The Pros & Cons of Reader-Directed Publishing

How does a new writer become discovered?

It’s an age-old question, but innovative digital publisher Wink Publishing has a brand new reply: reader-directed publishing.

I’ve been aware of Wink Publishing for some time — indeed, joined their mailing list a few months ago. But only today did I properly look into them, prompted by Wink Publishing’s guest post on The Next Best Book Club.

Most traditional publishers are money-focused, solely publishing profitable books such as celebrity titles and formulaic genre bestsellers, whilst giving authors a tiny fraction of profits. Wink, on the other hand, wants to both publish entertaining literature AND give authors a good share of the profits — and the safest way to do this is to directly ask readers what they want to read.

Culling through all their submissions, Wink Publishing draws up a shortlist of titles. Readers can then read 50-page excerpts of each shortlisted title and vote for their favourite. At the end of the voting period, Wink publishes the book with the most votes.

To take part, author contestants must have a finished novel between 50-150k of any genre and be unpublished.

Winner takes all: an exclusive 3-year publishing contract with Wink and 50% of profits.

Reviewing the sample author contracts, website, and guest post, here’s what I like about Wink:

  1. An innovative business model. Digital publishing is all about innovation, you never know which new initiative will take off.

  2. Focus on unpublished authors. In the age of ebooks, it’s very difficult for new faces to distinguish themselves from the crowd.

  3. A respectable royalty rate. All profits of the book are split 50/50 between author and publisher, with Wink swallowing any costs.

  4. Additional support. Wink claims to fill the role of author agent as well, searching for ways to use serial, film and other rights, too. Most indie authors don’t have the time to exploit these secondary rights successfully.

  5. Effortless. Assuming your book is shortlisted, your name and title get a lot of free publicity, regardless of whether you win. Even if your book isn’t selected, you’ve exposed your work to a potential audience.

Despite the pros listed above, there are a number of reasons I would hesitate to recommend Wink Publishing to any aspiring authors out there. These are:

  1. The sales pitch. It doesn’t convince me: just because the book published is reader-selected doesn’t make the title more literary or less formulaic than books traditional publishers publish. Besides, Wink curates the shortlist, hence — one would assume — only puts through profitable titles.

  2. The business model. To put it bluntly: what if all the submissions they receive are crap? What if all are excellent and deserve to be published? If you accept 50-150k novels of any genre, how can you compare a 50k romance to an 80k literary exploration to a 150k science fiction behemoth?

  3. No track record. Wink has only published one book so far, and is running the second contest. Everyone has to start somewhere, but is it economically wise to give your book to Wink as it is now?

  4. The contract terms: 3-year exclusivity. I’m assuming they take an option on secondary rights too. Do you want to tie yourself to a publisher for that long when they have no track record? Compare that to 1889 Labs, where we ask for non-exclusive ebook and print rights, plus a six-month notice period for termination.

  5. Unpublished only. Every second your book is sitting there waiting for votes is another second it’s not on sale. And you have no way to guarantee your book will even win the contest and get a publishing deal out of it.

  6. Limited audience. Yes, taking part in the contest gets you free marketing. But to whom? A specific subsection of readers who enjoy these kinds of contests. I’d argue that most readers would rather read your whole book NOW if they’ve read 50 pages and enjoyed it enough to vote for it… but the contract doesn’t allow you to self-publish on the side.

  7. The royalty rates. 50/50 is a healthy split. But compare that to the 70% we give authors at 1889 Labs. Not to mention the even greater profit margin you’d get if you have the determination and skill to go indie.

  8. The X Factor. Would this be true reader-directed publishing or a popularity contest? I could get hundreds of people to vote for my book, none of whom might eventually buy the book when published.

I’ve tried to keep the list concise, but am certain there are other points that could be raised.

I’m a strong advocate of innovative digital publishing, firstly because you never know what could work, and secondly because it’s often great fun (1889’s livewriting experiments spring to mind).

Certainly reader-directed fiction has a lot of potential. I know of indie authors experimenting with a variety of reader-directed and/or interactive fiction, for example authors who write stories on request — by having readers vote for their preferred topic, or by having reader earn points to spend by completing certain tasks.

I’m just not entirely sold on Wink Publishing’s take on reader involvement and would hesitate to recommend it to aspiring authors.

Of course, I’m happy to be proved wrong. Do you think it would work?

10 thoughts on “The Pros & Cons of Reader-Directed Publishing

  1. Yeah I don’t know how this is going to go. This is a model that members of the Big Six have tried and struggled with. There’s no guarantee that votes == readers or that Wink has the resources and pull to actually make a book successful.

    They seem to be operating under the false assumption that quality books will sell themselves, which couldn’t be further from the truth. You need connections to get exposure on the level that would make 3 year exclusive (!!!) worth while.

  2. Any method that can be dictated by ballot stuffing (by the author or his/her friends/fans) is not the ideal way to select which book to publish, in my opinion.

    My personal experience observing a similar “contest” that my day job offered showed me that mostly you get people’s friends/family voting and not current or future customers, which means you’d better get lucky and land a winner than really does have a possible readership out there! :)

    My take on it: an editor should try to buy the books that he or she likes AND thinks will do well for the company. Of course, in New York, editors don’t always have that luxury, but there are many small presses and independent publishers willing to take a chance on a book that they actually, really like…

    • Exactly! That’s what I (as editor of 1889) aim to do. And that’s my worry about the winning book… that it’s not actually going to make the author any money, and they’re trapped in a 3-year-contract.

  3. This model only sounds feasible if Wink comes to the table with a massive reader base, or if they manage to create a reader base of existing book mavens. If it’s only a moderate pool, they can’t ensure any particularly sales figures to their gimmick: the readers who vote books onto the line. I wonder just how strong the rest of their distribution is. It’s a neat idea.

    • Yes, that’s what has me curious as well. I could see one of the Big 6 having more success with this — someone like Penguin, who has a strong publisher brand, for example.

      But Wink Publishing has little reputation amongst readers, and the fact that they’re willing to publish any genre means they’re not really doing much to build up a following. If they had decided to focus on one genre — romance, or fantasy, or whatever — I could see this having more success.

  4. Con number eight was the *first* thing I was thinking of while reading about Wink’s reader contest. If someone has a lot of friends, it’d be pretty easy to gain a lot of votes whether or not the story is better or more deserving to be published than the others.

    • It was the first thing I thought of too, but I wanted it to be the last on my list of cons ;-)

      (Heck, someone tech-minded enough could probably build a program to vote for their book.)

  5. Additionally, if an author has the readers to vote their book into the winner’s spot, they probably already have a decent readership.

    While it might give the author additional exposure, it gives more exposure to Wink itself. Every author will be goading their friends into visiting the site to vote. Ultimately, it seems that the equation doesn’t favor the author enough. I already have people voting for me: via their visits, their purchases, and if they recommend my stories to friends. Another middle-man only works if it has the cachet of a major literary competition behind it and the associated exposure.

    • “I already have people voting for me: via their visits, their purchases, and if they recommend my stories to friends.” — yes, exactly!

      But we are looking at it from an indie author point of view. Obviously an unpublished author would not have that readership already “voting” for them… although in that case, I’m not sure Wink would be enough to push that unknown name to fame.

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