Using the wisdom of crowds to pick the next teen romance bestseller

March 13, 2014

The Swoon Reads community will help the editors choose one of these covers for the imprint’s debut novel, “A Little Something Different,” by Sandy Hall.

What do readers want?

The answer to that question is the holy grail of publishing. But it always arrives too late — in the bestseller list, after the manuscripts have been read and bought and edited and printed and shipped and — all too often — pulped.

Imagine knowing which books readers will like before that arduous, risky process even begins. The thought of such clairvoyance is enough to make a publisher swoon.

Enter Swoon Reads. This new teen romance imprint from Macmillan is the latest and perhaps boldest example of a trend in crowdsourced publishing. Casting aside agents and slush piles, Swoon Reads allows anyone to submit a completed manuscript directly to its easy-to-use Web site. Then the publisher sits back and lets the community decide what it likes best. Books that receive the highest ratings are considered for print and e-book publication.

It’s a rare chance for a publisher to test the market without risking a trip to the remainder bin.

Macmillan senior vice president and publisher Jean Feiwel came up with the idea after seeing a couple of self-published authors make the bestseller list. “Okay, I thought, there are authors out there who are mining their readership. How can I do this? I feel there’s a lot of talent out there that can’t get to us.”

She called for volunteers at Macmillan — anybody who was interested in teen romance. They gathered for pizza every week until they had a plan: “American Idol meets publishing,” Feiwel calls it. Swoon Reads was born.

It’s no coincidence that Feiwel is concentrating her new imprint on Young Adult and New Adult romance. This is a generation that looks to crowdsourced recommendations to find the best clothes, restaurants and panda photos. And the buyers of romance novels are particularly interactive. “Romance readers are avid and engaged,” Feiwel says. “They want to be part of a community. They want to know these writers. They write to them, they believe in them.”

On the Swoon Reads site, which went live in September, users can choose from six categories: sci-fi & fantasy, adventure, contemporary, historical, LGBT and paranormal. After registering and making up a short profile of themselves, they’re asked to rate each manuscript they read on a scale of 1-5 hearts and according to the story’s Heat, Tears, Laughs and Thrills.

But couldn’t authors — and their moms — try to game this system?

“The community polices itself,” Feiwel says. “We make sure people are rating honestly, not just aspirationally. We look at the number of comments and the quality of comments. If I see a number of ‘Great job,’ ‘Great job,’ ‘Great job!’, I know that’s the author’s friends and family. The manuscripts that we’re choosing are the result of the community saying, ‘These are the best.’”

If an author’s manuscript is chosen, she’s offered a $15,000 advance against royalties, including an option on her next book.

Sandy Hall is the first Swoon Reads author. Her novel, "A Little Something Different," will be published in August.
Sandy Hall is the first Swoon Reads author. Her novel, “A Little Something Different,” will be published in August.

But Swoon Reads isn’t a pure democracy. While the community votes, Feiwel is not necessarily swayed by their swoons. She has to believe the novel will succeed, and she has to be convinced that the author “can stand up to the heat” of marketing a bestseller. “That’s definitely a factor,” Feiwel says.

The community and the Swoon Reads editors recently arrived at their first pick: “A Little Something Different,” by a teen librarian in Morristown, NJ., named Sandy Hall. This will be her first published novel.

“I dabbled in writing,” Hall says, “but it didn’t always come together. I’ve tried and failed National Novel Writing Month several years in a row.”

Her work at a library has provided a lot of incidental market research. “It helped me realize what young people aren’t looking for, and what already exists. And I often have older high school students come in looking for books about college life, which is why my characters are a little bit older than your average young adult protagonist.”

Feiwel believes so strongly in Swoon Reads’s debut novel that she’s planning a 100,000 first run for Aug. 26.

And now it’s time to think about the book jacket for “A Little Something Different.”

The five choices are revealed here for the first time on The Washington Post Web site. Allison Verost, Macmillan’s director of children’s publicity, says, “We’ll be working with the Swoon Reads community to select the final jacket for the book, incorporating member comments, likes and dislikes.”

This summer, we’ll see if the crowd knows what makes book buyers swoon.

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Ron Charles is the editor of The Washington Post's Book World. For a dozen years, he enjoyed teaching American literature and critical theory in the Midwest, but finally switched to journalism when he realized that if he graded one more paper, he'd go crazy.
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