By Amanda DeMarco
BERLIN: Despite what the majority of the German publishing community might think, online author and reader self-publishing communities are not a new phenomenon in the country. Platforms like Epidu or Bookrix have allowed authors to post their work, and readers to rate, give suggestions, and write reviews since last year. But Neobooks — Buchmarkt’s Newcomer of the Year Award at the Leipzig Book Fair –belongs to a different class. The main difference: Neobooks is owned by Droemer Knaur, a large and well-respected German publisher of popular literature owned by the Holzbrinck Group. The ten books rated best by Neobooks readers are evaluated by Droemer Knaur editors, with the possibility of being published as a paperback, or as an e-book in the digital Neobooks imprint. As of March, Neobooks authors can also charge for access to their writings (regardless of rating).
Droemer Knaur editors recently evaluated the first “top-ten” group, and selected four “portal authors” for inclusion in its program. Of these, only one will be released in their paperback program. The other three will be e-book only. Some community members have expressed disappointment at the e-only majority, which perhaps indicates that the community itself isn’t as ready for innovation as Neobooks is.
In fact, a regular critique of Neobooks has been that authors post their works on the platform in hopes of catching a Droemer Knaur editor’s eye, instead of being engaged and invested in the platform itself. That readers are slower to accept new industry standards than industry insiders is to a degree understandable (and beyond that, a communication failure on the part of the industry). And to put the e-only complaints in perspective, Neobooks Director Ina Fuchshuber related in a Leipzig Book Fair podcast that “no one hesitated” to accept their contract.
Whatever the community reaction, Neobooks’ publication strategy is a smart one that takes advantage of the potential of digital media to serve niche markets. When Droemer Knaur brings a portal author into its digital Neobooks imprint, it affirms that the book fits their program, with all the endorsement and support that goes along with that, but that it’s not going to sell enough copies to make printing viable; they assert its value to a small community. Fuchshuber also intends to publish one “avant-garde” title each quarter that will make use of its digital medium. First up: a non-linear piece from multiple perspectives.
Of course, most people on the platform will not be published by Droemer Knaur. For those who decide to put a price tag on their writing, it’s probably too early to tell if readers will be willing to pay money for works when writing (arguably of the same quality) is available right next to it for free. In an interview with Publishing Perspectives, Fuchshuber related, “So far about 250 works have been offered at a cost, with more added each day. There is no standard price, but it’s clearly crystallized that works over 1.99 Euro [about $3.00] sell better — perhaps because higher price is associated with higher quality.” Neobooks keeps 30 percent of portal sales, which (besides contracts for selected books) is the only revenue source from the site. Fuchshuber has stated that there are no plans for offering author services, a common strategy for other such platforms.
The writings available on Neobooks vary widely in quality and subject-matter, though thrillers and light novels seem to do well there. (This solitary English-language novel is a fairly representative example, both of the books posted and the thoughtful exchanges that can occur between writers and readers.)
Many bloggers have complained about the quality of some materials on the platform, especially concerning coherence and correct grammar and spelling. Again, the complaints highlight that many people are yearning for the legitimacy of a traditional publisher. As Fuchshuber says, “By definition, in a community everyone is invited to take part at first.” Neobooks does actually delete works that are reported by reviewers as not meeting minimal standards — Fuchshuber estimates one to two percent of works are deleted.
The platform also has some technical issues. The site is a beautiful one, but it’s also complex, often redundant, and sometimes unintuitive. In researching this article, there was usually something, large or small, not working when I was on the site. When I tried creating an account, registration wasn’t functional for two days. What does the average user (one not writing an article) do when registration doesn’t work for two days? They go someplace else.
To be fair, Neobooks is in open beta. To be even more fair, it’s been in open beta since it was presented publicly last October at the Frankfurt Book Fair, and in closed beta since late July. Fuchshuber counters that the community “develops rapidly,” and provides a great deal of feedback that requires constant honing.
Droemer Knaur deserves praise for taking on a project this large and innovative, which provides a service even to those writers not selected for publication. It’s not perfect, but Neobooks is a real demonstration of openness and engagement with risks and challenges on the part of a publisher.
A regular contributor to Publishing Perspectives, Amanda DeMarco also edits Readux: Reading in Berlin.