Image via WikipediaLonger-suffering readers of this silly little blog will know about Harper Collins’ authonomy website and my opinion of it. For those that weren’t around, this post pretty much explains things. The post was something of a bombshell in its time, BTW.
Authonomy was Harper Collins’ attempt to harness the process of change that the Internet is undoubtedly going to bring to publishing in a similar fashion to the change it is bringing the music industry. Although the company scrupulously avoided outlining any strategy, it is my opinion that the overall gameplan was to create a website that would attract authors and encourage them to put their books online (Authonomy), a website for readers (Book Army) and then allow the authors to ‘self publish’ for the readers by using a POD (print on demand) supplier. Today’s POD systems can create high quality single books at near-market prices.
The Authonomy deal was this: if you made it to the top five books each month on Authonomy, a Harper Collins editor would read and critique your manuscript, or MS. Getting an MS in front of a Harper Collins editor is a bit like getting ten minutes with Warren Buffet to chat about your new business proposal – and just as difficult. So it’s no wonder that the site soon attracted something in the region of 6,000 writers. You’d be surprised how many carvers there are living around Castle Gormenghast.
My ‘generation’ on Authonomy (before anyone starts squealing ‘sour grapes’, I made it to the top five and got a ‘gold star’ as well as a crit from an HC editor. You’ll have to read the ‘backstory’ linked above to see what I thought of it) was pretty much the first ‘wave’ of writers to discover the site and consisted of a heck of a lot of really talented people. With all the energy of a group of kids in a huge playground, we invested a huge amount of time and effort on the site, vying to get to the top and using fair means and foul to do so. At the core of it, though, was a sincere belief in quality – the majority of users adhered to a principle that they’d only ‘back’ books that they would genuinely buy in a bookshop. Although there was a huge element of popularity and ‘plugging’ of books, we reasoned that if you could market yourself on Authonomy, it just proved you could market yourself in the real world too, so was fair game as part of the mix that makes a book.
It looked very much as if HC had created a site that was intended to do what the Internet does best – improve access and disintermediate the gatekeepers, in this case the agenting system that means that only books with obvious mass market commercial potential get through to publishers. Now it looked as if readers could actually vote for the type of book they’d like to see in bookshops – and if HC was to add authonomy winners to its lists, there’d be a new and wonderful outbreak of crowdsourced work to choose from. I can honestly say, BTW, that I read more work that I would buy on Authonomy than I have seen in bookshops all year. Really.
Of course, it was not to be. The POD plan lurked and I ‘outed’ HC when they sent a private email to some of us offering us beta list status. I accused the company of being insincere, in offering a clear ‘get published’ carrot when in fact it only ever intended to create a POD site to hedge against the tide of innovation. It is still my humble opinion that this was the case.
But something else has happened as a result of authonomy, something rather wonderful. In fact several things.
One thing is that I have stayed in touch with a relatively close-knit group of writers I admire and respect, and we’re just as much in touch a year after we all wandered away from Authonomy muttering darkly (A huge number of people have left the site, disaffected with the whole game and the way HC has chosen to play it).
A much more important thing is that the disaffection and annoyance at the ‘traditional’ publishing industry and the way it treats writers has resulted in two groups of writers from authonomy creating real, truly important (IMHO) initiatives that I believe are much more about the true future of publishing than Authonomy.
Year Zero Writers
Dan Holloway is a lecturer by day and maverick by night. Actually, he’s probably pretty maverick by day, too, but we’ll give him the benefit of the doubt.
The author of the evocative and hauntingly beautiful Songs From the Other Side of the Wall, Dan founded the Year Zero Writers group as a collective designed to pool resources and talent in a way that would enable writers to reach out to audiences with their books. You can find out more about Year Zero here. Dan’s Year Zero projects include Free-e-day (see the BookBuzzr link below) and (to my knowledge) the first ‘FaceBook book’ (The Man Who Stole Agnieszka’s Shoes was written in weekly instalments on a FaceBook group, taking the input of readers to mould the plot). has seen Year Zero growing in popularity, attracting readers and participants and spawning a vibrant writers’ blog that is attracting readers in a most satisfactory manner.
Four books have been ‘published’ by Year Zero and more are planned - one compilation of short stories (Brief Objects of Beauty and Despair) and three novels. You can go to the Year Zero site, interact with the authors, find out more about their work (it is excellent) and then either download a PDF (free - in other formats here) or order a printed copy (paid for) of those books (the links are to Dan's 'Songs'). Although not the most active member of Year Zero, I am deeply proud to be associated with it.
Dragon International Independent Arts
Diiarts is a small independent imprint founded by writer Sarah Jane Heckscher-Marquis, which on November 14th will ‘conventionally’ publish four books that were hugely popular on authonomy and that represent, along with the three books that Year Zero has announced, some of the first books to have been published as a result of the authonomy project.
SJ has taken the highly unusual step of getting so frustrated at seeing great fiction (and I would personally, having read large amounts of all of them, commend them most highly to you, particularly Paul House’s stunning work, Harbour) mouldering on the slushpile and being overlooked by the Groans that she has put up her own money to publish some of her favourite work from the site. With the avowed intent of creating and maintaining her own small list of high quality fiction, she has had the pick of the best stuff on authonomy and has, I believe, chosen wisely.
As SJ says in the diiarts.com launch press release, “We believe there is a great deal of high quality, distinctive writing out there, which the larger publishers are just not picking up. Not only are readers missing out, but we’re losing something of the richness and diversity of the English language. We’re in danger of losing the spirit of innovation and thoughtfulness that’s been the hallmark of the English novel since we invented it. What we’ve seen is that more and more authors are expected to compromise on their vision, their voice and their artistic values, to cut their work down at whatever cost to fit supermarket display racks. We believe—passionately—that our authors should be in control of their own work. When they are, great books are the result.”
What has me chuckling evilly is the fact that both of these initiatives came about as a result of Authonomy. And, of course, I believe they both represent different facets of the change that will eventually lead to the flooding of Gormenghast - 'e-books' and small, independent publishers who are passionate about books, not shareholders, together will forge what I believe to be the future of publishing.