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EXCLUSIVE INTERVIEW: Colleen Lindsay on Book Country and the Changing Face of Publishing

Colleen Lindsay has more than twenty-five years experience in bookselling and publishing. For five years she served as the director of publicity for Del Rey Books, where she specialized in SF/F, graphic novels and licensed media. More recently she worked as a literary agent at FinePrint Literary Management, focusing on SF/F and young adult writers. Currently Colleen is part of the Penguin Group (USA) business development group and the community manager of Book Country, Penguin’s new online community for genre fiction writers.

Charles Tan: Hi, Colleen! Thanks for agreeing to do the interview. In brief, could you tell us more about Book Country? How is it different from other critiquing sites?

Colleen Lindsay: Thanks for the invitation!

In a nutshell, Book Country is a free online workshopping community created by Penguin Books for genre fiction writers, specifically science fiction, fantasy, mystery, thriller and romance. (See below for more about why we chose genre fiction!) Although the site is intended for writers who are 18 years of age and older, we do welcome young adult writing on the site as long as the book fits naturally into one of the subgenres on our Genre Map and tags it as young adult.

On Book Country, writers can upload chapters, entire books, short stories, or flash fiction; get constructive feedback from their peers, as well as from the book industry professionals who run the site; and earn badges for writing accomplishments and improvements. And writers retain the copyright to any fiction posted on the site. Basically, our philosophy is: If you wrote it, it belongs to you.

And readers can join Book Country to find fresh new voices in genre fiction, provide thoughtful critique, learn about publishing, and earn badges for constructive participation on the site.

We differ from other online writing communities in a number of ways:

  • Book Country is a community created by people who are passionate about books, not just engineers and venture capitalists.
  • We keep people from gaming the system to get higher star ratings in two ways: In order for a writer to be able to post fiction on the site, he or she must first read and critique three pieces of fiction by fellow Book Country members. Additionally, we have a strong reputation system built into all areas of the site where members leave reviews and comments. At the bottom of every review or comment, you’re asked the question: “Is this a constructive review (or comment)?” Members can thumbs-up or thumbs-down the reviews and comments; this way, the reputation of the member critiquing your book weighs as heavily as the critique itself. So a member who has no history of participation on the site leaving a five-star rating on a critique counts less than a long-term, active member who leaves a one-star rating. In this way, we feel that Book Country is a true meritocracy.
  • People who are critiquing fiction on the site are asked not to rate the books based simply on how much they may have liked or disliked the book, but rather how much work the piece needs before it’s ready for publication. It’s very much like the way agents and editors are looking at new work. We find that short reviews that are superficially positive but contain no specific feedback are far less helpful than a respectful, negative review that offers constructive criticism and concrete advice for tackling a writing problem.
  • Writers can ask for specific feedback in areas they feel they may need the most help with, like plotting, character development, voice, or setting.
  • We moderate heavily and don’t tolerate disrespectful behavior on the site. We encourage civil debate and conversation, and we recognize members’ rights to disagree with one another in the comments or forum threads. But we also expect each member to behave like an adult and frame his/her opinions in a respectful and polite way. Personal attacks aren’t tolerated. Trust me when I say: I wield a heavy ban-hammer.
  • The thing that really makes Book Country stand apart from other sites is all the features we’ve designed to help readers find a writer’s book! Chief among these features is our Genre Map, a groundbreaking visual mapping and discovery tool that helps writers better learn to categorize their genre and subgenre, and helps readers zero in on exactly the kind of story they’re looking to read. We also have Top Lists like Book Country Community Favorite books and writers; these lists get feature placement in prime site locations and rotate every two weeks. New books that haven’t yet received any critiques pop up in our Waiting to Be Discovered section. Book Country also has a robust faceted search function that readers can use to search books by genre, subgenre, tags, and more. And lastly, we have a crazy, wonderful tagging system based on genre, theme, setting, trope, and style. The more tags you use and the more specific you are (“vampires”, “18th century”, “London” “graphic violence”, “first person POV”), the easier it will be for someone to find and read your book.

Charles: What made the Penguin Group decide to launch Book Country?

Colleen: The driving force behind Book Country is a real desire to help genre fiction writers learn more about the craft and business of writing, as well as to create a safe space for them to improve, better position themselves for a competitive commercial marketplace, connect with other writers, and to educate themselves about the various publishing paths available to them. We saw writers becoming frustrated with some of the other online writing sites that seem to provide little real guidance to writers.

Charles: What are the immediate plans and goals for the site? How about for the long-term? How does the Penguin Group hope to profit from this endeavor?

Colleen: We’re hoping to build a revenue stream in two ways:

First, we’re looking for fresh new voices and great genre fiction writers that we can bring into the traditional publishing model here at Penguin. Although we don’t have the “Editor’s Desk” aspect of Authonomy, we actually do have an active group of editors (both in-house and at other publishing companies) and agents reading and requesting material from the site. If an agent or an editor wants to get in touch with one of our members, he or she can write to us and we’ll arrange an email introduction, if the author gives us permission to do so. Last week, we had two agent requests and four editor requests, so the system seems to be working!

In the Fall, we’ll also be launching self-publishing services for those writers interested in pursuing a non-traditional publishing path. Book Country is building the system in-house; there are so many self-publishing companies offering expensive – and sometimes deceptive – services, services that were designed by engineers and technologists rather than publishers and people who love books. We really felt we could do better.

Those two revenues streams combined should serve to help us keep the Book Country community open as a free resource for aspiring genre fiction writers.

Our primary ongoing goal is to build the community and improve some of the site functionality. We’ve only been in public beta for since the end of April, but we already have almost 3200 members and more than 500 manuscripts posted.

We’d love to encourage more people to use the community to improve and workshop their writing. In the past two months, we’ve received so many emails, Tweets, and links to blog posts where writers tell us how much being a part of Book Country has helped them become better writers. It’s gratifying to know that we’re affecting real people in a tangible way.

Charles: How did you decide on the genres to focus on? Will your existing genres be expanded in the future?

Colleen: Genre fiction writers have always been pioneers when it comes to embracing and building online community. Years ago, when it became clear that print media had little to offer genre fiction writers in the way of reviews or promotional outlets, SF/F and romance writers created their own online spaces for reviews, interviews, and camaraderie. Mystery and thriller writers soon followed. We felt it was important to build on the genre community that already existed and create a new place where like-minded writers would feel comfortable reading, sharing work, and having discussions.

And let’s all be honest: great genre fiction is really driving commercial publishing these days, in both print and e-publishing.

Charles: How did you get involved with Book Country?

Colleen: Wow, I think I had four different friends email me the job posting for the community manager position last May! I wasn’t looking for a job, really. I was pretty happy at FinePrint, the literary agency where I’d been working since 2008, but eventually curiosity got the better of me and I reached out to Molly Barton, Penguin’s director of business development and the mad genius who set this project in motion. Molly really wanted someone driving the community who had a.) substantial genre fiction experience, b.) a strong background in book publicity and marketing, c.) an agent’s eye for commercial fiction, and d.) knew how to use online and social media tools to engage with and develop a community. In retrospect, it feels as though this job was custom made for me! I have to say, though, working with a group of people who are all so passionate about helping genre fiction writers has been an extraordinary experience so far.

Charles: How does your previous experience as an agent prove useful in being Book Country’s community manager?

Colleen: My agenting background comes in handy both in keeping an eye out for work that is almost ready to publish, as well as being able to answer publishing questions for writers in the community forum.

Charles: What are your roles and responsibilities as community manager? What’s a day in the life of Colleen Lindsay like?

Colleen: My role as the Book Country community manager is, like the site itself, a work-in-progress. When I started at Penguin, the site was still in the process of being built so my role was primarily an advisor. I was also tasked with finding a group of 500 beta testers to put the first few versions of Book Country through the ringer. Now that the site is live, I’m more active in actually running the community.

On any given day I’m reading and critiquing chapters, moderating the discussion forums and engaging in conversations, working with our PR team on brainstorming marketing strategies, planning conference attendance, keeping an eye on the budget, traveling to writing conferences and genre conventions to talk about Book Country and give demos, commissioning pieces for the Book Country Industry Blog, talking nervous writers off the ledge, answering the odd technical question (thankfully we have an amazing group of patient developers and tech gurus who answer the bulk of these questions!), writing copy, writing more copy, re-writing copy, organizing our bi-monthly #bookcountry Twitter chats, liaising with in-house editors and tech people, managing our social media presence on Twitter, Facebook, and YouTube, drinking copious amounts of iced coffee, shoveling questionable food truck lunches into my mouth, and hoping that nobody notices all the cat hair down the front of my shirt.

None of this would be possible, however, if not for the tremendous amount of help I get from my colleague Danielle Poiesz, Book Country’s editorial coordinator, chief task mistress and Person Who Makes Things Run On Time. Danielle came from Pocket Books, where she was a romance editor; she came aboard in November, just when we were ramping up to go into private beta.

Charles: What are you currently reading? Is there any specific title/chapter from Book Country that you would like to recommend to those not familiar with the site?

Colleen: I really enjoyed a hard SF dystopian called The Ravelled Sleave of Care by Kevin Haggerty as well as a superhero fantasy by Michael Underwood called Shield & Crocus.

I asked Danielle to recommend a couple of the projects that she has been reading as well: “KL Grady’s contemporary fantasy Dark Man at the Crossroads is fun, fresh, and intriguing, as is Kelly Maher’s snappy romantic SF novel Shadows Over Love.”

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