Book Country – Old Country For New Authors?

Later this year something is going to happen in the publishing industry that many analysts and experts told us would never happen. As far back as 2009, when Thomas Nelson and Harlequin launched their self-publishing service imprints, the naysayers maintained the ‘big six’ publishers would hold firm and the self-publishing service bug would never reach the elite established beaches of New York’s publishing houses. A lot changes in publishing these days, and even the most conservative publishing voices are learning that the industry can no longer cling to the ‘Garrison Keillor Comfort Blanket’. Publishing is and should be a business—no matter what level it is undertaken, be it by the humble self-publisher or corporate ‘big six’.
Last month Penguin USA launched Book Country under the auspices of Molly Barton, director of business development at Penguin and president of Book Country. The venture has been in the Penguin mixing pot for well over twelve months and following its launch is operating online in beta mode with further tweaks and improvements to come. Book Country was primarily set up as a place for readers and writers of genre fiction to come together to interact, read, comment, critique, learn and discover about books and the world of publishing under ‘an atmosphere of encouragement and creativity.’
Initially, establishing a new online community will be the focus, but later this year, Penguin’s Book Country will begin offering self-publishing services for ebooks and print on demand to authors in its community.

“Later this year, Book Country will offer a convenient and affordable way to self-publish eBooks and print books. With a variety of services available, we want you to be able to put your book on the map. As Book Country grows, we will continue to offer additional features and services we think you will appreciate.”

Barton, in an interview with Publishers Weekly last month expounded further on the new venture:

“While Book Country is distinctive, it is not the only online writing community nor is it the first to be launched by a major book publisher. HarperCollins has organized the online writing community of Authonomy, and InkPop, an online community focused on teen writing. Book Country is reminiscent of iPublish, a failed online writing community and digital publishing venture launched by former Warner Books president Larry Kirshbaum in 2000. Barton acknowledged the connection and noted that she had discussions with a former iPublish editor while developing the Book Country concept. While iPublish was a pioneering venture anticipating many of the services offered by Book Country, it was a bit ahead of its time and was forced to close in late 2001 with mounting financial losses. But it’s a different time and different market for e-books and digital publishing in 2011.”

What is most interesting about the above quote is the fact iPublish and its creator Larry Kirshbaum is mentioned. Barton certainly wouldn’t have foreseen it back then in 2000, and I doubt Publishers Weekly knew it when they wrote this article in April, but Kirshbaum this week was announced as director of publishing at Amazon to oversee its series of recently launched publishing imprints.
The only reason I mentioned the Amazon link here was purely for the purpose of irony. Good books and stories are often filled with irony and it seems the story and future of publishing is also laden with it. Amazon gets a bad rap from publishers and booksellers. Publishers will claim how the nasty behemoth has muscled in on the publishing industry and dictates the terms, logistics and very platform books are sold on. Booksellers will argue the unfair advantage and power the online retailer now has with its customers.
The truth is Amazon has been good for books and reading, and it understood what publishers have long forgotten about books – the reader is king and customer. Connect with them, market and sell to them, and you hold the market in the palm of your hand. When the publishing industry was too busy charming the knickers off the biggest literary agencies and authors, and working out how they could extract the maximum profit from the fewest amount of books published, and only wanted to listen to the cries of a handful of media-generated trends in celebrity blockbusters, Amazon had its filthy nose shoved into the shit of silicon valley, watching, monitoring, buying and recruiting any small company or person with legs to run the pace of the emerging digital world.
So has Penguin and their step into offering an online community and self-publishing services moved them any closer to playing a vital part of the book and the future of publishing? Time will certainly tell. It may be too little too late. What is clear is that Penguin have not made the mistakes of HarperCollins with Authonomy, who instead of creating a writing community for readers, created a platform for authors competing with each other, and an advertising playground for companies selling publishing services.
I’ll also digress to mention the latest plan by Hachette Book Group, Simon & Schuster and Penguin Group to launch, a consumer-oriented online platform to market and promote books. There is no doubt the big six are fighting hard to combat and engage with the changes in the publishing industry, but it begs a singular question. All of these publishers have had their own online websites attempting to engage with the reader, but until now, they have never taken it seriously. So what makes different other than being supported by three big publishers? If publishers failed to engage with the readership of their books on their own—what makes them think together that things will be any different?
For me, everyone wants to simplify the publishing equation. Authors are learning that there is a way of reaching their readership without the need for agents and publishers. Publishers (and now agents) are learning that they can reach their true buyers when they bypass the traditional bookstore. Booksellers may prove to be the ones who find it hardest to find a place in any kind of future equation.
I greatly welcome Book Country—still fear it may be another Author Solutions administrated service when the self-publishing services launch later this year—but still hope that this may be something more innovative than we have seen before.

What Book Country has over ASI is that – as yet – the work promised to authors will be carried out in-house rather than farmed out to freelance services.

UPDATE (August 2012)
It will be interesting to see if ASI is integrated with Book Country following the purchase by the Pearson Group or whether the two entities will be kept separate.

UPDATE January 2013

Book Country, You’ve Been Tango’d!

RATING: 7.0/10


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