Topeka-Shawnee Library’s “Community Novel Project:” Seven years of working with local authors and only getting started

If you are an author, have you ever wondered if a library could not only buy your book but provide expert help developing your writing and publishing skills? If you are a librarian, have you ever wondered why your library doesn’t go beyond holding events for local authors and actually publish some books? Lissa Staley and Miranda Ericsson, two librarians at the Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library have sorted all this out and created a program, now in its seventh year, that organizes local authors, beefs up their writing and publishing skills, and the produces print and ebook edition of a collaborative work. And yes, you read that right. Two librarians have done all this while continuing their other library work. Welcome to the TSCPL Community Novel Project.

In 2003, Lissa Staley was at work at her job as a librarian at the Topeka-Shawnee County Public Library. She noticed that one of her colleagues had put up a new display, so she stopped to look at it. This was her introduction to NaNoWriMo, the National Novel Writing Month, an event held every November since 1999. She quickly decided to participate and set to work writing a novel of her own. At the same time, the idea that everyone could be a winner, that every participant in NaNoWriMo could win by completing the first draft of a novel inspired her. Everyone could win. No one had to lose.

The next year, 2004, she began programming for local writers around NaNoWriMo. However, many of them requested help getting published, finding an editor, getting an agent, etc. There were no resources, so she could not help them. The local writers groups focused on cracking the big New York publishers. Self-publishing and the tools to support it had not evolved as far as they have, today.

Our whole model…is to have a community-published novel released each year.

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In 2010, everything changed. She brought in a local copy editor/ghostwriter to lead a workshop. This was the start of the skills-based instructional program that led to the Community Novel Project.

Here are skills and techniques that go beyond just writing.

You are going to be a small business owner, and we are going to teach you the skills and techniques to succeed at this.

Lissa positioned the skills-based programing as a way for local writers to develop all the skills they would need to write and publish books, just as if they were operating small businesses. Even if an author did not want to self-publish, Lissa’s programming would assure that he or she understood how things looked from a publisher’s point of view. They all learn some technical skills, as well, such as editing in Google Docs and preparing manuscripts for uploading to CreateSpace and Smashwords.

The authors do not write and submit pieces for publication. Rather, the writers agree to participate in the full program. Since this includes editing each other’s works, Lissa avoids being forced to accept some writers and reject others. By the time a piece has been through the editorial process, it is worthy of publication.

Since the project is oriented around publishing a real book and includes all the necessary steps, such as design and layout, editing, copyediting, proofreading, etc., it stays grounded in reality.

For instance, the 2017 series included sessions on writing techniques and on what publishers wished authors knew. Speakers included a university professor and a New York City publishing veteran. She also makes sure that the writers learn how to market themselves as speakers and writers.

Some the workshops even attract local business owners who are not primarily writers, but who face the same challenges of building a personal platform as an expert in their area of work.

This approach is the opposite of hand-holding, and it makes the project manageable. For instance, copy editing is a transferable skill. Each participant learns to copy edit, and then they copy edit each other’s work.

Approximately 20 authors participate in each year’s book. A few of them have stayed with the project from the beginning and contributed every year. Others decide based on whether the year’s theme appeals to them.

What about getting the book into the library’s collection? Authors often ask about getting their book into the library collection, and Lissa has to “help people with their logic model.” That is, if an author thinks that getting one copy of a book into a library is the goal of writing the book, then the author needs to think bigger.

To help the writers understand how libraries select books, during the workshop series, Lissa brings in three members of her library’s collection development department to explain how they decide what to acquire and what to reject. Authors often believe that the selectors look at author websites or spend hours reading books before deciding yay or nay. They do not know about the professional review sources that libraries depend upon, nor do they understand the time pressures of book selection. Selection librarians simply do not have time to study an author’s website. They need to make a decision as quickly as possible. Hearing this from the selectors brings the point home for the authors.

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What kinds of books has the project produced? For the first three years, they used a “play telephone” model in which one author wrote the first chapter of a novel, then another author wrote the second, and a third wrote the third. As they approached their writing deadline, they found that they were pressed for time to do the editing and other work that could not be done before the first draft had been completed.

Now, they do collections of stories that can be written concurrently. Last year’s collection was of short stories that included some change of fact for past or future Topeka. This year’s project will be a collection of memoirs relevant to Topeka or Kansas.

Lissa was kind enough to give me some tips on how to keep a project like this manageable.

  • Set up a timeline in advance and make sure it is possible.
  • Put as much work back on the participants as possible.
  • This is a business model issue. By having the participants do the work and make the decisions, the load is shifted from the librarians, and at the same time, the participants are forced to learn. There are no passive participants. This works better for everyone than having the librarians make all the decisions.
  • Give extensions but don’t do hand-holding. She gives extensions and facilitates, but she does not do the work that the participants should be doing.
  • Always participate to make sure you’re not asking others to do too much. She always participates as an author.
  • This keeps her grounded in the reality of the project and assures that she sets reasonable expectations for everyone.

She has posted extensive information not only for project participants but for librarians who are interested in following the same model. Here are links to some of the key pages:

While Topeka-Shawnee County Library’s Community Project may be unique, it clearly shows that libraries can work with local writers and publishing experts to produce community-written books. In fact, since Lissa and her colleagues have been doing this for seven years, it shows that not only can a library publish one book, it can repeat the process year after year. So, this is not an exhausting project. It is an inspiring and energizing one.

Have you participated in or managed a project in which a library sponsors and publishes a community book of any kind? I’d love to hear about it.


Many thanks to Lissa for making herself available as I researched this article, and to Henry Bankhead of the San Rafael Public Library for connecting me with Lissa.