Penguin's author community Book Country is to relaunch this week, expanding the range of genres that authors can work within. It is also opening a bookstore that will allow participating writers to sell direct to the consumer in a range of formats, including ePub and Mobi.
Book Country was launched in 2011, the brainchild of Penguin's global digital director Molly Barton. It allows authors to post and critique each other's work, similar to how the HarperCollins-run Authonomy operates in the UK.
Barton said the relaunch would presage a wider push internationally, and that she hoped to engage editors and marketeers at Penguin Random House UK in the project over the forthcoming months. Barton said the site was aimed at a "global audience", and was "interest specific, rather than territorial".
The site has 8,300 members, having experienced growth of 34% in 2013, with more than 40% outside the US. Brandi Larsen, director at Book Country, said 1% of the writers were from the UK, which generates about 7% of unique visitor traffic.
The site has recently relaunched its 'genre map', expanding from its initial range of five categories—romance, science-fiction, thriller, fantasy and mystery—to 60, including sub-categories of those initial genres, such as erotic-romance or gothic-romance, and new areas such as Young Adult, Literary Fiction, Non-fiction, and within that, memoir and travel.
Barton said Book Country had deliberately targeted specific genres at launch in order to grow organically and through collaboration, but said she now wanted to invite the "broader writer" in. Barton said the company has also responded to community demand, by introducing a direct message option, for writers to communicate with each other privately.
The online bookstore will allow authors to take their manuscripts to market, earning 85% of the list price. The site has also refined its range of publishing options, with Barton having "hand-selected" packages backed by Penguin subsidiary Author Solutions. These range from a 'standard' package priced at $59, to the $399 'prospect' option, which offers a 100% royalty on e-book whether they are sold through the Book Country book store or via an online retailer, such as Amazon or Kobo.
There is also a free package that offers distribution to online bookstores. Authors then receive 85% of the revenue earned after the bookstore has taken its cut, with royalties paid quarterly.
The site has been criticised in the past, first for its publishing packages that, when launched in 2011, offered a royalty rate of 70%, and second for its affiliation with Author Solutions, which has been criticised by some in the author community, and is currently being sued by three authors in the US.
But Barton stressed that the publishing options were offered to those authors on a non-exclusive basis, and only for those who chose to take their book to market in this way. Authors can participate on Book Country completely free of charge, and then publish their book with Amazon, for example.
Barton said: "Our emphasis is on the community, and growing that community, and how we measure the success is how collaborative the process is for the authors. The aim is for writers to talk to each other, become colleagues, and because of that lift the quality of their work." According to the company, authors on Book Country upload an average of six drafts per manuscript.
She added: "The publishing packages are not given undue prominence, but are there as an option for those who don't wish to go the traditional route [via an agent or publisher], or direct."
"It's hard to write a good book and it’s even harder to get other people to care about what you've written,” said Barton in a prepared statement. "At Book Country, we are working to solve both those problems." Since its launch in April 2011, eight Book Country members have sold books to traditional publishers (of these, one was sold to Penguin), and more than twenty Book Country members have found agents.