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The Slush Pile

A Column by Sarah Vogelsong

Book Country: A New Era for Self-Publishing

All technological or business innovations follow the same cycle after bursting onto the market. First the public frenziedly hails the development as a revolutionary moment. Next comes the inevitable backlash, in which a vocal group loudly proclaims the innovation to be no more than a fad. Finally, the furor dies down and the new tool or approach settles into a groove, becoming itself a foundation for future innovations.

E-books have followed this path—and, despite the occasional diatribe from Jonathan Franzen, few doubt that they are here to stay. Now, in a surprising twist, self-publishing is emerging as the Next Great Thing of 2012. This long-maligned segment of the industry has seen remarkable growth over the past decade—a trend that was first greeted with excitement and then trepidation.

So the industry has uneasily loitered on the sidelines for the past few years, slowly amassing titles and profits. On November 16, 2011, however, it took a big step toward gaining widespread legitimacy when Book Country, an online writing community and subsidiary of Penguin Group, introduced its own self-publishing platform.

As Penguin proudly announced, the launch represented the first entry of a Big Six publisher into self-publishing. Whether other Big Six houses follow Penguin’s lead remains to be seen, but it seems certain that industry tides are shifting.

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Barely one year old, Book Country describes itself as “a place where readers and writers of genre fiction come together to read original fiction, post work or comments, and make a name for themselves.” Initially a simple writing community, the site’s small three-person staff is now navigating the unfamiliar waters of self-publishing.

“[We] operate in the way a start-up would operate,” says Colleen Lindsay, Book Country’s community manager, “keeping the expenses down, doing everything yourself.”

The operation is fairly straightforward. Writers working in one of the five target genres of romance, fantasy, science fiction, thriller, or mystery can upload chapters of a book or an entire work to the site. Once there, other users critique the work.

Peer review lies at the heart of Book Country. Before a work is made public, the writer must review three other authors’ pieces. The reviews themselves are then evaluated and given a thumbs-up or thumbs-down rating by other users.

“We try to help writers not only learn how to write better, but learn how to critique each other better, to give more constructive feedback, rather than ‘Hey, this is great! Five stars, I really loved it,’” says Lindsay. “That doesn’t really help a writer. It kind of boosts their ego, but it doesn’t tell them what’s not working in the story.”

It’s an unconventional approach that differs from the competitive atmosphere that often prevails in the publishing world, where authors and agents jockey to land manuscripts on the lists of the Big Six houses. Given this nontraditional background, Book Country’s decision to move into self-publishing is perhaps less surprising. After all, the site has cultivated a devoted community of writers, most of whom will not enjoy success in the traditional markets, but wish to see their words in print.

It has a reputation of promoting both literary quality through its workshop approach and a do-it-yourself spirit that is appealing to many new authors. And finally, the site’s commitment to working with fiction that falls between genres and in areas that Big Six houses don’t know how to market has demonstrated its willingness to work with developing areas of literature.

This is not to say that Book Country has rejected traditional publishing. Because anyone, including acquisitions editors and agents, can join the site, authors often see Book Country as a way to gain exposure. In January 2012, the site’s message boards went suddenly atwitter at the news that user Kerry Schafer had landed a two-book deal with Penguin’s Ace Books imprint after posting her work on Book Country. (Recently, a book entitled Geekomancy by a second author, Michael Underwood, was also discovered on Book Country and acquired by Pocket Books, an imprint of Simon & Schuster.)

The ensuing discussion threads made it clear that for many, Book Country is simply an alternative way of submitting a manuscript directly to an agent or a publisher’s slush pile.

Penguin’s own acquisitions departments have also tapped into the site’s potential. A sister imprint at Penguin, Dutton Books, recently launched a digital imprint called Gilted Edge that aims to publish at least one book a year from a Book Country writer. Similarly, HarperCollins set up an imprint that pulls the best writing from its own online community, Authonomy, and publishes those works as “e-originals.”

But although the Book Country community does support and feed into traditional publishing, the company is also moving beyond the industry’s fixed boundaries. The decision to channel considerable resources into the development of a self-publishing platform may be a hint that the industry is more willing to expand and experiment than has previously been thought.

The time is ripe for an explosion of self-publishing. The technological developments of the past few years have allowed much of the editorial and production processes to be digitized, driving down publication costs and making it possible for enterprising authors to pay for a book’s printing without breaking the bank.

Print-on-demand publishers such as Author House, Xlibris, and iUniverse (all of which are owned by Author Solutions) have capitalized on this affordability, offering prospective authors a diverse menu of publishing options that range from simple printing to copyediting, proofreading, and design services. Even Apple and Amazon have recently gotten into the game.

The technology is there. So are thousands of writers eager to be published. But what has been missing, until now, is the trust. Since its inception the self-publishing industry has been dogged by a reputation of profit seeking and low quality. Book Country, through its connection to Penguin, may finally have provided that missing link.

Book Country’s new platform adheres strictly to the traditional definition of self-publishing. The company does not offer extra editorial services, only guidelines for editing and design, and its services stay firmly in the realm of formatting and printing. Packages range from the simplest $99 “user-formatted eBook only” option, to the $549 “professional print and eBook” option. Users are free to select different distribution ranges and, to some degree, set their own pricing.

Marketing, of course, is still the author’s responsibility, and remains a significant challenge. Because they are often not returnable, many bookstores will not stock self-published books, making it difficult for nontraditional authors to build up an audience. Compounding this difficulty is the refusal of many newspapers and magazines to review self-published books.

Even that policy may be changing, however; in December 2010, Publishers Weekly launched PW Select, a quarterly supplement devoted to news and reviews of self-published books.

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Taken together, these events may indicate a growing belief in the legitimacy of self-publishing, with Penguin’s entry into the field through Book Country being the most decisive sign.

It’s hard to know whether other publishers will follow Penguin’s lead. A great deal of money is certainly at stake—there is no lack of writers eager to shell out 500 dollars to make their literary dreams a reality, and most would prefer to work with a company that is associated—even if only peripherally—with a long history of success and honesty.

But then again, part of the enormous allure of the Big Six publishers is their exclusivity, and the cardinal virtue of self-publishing is its accessibility. Some publishers may find it difficult or impossible to sustain both images simultaneously.

In the end, Book Country’s decision to enter the self-publishing arena is likely only the first chapter of what will be a very long story. And, as all authors know, the best stories are those that keep the audience forever guessing: “What happens next?”

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