Think You've Got the Write Stuff?

Ink-and-paper publishers have no time and less respect for unsolicited manuscripts. At iPublish, however, they're sifting the slush for the next Stephen King

By Faith Keenan

When launched in May, 2000, the wholly-owned electronic arm of Time Warner Trade Publishing didn't just want to try to convince people to read electronic books. It had a another ambitious goal: to use the Web to search for talent, and, in the process, begin to crack open an insular world where new writers need connections as much as sparkling prose to publish a book.

More than a year later, it's proving easier to find new talent via the Net than to get the public to read digital titles. E-books have yet to catch on, partly because only about 100,000 of the devices needed to read them will be in use this year, estimates Forrester Research. Time Warner's electronic versions of titles by best-selling authors like Anita Shreve and David Baldacci have failed to match the popularity of their print brethren. "Sales are slower than we would have hoped," says Greg Voynow, senior vice-president and general manager of iPublish, though he would not release a revenue figure. "It's taking longer and its more difficult and expensive than we expected 18 months ago."


  Now for Chapter 2, in which the plot thickens. Since it started soliciting manuscripts in April, iPublish has received 1,000 submissions from aspiring writers. In the traditional publishing world, unsolicited manuscripts are known as slush, and seldom catch the eye of an editor before being returned to the sender. By using Netizens to help pick through the slush pile, iPublish aims to make sure it doesn't miss the no-name author who could turn into the next Stephen King. "The way we hope to save money in the long run is by getting authors early in their career," says Claire Zion, editorial director at iPublish. This August, the site plans to announce it will publish, on the Internet, its first round of titles by writers found via the Web.

Sound familiar? Indeed, the strategy closely resembles what has attempted in the recording industry: sign up unknowns, sell their tracks over the Web, and take a cut of the sales. But even though downloading music from the Web has become one of the most popular ways to use the Net, companies have yet to turn a profit by selling new music by unknown artists online. Likewise, it's not clear whether online publishing will ever be a hit.

That's not stopping iPublish from trying to democratize the publishing world. Here's how it trawls for fresh talent: Before writers can post excerpts of up to 4,000 words on the site, they must first review three other submissions, write a critique, and then rate them on a scale of one to five stars. Then one of iPublish's own 10 editors will review the top-scoring titles. The idea is, the laymen reviewers will help iPublish learn what readers want to read. Eric Scheirer, a Forrester analyst, says it's not a bad idea. "They can potentially take over some aspects of the vanity press and search for new authors," he says. "If a new author becomes popular, they'll have that new author in house already."


  Aspiring writers couldn't be happier. Sci-fi buff Barbara Halpern, a 52-year-old housewife from Washington, D.C., is among those who have submitted to iPublish. Before learning about the site, she tried everything: She sent short stories to magazines. No luck. She sent a synopsis and the first three chapters of a science-fiction novel to 60 agents and a few publishers. She still didn't get anywhere. "Publishers don't look at you unless you come recommended somehow," she says. "I found a lot of the agents were the same way."

Even though Halpern's work did not receive a high rating, she received a two-and-a-half page, single-spaced critique telling her how she could improve her work. "Here, I feel like I have an opportunity, and even if I don't succeed with this particular manuscript, I feel like I've learned a lot," says Halpern.

The good news for iPublish is that many submissions show promise. Editors say they've been remarkably impressed with some writers and are considering dozens for publication on the Web -- for a small fee. A list of their picks and prices will be announced in early August. The best work may eventually feed the print pipeline as well. "We had the notion that if we could connect, we'd find good writers," says Zion. "It turned out to be true." In her 20 years in the traditional publishing business, Zion says she has published only one book from the slush pile. Now, Zion and her colleagues hope to turn some of that slush into a fund of new stars and revenues for Time Warner.

Keenan covers technology strategies for BusinessWeek in New York

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