The Cooperative Option

Publishing has experienced extraordinary change over the last 35 years. I began writing as a journalist, first for newspapers, then for magazines, both on-staff and freelance. I wrote about sports, about politics and politicians, about laws made and broken, about things that affected people’s lives, but the writing was journalistic and strictly a vehicle for information, information that was readily available via other vehicles. So I turned to writing fiction and poetry, writing that enabled me to communicate more than bare facts, writing that allowed me to explore reality through fantasy, truth through lies. The most difficult obstacle, however, wasn’t developing a style or voice. It was finding a publisher.

Back then, self-publication wasn’t an option, at least for me. It suggested the writer’s work wasn’t good enough to be published by a legitimate publisher, which meant it wasn’t good enough to be published at all. Self-publishing required an extra helping of self-confidence and a solid bank account because publishing wasn’t cheap. Self-published writers were suspected of being well-off egotists, satisfying their vanity by buying a byline. It’s not quite the same now. Thanks to a conservative traditional publishing industry and significant advances in publishing technology, the stigma once associated with independent publishing has vanished

Traditional publishers always have been somewhat conservative in the projects they take on, limiting risks because getting a book to market requires substantial investment. As large publishers gobbled up smaller publishers, decreasing diversity and competition, they became even more hesitant to take on new authors and new ideas, resulting in today’s homogenized market of copycat copycatting. Occasionally, however, something new breaks through. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter series and James Loewen’s Lies My Teacher Told Me come to mind, both starting out at small publishers where their works proved successful enough to entice major publisher backing, backing that set about exploiting every possibility that could be connected to the works. Success stories like theirs, however, are the exception rather than the norm.

Despite random breakthroughs, traditional publishers have systematically narrowed offerings into predefined marketing niches, limiting diversity and denying opportunity to authors whose work penetrates the boundaries. And the writers who do sign with conventional publishers find themselves saddled with increasing responsibilities once the publishers’ sole domain—promotion, design, production aspects, and more. In short, publishers once took care of business, and writers took care of writing. No longer. Writers today progressively are burdened with the bulk of pre- and post-publication tasks while receiving a shrinking percentage of their book’s net earnings.

Enter technology and the path to accessible independent publishing, enabling writers and artists to get their work to audiences affordably and without the assistance of conventional publishers. Technology upended the music industry in the 1990s, and now it’s doing the same to the publishing industry. Unbridled access, however, enables both the talented and talentless to publish easily. For conscientious writers, for professionals, some basics of traditional publishing must be retained and maintained. That’s where writers’ cooperatives come in.

Frustrated after thirty-one years of writing professionally for traditional publishers, I’ve joined with other writers, musicians, and artists around the world to form Cooperative Ink, a collective of creative individuals with decades of experience in traditional publishing who have decided to seek broader audiences for their work through independent publishing. Professional artistic cooperatives offer no haven for the vanity author. Instead, a cooperative’s strength is built upon creative people assisting creative people, from basic editing to book layout and publishing, from drafting news releases and development of conventional promotional avenues to managing social networking and personal appearances—all with the goal of providing a diverse variety of high-quality, professional literature, music, and other entertainment to audiences bored with the umpteenth version of the latest copycat darling.

A place will always exist for traditional publishing and those within who make their living off the work of writers—editors, marketing personnel, agents, etc. But technology now affords worthy writers once shunned by an industry insisting on conformity the chance to take their work economically and professionally to the public. Both writers and readers are far better off for it.

Please visit the Cooperative Ink website at http://www.cooperativeink.com as members release new work they’ve enjoyed creating, work they hope you will enjoy experiencing.

The Business

Samuel Montgomery-Blinn is the publisher/editor of the extraordinary magazine Bull Spec. Recently, I contributed to the magazine’s web-column, The Hardest Part, where authors contribute articles on the “hardest part” in bringing their latest books to publication. Contributing to the column was a pleasure and honor in several ways because the book, Rise Up, on which the column centers, takes its name from the story “Rise Up,” the cover feature of Bull Spec’s debut issue. It is always a delight to work with Sam and Bull Spec. Please visit Bull Spec’s column site for this article and more by other authors on “the hardest part.”

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I am not a businessman. Nor am I a public relations expert. And I do not want to be.

So it’s no surprise after nearly three decades as a professional writer–newspaper staffer, magazine editor, and freelancer—the business of writing—manuscript marketing and book promotion—remains for me the hardest part of the process. That doesn’t mean everything else comes easily. Creative writing is work, no matter how many Joe Blows brag “I’ve got a really great idea for a novel I’m going to write as soon as I get a little extra time.” The talent for writing creatively, contrary to hot air declarations, is not developed overnight. In fact, most career writers rarely feel they’ve developed the craft fully, no matter how long they’ve been at it. But they understand and accept the devotion, self-motivation, and sacrifice of time with loved ones required in choosing writing as a career, forsaking pursuits that may offer more immediate rewards.

The ability to hook publisher or agent interest in a manuscript is a mystery to me, a tall hurdle to clear, and I’m astonished with each success. After all, an author must compete with an ever-increasing number of seasoned and novice writers by summarizing a complicated plot and months, perhaps years, of work into a single paragraph that delivers everything a publisher or agent requires to say yes, even though the book/story/article is probably no better or worse than the majority of its competitors, only different. Talk about odds… Once that first sale is made, subsequent sales may become easier—Rise Up, my latest book from Mundania Press (I’m quite proud the title story appears in the debut issue of Bull Spec) may have had an easier time due to an established relationship with the publisher and the fact that most of the collection’s stories have been previously published in magazines—but the business is rarely, if ever, a cakewalk.

The second hurdle comes after publication when promotional responsibilities–including those traditionally assumed by publishers—fall increasingly upon writers. Writers are now charged with securing most reviews, promoting through blog events, arranging signings and promotional events for which the writer supplies the books to sell (all once upon a time the publisher’s responsibility), purchasing and placing advertising, and more. For those who haven’t had the good fortune of hitting the bestseller lists—meaning most writers—promotional funds are usually a tad limited, crippling the ability to promote effectively. So writers must go after less costly opportunities, from the obvious free copies to reviewers in the hope of scoring a published review, to contributing to various blog events, to exposing the book to potential readers through channels such as my bimonthly newsletter, developed to promote my work and the work of other musicians and writers, regularly offering special perks such as free eBooks and music. Further, a writer must maintain a presence on social networks such as Facebook.com (crap) and Goodreads.com (excellent), operate an active, frequently updated website, participate in conferences, conduct workshops, and engage the press at every opportunity. For someone who shuns the personal spotlight, these activities are quite daunting, consuming precious time that could be devoted to producing new work.

Beyond the hurdles of manuscript marketing and book promotion lies the reward of engaging readers by providing what I hope is a story that’s entertaining and thought provocative. To personalize Rise Up, I include a short introduction to each story, detailing story inspiration or specific challenges encountered from the original publisher. Connecting with readers is something I relish, second only to the creative process.

As for the business of writing, I crave its elimination, an impossible eventuality. Of course, I could do an Emily Dickinson, shoving my work into a drawer to languish until I’m dead and gone, but that’s simply not an option. So what’s left? For me, it’s to continue the figurative pounding on publishers’ doors, enticing reviewers, participating in an endless array of promotional activities—in other words, doing whatever it takes to get my work into the hands of readers. And though the business is the hardest part, I refuse to cave in desperation and defeat. I love the act of writing and the engagement of readers too much to give up.