Readership: Talking Books and Online Communities with Founder Sam Rennie

When writerly types discuss the impact of the digital revolution, it’s often with a wry, half-hearted smile.

Becoming an author can seem like a pipe-dream – or at least, being an author that can earn a living through advances and sales seems like a distant dream. Because if there’s one thing they can all agree on, it’s that traditional publishing is in tatters. The combination of the financial crisis, the boom of Amazon’s online book retailing, and the refusal of the industry to adapt to the digital revolution, rang a death knell – and the literary life took a fatalistic turn.

Yet for the more digitally savvy, the online world has opened up networks, communities, opportunities, that could only exist in today’s interconnected, social world. Afterall, writers were part of the first wave of transients to find a home on the Internet.

Blogs sprung up sharing new stories. Communities started to develop. By the millennium, dedicated writing sites were plentiful, with some of the originals gaining loyal followings in the thousands then hundreds of thousands of users. Now, we have gamechangers: Wattpad, springs to mind. Or the author-driven, Ed-tech company Unbound, which has a similar crowdfunding method and sees the author center stage.

And for Sam Rennie, founder of Readership, it is precisely this landscape that inspired his UK-based venture in crowdfunded publishing.

Led by Sam Rennie, Readership’s platform puts readers at the helm.

The reason for this? Well, he told the Observer’s Anna Baddeley that the publishing process has traditionally been somewhat backwards, putting content distributors ahead of audiences.

He commented, “Readership was created out of a desire to see more publishers embedding themselves in online culture. Considering what communities across the digital world have achieved, we’re incredibly excited about the possibilities available in the online world – particularly in this emerging sector of crowd-sourced, community-based publishers. With Readership we’ve given readers the ultimate say in what gets published.”

Since he’d already spoken with Digital Book World, I knew quite a lot of the background about the way Readership would work. Here it is in a nutshell:

Yes it is that simple
Yes it is that simple. 

Despite its simplicity, I still had a few questions to ask about Readership.

Online culture at its heart, crowdfunding as its method: what was its vision? what was the plan to make this platform a genuine space for a community like the one it aspires to?

Sam kindly put fingers to keyboard to answer my questions. 

Readership aspires to create a space that’s truly part of online culture. Does this mean you want to keep Readership entirely digital? If a book became a bestseller through your platform, would you be open to collaborations with traditional print publishers?

Although we’re keeping it digital-only at the start, we’re certainly looking to offer print editions of popular titles too. We’re currently working out how we’ll decide what titles will go into print. For example, should we have varying donation targets for each individual title, with the top target amount covering a print-run? We also want to do something special with any print copies we have, rather than it be an obligatory extension to a popular ebook.

Do you think you might be collaborating with writing groups such as UK-based writers involved in things like the National Novel Writing Month (NaNoWriMo) in the coming years or groups like the Society of Young Publishers?

We’re definitely open to collaboration. We’ve built the site in a way that lets us change its theme to suit any campaigns we’re doing, so having fun activities around things like NaNoWriMo is certainly a part of that.

I can see how this might work from the amazing #booksearch you did recently. But how do you feel about vlogger and blogger engagement when it comes to publishing? 

I love that publishers are engaging and collaborating with bloggers and vloggers now, but I’m a bit concerned that the publishing industry is just using the community for its numbers instead of taking the time to actually become a part the community themselves. The purpose behind Readership is to allow those types of beautiful, online communities the opportunity to support writers and readers alike.

Any investment in the digital world/internet culture seems very temporary and just a brief exploration of a trend before things go back to normal.

Following on from that, what quite interesting is that you have an element with Readership that is almost a social cause. Recognising the reader and empowering them, giving writers valuable feedback instead of silence, rejection or loss of control. However, will readers be the only editorial aspect of the platform or do you have an internal / community-led editorial team before submissions are made? 

Right now we are completely open, allowing any writer to upload a sample of their work. We’re considering additional processes for the books that are successful (proofreading, for example), but we’re unsure about adding any editorial service for successful titles, in case it detracts or alters any element of a story that readers liked. If readers like a title enough to donate to it, then the job is already done. Stories only exist for the two people: the one telling the story and the one hearing it. So all of our activities and promotion is geared towards helping both. In the future we’ll be adding awards for the most active users, so I see in that the potential for certain users to become a trusted voice in the community. For example, we can build a system that pairs you up with a particular user on the site, should you have similar tastes, so when they post a comment on a new story, the people paired with them can see what they think of it and decide to check it out or not.

I love the idea of a trusted feedback system that could offer a great alternative to betas or editors. On the other hand, do you think such a system might create its own risks? Perhaps evoking ambiguity about whose ideas are involved in the book or blurring the line between writer and reader too much? 

I’ve thought the same as you regarding trusted users and the styles and tastes of the community. Obviously, there’s the possibility that authors can gauge the tastes of what our users like (by seeing what books receive the most donations), and can alter their work accordingly. But they’ll just be filtering down their own book so the loss is really with them and not being able to tell their story as they wanted to tell it.

I do distinguish it as crowdfunded, rather than crowdsourced – where the content itself is written with a community or alongside a community’s continuous feedback.

I see Readership as more of a place for an author to share a sample of a finished manuscript that they’ve written in the traditional way. So yeah we certainly wouldn’t want authors altering their work to appeal to a specific group, but hopefully any feedback given to the author (especially if a user is voting ‘No’ on it), will be given with the intention of improving the way in which the author’s story is told – so the feedback should be more in line with helping the author tell their story rather than helping the author change it to suit others. It’s a fine line, though, and something we’re ready to keep an eye on when we launch for voting and donations.

Do you foresee any other specific challenges for Readership in the coming months and years? Also do you have any particular milestones that you’re aiming for currently?

I think people are naturally cautious of anything new, so the challenge is sort of proving ourselves as a ‘proper’ publishing company and also a viable option for authors to go to. As for milestones, we want to have a strong list of published works by the end of the year, and to be in a position where we can get some critical praise from press for the writing on our site.

You say that writers will receive royalties of 70%, which is significantly higher than most publishers. Is this a response to the criticisms of legacy publishers offering between 13.5% and 17.5%, (although I realise Amazon has 70% for self-publishers too)? 

We think 70% is only fair. Of course it’s easier to offer higher royalties when you’re dealing with digital files only, but even with print editions in the future we anticipate a similarly high royalty rate. They’re the creators, not us, so they should be compensated as such.

Je serai poète et toi poésie,

 SCRIBBLER

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