BOB GARFIELD: If you're a wannabe author and you want to be around writers, you could try a colony. Clusters of literati decant to a remote location for both solitude and community, and the chance to exchange pages, ideas - and spouses. Or you could enroll in an MFA program and not only study at the knee of a tweed-jacketed mentor with an actual bibliography, but to workshop your manuscript with other students, to solve problems or just stimulate ideas. Or, you could just move to Brooklyn. Your next-door neighbor’s probably a novelist too.
But for otherwise unconnected aspiring writers seeking criticism and support, there's a fourth way, virtual workshopping. A website from Penguin Publishing, Book Country, enables thousands of writers to exchange manuscripts and notes and self-publish their work. A few have even gotten traditional publishing deals through the site. Molly Barton is the Global Digital Director for Penguin at Penguin Random House.
MOLLY BARTON: When I came to New York to work in book publishing, there was a festival at the time called New York is Book Country. So the website was based a lot on those early experiences trying to acquire fiction and nonfiction for trade and academic publishing houses, and wanting to democratize the process and create a site where anywhere is book country; your desk is book country. You don't need to move to Brooklyn, you don’t need to go to a colony. You can just come and join the community online.
BOB GARFIELD: How many people have flocked to this virtual place?
MOLLY BARTON: We have around 10,000 users today, and it's a supportive community that encourages people to find writers who are working on books that are very similar to their own work. So people establish these collegial relationships, take their book through an average of six drafts on the site and get feedback from more than five other members. People then can go on to publish on Book Country, if they want to, or through a traditional publishing house.
BOB GARFIELD: What percentage of those who participate in Book Country have actually gone ahead and, and gotten novels published by third parties?
MOLLY BARTON: Ten writers from Book Country have secured deals with traditional publishing houses. A couple of hundred are publishing though Book Country themselves.
BOB GARFIELD: What does it mean to be published by Book Country?
MOLLY BARTON: It's self-publishing, but in the context of a community. So, you know, there are two big challenges for every writer: How can you write a good book and how can you get anyone to care about it? And our proposition is that participation in this community helps you solve both of those problems. You can revise to the point that you want the book to be good enough to be read by a wide audience, and those people who are your early readers are your first audience.
BOB GARFIELD: Now, in the good old days, or the bad old days, there was a mechanism in publishing for handling manuscripts which were just manifestly unworthy, and that was the curt rejection slip, which certainly sent the signal that whoever the author is should probably consider a different set of dreams because writing is not gonna work out for them. Book Country has no equivalent of the rejection slip. How does the community handle submitted manuscripts that are just awful?
MOLLY BARTON: Well, there are two great things that happen. One is if a writer has written something that is just awful, not very many people will comment on it or they will comment briefly and respectfully but not say very much; there's a sort of graceful fade away. And the second thing that can happen is a manuscript that might seem terrible to one reader seems fantastic to another, because they are the right audience for it. You can find sub-categories and niche audiences that you wouldn't otherwise access.
BOB GARFIELD: Well, what’s in it for Penguin or, as it's now known, Penguin Random House, since the big merger?
MOLLY BARTON: It improves the quality of the work out there and it also is a new model for the way that publishing could operate. So it’s a bit of a strategic experiment.
BOB GARFIELD: Has any Book Country project really taken off? Have you found the sweater girl sitting on the stool at Schwab’s Drugstore who has [LAUGHS] gone on to stardom?
MOLLY BARTON: It's too early days, in terms of the books that we’re publishing on Book Country to say here's the winner, but we've got great work up on the site. With a community of 10,000 writers, having 10 of them get deals with traditional publishing houses, that’s a good indicator to me that the model we've put together generates successful books. And I'm optimistic that we will grow great talents on Book Country.
BOB GARFIELD: No Stephen King, just yet.
MOLLY BARTON: Not just yet.
BOB GARFIELD: Molly, thank you very much.
MOLLY BARTON: Thank you.
BOB GARFIELD: Molly Barton is the Global Digital Director at Penguin for Penguin Random House.
Book Country began as a genre-specific publishing site, nurturing the community of romance, thriller and sci-fi authors. Recently, Book Country expanded its purview to include more mainstream categories, like young adult, literary fiction and memoir. One active Book Countryman is Carl E. Reed, a fantasy writer who struggled with his novella for years, before finding aid and comfort among unseen collaborators.
CARL E. REED: The Strange & Curious Tale of Prof. R. H. Wilson is a novella written in the style of H. P. Lovecraft, as if he were writing today. It’s the story of a warlock set down in suburbia, a bit of a miserable misanthrope, and there are two young children next door who irritate him beyond distraction.
BOB GARFIELD: You have been working on this novella for how long?
CARL E. REED: I would say at least the last five, six years. If you go to any of the handful of periodicals which used to publish writers, they’ll say, “Closed to submissions, agent–bid submissions wanted only.” So there really is nowhere to go with your fiction. So you have two choices. You can throw it in a box in the kitchen, which is what I used to do. Or you can join Book Country and get out there and start workshopping and interacting with other writers.
BOB GARFIELD: You’d given up, hadn’t you? You – you were just about ready to throw it all in?
CARL E. REED: Yep, absolutely. I had given up. I had quit. I said, that’s it, done, finito!
BOB GARFIELD: Did the experience change your approach to writing? Are you a better writer now than you were three years ago?
CARL E. REED: Well, better, more consistent, more disciplined. Because there’s somewhere to go with the work and there’s a vehicle for feedback, you know that somebody’s gonna be reading those words, and it makes the act of writing very real. It makes the process of calling yourself a writer – and I turned 50 this year, been writing for some four decades - it makes it something you can say, without wincing, yes, I’m a writer.
BOB GARFIELD: Mm. So Carl, you’re reborn.
CARL E. REED: [LAUGHS] In a way, yes. It’s a very dramatic phrasing, but – yeah, in, in a way, Bob, very much so.
BOB GARFIELD: Carl, thank you.
CARL E. REED: Thank you. Bob.
BOB GARFIELD: Carl E. Reed is the author of The Strange & Curious Tale of Prof. R. H. Wilson, among other works, available on Amazon.com and elsewhere.