Thursday, 10 December 2009

Collective Appeal: The Book View Cafe

We might think we're quite cool at Year Zero but The Book View Cafe is not just the best known writers' collective on the planet, it's fast approaching Sub Zero. So I was absolutely stoked when Sue Lange agreed to speak to me about the SF collective that's causing such a stir.

You can find Sue Lange at the Book View Cafe (with links to ebooks and free stuff) as well as on her personal webpage and blog.

Her two novels, Tritcheon Hash, and We, Robots are availble from Amazon

Here's what Sue had to say:

1. How do you decide on a name when there are so many of you? How did BVC come about as a name?

Funny you should ask. The name was, in fact, the very first thing we haggled over. We started out as "Online Bookshelf." We decided it was too boring. Then we moved on to "Reads" something or other. Then we had everybody list possibilities. We sifted through probably a hundred names. We had arguments over what it was we wanted to get across. We were an all-girl entity back then and the only thing we agreed on immediately was that we didn't want the site to be pink and girly so we had to come up with something gender generic. We decided we wanted to go with neutral colors for the site and coffee motifs go well with that. Coffee and books go together almost as well as coffee and cigarets so everything came together quickly once somebody mentioned caffeine.

2. Imagine BVC was a real cafe. Tell me about the decor

It's relaxing, yet moody. A great place to intellectualize or veg out. You stop in for a cappuchino and stay for a while. Stay all night, hell, we don't care. Patrons sit in beat up leather sofas interspersed with airport furniture. We're very eclectic and casual in our taste. Every sofa has a stack of well worn magazines with titles running the gamut from The Economist to Interview to Bride's to Scientific American. Every table has a set-up that includes stir sticks, a paper napkin dispenser, stack of book marks, and used Kindle Oberons. The ones in the back include Turkish hashpipe hookahs. Our patrons tend to be health nuts so the pipes rarely get used, but they're there if you need them.
The floor is a black and white checkerboard overlain with huge Keith Haring figures.
The walls are lined with bookshelves. Unabridged dictionaries lay open on stands here and there about the room for that atavistic feel. Free Wifi fills the air as does music from ACDC played at barely perceptible levels. We don't like to cover the sound of the steam from the machines.
The patrons are the best decor any cafe could wish for. They are all the characters in the books we write: aliens, tortured souls, lumbering giants, homunculi, succubi, vampires, bats, rats, cats, unfaithful spouses, damaged adults, disaffected teens, losers, winners, sidewinders, and rascals. Once in a while a protagonist shows up. That's when ACDC gets cranked to full vol.

3. Were you always 100% clear on where you wanted to take BVC or have you found yourselves changing direction as you went?

We have changed but we're also pretty much on track. We evaluate where we are every six months. Actually I think we do that moment to moment, but we do take a vote every six months. on whether or not we want to keep going. When we started we wanted to see if we could figure out what the big deal with Internet publishing and ebooks was. We mostly wanted to figure out how to get our out of print stuff back into the public's hands. After we started growing and saw that we could in fact attract readers to our site and our work, we started to talk about charging money. That was a few months ago. Once we saw that people would actually pay for our work, we started an actual press: Book View Press. We're now almost at the point of taking ourselves seriously. In other words we're wondering about legalities. We keep hoping to stave that off as long as possible, but we're starting to become an Entity, so there you go.

4. You're best known, I guess, for SF but on your site you have a wide variety of genres. How do you think of yourselves?

Each one of us thinks of us in terms of how they use the site, but collectively I think we do believe we're a part of the science fiction community. SF includes fantasy and even horror sometimes so that right there includes three genres. But we do want to branch out more. We're especially trying to come up with ways to serve the romance community. Apparently romance readers are the biggest consumers of ebooks. We have some romance, but I think we're going to try and get some more on the site.

5. The question I most want to ask, from my experiences of running a website for a collective of authors who seem to go collectively apathetic or hyperactive, is do you have a roster for posting?

I'm not sure what you mean by that. Do you mean a schedule? Yes, we do and we are very strict with it. Each author is assigned a day to post fiction and that's their day. We hope each author has something once a week. It's not a requirement, but it's something we look for. The blog is also scheduled. Usually a member blogs on the same day they post fiction but it's not a requirement.

6. How does your position within the BVC fit with the rest of your writing life?

My position is in media relations and it is very time consuming. Internet promotion can easily get out of hand. There are so many places to spend time. So much interesting stuff to become a part of. I have enough to do as an author, now I'm looking out for BVC. And opportunities for the collective are bigger and more interesting than for me as a writer so I tend to have more fun promoting BVC than my little old self. I make sure I write fiction at least an hour a day just for myself, but that's not really enough. So many ideas, so little time. And with multimedia, I want to try so many things but formatting sound files, video files, coordinating real life activities, it all takes so much time. I get the feeling I'm getting a lot done but it's probably all crappy. At least I'm having fun!

7. To what extent are you separate individuals who share a common passion for the dircet contact with treaders the internet brings, and to what extent do youwork together - albeit in your own ways - on common projects and questions? For example, when you put your anthologies together, do you find yourselves each contributing a story or do you talk and find that common themes of interest emerge that you explore as a group?

Each member has a different experience with BVC. Some are with us just to take advantage of the opportunities, but most of us contribute to the running of the joint in some way or another. And the various projects have different personnel working on them. The science fiction anthology probably wouldn't have any fantasy-only authors and vice versa. We do stuff out in the Internet too, like our twitter fic contests. Four or five us run a contest. The next contest might be a different set of four or five. Common interests do emerge, projects might come out of that. Once a project has run its course, though, we move on to the next thing, the next group of writers, the next promo opportunity.

8. Tell me about the decision to add an author blog.

That was with us from the beginning I believe. I don't remember a time when we didn't have that. Blogs were all the rage at the time. I guess they still are. We didn't want to have just a blog, even though our site is a bit blog-like what with the new content every day. But the blog was for audience participation because the site doesn't accommodate that.

9. What is the mix of back catalogue and new material on the site?

Most of it is back catalogue. However, one reason BVC exists is for the authors to be able to experiment with the new and weird. So experimental work does exist. I put my serialized novel, The Textile Planet, up because I wanted to try some stuff with multimedia. Nancy Jane Moore wanted to experiment with flash fiction. Almost all her stuff at the site is new and exclusive to BVC. Since we started Book View Press we've talked more about new titles. Our first brand new full length book will be launched next week. It's a steampunk anthology with about ten of us contributing stories to a shared world. It's called The Shadow Conspiracy: Tales from the Age of Steam.

10. What do you think a group like this gives readers that they weren't getting already?

We give readers that haven't read our out-of-print material a chance to do so. For instance, Vonda's "Dreamsnake" was a Hugo and Nebula award-winning book. That should still be available to the public but before BVC it wasn't. Now it is. Also we give readers a chance to sample our members' work for free. Each one of us has some free fiction at the site. And we're all previously published in the print world so it's not just a bag of rags at the site.

11. What do your agents/publishers REALLY think of you doing this?

I don't think any of the publishers are against us. We, as the BVC entity, don't have formal relationships with any of them, but none of the authors have reported any negativity on the part of their publishers or agents. Often when the group has a question about what we should be doing about this or that, one of us will contact his or her agent for advice. In the upheaving publishing industry, everyone is trying to figure this out. No one wants to be compared to the recording industry which seems to have missed out on new and possibly lucrative distribution channels. I think they're pushing for us, hoping we'll figure something out so they can then figure out how they'll fit into the picture. The publishers may be laughing at us for all I know, but they certainly haven't sent any negative vibes our way.

12. I want to ask somethig about the future of digital publishing but there are so many questions, most of which are hackneyed or trite, so how about: if there's a question you thinkpeople should be asking about ebooks but aren't, what is it?

When will the price of e-readers come down?

There's a larger question I wonder about too. What will happen with the supposed loss of gatekeepers and the subsequent flood of non-professional (i.e. unedited) writing available all over the place. Will things get sorted out and some other gatekeeping system be put in place so writers will have to eventually develop a polished approach before they get their stuff out there? I guess I'm really asking: what's going to happen with quality in writing?


  1. Wow, this was fascinating.

    Maybe BVC could take over the Borders space in Oxford . . . assuming it DOES become a real bookstore? I do hope all of those supernatural creatures behave themselves, though.

  2. Hi! I seem to have been living in Borders recently, ferreting around for clearance bargains - it feels like a really grubby pleasure - great to get so many bargains, but all kinds of implications.

    I went into the Albion Beatnik again yesterday - I'm going to be running a monthly creative writing group there in 2010, which is very exciting - I DO hope Borders' loss is their gain.

  3. Great interview, Dan. Love to see smart collectives working together!

  4. Thanks, Guy - it has been a delight getting to know Sue, and having an insight into how other collecvtives work. And her comment on timetabling days for people to upload content has been duly noted for our reference!