Collaborating with other writers can be an interesting creative experiment, and create additional streams of income. In this post David Mark Brown shares how an idea floated in his writing group evolved into a business that helps writers efficiently collaborate in co-created worlds.
Four years ago, my writing group came up with a crazy idea: “What if, instead of us all writing separate projects and then critiquing them, we start working on the same fictional world together?”
We didn't know it at the time, but the trajectory of our individual writing lives would radically alter as a result of that question…and a couple more questions that would stem from it.
The Benefits of Collaborative Writing in a Shared World
A few of the advantages to this style of co-writing became clear immediately. Instead of spending thirty minutes educating the rest of the group about the world and the backstory, we all started from the same page every time we got together. It was more energizing to meet. We could more readily hold each other accountable.
And most importantly, the world started to grow at an exponential rate. We've since come to understand this synergy to be the result of shared scaffolding.
Scaffolding is simply a fancy word for all the world-building and structure necessary to start fleshing out a story. Scaffolding is why creating a series is less work than creating several stand-alone works. Scaffolding is one giant reason why fanfiction is so popular–and why fanfiction is really important as a developmental path for a budding writer.
We took the whole scaffolding idea one step further and coined the word StoryVerse. The StoryVerse is simply the scaffolding of the shared story world.
Focusing on Strengths
The talents and skills that each member of my writing group brought to the StoryVerse were varied. A couple of us were masters of large-scale world-building. A couple of others were brilliant at drilling down on story structure and hitting all the right elements of telling a great story.
We each offered different areas of knowledge and expertise: sword-building, dark matter, neural networks, game theory, English literature, Asian culture, etc.
By being able to focus on what each of us did best, we fed into our personal energies. This propelled the productivity of our writing. We also uncovered a rewarding depth and richness of the world that none of us could have achieved on our own.
By sharing the world, we helped each other find main characters and develop plots. We built out backstory without slowing down our daily word counts. We minimized the time spent on tasks we either didn't enjoy or weren't great at. We pooled our knowledge.
The whole was turning out to be more than the sum of our parts. In other words, collaborative writing in a StoryVerse is a non-zero-sum process. Zero-sum describes stuff like monetary exchanges. I have two dollars. If I give you the two dollars, now you have the two dollars and I have zero dollars.
Non-zero-sum describes stuff like thought exchanges. If I have an idea and I share the idea with you, we now both have the same idea. I didn't lose the idea just because I shared it. The idea multiplied.
This is the kind of math involved with collaborative storytelling. The resulting awesomeness of the StoryVerse is even more awesome than each individual's storytelling abilities added together.
The Hurdles of Collaborative Writing in a Shared World
At one of the weekly meetings, I raised the question, “So why aren't we selling this stuff?” That fateful question opened a larger can of worms than I had intended. This was before the success story of Michael Anderle's Kurtherian Gambit world (that launched the 20 Books to 50K community).
There were no examples of collaborative StoryVerses for us to learn from back in 2015.
But, we were addicted to writing together in a StoryVerse, so we dove down the rabbit hole. It didn't take long to discover several snags.
- Scrivener didn't sync well with others. Dropbox and Scrivener together created a mess of files that were Lovecraftian in nature.
- Facebook wasn't a great way to communicate with each other. Distractions were numerous, and as our community grew, our needs to regularly communicate did as well.
- Sharing intellectual property (IP) meant we needed to create an LLC at the very least.
- Publishing shared IP required us to figure out some sort of legal contract, along with creating a bank account and figuring out how to distribute royalties.
- Marketing presented the need to figure out how to cross-pollinate what was essentially several series all being written by different people in the same StoryVerse…while no retail platform is structured for anything like this, and the public isn't accustomed to it.
Finding Solutions to the Hurdles
We were so convinced that the collaborative model was something other writers would benefit from, that we wanted to create a reproducible model and build a community around it. After several months, we admitted the infrastructure didn't exist.
For us to do what we wanted to do, we would have to create some of that infrastructure ourselves.
Since then, some solutions have been created. Others have risen and fallen, and additional shared StoryVerses have succeeded (thus providing some examples to follow and learn from).
Here is the list of best resources, as it stands, for launching your own collaborative StoryVerse.
1. The Scrivener plus Dropbox hurdle: We were not hopeful that a single solution would emerge to combine world-building, story planning, and collaborative abilities at the world level. Thus, we started focusing energy on solving that piece ourselves. The result is our writing platform, StoryShop.
It's still a young platform, and we've combined our efforts with the guys of Sterling and Stone (the same guys behind the Self-Publishing Podcast and the Smarter Artist Summit) to get it to where it is today.
As of this post, it handles planning, drafting, and world-building. It does all of this collaboratively by allowing contributors to have access at either a read or write level. It's basically a streamlined version of Scrivener combined with Google Drive and a few additional cool animations to make our writing lives easier.
[Note from Joanna: I've used Google Docs to collaborate on writing 7 books, however, those were all with one other author, not a group.]
2. The communication hurdle: To facilitate communication, we've landed on the free version of Slack and a paid version of Zoom.
These two platforms provide us with all the coordination and communication we need to keep a community of fifty authors humming on several different StoryVerses (we've grown just a tad bit from the five of us in the original writing group).
3. The business hurdle: We indeed formed an LLC to manage our early business. We then formed another corporation to accommodate the growing need.
This isn't replicable for most people, thus we're still working on providing a solution for teams of authors to protect their IP without having to create their own legal entities.
For a short while, Kindle Worlds provided an outlet and structure for writers to come together in a world and deliver content to readers. This experiment seemed to be an indicator that, at the very least, the ability to license fanfiction was gaining traction.
While Kindle Worlds never allowed for a genuinely collaborative experience between the “Seed Author” and the contributors, it did allow contributing authors to borrow the scaffolding and fans of established worlds. Kindle Worlds also offered a legal contract, of sorts. These were huge wins, while Kindle Worlds lasted.
No explanation has been given from Amazon on why they scuttled Kindle Worlds, and why they did so rather abruptly. But there is no need for any earth-shattering reason. Kindle Worlds most likely didn't meet Amazon's expectations for profit margin, and thus got cut. Worlds ran for almost exactly five years, and this is a year longer than Amazon gave to Kindle Scout.
The drawbacks of Kindle Worlds from its inception included the very one-sided contracts and the fact that without Kindle Worlds in place, the shared IP was rendered useless. In other words, the content created via Kindle Worlds required Kindle Worlds to exist for the content to legally be shared.
4. The royalties disbursement hurdle: In April of 2019, PublishDrive launched their “Team Royalty” program that allows multiple authors to receive royalty disbursements on all content aggregated through PublishDrive. This removes the need for the collaborators to open a bank account and use some sort of spreadsheet to manually track how to disburse the royalties. This is a major step in the right direction.
PublishDrive only aggregates digital content (ebooks) at this point, so it isn't yet a solution for disbursements on print products. No such solution exists for splitting up royalties on print products as of the writing of this post.
[Note from Joanna: BundleRabbit is also an option for authors looking for an efficient way to split royalties on ebooks.]
5. The marketing hurdle: Since Kurtherian Gambit gained massive traction via Kindle Unlimited, other successful examples of shared StoryVerses have emerged.
Penny Reed and her “Smarty Pants Romance” label has experienced great success with a team of over 15 authors working in the same world. Cassandra Claire announced in 2018 that she had created her own company to allow her and some of her friends to collaborate together in the Shadow Market world.
That was a one-off experiment, but the concept of the StoryVerse is certainly gaining familiarity with writers and readers. As that happens, marketing will grow more natural, and more opportunities will arise.
There are still pieces of the process that require heavy, hands-on labor, but collaborative writing in shared StoryVerses is gaining steam. Successes have proven that readers are hungry for a steady stream of content from a known and loved world.
The model provides opportunities for younger, less established writers to benefit from the world scaffolding and existing fans of a well-known and well-developed world. The combined gravitational pull and content production of a dozen authors working together provide the world owner with a brand that can satisfy even the most voracious readers.
While this author path won't be for every writer, it has emerged as a legitimate path for many writers. As the rest of the infrastructure is built and made more readily available, I believe this style of content creation and content consumption will become more and more mainstream.
Have you thought of collaborating with other authors and writing in a shared world? Please leave your thoughts below and join the conversation.
David Mark Brown is an authorpreneur and co-founder of StoryShop. He’s determined to discover the natural evolution of digital storytelling. His published works span across all ages and several genres. Mostly, he enjoys exploding things. If you‘ve read for twenty pages and nothing has been blown up or shot, then David must be losing his edge.
Feel free to google, poke, fan, or like him. But do so quickly, before he is disappeared by the FBI. Raised in Central Texas, David Mark Brown learned to ride horses at a young age. Then learned to hate them after a disastrous attempt to impress a girlfriend. He was five. Turning to a life of prose, he migrated north to the University of Montana (the Berkeley of the Rockies) and became the Redneck Granola.
Russell Phillips says
Just to add, BundleRabbit can also be used to split royalties on a print book. They use KDP Print, so distribution isn’t as wide as with Ingram Spark, but it’s easy and it works. I’m using it for a fiction book that a friend and I recently released.
Joanna Penn says
Good to know, thanks 🙂
Mark Schultz says
Great post! I will share this widely.
David Mark Brown says
Michele Kelly says
A phenomenal post!! I teach short story writing to young authors. They are the bottom of the bottom readers in their middle school. I have, for two years, had them write in teams of three. I didn’t know why except that I feel people can work off of each other’s ideas and writing can be lonely. It worked. It is hard, though, because, it is hard to get past differences of opinion in the creative process. Reading this post has invigorated my stance and I will continue to have them write in teams and be proud of their work as such. Thank you!!
Maggie Lynch says
I’m currently involved in a shared world project with seven other authors. We’ve used a private FB group for communication and a shared Google file for documents. I’ve really enjoyed writing in it but sales have not been great.
First, the majority of people in the group–though most have 15+ books in their backlist–have fairly small mailing lists. Thus the cross-marketing among us has been underwhelming. Same with varying degrees of interest or ability between authors around social media or advertising.
Second, because authors are writing their own sub-series within the larger universe, the connections aren’t as tight to draw readers from one author to the next. We did make a request for people to tie in another author’s world in some way–and they have with a minor plot point. However, it does not appear to be enough.
Third, because of the above sub-series problem, so far doing ads for the series has also been underwhelming because readers prefer same characters, same world, and at least three books. Though we’ve now delivered twelve books in the series, half of the authors only have one book out and the other half have two. We’re hoping that when we get every author with three books (early 2020) things will pick up for everyone, and ads will be more effective.
Did you come up with an idea of how to closely connect series between authors in your experiment? Without dictating plots and characters, I don’t know that it can be done.
Any advice or lessons around that would be appreciated.