A Traditional Publisher's Unusual Experiment to Discover the Next Big Author: Does it Work?

"You Crime" is the name of a traditional publisher's digital imprint that is a unique experiment to try and discover the Next Big Author. The publisher has attempted to unite digital forces with self-published authors in the brave new online world, something that, as far as I know, hasn't been attempted anywhere yet except here, in Italy. 

If nothing else, it shows how innovative the Italian publishing industry has become, e.g. "Masterpiece", the literary reality show on TV  that I recently blogged about. 

"You Crime" was launched this summer by Rizzoli (RCS Media Group), the largest Italian publisher, with the publication by its digital division RCS Libri, of four e-books of crime fiction short stories.

What is so remarkable about this? 

The publishing formula! The concept is simple:

1. publish a collection of short stories but not too many, just four (don't overwhelm your readers!);

2. the lead story is from an established author with a solid fan base, the other three are from aspiring authors;

3. at the end of the e-book, give readers a link where they can vote for their favorite story/author;

4. let the participating authors promote the book and use every marketing tool at their disposal - as Vena puts it: "authors are expected to self-promote and self-sell their own books on the usual e-retail channels, as if they were self-publishing".

The winner in this unusual competition is the one who gathers the greatest number of votes from readers. 

Now this is a really clever way of providing exposure to newbies and test the market without, as a publisher, running risks on an unknown author. Incidentally, it re-exhumes an old Italian tradition of publishing anthologies that contain both established authors and new ones.

Simone Sarasso
Simone Sarasso
Each of the 4 books published was thus headed by a best-selling author (see one of the cool covers above; The lead author for this one is Simone Sarasso, if you don't know who he is, you can find him here).  

The ability of the participating newbies to promote their own work was tested, only the market-savvy authors got ahead. In fact, aspiring authors were selected not only according to the quality of their submission but also on the basis of their networking ability and online presence. Unsurprisingly, in this "editorial digital selection" process, only those with proven "digital marketing potential" were included.

How did the project fare?

According to e-publishing guru, Mike Shatzkin, it worked very well indeed (see here) and it is worth replicating elsewhere and, in my opinion, in other genres too. All four books sold well, by the end of summer, they had made it in the top 50 (in a list of over 4,000 titles) for Rizzoli throughout the entire Italian e-book market, including in the Kindle store (the titles were DRM-free). And some of the newbies included in the experiment have now their own novels under contract for publication with Rizzoli.

The experiment was surely tilted in favor of success: the 12 aspiring authors were pushed to do a maximum of book promotion knowing that at the end of the rainbow they could get a contract with Rizzoli; the publisher could count on the support of one of Italy's major newspapers, the Corriere della Sera, part of the RCS Media group. Suspense from the selection of an overall winner among the 12 newbies added to the heat of the competition. Eventually, Gabriele Santoni made it and was declared a "Rizzoli First Author in 2014", for his short story titled "Die Twice".

The director of the project, Marcello Vena, the head all of  RCS Libri's digital experiments, told Publishing Perspectives (see article here) that the results "exceeded expectations" and that they are considering testing the model in more genres. It will be interesting to see if American and British publishers follow their example...

The "You Crime" model is cleverly built on the well-tested formula that "success breeds success", but in this case what is totally new is that the door was opened to aspiring writers - a very different situation from the one facing self-published authors who find themselves generally shunned by traditional publishers. A most welcome change!

What do you think of this experiment? Could it work for you or does it go counter to your view of what a publisher should do?

Related article for my Italian readers: You Crime 2013 - Co-publishing

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