:: In an author co-op, identifying strengths and delegating jobs is mission critical. It is arguably the entire point of an author co-op. It is where the magic happens.

Updated April 2021

There’s a lot of mystery to publishing, and as I’ve written before, traditional publishing thrives on keeping authors in the dark. The less we know, the less we question. I’ve experienced this “in the dark” first hand, and over and over. It’s a terrible feeling.

I give talks about publishing, a lot. As an editor of a traditional small press, I’m happy to do this work—I love to demystify. (Others do too: There are some agents and publishers on Twitter, for example, that give advice using the hashtag #pubtip. Check those out!)

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Let’s start at the beginning. To most authors, there appears to be three paths open to getting a book published these days.

  • Traditional publishing
  • Self-publishing
  • Hybrid publishing

What do words mean? That’s part of the problem—most authors get confused, especially about “hybrid.” Here’s what it’s all about: rights and money.

TRADITIONAL PUBLISHING, either with a large (Penguin) or medium-sized (Graywolf) or really small (Blue Crow) press, means that you do not pay the publisher any money to publisher your book. They do everything, but you give up much of the control (like, you don’t have the final say for your cover design) and the rights to your book. If you have to pay to have your book published, then you are not with a traditional press. You might have to pay for marketing on your own, or hire your PR, because let’s face it, they just don’t pay to market you unless you’re their #1 person. The short version: You do not pay to publish. They keep the rights to your book. They pay you royalties.

SELF-PUBLISHING means that you pay for everything, control everything, and retain your rights entirely. But it is a lot of work: editorial, cover design, interior design, ISBNs, distribution, copyright—lots of things that you need to understand and that are hard to do on your own. If you are self-publishing a book, you should expect to spend two to three thousand dollars (or more) doing so.

Many people who self publish hire author services companies to assist them.

  • Author services companies are work-for-hire companies that help an indie author get their book out the door. They edit, do interior design, do cover design, advise and handle distribution, and more. Sometimes people mix up author services companies with hybrid publishers. They are not the same. They do not take rights. You pay them a fee for service.

With self publishing, here’s the short version: You pay to publish. You keep the rights to your book. You keep all earnings.

HYBRID PUBLISHING purports to help authors who can’t get their book published the traditional route but who don’t want to do the work of self-publishing. (Or something like that.) Full disclosure: I have yet to come across a hybrid publisher that is not predatory.

A hybrid publisher purports to “select” your manuscript for publication—but because they make money off of publishing manuscripts, that claim can seem like double-dealing. Then you pay them a hefty fee to publish your book. They sometimes call this fee you pay a “partnership” fee or something like that. And then, after the publication fee, you have to also pay for marketing and other services. But here’s the problem: they also often/usually keep the copyright to your book as well, and then pay you royalties (instead of you keeping your earnings), and not a good rate compared to small presses or even some large presses. The short version: You pay them to publish your book (often in the thousands). They keep copyright. They pay you royalties. 

When you compare self-publishing using author services to hybrid publishing, you should be asking yourself, why would anyone use a hybrid publisher? 

The answer that most people give is that they’re scared to go it alone. I get that. Fortunately, I have an answer. It’s called an author cooperative.

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A few weeks ago, I was faculty at the Society of Children’s Book Writers and Illustrations (SCBWI) in Charlotte, NC. I had a total blast, by the way—it was one of the best writer conferences I’ve ever attended.

I gave a talk on small press publishing, and one of the things I mentioned was how much I supported indie (self) publishing and author co-ops. Many in the audience asked what I meant by author co-ops, and so I wanted to say more about that here.

Over on Jane Friedman’s site, Ursula Wong has weighed in on the subject, in a post on “Author Collectives and Co-ops: What They Are and How to Start One.”

She points out the challenge of working as an indie author:

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.

And then how co-ops (also called collectives) can provide a solution:

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.

This all sounds really great. Who wouldn’t want to share the burden of publishing their books?

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So where do I fall on this subject?

I think co-ops are an outstanding choice. I think pooling your resources is great. I love teamwork, when you can put together a team of people that you work well with and trust. I think that smaller is better, even if it is just you and one other person. Maybe you have three, maybe four. Here are some points that I believe are essential to an effective author co-op:

(1) Operate like a press. Name your press, and publish your books under the name of that press. (You can still retain copyright of your work.) After all, in the end, you are a press. Create a logo; form an LLC; get a tax ID number; create a business checking account. You won’t have much money in it at first: but you should all contribute a small amount up front (say, $200.)

(2) The press gets a (small) cut. You should pay in five or ten percent of your royalties into the press’s pot. That money can then be used for business expenses such as the website for your press. Every business has expenses.

(3) Everyone has a job. Figure out what you’re good at, and then do your job. Think about what it takes to publish a book, from start to finish. I’m not talking about the writing; I’m talking about what comes after that. Editing, proofing, production, design, covers, writing copy, seeking endorsements, marketing, advertising, and everything else that makes our heads spin. Everyone needs to take on jobs. One person can decide to learn how to run ads and actually make them work. One person can decide they’ll be the final proofreader of all manuscripts. Hopefully you have a graphic designer on your team. (Make sure one person is a graphic designer.) That person designs everyone’s covers. And so on. Identifying strengths and delegating jobs is mission critical. It is arguably the entire point of an author co-op.

(4) Support one another, relentlessly. When one of you has a book launch, all of you have a book launch, period. Everyone of you must rally to support that author’s launch. Across all social media, in person, on your newsletters, everyone must cheer and applaud and shout to the heavens about the author’s book. There is power in numbers when it comes to marketing. Harness that power.

The hardest part of forming a co-op is identifying your team. But once you’ve done that, you are half-way there.

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What do others say about their experiences?

It’s easy enough to use a search engine and find out what other say about their experiences with co-op publishing. The stories are nearly 100% positive. I only say “nearly” because I hedge; I’ve not found a negative story yet. Here’s an example.

Here is author Mindy Klasky, describing features of Book View Cafe, the publishing co-op she’s a member of:

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.)

And:

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 of our parts, and that sum is not negligible.”

“Greater than the sum of our parts” are the most important words to keep in mind. That’s why author co-ops are so powerful. We’re stronger as a team than if we go it alone.

Traditional publishing is changing. Indie publishing is growing faster and faster. Authors all need help to make sure their books are the best they can be, and to help them stand out in the crowd. A co-op is a strong choice. At least you won’t be lonely.

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If you enjoyed this piece, you will enjoy my latest book, the IPPY-gold-medal-winning EVEN IF YOU’RE BROKEN: ESSAYS ON SEXUAL ASSAULT AND #METOO, available on Kindle at bit.ly/evenifyourebroken, and in paperback at Bookshop.org and wherever books are sold. Buying my books is a great way to support the online writing that I do for free.

Thank you.

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