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Reading Together, Online: A BEA Panel Recap

One of my favorite panels at Book Expo America this year was Word of Mouth Gone Digital: Digital Communities of Readers. The moderator was Literary Agent Ginger Clark from Curtis Brown, Ltd, and the panelists were Ashleigh Gardner, Head of Content at Wattpad, Rachel Fershleiser, Literary Outreach Coordinator at Tumblr, Emily Hughes, Editor of Suvudu, and Heather Waters, Editor in Chief and founder of Heroes and Heartbreakers. The success of these sites tells one story that publishers and writers alike should heed: readers just want to find and connect with their people online, and they don’t care where they find them.

Wattpad’s social writing platform is home to many amateur writers, but it is also home to many big-name authors such as Paulo Coehlo and Margaret Atwood, among others. Gardner knows that it’s not the publisher that draws readers, it’s the authors, “People don’t want to connect with a publisher brand; they want to connect with the author.”

Similarly, Tumblr is home to many accounts owned and maintained by publishers, authors, reviewers, and so on, but so much of the bookish community thrives outside of those accounts. So what attracts readers to Tumblr? “The promise is how to find the smaller communities,” Fershleiser stated. She went on the say that there are niche categories for everyone. One audience member agreed, saying that she found a fellow Tumblr user who “shipped” the same two Shakespearean characters that she did.

Suvudu and Heroes and Heartbreakers are a little different than the massive communities of Wattpad and Tumblr. First and foremost, they’re run and maintained by publishers. Suvudu is a Penguin Random House site, and Heroes and Heartbreakers is a Macmillan site. Visitors to Suvudu or Heroes and Heartbreakers will notice each website is dedicated to a single genre. Suvudu is for sci-fi and fantasy fans and Heroes and Heartbreakers is for, you guessed it, romance enthusiasts. The second thing you’ll notice is that they promote books that their parent publishers don’t publish. Why?

Heroes and Heartbreakers launched in 2011 after seeing the rampant success of, which is perhaps the first publisher agnostic site for fans of a specific genre. Now it has over 300,000 monthly unique visitors; presumably all romance readers ready to connect with fellow fans.
Waters responded, “Readers aren’t focused on publisher. Being publisher-neutral allows readers to focus on genre.” Waters went on to explain that part of the reason Macmillan chose a romance-themed site was that the romance community was so underserved online. Being committed to a genre instead of a single publisher’s titles means they can better attract other fans.

Similarly, Suvudu is committed to connecting sci-fi and fantasy readers, no matter what house publishes the books they feature: “We’re concerned that the [sci-fi and fantasy] community is being served in a way that is meaningful to them,” Hughes added. One audience member seemed perplexed by the idea of a Penguin Random House website promoting books they didn’t publish, but Hughes responded, “A rising tide lifts all boats.”

It might be hard to comprehend at first, but there is a benefit for publishers to start their own publisher agnostic fan sites. There’s a real closeness to book buyers. When talking about the creation of Suvudu, Hughes said, “Sales wasn’t a goal. They wanted to get closer to consumers.”

No matter who does or doesn’t host the websites that brings the fans together, it’s clear that bookish fans need a place to be together. Whether they’re reading fanfiction or Margaret Atwood on Wattpad, sharing a playlist inspired by Tumblr’s own Reblog Book Club, voting on this year’s Suvudu’s Cage Match or sharing in eager anticipation of a favorite romance series next installment, fans want to be together online.

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