Since discovering it yesterday, I’ve been ceaselessly intrigued by Authonomy, an online forum created by HarperCollins. According to boingboing, it’s been up and running since September ’08, and is currently still in beta; nonetheless, there are already hundreds of contributors. The premise is simple: aspiring writers upload their unpublished novels using a shiny new interface, tag the relevant genre/s, and let other site members promote their favourite books. Despite the sophistication of the website, the mechanism itself is nothing new; the real innovation is in holding a monthly top ten, wherein HarperCollins editors will read, comment on and – potentially – publish those books which get the most votes. They’ll also be looking for trendspotters: site members who consistently reccommend good or popular books ahead of the curve, thus strengthening the incentive for writers to spruik work other than their own. In the words of its creators, it’s a search for new talent: filtering the dross through howevermany pairs of eyes and seeing what floats to the top.
Conceptually, it’s a brilliant embodiment of killing two birds with one stone. For the publisher, it decreases the dreaded slushpile: by providing a sanctioned, online outlet for new submissions, they will likely cut down on receipt of unsolicited hardcopy, while simultaneously gaining a free, enthusiastic, slushpile-reading committee. For the aspiring authors, there is a drastically increased chance of receiving feedback or being published, plus a chance to participate in what is, essentially, a mammoth (but extremely well-executed) writing group. And for passive members like myself, there’s the fun of talent-trawling: reading free books, picking the best and pimping them.
Authonomy is such a deviously simple, workable, natural idea that I’m stunned nobody thought of it before; and if HarperCollins really does sign some new talent this way, it could revolutionise the publishing industry, particularly if other companies pick up on the concept. Especially for smaller, more specialised houses, it could be a fantastic way to expand the business without excessive outlay; and thinking of the local Australian market, where there are few dedicated genre publishers, it could help to demonstrate both the presence of new writers and a viable audience for their work. Even more importantly, allowing digital submission erases the barrier of distance: whereas UK-based writers might baulk at submitting hardcopy to a New York firm, there can be no such qualms about uploading to an internationally accessible website run by an internationally recognised publisher.
One of the biggest hindrances as a writer is the dearth of authoritative feedback: without an agent (or even with), it’s frequently impossible to learn why a manuscript was rejected by a given editor, or what might be done to improve it. While amateur criticism is sometimes unhelpful, creating a resource for such is nonetheless positive, especially where levened by the potential for more measured, professional commentary with an eye to commercial success.
In short, I’m excited by Authonomy and what it might achieve – and if its expanding membership is anything to go by, I’m not the only one.