Self-publishing is a phenomenon that has exploded over the last few years. Nowadays, many good writers self-publish and many readers read those self-published works. However, in order to find these stories, a reader has to wade through a lot of poorly written stories.
As Alex Sutcliffe points out in his essay “Out of Quantity Comes Quality,” discoverability is the key issue for readers. Alex argues that publishers can be the gatekeepers of quality and that “as the popularity of self-publishing increases and the market becomes ever more over-saturated, this issue of quality will come to the fore.” I also agree that publishers can be these gatekeepers. They can legitimize self-publishing works by putting their official publishing stamp of quality on it. The key is how to wade through the slush pile of self-published work to find the best narratives. In this essay, I will argue that crowdsourcing the slush pile is the way to lift the quality out of the quantity.
For simplicity sake, I have placed the slush pile and self-published work on the same level, but I mean it only in the sense that like the slush pile, the trove of self-published work contains both excellent stories and stories that need a lot of work. There are many great writers who start by self-publishing their works and these are the writers who deserve mainstream recognition by traditional publishers.
A great example of crowdsourcing the slush pile comes from Fanfiction.net. On this website, people read and rate the best stories. Critique is given. A community of writers work together to improve each other’s work. In this case, readers determine quality by what is consistently ranked the highest. The best ranked stories rise to the top of the list, so that a reader can quickly find what the crowd has deemed good quality. It is a crowdsourced version of the intern going through the slush pile at a traditional publisher.
Crowdsourced Publishing versus Vanity Publishing
The biggest difference between crowdsourced publishing and vanity publishing is that the crowdsourced manuscripts are peer reviewed and professionally reviewed for quality. The publisher can also read comments and see what the readers want to see more or less of in the story. These manuscripts are then reviewed and edited by the publisher’s editorial team. Vanity publishing involves publishing a manuscript in exchange for money where the publisher works directly for the author. Some big five publishers have gone the vanity publishing route, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House, as well as romance titan Harlequin. Others have chosen to incorporate readers in their plans through crowdsourcing route: Macmillian and HarperCollins. (Hachette remains on the fence and has not yet actively engaged with self-publishing.)
Crowdsourced Publishing Today
Crowdsourcing is a phenomenon that can be applied in many industries. Publishing too has been jumping on the bandwagon. Crowdsourcing the slush pile is a way for publishers to use the power of fans in order to redirect their valuable resources. This essay will focus on how two of the big five publishers are testing this new model.
In 2013, Macmillian joined the crowdsourced publishing niche by creating Swoon Reads. Macmillian set it up as a young-adult romance imprint where readers rate the stories they read and provide comments to the writers. The top rated stories are published by Macmillian. Swoon Reads is very clear in what is offered to the successful authors: a $15,000 advance with a standard publishing contract for both print and ebook editions of the story.
In 2008, HarperCollins set up Authonomy. It has a slightly different model from Swoon Reads. It does not promise to publish the top rated manuscripts, but it promises to read them. This model allows HarperCollins to stay in control of their publishing plans. Each month, the top five rated books are reviewed by the editorial board and authors receive comments on their work. The catch is that only 10,000 words are read (unless of course the editor wishes to offer a publishing contract). The Authonomy website indicates that HarperCollins has published several manuscripts, but a discussion on GoodReads from May 2013 indicates the opposite. I also could not find any traditionally published books originating from Authonomy.
These two models work only if the readers are motivated to read the manuscripts posted to these websites then to vote and critique them. In order to have these websites work well, Macmillian and HarperCollins must motivate the fans in ways that crowdsourcing models typically work. This is a new venture for publishers, so it is not surprising that they might need some fine tuning.
Motivations for Writers
With Swoon Reads, the successful writers are given a $15,000 advance, which is more than more self-published writers will ever make. It addition, the books are marketed and put in the market in the traditional routes. The writer gains immense exposure and she can build upon her initial success from Swoon Reads. The issue of discoverability is resolved as readers will be able to find this great book in the traditional book market with a physical presence and a marketing campaign behind it.
With Authonomy, similar motivations exist except that HarperCollins has not promised any contracts. Its publishing activities remains closed off to the Authonomy community which goes against the open nature of crowdsourced projects.
Motivations for Readers
1. Altruism: help a good writer achieve her dreams. Altruism works for some people and Pubslush Press has jumped on this. The press is essentially Kickstarter for books with social justice causes. Readers donate money to the books they wish to be published and in exchange, they receive gifts of free ebooks, print books, or social media shout outs. Pubslush Press also donates money to children’s education in developing countries.
For some, altruism and gifts make for a successful (yet ironic) combo.
2. Money: On the opposite end of the spectrum is Grey Gecko Press, which publishes the top rated manuscripts on their website. They motivate readers to rate books by giving $50 VISA gift cards to all the readers who give top ratings to the manuscripts that are eventually published by the press. The readers’ names are also published in the copyright page. Money and recognition in print are common motivators and it is no surprise that a press is trying this with crowdsourcing the slush pile.
3. Community and involvement: The founding principles of crowdsourcing are creating a community that is involved every step of the way. This strategy builds reader loyalty. If readers feel they have contributed to the book, they are more likely to purchase it and to share the link with their friends.
Threadless is a perfect example of how fan-voted products become bestsellers. The difference is that you have already read the book whereas on Threadless, the fans do not yet own the shirt, but the concept still applies in that a virtual product becomes a print product because of your efforts with a community.
Swoon Reads takes this promise to heart by allowing readers to vote on the manuscripts, cover designs, and some of the marketing plans. Authonomy on the other hand ends involvement with the voting.
What Works and How to Scale It?
All three of these strategies could work on a small scale, but in my opinion, the community strategy is the most likely. Authonomy has many negative reviews from writers who are skeptical that HarperCollins has ever published a book from the website. Authonomy was set up in September 2008 while Swoon Reads was set up in 2013. Despite its shorter life, Swoon Reads is already in the process of publishing two titles—and keeping the fans in the loop and involved the whole way. Readers know when a publisher is holding too tightly on the reins and they are in on what HarperCollins is not doing.
Foster community and reader involvement is also easier to manage on a larger scale. Fan-voted pieces are relatively easily managed via polls and votes. While money and altruism are also valuable strategies, they only work for a smaller and specific audience segments (in the case of altruism). Paying individual readers is simply not affordable for most publishers.
The ideas discussed in this essay rely on the premise that self-published authors want to be published by a traditional publishing house. New York Times bestselling authors Sylvia Day and E.L. James were self-published authors before big publishing houses signed them. Big publishers can afford to deliver on bigger money, but smaller publishers cannot. If this essay were extended, it would delve into the ways in which smaller publishers without the big wallets, could motivate self-published authors to sign with them. The easy answer of course is that smaller publishers likely receive a manageable amount of unsolicited manuscripts and thus might not need a crowdsourced model, but even if they do not, smaller publishers must be innovative too in order to keep up with publishing trends.
Self-publishing has invaded and it is up to all publishers to decide how to manage this invasion. Crowdsourcing the slush pile is a viable way publishers could approach it.
Authonomy. (n.d.). Authonomy by HarperCollins. Retrieved from http://authonomy.com/about.aspx
How It Works (n.d.). Swoon Reads. Retrieved from http://www.swoonreads.com/how-it-works
Larson, E. (2013). Swoon Reads is ‘The X Factor’ of E-Book Publishing. Mashable. Retrieved from http://mashable.com/2013/10/28/swoon-reads/
Neary, L. (2014). Swoon Reads: The next romance bestseller, selected by you. NPR Books. Retrieved from http://www.npr.org/2014/02/14/277021693/swoon-reads-the-next-romance-bestseller-selected-by-you
Peterson, K. (2013). Crowdsourcing the Slush Pile. Library Journal, 138(17). Retrieved from http://www.ebscohost.com
Slush Pile Reader Program. (n.d.). Grey Gecko Press. Retrieved from http://www.greygeckopress.com/slush-pile-reader-program-choose-the-next-bestseller/
Smashwords Authors. (2013). Authonomy Discussion. GoodReads. Retrieved from http://www.goodreads.com/topic/show/1261034-authonomy
Sutcliffe, A. (2014). Out of quantity comes quality (or what publishers can offer self-publishing). CCSP Press. Retrieved from http://tkbr.publishing.sfu.ca/pub802/2014/02/out-of-quantity-comes-quality-or-what-publishers-can-offer-self-publishers/