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What Writers Talk About When No One’s Listening

TETRRF-00013265-001This weekend, I met with my writing group. It’s always a good time when we get together and was even more so because I’d missed the last four or five groups. Being that none of us had any major projects to bring to the table, we were free to reflect on our lives and writing careers.

And that’s when things got interesting.

I think our writing group is a pretty good sampling of the average writing community. We’ve all got stuff published, to varying degrees. We are all serious about our craft. Writing isn’t a “hobby” for any of us. It is ingrained into the fabric of who we are. None of us are happy with where we’re at. Satisfied, perhaps. But just for now. We are constantly working, plotting, conspiring, seeking ways to advance our careers.

Another thing — big-time success has been evasive for all of us.

Before I go on, let me offer a brief sketch of the four members who attended that specific group and where we’re at in our careers. Then I’ll use myself to get a little more specific.

Merrie: Agented. Two traditionally published novels (Harper Voyager), three self-published novels, contributor to several art books, editorial work with Victorian Homes and Zombies! Magazine.  Merrie has also been a panelist at ComicCon and led workshops at writing conferences. Several completed, unsold manuscripts.

Becky: Not agented. Provides editorial services, self-published a book on writing craft, contributed articles for numerous mags, led workshops at writing conferences. Several completed, unsold manuscripts.

Rachel: Agented. Self-published a novella, professional cover designer, contributor to drawing book. Several completed, unsold manuscripts.

Mike: Agented. Two traditionally published novels (Realms), two self-published works, several freelance projects, led conference workshop and served as consultant. Several completed, unsold manuscripts.

I’m sure I missed some accomplishments. But as you can see, between the four of us, we have some cred and various degrees of publishing success.

The thing is, none of us are satisfied. Books and writing, while being a passion of ours, simply doesn’t translate into much money. Compound this with the fluctuating industry and all the self-publishing success stories out there, and it’s fairly easy to see why frustration is a pretty common sentiment in writer’s circles. There’s got to be more than this, we say. There must be a way to parlay our talents for a greater return.

Let me use myself as an example: I received mid-level advances from my trad published novels. While I am close, I have yet to earn back those advances in order to receive royalties. Last year (2013), I made a couple hundred bucks off my ebooks. I also made a couple hundred bucks writing some articles. I’ve got two completed books in the chutes, but it will be a while before I see any financial remuneration on either.

Some writers will look at me with envy. Some will nod knowingly because they’re in the same place. Others might shake their head at my mediocrity or entrepreneurial deficiency.

Bottom line is: I’m not quitting my day job.

What makes all this so frustrating, as I mentioned, are all the self-publishing success stories floating around. Self-published authors throwing out charts and numbers showing how lucrative a career in self-publishing can be. Then there’s articles like THIS suggesting that genre is more important than platform, and by studying the formula of a certain genre, an author can break out.

As our conversation drifted this direction, to the person we agreed that this was not a satisfying approach for us. We want to be involved in genres we love, not writing Western Romances because there’s an audience and they’re popular.

Of course, maybe that’s why we’re frustrated — we need to surrender our idealism to make a buck.

Yes, digital publishing has definitely reconfigured the playing field. There’s no question: Authors have more ways to make money, more possibilities of building a career, than ever before. But listen folks, the stories about first-time, “nobody” authors w/out platforms publishing and making thousands of dollars are exceptions. In fact, stories about writers who make a living self-publishing their stuff are also exceptions. Not taking anything away from those who do successfully self-publish. Nor am I suggesting it’s not possible to build a career around self-publishing. All I’m suggesting is that the digital trend has created too many “experts” and tends to skew a more realistic approach to the market.

The topic of conversation turned to how many good writers we know who simply can’t get stories picked up. We all named authors we know who deserve broader recognition, but for one reason or another — whether because of the limitations of genre, a small indie publisher, lack of marketing savvy, limited trad genre slots, or simply market trends — are not experiencing the types of success they deserve.

I apologize if this sounds arrogant, but my crit partners deserve to be more widely read. I have seen enough of their manuscripts to be able to say with confidence that Merrie, Rachel, and Becky have an audience out there who is missing out. They’re missing out because they haven’t discovered Merrie, Rachel, and Becky yet. In fact, they may be missing out because Merrie, Rachel, and Becky are waiting for some gatekeeper to take up their torch instead of seizing the opportunities right in front of them.

Perhaps it was predictable that our conversation came to this point — writer co-ops. I’m still on the front end of the learning curve regarding author-run publishing co-ops, but it appears to be a trending phenomenon. (Here’s a good example of how some authors are bypassing traditional publishers and joining forces to publish their works, connect with readers, and support each other.) Anyway, it seemed like such a a natural conclusion to arrive at, and one that brought considerable hope to what had been a rather frustrating conversation.

To borrow a familiar slogan: Maybe… we are the change we seek.

I’ve been in this writing group about four or five years. We used to meet at a Borders bookstore, but watched it close down. Now we meet at Panera. It’s reflective of an industry that is in flux. When we began meeting, we were all suspicious of self-publishing. But that’s changed. A lot has changed. We’ve weathered the typical highs and lows of any writing group, both literary and personal. So it seemed quite natural to ponder the possibility to become the core of something much bigger than ourselves.

At this stage, it’s just a possibility; a seed that’s been folded into the soil. No decision or announcement is forthcoming.

Either way, I found the discussion quite fascinating. In fact, I wonder if this isn’t the template many similar writers circles could follow. The tools are available to make this happen. Authors empowering authors,  parlaying their talents for a greater return. Whatever your conclusion about author co-ops, it’s definitely something we authors should be spending more time thinking about.

(As such, if you know of any articles or discussions, pro or con, about the subject of author co-ops, please link me up!)

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{ 28 comments… add one }
  • Kat Heckenbach February 17, 2014, 8:45 AM

    Can I play, too?

    Kat: Unagented. Two novels traditionally published by a small press (Splashdown Books), one of which was a finalist in the Next Generation Indie Book Awards (YA category), the Grace Awards (YA), and the Compton Crook in 2012. Two self-published ebook novelettes. Short genre stories in ten different fiction anthologies. Four personal experience stories in anthologies by large presses, including two in Chicken Soup for the Soul. A big, fat binder full of published personal experience stories in various pro-paying religious magazines, including a story in Salvation Army’s “War Cry” magazine that was later translated for their German publication as well. Led workshops at local writers groups and writers conferences. Participates in writer panels at local sf/f con. Scheduled to lead two sessions at the upcoming Realm Makers conference.

    Several manuscripts in the works, but motivation to actually DO something with them is low because it so far every meager cent I’ve made has gone back into promoting my writing….and that has only led to meager-er cents.


    So, I totally agree with you on the articles that are going around. I think it’s great if some writers find themselves inspired by those self-pubbed phenom stories. I just see them as the few lucky ones among a sea of undiscovered talent–much of that undiscovered talent being far greater than the phenoms.

    I think the author co-op thing is a good idea. My cynicism steps in, though, when I look at the times I’ve worked with fellow writers in attempts to cross-promote. What we’ve often found is that we are all trapped inside the same bubble, cross-promoting to the same audience. That said, combining talents does work. A lot of that is the basis of the set-up for Splashdown Books. Authors editing each others’ works, those with artistic talent or photo-editing talent doing cover art for the others. An anthology–actually now two of them–highlighting short work by all the authors with Splashdown, which is sold in print at cost and given away in ebook format whenever possible.

    Anyway, what I see is that we do need to support each other. I think many authors break through in waves, and talent seems to somehow find other talent, and one day those of us who consider each other contemporaries will likely find ourselves all on the other side of the fence at about the same time because we’ve stuck together.

    • Mike Duran February 18, 2014, 10:54 AM

      Kat — I think the dillema of being trapped inside a bubble is compounded w/in Christian circles. Add to this the rather narrow market for “Christian specific” and I think we can’t help but exist in an echo chamber. Which is why, personally, if I ever get involved in a co-op it will have to be in a group w/out an overt spiritual mission. One way to expand our audience is simply to learn to write for a bigger one.

      • Kat Heckenbach February 18, 2014, 11:28 AM

        I can’t disagree with that. And I admit that the answer is to try and reach beyond that narrow audience segment. The “how” of that is what’s hard for me. My novels do not have overt spiritual messages, yet I’ve had far more luck selling them within the Christian spec-fic market. I won’t hijack the post or bore everyone with all my thoughts on this, but while I agree with you, I’m still struggling with what to do to expand my reach.

  • Margaret Mills February 17, 2014, 8:55 AM

    Wait…I’m about in the same place, some published, etc…. but how would an author’s co-op work exactly? The writer’s groups I’ve been with tend to cross-promote anyway, at least informally. Seems like there is more potential implied in “co-op.” Explain further?

    • Mike Duran February 18, 2014, 10:45 AM

      Margaret, I’m still learning myself. One of the co-ops that came up was Month 9 Books, which has built a significant collection of authors. This seems to be one of the potential strengths of a co-op — pooling great talent gives all of them broader reach. But, like you, I’m still in the process of learning more.

  • Mir February 17, 2014, 12:15 PM

    As you said: how does an author find their readers? Clearly, there are readers for these stories you guys have written. And clearly, writing of lower skill level sells oodles on Amazon–we’ve all seen it. The stuff that looks like it was written by an angtsy teenager who wouldn’t know a cliche if it smacked her with a supersized frapuccino. The quality of the writing isn’t as much as issue for y’all as finding the people who want YOUR stuff. Your tribe. And the quality of the writing may be secondary, anyway, to pushing the reader buttons that need to be pushed and finding those readers wanting those buttons pushed. Finding. Connecting. When a huge mass of books are vying for the same Twitter reads, FB attention, etc. Wow, daunting.

    How to do that? Find your unfound fans. Whoever figures it out wins the internet, like, for a decade.

    • D.M. Dutcher February 19, 2014, 8:55 AM

      Discovery is a problem with all genres these days, and Christian spec fic is especially bad about that. I don’t think it’s something that writers alone bear the brunt of, and I’ve argued before that fans and publishers need to do a lot more too. We especially need not just grass-roots level stuff, but what you’d call “upper-level curation,” big people and sites aiding people in discovery.

      Unfortunately that needs money, and that’s one of the things this genre doesn’t really have it seems.

  • Mir February 17, 2014, 12:17 PM

    And yes, one of the things I want and pray for this year is to find MY co-op. I think when folks find their supportive peers who “fit,” it’s a blessed thing.

  • R. L. Copple February 17, 2014, 12:33 PM

    Interestingly enough, I had the following feed from Joel Friedlander in my queue:

    7 Tips for Indie Authors to Thrive Together: Care and Feeding of Your Writers’ Collective

    I probably don’t know enough about what a coop would do, but sounds interesting.

    I’m wondering if something like Lost Genre Guild isn’t a type of coop, in an very informal way.

  • Lyn Perry February 17, 2014, 2:40 PM

    Interesting article on the realities of self-pubbing:
    He’s also talked about co-ops before, but not sure of the link.

  • Grace Bridges February 17, 2014, 4:13 PM

    Wanna play as well.

    Two self-published novels. Two more under contract to a small press (Port Yonder). Some other completed manuscripts. Short stories in nine genre anthologies. Publisher of 28 books at Splashdown, with 17 different novelists plus at least 25 writers involved in the Avenir Eclectia project (with some overlap). I’m current Prez of SpecFicNZ, a writers’ org which has opened up some avenues. Taught at cons: Heart of America, NZ National SF Con, Realm Makers.

    Now if we can’t get some mojo going from all these people, then something’s wrong!

    For myself, on the one hand there is the pull towards financial reward by pumping out self-published material. On the other hand I also want to push towards truly memorable quality of writing. My various avenues allow me to pursue both, provided I work really hard – perhaps, dare I say it, with different channels for different purposes although of course in an ideal world, profitability and quality would go hand in hand. But I have this opportunity to let my career become a bit binary and see what happens.

  • Jessica Thomas February 17, 2014, 8:24 PM

    Here’s one Mike: http://indie-visible.com/

    I got the idea of a co-op by watching Grace and Splashdown and how those authors seem to band together to help each other. However, at this point in my life, I can’t do as much of the heavy lifting as Grace does, so I thought why not band together under a shared imprint, but throw the idea of royalties out the window? (Authors receive 100% of their own sales.)

    I think the issue then becomes that those involved have to be really dedicated to marketing the imprint, and the individuals involved also have to be the type that live up to their end of the bargain. Everybody has to share some of the workload in terms of beta reading, editing, proofing, etc., for it to be mutually beneficial for all parties involved.

    I liken it to a local grass-fed beef farm we have here, where you stop off at their store, which is unmanned, pick the cuts of beef you want from their freezer, and leave your check in the box before you leave. It’s an honor system, and it’s awesome when something like that works. As Christians, I think we should be able to follow the model of the original church, where believers pooled their finances in a communal type atmosphere, but in the case of a writing co-op/shared imprint, we’d be pooling our time and talents instead.

    I know I will always need to work to improve my writing, but I’m at a stage where I feel confident that I can create a professional end-product. I think there are many authors out there like me, who have put in their time, who have weathered the critiques and disappointments, using them to strengthen their craft. And let’s face it, in this atmosphere I hear more and more that even traditionally published authors are expected to edit their own work. If we have the skills, and we are doing everything ourselves anyway… The traditional route is still ideal, even to me, but in the meantime, I know what I’m doing so why wait for someone to tell me it’s “okay”? Question then becomes, how can I expedite the process of getting a book to market? I think that’s where mature and maturing writers can really help each other by pooling resources and, thus, shaving off valuable time.

    • Merrie Destefano February 18, 2014, 8:37 PM

      I love your ideas and these are some of the same things we discussed on Saturday. We are still toying with going with the same imprint, but overall, no matter what we do, we will each keep all of our own royalties. We hope to work together in the producing and promoting of our collective works.

      • Jessica E. Thomas February 19, 2014, 9:21 AM

        Thanks Merrie. This discussion has me thinking about particulars, like how to keep the forward momentum going in the voluntary atmosphere that a co-op would be. Yearly goals statements, regular conference calls at whatever intervals seem appropriate, and pooling together a database of reviewers, are simple things that could create order. The fun part of a co-op is that you could make up your own rules, but that’s a drawback too. Since there is no pre-defined map to follow, the process could easily stagnate and/or become chaotic and unfruitful.

        • Thea van Diepen February 19, 2014, 12:14 PM

          “The fun part of a co-op is that you could make up your own rules, but that’s a drawback too. Since there is no pre-defined map to follow, the process could easily stagnate and/or become chaotic and unfruitful.”

          That’s where learning about the principles of business, working well as a team, and leadership, would really help things run more smoothly. Also, taking the time to figure out the central values by which the co-op will function, the strengths and weaknesses of each person and how they can be utilized so that everyone benefits, as well as how often to review and refine how things are working will all go far towards making the co-op successful.

          One book I’d recommend on the topic is The Lost Art of Leadership by Dr. James B. Richards. I read it a while back and I remember it being highly practical and containing advice that can apply to any kind of endeavour.

    • Merrie Destefano February 18, 2014, 8:49 PM

      Excellent post, as always! I’m excited to see what’s ahead, for all of us. Publishing is changing and I believe authors who are willing to look at things from a different perspective might have an edge. I, for one, know I don’t want to stop writing books, even though I have several complete manuscripts that haven’t sold to traditional publishers yet. I’m not ready to give up traditional publishing, but I am more than ready to explore new avenues for promoting and producing the kind of books we love to write—despite the fact that the genres we enjoy often dry up before our books are completed. I also (no offense to anyone!) do not want to write erotica or romance in order to pay the bills. Every time I turn around, Amazon is sending me another newsletter about someone who “just decided to write a book to pay the bills.” Lo and behold, their books are selling like wildfire. And also, lo and behold, their books are erotica. There has to be a place in the market for good books and for writers who don’t want to write romance. I am hoping that we can discover a new publishing paradigm by banding together. How big should our band be? I leave that up to the Lord. He knows how many people it will take. I only know I have work to do. (Currently working on our joint website and on building a presence on Twitter. Facebook will follow.) I wish all of your blog readers the best as they seek to find their publishing niche!

      • Mir February 19, 2014, 12:58 PM

        Yep. Sex still sells, even poorly written sex. I find it sad that this is what is so hot, but I do understand that porn, in its various forms, is sellable. I routinely check some of the bestsellers in paranormal romance/urban fantasy and badly written teen-angst yearnings and crappily written erotica/romantica does quite well. One of the more poorly written series (I sampled quite a bit) has made the writer hundreds of thousands….they don’t need a day job.

        So, the encouraging news out of that is that you can write very poorly, as long as you hit the buttons, and you might get rich.

        The sad: if you aren’t writing the hot niche stuff, good luck.

        I love the coop idea–share skills, cross-promote, pray for each other, encourage and support in all ways. That’s nice. 🙂

  • Jessica E. Thomas February 17, 2014, 8:32 PM

    And here’s my imprint for those who may not already know: http://www.provisionbooks.com (Grrr… Still working on streamlining my blogs.)

    • Thea van Diepen February 18, 2014, 4:32 PM

      Jessica, that is a *beautiful* site. Holy crap. I have signed up for your mailing list because I was so impressed. I’m also now following your blog. Obviously, I am a total sucker for good website design. 😛 🙂

  • Jim Hamlett February 18, 2014, 10:12 AM

    Well said, Mike. Couldn’t agree more on the writer co-op approach. It’s a trend that I believe will grow, especially among indie writers.

    Now–if Merrie, Becky, and Rachel have stuff that’s worth reading, then where are the links to that stuff? That would help your point.

  • Heather Day Gilbert February 18, 2014, 11:19 AM

    I’ve seen so many EXCELLENT writers get passed over in traditional circles, I no longer buy it when I’m told “good writing will sell itself.” What sells is what pubs think is trending (or will trend). And that changes like the wind.

    I think when you’re committed to your genre, as you are, Mike, self-pub makes a lot of sense. But to make money at it, it will take up a LOT of your time (like a job). Marketing, targeting your audience, brainstorming cover art, working on blurbs, endorsements/reviews, etc.

    Co-ops make a lot of sense, as long as the people handling tasks you outsource are better at it than you are yourself. For instance, if you stink at formatting, it makes sense to have someone do that for you. But if you have a higher standard on, say, book covers and can do them, do it yourself (and help others with theirs).

    The key thing that stops me with this idea (for now) is TIME. I have precious little time as an indie to write my books, let alone format/do cover art/edit/market, etc. I can’t imagine adding the angst of handling others’ books to the mix. Not to say it’s not something that would be appealing at some point in the future…just not right now as I’m trying to keep the indie career rolling. I’d rather outsource formatting or whatever and save some time for more writing.

    Still, when I hear what some trad. pub authors are making, it really makes me sad. I’m keeping most of my e-book profits, but from what I can tell, publishers are keeping a large chunk of their author’s profits. Yes, they may be able to get more books into stores/magazines/review sites. But if you work hard, you can get your indie books into many places as well.

  • Jill February 18, 2014, 3:53 PM

    I won’t list my creds because I really don’t have any (one self-pubbed book). Okay, that was it. That was my list. 🙂 I like the idea of a co-op. I need the support, at least mentally. And I don’t mind supporting others, either.

  • Thea van Diepen February 18, 2014, 4:25 PM

    I’d like to be a part of a co-op of some kind, but I also want to be able to do joint writing projects with authors who aren’t necessarily in that co-op (seeing as I’m already working with two other authors on writing a collection of books).

    As to how the co-op would work, I’ve given some thought to that, and I really like the idea of everyone being associated with each other, and helping marketing each other’s books. We’d also be able to help each other find cover artists, formatters, and editors. Ultimately, each person is responsible for their own work (otherwise, I’m pretty sure everyone would all go insane), but they have a group to help them with the areas they’re weak in, which is where things like critting each other’s books can also come in. Or doing some odd bit of research for another author that they can’t, for whatever, do for themselves (I work at a university library, so I have access to a *ton* of info that’s not necessarily all available online).

    There would definitely have to be something that they all have in common, that ties them together in some way (however loosely, but in a way that boots marketing), and they’d all have to like each other’s work. Not only that, but they’d all have to be respectful in their dealings with each other, honouring each others’ schedules and treating each other with value and dignity. Also, they’d have to have fun working with each other. There’s no point deciding on doing stuff like this with people if there’s no fun if there’s no fun involved. 🙂

    Ideally, the co-op would result in synergy -where what the group produces is greater than the sum of what the individual members would produce if working alone. Actually, not ideally. For it to be sustainable and beneficial to everyone, synergy would have to be everyone’s priority. Otherwise, there’s no compelling reason to choose doing things as a co-op rather than working by ourselves.

    But, yes. Those are a few of my thoughts. The more I think about it, the more thoughts I have, enough so that I could turn them into an actual, running co-op if there were enough authors who wanted to work with me in that way, and who I’d also want to work with.

    So, for my writing cred: Unagented, with two self-published books and two stories appearing in an anthology (and those stories had some tough competition, let me tell you!). My first paperback comes out next month, my next book this summer, and a video game after that. So, there’s not much so far as I’m only just getting started, but I have lots of plans and plenty of youthful energy to make them happen. 😀

  • Rachel February 20, 2014, 12:43 AM

    This is a great post, Mike. I’m very curious to see where this all takes us! Lots of interesting comments here as well! Loads of links to cool sites I can look up. 🙂

  • Robin Houghton February 20, 2014, 9:49 AM

    Very timely that I came across this post … I’m a poet who’s been published in many good magazines but can’t get that first chapbook deal. Like you, I know many good poets in my position. So I thought about getting together with maybe just 2 or 3 others to start our own small press, just for poetry chapbooks. Although plenty of people have expressed interest, unfortunately even if we pool our skills (design, proofreading, marketing etc) there is still the print cost. Which has put people off a little, perhaps because it seems like ‘self publishing’ which in the poetry field is still looked down on. But also because it’s so far unproven. So, I’ve taken the step of starting the press and am going ahead with publishing my chapbook first, in the hope that others will join me once they see the quality of the finished chapbook and how I’m going about marketing it. I’m working out the costs and hope to offer a publishing deal to poets as a fixed cost package. We then all share the income from sales as well as the responsibility to market /promote not just our individual chapbooks but the press as a whole. Although it’s not strictly speaking a co-op, it is a more collaborative model than the dictator-editor set-up where the poet has little say in anything. I think it’s important, for example, that new poets are all approved by existing poets, and that everyone feels we are all writing at a certain standard. I’d like to keep in touch to hear how your idea progresses and maybe compare notes. Thanks and all the best.

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