Move over, Stephenie Meyer! Romance lovers will soon be obsessed with a brand new, swoon-worthy love story—at least, if publisher Jean Feiwel has something to say about it. After more than a year of brainstorming behind the scenes, her new Swoon Reads project, which gives fans of young adult and new adult books unprecedented power to choose which new teen romance novels they wish to see published, celebrated its hard launch late last month with about 50 manuscripts available for review, and a major ramping up of its marketing, publicity, and advertising campaigns.
As senior vice president and publisher of Feiwel and Friends and Square Fish, and publishing director of Henry Holt Books for Young Readers—all imprints of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group—Feiwel is used to spotting trends, and teen romance is definitely still on the rise, she says. What really sparked her idea for Swoon Reads, however, was the growing fandom and recent success of self-published romance authors such as Colleen Hoover and Abbi Glines.
“I read [Hoover’s] book Slammed, which was a self-published bestseller, a romance, and its sequel, Point of Retreat, and really liked them,” Feiwel says. “It was kind of refreshing to read a book that was straight romance, meaning it wasn’t enormously deep, it wasn’t complicated. It was very satisfying. And the book was on the USA Today bestseller list, so other people obviously felt that way, too. What I was noticing was how interesting it was that somebody who was being self-published was reaching their audience, and doing very well without a traditional publisher. And I thought, ‘Wow.’ There is talent out there that is not being seen. I don’t think it’s being appreciated by traditional publishing.”
Feiwel’s call to action across Macmillan Children’s departments—including editorial, production, design, sales, and marketing—soon followed, generating a group of 20 to 40 staffers, ranging from assistants to vice presidents, that regularly volunteered over monthly pizza lunches to contribute ideas and work on big-picture aspects of the project. Smaller committee groups then emerged to work on such details as the project’s mission statement, submission guidelines, and website structure.
“Here’s the thing—yes, it was my idea but, like all ideas, you put it into a stew with other people and it becomes bigger and better,” Feiwel says. “People from all walks of Macmillan Children’s publishing group showed up—these were romance readers! And that really was exciting, that really gelled the idea for me, to say, ‘people are interested in it, and now let’s make something happen.'”
Staffers note that they got on board due to “the opportunity to build something, no matter who you were,” Feiwel says. “You come to the table, everybody is equal. There’s no hierarchy here.”
After the initial framework was finally in place internally, the marketing and publicity team at MacKids helped generate early buzz (and a mailing list) at the American Library Asssociation’s 2014 Midwinter Meeting in Seattle, followed by appearances at the RT Booklovers Convention in Kansas City and BookExpo America in NYC in May. Within 24 hours of the site’s beta launch in August, nearly 30 manuscripts were submitted, which Feiwel calls “amazing.”
How it works
Any aspiring writer may submit up to three novel-length manuscripts, and can link their submissions back to their own Facebook, Twitter, Tumblr, and Pinterest accounts.
Feiwel hopes these social media tools will encourage sharing of manuscripts across platforms, ultimately bringing even more romance fans to the Swoon Reads site. Authors’ works will remain for review only for six months, to keep the site’s selections fresh, Feiwel says.
Works are not barred from having sexual content or for being already available for free online—such as at fan sites FanFiction.Net or Archive of Our Own—although authors may not submit works that have ever been or are currently for sale elsewhere, either in print or digital form, Feiwel notes.
Readers can rate manuscripts in two ways: for their “swoon-worthiness” (how much they enjoyed the story, on a scale of one to five hearts) and on the content-specific Swoon Index, through which readers can give a novel points for its heat, tears, laughs, and thrills. The index was devised by Feiwel and her Swoon Reads “co-captain,” Associate Editor Holly West. “As readers, we want to know what these books have inside them before we read them; we want to get a sense of the content,” Feiwel explains. “So that’s how that evolved, alongside the rating system.”
This feedback will be critical in driving editorial decision-making going forward, Feiwel says. Authors whose works are chosen for publication will receive a $15,000 advance and a standard royalty-based publishing contract with Macmillan. The manuscripts will be published simultaneously in a trade paperback edition and all e-book formats.
Feiwel’s plan is for the first teen romance novels in the Swoon Reads imprint—she hopes at least two, she says—to debut fall 2014. In the long term, Feiwel would like to publish as many as 12 books a year, if the site is a success. “I need a core audience to get a few good books,” she says. “That is really want I’m looking for: a few [titles] that I feel are publishable, and hopefully that’s achievable.”
On the horizon? “We do have the plan to expand the format, and the platform to other genres,” Feiwel admits. “I think that what we have identified with romance is that that fan is a particularly avid and engaged fan—and we think the same applies to science fiction/fantasy.”