Sofie Couch, © 2012, www.sofiecouch.com
(Permission to re-print in its entirety, provided all attributes are included.)
This may bring Big Brother crashing down on my head, but as a writer, I take exception to being censored, and that is precisely, (okay, maybe not precisely, but convolutedly – is it a word?) happened to writers under the traditional publishing paradigm.
Here’s how it worked, for those just tuning in:
1) writers wrote,
2) Writers sent query letters to publishers and/or agents,
3) Writers received rejection letters directing them to “submission guidelines”,
4) Writers re-wrote to conform to publisher and agent guidelines AND (this is the important bit), “MARKET DEMANDS”,
5) Writers were either rejected or accepted based on their compliance to the afore mentioned guidelines.
There are other butterflies effecting the flow and ebb of content, but that’s pretty much it in a nut shell. Obviously, there is reader expectation, writing skill, synchronicity, alignment of the stars, etc., that determined what was published and what was not, but from the writer’s perspective, it was mostly… “the man”... who dictated what was hot and what was not based on the market. Money. Whatever sold really well last month, publishers and agents wanted more of. And if you think about it for a minute, it made perfect sense. Who would plunk their money down on Slew-Eyed Sally in the fifth race when that horse was racing against King Money-Maker? You back the horse with a winning track record.
The result of all this “sure betting” in publishing was that the next month, you received books with vampires who glowed in the moonlight rather than sparkled in sunlight, wizards with birthmarks rather than lightening bolt scars, and a slew of historicals set in England during the Regency period. That’s all fine and grand if you like writing and reading those themes, but it created a dead zone for anyone wanting to read or write something… else.
Now, along comes self-publishing and Print-on-Demand (POD). My disclaimer, (like it was ever a question), is that I am an advocate of both self-publishing and POD. It has opened the gates for writers who just wanted to write and share their stories with readers. It allows a writer to operate a business employing a democratic business model. And THAT is where I mean to take you with the title of this article – “The Sharing Communities: Is There A Place There for Writers?”
So, what are “sharing communities” you ask? Sharing communities are those that build followings based on reviews. Overnight, cottage industries have sprung up like mushrooms around garden gnomes. Etsy, Ebay, Airbnb, TaskRabbit, Coursera, are all examples of sharing communities – enterprises based on trust and ratings. Through Airbnb, I am able to rent a small cottage behind my home to people – complete strangers – who stay with us for $49/night. I trust the people I am inviting to stay, because they have ratings, given to them from past hosts, and those who stay with me, choose to stay in our cottage, because of the reviews I have received from past guests. https://www.airbnb.com/rooms/487795 That’s the link to my listing, and if you go there, scroll to the bottom of the page and you’ll see my reviews. Pretty schweet! And at $49/night, (two night minimum), my guests get a pretty fabulous deal for the area. I’ve had over a dozen guests over the course of three months and I’ve made about two thousand dollars. I will receive a 1099 at the end of the year for tax purposes. Am I afraid to post a link to a guest house on my property on a public forum? Nah. I won’t rent to you unless you’ve got a positive track record. Cottage industries that have sprung up, seemingly over night, employ the use of “sharing communities” to gain credibility - communities of trust.
But aren’t book reviews accomplishing the same thing? Well, yes… and no. To my writer friends, how many of you have asked family and friends to write a review for your book? How many of you have clicked on the “like” button of a friends’ book on Amazon? I admit, I have. I’ve written glowing reviews for books that really just were not my cup of tea.
So, how can we, as writers and readers and editors and agents, build a community of sharing and trust?
As with Airbnb, it has to be double-sided. If I pay good money to read a book, I should be among the few people who are allowed to write a review - a review that is reflective of my personal enjoyment of the book, a thoughtful review that mirrors my tastes. Guests who have stayed in my cottage are invited to write a review and I, in turn, am invited to write a review of a paying guest. So what if no one has purchased my book? How do I gain reviews that might encourage other readers to buy my book? How about through character references? Read a free sample (that requires a multi-step process,) and if it's to your tastes, then you are permitted to click the "like" button. I receive so many requests for "likes", while I really want to help a struggling new writer, it has become time prohibitive. Yes, even when you include a link to the book's page on Amazon, but more importantly, it's unfair to a prospective customer. But I'm a reformed automatic "liker" of books. I have seen the error of my ways. I contribute to the problem. Algorithms that are driven by "likes" and star ratings, are only as good as the validity of those reviews and the self-interest of those that created the algorithm in the first place.
My decision to self-publish was based, in large part, on the sharing by writers of industry statistics. Brenda Hiatt has a wonderful web-site and hosts “Show Me the Money” - a compilation of anonymously offered contract statistics. Knowledge is power, baby. So I would ask writers to continue to share those statistics with one-another.
A common practice among traditional publishing contracts is to limit the ability of the writer to discuss contract terms with anyone else. I take exception to that practice. Obviously, if you simply don’t wish to share your contract information, that’s your absolute right and I totally respect that. However, if your inability to share information is a mandate from your publisher, perhaps you should ask yourself, (and your publisher), “why?” Why doesn’t your publisher want you to talk outside of class? I recently found out why. A publisher, who shall remain nameless, (although it rhymes with blazon, boron, halcyon, moron, and all words ending in “ion” when pronounced with a "Cajun-Man" accent), recently made a huge purchase and offered a group of authors 25% net royalties for their exclusive e-book rights. A comparison with other authors’ contracts within that imprint was difficult (although not impossible), because those other authors had signed a non-disclosure agreement. It turns out that A LOT of those other contracts were for 35% net royalties. Okay, so “net” profits means the publisher can first take off their expenses for everything from the business cards they handed you at a conference, to the box of chocolates they sent you for Christmas, but an extra 10% is a pretty big deal. And don’t even get me started on “exclusive e-book rights”.
I’m not advocating for government over-sight of the publishing industry. Muses preserve us from that. What I am advocating, however, is that we (writers, readers, reviewers, editors, cover design artists, and agents), all put our heads together, to think about how we can create a community of trust and transparency following years of industry standards that have created mistrust and suspicion. My decision to operate under a democratic business model was a personal decision and I would like to add to that, a community of trust - of word-of-mouth endorsements. If you have a traditional contract, more power to ya! If you self-publish, even MORE power to ya! May your reviews be honest, your "likes" justified, and your interactions with agents and editors be fair and transparent.
Sofie Couch writes southern fiction, romance and paranormal YA novels, employing a democratic business model in her writing business. If you would like to share your ideas on creating a community of trust amongst writers, readers, publishers and agents, feel free to visit Sofie at her blog through her web-site at www.sofiecouch.com.