Monday, 15 September 2008

Dive Into The Talent Pool

Harper Collins baits its net

By Mark Cantrell

THIS is a publisher’s slush pile with one significant difference, according to its creators Harper Collins – at an author’s manuscript will actually be read. Or so it is said

MOST aspiring authors are of the opinion that they can write something just as good – if not better – than the current crop of offerings available in the bookshops, so the statistics presented by UK publisher Harper Collins to promote the launch of its new Authonomy website are somewhat superfluous.

The company’s survey unsurprisingly found that 98 per cent of the respondents said they thought they could write something just as good as the books already on sale. Possibly, the remaining two per cent lied about being authors, or else were so modest about their abilities that they can only be genuinely talented authors, but whatever the hidden tale of the two-percenters, one can only say so much for statistics.

On the other hand, it does all serve to confirm what many a writer knows – that their chances of becoming the next J K Rowling, the next Tolkien, the next whatever are scuppered by the sheer cosmological scale of the task that is getting their work noticed, into print – and into the bookshops.

And that’s just for the everyday publishing deal that leaves the author quietly proud – or even unbearably smug – but not noticeably any richer, let alone enjoying the kind of runaway success that was the Harry Potter phenomenon.

That is what Authonomy is all about. Okay, so maybe not the Rowling runaway, but every editor dreams of finding that next monster hit; the new site is not about guaranteeing starry-eyed authors their place on the bookshelves, but it does claim to offer them the all important fighting chance.

The sad part of writing, as any novelist surely knows, is that actually writing the book is the easy part – getting it published is the thankless, nigh-on-impossible task. However, perhaps it is worth bearing in mind that the odds are perhaps better stacked than playing the lottery – best of all the author gets to write their own ticket. But it still doesn’t make it any easier to keep the old aspidistra of hope flying high.

“For any aspiring writer, the hardest thing in the world is getting someone to give you your very first chance,” said writer Tony Parsons, in support of the site’s full launch earlier this month.

“Nobody in the world seems to care. The chance to be read, to be noticed, to be criticised, to be encouraged to keep on writing. It’s a brilliant idea, a wonderful way to give writers a first chance, and I urge any would-be authors to take it.”

Of course, finding a publisher has always been a difficult and seemingly impossible task, and over the years it has certainly not got any easier, so anything that contributes towards finding someone Рanyone Рto take notice is surely worth a shot. Nothing ventured, nothing gained, as the clich̩ goes.

Every year thousands of unsolicited manuscripts arrive on editors’ desks, despite the fact that so few publishers are willing to consider such work, and they all too often go unread. The ‘slush pile’ is the unbecoming name for the limbo where these manuscripts languish before – eventually – making their way back to their hopeful creators.

The romantic image of the new discovery pulled from the obscurity of the slush pile lingers across the industry, for all the hard-boiled practicalities faced by the practitioners, whether they are scribe or editor, publisher or critic. Few make it to the bookshelves.

The phenomenon does happen occasionally, which is why the slush pile and its tragic romanticism persists, but the reality is that the slush pile is a graveyard for talent – good and bad.

In a world where even agents are increasingly turning away from the unsolicited ms, authors who don’t know someone in the right place at the right time are increasingly left to determine their oeuvre’s fate by any means necessary – just don’t call the publisher or the agent. But beyond the self-publishing opportunities of the Internet – that promises a potentially global audience, but all too often delivers high-octane obscurity – there is little beyond determination and maybe obsession to keep an author going.

Enter Authonomy, then – and its provision to allow authors to upload samples of their work and have it read and rated by the community of their peers. Crucially, it offers feedback from fellow authors and book lovers who join the site, so in that respect it is very much like a virtual online writers’ group or community.

Such things are hardly new, but Harper Collins claims it is the first to be linked to a big publisher. Furthermore, the top rated works are set to gain a reading by the publisher’s editors – though it didn’t say whether they might actually end up publishing said works. If nothing else, and by a fantastic and roundabout route perhaps, it at least promises the carrot of a hearing. Most authors don’t even come close, regardless of the merit of their manuscript.

So how does work? Anyone who signs up for it (it’s free) can create an author profile, a pitch for their book and upload at least 10,000 words of their book. If they wish, they can upload the whole lot. Anyone can then read the book, whether they are the site’s members, or to whomever the author pitches their work. It’s the equivalent of posting work on an author’s own blog or website, but with a dedicated literary community attached.

So far so good, and so much the norm, but how does one get noticed on such a site, not just internally, but across the wider crowds of the Internet? On Authonomy, at least, the opportunity to browse works by other writers creates a vehicle for building a presence that can – in theory – draw attention to the author’s presence. Each member has a ‘bookshelf’ with five slots. They can add titles to their list, to watch them, to support them, and otherwise monitor their progress. By providing that critical support, engaging in the forums, and by providing feedback via comments on fellow authors’ entries, they can build up awareness of their presence – and by extension their own works.

It may sound complicated, but in essence it is not too dissimilar to browsing blogs and commenting on the articles and entries therein, or indeed online newspapers, which increasingly have comment options to provide feedback and debate with the journalists.

On Authonomy, books can be browsed and searched by genre, author, and ranking (popularity). As works rise up the ranks (or fall), then the higher it climbs, the closer it comes to reaching the peak where it can win a reading by Harper Collins’ editorial team. Yes, it is somewhat complicated, the method of rising head and shoulders above the crowd – alas that is life – but it does provide a welcome opening to opportunity.

“There is already a loyal and active community of would-be writers on Authonomy and that’s before the proper launch,” said Victoria Barnsley, Chief Executive and Publisher, Harper Collins. “I’m really impressed at both the quality of the writing on the site and at how supportive and constructive the group is. At Harper Collins we are always looking for new talent and this is another way for us to find it. All our digital initiatives are aimed at one goal – expanding our talent pool and getting more great content out there for the reading public.”

The site was launched in private beta in the Spring of this year, and since then it has already gained over 1,200 members, so it comes primed with a ready-made literate and literary community. The site finally went live with its public launch early this month, and as well as providing a pool for Harper Collins to sift for new talent, it is also expected to form a resource where other publishers can cast the net in the search for their next authorial hit.

Whether Authonomy really can allow authors and book lovers to determine the next crop of bestsellers is open to question, but for writers it is certainly worth a shot; one more arrow to their bow as they fight the bitter struggle to gain recognition.

In this harsh and unforgiving world, authors, like everybody else, need all the friends they can get. Perhaps at Authonomy, they can find a few and give each other a leg up. Find it at


Mark Cantrell,
15 September 2008

Copyright © September 2008. All Rights Reserved.

Category: FEATURE



Twitter Delicious Facebook Digg Stumbleupon Favorites More