Wednesday, 28 October 2009

Gormenghast and the Future of Publishing

First edition coverImage via Wikipedia

Longer-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 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.
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the real nick said...

Ironic then, that the purpose of all those "virtual web 2.0 community cluster" what have you efforts is to get printed in the end...on dead wood.

Oussama said...

I did not know that all this existed, I suppose I am not the literary type. However, why publish a book, why not an e-book and download it on kindle or something similar.

Keefieboy said...

People still prefer to read stuff - especially novel-sized stuff - on dead trees.

Phillipa said...

If Sarah and Dan et al do make a success of their ventures I'd bet a large slice of money on HC barging in and claiming they fostered these remarkable talents in their own little Authonomy hothouse.

Deaf Indian Muslim Anarchist! said...

cool! i will check out Sarah Jane's website

Michele Brenton/aka banana_the_poet said...

I love it when a plan...

falls apart ;)

PS. My husband started a small conventional publishing company Endaxi Press to publish first of all my poetry (the first book - of a seven book series - is out now for sale on Amazon and will indeed be available as an e-book and probably an iPhone app as well) while we learn the ropes and then possibly to publish a very few selected others.

Not sure that it would have happened without authonomy to spur us into action. It certainly helped us make the decision that waiting around for a magic wand waving 'someone else' wasn't the option for us.

Dan Holloway said...

Alexander, bless your cottons, I am a humble administrator at university, but the thought is lovely.

This is much appreciated. To keep people updated with our future:

1. we held our first "words and music" gig in Oxford on Thursday and pulled a total of around 60 people off the streets. We are very keen to show the "gigs and merch and bugger booksales" model CAN work. We will be having a very much larger gig in London in September featuring readings, the launch of two books by London-based authors - Daisy Anne Gree and Marc Nash (and a plug of London portrait, Glimpses of a Floating World), as well as music by singer-songwriter Nikki Loy, and alt-electro pioneers To The Moon, as well as, I believe, a collaboration with electronica experimentalist Rabid Gravy that will see his torture-porn sound accompany the first FULL public performance of SKIN BOOK. And there WILL be T-shirts - designed by our very own Alison Mosshart, Sarah E Melville.

2. Our next 3 releases will be:
Babylon by Daisy Anne Gree
Black Laces by Marcella O'Connor
A, B & E by Marc Nash

3. Our Christmas "best of" anthology - available as Free ebook, will be called "Thirteen Shadows Waiting For Sunrise"

Thank you once again, Alexander.

@ Phillipa, if HC claim the credit for Year Zero, we will very politely claim otherwise - we may hire in Sabina to write the response, because she is the most tactful person we know :)

@Keefieboy - so do I. My opinion of the ebook is that it is a fantastic marketing tool - that's why ours are free - people can get to know us and, we hope, love us, and THEN decide to buy - why make them (or expect thenm) to shell out on an unknown? Worse still, if they turn out NOT to like the book they've bought, why create resentment unnecessarily. we'd rather create fans who want to buy, and then sell to them. It seems kinder all round.

@Oussama - as above - I hope you'll enjoy our free downloads :)

@the real nick- that's not our purpoase at all - our purpose is to give our prose direct to readers - at the moment that means selling books to fans, but that's only because that's what fans want - I think free content and money from gigs & merch is the future. What we also want, of course, is to produce the best writing we acn - for us that means booting out the publisher's editor and choosing ones we trust, and it means stimulating discussion about writing better on the website.

@DIMA - sorry, you appear to have been volunteered to write a polite letter to Authonmy at some fture date. I'm sure you'd find the right words :) In fairness, Alexander, Authonomy was and is a great place for writers to meet and discuss how to overthrow Harper Collins - thank you, HC.

@Michele - Endaxi is a very smart operation

Jonathan Stowe said...

@Dan, I'm definitely up for that :-) If anyone else is interested in what Rabid Gravy is about a recreation of the gig that Dan reviewed so nicely can be found on Soundcloud :-)

Anne Lyken-Garner said...

Wow. I've only just seen this. Brings back good memories of autho, but some annoying ones as well.

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