Inkpop had a soft launch in late 2009 and currently boasts more than 10,000 members ages 13 and up, and 11,000 written submissions, which include novels, short stories, poetry, and essays. An editorial board of Harper editors will review the top five member selections each month, offering feedback on their work as well as, potentially, the possibility of publication.
As a marketing ploy, inkpop is clever – it encourages teens to look for HC books, keeps tabs on current trends (Angels? Possessed Puppy-loving Poets? Daleks?), and gives editors the chance to jump on the next Christopher Paolini. As a slushpile, it’s genius.
2010 has seen the death of the slush pile. It’s been coming a long time–savvy writers have spent the past few years tracking down agents rather than editors. Social networking has continued the trend, with writers in all stages of their careers friending industry insiders in the hope of picking a few tips. Editors, though less disadvantaged by the new closed house policies, are now dependent on agents to find fresh, new voices.
Enter inkpop. The big question, of course, is would a virtual slush pile be less labor-intensive than an IRL one? It depends. The beauty of re-envisioning the slush pile is that it’s essentially a do-over – a chance for houses to evaluate why the old system wasn’t working and put new structures in place.
Susan Katz, president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books, says it best,
“As with all of our online consumer programs, the concept of community-building is aligned with our ongoing corporate digital marketing efforts to cultivate a two-way dialogue with our readers. Inkpop provides us with an interactive platform to engage directly with our audience, encourage a passion for writing, and discover new trends and opportunities in this growing and important community.”
According to the Wall Street Journal, there are a number of reasons publishing houses have been giving their slushpiles the flick. The cost of maintaing slush-readers – a mixture of interns and junior editors – is up top. So why not pass the burden of reading on to those with the most to gain?
Websites such as Verla Kay’s blue boards and Critters.org are proof that many aspiring authors are willing to put in the hard yards. Writers routinely swap industry tidbits and critiques. Focusing on science fiction, fantasy, and horror manuscripts, the Critters Writers Workshop was established in 1995. The site now boasts 10,000 members, and claims to have served in excess of 250,000 critiques. There’s no fee to join, though Critters requires members to complete a certain number of critiques each month.
Inkpop takes the idea further. Members are required to submit a minimum of 10,000 words (40 standard manuscript format pages) to the site, if not the whole book. While this may not mean the entire work gets read, it gives submitting members the chance to get feedback on the work in context. This sort of big picture editing can be invaluable. The top 5 submissions–as determined by a ranking process–are read by editors. Those members who consistently pick submissions that make the top 5 are dubbed “trendsetters”. Trendsetters replace the junior/associate editors in the slushpile chain, giving HC a way to find standout writing that may not have made it into the monthly top 5.
“What sets inkpop apart from other writing communities is the Editorial Board,” Kat Musallam, an inkpop user told WSJ.com. “Other communities only have that writer-reader interaction, but to have a panel evaluate your work is something that we writers-especially those who aren’t so familiar with the publishing world-can only dream of.”
Why the 10,000 word minimum? From the Inkpop FAQ,
“No one can support or honestly recommend a book if they can’t read a good amount of it first.
…We (HarperCollins) firmly believe that writers should be judged on the quality of the work they produce, not on their ability to pitch, market, or publicize themselves. Personal recommendations are by far the most effective way of building support for a project, and writers on inkpop stand to gain the support of a community of readers who are really motivated to spread the word about the best new writing. But they can’t help you unless you’re prepared to show them what you’ve got!
If this weren’t enough, houses could monetize the service (though inkpop is free) – the number of attendees at high-priced conferences is a testament to how much many would-be authors are willing to pay for a shot at publication. But paid models can be dicey–there’s a reason reputable publishers and agents say money should flow to the writer. A less-inclusive means-based set up also runs the risk of alienating for-the-love writers.
Fortunately, inkpop isn’t in it for the money. From the site,
“HarperCollins hopes to find talented writers that they can sign up for their traditional book publishing programs—they’ll read the most popular projects each month as part of this search…We don’t feel that our current, closed “slush pile” system is fair to authors themselves, nor do we believe it is giving us the best chance of finding the brightest new talent. inkpop is a genuine attempt to find a better way to determine the books on our shelves, and it hands selective power to the readers who will ultimately be buying them”.
Adam Rothberg, a spokesman for Simon and Schuster, says the death of the publisher’s slush pile accelerated after the terror attacks of 9/11 by fear anthrax in the mail room. Online services cut the risk–the twin issues of viruses and hackers remain, but these are a given in the web business. Publishers, agents, and anyone with a website–even Google–run the risk of being hacked with every tick of their CPU.
A side-benefit of the virtual slushpile? A clearly stepped out process for getting work onto an editor’s desk may also cut down on the number of unsolicited emails cluttering said editor’s inbox.
Years ago, I sent a teleplay to Chris Carter of the X-Files. I was twelve, and didn’t really understand how the industry worked. A couple of months after I’d dropped my oft-revised (thanks, Mrs. Vickers, for teaching me the importance of the second, third, fourth, and fifth draft) story into the mail, I received a kindly worded letter from the studio informing me that, due to copyright restrictions, they were unable to accept my work. My hopes of breaking in were dashed, but it wasn’t all for nought. Chris Carter had scrawled “thanks” at the bottom, then signed his name in bright blue ink. (And yes, I still have it.)
The point is, even before the interwebs, copyright was an issue. Now, publishing houses and studios have to be proactive about avoiding lawsuits–and cutting down on unsolicited material is the cheapest, easiest way to do it. Inkpop, however, has the standard online waivers in place, and encourages its users to keep an eye out for any copyright issues.
Worried about other users stealing work? HC has thought of this, too, and disabled the cut, copy, and download functions on the site. This may not prevent Daleks from stealing your work, but I’m sure HC is on it (I’ve heard rumors of virtual staircases). Posting the 10,000 word minimum may help discourage thieves.
Although such a venture seems weighted toward writers, said platform gives houses a chance to go beyond the standard conference talks. Instead of being limited to a list of what a house is looking for, do’s and don’ts of the query letter, and miscellaneous newbie questions (“Why did x-editor-at-y-house never respond to my phone calls even after I sent them a muffin basket and a box of Godiva’s best?”). Inkpop is a good start–hopefully HC will take it to the next level with editor wish lists and ask-an-editor forums. Authonomy, based on the inkpop platform, is currently in beta. All “non-illustrated manuscripts, both fiction and non-fiction, are eligible for the site”.
Will other houses try something similar? Maybe. Several genres are suited to the platform, though YA is easily the most inclusive. Katz (on WSJ.com) says, “Teens are a key consumer group with significant financial impact. Teen fiction is one of the most robust and fastest-growing categories in publishing today.” A science fiction and fantasy version of inkpop could be a hit for another house–Tor has been ahead of the curve with regular newsletters, online only material, and more. Could a virtual slushpile be in their future? I hope so.
In the meantime, I’m headed over to inkpop for a bit of a stickybeak.
What do you think of inkpop? Would you submit to a virtual slushpile?
Edit: Some sites are listing inkpop as a teen-only community, others list it as all-inclusive. From the inkpop FAQ:
Everyone age 13 and older is welcome to join inkpop to submit writings and critique and rank the work of other inkpop members. As for geographical location, you can live anywhere in the world—whether you’re from Austria or Zimbabwe, we welcome you to inkpop.