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Should Readers Pre-screen Books for Publishers?

By Dennis Abrams

using a computer

In today’s feature story about the discovery of Irish YA author Leigh Fallon through HarperCollins’ YA community site Inkpop, I wondered “are social media sites the new slush pile?” After all, visit any small publishers (let alone of the Big Six) and you’re likely to find somewhere on their site a notice telling you they no longer accept unsolicited manuscripts; ditto for agents. I suspect that publishers like the fact that books that come to them pre-approved via social media sites — whether focused on writing or reading — and have been vetted by the very same people likely to purchase a published copy of the book.

In the press release announcing the acquisition of The Carrier of the Mark, Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, said, “The opinions of our readers matter to us. Inkpop is HarperCollins Children’s Books’ first site (and not the last) to really put the users’ voice and ideas in the forefront.  Social media is incredibly empowering if used correctly, and HarperCollins recognizes this and is gearing up to make social media the cornerstone of all its digital endeavors.”

Would publishers — who are notoriously bad at audience research — benefit from more “reader focus groups” and having potential customers pre-screen books prior to acquisition? What are the upsides? The downsides?

Let us know what you think in the comments.

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6 Comments

  1. Posted November 4, 2011 at 5:55 am | Permalink

    This is a very interesting question: should publishers involve readers in their search for the Next Big Writer – and I think the answer (even if that won’t please literary agents) is a resounding YES!

    HarperCollins should be praised for this. It’s a courageous choice and highly innovative. I haven’t been on the Inkpot site and I really regret it! In the end, as discouraged as Leigh Fallon was with rejections I opted for the self-publishing road. I did use another HarperCollins site: Authonomy. That was very useful: it forced my manuscript through the crucible of fellow writers. They liked it, some 20 or so people made very useful comments. Even criticism was constructive, so I think that I can fairly say that I learned a lot and that my manuscript came out immensely improved!

    But something else happened on that site (which eventually caused me to leave it). I began to realize that since the site contained only authors, these guys were actually competing for attention to try and get their ms to the top ranking (with a few exceptions of exceedingly generous people and my thanks go to them). That made for a rather unpleasant experience – of the sort, without ever saying it out loud because obviously it’s a no-no, but implying it in an underhanded way, that if-you-vote-for-me-I-vote-for-you. That is human nature, and I’m not blaming anybody. As I said, some generous souls escaped the trap.

    This goes to show that it would be important for a publisher to involve READERS and not just writers in their social media site. Otherwise it won’t work to produce the best, most appealing book for readers. It will just be the result of internal politics to the writers’ community that is involved on the site. Not at all the desired result!

    This said, I haven’t been on Inkpot and I don’t really know the internal mechanisms. But it does sound like a very promising solution. I applaud HarperCollins for being so Internet savvy and so eager to connect with readers! I’m willing to bet that at this rate this is one Big Six publisher that will manage to successfully stand up to the inexorable rise of Amazon!

  2. Ruth Martin
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 9:14 am | Permalink

    Some small publishers are already successfully involving readers. (REAL readers, mind!) Witness ‘And Other Stories’, who have made the opinions of readers and subscribers central to their business model. Holding both online and real-life reading groups to choose which books they publish, and printing the names of subscribers in their books, gives readers a real sense of involvement in the finished products. In the current climate, this sort of innovative thinking is crucial if small and start-up publishers are going to survive.

  3. michael
    Posted November 4, 2011 at 10:21 am | Permalink

    So, fifty “likes,” we publish; less than that, we don’t. Further taking the risk out of publishing. But without risk there is no publishing, just printing. The writer takes a risk when she sits down to write rather than doing something blessed with greater certainties. The reader takes a risk every time he opens a book by someone he’s not heard of or read before. The least publishers can do is take a risk by publishing something they are passionate about whether or not it corresponds to what “readers” say they want. Those readers WILL express their opinions, after a book is published, and if a publisher is smart and open, he will listen and over time cultivate a kind of open dialogue between himself and readers. But you can’t be preemptive about it. As a publisher, you should be risking your good name and your financial well being, maybe not with every book you publish, but with most. You should be creating readership and market, rather than pandering to an already existing one. The only way publishers can fulfill their calling is by offering something (not shoving down throats, offering) that readers may not know they want, doing so with the conviction that their choices are valid.

    I was thinking of that turn of the century salon in paris where cézanne’s work was on show and a prominent critic (he was not alone) had warned against visiting the show; pregnant women were particularly at risk, the horror of cézanne’s work could well provoke a miscarriage! Somebody (a gallerist, a collector, a wealthy patron with a room enough to host an exhibition?) had run the risk of challenging prevailing tastes, offering something new, something that the public had never seen before and could not therefore envisage wanting or liking or clicking recommend or giving a thumbs up. Thank heavens for risk takers!

  4. Posted November 4, 2011 at 12:36 pm | Permalink

    Claude’s point is very well taken about how so often, any website/forum/discussion about books and writing is populated with other writers — not that they can’t be readers and book buyers also, but they are most likely NOT the bulk of readers you hope to market to as a writer!

    This is one of the biggest problems I see so far with social media and book publishing. We’re still talking amongst ourselves to a certain extent.

    There remains an elusive question: How to make it possible for the vast swath of readers OUT THERE to discover a specific, really good author IN HERE?

    Janet
    Editor and Publisher

  5. Posted November 4, 2011 at 3:15 pm | Permalink

    No, sorry; been there, done that. As a writer the responsibility for writing and editing the work is mine and no one else’s. I have had too much experience with novel by committee. In the end, the book was completely different and did not at all resemble the novel’s idea or scope, and turned out no better than a dimestore paperback. As for readers vetting the books, most if not all usually have a specific agenda in mind when signing on to read an unpublished work, like tearing down a book and the author to bolster their self-importance; and I have already had experience with that, too. No, thank you.

    Social media is relied upon too heavily as it is for carrying on one’s business. It used to be that the book’s subject and execution was sufficient for getting it sold. Now you expect me to be accessible 24-7 to anyone wanting to pry into my private life, too? No, thank you, and again I thank you, NO.

  6. Posted November 4, 2011 at 4:30 pm | Permalink

    I think some publishers are already doing something like this behind the scenes. Maybe NOT the Big Six, but the next level down.

    There was a time when a book that had been put out by an indie author held no interest for a publisher. Now, some are realizing that once an indie author gets a following, it might mean something. Even the books previously “self pubbed” might be worth a treatment from a “real publisher” who can then still make a profit.

    My thought is that a writer with a following must intrigue publishers.

    Splitter

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