Penguin Unveils Social Network for Genre Fiction at Book Expo '11

Book Country is a new social network specifically for fans and writers of genre fiction: mysteries, thrillers, science fiction, fantasy, and romance. Owned by print publishing giant Penguin, Book Country is open to authors from any publisher, as long as they write within one of the genres.

I interviewed Molly Barton, President of Book Country and Director of Business Development at Penguin Group (USA ) (when necessary for context, my questions are in italics; my comments are in square brackets):

I created Book Country because I wanted to create a real stepping stone for aspiring fiction writers to improve their work, learn how to describe their work in the most advantageous manner, and to learn about the various publishing paths available to them. I also saw self-publishing companies offering very expensive services designed by technologists rather than publishers or marketers, and felt we could do better.

Why authors from all houses and not just Penguin authors?

I felt it was important to give fiction writers a holistic view. The Landmark Books [well-known titles in a genre] are from publishers across the industry

[The site categorizes books not only by genre, but also by their rank in several sets of statistics that provide social proof: essentially, a curatorial function-helping readers choose books they'll like or that will be especially helped by their feedback. The site lists books in this order:]
. At the top: Book Country favorites: highest rated by community in five genres.
. Next, Buzz Books: most activity
. Below, Waiting to Be Discovered.

As a writer, you're free to upload work in progress or finished work, but you have to review three other people's work before yours is visible.

What makes the site unique?

Several things, actually. We try to focus heavily on discoverability, and to that end we created the Genre Map, which allows writers and readers a way to focus on genres with a particular kind of granularity, using tones (light vs. dark; funny vs. scary; sexy vs. innocent; realistic vs. fantastic) as compass points on the maps.

We also offer a Waiting to Be Discovered area on the main book page, which bubbles up newly-posted fiction that hasn't yet been critiqued. Other things that make us different: Authors can request feedback on the specific criteria (i.e., plot, character development, setting, etc) where they feel they need the most help. Recommendations can be integrated with social media [sent to Facebook and Twitter]. No Flash is used. Our Reader was designed to emulate an e-reader experience, and as such is really a great reading experience. Viewers can adjust the font size and style, and readers can take notes on the fly [with a post-it-note-type feature keyed to different areas of feedback requested].

We review the reviewers and are instituting a true meritocracy, unlike some other sites where authors can stack reviews with their friends. Readers can vote on whether a review is constructive, and the reviewer gains or loses karma based on that. If [top-rated reviewers] say a book is great, it matters more.

Why just genre categories?

People ask, why don't you have nonfiction, poetry, literary fiction? I wanted to do genre fiction because I want readers to know this is a focused site, and it's easy for them to find something they'd like to read. You can use the favorites, buzz books, top lists within genre, or you can go into our faceted search [hierarchical menus including tags and peer review criteria].

I also wanted to create a visual echo of the serendipity you find in a traditional brick & mortar bookstore. Because people always describe new books in reference to existing books, if you go to the genre map, you can see the landmarks [well-known books as compass points along the matrix, once you've clicked on an icon in the above screen]. Click on points nearby to get [similar] book recommendations.

[Barton and her team also have a sense of play; at the expo, they distributed buttons that incorporated the Book Country logo - the bright red nib of a fountain pen - into fun graphics such as the "nerd alert" radiating beacon, and a "born to write" button in which the nib looked suspiciously like swimming sperm.

When did you get started?

We soft-launched - what we've been calling a "public beta" - on April 26. Book Country is a free community, but to review books or participate in a discussion, you do need to join the site. Right now, non-members can read up to 5000 words of any manuscript; once you've joined and logged in, can read up to 30,000 words of any manuscript. You can "Request to Connect" with another writer if you'd like to read that writer's entire work. And we're hoping to have books by Book Country members for sale on the Genre Map when we launch (late summer).

How will you monetize?

Several ways. In late summer, we'll be launching self-publishing services, on a system we're currently building ourselves. We're also hoping we'll find some great new writers for our Penguin editors. The writers on Book Country have no obligation to Penguin, but we have do have editors watching closely. There are a number of literary agents who have joined the site, too, as well as editors from other publishing houses. One of our beta users has already found representation this way.

What else do you offer?

Well, the coolest thing about Book Country is the Genre Map, of course, but we also have a big discussions forum focused on genre fiction, as well as the craft and business of writing; we've gotten a huge number of posts already. We moderate fairly heavily and like to think we offer a more writer-focused series of discussions that some other online communities. We also have a magazine-style blog where we're commissioning articles from writers and publishing professionals; we'll use this as conduit for educating writers about the book business.

How many people are involved?

Four full-time employees, plus a service agreement with Penguin, plus five developers. Colleen Lindsay, our community manager, a former associate director of publicity for Del Rey Books, is a genre fiction specialist with 24 years of experience in publishing and bookselling; she's also very active on Twitter, with more than 70,000 followers. Danielle Poiesz, a former associate editor at Pocket Books, is our editorial coordinator; in addition to acquiring romance and urban fantasy titles for Pocket, Danielle was also the community manager for the Pocket After Dark online urban fantasy community. And my own publishing background includes a long stint in Penguin editorial before moving into business development.

AND HOW MANY READERS AND WRITERS, BOTH OVERALL AND BY GENRE?

We've been in public beta for less than five weeks but already we have nearly 2700 Book Country members, with more than 400 manuscripts posted. Right now, our most populated genres are fantasy and romance, but the other genres are catching up fast!

How are you promoting the site?

We're attending writers' conferences, genre conventions like New York ComicCon and trade shows like BEA to talk about Book Country. At BEA alone, we gave more than 100 Book Country demos to media folks, publishing professionals. We're also using social media like Facebook and Twitter in smart ways; we've contracted with a PR firm to do more traditional media outreach; and just generally spreading the word through personal connections. It's been a very exciting time for us!

More articles from Book Expo America 2011:
* Are These Books Worth the Trees? Junk Food for the Mind Dominates Biggest Publisher Booths at BEA 2011
* Electronic Innovation is turning the Publishing World Inside-Out: Cutting-Edge Business Products at Book Expo America

Shel Horowitz's two most recent books (both award-winners) are Grassroots Marketing for Authors and Publishers and Guerrilla Marketing Goes Green: Winning Strategies to Improve Your Profits and Your Planet. He writes the monthly Green And Profitable and Green And Practical columns.


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