Tuesday, June 14, 2011

Next Stop: Book Country

It's a cross between a writing group and an open mic night -- hone your craft among your peers and, fingers crossed, stumble upon your big break in the process. Such is the mission of Book Country, the buzz-generating online community for writers of genre fiction that Penguin launched last week. We took a quick tour around this new land over the weekend to see what it offers writers today -- and what it portends for our ilk in the future.

Here's a quick summary of how the site works. Authors upload all or part of their manuscripts, and the community responds with reader comments, constructive critiques, and a star rating. To keep things honest -- and to cultivate a sense of fellowship among the writers -- you have to offer at least three peer reviews before you can offer up your own novel for work-shopping. And the more frequently you comment on other participants' work, the more your two cents are worth: the rating system is weighted, giving extra credence to more prolific reviewers. The more novels-in-progress you read, in other words, the more your opinion counts (and the less likely you are to be a friend of the author in question).

The site also hosts author discussion forums, where writers can hash out everything from "how to get inside the head of a psychotic character" to how to craft a high-powered query letter, and supports a Facebook-like structure of "Connections" that allows users to follow the reading activities of one another, social-networking style.

But the big draw for many users will be the hope of Getting Discovered. "Penguin hopes the site will attract agents, editors and publishers scouting for new talent," reported the New York Times this April, and Molly Barton, Director of Business Development at Penguin USA assured MediaBistro that "Penguin editors are reading material on the site and looking for potential acquisitions."

How effective the site will be in fulfilling this promise is anyone's guess -- a digital slush pile is still a slush pile. But recent history suggests there's (at least some) reason to believe the hype. In February, HarperCollins, which operates a similar online writing community for aspiring Y.A. authors, acquired a novel they scouted from the site.

Even if your novel doesn't catch the eye of the industry, Book Country is aiming to be your ticket to publication: starting later this summer, the Times reports, the site will offer writers the option of self-publishing their books by ordering printed copies.

Sites like Book Country are remapping the publishing landscape, but are they the future of the industry? So far, Penguin's version is geared exclusively toward writers of genre fiction, and the HarperCollins's site, Inkpop, targets the Stephanie Meyers of tomorrow. We wonder: would the model work for other kinds of fiction? What about non-fiction? Can we expect a world where the next 4 Hour Workweek is plucked from an online forum for business writers?

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