Tuesday, January 25, 2011

On Authonomy

A few years ago, apparently looking for a better way to manage their growing “slush pile,” the editors at Harper Collins Publishing in the UK came up with the idea for a new website for aspiring writers, called Authonomy. The concept was a good one. Authors could post excerpts of their books and then read and comment on one another’s work. It was like a worldwide writer’s workshop, where writers could go to help each other improve. As a bonus, writers could “back” each other’s works. Each writer could back up to five book at a time. Basically, they could vote for those five books by placing them on their virtual bookshelf. The more people backed a particular book, the higher it would climb in the rankings. Each month, editors would read the top five ranked books looking for that next bestseller.

It sounded great in theory. The editors would have this massive community of writers out there interacting, and the best novels would filter through to the top. It would make the editors jobs so much easier. Instead of having to go through tens of thousands of books put forth by aspiring writers, they’d be able to read the top five, pre-screened by market-type forces. Only it didn’t work out that way…

I joined Authonomy in the beta phase, and like a lot of authors, I was optimistic. At first it seemed to go fairly well. I received some great feedback on my books, was able to help a few other authors, and made some online connections with other struggling writers like myself. It didn’t take long for it to all go wrong.

And what ruined this perfectly utopian concept, you ask? In a word, desperation. Last I heard, there were 60,000 people signed up on Authonomy. I’m not sure how many of those were aspiring writers, but that number must be in the tens of thousands, all basically competing for those top five spots. Somehow, the idea seemed to settle into some people’s minds that if only they could crack that top five, their dreams would be realized. If only an editor would actually look at their book, they would get a big publishing deal and all of their struggles would be over. If anything, my Authonomy experience made me feel some sympathy for what these editors must have to go through.

What happened was this; a certain percentage of the writers on Authonomy started spamming all of the others mercilessly. Every time I would check my mailbox it would be full of messages from other aspiring authors. “Please back my book.” “I’m very near the top five and I need your help.” “If you back my book, I’ll back your book.” It was mind numbing.

Instead of the best five books each month, the top five ended up being the books by the authors who were best at self-promotion. Each month the editors read these books and responded to the writer with a critique. If the writer chooses to, and most do, those critiques are made public. Every critique is pretty much the same. “Your book holds great promise… It isn’t ready for publication because…” As far as I know, none of the top five books has ever been offered a publishing deal.

That isn’t to say that Authonomy hasn’t resulted in a few deals for writers further down the list. The HC editors have culled through and picked out a handful. The first was a love story whose title I won’t mention because I don’t want to be unkind to the author. For some reason the HC editors picked this book out of at least 10,000 others. Something told them this was the one. I’m not sure what. I haven’t read the book, I’ll be honest. But I have read the reviews on Amazon. It has 35 reviews. Of those, 11 are five-star reviews. But 11 are 1-star reviews, with comments such as:

“I get the feeling that the author is probably a very nice person. Unfortunately she's not a very good writer.”

“What a waste of time!”

“I was really disappointed with this book. The cover was attractive and enticed me to buy it, but unfortunately the content did not meet with what I had hoped for.”

“Terrible book, don't be fooled into buying it!”

“I feel like I've wasted a week of my life!”

Now granted, some people did like the book, and I’m happy for the author getting her writing contract, but obviously the book was no home run. So what does this all tell me? Well, it’s just evidence of how tough this business is. It’s hard for writers trying to stand out amongst tens of thousands of others with the same dream. It’s hard for editors to sort through all of the material that they are inundated with. And often those editors are no better than anybody else at picking a winner.

As the ebook revolution continues, this job will be more and more taken over by the actual market. It’s already happening. On writer’s forums I’m seeing success stories of self-published authors who were passed over by all the publishing companies. Some are being offered contacts by the same agents and publishers who rejected them before. But as more and more writers begin to self publish their works, it is going to be harder and harder for the market to determine what is worth buying and what is not. Review blogs help, as do Amazon reviews, but if readers think it is hard to wade through all of the offerings currently available, just wait until more of these author success stories begin to get out. The real flood has yet to begin!

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