Self Publishing: Friend or Foe?
The Book Country website focuses on five categories of genre fiction: mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy and romance. A 'genre map' allows aspiring authors to locate their manuscript in relation to other works by referencing a known author in that category.
Book Country's website provides tools for writers to post manuscripts, hone their craft, review others' works and have their works reviewed by peers. Self-publishing services will be added to the website later this year.
Book Country users refine their genre category by placing their contribution in the environs of a sub category—say, 'sexy,' 'dark,' or 'funny' within the Paranormal Romance category.
As the self-publishing phenomenon has grown and matured, traditional book publishers have passed through something like the five stages of grief: denial ("It's just vanity publishing."); anger ("It's an affront to quality!"); bargaining ("Don't you see how fruitless this is?"); depression ("Amanda Hocking"); and, finally, acceptance of the fact that the self-publishing market is big, influential and here to stay—and maybe not such a bad thing after all.
It has become clear lately that most aspiring authors need more than just a good idea and a salable version of their prose to succeed. As open-publishing and printing company Lulu CEO Bob Young recently told an interviewer at the World E-Reading Congress in London, "Most authors actually don't want to self publish. … The author needs help. He needs help understanding who his market is. He needs help crafting his content so it has more appeal. … We understand the need to connect publishers [with authors] in the sense of people who understand the markets and can help authors sell their content."
Lulu has revamped its self-publishing platform to enable third-party service providers to cater to authors, essentially taking on a publisher's role. (An example is Before I Grew Up, a company that helps people create appealing baby books.)
With Amazon also getting into the publishing business, it has become clear that self publishing, and the massive long tail it creates, has not made publishing irrelevant—quite the opposite, in fact. Those publishers that can figure out how to serve this growing market in innovative, nontraditional ways have ample opportunities for new revenue.
Building an Author Oasis
As publishers have begun to see potential in the self-publishing market, authors have begun to recognize the limitations of releasing a book into what Molly Barton, president of online writing community Book Country LLC, calls "the digital desert."
"What I saw was a lot of very expensive services without a lot of publishing expertise behind it," Barton told Book Business. "… I wanted to give these new authors a lot of tools for learning how best to describe their own work and lots of tools for finding readers, and I also felt strongly that we could provide more reasonable self-publishing tools that are based on writers' needs, because we are publishers rather than pure technologists."
From this came the idea for Book Country, owned by Penguin Group (USA): an online portal for genre fiction writers to hone their craft, critique each other's work, discover their markets and (beginning later this year) make use of self-publishing services. A lucky few may even garner publishing contracts.
"We may well find talented writers on the site that we offer traditional book contracts to," Barton says.
The ability to do this type of prospecting is one of the advantages of offering self-publishing services, agrees Pete Nikolai, director of publishing process at global Christian Publisher Thomas Nelson. In partnership with publishing services provider Author Solutions Inc., Thomas Nelson has offered self-publishing services through its WestBow Press imprint since November 2009.
"As evidenced by The Shack and Amanda Hocking's books, the issue is not quality," Nikolai says. "Rather, it may be bandwidth. Traditional publishers rely on agents to filter manuscripts. Agents have limited time and want to offer titles with obvious commercial appeal. Many quality titles just don't have that obvious commercial appeal, but online and e-book retailers provide a much broader platform where readers can find books they want and help re-define what has that appeal."
If a book gets some traction through author marketing and sales efforts, that itself becomes a selling point for pitching the book to a wider market such as bookstores, according to Nikolai. "Those that continue to gather momentum are then considered for acquisition by our Nelson team, and some are offered traditional publishing contracts. When this happens, the WestBow titles flow into our regular release system with our corporate marketing and sales support, like any other title," he says.
Kevin Weiss, president and CEO of Author Solutions, calls this a "farm system" for authors. Publishers, he says, get a chance to track not only emerging talent, but possibly, market trends. "They get a chance to look and see what people are actually writing," he says. "They look at sales data, content, platforms the authors have [for promotion]. Many authors today spend time marketing themselves and their books. A lot today will take the advance [they get if offered a contract] and turn it around, and invest it into marketing."
Hosting their own self-publishing services internally gives publishers the opportunity to bring into their stable some of the most savvy self-promoting authors, while the ones who are less adept at promotion can make use of services offered by the publisher.
Publisher Hay House Inc.'s self-publishing division, Balboa Press (also the result of an Author Solutions partnership), offers a range of services for authors, from publishing packages of various sizes and prices to events such as I Can Do It!, a series of conferences that leverage Hay House's event and self-help expertise to provide motivation and inspiration for writers. It's one example of the ways publishers can utilize existing assets to create products geared to the writer's market.
"The best partners are those who offer branded services that can only be delivered through their imprints," Weiss says. "So, for example, at Hay House, if an author has the ability to do a book signing at the I Can Do It! event—and sometimes they get 4,000 people at these events—and you can only do it through the Hay House self-publishing imprint, that's something that gives the author who publishes with Balboa Press a differentiator from somebody that publishes with [Author Solutions imprint] AuthorHouse, for example. So we are constantly looking for unique things [to do] with our partners that can add value and that can only add value through their own imprints."
Writers, Readers … and Services for Both
In the case of Book Country, the goal was to provide services for genre fiction writers—mystery, thriller, science fiction, fantasy and romance—that Barton believes are best offered by a book publisher.
"The inspiration behind Book Country was to create a real stepping stone for genre fiction writers," she says. "It's focused on writers, but open to readers. I wanted to create a place for genre fiction writers to post works in progress and really create a website that serves them from inspiration to publication."
To that end, Book Country offers unique tools for writers, such as the ability to ask the community for advice on specific aspects of a work in progress—pacing, characterization or voice, for example. Reviewers are themselves rated, and those who provide the most constructive advice get special influence and exposure. Users must read and review three examples of other writers' works before their own manuscripts become visible, and robust search features allow writers to research examples and advice related to their own challenges. Perhaps most interestingly, a "genre map" feature allows authors to locate their books relative to other authors or styles, which show up as points on a virtual landscape.
"I wanted to bring a playful, fun element to browsing because I think we're all a little sick of search results," Barton says. The genre map includes published writers, helping aspiring authors locate themselves in the publishing landscape—and potentially publicizing established writers to an eager audience.
Book Country, Barton says, helps break down the "false notion" of writers versus readers, as some of the most passionate readers and genre fans are aspiring writers themselves.
As with Lulu, Author Solutions has gotten the message that writers are looking for new levels of support. The company has launched the Author Learning Center, which provides services such as an online support network for aspiring writers; a Book Launch Tool, which lays out goals and deadlines that allow authors to track where they are on the road to publication; and multimedia educational materials provided by writers, publishers, lawyers, agents and marketers. Weiss says he is looking to have 10,000 pieces of content on the site by the end of the year.
"We will have tools to help you invite people in to review what you're doing," he says. "We don't want to put people's content out there for the whole world to see and have some knucklehead say it's the worst piece of garbage. … [Writers can] invite seven friends who are really serious about helping [them] along."
With the explosion of e-books, Weiss believes the sky's the limit for the self-publishing market. Author Solutions just launched an e-book-only partnership with publisher Guideposts. To help authors with the conversion and formatting process, the company will expand, improve and relaunch a digital service, Wordclay, in the third quarter of this year.
It all points to a potentially lucrative market for any and all service providers ready to help writers who want to play in the self-publishing sandbox— but not wander in the digital desert. BB