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Bookner.com: Matchmaking Service or Marketing Research?

Here’s Bookner, an intriguing free service for providing anonymous third party feedback about unpublished manuscripts. Writers can submit a manuscript if they agree to write evaluations for 5-15 other manuscripts. Each evaluation requires about 15 minutes of time to complete. The site’s peer review process will go live when 100 writers register with the site. More about the evaluation criteria:

The second element to the Bookner Peer Review is a focus on saleability – which is ultimately what publishers are looking for. At Bookner, the issue being judged is not the inherent merit of a book, or the value of a book as a work of artistic literature, but the degree to which a book is likely to fly off the shelves… The evaluation of a manuscript to determine saleability, meanwhile, is achieved as follows. Members are asked to pretend that they are in a bookstore, and do exactly what they would do in a bookstore. Some prefer to flip through a book, and read passages at random. Others read the first few pages. Others still stand around for hours until they are shooed away by staff. In any case, we all have our own way of determining whether a book picked up at random will make a worthy purchase.

The site has clearly identified a need and understands the failure in the submission process. According to the essay, Resurrecting the Writer:

Literary agents are not keen on writers sending them manuscripts. In fact, literary agents do their utmost to dissuade writers from sending them manuscripts. They actually make writers ask for permission to send them stuff! And even then, many will not accept a whole manuscript – perhaps just the first three chapters. Most literary agents, when they go to bed at night, dream of strangling the mail carrier who keeps delivering unsolicited manuscripts. Correct me if I’m wrong, but this is strange.

Perhaps a little unfairly, the essay mentions the “pity aspect” of self-publishing:

Writers who self-publish typically sell a few dozen copies to friends, relatives, and colleagues who are motivated more by loyalty and pity than a genuine desire to digest the book…But pity them not, for writers who turned to self-publishing are still better off than writers who decided to publish online. If self-publishing is the modern equivalent of selling your Xeroxed books out of the trunk of your car, then publishing online is the modern equivalent of handing out copies of your book to passersby – for free!

This project is intriguing and well worth trying out. The actual peer mechanism might need to be fine-tuned, but in general it seems well-thought out (though I think at some point you’re going to have to match peer reviewers with their area of interest).

But I have to wonder if the publishing situation is already too fargone for it to make a difference. A large number of fiction writers have already migrated to POD/ebooks and are unlikely to want to return. The assumption behind Bookner is that writers need big publishers for publicity, but I’m not sure that’s still true. A well-written litblog (like Poddymouth, Coversational Reading or Mumpsimus, not to mention Teleread) might generate more readerly interest in a writer’s POD or ebook than the best-orchestrated PR campaign by a traditional publisher. Another trend (not as pronounced yet, though it may change) is that authors are managing audience via weblogs, mailing lists and RSS feeds.

Anonymity is necessary for the Bookner peer review process, but it doesn’t necessarily help the publicity process. It simply doesn’t make sense anymore to keep a finished manuscript anonymous or prevent people from blogging about it. One contentious point Bookner makes is:

The advent of Bookner means that you can forget about promoting your work, and concentrate on what writers are supposed to be doing, namely writing. You do the writing, and Bookner will take of the book deal, replete with appearances on radio shows, public readings, book signings, and a statue at Madame Tussaud’s – by means of telling a literary agent or publisher about the value of your work.

Oh, if only this could be true! This brings up again the “modesty question:” are writers or creators too attached to their creations (or too busy) to market them effectively? Or is such promotion better done by a person with purely commercial interests? Bookner solves a very big problem of giving agents access to reliable third party feedback. That is a tremendous boon for writers. But Bookner has not solved the “Then what?” question: how do you build markets or uncover audiences for unusual works? The track record so far suggests that mainstream publishers haven’t been particularly effective at keeping books in print or staying with a work of high quality but uncertain market potential. Ultimately, Bookner’s focus on “saleability” have have the unfortunate effect of simply replicating market biases towards works which are easy to package, easy to sell.

(Thanks, JOHO).

Robert Nagle (aka idiotprogrammer) writes fiction under various pseudonyms. A date for his statue’s unveiling at Madame Tussaud’s has still not been finalized. (printed originally in Sept 5 teleread).