HarperCollins’ Authonomy: Slushkiller or New Slush?

Access. That’s what the manuscript submission game is all about. Getting access to publishers. Getting access to literary agents. If you’ve been sending out your manuscript, you know what a grind it is. You’ve probably wished there were an easier way.

There’s no shortage of services that offer to grant your wish, claiming to provide an alternative to the conventional submission process or to leapfrog you past the slush pile. Submission services promise to streamline the tedious process of research and querying. Manuscript display websites put snippets of your work online in hopes that agents and publishers will stop by and be impressed. Book coaches and literary consultancies offer to help you polish your submission materials, and to match you up with the right agent or publisher. All, of course, for an often-hefty fee.

Most services of this kind are directly sourced in the hopes and frustrations of the writing community, with entrepreneurs perceiving writers’ desire for access, and marketing a service to (supposedly) provide it. Publishers see the problem also, however, and over the years have tried in various ways to address it–some successful, some not. A few examples:

– In 2000, Del Rey, a Random House imprint, launched its Digital Writing Workshop, which offered a peer critique system for unpublished writers, with participation by Del Rey editors and the possibility that top-rated books would be acquired for publication. (This workshop is now the Online Writing Workshop for SF, Fantasy, and Horror, and no longer associated with Del Rey. As far as I know, no books were ever acquired through the workshop.)

– In 2001, Time Warner (now Grand Central Publishing) unveiled iPublish, a project that promised to find new talent by allowing writers to submit unsolicited manuscripts, and using a reader rating system to pass promising works up the line to Warner editors. Launched in a blaze of optimism about the potential of ebooks (titles were to be published as ebooks first, moving to print only after they’d showed some momentum), iPublish foundered on the realities of the ebook market–and also, possibly, on the unpredictability of reader ratings. It closed its doors after publishing just a few titles. (It was also the subject of controversy for its author-unfriendly contract.)

– In 2006, Pan Macmillan created the Macmillan New Writing program, which does away with the “agented only” policy of most major publishers, and lets authors submit unsolicited manuscripts (the tradeoff for authors is no advances). Unlike iPublish, Macmillan New Writing is still alive and doing well.

– In 2007, Simon & Schuster collaborated with Gather.com and MediaPredict for three people’s choice-style contests designed to discover promising new writers without the help of literary agents. (There’s currently no indication that these contest initiatives are continuing.)

– Penguin had the same aim when it partnered with Amazon.com in 2008 for the Breakthrough Novel Award. (Will the Award will be more than a one-off? No word as yet.)

– Many major publishers run in-house competitions for unpublished writers, with a publishing contract as the prize–for instance, the Delacorte Yearling Contest, or the three contests for mystery writers conducted by St. Martin’s Press.

Now comes the latest beat-the-slush endeavor: Authonomy from HarperCollins UK. Authonomy has been in private testing since last spring, and opened to the public in beta just this week. On Authonomy’s FAQ page, Harper explains the project thus:

HarperCollins, like all publishers, is inundated with new manuscripts, and cannot hope to consider them all fairly. We don’t feel that our current, closed ‘slush pile’ system is fair to authors themselves – nor do we believe it is giving us the best chance of finding the brightest new talent. authonomy is a genuine attempt to find a better way to determine the books on our shelves – and it hands selective power to the readers who will ultimately be buying them.

Writers with book-length manuscripts can upload anywhere from 10,000 words to a complete manuscript for visitors to read and rate. Authonomy uses the number of visitor recommendations to rank the submissions; visitors are also ranked, based on how consistently they choose highly-rated books. Once a month, 10,000 words of the top five books are reviewed by what Authonomy describes as “an editorial board made up of international HarperCollins commissioning editors,” which provides “feedback, comment and assistance.” Authonomy also holds out the hope that agents and publishers will become part of the Authonomy talent-spotting community. And here’s the real payoff: “HarperCollins hopes to find new, talented writers we can sign up for our traditional book publishing programmes – once we’re fully launched we’ll be reading the most popular manuscripts each month as part of this search.”

Authonomy is free–for now. Its Terms and Conditions allow it to change that policy at any time. Otherwise, there are no “gotchas” that I can see.

Writers may wonder about the very large amount of material Authonomy members are encouraged to put online. Will posting big chunks of a work-in-progress, or even entire manuscripts, pose rights issues? Here’s how Harper addresses that question:

We really see no particular reason why a manuscript that’s been showcased online should lose any of its value to an interested publisher.

Indeed, it’s central to the authonomy concept that a writer with a proven readership is often more valuable to a publisher, not less. Book companies now regularly snap up volumes from high profile bloggers and promising self-publishers with existing readerships. It’s a good thing to prove that you’ve the enthusiasm and the skills to help make your project a success.

While I don’t buy into the notion that Authonomy can help writers build readership–a few hundred reader recommendations hardly constitutes a following–I agree that showcasing a manuscript online is probably not an issue, as long as it’s not being promoted for sale. The notion that merely by posting your manuscript online you exhaust your first publishing rights dates back to the early days of the Internet, when the concept of electronic rights was brand-new and it wasn’t clear what sort of competition they might present to print rights. I doubt that many editors these days would be greatly bothered. (A more relevant question, in my opinion, is how bothered they might be that you’d posted your manucript on a website sponsored by a rival publisher–especially if you’re currently submitting your manuscript elsewhere.)

So is Authonomy, at last, the new submission paradigm that unpublished writers dream of? Um, not really. Manuscript display, peer critique, reader rankings, potential publisher cherrypicking: Harper has put it all together very nicely, and given it a gloss of social networking, but really, there’s not very much that’s new here. Authonomy simply moves the slush pile online, employing a different vetting mechanism (readers rather than literary agents) but ultimately providing no greater access to editors–who, as in the offline world, only look at top-vetted manuscripts. It’s certainly an interesting experiment, and I will be fascinated to see how it works out. But Authonomy doesn’t change the basic equation for writers. It just provides an alternate field of struggle.


  1. A small group of like-minded individuals use their writing skills to pursue, harrass, slander, malign, and bully countless individuals on this site. They dominate the forums with hate-threads, lies, abuse, defamation of character, slander and reconstructions of past history to excuse their behavior.

    You, (readers) will have to make up your own minds about this site, but this is a warning and a suggestion. If you are serious about writing, I suggest you take your manuscripts to a professional writers site and forget Authonomy – for your own future. If you are fortunate enough to be published, they will threaten attacks against your book as well as you.

    If you enjoy participating in abusive chat groups of the type this site has become, then this is the place for you.

    Know that the individuals who perpetuate the abuse will circuitously retreat to a much more positive, benevolent – and even helpful- stance until the site calms down and you will be given some excellent reviews, but this won't endure and, if you do not show what the abusers consider to be proper admiration, you may be their next target. If you remain, be aware of this, of the potential threats to your book, and the emotional damage that can be done.

  2. Beware, each and every one of you.
    The comments that we make are from our own experences.
    After having having written a novel of over ninty thousand words. I began to try to find a publisher and the first two I looked at were "Vanity Publishers". After falling for and almost beihg pulled into their pitches for making me a published author and all the benafits that they would do for me, I accidently discovered a blog about publishing scams and guess which two were at the top of the list. Authonomy is a program started by a reputible publishing company that is looking for manuscripts that will make money for them as well as finding new Authors that have excelent writting skills.
    If my manuscript doesn't have what it takes to become published by them, then look at all of the dollars and pain that I saved myself. Henry E Allan.

  3. The comments on this site are quite interesting and somewhat paasionate; even the ones from an avid reader. It's good to see so many people having such diverse opinions about the trials and tribulations of becoming a published author. You are the people who I would most want to read my work. I very much respect the commenters on this blog and its creator, Victoria Strauss … and so I leave you with this: THERE ARE NO BLACK HORROR WRITERS WHO HAVE REACHED THE STATUS OF PEOPLE LIKE STEVEN KING, DEAN KOONTZ, OR CLIVE BARKER. I WILL BE THE FIRST! Let me know if I live up to your expectations because amazing individuals like yourselves are why I began writing in the first place. All that I have ever wanted is to entertain you. (My image is who I am but not what I write!) Follow me on Twitter: @Brianmwforever Google me: Brianmwforever Read my work and find out more about me: http://brianmwforever.pnn.com/4378-the-front-page I am Brian M.W. The author of Psycho-Gehenna (Mind-Hell) a horrific, mystery, science-fiction thriller, and H.O.T.E.L. I'll see you on the other side.

  4. Response to: "I doubt that many editors these days would be greatly bothered. (A more relevant question, in my opinion, is how bothered they might be that you’d posted your manucript on a website sponsored by a rival publisher–especially if you’re currently submitting your manuscript elsewhere.)"

    How great it would be to have rival publishers interested in the same manuscript. What a novel idea! Imagine if publishers had to compete for an author's product like other companies are forced to do. Who ever heard of a business requiring a customer to only submit to them and nobody else? Ever hear of a general contractor reviewing construction proposals for only the most lucrative job? They can't because there are more contractors then proposals. They are forced to compete with others to offer the customer the best price leaving the customer with the power to choose who gets the job. The problem then should not be "finding a 'silver bullet' to the editor's desk" but rather how to create a target rich (publishing) environment an author can hit with a shotgun!

  5. I decided to give it a shot. My first book is self-published, so what the hey. As soon as the portion was uploaded, I already had two people backing it, and one request for a review. Not totally impressed so far, but I noted on my profile (as if it will help) that I may be too busy to get to all of the review requests. I hope that slows some of them down (but something tells me different).
    I'll give it some time and see what happens.

  6. Where did this come from? Anonymous? At least have the courage to list your name.

    I have been on Authonomy since 2008. While I will readily admit that there are some who offer tit-for-tat backings I have never subscribed to that practice.

    Authonomy is a 'good'site in that it exposes writing to an audience as vast as the assemblage one might find in any cross section of humanity. Yes, there are those to whom ones writing does not appeal, just as that would happen in real life and yet again there are those with whom rapport may be established.

    Given, that while my writing may not aoppeal to you, your writing may appeal to me and it is in that spirit that we should be operating.

    I have commented on many books without receiving a reply from the author and that is simply the way of the world.

    If there are forums where readers either castigate or blackmail fellow readers, I am not conversant with them.

    On the whole I have met some wonderful people on Authonomy and if you check back, you will find that I commented on this original post more than a year ago. My position on Authonomy has not changed. Raymond Terry / J.Dwyer

  7. I think it might be time for an updated look at the site. The forums have become sewers. The only "moderation" comes from members hitting the "report abuse" button and HC deciding to act or not. Obscenity, racism and personal vendetta are business as usual. Also common are members threatening to publish personal information about other members. Trolling, usually from within, as any member can create as many alternate identities as he has emails for, is an everyday happening. Usually trolls will be accused of being several former members so once your name is linked to the site it's there forever. What authonomy shows more than anything is contempt by whomever is in charge for the people who participate in it. It has become Murdoch's online version reality show for people who think they can write.

  8. One other thing writers have to be prepared for is that even when they get published, there are no guarantees that they will hit the big time. My second thriller with HarperCollins No Way Out was published yesterday and it is currently languishing at 122,868 on the Amazon sales rankings. (This was a follow-up to the book that went largely unnoticed on Authonomy but then got picked up by HarperCollins when it was sent in by an agent.)

    Let me stress that the above number is the sales position not the number of copies sold. If it were the latter, I wouldn't be so miserable. But my point here is that, writers see "getting published" as the great milestone. It isn't. At most it may be said to be the first milestone.

  9. Authonomy is, in the end, what you make of it.

    I go along with those who say that the way to the top is through making as much racket as possible and playing the system but… what for? It's not as if you get to the top and someone publishes you. Spend the same amount of time contacting agents and publishers, tightening up your work or writing something new and you'd be sure to have something real to show for it in the end, so why bother spending all that time on Authonomy?

    For me it's a showcase, no more. From out of the glare and blare worthwhile comments do occasionally emerge and there are, in silent corners, people who've uploaded worthy material without feeling the need to shout 'Look at me! Look at me!'

    All that said and done, I do wish that Authonomy would tighten the site up to discourage the gamers. They make the most noise and they are all, to a writer, utterly useless to anyone in Authonomy, even themselves.

  10. I have been on authonomy for a short period and I was not at all surprised by the volume of messages coming my way asking me to look at and back people's work.
    I disagree that there is very little worthy writing on the site. There is some excellent work there.
    When people offer you feedback, off their own bat, and that is useful and helps in the finetuning of your work, then what is there to complain about? Every writer needs other people to cast a different gaze on their work, so they don't get deluded or carried away with themselves. I take a lot of comments with a pinch of salt, because I know that some people are merely doing their best to please. But the professional ones out there, tend to give you a balanced critique. I see it like this….I always read the work of people who have commented on my own. And when I recognise a high quality in their writing, it affirms my belief that they genuinely know what they are talking about. I for one, am not really into playing the game at all costs…It's just a bit of fun. I am interested to see whether the 'quality wins out' argument is at all true. The jury is still out.

  11. I joined Authonomy about two years ago …. I quickly saw it was an online "club" of people trading compliments and reads. An avalanche of messages appeared in my mailbox, all requesting reads and "shelvings" and promising to do the same for me. I didn't even have my manuscript online yet.

    Maybe they would call blank space "sheer genius" and say blithely,' I couldn't put it down". I wouldn't be surprised.

    The quality of the writing is for the most part horrendous. Even the top five rarely include more than one ot two which are acceptable in terms of grammar and plot. "Genius". Well not any that I've seen.

    And the comments are sacharine enough to make the reader gag. Everyone trades the word "brilliant" back and forth almost as glibly as "The Bachelor" uses the word "amazing".

    As a gateway into the closed world of commercial publishing, I would say it's a dead loss. But it is an excellent way to review one's own work, setting it up in the standard accepted formatting and getting an idea of what the manuscript will look like when you first submit it to an agent or a publisher. It's also a nice link to provide to friends who want to see "how the book is coming along …" That's about it.

  12. Update on my last posting. HarperCollins have now changed the title of my book from GUILTY to NO WAY OUT. That appears to be the final change and it is due to be published on June 10th 2010.

  13. I uploaded several book extracts to Authonomy, to good reviews but didn’t register on HarperCollins’ horizon. But I simultaneously pursued the more traditional channel: sending my strongest manuscript to agents (a few at a time) with a bit of rewriting upon each rejection.

    And guess what? I found an agent to represent me. Within weeks she had found a publisher who wanted to me and they made an offer for a three book deal with recurring characters. And guess who the publisher was?

    You’ve got it – HarperCollins (UK) or at least their Avon division. The book was retitled Mercy and is now in British bookshops as well as the Amazon Kindle. It is about a lawyer who has 15 hours to save his client on death row in San Quentin

    The next one (about a black man accused of raping a white girl) is due out on June 24th. They were going to call it Accused. But another book with the same title is coming out in April, so they are going to change the title to Guilty.

  14. Their system is a complete mess. Writers trade votes with each other. There appears to be a lot of behind the scenes juggling of rankings. Very fishy.

  15. What is in it for Authonomy's top-ranked talent spotters? One of them contacted me, asking that I read & promote her chosen books. None were any good & many had only just been uploaded. Why do they care? Is there something in it for them?

  16. I joined Authonomy three days ago, uploaded my novel and immediately had two or three people message me saying "if you back my book, I'll back yours". Today I received a message from a member ticking me off for not picking up any one else's book to read. I have been a member just three days! What budding writers need is a site which rewards the reader, not the writer. A site for people who want to taste the food, not cook it. One message was from someone who said "all I am here to do is read". Perfect. No quid pro quo. No patronising. No I'll-scratch-your-back-if-you-scratch-mine. They would be rewarded for spotting talent and the writer could stop having to praise second-rate material in order to achieve high praise himself.

  17. Victoria:

    You said, “But Authonomy doesn’t change the basic equation for writers. It just provides an alternate field of struggle.’

    I have to disagree.

    Authonomy provides a model of the publishing industry. The networking aspect of the site allows writers to get at least some understanding of the marketing needed to make a novel sell.

    It makes you look critically at your work and accept constructive criticism. It allows you to see how that criticism is either accepted or rejected by other authors and how their work subsequently improves, or in many cases does not.

    It allows you to see just how much is out there looking for a publisher and at the same time why publishers reject so much work.

    From what I have seen on Authonomy, only one in ten I look at will get me further than the end of the first paragraph.

    Of those that I read further, 85% need substantial work.

    Of the other 15%, only a small number could be described as financially viable.

    Authonomy does not alter the basic equation, but it does let you see what that equation is in a manner that allows constant improvement.

    My own work may still be in the slush pile; but it is a lot better than it was a month ago when I first put it up.

    MacKenzie Spence

  18. I think it ultimately comes down to what the author is seeking and what they get out of the site for the bucks they pay to be on it. I’ve used ‘The Next Big Writer’ site and get useful editing tips and feedback from other writers, albeit some new like myself. I agree that it’s hard to see agents or publishers spending much time “trolling” through these sites looking for that next best seller. I will hold my judgement, however, on Authonomy until it has a record of performance.

    We are on the cusp of a revolution in the writing field anyway. It’s entirely possible that in the near future the technological advances in information sharing on the internet, virtual publications, PODs and e-books will seriously affect the big publishing industry and the need for agents.

  19. Anon, I blogged about this just yesterday.

    I’ve always been troubled by the Authonomy idea: but I don’t have the same issues about Bhalla’s conduct as you do. Sure, he recruited a lot of friends to boost his ratings: but isn’t that exactly what people on Authonomy are trying to do when they plug their books on the message boards there, and offer to give reciprocal reviews?

    That Bhalla did it in such a big way only shows how flawed the whole Authonomy system is, in my view: and Authonomy’s powers that be have already confirmed that Bhalla did nothing wrong, and broke no Authonomy rules. He just played the game, did extraordinarily well, and people are angry with him as a result.

    Which underlines my feelings about the whole Authonomy thing. It’s far better for a writer to concentrateon writing, and leave the agent to find a home for his books.

  20. People, take a look at what is happening on Authonomy just now. You’ll find something occupying the top place in the weekly chart that really doesn’t deserve to be there. How did the author do it? Simple.

    He belonged to an online gaming community. So he made up a youtube circulated it amongst that community, and that youtube told his friends how to vote for him. So they did. In large numbers. They joined the site, (didn’t even bother to read the book, most of them) and put him in the No.1 spot. Genius. but not quite what the site was intended for.

    Was the book any good? Well, I read the few chapters he’d posted, and found it little more than self-serving drivel. Reasonably well written self-serving drivel, maybe, but still self-serving drivel. And I’m not alone in thinking this. As one reviewer put it, “A+ for networking, C- for the book.” There are far more deserving books worthy of that No.1 spot, but they obviously don’t have his contacts.

    I see this as the thin end of a very large wedge. Now one has got away with it, there will be others. I foresee the day when all top five places are filled with unreadable claptrap, all there courtesy of viral campaigns. Pity.

  21. I think that Authonomy has merit and promise. Like many of the other commenters here, I have gotten very good feedback and some harsh crits that helped me grow as a writer.

    Unfortunately I think the system on Authonomy is too easily gamed and because of that the ‘top 5’ is not at all representitive of the best books on the site.

    A single measure of popularity (shelving) with a single determiner of the impact of that rank (the talent spotter ranking) is not robust enough to protect against people working the system to move their books up.

    As an exercise I created a new site with a similar system that uses four unique measures of a book’s popularity as well as three systems to quantify that popularity.

    I think that it is (from what I have seen) one of the more robust ways to determine the potential popularity of a book. However, it will take readers to actually bear that out.

    Originally I wasn’t going to do anything with it, but now I don’t know… I don’t think it would really be that hard for a publishing house to create a similar system and truly use the power of the ‘net to work their slush pile.

  22. Victoria,

    I’ve posted a few times here, mostly about nonfiction which is what I write professionally.

    I also write novels. Having nothing better do I uploaded one on Authonomy in late January 2009.

    I’ve been very impressed with the quality of the critiques I’ve received. I’ve participated in crit groups several times in the past but this is the first time I’ve run into a lot of people who are articulate enough to identify the small but significant flaws that were keeping people from getting into my story. I’m getting a steady stream of requests from people who want to read my full manuscript and while this may not mean it is any more publishable than it was before, I’m a lot happier with it.

    My take is that now that the initial fuss is over, and people realize it isn’t the easy path to fame and riches the preponderance of people still active on the site are intelligent, hard working people who love to write, many of whom are much further along on the path to being good writers than what you fin on most other writing sites.

  23. As a ‘new author’ albeit one who has been writing for years and is, as yet still unrepresented and unpublished let me say this. Authonomy, while perhaps having moved the slush pile online has at least allowed authors such as myself an opportunity to expose new work to an audience beyond the ten second attention of a potential contributor to a daily increasing slush pile of rejection letters.

    As an author, I am acutely aware that the discipline required to complete a manuscript requires more than the de3termination simply to sit down and write. It also requires encouragement and criticism. If either that encouragement or criticism is available from others similarly engaged then no matter what personalities enter the equation,both as offered are appreciated.

    Yes, you are variably correct in your statement that much of what is on Authonomy is crap. Who would expect differently but notwithstanding the implied objection, welcome to life. Much of that is crap too yet we persevere.

    I, for one, and as a contributing author, congratulate Harper Collins for taking a pro-active stance and as you have all noted the site is relatively new. Yet, if I, as an author am limited to writing queries and than waiting in a vacuum until Jesus comes back for a reply, then I will take the vagaries of Authonomy any day.

    My best regards to you all.

  24. Anonymous Newbie: As a new author, I found it wonderful to have a place for peer review and a way to perhaps improve my manuscript via feedback prior to running the agent gaunlet.

    Agreed that reader reviews and praise is what get you noticed faster.

    I hope that this site will truely help me find out whether I’m onto my next big adventure, or wasting my time.

  25. Okay, help me out here.
    1. The original idea is to cut down the slush and allow the best to rise to the top.
    2. In practice a lot of crap gets to the top because people spend ages networking and gaining buddies.
    3. Quite a few of you said the critique factor is the most important.

    Well, if 3 is true, what’s the point? I get excellent crits from my writing workshop, and I get it from writers (and readers) of the genre I write in.

    I’m interested in joining Authonomy, but though I write fulltime, I just never have enough hours in a day. I can definitely not afford to duplicate what my workshop already provides.

    Furthermore, I’ll add here that a fellow writer sent me an email the other day–which I think she posted to everyone she knew–asking me to vote for her manuscript on Authonomy. I didn’t, as I’ve waded through a few of the chapters and didn’t think it was anywhere near ready for publication. I’m being tactful here.

    To me the basic idea seems sound, but yes, the success of the venture would depend on people giving their honest opinions, not just boosting buddies regardless of the quality of their work. I might try it anyway, but expending my energy on networking for this purpose seems a waste of time. Why not pour that energy into introducing readers, rather than fellow writers, to your work?

  26. I have a couple of books on Authonomy, and I have to say that the comments I have received have been absolutely invaluable. Even if I never hit the top 5 (which, to be honest, does involve spending a helluva lot of time either on the forums or in reading and critiquing other peoples’ work, or a combination of both), it doesn’t matter. What matters is I will have a finished manuscript, polished by the views of lots of readers. It will be a much better thing to send off to agents than the raw results of my solitary efforts.

    For that, at least, Authonomy is useful. It also cheers me to see what a slushpile actually looks like. There are some absolute gems in there, but it’s mostly unpublishable, er, stuff.

  27. ‘Anonymous’: “I mean, how many times do you open one of these posted books to read the opening paragraph going into microcosmic detail about the weather, laden with big-worded, am-dram adverbial verbiage?”

    I’ve read heaps of books on the site and my answer to that would, to date, be never.

  28. I’ve had *lots* of invaluable feedback on my book (http://authonomy.com/ViewBook.aspx?bookid=1888) and while networking/promotion is important in winning your book attention – which is no different to the real world in that respect – it’s *only* the book’s merits that will win it a way to the top. You can lead a reader to read, but you cannot oblige them to vote for a book unless they like what they read. And yes, there’s some tit for tat stuff that goes on, but the vast majority of it is about honest critique and support.

  29. I agree totally with the Jane Smith. However, I shall play ‘bad cop.’

    A HC editor wrote a piece on the site and the comments section was bombarded by wannabes barging to the front of the queue extolling the virtues of their unpublished masterpieces. That was their first and presumably last mistake – telling an editor why she should be publishing their book. Amateurs – literally.

    And while we’re at it, this shameless sycophantic “I’ll bookshelf yours if you read mine and book shelf it” tactical crap has gotten way out of control.

    It’s pure, unadulterated networking from a bunch of (mainly) ‘luvveys’ who think their books are the best thing since sliced bread.

    And let’s face it, apart from a few promising talents out there on the site, the bulk of it is pretty ordinary. I mean, how many times do you open one of these posted books to read the opening paragraph going into microcosmic detail about the weather, laden with big-worded, am-dram adverbial verbiage?

    Sorry, but most agents (yes, agents, not publishers) say that out of several thousand manuscripts they read a year they might only take on one or two new writers. Sorry but the same percentage rule applies to the talent displayed on authonomy.

    But that’s not the point. It’s this blatant networking aspect that irks me. One big schmaltzy writer-on-writer, self-congratulatory, backslapping ‘love in’. Urgh.

    Wake up and smell the coffee, Authonomy. These people are self-promoting writers, not readers. They want that top five spot and they’ll do anything to achive it.

  30. Fresh from my Authonomy experience, I would echo what Jane Smith has said. Of course it is important for writers to build up an online presence, but Authonomy is about pimping your work non-stop. Networking comes before before reading and rating other manuscripts. Which means posting a plethora of meaningless waffle on the forum

    That is not to say that the top-ranking books aren’t deserving or that there aren’t many wonderful manuscripts on the site. But another thing I’ve noticed is that comments tend to be disingenuous. I have come across many manuscripts which are publishable but contain obvious omissions or grammatical errors. Yet few of the commenters point them out even if it would help the writer. Playing nice seems to be the norm which means that–as a workshop–the site is immature to the point of being useless.

    It’s undoubtedly much harder, but joining a good writers’ group and approaching agents seems to be the best way to publication.

  31. An alternative viewpoint, if I may, regarding Authonomy. While I am eyes wide open to the extremely limited potential to be published via this website or any other, what I do like about it is the opportunity to gain reader feedback, even in limited amounts. I have posted some stuff there and within a day gained insightful, constructive criticism which is SO useful when working on a manuscript. From the perspective of “wanting a writers group without having a writers group”, I belive Authonomy is really helpful to honing my writing. 🙂

  32. An alternative viewpoint, if I may, regarding Authonomy. While I am eyes wide open to the extremely limited potential to be published via this website or any other, what I do like about it is the opportunity to gain reader feedback, even in limited amounts. I have posted some stuff there and within a day gained insightful, constructive criticism which is SO useful when working on a manuscript. From the perspective of “wanting a writers group without having a writers group”, I belive Authonomy is really helpful to honing my writing. 🙂

  33. Authonomy’s working for me. I’ve got feedback, comment and inspiration out of it.

    My book’s moving up the rankings fast, from the high 400s to the low 40s in the past 10 days. I’ve been jumping up and down a lot for attention, but the book’s attracting reader support and positive comment because people like it. So far about 100 more people have read my work as a result of the site than would have read it if I hadn’t gone on.

    Do I expect a publishing deal out of Authonomy? Come off it. But I’m closer to being read by an HC editor than I have been through submitting to agents.

    Ye can be as sniffy and reserved about it as you like, but I’ve enjoyed participating so far.

    BTW: At least HC is trying to do something new using the medium. Publishing and agenting are impossibly analogue. This is an increasingly digital world and there are enormous challenges waiting for anyone that is daft enough to stick their fingers in their ears and sing ‘lalalala’ instead of trying to appreciate, encompass and adapt to the new ways in which people are interacting with each other and using information.

  34. Charles –

    Thanks for providing the correction. I was just about to do it myself! 🙂

    The idea behind the Del Rey Workshop was to foster creative growth in the writing community. Ellen did an amazing job with it as an editor and now as an entrepreneur, an even better job.

    When Ballantine became absorbed into the greater Random House, Inc. group (not to be confused with the Random House Trade Group, with which it was later merged), Del Rey lost a great deal of it’s marketing autonomy and the workshop was one of the first things to suffer.

    One of the marketing directors – a smart young woman who’d started as a Del Rey assistant many years before – convinced Gina Centrello to allow Del Rey to sponsor the workshop for a while after it became a private venture, but eventually the budget for this was cut.

    Dozens of published writers have since come out of the workshop.

    All the best,

    Colleen Lindsay

  35. Victoria,

    I am — as always! — glad for the work done by Writer Beware. Thank you for educating writers (including me) about the Harper site.

    I just wanted to emphasize the point that DROWW never really functioned as a slushpile, despite a fairly layered and sophisticated set of filters because the editors continued to prefer agented MSs. The Del Rey Digital contest concept in 2001 expected new writers to attract large numbers of readers to the e-book voting, but I don’t believe it got anywhere the numbers they wanted to make e-publishing new works look viable. The fact is that new writers build a fanbase after they’re published not before, so the contest attracted writers and their friends/families and that was it. We all learned hat readers still prefer to have somebody else sort and edit the slush for them. The places where electronic slushpiles have worked — like Zoetrope and Baen — are because editors are actively wading through the slush just like they used to do in the days of paper.

    Also I want to emphasize that even if electronic slushpiles help writers connect with publishers, the writers will still need literary agents to vet their contracts. Writers who try to act as their own agents are like lawyers who represent themselves — most of the time they will have fools for clients.

  36. Thanks for the info on the OWW, Charles. Just to clarify, my intent wasn’t to denigrate or disrespect the OWW, which I know is a highly-regarded workshop that has spawned many successful writers. I was just attempting to provide a bit of historical perspective on electronic slushpile or quasi-electronic slushpile efforts, in order to make the point that Authonomy is not so brand new a concept as its website would encourage us to suppose.

    Thanks also to those who reminded me of Baen and Zoetrope. I should have remembered those myself. I plead an overstuffed brain.

    Charles said of Authonomy,

    If they think that the website will do all the work for them, and they just have to wait for the results, they’ve got another think coming.

    I agree. Problem is, if they don’t let the website do the work for them, they are stuck with the same dilemma that gave literary agents the power they have today: too much slush, too few editors to go through it. Moving the slushpile online saves paper, but it doesn’t change the oversupply/understaff problem. Nor–and I think this is a very important point–does it in any way change the situation for writers, since, just as in the offline world, only a selected few manuscripts will receive serious editorial consideration.

    I also agree with commenters who’ve pointed out that sites like Authonomy appeal not to readers, but to writers. In my opinion, this is the central fallacy of the notion that displaying work on Authonomy or a similar site can help writers build a following. Sure, writers are readers too–but I don’t think they are typical readers, and in any case, they won’t be at Authonomy to discover the next great author (who they would much prefer to be them rather than someone else) but to workshop their own manuscripts.

    I’m not knocking the workshopping aspect of Authonomy. I think that it, and sites like it, can be valuable as critique communities. One of the most potentially useful features of the site, in my opinion, is the monthly 10,000 word critique from Harper personnel. Sites like Authonomy may also herald the wave of the future, as publishers’ slushpiles move online. But an online slushpile is still a slushpile, and it still needs to be filtered. Let’s put it this way: I don’t think the Authonomies of the world are going to put literary agents out of business anytime soon.

  37. Victoria,

    My memory of events has a slightly different order. Permit me to give some background before I jump to the timeline.

    The Del Rey Online Writing Workshop was the brainchild of Ellen Key Harris (later Harris-Braun), a Del Rey editor who left editorial to take over early web development at Ballantine and Random House. She's an unheralded publishing visionary in my opinion: in the early-to-mid '90s, she didn't have much of a budget to promote her authors so she used the nascent internet to promote her authors. She created the first publisher newsletter (the Del Rey Internet Newsletter) and the first author websites. Her biggest discovery as an editor was Nicola Griffith's first novel AMMONITE (1993), which won the Tiptree and Lambda Awards. Harris, and Eric Braun, the software developer she later married, has an insight at the very beginning that the internet could work as a large opinion aggregator: everyone who reads something online has an immediate reaction — get them to click some buttons and leave some optional comments, and you have a potential content filter. The development of the web over the past ten years has borne out the value of this insight.

    Harris was slowed first by cancer (in her 20s) and then by the birth of her first child, but she managed to persuade Random House to apply these insights to publishing in 1998. Now back to the timeline.

    The Del Rey Online Writing Workshop started beta-testing in Oct 1998, and went live on March 3, 1999. (I was member #16 in the workshop, so I was there near the beginning, and I spent seven years working for the workshop later.) It caused immediate reactions from publishers: Marion Zimmer Bradley declared that anything that appeared online should be considered published and gave up first rights, and Tor editors stated that they wouldn't look at anything on their competitor's workshop. Harris responded by creating a firm statement of authors' rights to their work (Del Rey made no claim on anything, even first refusal), by password-protecting the site and taking other steps to keep the work secure, by tracking page- and member-views, and by insulating the workshop from Del Rey's editorial staff. The submissions and their ratings were reviewed by Paul Witcover, who provided workshop technical support and presented the Del Rey editors with a limited slate of stories for review as "Editors' Choice" selections each month.

    In May 1999, the first workshop newsletter was published. The first Editors' Choice winner was a Harry Dresden story written by Jim Butcher, who was one of the early members of the workshop (although with his creative writing degree, his WotF success, and something like eight novels drafted, he was already on the road to becoming a BNA). Within a month, Butcher sold the first three Harry Dresden books to Ace/Roc. Cecilia Dart-Thornton followed by selling the Bitterbynde trilogy to Warner Aspect, and then Karin Lowachee's Warchild won the Warner Aspect First Novel Contest. As Editors' Choice winners, both books/authors received detailed critiques from Del Rey editorial staff, but Del Rey didn't make any claim — or offers — on buying them.

    In the summer of 2000, Paul Witcover left the Del Rey workshop to become one of the first editors at Time-Warner's iPublish. I remember, because he was interested in one of the books I had been workshopping at Del Rey at the time. I ran the iPublish contract by Writer Beware and decided it wasn't the right deal for me, but some of the other people Paul did acquire there have gone on to other success. (I feel less qualified to comment specifically on the details of that.) Paul's departure at OWW created two new openings: Kelly Link became the new Editors' Choice administrator and, on the heels of my first short fiction sales, I took over the workshop support functions.

    In the Autumn of 2000, Del Rey cut the workshop loose — Harris and Braun spun it off as an independent company: Online Writing Workshops, LLC — and then contracted with OWW to run the Del Rey Digital Workshop. My memory, which may be faulty, is that the contract was renewed for about eighteen months.

    In 2001, the Del Rey Digital Workshop ran its author contest, with e-book contracts (with a print option) guaranteed to the winners. I don't think that worked quite the way anybody wanted: a lot of the most promising authors withdrew their books from consideration because they thought, rightly, that they could do a lot better elsewhere. By this time, workshop authors were selling to every major publisher except Del Rey (and I think Harper — those were the last two to break), as well as selling stories to all the major markets (Analog, Asimov's, F&SF, Realms of Fantasy, all within the first couple years). In the meantime, the emergence of strong online short fiction markets like SCI FICTION and Strange Horizons were redefining publishing's impression of the web.

    From late 1998 to April 2002, when Del Rey ended its financial relationship, OWW functioned as an effective online workshop. During that period, dozens of writers sold novels and short stories to professional markets. (By the time I quit as admin, the number was over a hundred, plus that many more with semi-pro sales, and included Campbell, Hugo, and Nebula finalists.) But during that whole time, OWW never functioned seriously as a slushpile for Del Rey. Del Rey published exactly one story by a workshopper, an early story by Elizabeth Bear that, if I remember correctly, she didn't workshop online before submitting it through the normal channels.

    I think Harris wanted OWW to be an electronic slushpile, but she was the only one who had that vision. With resident editors like Kelly Link, Jeanne Cavelos, Nalo Hopkinson, James Patrick Kelly, and others, OWW developed into an effective workshopping tool. (OWW become a fee-supported workshop effective May 2002.) But it would take Zoetrope and the Baen's Bar workshop — neither of which I see mentioned here — to develop the slushpile idea effectively. Both those work because the editors are committed to them and actively read submissions. I think any discussion of the electronic slushpile that doesn't mention those two is incomplete.

    Submission services and manuscript display websites fail because they aren't connected to a specific, committed publisher. Most electronic submission websites fail because the publisher sees it as a gimmick to get something for nothing, or don't have an effective plan for wading through the virtual slush. It the editors at HarperCollins UK are willing to wade into the Authonomy submissions, then it could be effective for them. If they think that the website will do all the work for them, and they just have to wait for the results, they've got another thing coming.

    Charles Coleman Finlay

  38. Dave Kuzminski — You are right that War Child was workshopped through the Del Rey site when it was still run by Del Rey. The story generated a lot if enthusiasm and chapters from it won several iterations of the Editor’s Choice award, but it wasn’t published until Karin Lowachee (sp?) entered it in the Warner First Novel contest.

  39. Reading the comments here, I came across this one:

    “As a writer, I’d rather spend my time writing than developing online friendships in order to promote my as-yet unpublished books.”

    Prefer it or not, it’s something you’ll need to do more and more as the publishing world adapts. Community building is how it works.

    I’ve seen a cluster of marvelous authors get their first book published this year, as a result of skillful writing combined with a supportive community of fans and fellow writers.

    Scott Sigler
    JC Hutchins
    Mur Lafferty
    Matthew Wayne Selznick
    Phil Rossi

    Now anecdotal evidence is no evidence at all, but I personally think this is just the beginning. As the traditional print publication model goes the way of the dodo, the authors who can manage their online presence will succeed.

    Remember, you only need a few thousand people who are willing to spend one day’s wages on you to make a living as a writer. You don’t need to be a bestseller when you’re getting 30-40% of the cover price.

  40. this is yet another example of what I tell tons of aspiring writers every day:

    There is no “silver bullet.” There is no “shortcut.” There is no easy way around the fact that breaking out of the slushpile and getting published is very, very, very difficult, and very few who try actually succeed. All of these ventures are just attempts at offering “silver bullets” to all the frustrated authors who want them. And I suppose they somehow help generate revenue for the administrators, too.

  41. Your honesty is so refreshing. The lemonade they make from lemons these days just isn’t any good. Even if you try holding it over a toaster, you still can’t read the invisible ink.

  42. Nice try, but…

    In essence, what Harper is doing here is asking for volunteers to read the slushpile in return for the dubious privilege of casting a vote of limited impact.

    As Samuel pointed out, most readers want their books already vetted. The rest of us, meantime, have books to write. I don’t want to sound unkind, but frankly, if I’m going to work as a publisher’s reader, they’d better be paying for my time. Otherwise, there are more profitable ways to be employed.


  43. I fondly remember iPublish. As I recall it, we didn't actually expect to sell anything, but it was great giving & receiving feedback.

    Due to networking on the iPub boreds, I eventually tracked down the publisher I first sold to, and many of the other iPubbers have since sold, also.

    I felt at the time it was a paradigm that could have worked–basically Time/Warner was using other writers as their slush pile screeners. If they had ended up doing what they claimed they wanted to do, and e-pubbed some of the best, they could've broken ground in a terrific way. CR Mathison's "My Trip" comes to mind–a work that would've lent itself very well to an e-platform and been a heck of a good read.

  44. Thanks for the Authonomy analysis. I’d blogged about this a few days ago. Summary: Publishers are shifting costs to the writer while expecting the same revenue share. Public slushpiles may be the wave of the future, but I haven’t seen anything yet that makes me shout out, “Eureka! That’s it!”

    I think the jury is still out on this concept.

  45. Okay, thanks for the correction. It was years ago and I wasn’t certain but Del Rey was the only publisher name I recalled from then.

  46. Dave K– Warchild wasn’t published by Del Rey.

    The OWW membership eventually cracked every major SFF publisher, but in a fit of dramatic irony, Del Rey was last. They bought Charlie Finlay’s new series, which is due out early next year, I think.

  47. This is the absolutely most helpful writing site I’ve ever visited and I hope you keep on blogging forever, because I’ll keep coming back to learn. I’m already published, but I love listening to people who can better perspective the business for me.

    Thanks and looking forward to your next post.

  48. I visited the Authonomy website and looked at several newly posted books, as well as one book that was on many Watchlists and was highly rated.

    On the basis of the abstract and one chapter, I had to agree that the high-rated book looked publishable.

    The rest weren’t as good.

    There was one book with a crisp, well-written abstract and a competently-written first chapter … but it all seemed eerily familiar. Good if you like reading the same thing over and over, I suppose.

    One memoir promised interesting insights into growing up in Lebanon, but wasn’t all that well-written. The rest went downhill from there.

    However, I noticed that whenever I put up a comment like “Abstract full of grammatical errors, wouldn’t read further”, several other people had praised the book in fulsome terms.

    I went into the forums and asked if the site was a writers’ support group or a slushpile weeding group. Some of the commenters said they welcomed criticism; others said that any criticism, unless it was “constructive”, was MEAN. People like me weren’t wanted and should leave.

    Based on that experience, I have to credit Ms. Strauss with an accurate diagnosis: it’s a site where writers puff each other’s work. If you post a negative comment and then put up work you’ve done, expect a negative comment in return. Make nice and you’ll get rave reviews.

  49. I was one of Authonomy’s beta-testers, and while it’s a reasonably writer-friendly site, the only way that writers can rise to the top and so get their work read by HC is by being a consummate networker. Literary merit does not come into the equation: just how well you can make friends online, and how many other people you can manage to get to comment on your work.

    Another obvious problem is that it’s run for writers, not readers. Which means that you’re promoting your work to the wrong audience.

    So books which are written by people who are adept at maniupulating online relationships are going to do well; as are books which appeal to writers, rather than readers.

    As a writer, I’d rather spend my time writing than developing online friendships in order to promote my as-yet unpublished books.

    I do wish the members of Authonomy well. Best of luck to you all: I’ve enjoyed posting there. But my agent gives me a fast-track to an editor’s desk without the need for me to spend all that time online and for me, at least, that’s a more effective route.

  50. The problem I see is that none of the readers I know–even avid readers–want to spend hours trolling sites like Authonomy looking for the next literary talent. For the most part, they just want the next book from their favorite author, or they want something to pass the time on the plane, or they want that book that got a good review in Entertainment Weekly and their friend said was pretty good. Bottom line: they want picking out a book to be easy because someone else has already narrowed down the field.

    Hell, I myself have trouble working up the nerve to go through the football-field-length shelf space at the local B&N looking for a promising book by an author I haven't read before. Manuscript display sites scare the shit out of me, because I've looked at them and they're godawful. If Harper wants me–or any of my friends, I'm pretty sure–to help them find the next bestseller, then they'd better damn well be paying me.

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