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.
The Book View Café is a cooperative publishing house, founded by a group of authors who wanted to take control of how their writing was published, and to get them past the restrictions of mainstream publishers, straight to readers. Their strapline is ‘you can never have too many ebooks’, which is very true insofar as only deletable bytes are involved. The Café went live in November 2008 as a publisher, and has been publishing its own work ever since: mostly as ebooks, but increasingly also as physical books. Vulpes Libris interviewed the Café members about its practices, and principles. Where several Café members replied to VL’s questions their names are added to their contributions: otherwise BVC member Chris Dolley was speaking for the Café.
Book View Cafe operates as a true co-op – where our members donate the skills they have in return for the skills they need to publish books. So each of our members is both an author and an important cog in a publisher. We try and emulate everything a major publisher does. We have editors, ebook formatters, print typesetters, cover designers, accountants, web designers, IT and legal professionals, PR people, administrators and managers. We even sell sub-rights – we’ve sold the audio rights to a couple of hundred of our books for a very good six figure sum to Audible. We also make our ebooks available in libraries – selling to them direct and via all the major library distributors like Overdrive, 3M, and Gardners.
VL: I’m interested in how the Café works with authors. Talk us through what happens if a couple of authors get in touch, one with a book you (ultimately) want to publish, and another with one you decide won’t work for you. How do you, collectively or singly, arrive at these decisions? What are the stages that the Café members go through in these situations?
We are not a publisher in the sense that we accept submissions of individual books. We accept authors as members of our all-volunteer publishing cooperative. The authors’ body of work is what we consider, as well as (and this is extremely important) whether we believe the author’s personality and skills will mesh with the current membership of the cooperative.
At this time we are accepting candidates with traditional publishing experience. We’ve discussed the possibility of accepting self-published authors, but have decided, for now, that the type and range of experience one gets in the trenches of traditional publishing is what seems to work best with our current mix of members and skills.
Our membership process works like this: a candidate contacts us at our email address, membership [at] bookviewcafe [dot] com. This goes to the membership team. The member currently serving as Door Dragon responds to the inquiry, with the rest of the team on the cc: list. Candidates who do not meet our basic requirements are screened at this point.
Candidates who do meet those requirements move to a second level of the process. If the candidate hasn’t done so in the initial letter, they’re asked to tell us who they are, what they’ve published traditionally, what they believe BVC can do for them, and what they believe they can do for BVC. We stress a couple of things at the outset: that we do not accept book submissions, that we are not a storefront, and that we are an all-volunteer organization.
We require all members to contribute volunteer hours, and list a few of the skills we’re looking for at the time of inquiry. Those are not editing or proofreading skills – we have a plenitude of those. Usually we need such things as ebook formatters, volunteer wranglers, cover designers, people with web and tech skills.
If the candidate meets our basic qualifications, and if s/he hasn’t run screaming in terror, the membership team will put them up for discussion among the general membership. The discussion usually takes a couple of weeks, followed by a poll.
If the candidate passes this application process, we welcome them on board and begin their orientation under the care of the membership team and a designated mentor or native guide. Our site is huge and our operations extensive. It takes six months or more, usually, to orient the new member. Then they will begin publishing with us.
Insofar as we have editorial review of a candidate’s work, this happens in the discussion phase: we check out their publications as well as whatever they may be planning to publish with us. All our current members serve as ‘acquiring editors’ – but we’re acquiring the author rather than any one book.
Once the candidate is accepted as a member, we have a wonderful and rather miraculous publishing process, which our Publications Coordinator can explain in more detail.
It’s also worth mentioning that the commercial potential of an author or their books is not a factor in our membership discussions. Book View Café is not a profit-led organisation. We make a profit, but we also make sure that more than 95% of the money goes to the author, not BVC. By using volunteer labour, we keep our overheads to the minimum.
So our ideal candidate would be someone who writes books we love, who plays well with others, and who has skills we lack. If the books are great, we don’t care if they’re not commercial. We will do our best to promote and push every book, and we’re very good at promotion. But if a book doesn’t sell, it’s a shame, not a career-ender.
We do care that candidates play well with others, however. It’s an essential requirement in a volunteer organisation. An author who can’t get along with others, or is only interested in taking rather than giving, would be disruptive. So an abrasive prima donna with a stellar body of work would not be selected.
Also, in order to ensure the smooth running of the co-op, we limit the number of people we accept per year. Orientation can take a significant amount of volunteer time. So we have become very selective about the candidates we take, and have reluctantly passed on a number of excellent authors.
VL: Your approach of accepting an author rather than a single book is innovative, because of the volunteer work they are required to contribute, and is also a tradition used a century ago, when a publisher was the patron of anything an author produced. Does the subject(s) that a candidate author writes on play a part in the acceptance process? Do you try to focus on a set range or set of fields for Book View Café publications, or are you open to opening multiple lists? What would you NOT publish? Or is the choice of subject affected by how well you think you can publicise it with your current membership strengths?
We’re choosing authors rather than subjects, and our emphasis is more on the cooperative than on any specific book or topic. Many of our authors write across a number of genres – in fact, a number of our publications were deemed ‘unsaleable’ traditionally because they didn’t fit into standard marketing categories.
We tend to be approached by candidates in genres we already represent: science fiction, romance, mystery. We’re open to pretty much any genre and would love to see more candidates in a wider range of genres.
Is there anything we wouldn’t publish? As a group, we would probably balk at extremist political or religious views, abuse or sadism, or similar. But we would tend to screen that at the application stage, in our review of the candidate’s existing body of work. So far, at least since 2010, we haven’t had any candidates with truly radical resumes.
Book View Café have published over 300 titles since 2008 and although the majority have been fantasy, romance and science fiction, we’ve also published erotica, memoir, humour, young adult, middle grade, plays and writing advice books. If a candidate offered books in a genre that we were light in, that would be seen by most of us as a plus.
VL: I see that the immensely popular and revered author Ursula Le Guin is a founder member of BVC. I only know of the names of a few other authors in the Café: what spread of countries and languages do you currently have? I’m interested in the growth of the Café member numbers: was it rhizomic, a root-like crawl from one person to another through personal contact? Or perhaps a pollination from the idea, as word spread through different networks, and people began to come forward as individuals out of nowhere?
The first members were all on the same news list, which was where we started the conversation about grouping together to share skills and insight to help each other get our backlists up online. After that, it was largely word of mouth. People invited their friends who they thought would be a good fit, or heard about us and asked how they could get involved. (Sarah Zettel)
I was in a bad place in my life and career, and founding member Laura Anne Gilman said, ‘Try this new thing we’re doing’. She persuaded me to contact the Founder herself, Sarah Zettel. And soon, after the members had discussed the application, here I was. It was all women then. And such names. Ursula. Vonda McIntyre (I still get a little fangirly when she formats my ebooks). Since then we’ve increased slowly. We take in up to six a year. Sometimes more. Sometimes less. We learned to let people find us. Drafting people doesn’t work with the amount of volunteer service we require: they need to make the co-operative a priority, and they need time to give it, as well as a level of proactivity and step-uppery that can be a challenge for very busy, introverted writer-types. (Judith Tarr)
Most of our members are American, but we’re open to everyone. Currently we have two Brits and one Aussie. Our books are sold world-wide. We’ve even sold copies to libraries in Finland, Ireland, Australia, New Zealand, India, Canada and Singapore.
We had two of our books translated into German as an experiment, but it wasn’t as successful as we’d hoped. One of the strengths of our co-op is that we have plenty of in-house expertise to help with editing, proofing, and workshopping the cover copy. But we don’t have that for other languages. Yet. So candidates writing in other languages would certainly be considered, but we might not be able to help them as much as we’d like.
Experimentation is one of our strengths. The publishing industry is changing rapidly and no one really knows what it’s going to be like in five or ten years time. This is both the best and the worst time to be an author. The best – as in there has never been more opportunities for an author to thrive, to take back control of their career and to succeed on their own terms. The worst – as in that traditional publishing is shrinking, and authors are being dropped faster than ever before. And with hundreds or thousands of other authors out there, the competition is stiff. A nimble author willing to experiment is more likely to thrive.
We have many types of author at BVC. We have hybrid authors, who are publishing new books with both NYC publishers and BVC. We have authors who no longer bother with traditional publishing, and bring out all their new work with BVC. We have authors with extensive backlists who are using BVC to bring these ‘lost’ books back. The thing we all have in common is that we’re all actively engaged in furthering our careers. We’re not sitting back and hoping that we’ll be all right. We’re doing something about it.
Several of our authors were already New York Times bestsellers, or major award winners (Nebulas and Hugos) before they joined BVC. Since then, we’ve had one BVC book make the New York Times list and one make the final list for the Nebula Award.
And in June 2015, the film of founding member Vonda N. McIntyre’s book The Moon and the Sun, starring Pierce Brosnan and William Hurt, will be released. (Chris Dolley)
VL: How many members does it (normally) take to get a book published? And roughly how long is your production process, once the edited MS has been agreed as final?
It varies, of course, but the minimum number of tasks related to book publication is 10:
This doesn’t include the social media people who promote the book on publication day (3-6 more people) or the other members who boost the signal on that day. Some of the tasks on the list above can be performed by the same person, e.g., the Author is usually also the Project Manager. Others, though, like Beta Reader and Proofreader, must be done by people other than the Author. An original novel spends about a month (or more) in beta, then after revision about two weeks in proofreading, after which it goes into the formatting and finalization process which usually takes six to ten weeks. (Pati Nagle)
Just to explain our Format Review: As ebooks are read on a multitude of different devices, we have a Format Review where several members with different eReaders check to make sure that the book reads well on their device.
There are also a number of back office tasks that are required to publish a book. We’ve automated most of this process now. So the author will fill in a metadata form for their book which will be uploaded into our publications database. This database will be used by several people throughout the publication process. One member will use it to submit book data to Bowker which supplies the author with an ISBN [in the USA]. Another member will use it to send out advance review copies to reviewers. Another member will use it to send this month’s new books and their metadata to distributors. (Chris Dolley)
Well, since 95% of our income goes back to the authors, we don’t have a huge budget for marketing. That could change, but that’s how it is right now. We are in the process of exploring new and better ways to market our titles. Often, it’s mostly up to the author – how much time does s/he want to spend on marketing. (Pati Nagle)
Each author develops their own marketing campaign according to their own preferences. We have experts in the group who show us the best techniques and share their lists of blogs and reviewers. We all share what works for us and help promote each other’s books–giving us a large circle of social media to draw on. We have a publicity position to send books to Publishers’ Weekly, Library Journal, etc, but we don’t have the budget – or an interest – in NetGalley. (Patricia Rice)
It’s often said that 90% of publicity and marketing is a waste of time but no one knows which 90%. Traditionally this has meant authors being asked to blog and tweet, to have a social media presence, to attend conventions, book signings, hand out free fridge magnets etc in the hope that, somehow, a buzz is created, a following that turns into sales.
But in today’s world of real time sales reports and writers sharing information, it’s perfectly possible to identify that elusive 10% of promotion that works.
That’s another advantage of authors working together and experimenting. Without going into too much detail, most marketing can be split into two types: Targeted and Long Term. We identify the targeted publicity that works and make recommendations to our members. Long Term promotion is different. It’s the slow drip method of building up name recognition – the convention appearances, the blogging etc. Some authors are very good at this and enjoy it. Others hate it with the power of a thousand suns. The good news is that it’s perfectly possible to build a successful career and be a hermit – just write good books, present them in their best light, and use selective targeted promotion. It’s easier if you’re a photogenic rock star on the convention circuit with a killer blog and really cool fridge magnets, but that’s not the only route to success. Do what you enjoy and don’t sweat the rest. (Chris Dolley)
VL: Since you mainly publish fiction, and ebooks (though I see that some of your titles are available in print editions), how do you see BVC continuing into the future as a successful author-oriented publisher? What changes do you anticipate in the market, or in the forms and subjects that people want to buy from your authors and your publishing model, specifically?
We will definitely be issuing more print editions in the future – one of our goals is to make it easier for our members to have print editions. In an all-volunteer organization that can be a challenge, but we’re continuing to brainstorm that area. We also keep our eye on new and developing technologies, new distribution methods, and new ways to connect with our readers. As a small organization, we can respond quickly to changes. We are constantly watching what’s happening in publishing and evaluating how it affects our members. (Pati Nagle)
As an author-driven publisher, we assume every author is passionate about subjects that their audience wants to read. Our authors are familiar with their ‘markets’ and that’s the only driver. As technology changes, we will continue to investigate new venues for our members. Perhaps one day we’ll include music and videos – we’re small and savvy enough to explore where our members want to go. (Patricia Rice)
VL: Thank you, Book View Café!
Monday: Hilary discovers a literary crossroads in a tiny, lost Norfolk village.
Wednesday: Kate babbles about Ladybird books nostalgia at the Museum of English Rural life.
Friday: Kirsty returns to the Judaean Desert with The Very Short Introduction to the Dead Sea Scrolls.