A Little Something Different Comes to Publishing
For much of literary history, the average reader has not had much of a say in what gets published. Manuscripts have been selected by literary agents and editors and brought to the attention of readers through clever marketing and hype. But with the recent advent of self-publishing, readers can now submit and access reading material without the presence of publishing industry middlemen.
While the Internet has always served as an outlet for self-expression, the past few years have shown an explosion in self-publishing websites. Some prominent platforms include Amazon’s Kindle Direct to Publishing, Kobo, and Smashwords, all of which offer the possibility for authors to achieve monetary success. In this democratic system, anyone can publish their work to the web and any reader can choose to access it. With a plethora of such websites offering reading material at low prices or even for free, never before has reading seemed so accessible, and limitless.
While I still find myself reaching for bestsellers produced by major publishing houses, I’m plenty intrigued by the prospect of self-publishing. As an avid reader, I’m excited that changes that have already happened in other media spheres like music and television have come to the book world. But as a senior that will soon be in need of a job, I’m a little terrified that I’ve spent my entire life developing the editorial skills of the so called publishing middlemen, which self-publishing has the power to make obsolete.
So that’s why my curiosity was piqued this past August, when the New York Times published an article on Swoon Reads, a new self-publishing effort from Macmillan. Specifically centered on Young Adult and New Adult stories, Swoon Reads offers the opportunity for works that achieve popularity within the site to be published in the traditional manner by Macmillan. If selected, Macmillan will remove the story from their website, offer the author a contract that includes a $15,000 advance, and publish the story in trade paperback and e-book formats.
This seems novel because it suggests compromise; it gives the reader a voice without eliminating the people that traditionally guide a text to official publication. So I was curious to find out, does this work? Would a book that had first been selected by readers versus the publishing establishment be enjoyable or of noteworthy quality? Would the reading experience be any different than usual?
So far Swoon Reads has only published one book traditionally, titled A Little Something Different, although more are in the pipeline. Written by Sandy Hall, a librarian of teenage literature, A Little Something Different tells the love story of Gabe and Lea, two shy college students that struggle to express their feelings for each other even as everyone around them can see how perfect they are for each other.
I downloaded the book onto my Kindle to read on a recent plane ride and I couldn’t have been more pleased to have such a light-hearted, sweet, and just plain enjoyable book to keep me company. The story is “a little something different” because it has 14 different narrators, none of whom are the two main characters. These narrators include their best friends, the mean girl in their class, their creative writing teacher, their waitress at a diner, a squirrel, and even a bench.
The narrative style makes this story unique, and also a fun read. Yet I must say, the story is extremely sweet and at certain points its sugary core made me cringe. But if you can stare straight into the face of cuteness and survive, and witnessing an innocent college love story sounds like a fun way to spend an afternoon, then you won’t be disappointed.
With that great experience, I learned that this publishing model can work. But I also wanted to read a story on the site that had not yet been chosen to be published, but that had been highly reviewed by fellow readers. Would I have an equally enjoyable experience?
First, I spent some time exploring the site. To use the website I had to sign up for an account, which was a painless two-second process. There’s an option to edit your profile and add all sorts of things about you to help you become a part of the greater Swoon community.
They list some guidelines for submission, as well as the books they have chosen to be published. You can preorder any of them and they even have updates about what stage of the publishing process they are in, like “in copyediting!” or “advanced reader editions are in!”
The site is pretty easy to navigate, but they also offer a manual to get you started. You can browse stories by genre, by highest rated, and newest posted. Each story also has a “Swoon Index” where each story is rated by its amount of Heat, Tears, Laughs, and Thrills. Once you pick something to read, it loads the entire thing so you can continue to read even if you lose Internet. I found the reading experience to be pretty intuitive and I liked that they urge you to rate the book when you finish so their team can decide whether to publish it.
I decided to go for 5:48 by Chloe Cheng, a story my fellow readers had rated the highest out of all the other stories on the site. The story follows Claire, a shy girl dealing with the death of her sister. Claire frequents the 5:48 cafe where she meets Jasper, Drew, and Ezra, all of whom work there and all of whom have issues stemming from mysterious pasts. Claire starts working at the cafe and together they must learn to help each other overcome their various struggles.
I hate to say it, but I couldn’t finish the book. I found the plot to be too slow and the story too melodramatic. I rarely if ever quit reading something in the middle, but I just did not want to keep going.
Quitting 5:48 in the middle prompted me to reflect back on the acknowledgements of A Little Something Different. At the end of the book, the author takes time to thank her editorial team. In doing so, she mentions all the great work they did together, especially how they convinced her to pare down the amount of narrators from 23 to 14 and change the age of the characters, as well as more generally how they had shaped and changed the manuscript for the better from its original online format. Thinking about this made me feel like there must be some value and necessity in the editorial process. Perhaps if the editors of Swoon Reads select 5:48 as their next pick, they will be able to infuse it with narrative urgency and less melodrama.
I didn’t set out to write an article vouching for the editorial process and traditional publishing, even though it’s something I believe in and want to be a part of. But that’s kind of the general point I came to anyway.
Swoon Reads is a fun and interesting literary experiment. While I can’t say I necessarily recommend reading works that come straight from writers, I can say that readers have good taste; they just might need editors to help that good taste become something special.