Author Collectives and Co-ops: What They Are and How to Start One

writers cooperatives

Note from Jane: Today’s guest post is by author Ursula Wong.

The combination of independent publishing and the broad use of social media has provided many ways for writers to produce books and engage with readers, but it has also forced writers to do more than just write.

Editing, formatting manuscripts, organizing book launches, maintaining a social media presence, and more, have become the writer’s responsibility. Publishing services can reduce the amount of work an author must do to produce a book, but they can be pricey. Critique groups or workshops can reduce editing cost, but may not find systemic issues in novels.

Author collectives (or co-ops) offer another path. While collectives require an author’s time and energy as well, and have their own limitations, writers’ collectives that apply business principles may offer authors an advantage in quality, cost control, and marketing.

Typically, author collectives are groups of writers who meet for the purposes of workshops, education, and networking. Some require members to pay yearly fees, and some, like the New Hampshire Writers’ Project, have a board that arranges events and provides services to the community.

In a business-based author collectives, members share the work needed to edit, produce, and market their books. Members focus on mutual success. They pool their resources and time to undertake the editing, formatting, and promotion of books created by individual writers or by several authors who are writing a book together. They may have an associated publishing company, or members may publish independently.

A business-based author collective achieve synergy from many people working on each book and each bringing his or her unique skill set to the production process. Sharing the editing work saves money, and marketing reach is broader than any one person could easily achieve, resulting in more sales potential.

For example, one member of The Storyside, a business-based authors’ collective, used Facebook advertising to promote a new book, and achieved about 250 Facebook “likes” in two days. That number doubled when members also promoted the book through personal channels, ultimately reaching about 14,000 users, far more than any one person could have reached on their own.

Some groups that employ the principles of the business-based authors’ collective are the Book View Café (BVC), the Writers Co-op of the Pacific Northwest, and The Storyside.

BVC, a cooperative publisher, started in 2008 and has fifty members. Writers manage the production and marketing of their own books while leveraging resources of the organization to create ebook formats, boost social media announcements, and so on. BVC offers an impressive catalogue of competitively priced titles and most of the retail price goes to the author. New members have typically published traditionally, and offer specific skills to the organization. BVC has grown into a mainstream publisher for member authors, offering over 100 books a year.

The Writers Co-op of the Pacific Northwest started in 2015, and has over 30 authors who share resources within the group for editing, assistance with query letters, layout, marketing, and more. Their focus includes building communities on social media, cover design, and improving Amazon ratings. Individual writers must choose their own publishers, but the co-op assists by working with local bookstores to promote member offerings.

The Storyside consists of 5 writers who have published both traditionally and independently. Members focus on controlling costs, providing quality books, and experimenting with marketing techniques such as seasonal book sales, online advertising, and book events. The Storyside has an associated publishing company for its members.

Even with its advantages, business-based authors’ collective may not be the right solution for everyone, since they take time away from writing. Others may be skeptical about the success of collaborative efforts, and avoid them fearing that the work expended outweighs the benefit. Members must manage this problem.

Suggestions for Joining or Starting Your Own Author Collective

Organize. Determine yearly objectives and deliverables. Decide short-term and long-term goals. Create plans, schedules, and a budget.

Plan. Create a production plan and a contingency plan for each book, and track progress. How will you overcome delays if a member cannot do their work for some unforeseen reason? Will you divide the work or delay the schedule? What happens to the rest of the manuscripts in the pipeline?

Choose a leader. One person needs the authority to finalize schedules, keep the group focused, and mediate decisions, such as a shift in goals.

Discuss roles and responsibilities. Members will have different skills, although minimally, each should have editing experience. Be aware of inequities. A good copyeditor may spend an inordinate amount of time preparing a manuscript for publication, especially when that person is responsible for copyediting every book in the pipeline. If this happens, discuss solutions such as adding another member with the required skill, hiring temporary help, sharing the work, and so on.

Discuss problem escalation. Expect disputes between members, for commitment may wane because of outside obligations, and creative people may disagree about a change in direction. Discuss how to mediate differences.

Determine how to grow. Decide how to find and vet new members. Is there a probationary period? Does the collective need a person with a particular skill? Discuss soft traits such as enthusiasm, ability to “fit in,” and shared goals.

Discuss the possibility of downsizing. Members may choose to leave for various reasons, or a problem could arise, prompting the group to ask a member to resign. Minimally, set the expectation that new people may join and others may leave.

Try new things. Experiment with anything that sparks the creative interest of members. Track web traffic, social media access, and sales to judge reader interest.

Note the synergies. The benefits of collaboration can be significant. The social media reach extends significantly when every member participates in promoting a book. Writers who edit others’ work become better writers. Writers committed to the success of each book create better books. Expertise can shift over time, ultimately leveling the work and creating a stronger base of experience.

Celebrate success. Finding people willing to put time and effort into helping each other succeed is a gift. Cherish it and repay the kindness.

Fundamentally, an author collective rooted in business principles are still creative people working together on shared projects. Expect problems. Solve them together. Talk. Try to stay close. Review goals and refresh commitment regularly in order to keep the team focused and excited, and to help ensure success.

Note from Jane: This post is written by a member of The Storyside, a business-based author collective centered in New England. Learn more about its members at its website.

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