Over the past year, there’s been a self-publishing experiment taking place in the Calgary branch of the Romance Writers of America. (CARWA, members of which are known under the apt moniker “Carwackians.”) I’ve been an interested observer. Now that the Bandit Creek Series has matured, and can provide lessons and data, CaRWA’s third-time president joins me for a candid conversation.
Tawny Stokes, aka Vivi Anna, has been writing since 2002. She began by publishing short stories for men’s magazines before moving on to write novels. In 2005, within a period of one week, she landed her first agent and New York publisher. Since then, she’s published close to 17 books and novellas for Harlequin, Kensington and Avon in a variety of genres: paranormal romance, urban fantasy, sci-fi, and young adult.
She’s self-published 9 projects, only 3 of which were formerly through epublishers.
Tempted to call her a slacker? Then you should know Tawny has deep interests in TV-script-writing. She has a TV pilot in development with Bogner Entertainment, and among other awards, she finaled in both the Austin Film Festival and Slamdance Film Festival with her adapted TV pilot, Occult Crime Unit. You might know her as one of the co-founders of the popular #TVwriterchat on Twitter.
Jan: Set the stage for us, Tawny. Can you describe the scene and catalyst which led to the cooperative’s formation?
Tawny: It was after our chapter general meeting. Jade Buchanan and I were giving a talk on the different ways to publish, discussing epublishing and self-publishing. When I’m passionate about something, I get a wee bit animated and that day was no exception. I was explaining about one of the cool things about self-publishing – that an author could write a book with a friend, another author, or even a huge group of authors. I pointed to someone in the crowd and said, “I could write a book with you.” Then I looked at everyone and said, “I could write a book with all of you.” That’s when I saw the spark in those 20 sets of eyes. The mood was instantly electric.
Then I said, “Let’s do it. Let’s write a connected book series together.”
When the brainstorming started, it was amazing. I’d never felt creative energy like that before. It made me even more excited. But I remember the next day I emailed DL Snow and said, “What the hell did we just do?”
Can you give us an idea of the baseline level of expertise within the “Banditos?”
Initially at the meeting we had about 20 people, and I ended up emailing another 10 people affiliated with CARWA to see if they wanted in on the idea. After everyone chimed in, we ended up with 31 authors and 32 stories, because I was going to write the first and the last.
There are 4 traditionally published authors involved, with a combined total of 59 traditionally published books. Three previously epublished authors, with combined total of 36 books. One author is an established playwright, and another has sold several short stories and done several articles for the Romance Writers Report. I was the only one self-published at the time. The remaining authors were previously unpublished in any format.
Can you elaborate on the scope of the project? Beyond their actual manuscript, what would any one member be expected to contribute?
We did up a very detailed schedule, chronicling every step of the process. Every member was expected to:
- finish their story on time, a month and half before release date
- send it to their beta readers – the next two people behind them in the schedule
- do the edits, then send it to the formatter. (We initially had one person doing this, but have since changed that and basically everyone has learned how to do their own formatting.)
- They needed to have their excerpt and Carla Roma interview to the series’ webmistress two weeks in advance. Oh, and they all needed to work with our cover designer to create their cover, which has a specific design.
Beyond that, everyone is expected to support the authors in the group by purchasing the books, tweeting, and Facebooking at the time of release. We have a release party every two weeks, on our Facebook fan page. Not everyone participates, but we advocate that they do.
As for costs, everyone is responsible for paying for their own covers. We cut other costs by having an in-house formatter and then everyone learning it themselves, and we used each other for editing. We have 31 authors. That’s a lot of good eyes, catching mistakes and whatnot.
For an endeavor like this to be effective, I see the need to establish and maintain a cohesive vision. Let’s talk practicalities. What measures turned out to be helpful? Did anything prove disappointing?
Having a detailed schedule was invaluable, especially having to deal with 31 authors who all have other books they are working on and lives outside of writing.
Having one cover designer doing all the covers was perfect; that way, all the covers look the same, have the same feel. Plus, we were able to work out a discount deal due to the amount of covers. So that saved everyone money.
We wrote a series bible and created detailed town maps. That was very helpful for everyone, so they could refer to it when needed without having to email individual people about this and that.
Our Yahoo loop is also invaluable to discuss every aspect of the project. And we’ve had a group in-person meeting, which was awesome, and resparked everyone’s creative fires. We plan on having another soon, to go over marketing plans. Everything we’ve done was helpful. I can’t think of anything that was disappointing.
The Bandit Creek Series contains a mixture of lengths and a mixture of genres, ranging from horror, to romance, to YA and MG. Some novellas were set in the present, others in the past. The one commonality to your stories is the setting – a fictitious town in Montana. Did that work to your advantage or disadvantage?
Having the town connecting the stories was fantastic. It made it fun to write and, I think, fun to read.
The one thing I wouldn’t do again was have a mixture of genres. That was a mistake. If we had done them all contemp romance or even a mix of contemp and historical I think it would’ve worked better, but a mixture just doesn’t work. Because a lot of readers have preferred genres that they read. I know I do. It will be a rare thing for me to read an adult contemporary or historical novel. We lost some cohesiveness when we decided to do that.
At the time, I just didn’t want to limit people to what they could write. I didn’t want to implement strict guidelines, like publishers would do. This was indie pubbing and I wanted it to be INDIE, giving everyone the choice to write what they felt most comfortable writing. If we had limited it to one genre, I don’t believe we would have had the authors participating like we have.
This was definitely an experiment. And it was both fun and frustrating, but I wouldn’t have done too much differently. This project got writers in this chapter WRITING, and not only that, but they each experienced deadlines and they’ve accomplished something. That’s saying a lot. I personally think that CARWA is one of the most active and successful chapters out there. We have 50 members and I’d say close to 35 of them are writing every day and finishing projects and actively seeking publication – either submitting to agents/editors, pursuing epublishing, or self-publishing them on their own.
I am proud of every single member in this chapter.
If any of our readers contemplate a similar project, what would you tell them?
- Have a detailed schedule and plan.
- Have a committee overseeing everything.
- Write in the same genre.
- Have fun with it.
Have you noticed benefits to your chapter beyond a given book’s sales?
Oh, my, the benefits have been spectacular. Because of this venture, almost every member of CARWA is on social media, blogging, tweeting, Facebooking like there is no tomorrow. Almost every single member is actively writing and pursuing publication in one form or another. They have all learned the value of marketing, all learned what goes into making a good book, with the editing and formatting and beta reading. They know the value of a great cover.
The support levels in this group have reached epic proportions. We are united as one, helping each other reach individual goals. The excitement on our loop and at meetings is unbelievable. It energizes me every day.
And beyond that, because of this project, some members have taken their careers by the balls and done amazing things. Several members have gone on to self-publish other titles, and are reaching great success. Steena Holmes is one such member. She’s pushed and worked and she’s now reaping the rewards. And I see several other members reaching that kind of success soon.
Tawny, is there a success story you can share in terms of sales?
Well, we’ve all had modest sales. I, for one, haven’t seen tons of sales, despite my big backlist. DL Snow’s Siren’s Song had 43000 downloads when she put it up for free on the KDP select program. When it came off, she had a lot of sales, over 2500. The next month she had less but it was still around 600, and now it has settled into about 75 a month. I, as well as another author, saw a big uptick in sales during that time. I sold well over 100. But since then it has dwindled back down again. I’d say the average amount of books being sold is 30-40 a month.
But we weren’t expecting huge sales. And now some of the authors are writing more books that will be connected to the story they did in Bandit Creek. I know I am going to be writing a series of thrillers using Kirsten Morgan, my heroine from my Bandit Creek book Lost.
Would you do it again?
Yes, but I wouldn’t do it on such a large scale. Now that we’re all a bit more savvy, I’d say you’re going to see many different collaborations coming out of this group. And I for one am beyond excited about the future of publishing and its possibilities.
Readers, that’s the end of the formal interview, but feel free to check out the Bandit Creek Series website and Facebook page. Tawny Stokes can be found on her website, on Twitter, or in her @authorViviAnna identity here.
If you have questions, take them to the comment section below. Tawny will do her best to respond.