Thursday, 2 September 2010

All Change For Authonomy

Exterior view. Bronze tympanum, by Olin L. War...Image via Wikipedia
Warning - traffic destroying writing post follows...

One of the infamous, shadowy international writers group, the Grey Havens gang, alerted us to a blog post on Harper Collins' Authonomy site which heralds major changes to the site. The post recognises that Authonomy has major structural issues and appears to be a heads-up that changes will be made in the near future that will address these.

Authonomy is a peer-review site for writers to post samples of their work for others to read, criticise and, if they think it is of oustanding, publishable quality, to 'back' it. The most backed books each month are skimmed for a read by Harper Collins' editors. I have written much in the past about authonomy, if you're interested in all the background it's all collected at this here link. Probably the most controversial - and widely read and linked - post is this one, which led to this guest post on Eoin Purcell's blog, apparently so contentious that Eoin froze comments on it. I still think the post I did for Eoin best defines my view on authonomy at that time.

Just to be abundantly clear before I toss my hat once again into the ring of Authonomy debate - I am not sore that my book 'won' but didn't get published. I recognise, more now than ever before, that the book was funny and popular  but very, very badly written. I get that. However, I invested a lot of time, energy and thought into Authonomy and have gained much from my experiences with the site - both personally as a writer and professionally as someone who consults on communications - particularly in the digital/social space. (I have to add this caveat every time, depressingly, as the first response to anything I have to say about Authonomy is so frequently, 'that's just sour grapes cos you didn't get a contract', which isn't the case at all.)

At the time I left authonomy, I wrote:

We've never seen people - even the editors who review the books are anonymous. I'm sure HC thinks its being terribly funky and Web 2.0, but it's not. It's missed the first rule of these types of engagements with a community. Foster a community, be part of a community, engage with the community. HC hasn't, because it doesn't respect that community enough... Many people have had enough of being treated like the carvers in front of Gormenghast - even more so when it's become clear that the Groans don't want any of our carvings.

I liked the Gormenghast analogy so much I used it again in this post on the future of publishing, in which I pointed out that:

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.

The changes that Harper Collins are making to authonomy will refocus the site, the company says, on that idea of rewarding quality rather than the messy cronyism, begging and whoring that has come to characterise the site. As Harper's blog post says:

In recent months, we'll admit that the site has been suffering from a kind of 'vote inflation' where support was given (or traded) very freely and as a result the rank of all books has been somewhat cheapened... We want the charts to mirror more accurately a community consensus, and for the feat of reaching an editor to be based on something other than months of superhuman networking effort. 

That's great, but I can only hope that my silly little voice (and others like me) got heard to some degree in the hallowed halls of Harper Collins: 

A site like that needs the active participation in the community of the organisation behind it. With sincerity that wins the trust of the community. You cannot run online communities, you have to be part of them. You have to accept the principle that you give up ownership in favour of participation. Putting up a patronising blog post every week or so from an editor, or the occasional forum intervention from an unnamed contributor in response to critical threads is not really what Web 2.0 is about, is it? Even the critiques on Authonomy are from unnamed editors. But then my argument is that it was never about critiques.

(that extract from my post on Eoin's blog)

Part of the problem has been, I am quite sure, 'old world thinking' - it's something we come across professionally pretty much every day these days - companies bring us in to consult on social media, digital and community programmes and want someone to provide the content and populate the profiles/communities for them because their own key staff are doing more important stuff, like talking to clients and partners - but the whole point about this stuff  is that it's not an ad campaign. You can't just book it and walk away from it, it's all about engagement and talking to people using new tools and a new degree of accessibility. Sure, it involves being exposed, taking some responsibility and actually engaging with customers and other stakeholders. But those concepts are core to this stuff, not peripheral. You need to be there yourself - just getting some developers or an agency to do it won't work. And running a community site with faceless camp guards policing it won't work either.

If the changes to Authonomy include Harper Collins' editors actually engaging in the site, being named members and helping authors, influencing debate, mentoring work they believe to be of merit, being kind to work that is fifth rate and telling authors, gently, that this is the case - wouldn't that be wonderful? If real world editors actually were part of the community, if books that rose to the top were taken, for instance, into a manuscript development program similar to the Hachette program that got my pal Phillipa Fioretti into print, wouldn't Authonomy very quickly become THE place for any aspiring author to go? Wouldn't it give Harper first dibs on pretty much every emerging talent in the world today?

Yes it would. 

The one thing Authonomy has ever lacked has been the active community participation of the people that created it. If that's about to change, it could be very big news indeed for publishing. And I would welcome it with open arms - it would become what I believed Authonomy was to start with - a vital, energising response from the publishing industry that embraced and leveraged the powerful democratisation of the Internet. 

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Lexi said...

Alexander, I'm sure you are right.

Authonomy was a great site initially, then as it started on a downward spiral, Harper Collins inexplicably sat back and let it happen. The nastier elements realized they could get away with just about anything, both in getting books to the top (spamming, swap backing, sock puppets) and bullying on the forum.

Why didn't HC intervene? I think it's all about numbers. At first, the mayhem on the forum had the fascination of a multi-vehicle car crash. People flocked to gawp, and got dragged in. Bad writers suddenly saw that a gold star was within their grasp, if they used the new ways to pimp their book.

Then it got to the stage where you needed 60-70 backings to move up one place; it took a year to struggle to the top five; and a lot of people got sickened by the brawling on the forum, and left.

In my opinion, HC is now bringing in the measures we begged for over a year ago because the site is in serious decline; falling numbers means falling revenue. It's all about money.

Robb said...

Oh, Alexander, there you go...thinking and hoping again.

Jason said...

Well said, as always.

Wouldn't it give Harper first dibs on pretty much every emerging talent in the world today?

You've always said HC had ulterior motives. Who knew, that if they were to give it a little love --maybe some milk--, HC's mangled internet foster child might unintentionally grow up to dominate the world -- in some small form.

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