Sandy Hall was nervous. Hall, a librarian in Morristown, N.J., was preparing one recent night to lead her weekly book club meeting with a group of 14 teenagers. The book being discussed, a young-adult romance titled “A Little Something Different,” was her own debut novel.
“I’m still in the ‘I hope they like it’ phase,” she said an hour before the meeting.
But Hall, 33, has more cause for confidence than most other first-time authors. Her novel is the first book to be published by Swoon Reads, a new young-adult imprint that lets fans vote on manuscripts to choose which ones are published.
About 9,000 readers have sampled her story online, and it drew the highest possible rating of five hearts. Her publisher is so bullish about the book that it is planning a hefty first-print run of 100,000 copies in the United States and simultaneous releases by its sister imprints in Britain and Australia.
Swoon Reads, a young-adult imprint that is part of Macmillan Publishing, is upending the traditional discovery process by using crowdsourcing to select all its titles. By bringing a reality television-style talent competition to its digital slush pile, the publisher is hoping to find potential best-sellers that reflect not editors’ tastes but the collective wisdom and whims of the crowd.
“The fans and the readers are more in touch with what can sell,” said Jean Feiwel, senior vice president of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group and publisher of Swoon Reads, who came up with the concept in 2012. “They’re more at the pulse of these things than any of us can be.”
So far, Feiwel has acquired six debut novels out of the 237 manuscripts posted on Swoon Reads’ website. The novels, which range from contemporary realism to paranormal romance, were chosen based on comments and ratings from the site’s 10,000 registered users. Readers also vote on audiobook narrators after listing to digital audio samples, decide which cities the authors visit on their tours and choose the books’ covers. Writers published by Swoon Reads receive a $15,000 advance, plus royalties.
When “A Little Something Different” arrives in stores Aug. 26, Hall and her publisher will find out whether online support translates into print sales. They are hoping that the thousands of readers who championed the book will become evangelists who drive word-of-mouth recommendations.
“This is like ‘X Factor’ or ‘American Idol’ meets publishing,” said Jon Yaged, president and publisher of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “We’re hoping these books will have a bigger hit rate.”
The experiment reflects a new push by writers and publishers to build a fan base for books well before they are published – and sometimes before they are even written. By inverting the usual process of releasing a book first and finding an audience later, publishers are aiming to become more like the rest of the entertainment industry, where new TV shows and films are subjected to rigorous market testing before they are shown.
Publishers and literary agents are scouring sites like Wattpad, which offers free fiction by amateur writers, to find authors with big and enthusiastic followings. On Kickstarter, writers last year collectively raised $22 million in funding for some 6,000 works in progress, which ranged from teen novels and comics to nonfiction books. Several new companies dedicated to enlisting crowds in funding literature have opened in recent years, including Unbound, which allows readers to give direct financial support to authors in exchange for a copy of a finished book.
Even some established best-selling authors are dabbling in crowdsourcing. For his coming book “The Innovators,” Walter Isaacson posted a chapter on the website Medium to get readers’ feedback and ideas about his central argument, which posits that technological breakthroughs often come from collaboration rather than lone geniuses.
Publishers and writers see crowdsourcing as a way to not only uncover new talent but also measure fans’ reactions before a book even goes to press.
After Swoon Reads bought “A Little Something Different” in February, Hall and her editor, Holly West, each reviewed more than 200 comments to see what readers thought of the book and how it could be improved. It was immediately clear that many were confused by the rapidly shifting points of view. The novel, which takes place on a college campus, chronicles a budding romance between two students whose affection for each other is obvious to everyone but them. The narrative jumps between the perspective of a barista, a Chinese-food deliveryman, a professor, a bus driver, a squirrel and other observers rooting for the pair to get together. The first draft had 23 perspectives. After reading about a dozen complaints about the novel’s complexity, Hall whittled it down to 14 points of view.
Other readers had more nuanced critiques. Some suggested that the individual chapters needed more pronounced narrative arcs. Hall said the fan feedback – which most writers get only after a book is on sale – helped her recast the book to make it more suitable for a young-adult audience.
“Having had it tested online, you can really tailor it to what people want to read,” Hall said. “It gives you a little more confidence.”