Posted On November 28, 2016 by Print This Post

Maximize the Benefits of Your Multi-author Writing Cooperative by Jan O’Hara

I am so excited to welcome the fabulous JAN O’HARA (of Writer Unboxed fame) with her second* RU post. I read Jan’s debut novel, OPPOSITE OF FROZEN, about a week ago and I loved it. I’d had a glimpse of Jan’s voice a few years ago, and I’ve been eager to read more ever since then. I’ve known Jan for a few years, and I’ll always appreciate her encouragement and friendship. (Also, her talent with titles – she came up with a great title for one of my still-in-work stories.) Without further ado, here’s Jan! 

*I’m correcting an error I made when I posted this. Jan blogged with us once before – how could I forget?

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Unless you were born with an entrepreneurial streak or gifted with a raft of business mentors, the path to self-publishing can seem daunting. This is true whether you are a debut novelist or whether you are looking to inject a little hybrid flavor into an established romance career. After all, there is a certain level of comfort that comes from having an experienced team at your back and in not having to navigate the mechanics of formatting, pricing, and publicity entirely on your own.

For this reason, some authors with a DIY bent seek out concierge services or make a contract with their agent’s publishing arm, essentially paying to have production considerations taken off their hands. The downside to this model, I’m told, is that they tend to be costly and the writer is subjected to constant pressure to upgrade their investment level.

There is another way to get the backing of a team, though, while retaining the benefits of being independently published. It’s an inexpensive option increasingly used in the romance world, and one which I recently elected to use for my debut novel, Opposite of Frozen.

Set up properly, a multi-writer cooperative can be an empowering experience that builds a team based on synchronicity. Set up poorly, it can lead to fractured relationships and saddle you with an unusable manuscript—or worse, the publication of a seriously flawed story that will damage your reputation.

In this article, then, we’ll talk about some of the pros and cons of participating in a multi-author cooperative. We’ll talk about methods to limit potential downsides. Along the way, I’ll share some of the brilliant setup conceived by Brenda Sinclair for The Thurston Hotel Series, in which I participated. Then I’d love to open up the floor for discussion about your experiences or thoughts on the model.

First of All, What is a Writing Cooperative?

For purposes of this article, it’s the means by which authors pool their resources to produce a body of fiction. The implied hope of a cooperative is that the resulting product will achieve more success than the sum of its parts.

Note that the format of the final work can vary from a short story anthology released as one volume, to a multi-book box set released as one sale, to a series of linked novels with a staggered release.

The degree of integration of the stories can vary, too. Some cooperatives are structured with independent stories consolidated around a theme—for example, a collection of stories featuring firefighters. Others are a true series, where each installment relies on its predecessors and successors to imbue meaning and wrap up storylines.

In my case, our cooperative staked out the middle ground. We each wrote a contemporary romance which could be read as a standalone work (30,000-60,000 words). At the same time, the twelve books could be consumed as a series, since they contained common characters and setting, as well as a long-running secondary romance which comes to fruition on December 15th, when the final novel is released.

Why You Might Want to Consider a Cooperative

By virtue of the built-in team structure, a functional cooperative comes with a series of advantages, especially if it includes writers with prior self-publishing experience. (In our case, we had four debut authors being assisted by seven senior writers. Collectively, the latter had dozens of independently-published books under their belt.)

In a cooperative, you can pool wisdom, strengths, finances, and numbers to efficiently:

  • Create and maintain a series website. (Win Day, an engineer and IT specialist took this task on for us at www.thurstonhotelbooks.com.)
  • Provide help with navigating vendors, tax forms, and the back end of Goodreads. (Particularly helpful if your writing group isn’t American, and must therefore navigate an extra level of bureaucracy and legalese.)
  • Gain help with formatting. (My thanks to Sheila Seabrook for her help converting Scrivener files to .mobi format, and Win for her help with Createspace.)
  • Obtain access to a pool of beta readers that understands romance conventions, tropes, and your story’s world.
  • Get feedback on your story from continuity editors as they work to maintain series integrity. (In our group, Brenda Sinclair and Suzanne Stengl assumed this unpaid role. They read each book twice, at minimum, and made certain we didn’t stage contradictory weather events, or kill off a character in book 3 that would be required in book 11, etc.)
  • Build a relationship with a professional cover artist and editor so as to achieve brand consistency and cost-effectiveness. Obviously, these connections can be ongoing if you continue to self-publish. (Gratitude to Su Kopil of www.EarthlyCharms.com and Ted Williams for their hard work.)
  • If writing in a shared world, the work of multiple brains can develop a richer texture to setting and characters.
  • Having deadlines and accountability can boost productivity within the self-publishing aspect of your career.
  • Companionship during victories and setbacks. (For example, you have a safe place to cry in your dealcoholized beer after a caustic review or rating.)
  • You can learn from a variety of publicity models and gain the ability to cross-promote. At the very least, you have a built-in street team to spread word about your publication.
  • Some readers adore the series experience. If you’ve structured the cooperative with enough continuity, so that one author’s readership is likely to overlap another’s, you can obtain an otherwise unreachable pool of readers.
  • Senior writers can have a revitalized publication experience when viewing it through the eyes of their junior colleagues.

Cautionary Tales

That all sounds great, right? But what if your group’s setup is poorly designed?

We’ve all heard horror stories about writers tied into cooperatives which lack professionalism. Or groups where the profits are gathered by one member and never quite dispersed to the team. Or cooperatives consumed by rancor, squandering energy on conflict that would be better spent on creative pursuits.

While there are no guarantees of a happy group experience, it is my belief that many of these issues can be prevented by careful and judicious advance discussion of the issues listed below. Afterward, commit the resulting agreement to paper. Ask every contributor to sign the contract.

That way, if disagreements arise down the road, or you encounter unforeseen circumstances, you’ll have a common understanding from which to begin negotiations.

A Partial List of Advance Considerations

  1. Is your explicit goal to appeal to a common audience? If so

What genre(s) will your cooperative encompass? For instance, I know of a cooperative which included room for both middle-grade fiction and adult fiction. Obviously, it could never achieve the same level of cumulative audience-building as a cooperative with a singular focus.

If sticking to adult romance, what sub-genres will your cooperative embrace? (e.g. Some readers won’t switch between historical romance and paranormal romance. Is this a deal-breaker for your group?)

What type of sexuality will you encourage? For example, what’s the maximum heat level you are willing to permit? Are there euphemisms you’ll forbid? Will you allow on-screen sexuality for couples other than heterosexual ones? Ménages? Are you expected to write a true romance, or will a happy-for-now ending suffice?

If including cussing, what words are off-limits?

  1. How will intellectual property be assigned and defended?

The more interwoven the story content, the more important this discussion becomes for both legal and pragmatic reasons.

For instance, assume you’re writing in a shared world. In the case of a character you’ve created, will you have the right to dictate the limits of your character’s behavior if another author wishes to borrow them? What about an aspect of setting you’ve created?

If an author wants to write a prequel or spin-off to your group project, who decides if that’s permissible? And when it’s written, who decides if it violates the spirit of the cooperative’s collective work?

Who retains copyright of the stories?

How will the money be handled? (Of necessity, an anthology or box set will require a more entangled financial arrangement than a series of standalone novels. But diminish potentially derailing surprises with advance discussion.)

  1. How will the cooperative’s brand be protected?

What process will you use to establish the group’s brand? (e.g. cover art consistency, website graphics, promotional materials) Will the majority’s opinion prevail on design decisions? Will you delegate to someone with an artistic flair?

Will you expect standardized interior formatting across the cooperative’s materials? If so, who establishes the norm? (e.g. Will chapter headings use numerals or words? Will dropped-caps be incorporated?)

What publishing platform(s) will you use as a group? What publishing formats will you pursue as a group? If a multi-book series, will you expect conformity on this or allow author discretion to prevail? (If a true series, consistency will be important to prevent readers from feeling abandoned.)

Who will be responsible for formatting and uploading the work? (Will this be up to the individual, an unpaid volunteer, or a subcontractor?)

How will you decide upon a price point?

What are the production deadlines? (Consider setting dates for a synopsis, completion of the first draft, editorial submission, publication.)

Will you be able to recover if an author is late or unable to produce their contribution?

In the event of disputes, whose word will be final?

How long will you maintain the above agreements?

How the Thurston Hotel Series Functioned

In my case, 97% of the above had been asked and answered by multi-published, historical and contemporary romance writer, Brenda Sinclair, before my involvement.

Brenda had created the fictional mountain town of Harmony, Alberta, Canada complete with the fictional Thurston Hotel and characters that would appear in most every book. (e.g. The matronly long-term hotel resident, Mrs. Arbuckle, and her otherworldly husband, who communicates by manipulating electronics.)

Our task would be to assume ownership of a month in the town’s life and concoct a standalone contemporary romance set during that time. We would also weave in an episode of the long-running series romance.

Brenda invited local RWA members to participate in her vision. She had already committed the principles to writing and concocted a confidentiality agreement. By the end of the first meeting, I left with clear expectations around deadlines, story length, genre, and with my copy of the series bible.

I also had a warm and supportive group that would hold me to a set of high expectations.

When issues arose that hadn’t been discussed, it helped to have prior bonds through the RWA, and geographic proximity; there was added incentive to achieve consensus and preserve relationships.

It also helped that Brenda was our clear leader. After all, in many senses, we were guests in her story world, and behaved with a guest’s sense of decorum.

As for the details of intellectual ownership, we agreed the series characters and town would belong to the group. If a given author created something for their story, it had to be consistent with the broader world and not contradict another’s writing. At the same time, once accepted by the group, that author retained veto power over their material.

For example, I “own” my hero and heroine, and the fifty-one-person-strong band of senior citizens who arrived on a tour bus, and pushed Page and Oliver together. If another author wanted to use them, I’d have ability to set limits on their behavior. (Outside of Harmony, I could also use them for other stories, provided I didn’t impact the cooperative’s work.)

When I needed a computer store in Harmony, I constructed the Tech and Tock—a store belonging to a husband-wife team that sold technology as well as cuckoo clocks.

To ensure series consistency, the entire cooperative read my synopsis, approved avatars for my characters, and put my store on a town map maintained by Suzanne Stengl.

In the end, I’m grateful for the support, grateful for the experience, and proud of my final product.

But that’s me.

 

***

Now over to you, Romance University readers: Have you participated in a writing cooperative? If so, would you do it again? What benefits did you derive? What would you do differently in the future? And if you haven’t participated in a writing cooperative, what considerations have stopped you?

NANCY NAIGLE joins us on Wednesday, November 30.

***

Bio:

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A former family physician who once provided birth-to-death healthcare, Jan O’Hara has left medicine behind and now spends her days torturing people on paper. (See? Win-win scenarios really do exist.)

She writes for the popular blog Writer Unboxed and lives in Alberta, Canada.

Jan was a contributor to the Writer’s Digest publication, Author in Progress. While Opposite of Frozen is her first published novel, she is hard at work on its successor.

You can also find Jan on the web at:
www.janohara.net (http://janohara.net/)
Twitter: @jan_ohara (http://twitter.com/jan_ohara/)
Facebook: www.facebook.com/JanOHaraBooks (http://facebook.com/JanOHaraBooks/)

OPPOSITE OF FROZEN

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Shepherd fifty-one seniors on a multinational bus tour, including a ninety-five-year-old with a lethal cane?

To preserve his sick brother’s travel business, retired pro athlete, Oliver Pike, would do far more. But then weather intervenes, forcing the tour bus off-route into the small mountain town of Harmony, Alberta.

In the hold of the bus, amid the walkers and luggage, lies a half-frozen stowaway. Page Maddux is commitment-averse and obviously lacking in common sense. Once revived, she’s also the person Oliver must depend upon to help him keep the “oldsters,” as she calls them, out of harm’s way.

When their week together is over, will Harmony recover from the group’s escapades? And what of Oliver’s heart?

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This standalone novel is book 2 in a 12-book series of sweet-to-warm contemporary romances written by different authors, set in a fictional small town in the Canadian Rockies. It features a happy-ever-after, a large cast, and shenanigans that would be at home in a movie featuring Cary Grant or Katharine Hepburn.

Kindle version Opposite of Frozen: http://a-fwd.com/asin-com=B01M0OJ5VR/

Paper version: http://a-fwd.com/asin-com=0995301212/

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Discussion

12 Responses to “Maximize the Benefits of Your Multi-author Writing Cooperative by Jan O’Hara”

  1. Jan – Thanks so much for this fabulous post! I loved your book and I’m eager to read your next one. Also, I plan to read more of the books in this series. You all did a great job – it’s a great idea for a series! Also, it brought back wonderful memories of my brief visit to Calgary, Banff and the Glacial Icefields. I love the setting! And, maybe because I’m pretty much in that age group, I got a real kick out of the oldsters on the bus. Whenever your next book comes out, I want to get it for my Jan O’Hara collection!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 28, 2016, 12:35 am
    • I’m still kicking myself for not making the drive to meet you that time, Becke, although it would have been a 6-hour drive. It’s a gorgeous part of the world.

      Thank you for the kind words! I’m honored and grateful whenever my writing connects with a reader, but it’s extra juicy when it’s a reader you know and admire.

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | November 28, 2016, 9:38 am
      • So near and yet so far! Marty and I were sightseeing with friends in their rented car, or we would have DEFINITELY gone that extra distance to see you. I’m so glad we did get to meet back in 2009 at RWA National. A memorable – if exhausting and chaotic – experience!

        Back to a more serious topic, I hope everything goes well today. I’ll hold the fort until you can hang out with us again.

        Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 28, 2016, 10:51 am
  2. As a quick FYI to your readership, I have a healthcare situation with an Elderly P that means I might not be available for periods of time today. But I will be back, so if you leave a comment or question, I’m not ignoring you!

    Posted by Jan O'Hara | November 28, 2016, 9:40 am
  3. Thanks so much for this post, Jan. I’m bookmarking it in case I ever have the opportunity to participate in a similar project.

    I hope all the healthcare issues in you family are okay now.

    Have a wonderful week!

    Posted by Becke Martin Davis | November 28, 2016, 7:48 pm
  4. Evening Jan!

    I love your blog, Writer Unboxed, get it in my mailbox. =) I’m a few issues behind, sigh, but slowly catching up!

    This is a great post. Tons of information. I’m definitely bookmarking and printing it out.

    What happens when someone wants out, or everyone else wants a person out? Are votes taken?

    Thanks much …a lot there I’d never considered!

    thanks!

    carrie

    Posted by Carrie Peters | November 29, 2016, 12:25 am
    • Hi, Carrie. I recognize your avatar. Lovely to see you here. 🙂

      You’re asking really good questions. I think it depends upon what you mean by “out” and which stage of production the cooperative has reached at the time.

      In our situation, we wanted to cover a one-year cycle, so the hope was to have 12 authors involved. A few authors were interested early on, but realized they had too many prior commitments, so with very little fanfare or difficulty, we talked the productive Brenda Sinclair into writing the first and last installments of the series. We were also able to replace a few others in the early stages–we’re talking the first few weeks of decision-making, when things were very fluid and adaptable.

      The leaving authors are people we all knew, and they have a professional mindset. (They are multi-published.) It was a high trust situation, honestly, and everybody behaved so well, a contract was really unnecessary. Those authors have gone on help us with publicity, even, so the preceding relationships were helpful in both picking a good group and handling it when the group needed alteration.

      Now, I think you’re asking, though, how we’d have handled it if someone wasn’t trying to make their deadlines, or was generating conflict, or behaving unprofessionally. I don’t recall us having any kind of clause in the contract to deal with that kind of scenario.

      I think it’s fair to say that Brenda would have done her level best to mentor and guide them first. If it wasn’t a question of education or resources, and the situation was untenable, I suspect there would have been consensus on asking the person to leave, and then recruiting a replacement for that month. Or writing around it.

      Since we all paid for our own cover art and editorial help, we didn’t have real money tied up in one another, so all the considerations would have been for the relationship and the project’s quality.

      It would be a different situation if we were writing a true series, though!

      Does that answer your question?

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | November 29, 2016, 12:59 am
  5. Hi Jan, Loved this post! But there is one more aspect that should be considered up front and that is the roles, responsibilities and exiting implications re the marketing plan for the series; will everyone be involved as a group or individually? will there be a ‘pool’ of money collected up front? if there are contests who will do what? how long will the campaign continue? Is there one for each book as it’s released and/or an ongoing effort for as long as the series is out there for sale.
    There’s also the question of the future of the series: spin offs and anthologies. If some authors want to continue the series and others don’t, should it be allowed, and who then manages that process for continuity? This last one gets really complicated if the first set is combined into an anthology. How will a decision about discounting the price of the first book or books be decided-will those authors be compensated? Does an author have to continue contributing to the marketing effort for as long as the series is available for sale? Again if that book is part of an anthology, things can get messy.
    Anyway none of these have to be show stoppers but should be discussed before things go too far.

    Posted by B.C.Deeks | November 30, 2016, 4:25 pm
    • All really good points, B.C!

      We did cover some of those aspects in discussion, though I don’t believe they were committed to paper. I can see how it would be advantageous to have done so. It’s like that saying “good fences make good neighbors”. The fewer the undelineated boundaries, the fewer the opportunities for conflict when expectations are unearthed down the road.

      You participated in the Frost Family Christmas series. If it’s not breaking confidentiality, do you have any suggestions on how to address these concerns from a pragmatic perspective? i.e. what worked for the group, what you might do differently next time?

      Posted by Jan O'Hara | November 30, 2016, 6:15 pm
      • I’ve participated in several series now, Jan and each has presented it’s own unique opportunities and challenges! In the Frost project we’ve been flying by the seat of our pants quite a bit! We talked each issue through as it arose and split the work and the rewards three ways as much as possible. We’re fortunate to have someone as experienced as CJ Carmichael to guide us through the industry questions. I don’t believe you can foresee every possible scenario. We writers can be very emotional about our stories but these projects are business arrangements requiring a lot of compromises. They may not be right for everyone. However, never underestimate the power of a glass of wine to smooth over the rough waters. LOL

        Posted by B.C.Deeks | December 4, 2016, 9:43 pm

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