Monday, November 3, 2014

The finances and organization of Shadow Unit and Liavek

Tl;dr: In seven years, Shadow Unit has made a little over $50,000 for its creators and a little over a million words for its readers. A copy of the Liavek writer's contract is at the end of this in case it might help writers who want to make their own shared world.


The top three things polite Americans don't talk about with strangers are probably religion, politics, and money. Online, the first two are discussed all the time, which means the third is the greater taboo. So if this makes you uncomfortable, my apologies.

I'm sharing this for people who have been wondering about creating their own shared world. Sharing what we've learned is something most writers are happy to do. When Emma and I were part of creating the Liavek shared world anthologies in the '80s, Robert Asprin and Lynn Abbey of Thieves' World sat down with us and talked about what they thought they had done right and wrong. Few of us see our fellow writers as competition. We want them to succeed because they're doing the thing we love. So if sharing this helps anyone else, I'll be very pleased.

Every shared world is set up differently, primarily depending on the editors' needs and instincts. With Liavek, Emma and I had contracts with Ace Books, so we nominally own the world, but we made contracts with the writers that say anyone who writes for us becomes a co-owner. If a major entertainment company takes an interest in Liavek, everyone involved with it will profit equally. Ace gave us advances on the books—$6000 for each of the first two, $7500 for each of the last three—and we paid writers from the advances. My understanding is that a 50/50 split between writers and editors is common with anthologies, but that seemed high to us, so we made it 35/65 in favor of the writers. I don't think any of the anthologies earned out on their advances, so those five anthologies made $34,500 for their writers and editors, of which 10% went to our agent.

Emma discusses the artistic creation of Shadow Unit in "Sanding the Oyster: the Origins of Shadow Unit". For its financial creation, we built on the Liavek model: all the contributors own it jointly. Emma and Elizabeth Bear are effectively the editors, but they don't take an extra cut for doing that. I note this because in a commercial enterprise, good editors deserve every penny they can get, but in a fun enterprise, the editors may work for free in order to give more to the writers.

After much discussion, we set Shadow Unit up as co-op and handled money like this:

• 10% of the profit is divided equally among the co-op members, regardless of how much they contributed.

• 10% of the profit goes into a holding fund for future expenses.

• 80% of the profit goes to the writers based on the percentage of their contribution to the project.

When we started, stories were free online and our only income was from donations. Shadow Unit was a side project for everyone involved in it, so we made decisions based on what would be easiest rather than what might be most profitable, and none of us wanted to deal with ads. I mention this purely as a data point—I understand ads are very profitable for some sites.

While we were running exclusively on donations, the donations varied from a couple of dollars to $500. When we began collecting stories in ebooks, donations went down, but income went up. We made the first volume free, which seems to have helped promote the series, though free ebooks have a price for creators: Give something away, and you'll get bad reviews from some people who never would've tried it otherwise. Still, people tend to be pretty good at finding what they like: At Amazon, Shadow Unit #1 currently has 4.1 stars.

We priced the ebooks at $2.99 to make them impulse buys. Whether we would've done as well at $3.99 or $4.99, I don't know. The nice thing about a cheap ebook is it doesn't have to be long, and if you're collecting stories that are appearing free on the web, you want to be able to release them frequently. The word counts on the first volumes were between 80,000 and 60,000. In order to put them out faster, we went with smaller word counts, 40,000 to 60,000 generally, and no reader has complained.


A writer who is planning a web series sent us these questions:

1) How did you ensure that everyone was working from the same game plan?

We're planning on putting together a series bible like they do on TV, and I assume you put together a similar sort of touchstone document. If so

a) What material was in the document

Both Liavek and Shadow Unit had bibles describing the world and the characters. Because Liavek was an invented world, we included maps.

b) Was there anything that wasn't in the document that you wish was in there now?

No, maybe because we're thorough, maybe because we're lucky. We knew the bible had to answer everyone's questions, but we also knew the bible was only a starting document. With Liavek, we learned one thing: establish something as an exception, and most of the writers will want to deal with the exception. So don't put anything in the bible that you don't want writers to try to bend or break.

c) Was the document written by one person, or was it a collaborative effort?

Our bibles have been collaborative because we want the writers to feel like they own the project. For Liavek, different writers took parts of the bible—I no longer remember who created which country or which religion. For Shadow Unit, Emma and I came up with the rough drafts of most of the core cast, but other writers added some of my favorites.

2) Was there anything else you used to make sure everyone was on the same page as to plot line, characters, etc.?

The internet! For Liavek, we sent out newsletters, but for Shadow Unit, we emailed and LiveJournaled and built a wiki. Fortunately for us, fans took over the wiki once the series got going.

3) How often did you guys get in touch to discuss what was going on?

With Liavek, some writers simply got the bible and a few newsletters and sent us a story. With Shadow Unit, we had a private LJ that was very, very busy in the first months.

4) What did the editorial process for individual stories look like?

With Liavek, Emma and I worked fairly conventionally. With Shadow Unit, we put the stories up on Google Docs, and all the members of the group are able to leave comments. The writer then gives the final draft to the volunteer proofreaders and it goes off to the web ghoul to be published.


I'm not sharing a Shadow Unit writer's contract because I don't have a copy handy, but it's basically what I described earlier. Here's the Liavek writer's contract that we used for each volume:

Letter of Agreement between Will Shetterly, Emma Bull, and X (hereafter referred to as The Author) who lives at ?.
1.  In return for a share of Berkley Publishing Corporation's advance amounting to $ and a prorated share of 65% of all subsequent monies coming due to Will Shetterly and Emma Bull from trade, book club, reprint, foreign language, or any other editions of the Liavek anthology in which The Author's story appears, The Author hereby grants (and warrants having the right to grant) non-exclusive World Anthology Rights to a story entitled Z for inclusion in an anthology of stories centering around the imaginary city of Liavek.
2.  The Author further grants that all cities, countries, races, beasts, historical personages and other such fictional creations created for the Liavek anthology, but specifically excluding any characters of The Author's creation as may be designated in a cover letter accompanying a Liavek story, shall become the shared property of the Liavek Co-op for any and all literary or marketing purposes.  (The Liavek Co-op is defined as all writers who contribute to Liavek anthologies or novels and who indicate their willingness to be a part of that Co-op by checking the appropriate part of Section 9 of this agreement, or who send a future letter of intent to the Liavek editors).  Should The Author become a member of the Liavek Co-op, all use of any of The Author's creations by other Liavek authors will be subject to The Author's written permission.
3.  The Author further grants permission for transcription of Z into Braille, and for its inclusion in tape, talking or large-print books, in the event that the Liavek anthology is selected by a non-profit organization for the disabled.
4.  Emma Bull and Will Shetterly shall pay the advance promptly upon receipt of the full contracted advance from Berkley Publishing Corporation, and shall disburse any of the anthology's subsequent earnings semi-annually.
5.  Emma Bull and Will Shetterly shall have Berkley Publishing Corporation print in the book a proper copyright notice, pursuant to the instructions of The Author.
______(a) ______________________
______(b) Copyright in The Author's name.
6.  The Author shall receive from Berkley Publishing Corporation one free copy of the U.S. edition of the anthology.
7.  All rights not specifically granted in this agreement are reserved to the author.
8.  Until Emma Bull or Will Shetterly are notified in writing to the contrary, all payments under this agreement shall be made to:
______(a) The Author
______(b) _________________________
          _________________________, whose receipt shall be a full discharge of the monies recieved.
9.  In the event of future Liavek anthologies or novels, 5% of the profits from those books will be reserved to be divided equally among the members of the Liavek Co-op.  Further, all rights to the world of Liavek and all characters and concepts used therein not specifically withheld by the creator of a character shall belong to the Liavek Co-op, and all monies from assigning those rights will be divided equally among the members of the Liavek Co-op.
_______The Author is to be considered a member of the Liavek Co-op.  All rights to any characters created and designated by The Author remain The Author's, and any use, in this anthology or in future ones, by other writers will be subject to The Author's approval.  Membership in the Co-op does not impose any obligation to contribute to any future Liavek anthologies, though future Liavek writers may pester The Author for permission to use The Author's Liavek characters.
_______The Author reserves the right to join the Liavek Co-op at a future date.  All rights to any characters created and designated by The Author remain The Author's.  Any use of The Author's characters by other writers in the first Liavek anthology will be subject to The Author's approval.
____________________     ___________________________________
(date)                   (The Author)
                         Author's Social Security #_________
____________________     ___________________________________
(date)                   Emma L. Bull
____________________     ___________________________________
(date)                   Will Shetterly