Earlier this year, I noticed a group of literary authors from ALLi (Alliance of Independent Authors) created a limited edition box set of novels. While collaborative efforts like this have been fairly common among genre fiction authors, this is the first box set I know of that represents a marketing collaboration for full-length literary novels. (If I’m wrong, please comment and let me know what I’ve missed.)
The box set is called Women Writing Women, and it’s only available until May of this year. The authors’ hope is to reach new readers, of course, but also to prove that literary writers are self-publishing, too—and producing work of high literary quality. This particular box set isn’t 99 cents, a typical price point for the genre box sets. Instead, it’s $9.99 (still a bargain, I might add, for seven novels).
The seven authors are: Roz Morris, Orna Ross, Joni Rodgers, Jane Davis, Carol Cooper, Kathleen Jones, and Jessica Bell. I asked Roz and Joni if they’d be willing to participate in a Q&A about their effort, and I’m delighted they said yes.
Jane: I’m always interested in how these collaborations work on a logistical level–so many details! Was there one person who acted as the leader or manager? How were responsibilities divided up?
Joni Rodgers: This project was Jessica Bell’s brainchild and she was handling the major design and execution tasks, so she cracked the whip until we’d crossed that initial swamp of details where a lot of good ideas die. Since then, however, we’ve worked pretty seamlessly as a team.
This has been a fabulous experience for me—and I think my boxmates would agree. Each member of the group quickly stepped up with ideas based on her unique area of expertise, and those ideas were received with candid, respectful feedback. It’s always been about what we can do, not what we wish we could afford, so individual tasks fell organically to whomever was best suited.
Roz Morris: To start with, we discussed everything in lengthy emails, which created an utter headache for anyone who was offline for more than a few hours. So we set up a private Facebook group to manage each conversation. Jessica was the first to realize we could argue about some points forever, so she drew up an outline agreement with deadlines and a commitment to publicize as much as was reasonable for our individual platforms and contacts. No one was expected to do anything that would annoy their readership and followers—we’re all wise enough in social media not to compromise our precious relationship with readers and online friends. But we all had genuine ways to promote with integrity.
We created a spreadsheet for marketing efforts, and reported our progress each time we’d approached one of our contacts. That generated momentum in itself as we realized how far we could spread the word.
We made a master to-do list, and seized the roles we were qualified for. Jessica designed a cover for the set. She had four concepts, and we were pretty unanimous on the one we wanted. That decision seemed to give us a real sense of camaraderie; our team colors, if you like.
Joni also has a fantastic eye for design, and knows her way around websites. By chance, she had already bought the URL www.WomenWriteWomen.com—perhaps in a prescient moment. She’s also experienced in audio editing, so she created the book trailer, using one of Jessica’s songs—so we even managed to home-grow our musical signature. (Jessica has a parallel existence as a singer/songwriter.)
Jane was tireless about contacting bloggers and arranging tours. She drafted press releases, which Carol polished for newsworthy angles. Then I waded in with a red pen as I’ve worked in newsrooms and understood what editors look for. I also wrote an email to get the interest of the national press.
Making the book was a laborious undertaking. Jessica is the most adept at formatting, so she put our seven text files into one giant volume and gave us a deadline to check the text and the chapter and scene breaks. Despite us each taking our share, the bulk of the hard labour fell to Jessica as certain tasks have to be controlled by one person.
Joni: Here’s what’s really blown me away about this group: We share such a wealth of both old-school and new-universe publishing experience that, together, we’re every bit as qualified as a senior team at a traditional publisher— and far more qualified than any team that includes junior members and interns. As a ghostwriter, I’ve done a range of projects including high-profile memoirs and fiction, working with wonderful Big 5 publishing teams. I have to say, we hold our own. We’re just as competent as the New Yorkers, but more important, the seven of us share a publishing values system of artistic integrity and craft excellence. Ironically, this makes Team OTB a lot more traditional than most traditional publishers these days.
Did you all sign an agreement that spells out who owns the work and how much you get paid?
Roz: We kept everything simple. We each own equal shares in the box set, but keep all individual rights for our own books. We did not withdraw our books from other platforms, and we agreed that the box set was to be available for a limited time. On May 24 it vanishes.
We discussed everyone paying into an advertising kitty, but that wasn’t possible for some. So we decided that anyone who funded advertising would get paid back first—which is not unlike an advance against royalties.
Joni: Here’s where that indie agility is such an asset for us, individually and as a group. I’m a very greedy reader, so I would love to see Soft Skull, Unbridled Books, Jaded Ibis and some of my other favorite small presses do box sets like this. It’s a great deal for readers and a fantastic opportunity for authors. Unfortunately, I’m not sure even a small press would be able to get around the paperwork as deftly as we did.
Speaking of paperwork: How do you handle dividing the profits, since services such as Amazon KDP only pay out to one author?
Roz: We discussed a range of options, and decided the least complicated solution was to have Jessica handle uploads and payments through the accounts she uses for her journal Vine Leaves Press, with a subset imprint Women Writing Women. She uploaded to Amazon & Kobo directly and to the rest via Draft2Digital.
Joni: It’s like movies, where you would see a title imprint within a production company. We chip in on promotions and receive royalty payments from Jess through PayPal. Here again, I’m giving thanks for our indie agility. I can’t speak for the others, but I would never operate on this level of trust in a mainstream publishing gig.
How did you decide on the pricing? Your pricing is higher than the typical box set.
Roz: It’s much higher. Thus far, most of the box sets have been genre, but one of our agendas was to stress that quality writers are self-publishing. Pricing was probably the single biggest issue we discussed, and the one on which there was the most argument. Some of us were very sensitive to the notion of free and very cheap books and how that affects readers’ perception. (I freely admit I was one of the annoying people who insisted that putting my book in a “cheap” set would make it look cheap.)
We priced at USD $9.99—a little more than the price of the most expensive of one of our books, but great value for a set of 7 novels.
Pricing was one of the decisions that would have taken forever if we’d argued in a forum atmosphere, so once the various positions were clear, Jessica emailed each of us privately to get a final view.
Joni: Again, I’m a very greedy reader, and I definitely felt my American showing on this issue. Here in the US, consumers have been trained to expect moonlight madness and bargain bins, so I worried that, at this price point, we wouldn’t turn over the volume needed to score spots on bestseller lists. But I agree with Roz on the image we’re projecting, and when you do the math, it really is an amazing deal for readers—more than 75% off the combined cost of the ebooks, which is up to 90% off original hardcover and paperback prices. Ultimately, we’ll make more money at the higher price, so it’s hard to argue.
The harsh reality is that a few people on the leading edge of the self-publishing revolution introduced the idea of 99-cent books to the marketplace like Victorian sailors introduced syphilis to the indigenous Hawaiians. They had a great time and went on their way; those who live with their legacy bear the brunt of the damage. I understand that without that wave of crazy cheap books, the transition to e-reading would have been much, much slower, but now we have to shift that paradigm back to the reality that you get what you pay for.
Are there certain marketing efforts that each of you are committed to?
Joni: We all came to the table with different press resources. We all keep one eye on the Facebook discussion, and when someone puts out a call for a blog post or podcast interview, someone else is there to grab the baton and run with it. So far, it’s worked well to keep media responsibilities fluid, because we all have our complicated lives, and shit happens, as they say. I was really moved by the response when, during launch week, one of our sisterhood had a death in the family. All of us were immediately there with loving words and practical offers to pitch in and pick up the slack—not that there was much slack. I’m continually amazed by the plate-spinning act we’re all doing in order to make this thing happen.
What have been the lessons along the way?
Joni: I’ve learned a lot about marketing and production, and that’s something I’ll gratefully take with me when our 90 days is done. On the tech side, we wanted to come up with a fresh idea for giveaways that would cost very little but treat the winning readers to something of genuine value. My daughter (Jerusha Rodgers of Rabid Badger Editing) worked with me to create an awesome digital swag bag that includes a critically acclaimed novel, a free music album download and a host of delightfully fun and artsy surprises. We’re also giving away a couple of Kindle Paperwhites, but I’m all about the digi-swag bag. It’s a super cool way to deliver a memorable prize to readers on any continent.
Giving away upscale prizes in a promotion builds awareness, and brings us email addresses and other takeaway benefits, but we need to do something more interesting than throw money at the situation.
Roz: Certainly I learned that promotion in a group gives you more courage. I find it agonizing to write assertive press releases on my own behalf, but it was dead easy for our ensemble. I’ll channel that when I start bumbling through a release for my next book.
My biggest lesson was what goes into a proper pre-release campaign. Like most authors who are not natural marketers, I’ve always been too mired in the writing and production to consider it. I finish the book, share some high-fives with my usual crowd, look around for publications or blogs that might be interested, then I’m into the next book.
I now see how much dedicated time you have to put into a launch and how early you have to start: at least a few months ahead.
In indies’ case, that presents an interesting problem. We could finish the book and then sit on it while we build a campaign, but it’s hard to be that patient. The alternative is to start marketing while the book still badly unfinished, and hope we hit the release date. (Not unlike traditional publishing, I admit. Some of the lessons we’re learning are perhaps not so new.)
For this project we started introducing ourselves around the market two-and-a-half months before launch. Even so, we were already too late for print magazines, which put their books and features pages to bed three months before publication. Also, some, although enthusiastic, had a policy of reviewing or featuring only books that were new. Newspapers, though, had a faster turnaround, as did radio and TV, and the two months’ notice suited them well. We were seriously considered for a couple of BBC Radio 4 arts programs but didn’t make the final cut. However, we got a few write-ups in the UK national press.
There’s an argument that traditional media doesn’t generate book sales, but it certainly reinforces the idea that we’re worth taking seriously—and it led to review spots and interviews on blogs that don’t generally accept indie work. And that’s definitely progress.
Outside The Box: Women Writing Women is available until just May 24 for $9.99 at all major online retailers.
The full line-up:
- Orna Ross, Blue Mercy
- Joni Rodgers, Crazy For Trying
- Roz Morris, My Memories of a Future Life
- Kathleen Jones, The Centauress
- Jane Davis, An Unchoreographed Life
- Carol Cooper, One Night At The Jacaranda
- Jessica Bell, White Lady