The Co-Op Press: Many hands make light work

by Gabrielle Mathieu

In Aspiring to Author, Megan Haskell and Greta Boris describe the different routes to publication. There’s conventional publishing, publishing with a small press, and self-publishing. I’d like to share with you my own personal route to publishing, which involved finding a co-op press.

What is a Co-Op Press?

Co-op presses lie somewhere between self-publishing, and publishing with a small press. There are only a few co-op presses in existence, and the two I know best are our own, Five Directions Press, and Triskele Books—both of which are at full capacity. Others out there, please speak up and weigh in. My guess is that co-op publishing is rare, because it depends on an enormous amount of goodwill, idealism, and trust. It also requires finding a group of people that have the diverse skills needed for publishing.

When it works, it’s great.

The idea behind a co-op press is that self-publishing is difficult. Each author not only has to write but to edit, typeset, proofread, and design her own books and covers, negotiate various online publishing services, and then market the books to a world of readers inundated with choices. In traditional or even small presses, the publisher provides most of those functions, although marketing has increasingly become the responsibility of authors. Self-published authors either have to learn all those skills or buy them, in which case those “free” books end up costing thousands of dollars. The market in “author services” is huge.

In a co-op press, the authors place their talents at the disposal of the group. Our press was founded in the Philadelphia region by three women: our romance author Courtney J. Hall provides us with professionally designed covers and prepares press releases and newsletters; C.P. Lesley copyedits and typesets our books, as well as providing tech support and maintaining our website; and Ariadne Apostolou does developmental editing.

Our Founders

All three of our founders write under pen names, for various reasons. They met in a writing group in 2008 and have worked together ever since. By 2012, Ariadne and C. P. had complete novels and Courtney was finishing the first draft of her historical novel Some Rise by Sin, set during Mary Tudor’s reign. The only problem was, as they discovered from agents and editors, that the books weren’t set in times or places that would make them desirable acquisitions for commercial publishing houses. No Jane Austen remakes, no zombies, even Mary was not the “right” Tudor on whom to focus.

The three founders decided to make a virtue out of necessity and established a press that would focus on “literary journeys less traveled.” Because it so happened that C. P. Lesley had 20 years experience as an editor/typesetter, Courtney J. Hall owned a graphics design business, and Ariadne Apostolou not only holds a degree in art history but has an extraordinary gift for identifying story flaws, they decided to self-publish together, and Five Directions Press was born. The name, which comes from eastern cosmology, refers to the creation of harmony out of diversity, which is our goal for the co-op.

From 2012 until 2016, the three founders published mostly their own work, although they did include several memoirs by friends and family who were not full-time members. I became the fourth active member. After querying more than fifty agents for my dark fantasy novel, The Falcon Flies Alone, I decided to concentrate on small presses. When I came across Five Directions Press, which reflects on the same eastern theme as my acupuncture business name, Five Elements, I took that as a good sign. Still, I was pleasantly surprised when I received a personalized response, and even more surprised when all three read and commented on my novel within a matter of weeks. When I was asked to join, I was delighted.

The Co-Op Appeal

We now have seven active members. All of us place value on excellent writing, and none of us are looking to make a profit through the work we do for other members. We volunteer our services and pay our own publication costs, which remain minimal. We all have different motivations for our participation. Our press allows us to remain true to our interests and expertise, even when those don’t have mass-market appeal.

C.P.s historical series is set in 16th-century Russia, while the geeky heroine of my fantasy series lives in 1950s Switzerland. (Don’t you want to rewrite it to be in the U.S., a prospective publisher asked? I didn’t.) Ariadne Apostolou writes rich character studies of contemporary women in transition. Courtney J. Hall loves the chance to polish her skills at cover design alongside her writing and enjoys being able to switch back and forth between historical fiction and her series of contemporary holiday romances.

Two of our newest members, lawyer Claudia Long and editor Joan Schweighardt, had fiction published with Booktrope. With the demise of Booktrope, Five Directions Press reissued their recent novels. Our other West Coast member, Denise Steele, is in a San Francisco book club with Claudia. She stays busy with her grandchildren and her non-profit but loves working with C.P. Lesley, because they both have a bond to Scotland.

No Rules, Just High Standards & Respect

Our press has almost no rules or requirements—just adherence to a high standard. Once a member is accepted and published, future work is still evaluated, just as it would be in any small press. We do all commit to improving our work, which generally means accepting and implementing recommendations. Further contact between members varies widely, depending on availability and common interest. Frankly, I think our process works as well as it does because our founding members have big hearts, and the rest of us try not to take advantage of their generosity. Each of us contributes what we can. For instance, I’m the PR person, mostly because we have enough editors.

The financial savings of the co-op press are definitely a plus, but the big hearts are what give me joy. My associates have enough belief in my work to donate their time and e-mail me when I’m down, and they trust me enough to honestly share their own challenges. I’ve made friends, friends whose work and dedication I respect.

We still have the challenge of getting our work to the public’s attention, like most writers do. Thousands of authors are self-publishing their work, and the commercial houses are scouring backlists for books to republish via print-on-demand, making the environment more competitive than ever before. But as a co-operative press, we maximize our marketing efforts by supporting each other, tweeting and posting about all the books we produce. Triskele Books hosts events as a collective; for example, literature festivals in the United Kingdom. With three Five Directions Press members on the East Coast, three in the West, and one in Europe, we’re not likely to show up all at one place.

Though you never know…

Perhaps now you’ll be inspired to start your co-op?

Would you like to keep up with Five Directions Press? You can sign up for our quarterly newsletter by scrolling to the bottom of our home page: https://www.fivedirectionspress.com/

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Acupuncturist by day, Gabrielle Mathieu is the author of the dark fantasy Falcon series. She lives in Switzerland with her literary-minded husband and playful pit-bull mix. You can find out more about Gabrielle and her books on her website: http://gabriellemathieu.com/.

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