Publishing democratically

PARIS – Say you have written a book. It has been lying on your desk for a few months now and you are ready for the plunge: you decide to send it off to a publishing house. Big brown envelope. 300 pages inside. And then wait. For a month. Perhaps two. Perhaps more. No matter how grand the merits of your book, you know that  your chances are low. But on the other hand, if it is picked up, they will really help promote your work, getting it out there. And then, hopefully, it will win over an audience.

A young Dutch company from The Hague is changing the game. They are proposing a new and simpler approach: getting the readers to vote for their favourite (unpublished) works. If a book manages to obtain 250 votes by its readers, it will be published (by their publishing house Het Tweede Gezicht). Isn’t that exciting? Publishing what the readers love, rather than what the publishing house think is good. After all, it is the readers who buy the books if they’re published. Sounds like a great idea, doesn’t it? If you think about it, then… no, not really. I will show you why.

This company is tapping into a HUGE market, even for a small country. In the Netherlands, an estimated 1 in 15 adults has literary ambitions – that is a million people! We can safely assume that these people like reading too, which would not exclude them from playing judge to the works of others. There are so many writers, that there are bound to be some who pick up on this idea. But then what? Should the author send out messages to all his Facebook friends to get them to vote for him?

The author probably should call up his friends, but the company charges 5€ a vote, so people will not be voting willy-nilly. If ‘their’ book has gathered enough votes (the 250), they will receive a copy of the book personalized with their name in it. But is this worth the 5€ vote? Would people not just vote for the book which is closing in on the tipping point of being published? This is more like a stock market than literary criticism. Again other people will not care for the personalized copy (after all, they have already read the book), in which case they will not be too thrilled to pay 5€ for a vote. It does not sound like it would work, and even more so if we consider the arrival of more and more ebook readers on the market which are pushing aside printed books.

If we take a step back, what attracts authors to traditional publishing houses is two fold – the prestige of being published by an old and respected house and their ability to promote the work. Even in the unlikely case that many books in the future never see a paper version, the attraction of the prestigious house remains. Imagine an author defrauding the Dutch company, and forking out the 5€ for each of the 250 votes required for publication (i.e. 1250€). Would the publishing house then foot the bill for the promotion of his book, get it distributed to the shops if they did not really believe in the project? I don’t think so. It is worth reminding ourselves, that the attraction of the house for an author is minimal, after all, they have no glorious publishing history with big names, in fact, they have no visible experience in the field at all. If an author would be willing to go with them, he should also be considering self-publishing. It is more likely that this book-voting concept is inherently doomed to failure.

If readers-voting is to have a future, it would have to be organized by a respectable old-school publishing house, for a book a year, and offering the voting readers a trip to come and visit them in Paris or London or where ever they are based, and meet their favourite authors over lunch. That is an exciting motivation to vote for people who like reading. It is also a way for a prestigious house to take a bite out of a ever-growing market of unpublished works (blogs included!) but remaining faithful to their calling of promoting books they believe in. It is an idea to consider. Anyone at Hachette or at Pearson out there?


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