The new storytelling collective Deca launched late last week with a Kickstarter campaign and a debut title, “And the City Swallowed Them,” about the murder of a Canadian model in Shanghai, by Mara Hvistendahl.
Deca is a cooperative of nine longform journalists stationed around the world: Sonia Faleiro in London and India; Stephan Faris in Rome; McKenzie Funk in Seattle; Vanessa M. Gezari in New York; Marc Herman in Barcelona; Donovan Hohn in Detroit; Mara Hvistendahl in Shanghai; Delphine Schrank in Washington, D.C.; and Tom Zoellner in Los Angeles. They’ve written for the New York Times magazine, Outside, Bloomberg Businessweek, Harper’s, The New Yorker, The Atlantic, GQ, Rolling Stone, Time, Science, National Geographic, have authored 15 books among them and won (or been a finalist for) the Pulitzer Prize, the National Magazine Award, the PEN Literary Award, the Livingston Award, the Whiting Writers’ Award and the Los Angeles Book Prize. Through Deca, they’re writing for mobile devices and selling directly to the reader.
Here’s how their storytelling model differs from that of other digital publishers like The Atavist, Byliner and The Big Roundtable: Deca is run by its members and publishes stories by only those members. The goal is to run one story per month, at a length of “somewhere between a long article and a short book,” and “each piece is written by one member, edited by another, and approved by the rest.” Deca’s members sell the stories via a proprietary app and Kindle Singles, and share the proceeds. The idea borrows from another result of rapid technological change: the transformation of the photography industry in the ’40s and ’50s. “Smaller cameras. Faster, cheaper ways to develop pictures,” Deca writes. “They banded together in groups. (The most famous was Magnum.) They combined technology with collaboration to tell the great stories of their time.”
By Sunday night, Deca had surpassed its Kickstarter goal of $15,000, with 27 days still to go. The more than 200 backers include Seth Mnookin, Ryan Bradley, Roger Hodge, Alexandra Garcia, Virginia Hughes and Jason Zengerle.
We asked Deca’s founding members to walk us through the birth of the enterprise. They got together through Google Docs and sent us the following answers to our questions:
What kind of feedback are you getting apart from enthusiastic cash?
Marc Herman: Goodwill across the board. A lot of people seem to want us to succeed. The collaboration model is a large part of that, I suspect. Second, we notice that people are signing up to receive our work. Kickstarter has an option that allows donors to decline rewards. Apparently refusals are quite common. We’re seeing very little of that in our campaign, and our most popular donation by far is the one that earns a subscription.
Sonia Faleiro: There’s a real sense out there that traditional models of journalism no longer allow for in-depth reporting, especially on subjects that aren’t Page 1, or that are too complex for a neat conclusion.
The organizing principle is cool and clear — Magnum + the seismic shift in reading habits, to tablets and smartphones — but how precisely was this idea born? Whose idea was it and how did things proceed from there?
Herman: Stephan and I were the first two. He’d called me after I published a Kindle Single to ask how the process worked. I told him I didn’t think the experiment was repeatable because of the costs, in time and money, of self-marketing and proper reporting. Our naïve idea was that a small group could market under one name, like photographers do with small and medium-sized agencies. Profit and cost sharing wasn’t part of the plan at the time. What evolved is much more cooperative, at both the labor and financial level, than what Stephan and I originally bandied about. It’s accurate to say Deca was no one person’s idea, and really was collaborative in its conception.
McKenzie Funk: When Stephan contacted me, I thought it was a great idea — in part because I’d had a similar one after The Atavist launched in 2011. Never did much about it, of course, beyond some vague discussions with Vanessa Gezari when we were Knight-Wallace Fellows together in Michigan, in 2012. Vanessa and I hosted John Tayman, the founder of Byliner, when he came to talk to us and the other fellows that year. That was more inspiration that we didn’t act on, until Marc and Stephan appeared.
What does Deca provide that the collective feels is missing? Where and how does it stand with other one-off publishers such as The Atavist, Byliner and The Big Roundtable?
Mara Hvistendahl: We provide something that the traditional editor-writer relationship can’t, which is the support and insight of a group of other writers. The editing process that Mac and I went through with my story felt entirely unique to me. I’m used to submitting a draft, and then waiting days for feedback, and then again working in isolation on a new draft. Instead, we hashed out a lot of changes in the editing app Quip, working together in real time. When we neared a final draft, Mac sent it around the group, and then he sifted through the comments for the ones that felt most relevant, and then we got to work again. Most of us have spent years as freelancers, and that can quickly get lonely — especially in a place like Shanghai. Actually, as I’m typing this I see Marc writing below me. Hi, Marc.
Herman: Hi, Mara. Someone said to me that Deca and some place like Matter could evolve to be the rivals Time and Newsweek were. He was half joking. But it captures how people have received us when we nosed around their work, looking for help. I don’t think there’s a sense of competition. At least not yet. It’s early in all this, and people seem happy to have more examples. We sought and received generous advice from people at The Atavist, The Big Roundtable, Epic, Matter and also Plympton, which does fiction but shares some characteristics with the rest.
How did you arrive at the current mix of journalists?
Stephan Faris: We looked for writers we liked, and people we wanted to work with. Reaching out to McKenzie was an important step, as it turned out he had once thought of putting something similar together.
Funk: We emailed writers we admired, which is measured in two ways: talent and personality. Most important rule: no assholes. (I’ll also note we made sure these were people who could write long; everyone in the group has published at least one book. In the case of Tom, five books.)
Hvistendahl: We also looked for a good geographic mix. But we decided that ‘international’ would mean a broad range of stories. So not just war and disaster.
Did the founding members put in seed money, or is everything happening via Kickstarter?
Herman: We each threw in $1,000. That got us to Kickstarter. We spent it on legal fees and a lawyer for the incorporation, design of our logo and text, copy editing Mara’s story, and web hosting. Five of us have paid our own reporting costs so far. We’re hoping Kickstarter helps fix that. Mara flew from Shanghai to Canada and back. Mac, Tom, Vanessa and Stephan all traveled. I’m about to.
Faleiro: I think Kickstarter funding’s the least of it! The amount of time we’re putting in while juggling day jobs, freelance writing, babies, and dogs is tremendous. Worth it, of course! As Marc pointed out, it’s actually a huge help and not a hindrance that we live in different parts of the world. By the time the European bunch (me, Marc, Stephan) are ready to crawl into bed, the group that’s stateside (Mac, Vanessa, Delphine, Tom and Donovan) takes over, and then come morning in Shanghai, Mara can be counted on to hit the ground running.
Faris: The seed money is small for something like this, but on top of that we’ve invested quite a lot of sweat equity and called on a lot of favors from friends.
Herman: The time invested is the measure of success for me. The group works.
Funk: My wife jokes — if it’s a joke — that I’ve found the one thing that pays less than freelance journalism. Getting Deca off the ground has been a big lift for many of us.
What’s the advantage of a collective?
Faleiro: I think the advantage becomes obvious when we work together. We all bring very different skills to the table. For example, I couldn’t start to make a website, but Mac and Mara can and did make our page stunning. But I’m comfortable with social media. I enjoy the interaction and I’m happy to ask people to give us money and to buy our books! Also, we’ve collectively published 15 books and we have bylines pretty much everywhere. We have readers in many corners of the world. So when the time came for us to launch our Kickstarter we had a reservoir of goodwill to tap into. This would have been hard for any one of us to do singlehandedly, but together we’ve pulled off a very good beginning because we’ve each proven that we do good work.
Herman: Because self-publishing is a digital medium, the network effects matter more. In the print days, having a group gave you some mathematical advantage, perhaps, but not enough to really create an incentive. Now the network makes cooperation more effective than it would be otherwise. Perhaps photographers were doing this all along because images were always a little digital — they could be used repeatedly, in all sorts of contexts, and transcended language, so photographers could take advantage of an Internet-like network effect long before writers could. Now we can, so we’re doing it.
Funk: As Marc suggests, together we’re a brand and a thing and a mark of quality; we prop each other up in that sense — and by being enthusiastic backers of each other’s work. If I go out and self-publish, on the other hand, I’m just some dude, and my most enthusiastic backer will be my mom. So that’s the network effect. The second thing is that via Deca, I’ll have a very good editor. Is that often the case these days? I dunno. Third and crucial to understand: Publishing is a crapshoot, especially when you’re not getting an advance. As writers like us look at digital singles and self-publishing books in general, the biggest problem is that there’s no distribution of risk. That is, if your (short) book doesn’t sell, you simply lose. Sure, if it sells well, you win especially big, at least compared to magazine pay. That’s the appeal of programs like Kindle Singles and of other modes of self-distribution. But for individual freelancers, is it worth the risk? Worth it when you could otherwise sell a story to a national magazine for a fixed dollar amount? Deca steals one thing from traditional publishers (and movie houses): We’ll be kept afloat by our blockbusters, even if we don’t yet know which they’ll be. Because we have a degree of profit sharing among Deca’s members, we can have nine noble flops and one runaway commercial success, and we’ll do okay. Well, maybe seven and three. Anyway, we’re each other’s insurance. (Also, to Sonia’s point: I’d never built a website until January. This was No. 2. Mara’s in the same boat. What she and I did, for the most part, was plug in the text and make sure the links work. All design cues come from our wonderful designer, Madeleine Eiche, with some help from the talented Aksel Çoruh, who happens to be Mara’s husband.)
What do you look for in a story?
Tom Zoellner: There’s no rigid formula. There are a few general parameters. It should have an international component and the elements of narrative reporting: arc, characters, reported scenes, a sense of place.
Herman: We discussed whether we wanted to define “international” as a newspaper might, as the opposite of “national.” Is a story no longer interesting to us if it passes through one or another place? We decided no. Our notion of “the world, firsthand” was in part an effort to grapple with the end of the traditional foreign/domestic distinction.
Herman: We stole the idea from VII, the photo agency. We figured on 10 members. Next it was supposed to mean 10,000-word stories. The idea evolved to suggest nine writers collaborating with each other and an essential 10th, a reader.
Funk: Marc, you forget some of your own logic. (This name was Marc’s idea — and a much better one than any of the rest of us could muster.) “Deca” is also intelligible in many languages, and, given our global span, a name we hope will translate along with our stories.
Herman: I had probably misunderstood something said to me in a foreign language that day.
You’ll be considering new members at your annual meeting, in June 2015, but you’ve mentioned that Deca needs to “remain a small, tight group.” Why? And define “small, tight.” Twenty people? Blood oaths?
Delphine Schrank: There’s a fine balance to be struck between just large enough for ideas to be rich and varied and small enough for quality control. We’re aiming for that — and broadening out allows us to gather more great stories, within a shorter time frame (and cover more of the world), but without expanding so much that it no longer becomes feasible for all of us to have serious input, either on the admin side or on the stories themselves.
Faris: We want to avoid growing to a size where we no longer work together as a group. We don’t know where that is yet, but if we grow slowly, I think we’ll see what the right number is.
Funk: Google hangouts — our preferred style of “meeting,” since we’ve only once had more than two of us physically in the same place — allows a maximum of 10 people. So there’s that. But we’ve already learned that it’s impossible to find a time when all of us are awake and/or not on the road for other assignments. So the biggest hangout we had was seven people. (It actually sorta works to have meetings this way; you wouldn’t think it would.)
A movie can have only one director; likewise, editing by committee is tricky business. How will it work here? Who makes the final call on tough questions?
Faleiro: The main thing we try and keep in mind is that we all want Deca to succeed for the same reasons. There’ll be times when some of us will be overruled, when we won’t all get what we want, but that’s how it goes in a co-op. Our motto is (or rather, should be) “No hard feelings!”
Faris: We have rules in our bylaws to make decisions like this. We elect a five-member admin team at the beginning of the year and most of the decisions are made by a majority vote. But we’ve yet to have to actually call a vote. We disagree all the time, but generally a consensus emerges and we go with that.
Funk: I suppose there are two questions here. Or could be:
- How do you make business decisions? As Stephan mentions above, we’ve elected five admins — we jokingly call ourselves the Politburo — to get this thing off the ground. Admins are voted in annually by a majority of members. Yeah, we disagree all the time, but no hard feelings so far, and we’ve made a scary number of business decisions. Do Politburos work? I leave it to others to decide how efficient China is v. America is at this point in history.
- How do you make editorial decisions? As the editor of the first story, I can speak to that. It’s decidedly not editing by committee. I tried to work with Mara much as I’ve had my best editors (hi, Luke Mitchell, formerly of Harper’s) work with me. I read the draft, sent her comments on big-picture structure, awaited rewrite then went through it with her line by line. Only after that process was over did we circulate to the rest of the group for comments, which were returned directly and only to me. I served as gatekeeper, passing on the important notes to Mara. We had lots of eyes on it but only one editor and one writer. If this process sounds familiar, it’s because it’s like any top-quality magazine. (I should concede that editing was rather easy in this case; Mara turns in a very clean draft.)
Sherman: Like Mac said, the editor-writer relationship mirrors traditional work. The rest is a little different. At most magazines and book publishers, the people who work on a story show it maybe to one or two others and then an EIC and that’s it. We don’t have an EIC, and everyone reads every story, with comments going through that story’s editor.
Can one no-vote kill a story? Does a story proceed on majority rule?
Vanessa Gezari: Here’s what our bylaws say about story acceptance/publication:
- Story proposals must be accepted by a two-thirds vote of the membership.
- Final manuscripts published by Deca must be approved by a vote. During the launch phase, publication requires a unanimous vote. After that, a three-fourths vote will suffice.
- Any (manuscript) that fails to receive approval by the membership after a good faith effort shall, with approval of Deca’s admin board, exempt its author from the yearly publication requirement.
Hvistendahl: We looked into the history of Magnum and spoke with people at other top photo agencies as we were setting up Deca. Magnum has had a few very contentious moments, mainly connected to shifting currents in photography. The debate over whether to admit Martin Parr was extremely heated, but in the end he got in — and went on to become one of Magnum’s most recognizable members. We decided that unanimity might hinder us down the road.
Okay so writers receive a percentage of proceeds and can get up to half of their expenses covered per piece. How else do the writers get paid? Is there a story fee? What, roughly, is the word rate?
Faris: We’re all writers and owners at the same time, so there isn’t the usual publisher/writer split. The revenues we bring in is all there is to pay out. With sales on individual stories, 70 percent goes to the writer and 5 percent to his or her editor. The rest goes to Deca. Income from subscriptions, donations, etc., also goes to Deca. That pool of money is used to pay part of the writers’ expenses, copyediting, design, and so on. And if there’s money left over at the end of the year, the admin board can distribute some part of it among us.
The problem with some storytelling startups is that the idea is terrific and the business practices are terrible, and writers get pummeled. What is Deca doing to guard against that?
Faris: We’re guarding against this by keeping our business simple. The underlying model is that we write stories and then sell them. Building the infrastructure to support that has been a learning experience to say the least, but I’m very happy with how things are going so far.
Herman: I can’t speak to the fate of other projects, but I feel like we all have some solid business experience whether we admit it or not. Successful freelancers, particularly in the international realm, tend to have very good project management skills. And writers were long ago pushed toward doing their own marketing, and even editing, particularly in the book world. I feel like we draw on our experiences as authors at least as much as we do our magazine backgrounds.
Funk: Not to put too fine a point on it, but we don’t need to make as much money as ventures that have investors to please and editor salaries to pay. Some startups are the same magazine business model melded with a new distribution model. (Digital, not paper.) What Deca is: a new business model. (Cooperative rather than salaried masthead.) We’re enabled by digital, sure — it’s what makes the publishing part of this cheap — but what’s most important to understand about Deca and its viability is that we’re taking out the middlemen and paying only ourselves, the members, with proceeds from stories sold directly to the public. Harnessing the means of production, etc., etc. Which, given budgets, given digital, *may* be easier to pull off.
Do the members identify themselves as writers for Deca? As freelancers? How does that work?
Schrank: Personally, I’m looking forward to calling myself a Deca writer. It’s a great place to call home. But we’ve all maintained other obligations and longstanding loyalties too. That flexibility is partly what makes this such a writer-friendly initiative. We get to call the shots.
Herman: We’ve used the term “members” so far. Though most of us have worked independently in our careers, having ties to an institution has advantages. Imprimatur, for one.
Funk: If a photographer can call herself a Magnum photographer, it’s a mark of distinction that opens doors. We aspire to that. Granted, it’ll take awhile before we stop listing off other places we’ve written.
Editing isn’t a one-size-fits-all job. How can you be sure every story gets a high level of editing?
Schrank: Each story has a lead editor (one of us, thus far selected at random) and then we all have an individual read-through and pass on our thoughts and questions and criticisms through that lead editor. So, actually, our stories get vetted with at least eight pairs of eyes before they get a go-ahead, and that’s before fact checking. There’s a particular advantage to this, insofar as most news organizations have been radically cutting back on their editing resources, at least in some of our experiences. And we’re sensitive enough, all of us, to the challenges of this kind of reporting and writing that I reckon we’ll actually have a better time of this in the long-run than many of us have encountered in the past — and possibly, dare I say it, better stories to show for it.
Herman: The random selection was Mac’s toddler pulling our names out of a hat.
Faris: It’s been really nice being edited by people who really know and understand the reporting and writing process. That isn’t always the case everywhere.
Funk: It was proof of concept for Deca when I got back the other members’ comments on Mara’s story. No one overstepped their “reader” bounds, but all were constructive and made “And The City Swallowed Them” an even stronger story. Note, too, that we hire a copy editor for every story.
Hvistendahl: From the other side, I can say that the editing process was absolutely great, and it was more intensive than the process at many magazines.
How much will each story cost the reader? How much will the app cost the reader?
Funk: Our first stories are $2.99 in the United States and close to that price in other countries. We sell them individually on Amazon through the Kindle Singles program, in our forthcoming app for iPads and iPhones (ETA: 10 days from now), and, around the time our app comes out, through a Web app reached via our website. At some point in the next six months, we plan to be on Android and other platforms, too. The various apps allow us to offer not only single sales but also $15 subscriptions to all of Deca’s stories for a year. Think of it like a book club, only the books aren’t as long, and all of them fit in your pocket.
Do you have fact checkers?
Herman: Part of the Kickstarter goal is to pay Zanna McKay, our fact checker.
Schrank: We all agree that fact checking is a must, as is copy editing. None of us ever set out to do this with a view to diminishing our standards. At this point, it’s just a question of resources, or else they fall squarely within the purview of the editing.
Funk: Zanna did a great job on Mara’s story. Mara and I also double-checked various parts.
Is there an ideal story length? Must Deca stories abide by Kindle Singles’ 30,000-word limit?
Schrank: A story should be as long or as short as it needs to be. That sounds like a Zen koan, but stories have an internal rhythm all of their own. Certainly, though, there needs to be enough to justify the price of entry. That said, we aim for about 10,000 words. But Mara’s story, “And the City Swallowed Them,” is longer, and it deserves every word.
How did you pitch this to Amazon and what were the challenges? (I see that David Blum, editor of Kindle Singles — if it’s the same David Blum — is one of your backers.)
Faris: Of course, we don’t know if it’s the same David Blum either, but Blum has been very supportive of us since we first told him what we were planning to do. “And the City Swallowed Them” was an Amazon Kindle Singles Editors’ Pick this week.
Funk: I’d (say) it’s the same Dave Blum. He’s a believer in this project and we’ve been talking with him for almost a year. Some history: Marc wrote a Kindle Single for Blum in 2011, Mara was once one of his journalism students at Columbia, and Vanessa just taught the narrative journalism course at Columbia that Blum once taught. A lot to talk about, and he likes long, narrative stories, just as we do.
What are we forgetting? Anything you want to add?
Faris: It’s probably worth mentioning the method we used to answer your questions: We threw them up at a Google doc, and had at it. I say it’s worth mentioning because it’s the kind of collaboration we’ve seen over and over as we’ve developed Deca: from crafting the bylaws to putting together press releases and proposals.
Funk: Yeah, this has the veneer of a journalism project, but it’s really just an experiment in international cloud computing.