Authonomy: One Writer's Experience

This post, from Mary W. Walters, originally appeared on her The Militant Writer blog on 8/1/09.

In theory, authonomy is a perfect way for writers to get their book manuscripts read by editors at a major publishing house without the intercession of an agent.

After reading about what authonomy is intended to do and why, a writer might decide that if her manuscript isn’t good enough to get the kind of positive reception from the other writers on the site that it needs to rise through the ranks to the top five (aka the Editor’s Desk)—where it will at least receive professional feedback from one of the finest editors in the English-speaking world, and at best be snatched up for publication—perhaps it isn’t as good as she’s been thinking that it is.

But is that a logical conclusion for her to draw when after several months on the site she does not, in fact, reach the Editor’s Desk and realizes that she probably never will?

For the benefit of other writers who may be weighing the same questions that I considered six months ago when I decided to post my novel, The Whole Clove Diet, on authonomy, I here offer a summary of my experiences and observations so that others may be better equipped than I was to assess the potential value to their writing careers of participation in the site.

What authonomy is

authonomy (the “th” is pronounced as in “author”) is an on-line community of writers that was established in 2008 by HarperCollins Publishers. Although the site is based in the U.K., HarperCollins offices around the world participate in evaluating manuscripts, and the site is open to writers, published or unpublished, living anywhere—as long as their manuscripts are in English.

On authonomy, participants read excerpts from books by other writers on the site, and they “shelve” or “back” the ones they find of merit. They are also encouraged to provide the authors of the books they read with some feedback in the form of comments. Those with the most backings (subject to an algorithm that recognizes users’ reviewing experience on the site) rise to the top and when they reach the top five, they are read and provided with an evaluation by a HarperCollins editor.

The authonomy site is still in beta format, but as of this writing it has more than 3,000 users–each with at least one and sometimes as many as three books posted on the site. Some users are very active (a recent forum question was “How many people spend more than five hours a day on authonomy?” and several people actually raised their virtual hands, albeit a little sheepishly). Many writers spend at least an hour or two a day on authonomy, reading, critiquing, commenting and sometimes contributing to the forum. Other writers show up only occasionally, and still others have not been on the site in months.

HarperCollins (HC) states that the purpose of authonomy is to “flush out the brightest, freshest new literature around” and on the last day of each month, authonomites gather around to see which five books will be whisked away for review by the HC editors. Approximately one month after starring them for selection, HC editors deliver critiques of the five top manuscripts to their respective authors. These evaluations ideally include suggestions for revision and some indication as to whether HC might be interested in seeing the manuscript again after the author has worked on it.

A word or two about the Golden Goose

The hope of almost all of those who officially join the site and post a book is that that HC will recognize their work of fiction, non-fiction or (less frequently) poetry for the masterpiece it is and want to publish it. Subsidiary hopes include that, as it is rising to the top but before it actually reaches the top five, the manuscript will be discovered by an agent, another publisher or even HC itself. This has, in fact, happened once or twice–although it hasn’t happened very often. Nor, to my knowledge, have any books that have actually reached the top five yet been selected for publication by HC.

Since getting an agent or a publisher is pretty much a crapshoot in this day and age no matter how you go about it, a more significant problem than the dearth of publications from the site is one that anyone can see who reads the HC editorial responses to books that have reached the Editor’s Desk in the past. (This feedback is almost always posted by the authors who’ve received it, although they are not required to make it public.) The problem is that while some of the editorial feedback is constructive and helpful, even insightful and brilliant, some is next to useless. The site administrators have said that HC editors for each book in the top five each month are selected on the basis of its genre or subgenre (young adult, for example, historical romance, or literary) and the location of the writer—but clearly, some HC editors are better readers and feedback-writers than are others.

I have read HC evaluations on authonomy that were little more than summaries of the excerpt. Others have contained errors that could only have been made if the editor had not read the submission very carefully, or had not consulted the “pitch” which is also a required part of the submission. Several comments from HC editors have been marred by typos and even grammatical errors, which seriously undermined their credibility.

After waiting months and months to obtain feedback from the powerhouse publishing giant that is HarperCollins—which is one big dream of a lifetime for many—to  receive a less than professional evaluation on one’s excerpt is more than discouraging. The recipients of such evaluations are upset when this happens, and so are the other authonomy community members who have also read the excerpt. Contributors to forum threads disgustedly point out the flaws in various HC reviews every month, sometimes out of loyalty, but often also on the basis of solid evidence.

My authonomy history

I joined authonomy in February of 2009, posting my novel in its entirety (at the outset) on the site. The Whole Clove Diet rose steadily albeit slowly toward the Editor’s Desk, garnering many positive reviews along the way. In the first few weeks I learned from comments left on the forum by site administrators and other users that by the time I reached number 50, particularly if I also maintained some visibility on the forum, I could feel fairly well assured that HC had seen my novel. If they had not by that point contacted me by email, I could assume they were not interested in it.

By then I had begun to appreciate how hard it was to reach the Editor’s Desk/top five and how small the advantages might actually be to getting there. I decided that if HC and other publishers and agents were trawling the top 50 on a regular basis, I would set my sights on reaching the top 45 or so.

In fact, I only made it to about 110 before I quit. Although I developed some rewarding on-line friendships at authonomy in the four months or so that I was a regular participant, and received some useful input that was helpful in the revision of my novel, and discovered a few writers who I really think are going to make strong literary contributions in the future, the experience of being on the site nearly drove me crazy—several times. And so I removed my novel, although I am still a member of the community and enjoy popping in from time to time to exchange comments on the forum with my friends and colleagues (and fellow-sufferers) over there.

authonomy intention vs. authonomy reality

authonomy has been described as a “do-it-yourself slush pile” in which readers (mainly other writers) do all the work for HarperCollins by finding the best books on the site and pushing them toward the top. This is fine: times are changing and most writers are willing to do a little work in order to attract professional attention to their manuscripts.

The only problem is that the way the authonomy system works does not contribute to finding the “best” books, no matter how you define that term.  It appeared to me that at least 90% of the writers on the site have joined with one goal in mind, which is getting themselves to the Editor’s Desk. (The others insist they are there only to receive feedback from other writers that will help them improve their work.) This means that the primary motivation for most people who will read and back other people’s manuscripts on authonomy is not to find good books for HC to publish—but rather to find other people to read and back their own books.

Read the rest of the post  on The Militant Writer blog.

0 Responses to Authonomy: One Writer's Experience

  1. RL Sutton September 3, 2009 at 7:20 am #

    MY experiences, more or less.  I still appreciate the comments and suggestions I received which gave me additional material for a major revise.  From mid July, I rose up into the mid-140s, then decided that as I really couldn’t spend more than 5 hours daily reading other people’s work, I had to demur, and concentrate on my own WIPs. 

    It’s about two months later, I never heard from HC or anyone else making the Authonomy reference, and probably the most important suggestion I got on Authonomy was from a user who recommended Litopia instead.  My book’s rank now is 7 hundred something, which really shows that despite glowing comments, and a rising star, you can fall down just as fast if you don’t live and breathe reciprocal crit.  If I were HC, I’d love to have an automated slush pile that read itself, dumping the rejects automatically, with no rejection letter necessary — think of the pastage savings alone!

    Oh, and I did actually find a couple of books that I wish I could buy!  Maybe the writers will get lucky and I’ll be able to enjoy their books in full.

  2. Lenore October 28, 2010 at 1:32 pm #

     But still we hope. As one writer among millions, all of us feeling  we have something vital to share, have fewer options without Authonomy.

    I belong to a local writers’ group, but it meets only once a month. Online I can solicit comments from other writers, especially from those whose other reviews show a level of expertise that can help in my rewrites. Lately, especially with the program changes HC implemented, I began getting caught up in reviewing as much as I can muster during each day. I jumped a significant number of points and the fantasy of being "discovered" gripped me so completely that I have been anxious all day unable to get online, for whatever reason, to change my selections and read comments  and scrutinize my rating. Obsessive, you think, just a bit?

    Opening your site, which I was able to access, has calmed my fear that the world or my writing future will not perish if I cannot get on Authonomy.

  3. Anonymous October 28, 2010 at 3:43 pm #

    Do you mind sharing the name of your agent?




  4. Bella December 18, 2009 at 12:26 pm #

    I had the same experience with my first YA fantasy, The Awakening, which I posted on Authonomy.  As a mother of five who only writes when I get time, I couldn’t spend hours at the site, but I tried.  I threw in the towel after three months though I did receive valuable critiques from a few writers and made friends.  During that time, I never stopped polishing my manuscript or querying agents.  I now have an agent, courtesy of an author I met at the site.  I guess something good came out of joining.

  5. medi February 18, 2012 at 3:45 pm #

     The one site that’s really been helpful to me so far is On RF, you don’t beg others to give you reviews, nor is it a ‘you scratch my back I’ll scratch yours’ trade site. Instead with RF, you, well, trade them. But trust me, its different.

    First you post a chapter or poem or whatever type of work you want to the website (as many as you want).

    Next to each item you submit is a Get Critiqued button. When you click it, you are asked to review 4 works from others and, in return, you will receive 3 reviews for your piece of work. Once you’ve done your 4 reviews, you can resubmit the same item or different items as many times as you want, no limits. 4 for 3 every time.

    This is all 100% FREE and I did this for probably 3 months and got lots of great reviews that really helped my writing.

    If you upgrade to premium, the main difference is that instead of having to do 4 reviews to get 3, you only have to do 2 reviews per 3 you receive. But again, there’s no need to ever upgrade if you’re willing to take the time to read and review 4 for every 3 you get.

    To prevent people from spamming out reviews to get more reviews for their work, there is a whole rating system. When you review a work, your review is critiqued by the author of that work.

    And if your reviews are rated poorly, then the reviews you receive are also from people who’s reviews are rated poorly, so all the spammers sink to the bottom. And since there’s no promise of book deals or anything like that, the bottom isn’t really a useful place to be.

    I tend to be very critical in my reviews, that’s what they want their work reviewed,right? Of course some people don’t and they give me low scores, but most people absolutely love it.

    All I can say is, I LOVE THIS SITE. If you know of anything similar or better, I’d love to hear about it. But I just wanted to post this because I think it’s a huge asset for any writers looking for real, unbiased, unbribed feedback.

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