A Newspaper's Web Showcase for Unsung Authors

By: Steve Outing

Can a newspaper Web site help the struggling novelists of the world? The folks at SunSpot, the Web service of the Baltimore Sun, hope to do that, while bringing attention to their own site and becoming the regional online community gathering place for the literary world.

With a new feature just added to SunSpot's Books area, authors who have not been published by the traditional book publishing industry have a new avenue for fame on the Web. SunSpot's staff is hunting for the best unpublished writers, and when it finds one, the Web site publishes in serialized form the author's latest work.

The first featured book is "The Narcoleptic Dialectic," by Mark Arenz. The novel "chronicles the life of Dirk Hillford, who wakes up on the floor of his apartment, having lost nearly two years of his life to an apparent narcoleptic coma. ... Before the dust clears, he discovers an electronic device in his cranium, foils a plot to enslave the earth with exploding fonts, strengthens his insurance portfolio, and eventually ends up six feet underground."

The novel is about 80,000 words and is being published on SunSpot in 15 weekly installments, the first of which appeared this week. The book will stay archived online, and when the SunSpot book crew identifies the next great Web novel, they'll start another serial. (The plan is to have a couple book serials running simultaneously and staggered.)

Who needs publishers?

According to community relations and content manager Kevin Naff, the SunSpot staff went out on the Web looking for literary talent gone unrecognized in the publishing industry. With the growth of the Web -- and the fact that it's incredibly difficult for even the most talented new novelists to get published nowadays -- many unheralded authors are using the Web to gain an audience for their work.

"There are scores of unpublished authors who are brilliant writers," says Naff. Getting a book published these days often means your prose has to include lots of sex scenes and violence. "That's not what we're looking for," he says.

The payoff for chosen authors is notoriety, as there's no direct financial reward for being highlighted by SunSpot. If the exposure leads to a print book contract, that may be the ultimate reward for an author, though Naff says the idea is that the Web is its own appropriate medium for novel publishing, free of the politics and business conditions that drive the traditional book publishing business.

While the first featured author was sought out, subsequent featured works will be chosen from submissions by writers. "The Narcoleptic Dialetic" was selected by SunSpot staffer Matthew Baise, a fiction writer himself who has experience with the book publishing world.

Naff says that the motivation for the new Books feature was to make SunSpot's literary area out of the ordinary, offer up something different than book sections of Web sites like CNN.com or WashingtonPost.com, and serve as a central community site for the literary world. While the concept started out designed to highlight regional authors, it's been expanded such that geography is not really a factor.

Online writers' workshop

A discussion area has been started, much of it early on centering around a database of regional poets, which features their work. Naff says that writers have taken to critiquing each other's works using the SunSpot books Web site. SunSpot also sponsors local poetry and book anthologies, trading publicity for the site for the ability for Web users to order books online.

The site is to be supported with the expected sponsors and advertisers, which might include regional booksellers and publishers. Other areas being looked into include online transactions, possibly in partnership with either a local or national bookseller.

SunSpot was launched in September 1996, and operates with a staff of eight. The site is currently seeing more than 6 million hits a month on its content, with growth averaging 20% per month. The books Web site is primarily a venture of the Web site staff, who work with the newspaper's book editor to coordinate print and online coverage.

Contact: Kevin Naff, knaff@clark.net

'Real Cities' moniker belongs to KRI

After my column last week about Knight-Ridder's new "Real Cities" initiative, an industry colleague wrote in to point out that Prodigy has an area on its service called Real Cities. Spokesperson Cynthia Funnell says that KRI has trademark rights to the Real Cities name, and the company has been communicating with Prodigy on the name matter. Prodigy will be using its Real Cities area only until the end of the year, she says.


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This column is written by Steve Outing exclusively for Editor & Publisher Interactive three days a week. News, tips, and other communications may be sent to Mr. Outing at steve@planetarynews.com

The views expressed in the above column do not necessarily represent the views of the Editor & Publisher company


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