Earlier this week, Chuck Wendig issued a call for self-publishers to put on their big kid underpants and approach the work of publishing in a polished and professional fashion. It's good advice, and comes out of a philosophy of respecting your audience and their time. You should all listen to Chuck. Dude knows what he's talking about.
It got me to thinking. Traditionally, we see self-publishing and traditional publishing as magnetic poles. Any given work can only be one or the other (or rarely, a work can switch from one to another) but you can't do both at the same time.
On the one side, a robust and time-proven machine polishes your book and sets it on shelves accessible to a wide readership; this is the path of gatekeeping, of minimum quality assured, of mainstream eyeballs and support from publicists.
On the other hand you have the scrappy lone writer-cum-businessman against the world. This is the path of exuberant creativity, of exploration, of unparalleled authorial control... but it can come at the cost of lowered quality and heightened obscurity.
Perhaps, I thought, there are more points along the spectrum than just these.
I'm a firm believer that a team makes creative work better. More eyes (if they're the right eyes) can help a work by spotting structural problems all the way down to fixing the typos. A skilled designer will make a better cover or website. There's a time for authorial vision, but there's also a time to shift your gaze away from the vision and onto what you've actually made, to see where it falls short.
So how might this work, then? How do you get the quality check and support network of traditional publishing and the freedom, speed, and lion's share of the profits you get out of self-publishing?
Some Potential Models
There are many ways that such a quasi-publishing group could work. I can think of three off the top of my head:
Writer's groups are the first obvious structure, and these occur informally already. Actually there are two separate kinds of writer's groups in existence -- on the one hand, you see writer's groups that help hone one anothers' work in private. On the other, you have loose collections of friends in and across genres promoting the work of other authors they like, admire, respect. (Probably some other reasons, too, because people are complicated.) I speculate some of these groups of friends will begin to cluster together and release all of their work under a single imprint -- a brand, if you will, that works the same way a publisher does in promising a certain minimum standard and style.
In this case, writers would continue to own all of their own work and wouldn't benefit from each others' successes; it's just a gentleman's agreement and breakable at any moment. This is probably happening already; I'd be genuinely surprised if it's not.
Co-ops with a buy-in that pool resources. Inspired by Adrian Hon's A History of the Future in 100 Objects -- and particularly the chapter on The Braid Collective. One of the problems with being a solo writer-publisher is that paying for pro-grade editing and cover services can be out of your range, especially if you're just starting out and not running on a trust fund. In this structure, the collective would give out from the kitty to fund promising books and help to get them done. In return, a small share of royalties would be paid to the collective from books launched with its help. (There could also be a small buy-in to the co-op, or a requirement to put in a certain amount of work before you can use group services, as with Critters.org -- to make sure that nobody exhausts the common pot without putting anything in.)
The problem with this structure, as Adrian points out, is that a breakout success of an author wouldn't need the group anymore, and loses the incentive to keep participating. The group functions as an accelerator for fledgling authors but there's not a lot of reason to stay on after you've achieved your own critical mass, nor is there a lot of reason to promote the work of others in the collective, beyond social reasons.
But still -- receiving editing and design services and support for maybe a 15% cut of your total sales on a single work isn't bad compared to what a traditional publisher keeps, huh?
Formalized groups with a partnership or corporate structure. In this case, a group of writers would team up to form what would amount to an actual publishing house for their sole benefit. The group would have veto power over any given work being released under the group label (though partners might be free to release as a solo work -- or they might not.) Every partner would receive a legally-binding share of profits from sales of every book the group releases, so every author would benefit from working hard to make every book thrive. Releases would be planned, staggered, and promoted heavily by all authors in the partnership. Groups like this would probably have more luck getting physical copies on store shelves and the like; there are probably other benefits to a corporate structure, too. Tens of thousands of corporate citizens can't be wrong!
There are probably other structures, too, but hey, this is just a thought experiment for now, hey?
Naturally, there are a few obstacles between here and my socialist/capitalist publishing utopia. Here are the biggest hurdles these semi-pro-publishers would have to leap over:
Chemistry. It's difficult to keep the personal and professional separate when the professional is as personal as writing is. You can't put your heart on the line and expect it not to sting when somebody doesn't like what you've shown them. So: chemistry could be a problem for all three of these structures. Otherwise friendly writers don't always mesh together well in crit groups, sometimes because of matters of taste, sometimes because of personality, sometimes because of wildly differing expectations about responsibilities toward the group. If you've all cast your lot together, relatively minor personality conflicts could rapidly become a big, big deal.
Rules, rules, rules. What happens if one author wants to use the group to publish something the others find objectionable? What if they just think it's just garbage? What if just one person hates it? How is that conflict mediated, and what's the recourse? What if someone wants to join the group, or leave it? The rules for how such a group works would have to be very, very carefully thought through.
Tax structure. ...But I am not a lawyer. This is not legal advice. Let's just say there would be tax implications for each of these structures, and I don't know what they would be. They might be quite onerous. You'd want to have a nice chat with an accountant before trying to make any of these things happen.
Administration. In any given group, one or two people will probably get stuck with the scut work; that might just be setting times and locations for meetings for an informal group. For a more robust group that could be dealing with tax filings, distributing royalty moneys earned, manning a social media account, or minding an email inbox. A successful group could pay someone to handle these tasks, to be sure, but at least to begin with somebody's going to have to mind the store at the expense of their writing, and that could feel like a terrible sacrifice of one's career for the sake of someone else's.
I do think the rise of the author collective is just about on us; it seems like a natural, logical step for like-minded writers to work together for mutual benefit. It just remains to be seen what exactly that looks like.
And to think, publishing used to be a boring, staid business, too. We do live in interesting times, don't we?