.  Participating authors typically wrote an electronic short story or novella set in the world of an established speculative fiction series, with the goal of introducing new readers to print books available for sale elsewhere.

Within months, the website evolved.  Full-length ebooks were added to the mix.  The online presence expanded to include a bookstore, where customers could purchase multiple formats of Book View Café writers’ works – in .mobi, .epub, and .pdf.

The membership of Book View Café expanded, as well.  In addition to the original speculative fiction authors, several romance authors applied for membership, as did writers who specialize in young adult fiction.  A number of Book View Café authors write in multiple genres.

As Book View Café grew, it continued to rely on the coordinated expertise of its members.  That coordination is accomplished through several private Yahoo discussion groups and one massive online forum.

The discussion groups generally cover matters of fleeting importance – who is going to which conventions?  Has anyone come up with exciting new contest prizes?  What have people heard about this new social media opportunity, or that new book promotion service?

By contrast, the forum serves as a permanent repository for discussions.  Each member’s books are made available to all other members, for free, through the forum.  Each book published by Book View Café is given its own project timetable, maintained on the forum.  We have long forum pages devoted to brainstorming cover copy and to analyzing cover designs.  The forum is also the hub through which we track our relationships with third-party business partners.

The Visible Horizon

Today, Book View Café is a far cry from the little web venture where a group of specialized writers offered some stories for free.  One of our newest members, Doranna Durgin (Claimed by the Demon), notes:  “What’s been most valuable – and immediately so – is the immensely heartening effect of being among like-minded authors all bringing their astonishing accumulation of experience to bear in a publishing co-op – and knowing that my projects have their support, just as I can contribute to theirs.”

And our members’ contributions are yielding results.  Our production schedule has grown by leaps and bounds; we currently release nearly ten books a month.  Our book production process is modeled after those of successful major publishers, but it is tweaked to take advantage of members’ expertise.  Book View Café books embody cooperation between the individual author and the publisher.

For example, when I decided to write my Diamond Brides series (nine spicy category romances, built around the players on a major league baseball team and the women they love), I sent a request to our volunteer who handles the publication schedule.  She gave me a list of potential dates, and I chose the ones I wanted (the first Tuesdays for March through December of 2014.)  We discussed which of my titles would be “lead titles” for their weeks, ultimately deciding that the first, fourth, and ninth would have that status (and the increased marketing push allocated to lead titles.)

The scheduling volunteer concluded her job by sending me a project timetable, which detailed positions for other co-op volunteers to fill.  Those jobs include project manager, editor, proofreader, cover designer, and ebook formatter.  I solicited volunteers to fill those functions, using the forum topics assigned to each individual book.  Throughout the process, production deadlines were available for all members to see, so that each person could gauge his or her own time commitments, relative to my production needs.

Once my creative team was in place, I requested an ISBN.  (All our ISBNs, of course, show Book View Café as the publisher of the book.)  When I completed the online form for an ISBN, I recorded the book’s metadata.  That information allowed our ISBN volunteer to complete her paperwork with Bowker.

Perhaps more importantly, though, the collected metadata could be entered into our database of members’ works available for distribution by third parties.  Book View Café currently has distribution contracts with Overdrive and Wheelers (for library distribution in the United States and the United Kingdom, respectively.)  We also sell direct to libraries, with terms favorable to those institutions. In the near future, we’ll be adding additional library distribution by Gardners and 3M.  Our most recent distribution coup is a series of contracts with Audible, making our members’ books available as audiobooks.

Member Brenda Clough (Speak to Our Desires), summarizes our relationships with third parties:  “We are really good at getting our stuff out to paying readers – into libraries, into audio books – we do things that are impossible for the solitary author to do, and that I don’t see other author groups doing.”  In a radical departure from major publishers, Book View Café allows each author to select third-party distribution for each book.  No author is required to sign over audio rights, library rights, or other valuable secondary rights.

Finally, Book View Café members help to publicize and promote each other’s works.  In addition to our group blog, we maintain a plethora of social media sites.  Many members also maintain individual social media footprints, reaching even wider.

By the very nature of the co-op, no one member is tasked with doing anything he or she is not comfortable doing.  Jennifer Stevenson (A Hinky Taste of You) views the group’s teamwork as its greatest asset:  “We are each good at half a dozen things… and we each learn half a dozen more things as we build Book View Café.  Multiply that by forty authors, add synergy and cross-training, teamwork, and the all-important ‘when life happens’ mutual support, and you have a powerhouse that makes the lonely author feel empowered, informed, and fearless in the face of the new publishing world.”

In exchange for providing volunteer services to the co-op, each member receives 95% of all proceeds for his or her books sold through the co-op.  (Book View Café does not exact a commission for works sold outside of the co-op, i.e., through Amazon or Barnes & Noble, even when those outside works bear Book View Café ISBNs.)

The entire production process can be summed up by Sherwood Smith (Danse de la Folie): “I love the freedom, the fact that we can mix genres, that our books won’t be slashed to fit marketing’s mandated word count, that we get vigorous feedback and it doesn’t take years, that people will do my formatting and covers for me.  The team effort, I feel, makes us greater than the sum or of parts, and that sum is not negligible.”

In addition to publishing novels written by individual members, the co-op also publishes themed anthologies.  These include Passionate Café I and Passionate Café II (two samplers, designed to promote the group’s romance writers.)  The most recent anthology is Beyond Grimm, a revisiting of classic fairy tales.

But Really, Who Does the Work?

Book View Café could not function without thousands of hours of volunteer service from its members.  Of course, we need a volunteer to manage the volunteers.  That task falls to me.  I keep a list of all volunteer positions within the organization.  On a monthly basis, I note which are currently empty, and I circulate the list of our needs to our members.  I also monitor which members seem likely to be “burning out” through over-commitment, and I query them to determine whether they need relief.

Most of our members handle multiple volunteer positions.  Frequently, members serve both in book production capacities (editors, proofreaders, ebook formatters, etc.) and in “service” capacities (directors or officers of the co-op, administrators of various types).  New members are encouraged to participate in the group discussion lists and forum for a couple of months before they’re asked to assume official volunteer responsibilities.

Chris Dolley, one of directors and our first New York Times bestselling author with his memoir French Fried, describes our cooperative venture this way:  “We find that cooperation works surprisingly well.  Part of this comes down to our selection procedure where ‘plays well with others’ is seen as an essential prerequisite to membership.  Plus, volunteering is catching.”

To date, we’ve never experienced the uncomfortable situation of a member “free-loading”, consuming services without offering something in exchange.  In fact, our members are more likely to express the opposite concern.  Sherwood Smith speaks for many when she describes her greatest challenge with regard to Book View Café is “making sure that I do my bit, and don’t keep someone waiting.  That can mean my own work taking a backseat.”

We’ve likely avoided free-loaders because we take great care to explain our model to new applicants, detailing the group’s needs and expectations.  Many authors who initially express interest in joining the co-op choose not to do so once they realize the group’s high expectations.

Of course, we recognize that members’ ability to contribute fluctuate, due to outside stresses.  We have had various members go on hiatus as they grapple with illness, divorce, or other major life upheaval.  For less dire time restrictions, we all take advantage of the forum topic “On The Road Again”, where we record when we’ll be unavailable for co-op work, due to travel for pleasure or business.

What Waits in the Future?

Five years ago, no one in Book View Café could have predicted the current size of our organization or our penetration into various markets as a publisher of quality books.  It’s exciting to imagine where we might be in another five years.

We’re already expanding into print publication, recognizing that not all readers have made the leap to electronic publications.  At the moment, some individual members are publishing print versions of their Book View Café electronic books.  In the near future, we intend to have preferred formats and a production process to streamline the generation of print books.

We are currently debating how much we want to grow (in number of members), recognizing that administrative burdens might expand more rapidly than resources if we grow too large too fast.  Our consensus model of self-governance is particularly sensitive to group size, particularly because all of our communication is conducted electronically.  We continue to refine our use of Yahoo groups and the forum, and we frequently discuss other modes of communication that might serve our group even better.

We are also memorializing our long-standing agreements, placing them in writing to best preserve all members’ rights.  Typically, these contracts result in many long discussions, where members hash out their specific understandings of the general practices we’ve undertaken for years.  In the future, we’re likely to rely on even more written agreements, because of our increase in size and our obligations as a formal corporation.

Perhaps Patricia Rice (Notorious Atherton) sums up our aspirations best, when asked what she sees the group doing in five years:  “Publishing and distributing print books, doing more extensive promotion, and expanding to an even wider group of authors with immense backlists that deserve to see the light of day again.  We’re on the ground floor of creating a publishing house as so many brilliant writers and editors did at the beginning of the 20th century.  Publishing, 21st century style, is here.”