Interview with Brandi Larsen
For podcast release Wednesday, July 24, 2013
KENNEALLY: When it comes to online workshopping for authors, Book Country has redrawn the map. Today, the two-year-old virtual writing community from Penguin Random House re-launches with an expanded genre map. Writers of almost any type of book can now participate on online workshops, including nonfiction and young adult as well as such popular categories as psychological thriller, paranormal mystery, and contemporary romance.
Welcome to Copyright Clearance Center’s podcast series. My name is Christopher Kenneally for Beyond the Book.
Writing may be a solitary activity, and while rivalries thrive, many authors find great value in collegial critiques. Moving to Iowa or Stanford is no longer a requirement, though. In this online book country, you can sign on from Pittsburgh to Pakistan.
Brandi Larsen is the director of Book Country where she helps writers connect in over 60 different literary categories, and she joins me now from her Manhattan office. Welcome to Beyond the Book, Brandi Larsen.
LARSEN: Thank you so much for having me. It’s great to be here.
KENNEALLY: We’re looking forward to chatting with you. As we mentioned at the top today is the re-launch of Book Country. We’ll fill people in but tell people first that Brandi Larsen joined Penguin Random House in January 2013 from the Chicago Tribune, where as content development director, she helped imagine new ways for audiences to access newspapers online. You can follow Brandi on Twitter @brandilarsen.
Brandi Larsen, with the re-launch of Book Country, important aspects of the site are changing and growing. It’s been around since 2011. What’s new today? And I think the first place to start is with this genre map.
LARSEN: Oh, yes. We’re really excited. Book Country was a place for genre writers to connect and workshop with each other. We started that way because we wanted to make sure that we had a high level of conversation and that the dialogue between the writers was really up. We knew that writers in genre, specifically romance and science fiction, where out on the Internet and felt comfortable workshopping their books with strangers.
Today, what we’re doing is we’re launching into 60 different literary categories. You mentioned some of them. We’re really excited that we’re going to be able to connect writers, whether they’re literary fiction writers or YA dystopian writers, with other writers who are just like them so that they can create better books.
KENNEALLY: The way it works – and we’re using this term genre map because that’s how you talk about it at Book Country. You tell writers to first locate themselves on that genre map, and there’s a reason for that. Actually, there are two reasons. It encourages this deeper understanding of publishing, because many writers don’t recognize a simple fact of publishing, which is that books are categorized by genre.
LARSEN: That’s right exactly. This really helps them imagine where will my book go in the bookstore? What shelf does it belong in? And it helps them really look in and discover what are other books like me? What are the landmark titles in this genre and what is this genre really about? So we’re really helping them to find themselves and to find others just like them. And the second thing that the tool does is that it allows them to really find each other.
KENNEALLY: What happens when they find each other? Writers, as I said at the top, are a very solitary type of individual. They work alone, but then once they’ve finished a new chapter or a book itself, they do want others to read it. That’s the point. But here, we’re asking for more than just readers. We’re asking for critique, and it’s important that the kind of critique that somebody gets is honest, is constructive, it’s not just, oh, that’s nice.
LARSEN: Right. We’re seeing the level of conversation really wonderfully on Book Country. One of the things that’s great is we see that it’s working is that members are workshopping on average about six different pieces that they’re getting reviews from. That’s one of the things we’re really excited about. They’re listening to each other, they’re refining their work, and then they’re re-uploading their book and saying, what do you think now?
We have members who are posting an average of six drafts per manuscript, so they keep going back and back to refine their work. Some are posting even over 20 manuscripts, and we have a few cases that are posting even more.
KENNEALLY: Obviously, they’re voting with their manuscript then, because they wouldn’t be coming back to Book Country if they weren’t getting the kind of response that they were hoping for.
LARSEN: Yes, and we’re really excited to see the way that they talk with each other. They’re a deeply committed and respectful community. When you’re putting your book out there for the first time as a writer, we know that it’s terrifying. You’re saying, here’s my baby. I’m releasing it to the world. But the think that we see is that writers are giving each other the real feedback that they need, not just to help their egos, but to help make their books better.
KENNEALLY: Right. We’re talking today with Brandi Larsen from Book Country, and today is the re-launch of that site. We mentioned the genre map that’s now expanded to 60 categories. Another new feature for Book Country today, Brandi, is direct messaging between members. Why do you think that’s going to be helpful?
LARSEN: It was our most requested feature for the entire site, and it allows writers to carry the conversation on in a more private fashion. So, I’ve been workshopping your book with you on the site, I’ve been having discussions, we’ve been talking inside the comments, but it’s all been public. And now I can take these private messages and I can say to you directly, hey, Chris, here’s what I was thinking that I wanted to expand on my feedback to you. It really allows the conversation to go offline.
KENNEALLY: This is a virtual world very much driven by the World Wide Web, and you don’t have to live somewhere now to find this kind of community. I found some stats very interesting around Book Country. You’ve got something like 8,300 active members in a community that’s grown by more than a third since January, but over 98 percent of Book Country members – this is the great stat – live outside of New York City. Only some New York publisher could think that was remarkable.
LARSEN: But we all do, right?
KENNEALLY: But it is true. It’s absolutely true. Believe it or not, I think actually 99 percent of the world lives outside of New York City. This is important, though.
LARSEN: Yes. We really wanted to bring workshopping and the ability to have feedback right in to writers, whether they’re in Iowa or they’re in Pakistan. So, writers all over the world have the ability to come together and workshop. That was really one of the things that Molly Barton, who is the president of Book Country and my boss, really wanted to make sure that she could foster, because she wanted that workshopping outside of New York so you don’t have to live in a major metropolitan area to be a creative individual and get your work looked at and shared with others.
KENNEALLY: Right. And it’s not just that you’re looking for an editor in town, but you’re looking for those people who will be your colleagues in the future. As I understand it, since the original launch of Book Country in 2011, a number of members have sold books to traditional publishers and many more have found agents. What kind of books have been successful? Is it the genres? I guess that’s where you started with things. But why now move to nonfiction? Were there projects that writers had where they went beyond the original genres? Is that what pushed you or how did you get there?
LARSEN: To the success stories, we’re really happy to celebrate all the different writers who have had success. Right now, it has been in genre just because that’s where we’ve been. We haven’t opened it up to other authors, but as we grow and one of the reasons that we wanted to grow, especially into nonfiction, as you asked, was because we wanted to allow writers to come together in a way that they do in the MFA.
Literary fiction is one of the options, narrative non and memoir and travel, and we knew that we had seen an interest with those three genres specifically, and we think that those are the best that work inside a community and in the workshop mode.
KENNEALLY: And we should tell people that Book Country is about a lot more than just the workshops. You actually have now another new feature, which is a bookstore in Book Country, and you have adjacent services that allow these authors to publish their work.
LARSEN: Yes. We’re a writing and publishing community, so one of the things that we were really working hard to do is to improve books. A problem that we’ve seen with self-publishing is how do you know that a book is good and how do you find an audience? One of the things that Book Country is unique for is that we are creating these books with community, so you see people working all the way through the process, when they’re working through their drafts and they’re getting it into a publication-ready state, and then whether they publish with a traditional publisher or they choose to publish with Book Country in a self-published version, they have the ability then to put their books into the world. With the bookstore, we will be able to showcase all of the Book Country authors who have chosen to publish with us, so we’re really excited about that new feature.
KENNEALLY: And that’s available to members and to non-members alike, or at least for purchase. Do I have that right?
LARSEN: Yes, everyone can look at our bookstore and find a book that’s right for you.
KENNEALLY: In this new world of e-book publishing, when somebody reaches that point of wanting to get the book into a wider audience, often it’s worthwhile to be able to demonstrate they have an audience. So I would imagine one of things that happens is that the authors in these various workshops and even in the direct messaging can share with each other their own blogs, their Facebook pages, their Twitter accounts and begin to really develop a following as well as get that kind of feedback that they’ve been after in the first place.
LARSEN: Absolutely. And there’s a sense of ownership from the other members in the community. I’ve helped you work on your book. When your book comes out, I’m going to be excited about it and I’m going to buy it and I’m going to tell my friends. That’s really what a writer needs as they build their first audience is a group of people who are excited about their book, and that’s one of the things that Book Country is.
KENNEALLY: Indeed. And Brandi Larsen, finally, you come to Book Country from a background in the newspaper world, and you’ve been there just six months or so now. Can you tell us what you’ve learned? What makes the book business different from the newspaper business as far as developing these kind of communities and getting people to respond to content, and what’s the same?
LARSEN: That’s a great question. I came to Book Country because I was so excited about the idea of helping writers and changing their lives. I was in a job that I loved. I was trying to figure out how newspapers could look in the future, and I think that’s one of the things that’s really different between newspapers and books is how the models are in terms of payment.
For book content, writers and authors and readers are used to publishing and buying that content, and I think that’s one of the places where the newspaper industry, especially online, struggles, is reminding people that they need to subscribe. Where you see that it’s the same is we’re really seeing the level of the quality and the commitment to finding new models and to experimenting with the digital frontier, as it is. But the quality of the storytelling and the creative and inventiveness that the storytelling has is the same throughout.
KENNEALLY: It’s really fascinating. We should remind people too that this bit of news from Book Country is one of the first to come from the new Penguin Random House, which was officially formed earlier this month on July 1, and making it through that merger of those two famous houses probably the first truly global trade book publisher, and having Book Country as a part of that seems really significant, because it’s pointing us to very much a digital future.
LARSEN: It’s a really exciting time for us all.
KENNEALLY: We have been chatting today with Brandi Larsen, who is the director for Book Country, which re-launches today. It’s redrawn the map for Book Country, expanding its genres as well as various new services. We want to thank Brandi Larsen for joining us on Beyond the Book today.
LARSEN: Chris, thank you so much. It’s been a pleasure.
KENNEALLY: Beyond the Book is produced by Copyright Clearance Center, a global rights broker for the world’s most sought-after materials including millions of books and e-books, journals, newspapers, magazines, and blogs, as well as now images, movies, and television shows. You can follow Beyond the Book on Twitter, like us on Facebook, and subscribe to the free podcast series on iTunes or at beyondthebook.com.
Our engineer is Jeremy Brieske of Burst Marketing. My name is Christopher Kenneally. For all of us at Copyright Clearance Center, thanks for listening to Beyond the Book.