Aug 20, 2010

The Bohemian Reviewer - a democratic business model cooperative.

Several people have asked what The Bohemian Reviewer is all about. And rather than continually repeat myself, I thought I would post some of those answers here with regard to my background and my reason for starting The Bohemian Reviewer.

I was first published via traditional means. It was a great way to start. I owe a lot to that first publisher – one of the first publishers I submitted to. It validated me. But very shortly into it all, it left me feeling deflated. Young and naïve, (okay, not so young,) I thought once you were published, you were out of that limbo I fondly refer to as “query letter hell”. I didn’t realize that moving forward in your writing career meant having to start all over again if you want to write and publish another book with another publisher, or in another genre. I also learned a few things about the differences between publishers. There was “published” and “well published”. The disparity in contracts, advances, marketing, etc. all come into play. Just because a publisher meets “RWA eligibility” does not necessarily mean it’s going to be the best move professionally. So, on the one hand, grateful to that publisher for validation. On the other hand, I thought it would be nice to actually retain a fair share of the profits from my work and not have it tied up in a 10 year contract.

In the meantime, I was writing and submitting/querying on a regular basis. I have that cliché stack of rejection letters and even considered literally covering a wall of my office, but you know, now-a-days, most of those rejection letters come via e-mail, so they’re just not as aesthetically pleasing as the colorful letter head they used to come on. I targeted a few dream editors and what I heard from them was pretty consistent: “I love your writing, but I just can’t sell it to my team.” A very dear editor finally sat me down and gave me a tough love talking to. She said, (in her very gravely chain smoker’s voice,) I love your writing, but it doesn’t matter how much I love it. It doesn’t fit our niche market, so either you change it, or shop it elsewhere.” I knew my old publisher would take it – with a few revisions to fit their niche market, but like I said before, I wanted to move forward career-wise. Because of their depressingly low advances, mythical royalties, and excessive cover price, I decided I would be better served giving my books away to build a following, rather than repeat the process.

Four manuscripts later, I was watching a documentary that introduced me to the notion of a “democratic business model.” To be brief, (or as brief as a verbose writer is ever likely to get,) publishing companies operate under a capitalistic business model. In a capitalistic business model, your primary concern is, “will this product make us money, and will it make a lot of it.” In a democratic business model, the number one priority is, “is this a quality product that will benefit the earth and those on it.” This business model just resounds with me. I’m not a business woman. I couldn’t sell Evian to naïve camel drivers in the desert, but I CAN try to create the best product I’m capable of producing with an eye toward benefiting the earth and those on it. I could write – to the best of my abilities – and offer it up to a global market. But to do this, I couldn’t concern myself with niche markets that would “make me money and lots of it.” But the only way to turn your attention fully to a global market and create the best product you’re capable of producing is to divest yourself of a capitalistic mind-set.

So I wrote – for me – something I could be proud of. One of the first, most remarkable things I recognized, almost immediately, was that all of a sudden I loved writing again and I hadn’t realized what an abhorrent chore it had become before that time. But under my old mindset, I wasn’t writing what I loved. I was writing to fit a market and I was writing query letters – spending days sifting through and following guidelines, picking out all of the red M&Ms to suit agent A, sifting out the blue M&Ms for editor B, attending workshops on “how to pitch”, “how to write an eye catching query letter”, etc. Blech. For me, there was nothing proactive in this process. If the road to achieving a big goal is to set small obtainable goals, this precluded the query letter process. There is nothing guaranteed “obtainable” in querying agents and editors. No one is obligated to give you a contract or even a response just because you dot your “i”s and cross you “t”s. And I also realized something about what I was reading: the product produced by those publishing houses was becoming more and more homogenous. It is a rare day that I pick up a book that I can’t put down. I am very much afraid that all this filtering through the capitalistic sieve is having a damaging effect on the end product.

I believe that books have an intrinsic value, but we have to be realistic, although secondarily so, about earning money from the product, or at least, not losing money. I turned to self-publishing, but with the determination that I wouldn’t lose money in the process. I found a program that was free to me, that allowed me the freedom to publish or unpublish the book as I deemed appropriate, able to produce in multiple formats at my own discretion, and that didn’t tie up my rights in any way. I created both an electronic and POD paperback copy of my book, ANGELS UNAWARES, the first book in a series of books I had been crafting. I know why these books aren’t marketable through a traditional publisher. 1) They cross genre – it features both a YA and an adult cast of characters, 2) the cast of characters slightly exceeds the number of digits on one hand, and 3) there are multiple sub-plots. I could change all of these things, but then it wouldn’t be the sort of complex plot-line that I enjoy reading, and I don’t believe I’m so fringe that at least a few people, (besides my mother,) wouldn’t also enjoy reading it.

There are several problems with launching on this democratic business model on your own. The primary problem is that the democratic business model works best if you’re part of a cooperative. A publisher builds credibility through a proven sales record, drawing on the skills of their in-house specialists to create best sellers – but because of their track record, bookstores, reviewers, advertisers, etc. welcome the business of that publisher. As a lone wolf, just starting out, you don’t have the backing of a big publisher. (Remember, we’re coloring outside the lines.) Without credibility, reviewers don’t want to review your books, some advertising venues are closed to you, bookstores, (even the independents) and libraries, are less likely to invest their limited resources on you and a lot of contests are closed off to you. So I asked myself, how do you build credibility? How does a solitary writer form a cooperative toward building that democratic business model? Then it occurred to me, there’s no reason that a collective of writers, all writing and self-publishing, can’t create a cooperative and a track record by reviewing other self-published books – books of excellence, that then create a following, building credibility for those individual writers. It’s no longer about making money, but about identifying well-written books, providing a venue for readers and reviewers to discuss those books that might otherwise be overlooked. It’s not competitive, but cooperative. We will only post reviews of books that the person reviewing determines to be of merit. Books that don’t resound with the reviewer simply are not reviewed. In order for this to work, no one writer can stand to gain from giving a positive review. Copies for review are given free to the reviewers and the reviewers have to agree that they will in no way benefit from the sale of their review copies. Because of the relatively small size of this industry, it’s almost impossible to bypass reviewing books written by people we know. It’s this cooperative environment that I have so often found within the world of writing, and in particular, within the predominately female driven romance genre, that makes me believe that this could work to the overall benefit of the writers.

Now, to answer your questions about The Bohemian Reviewer. It’s brand-spankin’ new, thus, I’m still reading the first book for review and I can tell you now, the writing is top drawer. I can guess already, (and I’m about half-way into it,) why it wasn’t picked up by one of the big boy publishers – it’s quirky. It’s laugh your butt off funny, but it’s definitely quirky in that the plot is almost secondary to the humor. If laughter is the best medicine, then every hospital gift shop should carry a copy of this book. It doesn’t follow a popular fiction plot line. Instead, (and I’m still gathering details on this,) it seems to have been published by the author’s agent. This author is well represented with a kick-butt agent, but for whatever reason, it wasn’t produced through a traditional publisher. It’s being offered for sale through POD and Kindle and for that reason, I let it through the wide sieve of Bohemian Reviewer’s mandate that it be a “self-published” work.

Toward creating a cooperative, I would welcome any one else who wants to review through the Bohemian Reviewer or wants to have their book reviewed at the site. The hope is, after we have a nice listing of books of merit that fall outside the traditional publishing loop, we can, as a collective, present the books reviewed here to a sampling of libraries. Our target audience, at this time, does not include booksellers. There are some problems with marketing to booksellers, primarily, the issue of “returns” and the “pay-on-scan” model. (POD books do not allow for returns and have to be paid for in advance by the reader.) The industry is changing at an exponential rate, so I won’t even hazard a guess as to how electronic and POD books will be vended in the future. Okay, I will hazard a guess. I could foresee POD books coming to readers through something like a RedBox vending machine. Immediate gratification. The problem comes in getting titles and reviews into the hands of readers. If the best advertising bang for the buck is “word-of-mouth” I think a site like Bohemian Reviewer could go a long way toward building credibility of those books that haven’t been forced through the sieve – those books that haven’t been filtered by the gatekeepers of publishing whose primary interests are money driven.

I’m really excited about the changes in the industry. I think POD and e-books are going to be as pivotal to literacy as the Guttenberg press was during the Renaissance. At the very least, those formats are going to connect readers with writers who might not otherwise have discovered one another.

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