Monday 22 June 2009

Who are Year Zero?

There are 20 of us, ranging from the shy who work behind the scenes for the time being to the media floosies amongst us like Oli and I. I think the number we have is about right for what we’re doing, and the way we work, which is as democratic as possible without grinding to a total standstill. Given that at any one time half of us will be busy, any fewer and nothing would ever get done (and we wouldn’t have the range of skills to draw on). Given that there will always be differences of opinion, any more and, er, nothing would ever get done.

So how did we end up with us? Well, there are two questions there. How did we end up with anyone? And how come it’s us 20 not another 20? And the most important thing, given this isn’t just a piece of navel-gazing but actually intended to be of some use if you decide you’d like to do something similar, is how should you go about choosing the members of your collective?

So let’s start with us. Well, as with 99% of these things, most of it just sort of fell into place a bit chaotically. So if you’re reading this for tips you’re already well ahead of where we were! At the end of 2008 a number of us on a couple of my favourite online writing sites, Harper Collins’ Authonomy, and the critiquing group The Book Shed, started talking about the future of publishing, and the possibilities new technology offered for outflanking the established industry (the exact ins and outs are another post altogether), and we realised there was a great chance for a group of niche-focused, motivated writers with some great books. Fortunately, because I was the gobbiest, I got let off the last of these requirements.

So when, in January, I announced I was going to start a collective, there was a preformed constituency to choose from, consisting of all of us who’d been talking. I seriously doubt, if any of us had simply announced we were starting something from scratch and begun approaching people, we’d have got anywhere fast. As with everything in the creative world, these things are built on relationships. And that’s a good thing, especially if you’re doing it online, because you’ve got to be absolutely sure you’re getting on board with the right people.

Most of our membership came by that route. But there were a couple of places left to fill, which meant approaching people. So how on earth do you decide whom to approach? Well, the obvious disqualifier is forum behaviour. I think I can genuinely say this didn’t affect us. Possibly because it was back in what now seem the halcyon days of beautifully-etiquetted threads, possibly because I’m a gullible twit, I didn’t ever think, “Ooh, I want their book, but no, they’re a prize plonker.” It’s certainly the main bit of advice I’d give, though. I’d never deal with someone I’d witnessed trolling or flaming or partaking in any other jargonese metaphor. No matter how good their book. It’s something I say a lot on forums when people moan and moan about not getting an agent. If I were an agent looking through the forums, that alone would rule out working with them. And if I were an agent – or someone starting a collective – I WOULD look.

So how did we decide? Well, it was quite simple. First off, like any agent or publisher, we wanted books that had a voice. Most important of all for a collective, though, is that you all fit quite a tight niche. The reasoning’s simple. The advantage of a collective is that you’ve got lots of people to work targeting the same market any one of you would have to reach on your own. You’re divvying up the chores, and building a brand people in that market can come to trust. As soon as you have books that push the limit of the niche, you’re expanding the workload not focusing it. And whilst there will obviously be books you like more than others in an imprint, in order to create brand loyalty you have to consistently hit the same buttons, so people know what kind of read they’re in for.

We already hand some brand identity because we had – if not at that stage a manifesto – a set of rallying principles: we were going to deliver books as the authors wanted them to appear, unedited to fit preconceptions of taste and market. We were, essentially, a bit anarchic and 100% indie. Which created its own problems – if you’re not dictating content, how do you ensure brand identity?

What actually emerged from some soul-searching was that we were all doing the same kind of thing for the same kind of people. We were writing slightly edgy contemporary literary fiction (the kind of book the publishing industry isn’t geared up to deal with because the market is just a bit too small), and we were writing it for an urban indie audience – the kind of book you’d see people reading while they sat on Camden Lock smoking; the kind of book people would take out of the back pocket of their skinnies on the Tube.

The authors we approached had to be the ones who wrote this kind of thing.

The reaction, at both stages, was mixed. Which was a good thing because we didn’t end up with 100 people in the group. But a bad thing because we missed out on a couple of the books we really wanted. The reason why was usually – and completely understandably – the same. People either wanted to see how we got on before committing. Or they wanted to exhaust other avenues first. So where does that leave us with regard to them? Well, my personal approach is the door’s always open. The right books, written by lovely people, are always welcome. Yes, I have a list. There are between 10 and 20 names on it. I hope for their sake they don’t come to us, because that would mean they’ve made it. But I hope for our sake they do.

We’re not taking on new people at the moment (the exceptions being those on “the list”) partly because we’ve been through a huge amount together and – despite being based in the UK, USA, Hong Kong, Spain, Greece, Finland, and France – have knitted into an incredibly strong group. Now is the wrong time to unbalance that and risk losing focus. It wouldn’t be fair on newcomers either. Anyone joining up this close to a major release would have to just accept a whole lot of things we’ve agonised over and just aren’t up for negotiation any more.

But once the first books are out there and, I hope, flourishing, that’ll change. Our membership isn’t cast in stone. People are free to leave, and take their book with them, at any time. We are the antithesis of a record label. We are all self-publishers. We have no financial or intellectual property ties to each other. We can come and go as we please. We’ve made sure to make this freedom of movement clear in our Articles of Association.

How do I see us evolving? Well, people will come and go, and I imagine in 10 years we will look very different. I don’t even know if there will be a core membership. But Year Zero will be the same, and its strength will be the same – a commitment to giving readers the very best contemporary fiction, straight from the author’s keyboard; a commitment to building the trust and respect between writers and their readers.

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