Praise for Declan Burke: “Burke shows again that he’s not just a comic genius, but also a fine dramatic writer and storyteller.” – Booklist. “Proust meets Chandler over a pint of Guinness.” – Spectator. “Among the most memorable books of the year, of any genre.” – Sunday Times. “A hardboiled delight.” – Guardian. “Imagine Donald Westlake and Richard Stark collaborating on a screwball noir.” – Kirkus Reviews. “A cross between Raymond Chandler and Flann O’Brien.” – John Banville.

Monday, February 15, 2010

“No, I’m Spartacus.”

Many thanks to all who responded, publicly or privately, to last week’s post on the idea of a writers’ co-op. Most if not all writers who contributed gave it a thumbs-up, whereas those in the publishing industry were far more negative, and more likely to declare the concept simply another publishing company. Which may well be the case, given that I was only spitballing, and that my research on the subject hovers perilously close to nil. Still, if the very idea of writers banding together to put books on shelves (electronic or otherwise) without recourse to the traditional publishing model evokes a near uniform disapproval from the establishment, you’d have to believe you’re on to something they consider to be at least potentially dangerous.
  The big issues appear to be marketing and distribution, the presumption here being that the writers involved are good enough to be published traditionally, but can’t or won’t go the traditional route for a variety of reasons, the commercial potential (or lack of same) of their books being the main stumbling block. Editorial input (or lack of same) is also mooted as a potential problem, although for my own part, I can only say that the two novels I’ve had published traditionally, or semi-traditionally, EIGHTBALL BOOGIE and THE BIG O, had minimal editorial input. Aha, says you, but we’ve never heard of your books, so maybe you should have insisted on more editorial input. Perhaps that’s true, although I’d argue that both books got pretty decent reviews (see below, left-hand side), and that the stumbling block was a lack of joined-up thinking in terms of marketing and distribution.
  Rigorous proofreading and / or copy editing is also required, of course, but such can be achieved by sending the m/s out to a number of the co-op writers, a process that would also embrace editorial input. If three or four writers proof and edit my m/s this time out, say, then I’ll be one of three or four writers who proof and edit another writer’s m/s next month, etc.
  Who is financing the actual publication costs? That’ll be the writer whose book it is, and who decides the extent of the print-run, etc. Minimal research notwithstanding, it seems that €1,500 would be sufficient to go the POD route, while e-publishing alone is a fraction of that cost. Distribution is taken care of by the POD company, or by Amazon. Marketing is done by the co-op writers’ maximising their own on-line resources, and cross-pollinating said resources to create a word-of-mouth buzz.
  Certainly, there’ll be few books, if any, published in this fashion that will achieve NYT bestseller status; but that’s hardly the point. What is the point? That there are good writers out there ill-served by the current model of publishing, and good readers too, for that matter; and that there are books being written that may not have the commercial appeal to justify a large publisher taking a risk on them, given their economies of scale, but which may very well appeal to 50 or a 100 or even a thousand readers.
  The question for writers, in the theoretical co-op model, is whether they have the courage of their convictions, and are prepared to put their money where their mouth is, and take a financial hit to see their books reach readers. That remains to be seen, especially as €1,500 or its equivalent is no small pile of cash to most writers scrabbling around the base of the pyramid.
  Personally, I have no great desire to take on the publishing industry; I’d be happy as a pig in the proverbial if someone was to pay me a decent wage for writing good books, and I’d imagine most writers, even those fired up to evangelical heights by the potential of the new technologies, would be the same. But even if that were to happen, that still leaves us with an elephant in the room: that the current model of publishing is being outpaced by technological developments, much in the same way as the monks who wrote with quill on vellum were outstripped by the printing press, as Dan Agin points out over at the Huffington Post. The gist of his piece runs thusly:
“The subtext of the story is the impact of technology on culture and commerce, and the unfailing collapse of any industry that allows itself to be blinded by sloth, short term greed, and general mediocrity of attitudes.
  “Anyone with an imagination about the future of technology and commerce knows that the printed book on paper is already on its way to obsolescence. The wrangling and beefing and whining about prices and protecting demand for printed books by publishing executives is both amusing and tragic.”
  For the full piece, clickety-click here


AnswerGirl said...

A couple of thoughts:

1. The announcement of the death of paper is still wishful thinking. We were supposed to be moving to paperless offices 20 years ago, and I've just thrown away three giant boxes of paper files accumulated in the past five years.

Applying Gresham's Law (bad money drives out good) to publishing, the ease of electronic publishing just means that a lot more crap will be easily available in electronic formats, while less and less quality will be available in higher-quality formats — but that does not mean that printed books will go away. Until children in Subsaharan Africa are issued e-readers at birth, we'll have books and need books.

2. The co-op publishing idea is a beautiful, romantic ideal, but like all Utopian concepts, it falls down when you add live human beings.

A publishing co-op would need a group of authors who are true peers, with equivalent levels of talent and skill, and equal levels of commitment to each other's success. Authors aren't always good editors, are quite often lousy proofreaders, and are as prone to envy and begrudging as any other group of people.

I'm not saying it can't be done; I'm saying it would be as wonderful and extraordinary a thing as the Steppenwolf Theater Company, or Rough Magic, or the original United Artists. A marvel, but not a model.

Kevin Wignall said...

I think the obvious model to look at is Piratförlaget which was set up by Liza Marklund and several fellow writers in Sweden and is now the third biggest publishing house in that country.

I do think they were all pretty successful to begin with. I also think they had the right idea in accepting that they were setting up a publishing house, but trying to do it better than the exisitng houses (and there's a lot of scope for that at the moment, naturally).

I think the real danger with any operation like this is that people will assume the members are simply authors who couldn't get a deal (true enough) and that the quality must therefore be questionable (not true, but reinforced by the number of poor self-published books out there - a number which is increasing dramatically with e-books).

Dana King said...

I mean no disrespect to editors, as there are many who do yeoman work. Still, I read many books where the question "where the hell was the editor" comes to mind. Plot digressions, flabby writing, weak dialog, all the things an editor is supposed to catch to make the prose sing.

I suspect you can't pay a good editor enough, but the others can largely be dispensed with. They don't do anything a competent writer couldn't do for you, if that much.

Sandra Ruttan said...

I'm not sure what I think, to be honest.

I think the issues facing writers today are so far-reaching, it's hard to know the best course of action moving forward. Look at the Amazon-Macmillan debacle, and what you see is silence from all the writer organizations. They don't want to upset anyone, so they don't stand up for anyone either. Publishers are more likely to drop an author after one or two books now than ever, without any marketing push. The authors are expected to use shrinking advances to do their own publicity.

That's why I can't completely take the regulations some of the organizations have, over what's required to be a "legitimate" publisher, seriously. What good is a $1000 advance if your publisher is pressuring you to spend a few grand touring bookstores and hitting a few conventions? I recently got an email about an opportunity to have things put in the goody bags at an upcoming convention. Of course I can promote my books if I want to pay for it... Not something the publisher is going to do, despite the fact you'd think they'd be happy to sell books too.

End of the day, though, how would such a collective counter the exclusions, not being eligible for industry awards? No matter how we slice it amongst ourselves, most people follow the mainstream to some extent, and only a fool or liar says they don't want to be nominated for a Dagger or an Edgar. It's much, much easier to be on the inside.

That's where I see the problem. New technologies are giving rise to independents who can compete on a different playing field, but how would such a company decide what is quality, or can anyone buy in? Do you ruin the brand if someone publishes who is a total shit writer?

And I don't want to see the end of printed books. Being stuck in a house for a week with two blizzards back to back, flickering power, and 24 hours without internet reinforced that to me. I'm glad I could pick up hard copies of books to read - if I'd been relying on technology I could have been SOL. And after a week stuck in a house I doubt that would have been a pretty sight. :)

Keith Rawson said...

A couple of years ago I asked a prominent crime novelist if his Edgar win for best paperback original helped sales on the book or any of his back titles, and his response was: "No, no one really knows what the Edgar is outside of the crime community."
And that statement pretty much sums up how I feel about awards and the treatment of its writers who participate in these organizations. These organizations do not stand up for their authors or provide any real benefit to belonging to them. I'm sure it's a huge thrill to be nominated and be acknowledged by ones peers, but is that award helping the author sell more books? My feeling is no, so why should it matter if these organizations recognize what is being put out by a co-op/collective publisher if the organization isn't even helping promote or sell a novel or acknowledging the issues being faced by the authors who support its existence? (i.e., amazon v. Macmillan.) Once again, I don't think this kind of collective publishing venture is going to bring down the big houses, or completely change the way books are published, but obviously the current model is broken and I think it's time for writers to start thinking differently.

John McFetridge said...

I'd never heard of Piratförlaget, but I'l check it out now.

The model I was thinking of was United Artists. Changes to the structure of the movie business divided the producers, distributors and theatre owners andallowed the opportunity for writers, directors and actors to make their own movies and have them widely distributed.

So, now there are changes to the publishing industry which are throwing things wide open. In some ways, my feelings about a writer-editor run co-op is more of a reaction against multi-national companies owning publishing companies and looking to squeeze more and more profits from fewer and fewer books.

We sometimes treat publishing as though Alfred A. Knopf is stil un by a guy named Al Knopf who loves books instead of by a board of directors in some far-off city who love money and treat publishing as one arm of a much larger enterprise.

I'm not concerned about award-winning blockbusters, I'm much more interested in quirier, niche, envelope-pushing (for lack of a better term) books.

Declan's A Gonzo Noir is what I'm talking about. I'm lucky enough to have read it, and the blurbs he's posted are true. It is The French Lieutenant's Woman of its era.

But with publishing companies putting everything into narrow marketing department categories, it slips between the cracks.

And yet there are some people who will love the book.

The publishing industry sometimes seems like it treats books the way McDonalds treats food and I'm walking around looking for that really cool little restaurant that's owned by that great chef.

Dana King said...

"We sometimes treat publishing as though Alfred A. Knopf is stil un by a guy named Al Knopf who loves books instead of by a board of directors in some far-off city who love money and treat publishing as one arm of a much larger enterprise."

Yep. I get good and tired of hearing people in publishing sound as though writers should be genuflecting toward them. The large NY houses are no longer run in a manner that even remotely resembles how they gained their reputations, yet they ask to be treated as though Charlie Scribner still came to work every day, ignoring the fact that Scribner is now put an imprint of Simon and Schuster, which is owned by media conglomerate CBS, which cares about much about writers as ConAgra cares about whoever's picking their cocoa beans.

Michael Malone said...

Who knows what the future, but the model as you sketch it out certinly sounds workable. But as someone already pointed out, then you introduce people into it. How do you elect the members of the co-op? Who becomes the gate-keeper/quality control person?

As someone whose work has been held on to by a major for 20 months with a "too good to let go" comment, but no firm commitment I am certainly one of the frustrated masses looking for a way in.

I read your ongoing debate with interest, Declan

Declan Burke said...

Ms AnswerGirl - Couldn't agree more; I love books-as-books, and have yet to read an e-book; even if publishers stop publishing books, I'll get my fix in secondhand stores.

Not all Utopian ideals falter when people are introduced; or rather, they might falter, but they go on. Imagine if you'd mooted democracy at the court of Louis XIV; and not only allowing the plebs a vote, but women too ... You'd have been laughed out of town, at best.

"A publishing co-op would need a group of authors who are true peers, with equivalent levels of talent and skill, and equal levels of commitment to each other's success."


"Authors aren't always good editors, are quite often lousy proofreaders, and are as prone to envy and begrudging as any other group of people."

Yes. But the two statements don't necessarily follow on.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Kevin - Piratförlaget sounds interesting, I'll check it out.

The issue with quality control: I get a lot of books through my letterbox every week, for review and otherwise, and believe you me, being published under a respectable name is no guarantee of quality.

The joy of e-publishing for a reader is that he or she can take a punt on an unknown at $1 or £2, and dump the book after ten pages if it's rubbish. If you've forked out $20 for a conventional book, you're going to feel a bit stung, and maybe less likely to take a punt on an unknown writer again.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Sandra - Some nice points, ma'am. However, as far as I can make out, the various writers' organisations and the awards that go with them are all part of the current model. As for boosting sales - whenever I tell anyone (or most people) in Ireland about the Edgar, say, I have to explain what it is; and the same goes for the Daggers in the UK. Booker Prize, Impac, Pulitzer, Nobel ... they matter, they penetrate. But even when Colum McCann won the National Book Award, I had to explain on Irish radio that it was a big deal, and why.

I'm not so sure genre-specific awards are as useful at reaching a wider audience.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Keith -

"I don't think this kind of collective publishing venture is going to bring down the big houses, or completely change the way books are published, but obviously the current model is broken and I think it's time for writers to start thinking differently."

As you say, squire, a few post-hippy collective-types aren't going to make a dent in the big houses, let alone bring them down; but that's not the point of the exercise. The point is to hook up good books that aren't being published with readers dissatisfied by what's on offer from the big houses.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

John - Kind words on A Gonzo Noir, squire; and too kind. The French Subaltern's Woman, maybe ...

But yeah, that little restaurant on the corner as an alternative to McDonald's ... That's the general gist of the notion.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Dana - I don't know when it happened, but the day editors started telling writers what to write - not directing, or shaping, but telling them what they should write in order to get published - that was the day it all went pear-shaped.

Of course, the writers had to acquiesce in this process, so it's a two-way street.

Cheers, Dec

Declan Burke said...

Michael -

"How do you elect the members of the co-op? Who becomes the gate-keeper/quality control person?"

Spitballing here, I'd imagine it'd be a group function, that (say) three of the five writers already on board would need to give a book a green light before taking it on. I'd imagine the same process holds good in most publishing houses.

Spitballing again, I'd imagine it wouldn't be a huge issue, given that the co-op would very probably be composed of a small number of writers who would, as Sandra points out, be all of a certain quality or standard, but would also be like-minded in writing a certain kind of book - I think that that's probably inevitable.

It'd be nice to think that there'd be more than a few such co-ops, all in touch and helping one another out, much in the same way as the crime fic community works on-line. By which I mean, none of the blogs and websites are in direct competition; overall, it's a body of work that's mutually beneficial to writers and readers.

Cheers, Dec

Cheers, Dec

adrian mckinty said...


My feelings are probably closer to AnswerGirl's than yours. And I say this from a position of profound weakness. Some self published and POD books do make it of course. There are well known examples. But I feel that it would come down to me promoting myself constantly and asking my friends to buy my book. At least with a publishing house I feel no obligation to promote the book or call in favours or whatever. Its the publishing house's job to make the money not mine and if fails, well then they didnt do their job, mine was to write the book. I like the writing of the book (well not really) but I hate the idea of selling it and myself. I'd realy rather not publish anything.

Mike Cane said...

>>>Rigorous proofreading and / or copy editing is also required, of course, but such can be achieved by sending the m/s out to a number of the co-op writers

No, no, no. To quote Abraham Lincoln, "Any man who is his own lawyer is a fool."

This is akin to that.

Never, ever skimp on the copyeditor part of things, not ever. Those people are professionals and are necessary. I've done post after post advocating what you're now doing but my rule one remains: professional editors, professional copyeditors, professional proofreaders, professional designers.

Anything else is just asking for trouble.

And let's not forget the business side of things, like E&O insurance, etc.

Yes, the price of freedom is high. It has always been so.