Looking to support and develop writers of genre fiction, Penguin is launching a public beta of Book Country, a free online writing community and publishing services venture. In development for more than a year, Book Country offers writers a place to upload new works and receive feedback and criticism from a community of writers and readers; a place for agents and editors to look for new talent; and eventually the venture will offer a suite of self-publishing services that will offer e-book and print publication for a fee.

The Book Country online community is focused on supporting writers of genre fiction—from romance, fantasy, science fiction and thrillers to a range of contemporary hybrid genres like paranormal romance, urban fantasy and Steampunk. The site is free to use and anyone can get an account and begin uploading writing. However, the site is focused on providing feedback and support to developing writers and all Book Country members must first comment and review at least three works by different writers before they can start uploading their own works.

The venture was conceived and developed initially by Molly Barton, director of business development at Penguin and president of Book Country. In a phone interview, Barton acknowledged that while Book Country is focused on developing writers, she expects to find new authors for Penguin through the site as well. But she also emphasized that Book Country will be “publisher agnostic” and encourages editors from Penguin as well as other publishers and literary agents to join the Book Country community. Agents or editors who wish to contact a writer about their work can notify Book Country staff who will then ask the writer if they want to be contacted. The private beta of Book Country has had about 500 members using it.

Although Barton said that Book Country will eventually offer writers self-publishing services (e-books and print-on-demand) for a fee, she said the soft launch of the public beta site will focus initially on building the community. However she did say that POD services “would not be outsourced.” Barton said, “all the other POD sites have been developed by tech companies. Book Country has been developed by a book publisher and we have taken pains to refine it and make it an easy to use self-publishing service for writers.”

She emphasized that while Book Country is owned by Penguin it has been organized as a separate company. Barton traveled to London more than a year ago to pitch the concept to the Pearson Innovation Fund, a seed fund created by Penguin’s parent company to encourage digital development at the firm. The site is designed for use on a wide variety of devices including tablets (there’s no Flash on the site). Barton was quick to note that Book Country, “is not Facebook for writers,” and has been designed to avoid a range of writer community problems: the cut and paste function has been disabled to limit the potential for blatant plagiarism and there is no way to forward text by email or download content from the site.

Book Country members build a profile based on the genres they like to read and can then seek out writers working in that area. Members can “follow” writers, much like other social media platforms, and review their works and receive merit badges for a variety of contributions to the site. Barton emphasized that the review process has been designed to not only highlight the best writers but also to track and rate the most effective reviewers, those whose feedback has been deemed by the community to be the most useful and highlight them as well. The site features message boards (former literary agent and popular Twitter personality Colleen Lindsay is a Book Country community manager and a moderater on the boards) covering everything from the craft of writing to the business of writing to industry news and gossip.

Book Country also features a Genre Map, a cleverly designed interactive literary “map” of the known literary world, that uses a variety of landmark titles in various genres (say Walter Mosley’s Devil in a Blue Dress for Hard Boiled Noir) to point Book Country members to literary stars as well as literary hopefuls working in the genre. “It’s like browsing in a store,” Barton said, “the map offers references to known and landmark works of fiction. It’s a visual matching system that helps the members find new authors.”

Barton, an editor for more than seven years before moving to Penguin business development, said Book Country is an effort to discover and nurture writers of sometimes hard to categorize genre fiction. Barton said that when she was an editor she often encountered writing she liked, but didn’t think she could sell. She said that Book Country will offer writers a chance to “prove us wrong when they get rejected. They can show us there’s an audience for their work.”

“When I was an editor I had a hard time saying no to authors whose work maybe didn’t quite fit on my list,” Barton said. “When I switched over to the digital publishing side, I wanted to find a way to harness the Internet in a better way to support writers.” Barton said Book Country is also targeting the contemporary phenomenon of “category blending,” and highlights genres like paranormal romance, that have become enormously popular categories.

While Book Country is distinctive, it is not the only online writing community nor is it the first to be launched by a major book publisher. HarperCollins has organized the online writing community of Authonomy, and InkPop, an online community focused on teen writing. Book Country is reminiscent of iPublish, a failed online writing community and digital publishing venture launched by former Warner Books president Larry Kirshbaum in 2000. Barton acknowledged the connection and noted that she had discussions with a former iPublish editor while developing the Book Country concept. While iPublish was a pioneering venture anticipating many of the services offered by Book Country, it was a bit ahead of its time and was forced to close in late 2001 with mounting financial losses. But it’s a different time and different market for e-books and digital publishing in 2011.

“We created Book Country because while writing and publishing sites have proliferated in recent years, none were designed by publishing experts to create a more valuable pathway forward for new writers,” Barton said. “Book Country is egalitarian and merit-based, while fostering an atmosphere of encouragement and creativity.”