FIRST AND LASTS
The week of May 15, 2016

How Inkpop went bust and inspired a community of would-be writers

By Tonya Riley

If you were a young-adult author in 2010, the place you wanted to be wasn’t Tumblr or Twitter. Nor was it poorly formatted, older-skewing forums like absolutewrite. It was Inkpop, a just-launched online writing community created by an imprint of the major U.S. publisher HarperCollins.

Inkpop had a simple premise: Upload your manuscript, promote it so users added it to their “bookshelf,” and watch your work rise in the rankings. At the end of every month the top five books would receive feedback from real editors. And beyond that lay the possibility of a book deal from HarperTeen. For the YA authors (often in both senses of that phrase), it looked like a fast track to publication, to seeing your work behind a glossy cover, likely with a pretty white girl with perfect hair on the front.

A community of like-minded peers and a possible book deal attracted Michelle Scheponik, then a 19-year-old creative writing student, who saw an advertisement on Myspace and joined the site in October 2009. For her, the site was an entrée into the often cliquish world of publishing. “You got to see more into the behind-the-scenes, and it promised a chance at something many people write and send millions of queries to achieve—actual publication with a major publisher,” she says today. She wasn’t the only one intrigued: By the end of its beta period, Inkpop claimed more than 10,000 members and 11,000 submissions.

Of course, HarperCollins saw the site as a place not just to find budding talent, but to do valuable market research. “Inkpop provides us with an interactive platform to engage directly with our audience, encourage a passion for writing, and discover new trends and opportunities in this growing and important community,” read a press release quoting Susan Katz, then the president and publisher of HarperCollins Children’s Books. That community could serve as a collective first-reader for the publisher, providing insights about the intended audience and, for books that were eventually published, a built-in market. (HarperCollins could not be reached for comment on this story.)

Wendy Higgins was an Inkpop member who wrote paranormal fiction, a genre that was at the peak of its popularity in 2010. She was one of only two authors to have a book published through the site: Sweet Evil, the first in a series about teenage sons and daughters of (literal) fallen angels. She remembers “a very passionate community. Nobody held back on there. Young writers are full of passion.” She admits some users were competitive; rising in the ranks often involved quid pro quos. But, she says, “I really felt as if people wanted to help each other out. It was like a family.”

Inkpop brought together thousands of could-be writers and let them critique each other’s work, betting that the crowd would suss out talent. It seemed like a win-win: Writers got feedback from the community, and their work would (maybe) be read by professionals with the connections to get it published; the publisher would gain valuable insight into what its audience wanted to read.

“But we’re really a business focused on readers, and there are many more readers out there than there are writers.”

But little more than two years later, the site was sold to a larger competitor. HarperCollins considered its experiment at an end. “Initially we thought, writers are great readers, so we’ll help people with their writing and benefit from that community,” Katz told the Wall Street Journal. “But we’re really a business focused on readers, and there are many more readers out there than there are writers.”

• • •

Andrea Paz was 15 when she joined Inkpop after seeing an advertisement in Seventeen. She posted a few pieces of work but was more active as a commenter and self-described “forum queen.” The forums were a lively community: Threads ranged from self-promotion to talking about boys to grammar discussions to chats among fellow insomniacs.

Paz began posting a nightly forum thread which attracted a growing number of users and became a form of social life for her. On nights she couldn’t log in, she would have someone else post in her stead. She said she met one of her closest friends, a boy who lives in New Zealand, on the site. “It was really important [to my social life],” she says. “To this day I haven’t met any other writers than from Inkpop.”

That sense of community didn’t last long. In mid-2011, HarperCollins radically revamped the site, provoking a backlash. The company also added professional moderators—for Paz, a sign the site was changing for the worse. “A lot of people were leaving,” she says.

Users were upset, but Paz says no one could have guessed the site would soon be shut down. Yet in February 2012, Inkpop announced that by March the site would no longer exist. It had been sold to Figment, a competitor; Inkpop’s 95,000 users could migrate to the new site. “I was pretty sad, but I was overly attached as a teenager,” says Paz. “I reacted differently than I would have now.”

The graft didn’t really take. “It was hard not to make comparisons, and I don’t think the communities ever blended fully,” says Scheponik. “Figment users felt like they were being intruded on; Inkpop users felt like they were being dumped onto other people because HarperCollins gave up on them… it just didn’t work.” Figment was ultimately acquired by Random House in 2013.

Looking back, Scheponik says, “I have very close friends that I would have never met had it not been for the site, girls who have helped me through breakups and making major life decisions and being an adult. So, it was sad to lose the community that brought me all of that.”

• • •

Despite its failure to launch more than two books, all the writers I spoke to credited the site with improving their craft. “My writing certainly developed over the two-and-a-half years of Inkpop,” says Scheponik. “The great thing about a target audience reading your work, especially when that audience is teenagers, is that they don’t sugarcoat.”

For Higgins, it took just one suggestion to completely change her novel. An Inkpop user advised scrapping the entire first chapter. She did. “It really helped me see the value of showing versus telling,” she says.

“To this day I haven’t met any other writers than from Inkpop.”

Her story improved, and getting her draft in front of professional editors did lead to a book deal. But it wasn’t an unmitigated success story: Despite being an “Inkpop find,” a drawn-out publishing process meant that by the time her book was released, the site had shuttered, which meant one less place for her to get the word out about her work. She had trouble getting the next two books in her trilogy published; a potential television adaptation got HarperCollins interested again, even though the TV deal never materialized.

Still, the Inkpop community, dispersed as it was, could still drive sales. “When my third book hit the bestsellers list, they were all a little shocked,” says Higgins, who said the straight-to-paperback release was only marketed with reader word-of-mouth. When her editor told HarperTeen Higgins had been an Inkpop find, they couldn’t believe it.

The experience also helped make Higgins more receptive to putting her work online.“It helped a lot of us not fear the online publishing thing,” she says, mentioning that several Inkpop friends have since self-published; she’s self-published one book, though her latest series is being published with HarperTeen. She also says she’s become a better self-marketer.

That probably sounds familiar to today’s authors. Inkpop and similar sites may have been ahead of their time as the first crowdsourced publishing platforms, but they weren’t the last. Today, for example, there’s Swoon Reads, a Macmillan Publishing site focused on YA romance novels and inspired by the rise of self-publishing stars; it’s released 32 titles since launching three years ago. Wattpad, with over 40 million active users, makes no promises about book deals but has seen a number of users receive interest from traditional publishers. It’s also tapped into the publishing world’s increased interest in mobile markets, allowing writers to publish on their phones and receive alerts when stories they follow are updated.

Still, the Inkpop writers I talked to say the new sites just aren’t the same. Paz tried Wattpad but found the comments less constructive; unlike her active participation in Inkpop, she uses Wattpad solely to put work online. Swoon Reads doesn’t offer forums, the key component that elevated Inkpop above just a place to leave comments and make selections.

No site has managed to re-create the sense of community Inkpop fostered, say the former members. Maybe that’s a function of a changing Internet, much of which seems to be consumed with sales and personal branding. “I don’t get that feeling of selflessness on other sites,” says Higgins.

Nostalgia for the site among “inkies” is still strong. Many I talked to still speak frequently with former users and count them among their best friends. When Higgins mentioned on Facebook that she was doing an interview about Inkpop, the status got 109 likes and 25 comments. “No other writing website ever came close to the collective support and dedication to craft Inkpop had cultivated, and to think, many of us were only teens back then,” read one.

Inkpop was more than a place to post stories and feel noticed. What may have started as a way for a publisher to cultivate and understand its audience became something more. “People made friends through the site,” Scheponik says. “That’s invaluable to a teenager: having somewhere to fit in.”

Illustration by J. Longo