It's one of the biggest questions in business: how do you know what your customers will buy?
In publishing, editors and agents constantly see what books are selling, and what people talk about, but there’s still a lot of guesswork—and errors. Many publishers passed on Harry Potter, and lived to regret it—big time.
"I don’t think we are traditionally an industry of market testing or focus testing," says Jean Feiwel, a publishing industry veteran who’s now at Macmillan. "There’s a certain amount of, let’s say intelligence and arrogance combined in terms of thinking you know what your readers want."
After watching a few self-published books really resonate with readers, she and Jon Yaged, president of the Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group, decided to try an experiment. What if they asked for readers’ opinions on new concepts and writers long before publication?
The result was Swoon Reads, a new young adult (YA) romance imprint that’s launching its first book, A Little Something Different, this summer. Debut author Sandy Hall loaded her manuscript on the Swoon Reads community site last November, and hundreds of test readers offered feedback.
When Macmillan’s editors saw how much the test readers enjoyed the book, they selected it for publication. The lessons the Swoon Reads team learned can help anyone looking to crowdsource new products and figure out what their customers really want.
Crowdsourcing requires a different mindset than the usual command-and-control style of doing things. So Macmillan experimented with the concept and "crowdsourced the crowdsourcing," says Yaged. Anyone in the division who was interested in the Swoon Reads concept was welcome to come work on the project, and "we had people from all walks of the company, all levels, with passion for the idea," he says.
Over pizza lunches, they’d figure out what might work. "Everyone got a chance to do something that wasn’t within their everyday life," he says. "It was a passion project. Start from within and tap the passion of your team to address the need."
One reason Macmillan started with YA romance is that "romance readers are voracious. They need to read constantly," Yaged says. "Reading several books a week is not uncommon." People who read this much develop opinions, and as young readers, they’re also social-media savvy. "They’ve got an opinion and they want to let you know about it," he says.
He thinks some genres like science fiction have similar communities, but others (like time-management books) don’t inspire the same fanaticism. If you want to tap your customers’ wisdom about products, make sure you’re asking about products they care about. Some stuff is just functional. It’s good to know the difference.
Time is valuable. If you’re asking people to share this resource with you, you need to give them a reason to do so. Swoon Reads readers are providing free editorial critiques of manuscripts, but the upside for them is that they’re feeding their reading habits for free, and getting in on the ground floor with new authors.
The incentive for writers to share their manuscripts with the Swoon Reads community is more nuanced. Somebody who’s already got a fan base wouldn’t need the platform, but an undiscovered writer might be drawn enough to the possibility of a Macmillan contract and advance that she’d be willing to share her manuscript. And getting editorial feedback from hundreds of target readers is pretty valuable too. "Even if you don’t get published, you will be a better writer for being on the site," says Feiwel.
Even if the community is there, people may be reluctant to go first, or they may not understand exactly what you’re looking for. Over time, a community will develop its own standards and culture, but Swoon Reads started by partnering with National Novel Writing Month, a campaign that provides social support to thousands of people writing whole novels during the month of November.
By communicating with participants that Swoon Reads might be an outlet for new YA romance novels, "we got a nice flush of manuscripts" at the end of 2013, Feiwel says. That gave them, and readers, a pool to choose from.
Readers give Swoon Reads manuscripts up to a five-heart rating, and the editorial staff is primarily interested in seeing what gets the most enthusiastic response. But when things do get an enthusiastic response, the editorial comments are invaluable.
One of Swoon Reads’ forthcoming titles, The Boy Next Door, is a skating story. A reader noted that "we really need to start with a skating scene. I didn’t think of that," Feiwel says. The author is now working on incorporating a new beginning and "setting the tone for the book."
Of course, "at the end of the day, it’s up to the author to say whether I like that idea," Feiwel says, and she refers to the editorial process as "democratic tyranny." Swoon Reads editors take reader feedback into consideration, and work with the author’s desires too to put together the best read possible.
Products never launch instantaneously. Publishing in particular is notoriously slow. But the virtual world that enables crowdsourcing moves at a much different pace. Swoon Reads made sure to announce its first book as soon as possible as a show of good faith, and "to say to our readers and fans and writers that we will do this," Feiwel says.