“An artist collective is an initiative that is the result of a group of artists working together, usually under their own management, towards shared aims.”
Creativity flourishes in an environment that fosters it, and feeds on ideas and energy from other artists. The city I live in – Guelph, in southern Ontario – has an amazing arts community, with a vibrant book culture, incredible music, visual arts, dance, slam poetry, and several small presses. But those small presses, as wonderful as they are (I have a short-story chapbook published by one of them, so yes, I’m a little biased) are primarily focused on literary fiction, poetry, and experimental writing. A genre press wasn’t part of the mix.
When I began Arboretum Press, I wasn’t sure where I was going with it. I’d had an indie publisher for my first book; they went out of business. I decided – with some encouragement from other small press folks here – to set up my own. The first book written by someone else that Arboretum Press published was under a financial arrangement, a percentage of sales. That money went towards sponsorship of our local book festival. But even that didn’t sit well with me. I have no need to make money, and I have a deeply ingrained belief in cooperatives and collectives as a way to build community and make resources available to a wide range of people.
What I began to envision was a group of people sharing skills to help each other produce the best books we could, utilizing e-book and print-on-demand technologies and distribution systems, at the least possible cash outlay needed to create a professional, high-quality product. I started to talk about it, at my writers’ groups, and the informal coffee-shop hang-outs organized by a non-profit organization that supports and promotes writers here in Guelph. And after not very long, I had a group of people willing to give it a try. We range from 30ish to 70+ in age; our skill-sets – other than writing – include all the aspects of editing, layout and design expertise, face-to-face promotion, workshop leadership – and other skills we probably don’t know we have yet.
We’re still evolving, but what we’re doing right now looks like this: N has a manuscript they’d like to publish. One or more of us read it (we may well already have been beta-readers or critique partners, though) and if there’s agreement that it’s worthy, we take it on. K is a good copy-editor, and great at dialogue. T knows every aspect of structure. M (that’s me) is good at interior book design and layout.
So we agree to publish the book. T works with N to review structure, and revise if necessary. K reads the revised book and gives feedback. I line edit. Someone else copy-edits. This may go on for a round or two. Meanwhile, N, whose book it is, is beta-reading or copy-editing someone else’s manuscript. When N’s book is ready for publication, I handle layout and interior book design, knowing that when my next book is ready, I have my critique and editorial team in place. Our promotion and workshop expert L handles the arrangement for the book launch, and MCs it, because that’s what she’s good at, in exchange for the editorial and production work on her book.
We don’t (yet) have the expertise to do everything. Cover design is still contracted out. A social media/SEO person would be very useful. But our limitations are known up-front to everyone who participates, and people are free to leave with their book at any time, even after publication (although without the ISBN, which is registered to the press. But this is Canada, where they’re free, and the process of deregistering and applying for a new one is a few clicks of a mouse.)
Our local indie bookstore, which carries our paperbacks, has been very complimentary of our books. They look professional, they tell me, with high production values. Each book looks better than its predecessor, as my expertise increases in that area.
Our average cost to a member of the collective to produce a finished book is running about $250 Canadian dollars right now, if they use the recommended cover designer (and if they want a paperback. Not everyone does. It’s less than half that if it’s e-book only.) We’re demanding about cover design: it must look professional, not mislead as to genre, and work as an Amazon thumbnail. At least three of us see the cover designs, and we have to agree about which one is going to be used. Each author sets up their own KDP account (and other distributors if that’s their choice) and royalties go directly to them.
At this point I’m still the central organizer, in part because I am the layout and design person, and the number of books we can handle depends largely on that aspect right now. (And the business is registered in my name, for now.) But someone else will learn layout, sooner or later, or someone who already has those skills will join us for a year or two. Collectives are fluid, usually, meeting for some a short-term need, and for some a longer one.
Finally, the beauty of this age of electronic communication is that we don’t all need to be in the same place. Our face-to-face meetings take place in one of several downtown Guelph indie cafes that welcome writers and laptops and long discussions over coffee. But I spend winters away, and our cover designer is in England. As long as we all have computers and the internet, the work gets done, books are produced and published, and another dream is fulfilled, for an investment primarily of time, passion, and commitment to each individual in the collective. A community creating books.