Q&A with Sam Rennie, Founder of Crowdsourcing Publisher Readership

Experiments in crowdsourcing book content have heated up over the past six months. In October last year, Amazon launched its “reader-powered publishing” program Kindle Scout, the e-tailer’s second recent project that places editorial powers in the hands of readers.

Last week a UK-based start-up called Readership announced its own venture in crowdsourced publishing. Digital Book World sat down with founder Sam Rennie to ask how Readership aims to make its name in a market that’s long on contenders but so far short on industry-wide breakthroughs.

(The following Q&A has been condensed and lightly edited for clarity.)

Readership crowdsourcing Sam Rennie publishing ebooksDBW: How do projects get published by Readership?

Sam Rennie (SR): Every title will have to reach the target via donations, and the minimum donation amount is £0.99. Currently the target is £500 per title, covering costs of cover design, ebook conversion, distribution and marketing.

How it reaches that target doesn’t matter—it can be a string of £0.99 donations or a smaller number of larger donations. We’ll then use that money to publish the successful titles. It’s a fascinating way of seeing if a community of passionate readers can become a sustainable publisher.

DBW: Are the services you’re providing to authors done in-house or by third parties?

SR: We’ve spoken to providers for cover art, conversion and distribution. The £500 will cover that. On the marketing side, we’ll use the excess [funds] to draw up campaigns and work with the community (including the author) to find the best approach to promoting the book; the marketing [approach] should come from listening to the community that approved it in the first place—what they specifically liked about it, what convinced them to donate, how they would describe it to a friend to get them to read it and so on.

We considered [offering] editing but thought a book would have connected with enough people for a specific reason, and we don’t want to risk changing that. We’re looking into proofreading as a possibility. The most important thing is to listen to the community. If we notice a large portion of people are commenting on mistakes or pacing, we can respond accordingly and see what we can do to help the book, should it reach its target.

DBW: What’s in your typical contract?

SR: Authors will receive 70% of royalties, and we’ll only have the digital rights for successful titles.

DBW: Does Readership set prices or do authors?

SR: We’ve started off by setting a universal price of £3.99, but as with everything on our site we’re going to let the community (which obviously includes the authors themselves) tell us what they think is fair.

Everyone who donates to a book that reaches its target will get a free copy before the book is released to the general public. So theoretically they can get a copy of the book for the minimum donation of £0.99. We’re working on a more extensive reward scheme to incentivize higher donations, but as a starting point I’m really interested in seeing what the average donation amount is and how we can use that information.

DBW: Is there a time limit for projects to be voted on before they’re either chosen for publication or removed from the platform?

SR: The idea that a story had to appeal to enough people in an allocated time-slot didn’t seem right to me. A book shouldn’t have to be interesting for thirty days in order to prove itself, particularly if you want people to fund books with any staying power. So our policy is if you connect with enough people to reach the target, you’ve got something, and we’ll help share it.

DBW: Everyone who casts a vote on Readership is required to contribute feedback as well as a donation. How do you ensure that goes beyond just, “Nice job!”?

SR: We were looking at [word count] limits—both a minimum and a maximum. I know I’veReadThat has a great comment system on their site, incentivizing users to give articulate and concise reviews. But at this stage, rather than second-guessing what the community wants and how readers would like to share their views, we decided to give them a boundary-less system and see how they use it. If there are calls for a minimum word count, we’ll implement it.

DBW: When is the first crop of titles coming out, and what are your immediate goals?

SR: Depending on when the site opens up for votes, we’re aiming for around 100 titles by end of the 2015. To start off we’re sticking to digital formats, but we want to expand into physical printing at some point, which will most likely be dictated by how well a title does and if there’s a demand for print versions.

We want to be in a situation six to twelve months from now where writers have a huge amount of flexibility with how they upload and display their writing. We want them to be able to select from a list of different targets the book needs to reach (depending on what they need from publication). We want a mobile app. We want authors to be able to advertise their book in as many ways possible, so every book page looks unique.

DBW: The field for crowdsourcing book content has become pretty crowded lately, from Kindle Scout to the Spanish-language publisher Pentian, which is expanding into the English market, not to mention Wattpad, which recently added a paywall. Whom do you consider your chief competitors, and where do you see a space in the market?

SR: I like what Amazon has done with Kindle Scout, but there are things we’re doing differently, particularly with how long the authors have to stay with us (our books can be taken down in 60 days), the rules (every title that reaches its target will be published) and [the absence of a] time limit.

Wattpad is a competitor to every publisher; it has a whole community of creative, young writers and can essentially oversee and predict the emergence of any talented, upcoming author from their pool. Wattpad promotes the act of writing to a huge group of young creatives, and that’s an incredible thing. Pentian is fascinating, too—particularly with the delegation of funds—and is certainly one to watch.

Our space in the market comes primarily from our focus not only on digital publishing but on online culture as a whole. In our world, the Internet isn’t some obligatory extension of a book’s campaign; it’s a portal to connect directly with the people you’re working for.

It seems that no matter how creative a company’s use of digital is, there’s always some form of a barrier between the company and its customers. But I grew up on message boards, taking part in that instant community-creating world. I want Readership to be a company that truly listens to people, and I want to use the online world to make direct connections with everyone as passionate about stories as I am.

Related: Why 2015 Is the Year of the Customer

DBW: Despite the recent flurry crowdsourcing activity, the approach hasn’t yet produced the kind of breakthrough to get mainstream publishers to seriously rethink how they operate. Some are even philosophically opposed to the idea of readers driving the editorial process. So how do you foresee the model gaining more traction?

SR: Above all else, crowdfunding is built around passion. If people donate to a title, it isn’t because we’ve tricked them or misled them into donating. Readership is a platform for authors to say, “This is a thing I made, do you like it?”

The appeal of a system like this is that the people you’re showing it to are the end-goal recipients (the readers). And I think this digital age is going to make people more and more used to instant content—not necessarily, “this has to entertain me and hold my attention instantly or I’ll switch to something else,” but, “I like this thing, I want all of it,” which in our case means the rest of the book.

So we like the idea that a title, once funded, is out there for the world almost instantly. And there are no hoops to jump through. We’re living in an age where creators will deny themselves big-studio finances in order to have complete creative freedom (like Louis CK’s deal with FX). The option to put the funding in the hands of the people who like what’s being created allows for that to happen.

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