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Deca Revives the Publishing Collective
Driving Change through a Decades-Old Model
The publishing market is vast, spanning independent presses, the big five, self-publishing and everything in between. Working with the support of a publisher means, in a sense, to cater to what sells. While some writers have earned immense freedom, it can be difficult for journalists to share every story they are passionate about. At the opposite end of the spectrum, despite its liberties, self-publishing doesn’t carry the support of editing and promotional teams or challenge the wide-ranging distribution and press coverage of an established publishing house. However, an old model is resurfacing: the publishing collective.
What is a Publishing Collective?
Historically, publishing collectives were launched by groups of successful people in a field who felt restricted by the structure of their industry. The group of content creators decided to print their work directly for their audience rather than engage with the established process of publishing. While that may sound a lot like self-publishing, the collective creates an organizational structure and name to benefit everyone involved. As opposed to publishing a novel by herself on Amazon, Jane Smith can publish with the editorial support of fellow writers and editors as well as access a promotional platform robust enough to earn a larger percent of the profits.
The text-publishing collaboratives of history often carried hefty political weight and belonged to marginalized opinions, like anarchism in the early 1880s with Freedom Press to anti-capitalism in the 1980s with Z Communications, both of which still publish today. Considering the political charge surrounding literary collectives, it is not surprising that Deca sought inspiration from another field.
Magnum Photos is a photojournalism collaborative founded in 1947 by four photographers at the top of their discipline. “It was important for Magnum’s photographers to have this flexibility to choose many of their own stories and to work for long periods of time on them. None of them wanted to suffer the dictates of a single publication and its editorial staff. They believed that photographers had to have a point of view in their imagery that transcended any formulaic recording of contemporary events.” (More about the history of Magnum here.)
Membership in the exclusive club, claims Magnum, is one of the highest honors a photographer can achieve. Once a photographer is nominated to join Magnum, the induction process lasts four years. Members must wait twenty-three years before they can start publishing their work elsewhere, and they do so at the expense of their voting privileges. (More about submission to Magnum here.)
What Does It Mean to be a Member of Deca?
While the current application process for Deca isn’t too daunting (just a bio and “a few clips”— links to articles on websites hosted by a publisher), membership is limited to a select few. Their titles span the industry: professors, editors, contributors, freelancers, authors, and correspondents. They speak multiple languages, have been honored with a staggering number of awards and fellowships, and boast publication from newspapers to magazines to their own books and Kindle Singles.
The responsibilities of members include producing one novella-length piece for the group and editing another member’s story. “Deca works differently,” explains Ann Friedman, in a 2014 article for the Columbia Journalism Review. “For each $2.99 Kindle Single they sell, Amazon keeps 30 percent and 70 percent goes to Deca. Of that 70 percent, 70 percent goes to author, 5 percent goes to the editor, and 25 percent goes back to the Deca general fund. That means writers can expect $1.46—roughly half of the sale price—for each Kindle Single sold. And everything that’s in the collective kitty gets distributed equally among members at the end of the year— meaning even its lowest sellers reap a bit more of the benefits.”
Writers still have the freedom to publish elsewhere, so Deca is also a highly promotional platform; stories members write for other publications are boosted through the collective. Because the only required investment for authors is the one, funded story for the collective and editorial services for another, their time beyond is open to continue what they have been writing and editing with minimal attention diverted from the rest of their careers.
Challenges and Opportunities
Payment Structure: In the same article where Friedman explains Deca’s method of payment, where authors earn roughly $1.50, or half of the story’s price for each reader, she expresses skepticism. When a writer pitches a story to a traditional publication, they secure a contract that doesn’t rely on the sale of Kindle Singles. It is one thing to write an article with a sense of how much it is worth to the publisher, but the collective puts the purchasing power in the hands of their readers. The model may prove unsustainable should Deca fail to secure a sizable audience for each piece.
Each writer has the opportunity to explore stories that matter to them, that is at the heart of Deca’s mission. But sometimes stories fall through. Deca’s Kickstarter explains their safety measures: “If one [of us] has an emergency, another can cover…We plan to publish a new 10K to 20K-word story every month. The biggest risk for Deca is that a story we have scheduled for publication, or for printing as a reward, somehow falls through at the last minute. Journalism isn't a science: you have to let events play out. A story that seemed important in February can sometimes, by May, leave you a little...meh. It happens.”
Intent and Misinterpretation
Because these stories are published through Amazon, it is easy to gauge audience reactions through reviews. Most Deca titles range from four to five stars. Through close examination of reviews from Mara Hvistendahl’s And the City Swallowed Them, a 61-page, true crime nonfiction story, which was also the debut story for Deca, a pattern emerges between both higher-and lower-starred reviews.
Glowing reviews often referenced Deca or acknowledged Hvistendahl’s work elsewhere. More critical reviews seemed confused by the presentation. Some readers felt like the reporting element—Deca is composed of journalists reporting on stories— overwhelmed the literary aspect of the story. A few reviews wanted more commentary or explicit themes and moral takeaways, like a work of fiction might carry, others expected a mystery to unfold with a shocking ending that never came: “[Riveting] story, but it feels more like a short investigative piece than a novel”(Amazon Review). One of the issues that these reviews highlight is that Deca is certainly niche and mainstream audiences may not understand the journalistic backbone of Deca stories. As they establish their name and develop the brand, Deca should see this issue resolve itself.
The World, Firsthand
When Deca launched their Kickstarter in 2014, three other endeavors in the literary world had set about the publishing collective path: Epic9, which promises riveting, in-depth stories (many of which have been optioned by Hollywood); The Big Roundtable, which is self-described as a Kickstarter for nonfiction authors; and Narratively, a digital publication whose stories are driven by the people they cover. In a 2014 article, the creators of the three organizations discussed their struggles to find funds and develop sustainable models. “It’s a nickel and dime business,” explained The Big Roundtable founder, Michael Shapiro.
Regardless of whether or not Deca will find a steady source of revenue to support the content creation model they desire, they have still developed a platform and community for their global initiative. With members based in London, Beirut, Rome, Shanghai, Abu Dhabi, Barcelona, Johannesburg, Los Angeles, New York, Seattle, and Washington, D.C., Deca has range and potential for wide-reaching scope. While they may not have the stringent commitment of Magnum or the financial security of Narratively, they have succeeded in creating a space for longform articles and self-promotion for all writers involved.
Deca claims that “reporting is [their] only product” and, despite the fact that they are not the only ones publishing their work, the collective creates and ease of access for readers to find quality, global stories. Their work spans borders, time, and publications.
Only time will tell if Deca is able to craft the impactful collection they set out to curate four years ago, but they are chasing the kinds of leads which inspire the best kinds of stories.
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Anais Mohr is a sophomore Professional Writing major studying at Champlain College. She was a senior member of Front Street Writers, a program where high school students are coached in a workshop setting by professional writers. Anais lives in Traverse City, MI and she loves to read fractured fairytales and middle-grade fiction.