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offices around the world participate in evaluating manuscripts, and the site is open to writers, published or unpublished, living anywhere—as long as their manuscripts are in English.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.