Why Collectives Need A Focus

Dan Holloway is a writer and thinker on e-fiction, and founder of two grassroots ebook initiatives: Free E-Day, and Year Zero Writers. Here he talks about how a manifesto is important for even a loose collective of online fiction writers.

The Internet provides a great opportunity for writers to meet up, and start working together. And the collective format offers some great economies of scale to writers – especially when it comes to marketing, where each person’s efforts benefit everyone (if you focus, as we think of it at Year Zero Writers, on replicable not duplicable activity). But it’s easy to think of collectives as a short cut. Aside from the whole question of how you get large numbers of independent-minded people who’ve never met to pull together, you need to make sure you have a niche.

One of the main points of having a collective is to create a single identity for you all. Rather, to allow you all to be who you are, but to let readers know that if they like one of your books, they will probably like the others as well. Your books need to appeal to the same market. And readers need to know that.

That’s easy when you’re writing non-fiction. If your books are “Orchid-growing in Queensland”, “Orchid Houses of new Zealand”, “1001 Orchids”, readers will soon get the hang of what you’re about.

With fiction it’s harder. You effectively have to create an imprint – something like Mills and Boon or Black Lace.

For the writers of Year Zero this was a real problem. The point about imprints like this is they come with strict rules of style, content, and format. And the thing that had driven us together in the forums of Authonomy and The Book Shed was our frustration at the editorial strictures the publishing industry put on writers. We wanted a place where we could be free of all that.

It was also clear, looking at our books, that there WAS a common thread. Whatever we wrote, we wrote it for an audience that didn’t want to be told what to think, that wasn’t frightened of a challenge, that wanted to look at the world in new ways. If we have a demographic it’s what we’d call “urban indie”.

So we had this anti-establishment readership, and we had a bunch of books we refused to edit to “be commercial” (a very different thing from refusing to edit them – some of our books have been edited to death: the point is we did it the way WE wanted to). And we had an angry, group mentality, and an almost political approach to the publishing industry.

So the answer was obvious. We needed a manifesto. THAT is our “imprint”, our rallying call, and the thing that draws our readers in. And it’s a very simple one – restoring the direct conversation between reader and writer. “Uncut prose” unsullied by arbiters of taste. It’s about a reader-writer relationship that’s mature enough to do without a chaperone.

So for us the manifesto has tied everything together. It’s given us focus; it differentiates our work from the mainstream and lets readers know what to expect; it makes a virtue of what some would see as a defect; and it’s the building block of a very simple strategy.

  1. Attract readers to us with our manifesto
  2. Make our work free in e-format so people can get to know us once we have their attention – from Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair, the sampler featuring original prose from 13 of us to the full versions of our novels
  3. Deliver the best books we possibly can to keep readers once they’re interested

So my advice if you’re looking at starting a collective and you can’t think what your niche is. Ask yourself what it is you all have in common – no matter how obscure or angry or negative that might seem to be. And make it your unifying strength, your rallying call.

Dan Holloway is co-founder of Year Zero Writers, a regular blogger on independent culture, and organiser of the Free-e-day festival. The first three novels form Year Zero Writers are: Benny Platonov by Oli Johns, Glimpses of a Floating World by Larry Harrison, and Songs from the Other Side of the Wall by Dan Holloway.

Possibly Related Posts:

Category: Guest Bloggers · Publishing
  • http://www.smashwords.com/books/view/3308 Dan Holloway

    Thank you so much for hosting me. I look forward to answering any and all questions :-)

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    One question, Dan: can anyone join Year Zero, or do your writers first have to be screened to be sure they fit with the manifesto? And if you do (and I believe you do – it’s only logical to do so) who does the picking? How do you decide?

  • http://www.yearzerowriters.wordpress.com Dan Holloway

    Ooh, now there’s a question. Originally we stumbled into existence. 20 is a perfect number I think, but obviously people come and go (those in the rugby playing world will understand the metaphor of the rolling maul). The criteria for entry are quite stringent. I don’t want to sound authoritarian or philistine, but being well-known and trusted is almost as high as anything else – if we give someone the password to the website and the right to use our name we’re taking a heck of a risk – our name is the one thing we really have, and one rotten apple could ruin it for all of us.

    The other criteria, especially now we are drawing from a bigger pool and have a wider choice, are that people’s work really tightly fits the contemporary fiction, urban indie niche; that they share our values as expressed in the manifesto; and probably more and more taht they are doing interesting things online so as to expand our reach, and make it a more exciting place to be. Oh, and being absolutely drop-dead brilliant is a prerequisite.

    Two more answers: we are not currently looking for new members – we just added a new tranche. But if people are interested in joining us in the future that’s great – and (I had a long discussion on this with Richard Nash about his Cursor group over at: http://loudpoet.com/2009/09/29/6qs-richard-eoin-nash-social-publisher ) although we do not have and never will have an inner and outer circle – that’s just patronising – we are all as happy to promote the work of people outside YZ as we are those inside.

    Selection – we’d like to perpetuate the myth that we’re a mysterious cabalistic sect. In fact what happens is one of us says “have you seen x, y, or z! They’re amazing!” and next time we’re looking for members I invite them in.

  • http://www.novelr.com Eli James

    I don’t want to sound authoritarian or philistine, but being well-known and trusted is almost as high as anything else – if we give someone the password to the website and the right to use our name we’re taking a heck of a risk – our name is the one thing we really have, and one rotten apple could ruin it for all of us.

    That strikes me as particularly true. I’m not sure if you’ve heard of it, but there’s this idea making rounds recently, that in order to survive, as a publisher, you’ve got to built up a core audience the way magazines have for the past four decades or so. Find the readers first, and then find the words they want. They’re attached to your brand the way people are attached to, say, The New Yorker (in that they know what content they’re getting), or … if we look at a publishing house: McSweeney’s.

    Of course, the problem with collective brand over authorial brand would be that – as individual writers – you can’t build up a community clustered around yourself as much as you might be able to, had you been writing alone. But I guess that’s all a matter of balance, and perspective.

  • http://www.yearzerowriters.wordpress.com Dan Holloway

    Yes, that’s essentially kevin Kelley’s 1,000 true fans isn’t it? And I have to say I think he’s 100% right.

    I DO think you can blend group and individual – that’s what were starting to do with our blog – I want us to be like the Beat Poets, the Abstract Expressionists, or Andy’s Factory – people love the group, but theyhave their favourites. A rather less highbrow analogy would be a boyband :p

  • http://gavinwilliams.digitalnovelists.com G.S. Williams

    Eli — I’m kind of glad I didn’t write that article I was thinking of now. ;)

    I think that writers need to tap into the collective, collaborative power of the internet more. By branding, or building a label/stable, where resources are pooled, the advertising base could be bigger. Things like online youtube trailers, conventions, tshirts and merchandise would become more possible.

    Banding together and acting like a small-publishing house (operating with very little overhead) would allow us to accomplish more, and faster, than working as independents, but we’d still be free of the traditional publishing paradigm.

  • http://www.yearzerowriters.wordpress.com Dan Holloway

    “By branding, or building a label/stable, where resources are pooled, the advertising base could be bigger. Things like online youtube trailers, conventions, tshirts and merchandise would become more possible.”

    That’s exactly it. Aside from the fact you have more bodies (without, like you say, losing your flexibility and focus) to get the word out, you have a wider skill-set. Not everyone can make videos, design T-shitrs, put together an e-newsletter, project manage a book launch, netwok, write and disseminate press releases, AND schmooze editors – even if they DID have the time. Put 20 people together and the chances are at least one of you will be able to do each of those things.