By Daniel Kalder
The Book View Café is an author-run publisher with some 200 books to its credit and 40+ members, including Hugo and Nebula award winners (Ursula Le Guin, Vonda N. McIntyre, David Levine, and Linda Nagata), and NY Times and USA Today bestselling authors (Patricia Rice, Maya Kaathryn Bohnhoff, Lois Gresh). It is, says director Chris Dolley, “a true co-op,” with each member volunteering their skills to assist others in publishing their books. “Some of our authors are professional editors, some have been graphic artists or managers or publicists. And some have learned new skills to format books, design covers, websites, and bookstores. The end result is that we are now able to do pretty much everything a major publisher does. We even market our own subrights and have just negotiated a good six-figure audiobooks deal.”
Started five years ago as a group of authors looking to publish their backlist and connect with their readers, the co-op is now publishing some ten new books per month and had its first New York Times bestseller in February.
Publishing Perspectives spoke with Dolley earlier this month about the project, it’s plans and his vision of the future of publishing.
You have a very interesting project- can you give me some background, for instance- how long has it been in existence? Whose idea was it? How long was the project in preparation prior to the launch?
It grew out of a conversation among a group of SF/F authors back in 2008. They came up with the idea of joining forces to help promote each others’ work and to explore ways of connecting better with readers. The Book View Cafe website started out as a place to offer free online fiction and a group blog. Within months, ebooks and a bookstore were added to the mix. Five years later: we’ve published well over 200 ebooks, we’ve incorporated, we’ve doubled our membership, our ebooks are in libraries worldwide, sold by nearly one hundred retailers worldwide, and we’ve just sold the audio rights to over one hundred of our books.
You have some big names on board — e.g. Ursula K. Le Guin, Vonda McIntyre. How did you nab them — by approaching directly, or did they find you?
Ursula and Vonda were part of the founding group. Most new members tend to approach us, though we have occasionally sounded out authors who we think would be a particularly good fit. We do quite a few BVC panels at conventions to spread the word about what we do.
Not that we’re looking to grow fast. The way we work – as a co-op of committed volunteers – could easily be unbalanced by too rapid a growth. So we prefer to grow steadily.
Can you give a few examples of authors applying their skills to the production of others’ books?
We try to do everything a major publisher would do to produce a book. This means that as well as the editing, proof reading, formatting and cover design tasks, we also need volunteers to do all those management, admin and back-room tasks that ensure everything runs smoothly.
So if I want to bring out a book, the first thing I do is contact Pati Nagle, who looks after the publication schedule. She’ll give me a list of potential publication dates. I choose the one I want and Pati sends me a project timetable. This splits the publication process down into its constituent tasks and tells me what skills I will need and when. Some of those tasks I will do myself, others I will need help with. I post a request for production assistance on our forum and people volunteer. We’ve never had a problem getting a team together to produce a book.
So I will bring in, say, Sherwood Smith as my editor and another volunteer as a proofreader. I do my own ebook formatting, but if I didn’t, I’d ask Vonda McIntyre. I then have my choice of cover designers, and once we have a cover we might decide to post it to our forum for second and third opinions. The same goes for back cover copy. We all help each other hone our covers and book descriptions to make them the best they can be.
Then there are all those extra tasks needed to distribute the book. I’d need an ISBN, which I’d request from Pat Rice. I’d then fill out all the book’s metadata – which is needed so the book can be sold via our distributors. The same form handles all our opt ins – do I want BVC to handle audio rights for the book, foreign rights, sending our Advance Reader Copies to reviewers?
All those jobs are handled by volunteers too. Linda Nagata looks after BVC’s own bookstore and I upload our member’s books to our various distributors (Overdrive, Wheelers and, coming soon, Gardners and 3M.) We also sell books direct to libraries.
And finally, volunteers also maintain Book View Café’s social media sites. So news of my book will be disseminated automatically by them.
How do you prevent lazy authors, of which there are more than a few, from coasting on the hard work of their peers?
Part of this is self-selection. Prospective members are told about the way we work and our volunteer ethic. We’ve never had anyone refuse to help out others while accepting production assistance for their own work. We have people who go ‘inactive’ – through life events or killer deadlines from their other publishers – but their inactivity hasn’t caused any problems because, while inactive, they don’t request production assistance.
Authors keep 95% of proceeds. Do they get paid for applying their skills to others’ books, or not? How does the cooperation work out?
With one exception our volunteer work is free. We donate the skills we have in return for help with the skills we don’t have. The one exception is when we publish anthologies. We decided there that the editor, proofreader, cover designer and formatter should receive the same share in the royalties as an author.
We find that cooperation works surprisingly well. Part of this comes down to our selection procedure where ‘plays well with others’ is seen as an essential prerequisite to membership. Plus volunteering is catching. When you see people giving up their time to help you with your book, guiding you through the maze of book production and giving you marketing tips that you’d never even thought of…you feel compelled to return the favor. As one of our newer authors said recently, “This place *rocks.* I’ve never been so supported in my writing career!”
And this cooperation doesn’t stop at book production. Authors these days are bombarded with advice on how to promote their books. You’ve got to be on Facebook, do a blog tour, Tweet, do conventions, throw parties…Most of it is a time sink. The big advantage of an author co-op is that we have over forty members who can test drive and report back. And when you have access to daily sales stats across a number of retailers you soon find out what works and what doesn’t. And when one member finds something that works, we all find out.
You plan on expanding into print—how will the risk regarding the much greater costs incurred be shared?
We’re limiting the risk by only considering POD at the moment. The author incurs all the costs of production and Book View Café donates the expertise of its members to help produce and market the book.
Regarding the catalogue, how much is new vs. how much is work returned to “print” digitally by authors holding ebook rights for older work?
Our catalogue started off heavily skewed towards backlist titles, but today almost one third of our titles are new work.
What is the best received new work you’ve published, and best selling?
The biggest selling we’ve had is my memoir, French Fried: One man’s move to France with too many animals and an identity thief. It was a New York Times bestseller back in February and was the #1 Travel book on Amazon and iTunes.
Our “Shadow Conspiracy” series of anthologies has probably been our best received with stories from both anthologies becoming finalists for awards: “The Persistence of Souls” was nominated for the Sidewise Award and “What Ho, Automaton!” was nominated for the WSFA Award.
Explain to us a little about how you can become a member…
I was disillusioned with publishing and the way that things totally out of an author’s control could destroy a book’s chance of success. I liked the idea of retaking control over my career and the insurance that belonging to a group like Book View Cafe would bring. I could see that publishing was changing and it made sense to have as many options as possible. After a couple of months at BVC I stopped even thinking about sending books to New York.
Right now you seem to publish popular fiction only. Do you have any plans to expand into non-fiction or more “literary” novels?
The mix is completely dependent on our membership. We do have a small amount of non-fiction: a memoir, a history book, and a handful of writing books. Mary Anne Mohanraj, the Snowcroft Prize winner and Asian American Book Award finalist, has just joined us and will be publishing some of her poetry in the coming months. And we may publish the science books of another new member too. We’re certainly open to all authors.
There seems to be a lot of SF. How does the catalog break down genre wise?
The high proportion of SF and Fantasy books reflects our origin, but recently we’ve been taking on more Romance authors. Also a lot of our books cross genres. With most of our sales coming from online retailers we’re no longer hampered by the ‘but where will we shelve it?’ constraint that used to hamper authors wanting to experiment more.
Including cross genre titles, our breakdown by genre is:
- Fantasy — 34%
- Science Fiction — 27%
- Romance — 17%
- YA — 8%
- Mystery — 5%
- Children’s — 4%
- Others — 5%
Are there any non-authors working at the cooperative?
Not quite. In this last month we’ve admitted an author’s estate as a member — which is a first — but the estate’s representative also happens to be an author. We’re also discussing the possibility of admitting artists as members. It wouldn’t be many, but we have had enquiries and are considering it.