Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group has announced the debut of Swoon Reads, a crowdsourced YA romance imprint under the aegis of Feiwel and Friends. This pioneering venture will create an online community where writers submit their manuscripts directly to the publisher, and readers participate in the publishing process by reading, rating, and commenting on submissions – and subsequently by providing notes and input on cover design and marketing for accepted books. The manuscripts achieving the highest ratings by readers and an in-house Swoon Reads editorial team will be published in paperback and e-book editions. The imprint’s Web site will launch in spring 2013; the first Swoon Reads novels are due out in 2014.

The concept behind Swoon Reads “kind of bubbled up” at an company-wide offsite meeting earlier this year, says Jon Yaged, president of Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. “We’re always brainstorming internally to figure out what we can do to be different and to make a difference,” he explains. “At this meeting, we talked about the huge and growing number of YA romance readers out there and about what it is that makes them so passionate about romance. These readers connect closely with authors online; they can’t get enough of them. So we thought that that passion could translate into a desire to participate in the process, to influence what’s being published. We thought, ‘Why not combine that idea with crowdsourcing – the American Idol kind of phenomenon?’ We are pulling back the curtain on the publishing process and letting readers in at a really early stage of a book’s publication. That’s what’s unique about this.”

Jean Feiwel, senior v-p and publisher of Feiwel and Friends, Square Fish, and now Swoon Reads, believes that the timing for the new imprint is right, given the steadfast popularity of romance and the opportunity to tap into the talent of a growing number of aspiring romance authors who aren’t able to land a publishing contract through traditional channels.

“The romance category remains one of the most enduring, and has always been at the heart of some of the bestselling series, including the Hunger Games and Twilight,” Feiwel says. “You can clothe it in many different outfits, but romance is at the core. Looking at the self-published books that have risen to the top of bestseller lists, I realize that there is a lot of talent out there, but so many debut authors find it hard to break through. It struck me that I would love to break down some of the walls and come up with a different publishing model that gets readers involved. Romance readers are an avid, very vocal group.”

Implementing the Plan

In the democratic spirit of the new imprint, Feiwel opened up the discussion about Swoon Reads in-house, inviting staffers company-wide who were interested in offering input to meet with her. “From the beginning, the idea had a great reception,” she says. “People from different editorial teams, sales, marketing, and other departments showed up. Of course I fed them pizza, and if you feed them they will come! Everyone’s voice was heard, and people brought so many different things to the table. It was great to get a whole universe of opinions, rather than just hear a few people speak as usually happens in meetings. It was refreshing to break down those walls, too.”

Swoon Reads will have a board of directors (which, says Feiwel, is “much less formal than it sounds”) and readers gleaned from various departments within Macmillan Children’s Publishing Group. In the project’s early stages of development, Feiwel’s assistant, Holly West, has been what the publisher calls “my copilot,” and Caitlin Sweeny, associate digital marketing manager, has been “a key point person working on conceiving the Web site. And creative and practical help, input, and direction have come from a Swoon ‘SWAT team’ made up of sales, marketing, and editorial.”

To generate submissions from authors, the company will publicize Swoon Reads through such organizations as SCBWI and RWA, writing programs, and romance fan fiction Web sites. “Once we send out calls for submissions, we think it will feed itself, with aspiring authors bringing their fans, romance readers, and other writers to the site,” says Feiwel. The imprint’s editors will not screen the submitted manuscripts, but will monitor the content to make sure that “nothing obscene happens” in the novels. Romance fans reading the manuscripts online will be able to provide comments and offer a rating, the highest of which is five hearts – or “swoon-worthy.”

Feiwel, who calls Swoon Reads “a very exciting project that we are very committed to,” says that the imprint is still a work in progress. “This is a learning curve for us, and it’s not like we have every piece buttoned up,” she says. “We may get five manuscripts or five million, though we know there are a lot of active writers out there. This is a way to create a new pulse, a new pipeline, and to help build new authors and make them successful. And it’s great that readers will be part of the community that does that. When a book gets published that they’ve helped choose, it will be like they are seeing an old friend.”