Lynn Serafinn interviews the founder of Word Branch about their innovative cooperative publishing model. Could co-ops be a viable model for indie authors?
Last month, I stumbled upon a press release with the headline ‘Indie Publishing Company Succeeds with Unique Business Model’. As I’m interested in the publishing world as well as new business models, I had to check it out. I found out about a company called Word Branch (http://wordbranch.com), who describe themselves as ‘an independent publishing company that represents talented new and up and coming authors who need a venue to make their voices heard.’ Word Branch Publishing (WBP) is located in the heart of Appalachia in North Carolina and specializes in working authors in a variety of genres including science fiction, fantasy, spiritual, and young adult. But what I found most interesting was the fact that they use a cooperative business model. No one on the WBP team draws a salary—all team members work for a portion of the royalties, banking on the books becoming successes.
I was curious to know more. How well does this model work? How does the business stay afloat? Where did the idea come from? So, I sent an email to WBP founder Catherine Rayburn-Trobaugh and asked her if she would do a ‘virtual interview’ for our Spirit Authors readers. Graciously, she said yes. Below are her generous answers to the questions I sent her. Given I’ve been writing so much about self-publishing lately, I think her insights and experiences will be very interesting to anyone who has either been thinking of setting up a publishing company, or who is looking for one.
I welcome your feedback and comments below (and I’ll ask Catherine to reply to any that are directed to her).
Lynn: You said in the press release you had a professional background in both self-publishing and marketing. Tell us a bit about your experience before you started Word Branch.
Catherine: I have a Master’s in literature and writing and had wanted to get a PhD to make a career out of teaching at the college level. Unfortunately, or maybe fortunately, the time wasn’t right, and it never came to fruition. I have, however, 20 years experience of teaching college-level writing part time. My ‘day job’ has always been in marketing, mostly promotion, in a variety of industries including publishing.
Lynn: When and why did you get the idea to create an alternative type of publisher?
Catherine: After my husband retired from a 27-year career as a police detective in 2008, we moved to a remote mountain in western North Carolina. I knew that I was unlikely to find anything in marketing in the area so I created CRT Writing, which evolved into CRT Commercial Media, under which I did freelance writing. I was writing for a federal contract with the Small Business Administration when the funding ran out, and I wanted to try something different. In 2011, e-books were really starting to take off, and I was intrigued by the idea that self-publishing was not only a realistic possibility but that it empowers the writer to take control of his or her own book selling. I began self-publishing a series of books called The Guides for the Befuddled on topics of writing and literature and my bookThe Field Guide to Telecommuting. At the prodding of some friends, I registered Word Branch Publishing, and I began publishing other authors.
From my own experience in the publishing industry, I knew that I couldn’t compete with the major players, nor did I want to become just like them. I saw an industry that, although steeped in tradition, was bloated and inefficient. I also saw that big houses were forced into making major changes to stay in business because of e-publishing and advances in print-on-demand publishing.
I also knew that not only did I not have the capital to begin a traditional publishing company—office and warehouse space, a staff of editors, proofreaders and artists, massive print runs—I didn’t want to emulate a system that I saw as outdated and badly damaged, if not broken. I think our timing was right; instead of trying to catch up, we are leading the pack.
Lynn: Can you describe how the cooperative business model for Word Branch works? Why is this important?
Catherine: It is literally a cooperative of dedicated and talented people working toward the success of the books we publish. Although this isn’t a new idea, as a for-profit publishing company, I haven’t seen one that works in the same way. Everyone involved, including me, works only for a percentage of the royalty. This takes a tremendous leap of faith since this is the first time most of our authors have been published. We also all work remotely, and since I wrote a book on telecommuting, this seems only natural. This way we can tap into talent anywhere. To keep our costs down, all books are electronically published, which is the backbone of the company, and most are published as print-on-demand (POD) paperbacks as well. Not only does this keep shipping costs down and eliminate warehouse space, but it also keeps our carbon footprint to a minimum which is part of WBP’s commitment. In addition, it allows us to return a greater portion of the profits to the writers and support—some of the highest in the industry.
Lynn: How many authors/books have you published so far? Do you have a specific niche?
Catherine: Currently we are working with 11 authors who have a total of 24 books. I’m in the process of signing several more including our first European author. We don’t have a specific niche; although, WBP tends to publish more science fiction and young adult.
Lynn: What’s your biggest success story to date?
Catherine: I think all of our authors are success stories, but there are some rising stars. Stacy Bender was our first author to be published, and I have seen her grow as a writer and really branch out into new areas. Currently, she and writer Reid Minnich are editing a science fiction anthology for WBP as well as writing their own books. Young adult writer Jeri Maynard, who writes under the name jerjonji, has found a loyal following of not only teens but readers of all ages. She also has a made-for-TV movie from one of her screenplays being produced in Asia. Michael Hawk Spisak’s Full Circle has become a real cult classic with devoted followers.
Lynn: You say your staff doesn’t take a salary. How does that work? How do you ensure everyone (including your company) can ‘pay the rent’?
Catherine: When anyone approaches me about working with Word Branch, I make it very clear that there are no guarantees and by no means can this be considered a full-time job—yet. They understand that any money coming in may be minimal in the beginning and will take time to accrue. As a result, we have a very dedicated team who not only work hard as editors and readers but as marketers too. The more successful a book is, the more money they can make. In addition, everyone works as an independent contractor so they guide how much time they can afford to put into WBP.
Since we are a young company, I do what nearly all entrepreneurs do—I don’t take any money from WBP and I put all of my own royalties back into the company while we are in the building phase. I’ve also dragged my husband out of retirement to lend a hand. His support has been essential to our success. I anticipate from the amount of current sales that by our third year in business, we should be solvent and debt free, quite a feat for any company.
While we have a number of committed people working with us, I have to give special credit to the person who has been instrumental in giving Word Branch Publishing a unique look: artist Julian Norwood. He came to me in the beginning as a newly graduated art student and promised me covers that stand out, and he has fulfilled that promise and more. Nearly all of our covers are created from original paintings just as the classic covers were decades ago. I don’t know of any publishing company, large or small, that can make that claim. Because we haven’t fallen into the trap of generic stock photo covers, we stand out from other publishing companies.
Lynn: You mentioned to me that when you worked in marketing, you found ethics to be frequently missing. Can you comment more on that, with specific reference to the publishing industry?
Catherine: I think because marketing can be hotly competitive, it’s easy to rationalize crossing ethical lines for the sake of profits. Without naming specific companies, I know that I have felt extremely uncomfortable with some market research practices, and I have left a few jobs because of it. I worked for an international publishing company that had a fairly good moral compass, but even then, there were some issues I wasn’t comfortable with. While marketing is, of course, a good part of what I do with WBP, I am always aware that if I can’t sleep, I need to re-assess my marketing plan.
Lynn: What do you envision for Word Branch in the next 5 years?
Catherine: If we continue to grow at the rate we have since our inception in early 2012, I see very good things happening very quickly. We have just launched a paid services option for self publishers who want to keep their rights. This is through the original company, CRT Commercial Media, and we offer an a la carte plan of editing, illustration and proofreading options. I also plan on offering an alternative for self-published authors to become affiliates in our online book shop and be able to sell their books through WBP without signing with us.
In 2014, I see us publishing at least 15 new books and looking at different media as well. Authors Stacy Bender and Jeri Maynard are looking into producing graphic novels, and we are considering adding recorded books.
Lynn: What’s the biggest change you’d like to see in the world of publishing in the coming decade? What role do you think Word Branch will play in that?
Catherine: I think we began seeing enormous changes a few years ago. The growing popularity of e-books sent some big publishers scrambling to make changes. Most downsized and re-directed their focus, and those that didn’t failed. Because of this, they became even more wary of taking on new authors, and it became increasingly difficult to get published. At the same time, e-publishing and POD made it easier for authors to self-publish. But then authors were not only faced with maneuvering through the maze of legalities and formalities that come with publishing, they also were in charge of their own marketing, and it was a shock to many that publishing their own books didn’t mean that people were lining up to buy them.
I believe that’s where small publishers fill the gap, and I see the rise of the small house as a renaissance in publishing. I think in the future the old system that made it nearly impossible for small publishers will begin to conform to a changing market. We are already seeing that now. Bowker is selling ISBNs in smaller quantities; Ingram, one of the largest book distributors, has a POD option, and the Library of Congress is making provisions for smaller publishers. Recently, Books-a-Million announced that they will have POD machines in their stores, and I see this as a huge step forward for small publishers without the waste and financial burden there is now. If this catches on, it will also force distributors to change as well.
Lynn: Do you have any more words of wisdom (or inspiration) for anyone who might be thinking of setting up a publishing company?
Catherine: Haha—I’m not sure that wisdom is involved in starting a publishing company. I tell people that I ‘accidently’ started a publishing company, and I’ve learned a tremendous amount in the time we have been in business. Like any small business, it takes determination, positive thinking and a certain amount of sacrifice. I would say, learn as much as you can from classes and books, but be aware that much of what you need to know isn’t readily available. You’re entering a profession steeped in 500 years of tradition, and sometimes it takes sheer bull-headedness just to break through barriers.
Despite the hard work and long hours, I wouldn’t have it any other way. I’ve met outstanding people in our authors, dedicated optimists in our editors and readers and forged a friendship with our illustrator. I wake up every morning thinking how lucky I am, and I’m filled with excitement for the future.
~ END OF INTERVIEW ~
I’d like to thank Catherine for the terrific interview. I’ll confess I had a bit of an ulterior motive in that I’m interested in trying this model with Humanity 1 Press, as we start to expand. Like Catherine, I’ve seen many authors want to take back control of their titles, but at the same time they feel overwhelmed by the enormous challenge of the self-publishing and marketing process. Catherine’s candid sharing of her experiences at WBP has really been helpful in giving us a deeper look into the next generation of publishing. I hope any sci-fi and Young Adult authors reading this will check her companies out at:
Word Branch Publishing: http://wordbranch.com
CRT Commercial Media: http://crtwriting.com
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