A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
Self-publishing is tough. It relies on a reasonably high standard of product, which fits genre expectations, and on inventory. I’m going to say that again: sales is ultimately about inventory. This is because having a good book and selling it to someone, huge achievement though that is, will not earn you nearly enough money. You need to sell them four books. Or more.
We are three female writers who have thoroughly explored the frantic hard work, exultation, delight, despair, and relative obscurity which is the self-published author’s rainbow of experience. We have all worked within, and mostly published within, writers’ collectives, which offer the substantial advantages of going it alone in terms of quality control, professional skills sets and joint marketing platforms. We also have experience of traditional publishing.
Here’s the rub. If you want to write, publish and not mind whether few people buy your book, you can do it any way you want. But if you want your fiction to contribute to your monthly income, you either need to sell to a publisher for an advance, or self-publish one book every three to four months. There are successful self-published writers with substantial backlists and established followings who can produce one book a year, but if you are starting from scratch, you need to work faster than that. Readers have short memories and limited patience. If they like a new-found writer, they will often buy everything available – and then forget you quite quickly.
For the three of us, writers who had all slogged and sweated in our respective markets without, frankly, making a dent on the mortgage payments, this is depressing. How could we possibly write enough to make an impression? How could we build a sufficient inventory to take advantage of long-tail sales? How could we go from where we were, to where we needed to be, without either churning out absolute nonsense, or spending the next five years writing without any significant financial remuneration?
The answer it seemed to us was collaborative authorship. We all write for different genres and different age groups – but romance offered us a genre we could all enjoy and understand, a very large marketplace, and a readership that is not only interested in a wide variety of sub-genres but that also likes novellas.
We are all writers and editors, so we decided to pool our resources into a simple round-robin. We would aim for six books in the first year – far more than we could possibly have managed individually. We would write, edit and proof by turn. We decided to focus on the digital-first marketplace for speed and low cost. We agreed to split the profits after costs a straight three-ways, regardless of which books sold best; and we would never say who wrote what. For the purposes of this venture, we are Marisa. She’s our collective brand.
Marisa Hayworth was born shortly before Christmas 2014. For such a very young woman, she is already quite accomplished and is about to publish her second novella, Flying Upside Down. Her Valentine’s Day debut, And Then the Roof Blew Off, established what the Marisa Hayworth brand is all about: warmth, wit and wisdom. Three writers, one voice.
I can already hear other writers’ clamouring question: how do you do that? How do you ensure you all write the same way? Well. We’re currently beta’ing book number three, so honestly it’s probably too early to say if we’ve succeeded. And I’m sure – I hope – we’ll also get better at it. But in fact, the difficulties began long before the issue of style raised its head.
First issue: do you ‘fake’ your persona? Should we invent some big lie of a biography for Marisa? We decided not to. There’s a reason to write under a single name, but it was never to deceive anyone.
I said romance was a genre we could all enjoy and understand. It was, we thought. We do. We all like romcom. We all read Bridget Jones’ Diary and only one of us was really rude about it. But when we starting working on plot lines and schedules, it became clear – one of us was a hopeless romantic who channelled Nicholas Sparks whenever life got tough; one realised her politics was completely incompatible with the classic swoony-female fantasy of an alpha male; and the other couldn’t seem to write to the end of a love story without it ending in tragedy of Russian proportions.
Any genre needs to be handled honestly – you cannot write romance while satirising the reader. You must believe in what you do, or it’s a cynical exercise. That meant finding a common way of looking at romance which was both honest and compatible with who each of us was as an individual.
Clearly we needed more than a production schedule. We needed to understand exactly what Marisa Hayworth romance was. So, after many phone calls, emails and serious thought about whether romance was a necessary therapy, a harmless diversion, a valid lifestyle choice or the ultimate in patriarchal collaboration (you never thought it could be this complicated, did you? No, neither did we), this is what we decided.
Marisa writes love stories with the emphasis on story, and while she enjoys a little tingly tension, she’s suggestive, not explicit. Her women are real and their emotions pragmatic and honest. Her romance is not about pretending life is full of happy endings and fairy-tale escapes with dashing heroes. It’s about common experiences: that intoxicating moment of first love; the epiphany of recognition; the contentment of companionship. These things are real and precious, if not always permanent. Marisa’s romance novels are not, therefore, selling an impossible fantasy to women for whom real life will always fall short. Instead, they are about taking a moment to celebrate some of the genuinely delicious moments in every life. Those moments that heal, inspire and comfort.
And the sticky question of style? We anticipate that each of the stories that grows out of this ‘romance’ blueprint will generate its own style. Or, put another way, the approach IS the style.
My advice, if you want to write or work collaboratively, is to choose people who gel with you professionally rather than people with whom you are friends. The two women I write with have become very close friends – but because we came together with the same passion for doing things well, for writing, and for efficiency. Other friends, whom I have enjoyed greatly as people and even as writers, have not made successful professional partnerships for me.
While your polished art and your heartfelt stories are maybe best done elsewhere, I think collaboration could well be a useful answer to the problem of inventory for self-published writers. It is a purely commercial prospect (although, if you’re lucky, it’s also a great deal of fun and will make you a better, more efficient and effective writer). But you need to know exactly what you are aiming for, that you can trust the people in your team, and that you all share your vision of what product you are creating.
Check Marisa Hayworth out on Amazon if you get the chance… see if you think we’ve pulled it off.