Tuesday 1 March 2011

Writing: authonomy.com

I was cruising around the Internet and ran across a comment on a blog. The author gave the URL to a book he had apparently written asking the blogger, or anybody else I guess, to have a look. He then added, "Also, it would help me to go up in the rating system if any of my friends would register and click on the link to "back" my book." Rating system? Back his book?

I clicked into his link and ended up at "authonomy from HarperCollins". I recognised the name HarperCollins as a famous publishing company but didn't understand what the site was.

According to Wikipedia, this HarperCollins web site has the commercial aim to unearth new talent. Users sign up (no cost) and post all or part their manuscripts but must make at least ten thousand words available. From there, readers can "back" a book or recommend it and those recommendations determine its ranking. According to the FAQ, once a month, the top five books are passed on to the desks of an editorial board (the E.D. or Editor's Desk) who will read "at least 10,000 words" then give feedback on the author's authonomy profile.

It all sounds promising but just what talented writers have the site and this digital approval system unearthed? The most recent information I can find is the same as Wikipedia's which dates from September 2009. Writer's Digest has an interview with an editor at HarperCollins who talks of three specific titles I have never heard of, speaks vaguely of another 20 then states they don't know precisely because so many agents are using the site. Hmmm, that doesn't sound so promising.

The Wikipedia article on the site has this caveat: Critics of authonomy have labelled it as a “do-it-yourself slush pile” and argue that the recommendation mechanisms for a book making it to the top of this pile for editorial appraisal are problematic. Slush pile?

Slush pile
This term refers to the unsolicited manuscripts a publisher receives either from authors or agents. I have to smile thinking of the negative connotation evoked by the word and its probable origin. I am trying to imagine how many bad if not god-awful books have crossed the desks of editors over the years which gave birth to this word.

Apparently the job of sifting through the slush pile goes to young assistants-to-the-editors (or publisher's reader or first reader). If they find something interesting, they pass it on to their boss. It is noted that while publishers do not accept officially unsolicited works, they supposedly try to have a brief look out of fear of missing the next bestseller.

Criticism #1
Mary W. Walters is a free-lance writer and editor who currently has two novels under her belt plus numerous other efforts which have merited some awards. In 2009, she chronicled her experiences with the web site authonomy and the process of seeking that elusive entrance to the HarperCollins editorial office.

Ms. Walters concludes that the site is not about excellence in writing, it is about becoming as popular as possible as quickly as possible. Detailing the review process, she explains how getting her book recommended involved spending inordinate amounts of time and effort reviewing other books, talking with people and in general, attempting to make contacts and friends who could possibly "back" her own work. After six months, she realised she had little or no chance of ever getting her work ranked well enough to be in the top five which would merit a look by an editor.

Her recounting of these experiences should be a must read for anybody thinking of autonomy.com as a means to being published. Her assessments of the "backing" process are insightful and clearly show the pitfalls of the road ahead for anybody uploading their literary effort. In other words, the entire process of authonomy seems to be more of a crap shoot than a legitimate way of going about being published.

Criticism #2
Catherine Chisnell seems to have come at authonomy from a different angle. She recognised that making it to the editor's desk was next to impossible but felt the feedback and the constructive criticism made using the site worthwhile. She did point out, as Ms. Walters did above, that the process of getting one's book ranked involves so much time and effort that it ends up distracting from what a writer is supposed to be doing: writing.

In summary: how to write
Catherine Chisnell offers some tips:
  1. Practise writing for an audience. Anywhere will do, it doesn't have to be a fan fiction site, but you get the most support on those.
    Earlier in her article, Ms. Chisnell talks about writing "fan fiction" as a means to practise writing and getting feedback.
  2. Write a book you want to write, not what you think will sell. Any subject and any length.
  3. Get some valuable constructive criticism from objective authors (e.g. Authonomy, YouWriteOn).
  4. Find a publisher who wants original writing (e.g. Night Reading, Slush Pile Reader).
  5. Publish your book on an e-book site as well (e.g. Smashwords, Lebrary)

Final Word
At first glance, authonomy seems like another site dedicated to helping one get published and for any budding writer who is looking for an outlet for those creative juices; this may seem like the way to go. However, Ms. Walters' dissection of the process and enumeration of the steps emphasize how the goal of making it to the "editor's desk" can turn into a full-time gig never mind trying to write. Yes, any author would like to see their name on the New York Times bestseller list, but is authonomy nothing more than a "self-serve slush pile" which doesn't necessarily hold the brass ring?

I am reminded of Stephen King's book On Writing (see my review) in which the author talks about his craft. I suspected before reading the book that writing is about writing. That may seem flippant but what I mean is that writers don't necessarily talk about writing; they write. They don't necessarily take classes about writing; they write. I quote from his book:

By the time I was fourteen … the nail in my wall would no longer support the weight of the rejection slips impaled upon it. I replaced the nail with a spike and kept on writing.

He further emphasizes what it's all about:

Writing isn’t about making money, getting famous, getting dates, getting laid or making friends. In the end, it’s about enriching the lives of those who will read your work, and enriching your own life, as well.

In the section of his book where he gives out his tips on the craft, he advises that anybody writing should not care what others think. You have to write what you know; you have to write what you feel is important and you can't spend a lot of time listening to your critics. Writers write and nobody should distract you from that goal.

Now, anybody would at this point mention feedback as being an important part of the creative process. Here's another interesting tip from Mr. King:

If you want to be a writer, you must do two things above all others: read a lot and write a lot.

Hmmm, this does seem self-explanatory. Musicians listen to the music of others, sports athletes watch their competition; what better way to learn about any subject than by studying what others are doing in that field of endeavour. Look at your peers (read) and practise (write).

I can't help thinking of the slogan from Nike: Just do it!


Wikipedia: authonomy
authonomy is a website owned and operated by HarperCollins, designed with a commercial aim in mind: to unearth new talent. authonomy solicits submissions from unpublished and self published authors...
The site does represent a significant break with the way in which manuscripts are traditionally sourced by publishers.

authonomy from HarperCollins

Wikipedia: HarperCollins
HarperCollins is a publishing company owned by News Corporation. It is the combination of the publishers William Collins, Sons and Co Ltd, a British company, and Harper & Row, an American company, itself the result of an earlier merger of Harper & Brothers and Row, Peterson & Company. The company publishes under many different imprints, and publishes the Collins English Dictionary.

Wikipedia: Slush pile
In publishing, the slush pile is the set of unsolicited manuscripts either sent directly to the publisher by authors, or sent through an agent not known to the publisher.

authonomy: One writer’s experience by Mary W. Walters - Aug 1/2009
authonomy is not about excellence in writing. It is about becoming as popular as possible as quickly as possible. As a result, and ironically, rather than a supportive writing community authonomy can often seem to be a dog-eat-dog arena where you can’t trust a soul. Those who aren’t showering you with false praise are slamming you for your reviewing tactics.

How to get your book published by Catherine Chisnell - July 16/2010
Next, you need to get some good constructive criticism. The best place for this, I found, was Authonomy (www.authonomy.com)
However, I valued the constructive criticism more and didn't try to get to the E.D.
However, the drawback with Authonomy is that there are hundreds if not thousands of books. It takes authors months to reach the E.D. and I just didn't have time to spend on it.

Publetariat is an online community and news hub built specifically for indie authors and small, independent imprints.

Wikipedia: YouWriteOn
YouWriteOn was launched in January 2006 as a scheme to help new writers get published. It is sponsored by the Arts Council of England.

Members of the site upload the opening chapters of their novels to be peer reviewed and rated based on a variety of criteria: character, plot, pace & structure, use of language, narrative voice, dialogue, setting, theme and ideas.

On the first day of each month the five highest rated chapters receive a free professional critique. The best are then forwarded to the London agencies Curtis Brown (literary agents) and Christopher Little (JK Rowling’s agent). Due to the success of the YouWriteOn, various other organizations have set up similar sites along the same lines, most notably the publisher HarperCollins which is launching their own version – authonomy.com – in 2008.

YouWriteOn.Com: official web site

Mary W. Walters: bio
Mary W. Walters has been a freelance writer and editor for more than 25 years. She has also worked as awards facilitator at the University of Saskatchewan, executive director of the Writers Guild of Alberta, and editor in chief at Lone Pine Publishing. In addition to Write an Effective Funding Application: A Guide for Researchers and Scholars (The Johns Hopkins University Press), she has published two novels — The Woman Upstairs (NeWest Press) and Bitters (NeWest) — and a collection of short stories (Cool, River Books).


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1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thank you! I read your blog post when Google sent me a note to say I’d been mentioned somewhere in the blogiverse, and admired your thorough and scholarly (i.e., properly footnoted, etc.) approach to the subject.

I am just reading Stephen King’s On Writing now — and he makes some good points. I also suggest you check out the website of Dean Wesley Smith who has some good tips in his “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing” section on how to “improve” your luck. As my son says (and to echo you), “Luck is for the unprepared.” :)